Revolutionary Internationalism: Basis for Revolutionary Movement in the Oppressor Nation Working Class
[Despite being underdiscussed and little-known, this editorial from the Prairie Fire Organizing Committee is one of the most significant theoretical articles produced by this offshoot of the Weather Underground Organization, advancing an understanding of solidarity that would lead to further collaboration between PFOC members and national liberation organizations, including the formation of the Revolutionary Armed Task Force – a fusion of east coast PFOC members organized as the May 19th Communist Organization and the Black Liberation Army. The positions taken here should be read critically – one critical discussion can be found in the chapter “Nyack, the Road to Nowhere” in E. Tani and Kae Sera’s False Nationalism False Internationalism. This history, its details, its successes and its failures, and the problems it identified (or failed to), confronted and sought to solve or failed to grapple with, are ones that are largely still with us.
Text transcribed from Breakthrough: Political Journal of the Prairie Fire Organizing Committee, Vol. III, No. 1, Spring 1979, pp. 1-8. A PDF scan of this issue of Breakthrough can be found here.]
This is the era when national liberation movements at war with imperialism are leading the destruction of the most genocidal and exploitative system the world has ever known. Oppressed nations fighting for freedom and independence from colonialist and neo-colonialist domination define the goals for revolutionary anti-imperialism worldwide. Because imperialism is a single system built on the division of the world into oppressor and oppressed nations, anti-imperialist movement within the US oppressor nation working class must be based on solidarity with the interests of the oppressed nations and on support for the leading strategies of national liberation, which are toppling the very foundations of imperialism.
In contradiction to this view of anti-imperialist strategy and responsibility, dominant politics in the US white left define strategy for the oppressor nation working class on the basis of the material interests of the white working class in fighting its own exploitation. Under the guise of developing political strategy on a “materialist” basis, these lines provide a justification for subordinating the material interests of the oppressed and colonized nations of the world to the interests of a tiny sector of the world’s people — the white working class. By focusing on the exploitation of the white working class, this politics tried to hide the material contradictions which have developed under imperialism between the interests of the white working class and the interests of oppressed nations. It falsifies the reality of white working class history in which material gains, better living conditions, and more democratic freedoms have been fought for and been made possible only through colonial conquest, domination, and plunder of nations within US borders and around the world. The real aim of this politics is to block the development of revolutionary nationalist interests and leadership and to maintain the power and leadership of the white left and working class. It upholds the present relation between oppressor and oppressed nation peoples and backs off from the revolutionary overthrow of imperialism.
The terms on which white working class people have historically defined their material interests and identity – in opposition to the interests of the world’s oppressed peoples – must be transformed in order to develop revolutionary consciousness and movement within the white working class. Internationalism – the commitment to fight in the interests of the world’s people with the leadership of revolutionary national liberation movements – is the only basis for developing revolutionary anti-imperialist movement within the oppressor nation.
Over the past period, PFOC has been in deep struggle to overturn a politics which separated off the development of political movement within the oppressor nation working class from the leadership and strategies of national liberation. With the leadership of revolutionary nationalist forces and through struggle within the white left and solidarity movements we are trying to develop new understandings of the strategic responsibilities of oppressor nation revolutionaries.
Our analysis that revolutionary internationalism must be the basis for building anti-imperialist movement in the white working class is rooted in our understanding of US imperialist development. This article examines some key aspects of US history and the contradictions in white left interpretations of this history. We then try to draw out the concrete impact of an opportunist worldview on building anti-imperialist solidarity.
Conquest, Slavery, and Colonialism
Looking at US history from the viewpoint of African and Indian peoples fundamentally challenges both bourgeois and white left interpretations of this history. African revolutionaries have led in defining the basis of US and world capitalist development as the wholesale conquest and subsequent colonization of Native lands throughout the American continent and the massive kidnap and enslavement of African people. According to Joseph Waller, Chairman of the African People’s Socialist Party (APSP): “The enslavement of African people, the theft of Native lands, the so-called underdevelopment of the Third World, that was the primitive accumulation of capital” (from a speech June 11, 1978). W. E. B. DuBois detailed this development:
“Black labor became the foundation stone not only of the Southern social structure, but of northern manufacture and commerce, of the English factory systems, of European commerce, of buying and selling on a world-wide scale. . . .” (Black Reconstruction, p. 5)
The development of the white working class in this country is totally tied up with the history of slavery and colonialism. The colonizers of the Americas were mainly white Europeans searching for a better life, for better living and working conditions in the “new world” for themselves and their families. It was not “false consciousness” about their material interests which led white settlers to murder Indians in order to steal Native lands, but a commitment to their own interests in acquiring land to farm, grow crops on, make profits from. It was not a lack of understanding about their interests which led poor white settlers to become slave catchers and overseers, but the privileges and power gained from cooperating with the system of white supremacy and Black slavery. White supremacist privilege was institutionalized into law by the emerging bourgeoisie precisely to tie white working class interests to bourgeois interests in enforcing African slavery, and to “exclude Afrikans from the nation that they were using [them] to build” (Notes from an Afrikan P.O.W. Journal, book two, p. 3). As Saladin Muhammad of the Afrikan Peoples Party puts it, the American revolution won “for the new national bourgeoisie control of its economy, and for the white working class secure jobs, participation in bourgeois democracy and a national identity as workers and farmers of a settler state. . . .” (“US Imperialist State and the Black Nation,” p. 6).
Throughout the 19th century, the white working class waged militant struggles against its own exploitation — for higher wages, better working conditions, unions. This is the side of white working class history left historians focus on. What they ignore is that the gains won through these struggles were tied to the expansion of empire to the Pacific, the annexation of half of Mexico, the colonization of Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines — which the white working class supported and fought for. In particular, the white working class has built its identity and its interests on the backs of Black people colonized within US borders. With the end of legalized slavery, the white working class supported the development of new forms of colonial domination. Labor unions promoted white labor and excluded Black labor. Segregated schools systems, Jim Crow laws (apartheid), and organized terror and violence against Black people, typified by the KKK, were all aimed at maintaining the privilege and power of white people and keeping “free” Black people in colonial subjugation.
Up through the present, the white working class has consistently fought to preserve its interests and the institutions which help maintain these interests. It has mainly resisted the efforts of national liberation inside and outside of US borders to wrest control of their land, labor, and resources from imperialism’s death-grip.
Placing White Working Class Interests at the Center
The understanding that the US is a settler nation built upon colonialism and that the identity and interests of the white working class have historically been defined in opposition to the interests of colonized peoples, runs totally counter to dominant white left interpretations of US history. The white left has viewed US history through white-colored glasses, defining the waged labor of the white proletariat as the basis of capitalist wealth while ignoring the central role of conquest and slavery in producing that wealth; glorifying the legacy of anti-capitalist labor struggle while discounting the white supremacist terms which those struggles were waged on.
Building on this distorted history, most of the white left accepts imperialist-won borders and denies that Black, Native American, or Chicano/Mejicano peoples are colonized nations forcibly held within US-proclaimed borders. Most of the white left insists that these nations are part of a white-majority, white-dominated, “multi-national” working class. They argue that anti-colonial, revolutionary nationalist strategies sabotage the “unified interests” of the multi-national working class. Even those sectors of the white left that give lip-service to self-determination for oppressed nations within US borders still hold that working class unity is the priority and reject independence as an incorrect goal. While these political lines pretend to speak to the interests of all oppressed peoples within the US, they really place the interests of the white working class at the center, forcing political movement to occur on the terms and timetable of the white oppressor nation majority. White supremacy within the white working class is either ignored or defined as a product of false consciousness. Efforts to confront white supremacy are condemned as anti-working class and anti-Marxist.
The white left uses aspects of Western Marxist theory to legitimize the politics which place the oppressor nation working class at the center of revolutionary movement. Over the past century, national liberation movements have led in developing Marxism-Leninism to arrive at new understandings of imperialism and the relationship between class and national struggle. They have applied Marxism-Leninism as a revolutionary science to the concrete conditions of their nations to win national liberation and socialist revolution. However, much of the US white left has chosen to ignore the revolutionary transformations of Marxism, clinging to aspects of Marxist theory which reflect Eurocentric, white supremacist assumptions. Within the US, Black revolutionary nationalists have led in challenging these assumptions and the ways they are used to justify opportunist politics.
Marx and Engels defined the proletariat of the industrialized capitalist nations as the agents of socialist revolution worldwide. They saw the industrialized proletariat as the only class whose interests were fundamentally opposed to the interests of capital, the only class that was capable of successfully organizing socialist revolution. From this standpoint they evaluated the importance of political movement among colonized peoples according to whether or not it advanced revolutionary movement within the working class of the capitalist nations. Accordingly the significance of the revolutionary uprisings against colonialism and slavery which occurred throughout the 19the century — such as those in Haiti, Puerto Rico, and among Black slaves in the US — was largely ignored. When Marx and Engels wrote about the Civil War in the US they argued for the emancipation of Black slaves from the standpoint of how emancipation would benefit the class struggle of the white proletariat. (See Carlos Moore’s pamphlet, “Were Marx and Engels White Racists?” for a detailed position on this issue.)
Contrary to this perspective on the central revolutionary importance of the proletariat of the capitalist nations, the history of the last century has shown that the oppressed and colonized nations of the world have been the main builders of revolution and socialism. Within the borders of the US as well, it has been colonized peoples who have led revolutionary movement against imperialism. Far from having led revolutionary anti-imperialist struggle, the working classes of the oppressor nations, and in particular the US white working class, have for the most part resisted and fought against the revolutionary changes being brought about by national liberation.
Despite the victories of Vietnam, Cuba, Mozambique, Angola; despite the explosive impact of Black, Puerto Rican, Native and Chicano/Mejicano movement within the US, the white left continues to apply Marxism-Leninism dogmatically to protect and promote white working class interests and to block anti-colonial struggle. It refuses to recognize that the center of world revolutionary movement lies with the oppressed nations, and myopically views all struggles from the standpoint of the oppressor nation working class. Tail-wagging-the-dog formulations are put forth, like the October League’s (CP-ML) line that the “oppressed nationalities are the main strategic reserve or ally of the multi-national working class.”
This line turns reality upside down. Anti-imperialist movement within the white working class has only developed in response to the revolutionary movement of national liberation. In the ’60s, the national liberation struggle of the Vietnamese and of the Black Liberation Movement within US borders caused cracks in the alliance between the white working class and imperialism. Mass opposition to the Vietnam War, and the more limited but significant support for the Black Liberation Movement among white people, represented a move towards anti-imperialism and solidarity.
However, imperialism was able to temporarily contain the contradictions exploding in its “home base.” It launched a domestic war campaign — COINTELPRO — to wipe out the leadership of Black liberation and the liberation movements of other internally colonized peoples. By crushing revolutionary nationalist leadership it wiped out the political leadership for white anti-imperialist movement as well. At the same time it stepped up the promotion of white supremacist solutions to the economic, social, and political contradictions the white working class was facing. (See editorial, Fall, 1978 Breakthrough for fuller analysis.)
In the last few years, while national liberation movements within US borders have been struggling to rebuild after the devastating impact of COINTELPRO, the white working class has been building the fight to protect its own interests at the expense of Black and other colonized peoples. The so-called taxpayers’ revolt fights the impact of inflation on property owners by cutting off critical survival services which mainly affect Black and other Third World people. The widespread campaign against “reverse discrimination” is an effort to reestablish the privileged position of white workers in relation to colonized peoples — a position which was threatened by the liberation movements of the ’60s. The escalation of white supremacist violence against Black people across the country represents white working class determination to insure their interests by oppressing Black people through outright terrorism. In California, last November, the expansion of the death penalty was overwhelmingly supported by California voters at the same time as anti-gay legislation was defeated. This sharply exposes how support for greater freedoms for white people can go hand-in-hand with support for greater genocide against Blacks.
Under these conditions, what can it mean to organize for revolution on the basis of the material interests of the white working class? A recent Guardian editorial entitled “Fighting Racism in All Its Forms” reveals the bankruptcy of this approach. The Guardian states:
“First of all we must note that every democratic gain won by minority peoples throughout history has immediately and directly benefitted the white workers as well. The abolition of the poll tax in the South, for instance, brought voting rights to poor whites as well as Blacks. Open admission programs enabled poor whites as well as Blacks and other minorities to gain access to higher education. . . . Equality of workers in the workplace strengthens the bargaining position of all workers. . . .”
Imperialism relies on the white working class to be motivated exclusively by their own self-interest and to be incapable of revolutionary internationalism. The Guardian’s attempt to win white workers to fight on the basis of how it will benefit them supports imperialism’s framework. In order to entice white workers into an anti-racist stand, the Guardian liquidates the anti-colonial nature of the Black Liberation struggle and reduces it to a battle for democratic rights and integration. It whitewashes the entire history of the white working class by not dealing with the fact that the white working class did not support any of the listed struggles for Black rights. In this way, it avoids the struggle to change the real white working class relationship to colonized people and protects the status quo.
The development of revolutionary movement requires that the framework of self-interest which is promoted by imperialism and accepted by the white working class be totally overturned. The responsibility of the white left is to struggle for internationalist consciousness and commitment, not to compete on imperialism’s terms for a better deal.
Protecting White Interests Under the Guise of Solidarity
The continuing growth and power of national liberation has forced sectors of the white left to acknowledge its revolutionary importance to some extent. However, on the whole, white left strategies for solidarity with national liberation have collaborated with imperialism’s efforts to control and coopt the revolutionary motion of national liberation. Solidarity is offered on white people’s terms and on their timetable. The assumption behind most efforts to organize solidarity among white people is that the white working class can only be won to support national liberation on the basis of how those struggles will benefit them. PFOC’s line that white working class women would be won to international solidarity by explaining the links between their oppression and the oppression of Third World women, was a variation on this opportunist theme. Such arguments are aimed at convincing white people that their privileges will not be upset by supporting national liberation, but that they’ll only gain more.
The politics which the Guardian newspaper has taken into its work in building “solidarity” with Puerto Rico exemplify this approach and its impact on solidarity movement. Through its involvement in the Puerto Rican Solidarity Committee (PRSC), the Guardian has led around a politics which seeks to define the Puerto Rican liberation struggle and the basis of solidarity itself, according to the material interests of the white working class. At the PRSC Conference held in February 1977, the March 1 Bloc, led by revolutionary Puerto Rican forces, exposed the opportunism of the Guardian’s approach to Puerto Rican solidarity. In the March 1 documents they stated:
“Silber argues (Guardian, November 24, 1976) that workers can be won to the international position of solidarity with the struggle of the Puerto Ricans by showing them the ways that Puerto Rican independence will directly benefit them, sort of reaching the hearts and minds of the workers through their stomachs pay envelopes. This is an incorrect understanding of imperialism. . . . Can anyone seriously maintain that if the United States loses Puerto Rico, the fifth largest consumer of US goods, that the result will be higher wages and more jobs for US workers?” (From March 1 documents as reprinted in Urgent Tasks No. 1)
In basing all support for Puerto Rican independence on what will benefit white workers, the Guardian line inevitably liquidates support for the revolutionary strategy for winning Puerto Rican independence: the waging of armed struggle against imperialism. The Guardian argues against an imperialist war on Puerto Rico on the grounds that it will be “the sons, husbands and fathers primarily of the American working class” who will be called upon to die in such a war. It is the concern for white working class lives, not for the Puerto Rican lives which have been lost through a century of genocidal imperialist aggression, which is put forth as the motivation for solidarity.
Following this line of reasoning, the Guardian condemns as terrorism the armed struggle that revolutionary Puerto Rican forces are waging for independence. After all, how can support for a war of national liberation really be justified on the basis of the direct interests of the white working class. Genuine support for a war of national liberation means the willingness of white working class women and men to fight and die on the side of the Puerto Rican people and other colonized peoples if they are called upon to do so. It means being prepared to sacrifice immediate material interests to achieve revolutionary goals. And this is precisely what the Guardian and other opportunist forces who condemn armed struggle as terrorism are trying to avoid.
In speaking of the efforts of white leftists to liquidate the existence of the colonized Black nation within US borders, the Black Liberation Army (BLA) writes: “The current Marxist proletariat seeks to channel black liberation into proletarian revolution because black liberation posed as a colonial question inherently entails armed struggle. . . . And this is the root of the problem. There is no place in the vision of the amerikkkan proletarian revolution for violence.” A commitment to revolutionary armed struggle against the armed violence of the imperialist state can only develop on the basis of solidarity with the interests of colonized peoples who are the chief targets of imperialist violence. Building solidarity and revolutionary movement on the basis of current definitions of white working class interests is building a movement on sand. It will be swept away as soon as the real terms of revolutionary anti-imperialist solidarity become clear.
The liberation of colonized nations and the destruction of imperialism will mean the total redistribution of wealth, land, material resources and power. While the gains for humanity from these changes are immeasurable and socialist revolution will eliminate the material basis for all forms of exploitation, there is no immediate prospect of material gain for the white working class on the terms on which it is accustomed to defining such gains. We cannot organize white working class people to commit themselves to the protracted, difficult course of anti-imperialist struggle on the basis of false promises of greater material benefits if national liberation wins and imperialism is destroyed. Instead we have to transform the terms on which the white working class defines its interests and struggle for white people to unite with the interests of the oppressed nations of the world to destroy a system which is responsible for all forms of oppression, exploitation, and genocide. We must build revolutionary solidarity with national liberation movements, the principal creators of a new system based on freedom, independence, and socialism.
Building Revolutionary Internationalism
The ’60s pointed to the potential for sectors of white working class people to make a break with imperialist strategy when led by the powerful force of national liberation. However, in the ’60s the white left failed to consolidate a revolutionary politics of national liberation. When the state launched its COINTELPRO war to wipe out Black Liberation and repress anti-imperialist movement, the white left moved to protect its own interests and abandoned politics and practice in solidarity with national liberation.
Over the past couple of years, the growth of Chimurgenga – people’s war in Zimbabwe, the rebuilding of the Black pro-independence movement within US borders, the development of the revolutionary leadership of clandestine forces in Puerto Rico, and the escalation of Native struggles for sovereignty have pushed forward internationalist consciousness and movement in the white left. There are small but growing efforts across the country to build solidarity practice guided by the leadership and interests of national liberation.
At this stage, we as white revolutionaries must fight hard to build political line and practice which clearly makes support for the growth of national liberation the priority, taking political leadership from the revolutionary forces of national liberation and holding ourselves accountable to these forces. We have a serious, urgent responsibility to organize white working class people toward these goals. But we cannot sacrifice the goals in order to organize white people, as has happened so often in the past. If white leftists commit themselves to internationalism and undertake the difficult task of struggling with others for such a commitment, we believe we can lay a basis for building revolutionary solidarity and anti-imperialism movement in the oppressor nation.
A Luta Continua
PFOC National Collective