In a manner that seems typical of the way the powerful in the US perceive the Black population of the country, the history of African-Americans is relegated to one month. That month is, of course, February. While I won’t go so far as those who, half-seriously note that not only is only one month given to studying the history of African-Americans, but that month is also the shortest one, it is a curious fact. That being said, and in spite of my objection to this thing called “Black History Month,” the arrival of Ahmed Shawki’s recently published history titled Black Liberation and Socialism provides me with the opportunity to review this comprehensive survey of the history of black-skinned residents of the United States.
Shawki, who is also an editor of the International Socialist Review–the theoretical journal of the International Socialist organization–presents a study of the relationship between the socialist movement in the United States and the Black population. He also does a good deal more here. Given the special history and relationship of African-Americans to the power structure and white-skinned US citizens in general, this is more than a study of that relationship. It is also a history of the African-American struggle for freedom. This history is not the first book to examine this historical relationship. However, it is certainly one of the few that predicates the fundamental elements of that relationship on the economic realities of slavery and the necessity to construct a rationale for the racial nature of African-American bondage and the racist structure that followed emancipation.
Shawki notes early on in his history that the “dominant historical view of slavery places ideas–in particular, racial ideas–as the motor force of history.” By doing so, argues Shawki, historians completely underestimate the economic connection between “capitalism and the development of racism.” Echoing Karl Marx, Shawki notes how the slave trade and the plantation system of the American South enabled the accumulation of capital and the development of industrial capitalism in the United States and those parts of Europe that also took part. Because of this fundamental economic reality, and the necessity of slavery to the US economy, racial (neé racist) ideologies were developed to rationalize the continued enslavement of other humans. As noted above, once slavery was finally outlawed, these rationales were further developed to restrict and discriminate against black skinned US residents. Sometimes they were encoded into laws regarding employment, voting, housing, and marriage and–more often–they were just part of the dominant belief system in US society. This is a belief system that enabled employers to break strikes with African-American scabs, create fears that led to lynchings, and helped elect men and women whose interest run counter to the economic interests of workers no matter what their skin color.
How did this racist philosophy become part of the national psyche? How could a country supposedly founded on the equality of all humanity rationalize slavery and racial hatred? Shawki explains this by writing that the white founders merely made non-whites non-citizens. Indeed, male slaves were considered 3/5ths of a man and that was only for taxation and representation purposes. The very same men who had begun their rebellion against the Crown because they were denied representation turned around and denied a similar representation to black-skinned men (and all women). As time went on, this legal designation that African-Americans were less than human was provided moral justification by preachers, schools and the courts.
As Black Liberation and Socialism continues past the Civil War and into the Twentieth Century, the presence of the labor movement begins to be noted. Racism was the norm there, too. It is the exceptions that stand out and Shawki details a couple of them. He details the use of African-American scabs in strikes but also tells the story of strikes that united workers across racial divisions. Interestingly, at least two of the better known ones occurred in the South: a lumber strike in Louisiana and a widespread coal miners strike in West Virginia and Kentucky. Despite the hesitancy of union leadership to cross the racial divide, the rank and file often forced the issue, innately understanding the strength such solidarity would create.
As the socialist and communist movement grew around the world and in the US, the situation of Black Americans became a central question in the various parties. Within the Communist Party USA, African Americans’ status as a nation was debated. Indeed, this debate continues to today, with some of its major development occurring in the 1960s via the writings and speeches of Malcolm X, various Black Power groups, the Black Panther Party, and other New Left formations. Although this question is rarely raised today, the debate quietly continues, as does the nature of African-Americans’ oppression. In addtion, the question of which segment of the black population should be the primary focus of leftist organizing–the lumpen or the workers–is unresolved. Shawki presents both elements of the latter debate in his chapter on the Black Panthers and the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement–two Marxist revolutionary Black nationalist organizations of the 1960s and 1970s.
This book is a comprehensive look at the history of the struggle for Black liberation in the United States. Shawki’s effort is well worth the read, especially for those who are looking for a good introduction to this underexplored part of US history. The fundamental importance of the nature of US capitalist economics to the oppression of African-Americans is never forgotten in this book, but neither is this nature pressed to the point of pedanticism.
If racism is the chicken and economics the egg, Shawki makes a compelling argument in these pages that the egg definitely came first. Quite readable, Black Liberation and Socialism adds an important analysis to the bookshelf of Black history. It doesn’t merely belong in the study group or the library. It should be part of the slowly growing canon on that topic.
RON JACOBS is the author of The Way the Wind Blew, a history of the Weather Undergrouind. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org