Essay: What is socialism? Socialism, labor, and the Black dimension

May 1, 2019

From the May-June 2019 issue of News & Letters

Editor’s note: This is the second of four essays on the topic: What Is Socialism. Future essays will take up “Socialism and Ecology,” and “Socialism and Women’s Liberation.” The first essay, “Socialism and a Philosophy of Revolution” by Gerry Emmett, can be found in the March-April N&L and at

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by Bob McGuire

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the state-capitalist USSR soon collapsed, many hailed those events and not only for the paths toward freedom that potentially opened up. Those who identified as Marxists, as Marxist-Humanists, as socialists expected that many would find Marxism as a philosophy of liberation that the counter-revolution in sheep’s clothing had obscured.

Sadly for us, and for the world since 1989, too many people buried Marxism in the same grave where they interred state-capitalism calling itself Communism.


Since 2016 there are reports of increasing numbers of people identifying as socialist, and remarkable membership increases in old-line groups like the Democratic Socialists of America. That is a positive reaction to Donald Trump’s rule, and you’d think it was, at worst, harmless.

But exploring socialism no deeper than as a brand name does have consequences, as do attitudes to revolution. Ignoring the Syrian Revolution, the defining moment of our time, or even demonizing it, has led to support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or Russian President Vladimir Putin. It is a travesty that Tulsi Gabbard, who has met with all of the above, including Trump, is the preferred presidential candidate for 2020 among a section of those calling themselves “anti-imperialist.”

“From the Depths,” by William Balfour-Keg.

If we look back to Marx for guidance, or to Raya Dunayevskaya for a guide to Marx, you see Marx carrying on arguments in his own lifetime over the nature of revolution. The Marx that put labor at the center of resistance to capitalism and central to revolution intertwined labor in the U.S. with the Black dimension and in England with the Irish.

If anyone, whether self-identified socialist, capitalist, or disinterested in politics, knows even five words from Karl Marx, it would be “Workers of the world unite”—from the 1848 Communist Manifesto. Even before Marx had joined the Communist League and co-written the Manifesto with Frederick Engels on the eve of the Revolutions of 1848 which swept across Europe, he had already looked lower and deeper for forces resisting the old feudal order and the encroachments of capitalism.

Marx denounced the inhumanity of arresting peasants for simply gathering firewood, a violation of nobles’ rights to the forest. He then cheered the revolt of Silesian weavers, their jobs threatened by the new weaving machines, and praised their insight in not merely destroying them, but tearing up the ownership deeds as well.


Marx found in the concept of the proletariat what could and would counter the just emerging bourgeoisie and overthrow capitalism. The working class, if it did not revolt or did not succeed, could expect only steadily worsening conditions of life, even driven below subsistence as Marx demonstrated in the chapter on “The Working Day” in Capital.

Key to the working class as the gravediggers of capitalism was that workers, by being at the point of production, could see the reality of capitalist production through the lies and obfuscations of bourgeois society. At the point of production workers were treated like things, and the commodities they were creating were treated like persons. Workers could see too that withholding their labor was an immediate mortal threat to capitalism maintaining itself. Capitalists responded with force against strikers, or replaced them. The only weapon workers had to fight back with was their solidarity.


Marx followed slave revolts in the U.S. before the Civil War, and, through the First International (International Workingmen’s Association), participated in one of the most heroic examples of solidarity across national and racial lines. When the British government moved to intervene on the side of the slave-owning South during the U.S. Civil War, to keep cotton flowing, British textile workers stopped them. Workers, already at the edge of subsistence, risked their jobs when cotton ran short.

By contrast, Marx rejected some U.S. Marxists, the ones who distanced themselves from the Abolitionists and the struggle against slavery. Even as the Civil War began Marx stated, “Labor in the white skin cannot emancipate itself where labor in the black skin is branded.” His American “Marxist” opponents had equated chattel slavery on the plantations with wage slavery in the sweatshops. That attitude of “whataboutism” was the seed of the failure to support revolutions even up to our time, while finding theoretical points to remain smugly revolutionary.

As Marx foresaw, the agitation for the eight-hour day sprang up immediately after the Civil War and the end of legal slavery. The founding convention of the National Labor Union in 1866 declared that: “The first and great necessity of the present, to free labor of this country from capitalist slavery, is the passing of a law by which eight hours shall be the normal working day in all states in the American union. We are resolved to put forth all our strength until this glorious result is attained.”

The energy of workers freed by the liberation of the slaves continued through the 1877 General Strike and the 1886 strikes for the eight-hour day.

“Workers of the world unite” meant for Marx that, when the Paris Commune arose in 1871 only to be shunned by some English trade unionists in the First International, Marx scratched out their names in favor of the names of Communards. Tellingly those names from the Paris Commune included many who were not organizationally Marxist.

Marx spoke of the English Revolution going through Ireland, and the necessity of English workers seeing that:

“Every industrial and commercial center in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker. His attitude towards him is much the same as that of the ‘poor whites’ to the Negroes in the former slave states of the U.S.A. The Irishman pays him back with interest in his own money. He sees in the English worker both the accomplice and the stupid tool of the English rulers in Ireland.

“This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organization. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this.”

The meaning is that there are two worlds in each country, the rulers and the ruled. Within the working class may exist “two hostile camps.” The solution is not tolerance, but actual identification of the majority workers with the aims of the minority workers.


Marx’s eyes never left the struggles of Blacks in the U.S., whether slave or free. Dunayevskaya followed that rich legacy of Marx’s writings. Upon arriving in Chicago and becoming an American herself, she identified with the Black struggle. On the centenary of the Emancipation Proclamation, she wrote American Civilization on Trial: Black Masses as Vanguard. That booklet shows how every forward movement in U.S. history represented a moment in which, despite the hostility that capitalists promoted, white workers saw that the aims of Black workers and farmers were their own.

Black and white Populists in the South mightily threatened the re-established post-Reconstruction Southern power, and made common cause with Midwestern populists, mostly white homesteaders and other smallholders in Kansas and elsewhere. When the Southern power structure successfully undermined that solidarity by driving a wedge between Blacks and whites, the Black Populists were betrayed and white Populists lost all opportunity to advance for more than a generation. In effect white Populists betrayed themselves.

That lost moment infected the labor movement well beyond the Populist uprisings. The American Federation of Labor set out to fight for the eight-hour day, but with racial exclusion baked into the by-laws of its member craft unions. On the West Coast, to be a socialist or a trade unionist might mean leading a lynch party against Chinese workers.

But at other moments, when there is forward movement, there are examples of solidarity. Charles Denby, the Black worker editor of News & Letters, writes in his Indignant Heart: A Black Worker’s Journal that not long after the formation of the CIO he led a walkout strike in an auto plant to get Black women away from the glue room and into the sewing room. To his astonishment, white workers from department after department walked out with the Black women in solidarity.

In 1967 and 1968 News and Letters Committees members participated with Black Ford workers in New Jersey who had wildcatted over foremen using racial invectives against them. A few white workers joined the picket line. No white workers crossed it.

In Andy Phillips’ account of The Coal Miners’ General Strike and the Birth of Marxist-Humanism in the U.S., he described coal operators’ efforts to undermine the strike, occasionally by legally intimidating John L. Lewis but more commonly by shutting off the sources of aid from County Relief organizations and churches. Miners, wildcatting over Lewis’ objections, sent teams to Detroit and other cities and received relief from fellow workers in time to keep miners going “one day longer,” to use a slogan from later strikes. That aid won the wildcat strike for the coal miners.

In contrast, too many in the last quarter century have weirdly read Marx inside out to support rulers, not workers or people fighting for self-determination. Most of the left supported Serbian chauvinism in Bosnia on the pretext that Serbia had more factories, therefore more factory workers, therefore it was the more proletarian.


The hostility to the Arab Spring and especially to the 2011 Syrian Revolution has led self-styled Marxists for more than eight years to support counter-revolution worldwide. Syrians had counted on avowed socialists’ solidarity with a revolution that had organized communes in almost every village and neighborhood, with constant dialogue over the aims of the revolution.

In the early 1900s German Social Democracy, with the notable exception of Rosa Luxemburg, did not oppose the Kaiser’s genocidal suppression of the 1904 Herero Rebellion in southwest Africa. German workers paid the price for that betrayal when socialists accommodated European empires sending workers to oppose each other and be part of the nine million killed in World War I. The solidarity that ended the war came from below, in the readiness to mutiny of both French and German soldiers. That is what forced armistice on the generals and politicians 100 years ago last November.

Some socialists focus on workers like generals and politicians, or like fleas on dogs. Ruling state-capitalist parties for the last century have pretended to embrace Marx and workers in order to wield power, like the Workers’ Party of Korea. Even the avowedly counter-revolutionary anti-Bolshevik party of Hitler found it useful to call itself the National Socialist German Workers Party. Socialism with borders is not socialism.

That should have been fair warning to any workers who identified with the Nazis that, the moment they took power, they would machine gun strikers on picket lines and throw trade unionists into concentration camps. Now actual Nazis and the KKK gather again and strut and kill with Trump in power. To those “leftists” supporting Trump’s reactionary friends like Putin or the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, we recall Marx’s words: “If these are Marxists, then I am not a Marxist.”

One thought on “Essay: What is socialism? Socialism, labor, and the Black dimension

  1. Charles Denby “led a walkout strike in an auto plant to get Black women away from the glue room and into the sewing room.” It is worth pointing out that he wasn’t saying Black women need more stereotypically feminine work. Actually he was protesting the segregation policy. Only white women had been assigned to work in the sewing room, where air quality and other conditions were better than the glue room.

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