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Smearing Black Lives Matter…From the Left

Over the past fifty-three years as a socialist, I have seen repeated calls for purifying the left of capitalist influences, both governmental and corporate. The latest flare-up was a Jacobin article titled “Don’t Let Blackwashing Save the Investor Class” by Cedric Johnson, a black African American studies professor. Just as Deep Throat advised Bob Woodward in “All the President’s Men,” Johnson followed the money:

While antiracist protesters were tough on long-dead oppressors, these same protests have delivered a public relations windfall for the living investor class. Within weeks, corporations pledged upward of $2 billion dollars to various antiracist initiatives and organizations. The leadership of Warner, Sony Music, and Walmart each committed $100 million. Google pledged $175 million, mainly to incubate black entrepreneurship. YouTube announced a $100 million initiative to amplify black media voices. Apple also pledged $100 million for the creation of its racial equity and justice initiative.

These payoffs were supposed to dull the edge of the protests and keep the capitalist system safe from pitchfork-wielding mobs. Oddly enough, they didn’t seem to be making much headway in light of the continuing worries about capitalist instability. Most of the young people organizing the protests hardly seemed to be cooptation-bait as indicated by a New York Magazine interview with the female, teenage organizers of a Louisville protest that drew 10,000:

New York Magazine: Have you faced any backlash since the protest? And what does it mean to you three to be doing this work in the South?

Kennedy: I was actually surprised that we had a lot of support, because we do live in the South, and I’ve encountered various types of racism from people in the South. We did get backlash from a lot of people saying we’re brainwashed or that we’re being paid to do this or that we’re secret people the Democrats are using to win.

Emma Rose: We’re not even Democrats.

Kennedy: I’m not even a Democrat. I’m a radical.

Johnson draws a contrast between Amazon warehouse workers striking (good) over safety conditions at their workplaces during the pandemic and the BLM protests (bad) that flow from the belief that racism is “endemic,” “ingrained,” “systemic,” and America’s “original sin.” (Let’s not forget that West Coast dockworkers carried out a work stoppage for nine minutes on June 9th in solidarity with BLM.) The Amazon workers were in keeping with Marxist verities about class conflict while the BLM activists were frittering away their time and energy on “identity politics” and “intersectionality” all in the interest, willy-nilly, of absolving Goldman-Sachs et al for their crimes against humanity.

This reference to “original sin” is a shot across the bow of Project 1619 and any other analysis that sees slavery as the ghost that hovers over America’s racist society today. Johnson considers the possibility that if George Floyd had a decent income, he never would have resorted to using counterfeit money and, hence, a victim of four killer-cops. Perhaps, the more important question is why such cops are allowed to murder at will—the grievance driving these earth-shaking protests.

In another article, Professor Johnson sounds like he might be working for the Biden campaign, at least on the question of defunding the police:

Most Americans are upset by police killings, but they also want more effective policing. Over the last five years, satisfaction with police has strengthened among all ethnic and racial groups, including African Americans (from 50% “at least somewhat satisfied” in 2015 to 72% now).

As for the need for the George Floyds of the world having a better shot at making it, one might consider the possibility that the color of his skin might have something to do with his economic woes. Like most people committed to the Sandernista movement, Johnson draws a sharp contrast between benefitting blacks as a group and class-wide economic programs that will serve workers, whatever race. In a Jacobin article titled “An Open Letter to Ta-Nehisi Coates and the Liberals Who Love Him”, Johnson takes issue with Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates had the temerity to call out Bernie Sanders for his refusal to support reparations (Jacobin’s editor Bhaskar Sunkara opposes them as well.) For Sanders, the answer to black poverty is “creating millions of decent paying jobs.”

There have been millions of decent paying jobs in American cities for many years, but they are generally unattainable for black people. What will it take to make this country truly color-blind? It will undoubtedly require a socialist revolution that makes racial bias illegal. As someone who has been following the class struggle for over fifty years, I have not seen anything more promising in recent years than the massive outpouring against killer cops in over two thousand American cities. While some of the money big corporations doling out will end up in the BLM leadership’s pockets, most young people spearheading the protests will be motivated by ideals rather than cash.

Annie Lowrey proposed “baby bonds” in an Atlantic article that would benefit black people as members of a class rather than as a racial group. Lowrey gave an example of providing rich babies $200 and poor babies $50,000 at birth, with infants from middle-class families on a sliding scale. Since black people are poorer than white people, the benefits would accrue to them and reduce inequality. Lowrey was comforted by the possible outcome. Had they been granted baby bonds at birth, white young adults would be worth $79,159 and black young adults $57,845. Unequal, yes, but catching up. Project 1619 editor Nikole Hannah-Jones pinpointed the baby-bond shortcomings on Twitter:

I’m all for universal anti-poverty, wealth-producing programs. But like so many “race-neutral” policies, it can’t actually be race-neutral in a race-based system. Ths closes the black-white gap but also maintains it. You can’t use race-neutral policies to fix race-specific harms.

Isn’t the primary goal of the protestors to put an end to race-specific harms? In upstate New York, there’s a sleepy little village called Monroe with a large orthodox Jewish population not far from the even sleepier village where I grew up. On May 31, a BLM rally drew 700 people. That’s close to ten percent of the residents. They were responding to a Tweet from a 21-year-old black woman named Shelby Seth, who told the local paper that “she had wanted to prove that affirming the value of all lives was a universal message that resonates as much in a small town as in all the urban centers where protests had taken place.” Would any of Apple’s money end up in her bank account? I tend to doubt it.

As for orthodox Jews, in the most startling turn of events, New York’s young adherents to the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic sect have joined the protests. The Washington Post reported on June 19 that “about 200 young Hasidic women in long skirts and wigs and men with wide-brimmed black hats and free-flowing beards parked their baby strollers along the tree-lined boulevards of Crown Heights in Brooklyn.” The Chabad-Lubavitch sect earned the reputation of being racist when a car chief rabbi’s motorcade ran a red light and struck down two black children from Guyana in 1991. A riot led to the knifing murder of a rabbinical student and the stigmatization of Mayor David Dinkins as being anti-Semitic for not cracking down enough. It is too soon to tell where this reconciliation will go, but it is an auspicious beginning.

One can understand why some on the left would want to purify social movements. With the billions of dollars at their disposal, corporations can disorient not just the black struggle, but also every mass movement for sweeping change. These movements generally start with radicals serving as a catalyst. The larger they become, the more that big capital sees them as a threat to its rule. In 1970, I was in the Boston branch of the Socialist Workers Party when the woman’s liberation movement took off. Our female comrades worked in the abortion rights movement and saw it as a blow against patriarchy. Radicalized feminists would fight alongside the black nationalist movement against a common enemy. While Cointelpro and cop violence was responsible for destroying the Panthers and other revolutionary groups, it was big capital that tamed the woman’s movement. Instead of organizing poor women suffering from pay disparity, NOW became part of the Democratic Party’s armada. With corporations lavishing millions on the group, it naturally saw its interests and theirs as organically linked.

The gay liberation movement went through the same evolution. It started as a riot against a police raid on Stonewall and soon became one of the most militant detachments of the left in the 1970s. Groups like the Gay Liberation Front identified with radical feminism and black nationalists. They used sit-ins, and later on die-ins during the AIDS crisis, to fight for sexual emancipation. Just as corporate funding tamed NOW, so did it turn the annual Gay Pride celebrations into a toothless spectacle. Big corporations began displaying the rainbow flag and boasting about all their top gay managers. Recently, Goldman-Sachs foreclosed on 10,000 homes. Given the pandemic’s dire circumstances, this assault on mostly poor people made the firm more hateful than usual. Who came forward to defend the foreclosures? None other than Maeve DuVally, a top Goldman manager who handles media. That’s the same person, once known as Michael DuVally, who now keeps a rainbow-colored rectangle at her desk. He took advantage of a Goldman L.G.B.T. employee network hosted panel on “how to be stronger allies to the transgender and gender non-conforming community” to transition. Michael DuVally showed up to the event in a wig and makeup. Now he a well-paid woman named Maeve making excuses for evicting poor people. That’s what gay liberation amounts to in many ways today.

For the most bodacious example of following the money, nobody can surpass Cory Morningstar’s scorched earth attack on Greta Thunberg. In a six-part series of articles, she dredged up a mountain of evidence that practically made Thunberg an accessory-after-the-fact to the corporate takeover of the environmentalist movement. I won’t detail Morningstar’s follow-the-money details but recommend a CounterPunch article I wrote last December:

In her first article, Morningstar charges Swedish PR executive Ingmar Rentzhog with masterminding a pro-corporate conspiracy using Thunberg as his cat’s paw. By hyping Thunberg, this phony movement will cater to the needs of Klaus Schwab, Goldman-Sachs, Michael Bloomberg, et al.

Those who have the patience to plow through Morningstar’s tedious prose will learn that corporate America is trying to dull the Green movement’s cutting edge. Quelle surprise. You’re better off watching “Planet of the Humans.” Missing from the film as well as Morningstar’s articles is What is To Be Done. You have to be simple-minded not to understand that the American bourgeoisie spends billions trying to sway public opinion. The small change it hands out to black, women’s, gay or Green groups is predictable. It is up to us to figure out how to keep the blade of the movements as sharp as a scalpel and not retreat into a purist sect like the Socialist Equality Party or the Spartacist League.

To a large extent, corporate America’s ability to tame mass movements is a function of the collapse and virtual disappearance of the revolutionary left. In the mid-70s, there were at least 10,000 “Marxist-Leninist” activists acting as the backbone of the mass movement. Due to their sectarian illusions, they eroded and then disappeared. Whatever their flaws, their absence left the mass movements rudderless and ripe for cooptation. Even though sectarianism ran through its bloodstream, the SWP provided leadership to the antiwar movement that might help new leftists learn from today.

In 1969, when the SWP had committed its entire membership to build the antiwar movement, we ran into a situation similar to what BLM activists now face. David Hawk was a former member of the National Student Association that the CIA funded. He was also one of the leaders of Eugene McCarthy’s “peace” campaign. With this authority (and sub rosa funding), he launched the Vietnam Moratorium. The Moratorium called for nationwide protests on October 15. Hawk’s partners in this enterprise were Sam Brown, a fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics, and David Mixner, a member of George McGovern’s Democratic Party reform commission. We nefarious Trotskyists saw this as a capitalist design on the peace movement, but took a much different tack than those favoring a “clean break.”

Unlike the case today with BLM, we did not see Hawk as the direct representative of the corporate world. Instead, we understood that with his Democratic Party connections, he had access to funds that the radical antiwar groups could never tap. If the Moratorium wanted to run TV commercials and full-page ads in the NY Times, we’d be up against a formidable adversary. Instead, our strategy would be to keep our friends close, but our enemies closer.

Hawk came to a conference of the New Mobilization Committee in Cleveland in July to propose collaboration between the two groups. We understood that Hawk and company were generals without an army, but also susceptible to being maneuvered into backing the New Mobe’s fall action in November. The conference ended with Hawk and the New Mobe agreeing to support each other’s actions. Secretly, we were scheming to transform the Moratorium into something far more radical than Hawk ever thought possible. We were aided in that endeavor by the growing hatred for the Vietnam War that made Out Now appear reasonable to most of the country just like BLM is today.

We deployed our forces to make sure that the October Moratorium kept a radical edge. Being radical did not mean calling for revolution but instead insisting on the need to withdraw immediately from Vietnam. Despite the “peace” agenda of Hawk and his partners, the press and the ruling class saw the Moratorium as a threat to its war-making capabilities. Like the George Floyd protests, thousands of American cities hosted rallies against the war for the first time. The only difference between now and then was the conscious, organized efforts of the SWP and its allies in keeping the movement honest.

In exchange for backing the Moratorium, the party was amenable to politicians like McGovern speaking at New Mobe rallies. We did not see liberal politicians speaking at rallies as a political sacrifice on our part since it meant drawing in larger crowds who would then become foot soldiers for Out Now. Not everybody on the left saw it this way. The three factions of SDS (Weathermen, RYM-2 and SDS-PL) denounced the Moratorium as an attempt by the liberal elite to co-opt the student movement.

Fred Halstead, the SWP candidate for president in 1968, wrote a book titled “Out Now!: a Participant’s Account of the Movement in the U.S. Against the Vietnam War.” While I spent far too many years in the Trotskyist movement, I learned valuable lessons from people like Fred, an activist in the “Bring Us Home” movement in 1945. Stationed in Japan and elsewhere in East Asia, American G.I.’s were now going to fight a new war on Mao’s army. After four years of bitter fighting and likely a certain degree of sympathy for a peasant revolution, they took part in mass actions demanding to go back home. Some of the key organizers for the “Bring Us Home” movement were CIO radicals like Emil Mazey from the UAW. Fred always saw GI’s openness to opposing the war in Vietnam while in uniform as a distinct possibility based on this precedent.

Writing about the Moratorium in “Out Now,” he advises his readers on how to approach opportunities like this with tactical flexibility but within a steel-hard strategic goal, namely defeating U.S. imperialism:

There is no doubt that a section of the Democratic Party and some Republican doves hoped to use the Moratorium to co-opt the antiwar movement in preparation for the 1970 congressional elections. But in so doing they were—however hesitantly—throwing their authority behind an antiwar action. This provided openings of an entirely new dimension. The Moratorium was not an election for public office but a date for antiwar activities across the country. Their character would be determined by the participants in each locality.

The New Mobe and the SMC, instead of turning their backs on this development, threw themselves into building these actions. They did not oppose the appearance of prominent Establishment figures as sponsors and speakers. They took advantage of the opportunity to speak to larger audiences with their own more radical positions, welcoming the element of debate involved, and drawing more people into preparations for the November activities.

Drawing more people into preparations. That’s the spirit of the kind of movement needed today in ending police department death squads, and, into the future, overthrowing the racist, capitalist system that relies on such killers to defend private property.

Louis Proyect blogs at Louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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