Outside of stone racists, Tea Party yahoos and those among the zoo of reactionaries contending for Republican presidential candidate, there were few who openly denied the bitter truth that 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was killed in cold blood by a racist vigilante simply because he was black. But cries from those like Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum that to portray Martin’s killing as a “racial issue is fundamentally wrong,” “disgraceful” and divisive found an echo from an organization that calls itself the Socialist Equality Party (SEP). A March 31 statement by the SEP’s presidential candidate Jerry White opined: “The killing of Trayvon Martin is not fundamentally about race.” White concludes by urging a “fight for socialism.” The notion that the socialist liberation of the working class means denying the reality of black oppression in this country—a cornerstone for the edifice of capitalist rule in America—is a grotesque but accurate measure of the political sensibilities animating the SEP.
A subsequent SEP article on its World Socialist Web Site titled “The Killing of Trayvon Martin and Racial Politics in America” (wsws.org, 5 April) by its National Secretary Joseph Kishore allows that “racial prejudice may [!!] have played a role in the killing of Martin.” But he asserts that the eruption of massive protests had nothing to do with race, much less the daily reality of racist terror against black people in this society. That Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, saw a young black man in a hoodie as a dangerous predator also is of no consequence to Kishore. Instead, he presents this cop wannabe as one of many “disturbed individuals” whose “violent actions” are the product of the “tensions building up in American society” as a result of the current economic crisis. This is kind of like describing lynchings in the Jim Crow South as the product of the economic dislocations resulting from the destruction of slavery but…having nothing to do with race.
Kishore presents such arguments as a statement of supposed working-class opposition to the Democratic Party, which he proclaims is using “the killing of Martin to promote the reactionary politics of racial identity.” As evidence, Kishore points to an observation by Jesse Jackson that “racial profiling is all too common in the US, and has led to the killing of a young man.” Who other than an apologist for racism or perhaps an escapee from an asylum for the criminally insane could deny that this is an elementary statement of fact? The problem isn’t that Jackson, Al Sharpton and others of their ilk are fanning the flames of outrage against racist reaction in America. On the contrary, their purpose is precisely to contain such outrage and keep it safely in the channels of pro-Democratic Party electoralism.
The SEP and Victor Berger
In its articles on Martin, the SEP polemicizes against the International Socialist Organization (ISO) and other leftists who did their bit in promoting the “change we can believe in” credentials of Barack Obama as U.S. imperialist Commander-in-Chief. But, far from exposing such pro-Democratic Party belly crawling, Kishore’s article opened the door for the ISO to try to present its organization as genuine fighters for “socialist equality,” including for black people.
In a letter attributed to ISO honcho Sherry Wolf that is posted on wsws.org (19 April), she thanked Kishore for his article, saying that she had circulated it to ISO members as a “useful example of lunk-headed indifference to racism in the name of socialism.” In reply, Kishore argued: “Socialists have never denied or ignored the existence of racism. However, the historic position of the socialist movement has been that the struggle against racism and all forms of oppression must be based on the fight to unite all workers, on the basis of their common class interests, against the capitalist system.” In fact, to unite workers around their common class interests requires championing the rights of black people, immigrants and other minorities who are a vital part of the proletariat. As Karl Marx put it, “Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded.”
Any organization claiming a revolutionary perspective must take up the fight against the special oppression of black people in the U.S. The forcible segregation of the black population at the bottom of this society has been integral to capitalist rule in America since the days of slavery. Poisonous anti-black racism fomented by the bourgeoisie has long been a barrier to the proletariat developing a consciousness of itself as a class, crippling its struggles against the capitalist class enemy.
The position that Kishore puts forward is indeed “historic,” the history being that of the American Socialist Party, which included the likes of outright white supremacist Victor Berger. Even the best elements of the early socialist movement, such as Eugene Debs, who opposed all racial prejudice, treated the question of black oppression as simply part of the workers struggle against capitalism and no more. As James P. Cannon, a founder of the American Communist movement and later of U.S. Trotskyism, wrote in “The Russian Revolution and the American Negro Movement” (printed in The First Ten Years of American Communism ): “The old theory of American radicalism turned out in practice to be a formula for inaction on the Negro front, and—incidentally—a convenient shield for the dormant racial prejudices of the white radicals themselves.”
This changed when the victory of the 1917 Russian Revolution, as Cannon put it, “began to thunder its demand throughout the world for freedom and equality for all national minorities, all subject peoples and all races.” The Communist International under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky’s Bolshevik Party fought with the early American Communists to champion the fight for black rights. The Bolsheviks understood that, far from “dividing” the working class as the SEP would have it, the fight for black freedom was critical to uniting the American proletariat in struggle for its own emancipation from capitalist wage slavery.
Since our inception, the Spartacist League has fought for the program of revolutionary integrationism: fighting to mobilize the multiracial working class against every manifestation of racial oppression as part of arming the workers for the struggle for proletarian socialist revolution. This is the only road to achieving genuine and full equality for the black masses through their integration into an egalitarian socialist society.
In contrast, the SEP’s conscious opposition to even the mention of racial prejudice in the Trayvon Martin case is no aberration. Such contemptible indifference to special oppression has been a hallmark of this organization and its predecessor, the Workers League (WL), for decades. This was put most crudely by former WL leader Tim Wohlforth who, in the early 1970s, told a group of young New Left Maoists: “The working class hates faggots, women’s libbers and hippies, and so do we!” Such views were indeed those of the AFL-CIO bureaucracy at the time under George Meany, who had nothing but racist contempt for the fight for black rights or those of anyone else. Yet, at the height of Vietnam antiwar protests and the upheavals in the black ghettos, the WL urged that Meany’s AFL-CIO form a “labor party” on a program that omitted any mention of the war or the fight for black liberation.
After current SEP head David North took over as WL leader, its press, the Bulletin, denounced the Spartacist League as having “a grotesque fixation with the issue of race.” This was its response to the 5,000-strong labor/black mobilization on 27 November 1982—initiated and led by the SL—which successfully drove a gang of Klan terrorists off the streets of Washington, D.C. Integrated unions in the D.C./Virginia region, particularly from longshore with its heavily black membership, helped build the mobilization. They recognized that stopping the fascists was not just a defense of black people and minorities but also of the entire labor movement against its most deadly enemies. Not the Northites, who condemned the mobilization as “A Revisionist Frenzy Over Klan” that elevated “race” over “class.”
The Civil Rights Movement
It is absolutely true that the ISO’s calls for a “new civil rights movement” are aimed at refurbishing the credentials of Jesse Jackson and other black Democrats, whose purpose is to re-elect Obama. But the SEP itself peddles its own version of Obama’s “end of racism” myth. For the SEP, to raise the question of racism over the killing of Trayvon Martin is to “subordinate political thinking to an unchanging template of racial politics,” adding “as though nothing had been accomplished by the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s” (“Behind the Right-Wing Racial Politics of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton,” wsws.org, 1 May). This position invests the civil rights movement with essentially eliminating discrimination against black people, a convenient alibi for the SEP’s retrograde views. Although it defeated Jim Crow segregation in the South, when the civil rights movement came North it ran up against the mass unemployment, poverty and rampant police brutality in the black inner cities that are part of the very fabric of American capitalism.
The leadership of the civil rights movement under Martin Luther King—who looked to the Democratic Party and capitalist state for redress—would not and could not wage the necessary struggle against these conditions. Today the SEP tries to present MLK as some kind of anti-capitalist fighter, crediting him with the understanding that “the oppression of blacks was fundamentally a question of class.” Despite its admonition that King was “not a revolutionary socialist” (no kidding), the SEP’s whitewash of him is the same myth peddled by the ISO. It simply comes from a different vantage point, one based on the revolting argument that “attempts to present racism as the ‘core’ of American society are false and reactionary.”
The lengths to which the SEP will go to present its own “false and reactionary” view of American history can be seen in Jerry White’s February 13 election platform. The words “black people” and “racism” are never mentioned. Instead, White rhapsodizes that: “This country was founded on the principle that ‘All men are created equal’.” That was the stated principle but what was embedded in the United States Constitution was slavery. It took a bloody Civil War to smash the Southern slavocracy, but you wouldn’t know it from reading White’s platform, which reduces the Civil War to the pledge that “government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” The abolition of slavery merits no mention.
In 1970 we recalled Lenin’s term “political bandits” to describe the SEP’s forebears, the Workers League and Gerry Healy’s International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI) to which it was affiliated. Such an organization will fly any flag as long as it is perceived as advancing its own episodic, and often grotesque, opportunist appetites. When called for, they had the ability to wield Marxist orthodoxy, which was but a mask for violations of any and all known Marxist principles.
For years, Healy’s ICFI was the bought-and-paid-for PR agency for various Near East despotic regimes. When these crimes against the working class were exposed, his loyal lieutenants, including David North, cried that it was all Healy’s doing. But none of them raised a peep when the money was still pouring in. Indeed, the Bulletin joined in publishing an article hailing the murder of 21 Iraqi Communist Party members in 1979. Healy’s ICFI provided many such services and was handsomely rewarded by the rulers of countries including Iraq, Kuwait, and Abu Dhabi. After Healy was ousted, North proclaimed himself the new leader of the ICFI.
After years of pandering to the AFL-CIO tops, North used the occasion of the counterrevolutionary destruction of the former Soviet Union to declare that the unions are “direct instruments of imperialism” and must be destroyed. Doubtless, he was buoyed in this pronouncement by the role his organization had played in supporting the imperialist-backed forces of counterrevolution that destroyed the former Soviet workers state. At the same time, years of crawling before bourgeois-nationalist regimes in the Near East were reversed with North proclaiming that any and all struggles for national self-determination must be vigorously opposed.
So should you run across an Internet tome taking up the world economic crisis on the SEP’s wsws.org that sounds vaguely like “orthodox” Marxism: beware! Devoid of any class basis or connection to reality, North and his gang can and will say or do anything. Today, they are slyly giving aid and comfort to the racist enemies of those outraged by the killing of Trayvon Martin. We can only speculate about whose or what interests are served by the Northites. One thing is for certain, it is not the interests of the multiracial working class here or internationally.