Workers World in 1983
The right of self-determination and the class struggle
Published Nov 12, 2008 1:47 PM
This archival article, written by Sam Marcy, the chairperson of
Workers World Party during the first Jesse Jackson presidential campaign,
appeared in the Dec. 8, 1983, issue. Twenty-five years later, with the historic
election of Barack Obama as the first Black U.S. president, this article still
holds significant lessons for progressives, revolutionaries and socialists in
the U.S. and worldwide in building class unity and solidarity in the struggle
to eradicate capitalism.
Nov. 25—Of all the great domestic political problems facing the working
class and the oppressed people, none surpasses in importance the relationship
of national oppression to the class struggle.
Indeed, one may say that it is at the heart of the basic social problem in the
United States. It touches every form of social existence, and no sector of
society is free from it.
For Marxists in particular it is the acid test of the correctness of their
general political program. It is also a test of the revolutionary integrity of
the party, in particular as this is manifested in day to day practical
application. Probably nowhere else is theory so severely tested by practice as
in the field of the national question.
Upon the solution of the national question may very well depend the destiny of
the working class in the struggle against capitalism as well as the future of
The national question, or as it is sometimes called the race question, has for
centuries been covered up by a plethora of lies and deceit. The intent is to
convey the impression that it does not exist, or if it does exist it is being
solved, or at least its significance is diminishing due to the glory and
virtues of the democratic processes of monopoly capitalism.
The deepening of the capitalist crisis, notwithstanding the current ephemeral
recovery, is bound to intensify national oppression in the U.S. This will be so
not only because of the growing unemployment, of which the oppressed people
bear the brunt, but also and perhaps of equal importance because of the
direction of U.S. foreign policy toward military adventurism on a global scale
unprecedented in history.
The burden of all this is bound to become more and more intolerable for the
working class and the oppressed peoples.
The ruling class can be relied upon to desperately attempt to divert the course
of the struggle of the workers and the oppressed into divisive and frustrating
channels, while reaping a huge harvest in the form of super-profits for
The many millions of the oppressed and exploited masses meanwhile find it more
difficult to gather their huge and invincible forces into a united front
against the ruling class—the most monstrous and dangerous ever to inhabit
this planet, who keep it in constant peril of utter destruction.
‘National vs. class struggle’
To many in the progressive and working class movement the relationship between
national oppression and class conflict appears as a choice between two
supposedly contradictory phenomena.
To socialists of the pre-World-War-I generation and to many avowed Marxists of
that period (and even of decades later), choosing or giving priority to the
national question, or as some put it, “giving priority to the struggle
against racism,” meant the abandonment of the class struggle and a
surrender to bourgeois nationalism.
Needless to say such a view of Marxism, in addition to being an error in
principle and a violation of basic Marxist theory on the national question, was
mostly propounded by whites, even those who saw themselves as adherents of
socialism and even of Marxism.
Early socialist movement
Notwithstanding the avowed anti-capitalist struggle of the socialists of that
period, their propaganda for socialism, their espousal of the class struggle,
and even the militant class battles between the working class and the
capitalist class that they led, this type of pursuit of the class struggle
tended to completely ignore the very existence of the semi-slavery, oppression,
persecution, and disenfranchisement of the Black people.
It goes without saying that the struggle of the Native people was completely
disregarded by them, to the point where it seldom if ever occupied any part in
the struggle of the socialists of the time or in their political polemics or
In Marx’s time the struggle against capitalism was seen primarily as one
in which the working class as a whole was conducting the socialist class
struggle against the bourgeoisie and winning democratic demands not only for
itself but for all others deprived of democratic rights.
However, it was understood at that time that as long as capitalism existed,
only minor reforms could be won, not only for the workers as a whole but for
those who were disenfranchised and denied democratic rights. Socialist
propaganda emphasized the overall objective of the abolition of the capitalist
system. It pointed out the acute and insoluble contradictions under capitalism,
the slavery of the wage system, the impoverishment of the farmers, the
disappearance of small industry in favor of monopoly.
Just as the socialist struggle could not really bring lasting and basic reforms
of capitalism, so it could not solve the racial, that is the national question,
under capitalism. The latter would have to wait until the victory of the
It was then thought that fighting for the enfranchisement of the oppressed
nationalities—Black, Latin@, Asian, and Native—was important, as
was women’s suffrage. But only successive electoral victories culminating
in the ultimate overthrow of the capitalist system would attain social and
It is not to be wondered at, then, that on the eve of 1916 when there were
already dozens of socialist mayors throughout the country, there was scarcely
even one Black representative nominated for the hundreds of city, county, and
state offices to which socialists were elected.
Clearly such Marxism could not have much appeal to Black and other oppressed
nationalities. It was also inevitable that a large section of the right wing of
the Socialist Party, led by Victor Berger of Milwaukee and Morris Hillquit of
New York, would be invested with what would today be regarded as outright
The left wing, headed by Eugene Debs and Big Bill Haywood, was eloquent in its
defense of Black people. But it was utterly incapable of influencing the course
of the Party’s struggle at the time in a progressive direction on the
national question, as well as on other political problems.
Impact of Russian Revolution
It was not until the arrival of the October Revolution in Russia and the
ensuing years of revolutionary struggle on a world scale that a theoretically
correct appreciation of the national question in relation to the class struggle
found its way to the U.S.
Lenin’s long years of struggle on the question of the right of nations to
self-determination and his relentless exposure of chauvinism as arising from
the failure to correctly apply this right constituted a virtual treasury of new
thinking that was soon introduced here and in other metropolitan imperialist
In addition to writing voluminously on the right of nations to
self-determination, Lenin reformulated Marx’s world-famous slogan about
uniting the working class of the world.
In Marx’s time the slogan, as stated in the Communist Manifesto, was:
“Workers of the world unite.”
Lenin updated this to reflect the changed character of capitalism. So-called
progressive, peaceful, competitive capitalism had evolved into monopoly, which
not only required vast expansion at the expense of oppressed peoples around the
world but also exacerbated and intensified every type of national oppression at
To the slogan “Workers of the world unite!’ Lenin added the
oppressed peoples. So now it reads: “Workers and oppressed peoples of the
It introduced a substantial difference in the approach to the oppressed peoples
abroad and, no less important, the super-exploited and oppressed people at home
in the internal colonies.
While many decades have passed since Lenin’s formulation of the question,
it now more than ever needs a proper application since the assault of monopoly
capitalism becomes ever more onerous and threatening day by day.
No political equality
What was not understood by the early socialists, and remains a mystery to this
day to many who proclaim themselves Marxists, is that the bourgeois revolution
so far as it pertained to Black people everywhere in this country was never
completed politically or even juridically. There is still no real political
equality between Black and white in this country.
This is not only attested to by the wide differential between Black and white
in income and social status generally, but is especially evident on the
parliamentary front and is made very obvious during electoral campaigns.
It may be formally true that Black people generally have the same right to vote
as whites do. There are any number of elected Black officials in various
cities, counties, and state subdivisions. But by and large there is a glaringly
wide discrepancy between the political effectiveness of whites during national
elections and that of Black people.
One merely has to take a look at the U.S. Senate. It has 100 Senators, but not
one is Black.
And out of 435 Representatives in the House, there are scarcely 30 Black and
Latin@ put together.
This glaring inequality as expressed in the bourgeois parliamentary system
attests to the fact that the bourgeois democratic revolution begun in the 60s
of the last century has not yet been completed. The same bourgeois democratic
rights which white workers have been entitled to for two centuries are still
not available to Black workers and Black people generally.
Marxists can ignore this only at the risk of losing their historic
revolutionary mission in capitalist society. One cannot reduce the question to
one of mere racial discrimination which, as the saying goes, is diminishing
with the passage of time.
On the contrary, the mere passage of time does not guarantee a gradual
evolution to full political rights, that is, to the democratic rights won by
white workers and white people generally.
The centuries-old prevalence of social and political inequality attests to the
fact that Black people in the U.S., like Native people, constitute a nation.
The struggle against inequality thus has to be viewed politically in the
context not merely of waging a fight against racial discrimination but of the
right to self-determination.
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