Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Divisive, Reactionary Nature of Identity Politics

“….before Jim Crow, before the invention of the Negro or the white man or the words and concepts that describe them, the Colonial population consisted largely of a great mass of white and black bondsmen, who occupied roughly the same economic category and were treated with equal contempt by the lords of the plantation and legislatures. Curiously unconcerned about their color, these people worked together and relaxed together.  They had essentially the same interests, the same aspirations and the same grievances. They conspired together, and waged a common struggle against their common enemy-------the big planter apparatus and a social system that legalized terror against black and white bondsmen………….the available evidence, slight though it is, suggests that there were widening bonds of solidarity between the first generation of blacks and whites.  And the same evidence indicates that it proved very difficult indeed to teach white people to worship their skin.”  Lerone Bennet, The shaping of Black America

Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired

I want to add a few comments to the video above. It’s not that I always forget them but I struggle to keep the videos fairly short.

I have been at events actually organized by socialists and with speakers who claim to be socialists and have heard them proclaim that this country, meaning the modern nation state of the US, was built on the backs of Native Americans and people of color, or Native Americans and black people.

It leaves out the white working class (and the Asian) and this is a serious error but it is inevitable in the world of identity politics.  It was built on the backs of the white working class also. Not only that, it makes no distinction between the classes within the communities of color at this present stage in the country’s history.

As far as the Native Americans, they had to be swept away in the genocidal war to occupy their lands. The US ruling class did not use the tactic of starvation first in Vietnam pouring chemicals on their food, it was a conscious strategy in US capitalism’s history to starve Native Americans to death through killing their main food supply was it not? I mean the Buffalo. They were herded in to camps and enclaves much like the Palestinians are today with the support of US weapons and money.

No class conscious white worker would deny history or that they have had an advantage based on skin color if it is presented to them correctly and if we discuss this in the context of building working class unity.  But to lump them all together, to talk of “white supremacy” devoid of class content is harmful to the struggle against racism sexism and ultimately capitalism. Even the Ford Foundation is supporting conferences on White Supremacy. Most of the Italians that came here were impoverished peasants as were the Irish and others, most Europeans, were poverty stricken. To talk of “whites” as if they all occupy the same role in history, without a mention of class, makes it much harder to build working class unity without which capitalism, therefore racism, cannot be ended.

Working class Italian or Irish descendants of these people would know of the horrors and poverty of their existence handed down to them from their families. The lives in the factories, coal mines and textile mills of industrial US. In Louisiana the plantation bourgeois would import the "free" Irish labor to work on the levees which was dangerous work with a high death rate. Slaves were a commodity and too valuable. Not much skin tone solidarity there.

In the first English settlement, Jamestown, the ruling class was composed of English investors and capitalists under the authority of the King through a joint stock company formed for the purpose of expansion in to the colonies in the early stages of capitalism’s development. The whites that labored were different. A big problem for the ruling class was labor power, finding enough workers. As more whites and blacks were imported they formed bonds as people do. This had to be undermined and the idea of "white" as a racial definition was introduced. (Prof Jeffrey Perry has some excellent information and videos on this on his website. Check the "Developing Conjuncture" on the left of the site for information and dates of events.)

Understanding that class antagonism is the dominant feature in society does not, or should not in any way obscure the brutal, violent and racist history of capitalist development in the US. It does not mean we deny that for Native people, black folk or people of color in general it is a different history, not totally different but different as color or what we call race here, has been the dominant divide and rule method. It would not have been possible without the cooperation of the white workers either directly or passively.

But British capitalism didn’t descend on the African continent because they didn’t like the skin color of the majority of the population. British capitalism occupied Ireland, stole all the land, starved the people before they went in to Africa, and the Irish are white.

This does not mean I don’t understand why some people might have the view that the white working class is a lost cause, is inherently racist, is reactionary to the core. But there are those that take this position to advance their own class interests, the white bourgeois at all times and sections of the black petite bourgeois who, in competition with their white class colleagues, appeal to the black working class to help them in that war.  This section of capitalist society is weak in relation to their white class colleagues as they are smaller, less powerful and lack the connections to the white racist ruling class that the white middle class has. I do not believe the white working class is a lost cause, and in the workplace that becomes clearer especially when there is a strong, militant rank and file union presence there.

On coming to the US I learned that saying that when the whites sneeze the black folks catch pneumonia or something along those lines. It is known to anyone with a brain that when economic conditions are bad for white folks, blacks as a group are in a state of severe depression, in some ways, permanently.

But to ignore white workers and the changes over the 44 years I have been here is not useful. Malcolm X came to understand this in his later years, Martin Luther King led a mass movement and came to understand that socialism might be the only way the suffering of black folks could be eradicated. Malcolm X was far ahead of any of them today.

We should keep one statistic in mind when considering this: the life expectancy of whites is declining. This is a staggering statistic in this country in the post war era; some privilege that. Imagine what is happening on the ground that has led to this?   What it means with regard to health care, housing, education putting food on the table. Most importantly, what it means in the consciousness of the masses.

US capitalism is in an economic, political and looming social crisis. In times like these the possibility for class unity is greater as workers are forced in to struggle. It’s my view that history shows that as workers move in to struggle we tend to seek class unity, we tend to move to overcome those imposed social barriers that are an obstacle to driving back the capitalist offensive.  But this won’t always last if the movement, or the leadership of the movement does not take it forward.  At some point without collective progress, the movement can disintegrate in to an “Every man or woman for themselves” approach.

As Aristotle pointed out: “Nature hates a vacuum”.  If the movement, the left, does not overcome the poison of identity politics and excludes significant sectors of the working class, reaction will gain traction.

“And it can be said by inverting this language, that the laws were also passed to leave a mark on whites, who were instructed under pain of punishment, how to act in relation to blacks. Under these laws, whites of all classes were penalized for expressing human impulses. It therefor became very expensive for a white person to like black people or to love them. This was not, it should be emphasized, a matter of hints and vague threats. The laws were quite explicit. Symptomatic of this were the laws passed to punish whites who befriended blacks or ran away with them.” Lerone Bennet. The Shaping of Black America

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