A Humane Society is Possible Through Struggle

SOUTH END PRESS: Could you name some specific historic projects of the Left that you look to as examples of positive struggle for change?

MARABLE: In terms of radical history, the two decades that people always like to cite are the 1930s and the 1960s—the Old Left and the New Left. In the 1960s, the organizations that I feel were most significant in prefiguring what might occur in the next radical wave of the future were the League of Revolutionary Black Workers and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

SNCC was important because it saw itself as a non-Leninist vanguard organization. Its members called themselves “the true believers.” They were willing to talk the talk and walk the walk. They were willing to go to jail for their beliefs. They organized by going into communities and providing resources and skills to encourage and support the development of organic leaders in such a manner that gifted leaders such as Fannie Lou Hamer emerged in the process.

Their model for intervention was very much like the one CLR James, the West Indian revolutionary, suggests: that the task of radical intellectuals and community organizing is to learn from the people and, utilizing skills and ideas and resources to help mass-based organizations fight for their own issues for their own rights and to generate their own leadership. It’s not a top-down model; it’s a bottom up model of social change. Ella Baker spoke for this strategy: you shouldn’t place leaders on a pedestal. SNCC offers a model of radical organizing that needs to be looked at.

A second model is the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. This was militancy outside the union movement, but at the site of production. The league organized the most oppressed workers in the factory, working in the very worst parts of the auto plant. These were young brothers and sisters who organized around principles of radical democracy, socialism, and Black empowerment from a bottom-up perspective—not looking to the electoral arena to provide the leadership for society, but taking history in their own hands and fighting the power.

I think the future of radicalism must draw on the legacies of the past and models of radical democracy that exist, even flawed models. SNCC and the league made mistakes and errors of judgment, but for what they tried to do, they were very important. They recognized that successful political organizing must be based around things people see every day, around issues that touch people’s daily lives, like health, work, the environment, housing and education for their children.

It is around the contradictions and problems of daily life that radical intervention can unfold. Some sectors of the Left have frequently held that we’re kind of like Moses coming out of the wilderness with the tablet of tenets that we must follow to achieve the revolutionary future and the promised land. There is a deep problem on the left of elitism and top-down models of social change that fly in the face of democracy.

Why don’t we have a SNCC or a League now?

Let’s look at the reasons we don’t have mass-based radical organizations. One of the chief theoreticians of the modern civil rights movement was Bayard Ruskin, the coordinator of the 1963 March on Washington, DC. After the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Rustin argued that the Civil Rights Movement had to shift from direct action and non-violent civil disobedience to activism in the electoral arena. Our description of this strategy was “a Black face in a high place.” We wanted somebody in a prominent position who looked like us. I call this “symbolic representation.” The problem with symbolic representation is that it assumes a level of accountability between the representative and her or his constituency. If the connection is one of phenotype or gender, that’s a very tenuous basis on which to build a movement. Because someone is Black or Latino or lesbian or gay or whatever does not guarantee the person’s fidelity to a body of politics that empowers the particular constituency which they supposedly represent.

The number of African Americans who were in Congress 30 years ago was about 5; today it is over 40, an 800 percent increase. But have Blacks experienced an 800 percent increase in real power? It hasn’t happened. A second problem that occurred was the breakdown of the liberal paradigm of social change that emerged out of the new deal—the New Frontier and the Great Society. The liberal political coalition collapsed. Part of the reason it broke down was because the Left no longer existed as an organized force. The Left has always generated ideas which liberals have taken, moderated, and tried to apply in structures of power. But without a strong aggressive Left, liberals are on their own. When they’re left on their own, they collapse. One recent example is the national decline of the Rainbow Coalition.

Another major question is: what has happened to the Left since the 1960s? I think part of what occurred is that people in the U.S. who were committed to radical change frequently drew from experiences of other societies that sometimes replicated some of the worst aspects of revolutionary formations or models outside of the country, without understanding that a struggle for fundamental social change begins with a very detailed understanding of the society where you are. This is not to say that every revolution can be understood solely as a national process. But there are particular contradictions and particular nuances that make questions of organization very specific to distinct social formations.

How did you come into politics?

I can tell you the day I first became political. It was April 4, 1968. I was a high school senior in Dayton Ohio, and I wrote a newspaper article for the local Black weekly titled, “Youth Speaks Out.” After Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, my mother thought it was a great idea for me to fly to Atlanta—I’d never flown before—and cover the funeral for the Black weekly, so I did. I had an aunt who lived in Atlanta on the west side. I got up very early in the morning and took a bus to the center of town. Somehow I found Ebenezer Baptist Church in the Black community near downtown Atlanta. I got there about 6:30 AM and witnessed the whole funeral. There were tens of thousands of people surrounding the church by mid-morning. I walked along with the funeral procession that went to Atlanta University and Morehouse College where King had graduated. Because I had a press pass, I was allowed into the press room which occupied the second floor of a building that overlooked the ceremony. I was 17-years-old and I had witnessed history unfold and I wanted to be part of making Black history move forward. So that was my entry into politics.

Like most of my generation coming of age in the 1960s, I was involved in protest activities. When I was a freshman I was elected chair of the newly formed Black Student Union on our campus. I participated in anti-Vietnam War demonstrations in graduate school and I continued writing for student newspapers. But the second stage of becoming involved in political work did not occur until after I had completed graduate school in 1976. About that time, I became active in both the Black freedom movement and the largely white Left. I joined the New American Movement (NAM) in 1977 and in 1976 I became active in the National Black Political Assembly (NBPA), which was a network of community organizers, elected officials, and political activists that came from the Gary Convention of March 1972, which attempted to build an independent Black political movement. I was involved in both processes and I saw them as complementary, based on my whole approach to politics being grounded in race and class. At the same time, I had concluded that a racial analysis by itself was insufficient in understanding the contradictions at the heart of a capitalist society. So by the time I was in my mid-20s, I considered myself a Socialist. But it was really only into the early 1980s that I began to define myself as a Marxist.

How did you come to Marxist politics?

During the period from about 1976 to 1980, I was what I called a Left nationalist; I was a Black nationalist. I understood Black nationalism to mean a politics that advocated community institution-building and the construction of an independent, all-Black party or political formation. I also believed in some kind of democratic socialist transformation within U.S. society. I believed in working with progressive whites and Latinos around a socialist project. In 1979, when NAM debated whether to join the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) or not, I was on the side of joining DSOC to create the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). The basic reason was that I felt that building a broader-based organization that ranged from social democracy to Marxism had a much greater likelihood of galvanizing popular support for the ideas of socialism. NAM only had 1,000 people and it was too narrowly based ideologically. Eventually, I became one of the vice-chairs of DSA.

It was in the early 1980s that a kind of theoretical bridge developed in my work. I put together a book called Blackwater: Historical Studies in Race, Class Consciousness, and Revolution which is a collection of essays written in response to the assassination of Walter Rodney, the election of Ronald Reagan, the upsurge of the second Cold War—which began as soon as Reagan became presiden—and the kind of political crises being experienced by Blacks in the U.S. at the time. I recognized that a Marxist analysis of society, if approached not as dogma, but as a method of social analysis, was the best in unearthing and explaining the major contradiction of a society. My next book, How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America, was inspired by Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. It basically uses “underdevelopment” as a metaphor for understanding how the capitalist state and capitalism as a socio-economic system had exploited Blacks. It argued that capitalism was intensifying a growing glass stratification within the Black community and had bought off a social layer, a privileged, middle-class group of African- Americans to go along with the system. By the time the book was published, the logic of the book had pushed me away from the political and theoretical framework for social democracy, which is what DSA largely represented.

I had a number of friendships in DSA. I respected Michael Harrington, who was the driving force in the organization, but I strongly disagreed with his strategic view of how to achieve socialism in the United States. Michael believed that the Left should be “the Left of the possible” inside the Democratic Party and that it should have a close working relationship with liberalism to keep liberalism honest. I felt that we needed an inside-outside approach. I believed that our emphasis should be balanced between supporting progressives in the Democratic Party and trying to initiate independent political motions—and doing activism in the non-electoral arena. That perspective never won out. So by 1985, I was basically moving away from the organization—not an antagonistic break—just a recognition that DSA’s model probably would not be successful in this country in constructing a viable Left alternative capable of achieving state power.

The independent Black movement also began to collapse by the early 1980s because of the contradictions within the formations, tendencies toward vanguardism, political sectarianism, and other problems. By 1983 and 1984, a new situation had emerged in the United States. After several years of Reaganism, we began seeing challenges to the Reagan agenda: the election of Harold Washington as the first Black Mayor of Chicago in 1983; the 1984 Jackson campaign for president; the formation of the Rainbow Coalition; the 1985 and 1986 anti-apartheid campaigns. All of these peaked by 1988 around the Jesse Jackson campaign. Jesse received more votes that year than Walter Mondale did in 1984. It showed that there was a strong left-of-center constituency that included Blacks, Latinos, and a substantial number of whites who would support a democratic and progressive multi-cultural alternative. The Rainbow movement was not a socialist movement, but it was a social justice movement in which many revolutionary nationalists, Communists, Marxists, and democratic socialists freely participated. It had tremendous potential.

The major weakness of the Rainbow Coalition was its failure to consolidate a democratic, membership-based organization with elected leadership accountable to all members. Jackson favored a charismatic, populist-style of Black leadership, which inevitably destroyed the Rainbow Coalition.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, both Black politics and Left politics in the United States were thrown into a period of confusion and disillusionment. At that time, the models held by people in the Communist Party, people who had given their lives to Marxist politics, disintegrated. There were many different reactions to that. Some people felt that Marxism as a method of social analysis had been superseded by history, that we had reached a kind of “end of history” and “end of ideology”—that the best we could hope for was a more humane capitalism where there was at least the promise of social justice some place in the future.

It was during that time that C.L.R James began to have an even greater impact on how I understood the processes of social change in society. From James, I took the idea that the road forward for the Left in this country must be found in understanding and listening to the issues that people raise as problems of daily life, in their own circumstances, and in speaking a language that people can immediately understand—not talking down to people, but talking with them and learning from them. This was the great strength of the insight into radical democracy of people like James and the African revolutionary Amilcar Cabral.

I argued in my book Black liberation in Conservative America that the foundations of a politics of transformation have to be grounded in issues of work, community, and gender. Work—not just the site of production in the economistic sense—but the whole notion of creativity and production and labor, is a central site for resistance movements and organizing efforts. The site of gender struggles and community struggles is also essential. The tendency of the Old Left was to privilege class over community and gender in economistic ways. We have to see that the nexuses of the sites that connect these struggles that intersect these issues such as community and gender, or community and labor (for example, though living wage campaigns).

During this period, after the collapse of the Soviet model, a number of people gave up on socialism. I rethought the socialist project and emerged from the period thinking that socialism as a project of radical participatory democracy not only still made sense, it was the only humane future we could fight for. I think that what is required for the left is to overcome organizational parochialism and organizational forms that perpetuate divisions. There is a need for something like a secular, left of center, progressive version of the Christian Coalition. This would be a mass-based formation, not a formal political party, but a membership organization that advocates a progressive public policy agenda. Socialists and Marxists could operate freely in it, along with radical feminists and radical gay and lesbian activists. It would campaign for basic issues around public policy and program—public education, health care, housing—that can really move the movements forward. What is also needed is something like a reconstituted Left and a reconstituted Black liberation movement. Both would have to be developed around democratic principles and procedures, with a commitment to free and open debate, and focusing their energies and resources around significant national policy issues and social struggle.

How would you describe the state of Black politics?

When the Rainbow Coalition collapsed, it left a massive vacuum in Black politics. In the early 1990s, there was this whole phenomenon around Malcolm X. What that was about was the hip hop generation trying to articulate its rage, alienation, and militancy, but not finding a vehicle or a personality to express this. So they were forced to resuscitate someone to articulate what they felt today. That’s why “Malcolm mania” occurred. When the Malcolm mania died down, Louis Farrakhan, the head of the Nation of Islam, reemerged. Farrakhan understood that for the generation born after the civil rights movement, there was a deep pessimism about the possibility that American society could meaningfully address issues and concerns of Black people. In some respects, the Black community was divided generationally between the “we shall overcome” generation and the hip hop generation. For people born between the period of World War II to the early 1950s—we had witnessed revolutions, we had supported and been in solidarity with revolutions in the third world, with challenging and helping to oust from office the president of the United States, challenging Vietnam policy, challenging U.S. imperialism, defending Cuba, fighting for gay and lesbian rights, women’s rights, Black and Latino liberation. For people born after 1965 or 1970, it was a very different social outlook. The politician that they remember best, at least during their formative years, was Ronald Reagan. They had seen affirmative action under attack ever since the Bakke decision in 1978, which outlawed the use of racial quotas in admissions to professional schools. They had seen a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, pursue many policies that were to the right of Richard Nixon. So it’s not surprising that many young Black people felt that any kind of liberal or progressive possibility in the United States was null and void and that we had to turn inward into a politics of racial separation and racial essentialism. Farrakhan understood all of that.

When the Million Man March call went out in 1995, Black elected officials and the existing civil rights leadership were undercut by this tremendous notion. The problem is that Farrakhan has no program to challenge racism and no program to advance the movement. He was essentially the late 20th century version of Booker T. Washington. He was homophobic, anti-Semitic, deeply conservative, and patriarchal. He opposed women’s reproductive rights; he developed a political relationship with Lyndon Larouche; he traveled to Nigeria and embraced the junta that executed Ken Saro-Wiwa, the writer and Ogoni activist. He represented a kind of Black authoritarianism that can’t be tolerated and can’t be accepted as any kind of program to advance Black issues and interests. But as my mother always said, something always beats nothing. We had not put forward a model of political and social change to represent a viable alternative to Farrakhan among many African Americans.

What kind of response do you think was needed?

In early 1996, I began a series of discussions with a core of veteran activists: Bill Fletcher, who is now the education director for the AFL-CIO; Abdul Akalimat, a long-time socialist activist and leader of the Black studies movement; Barbara Ramsey, who emerged as a leader of the student movement at the University of Michigan in the 1980s and is today a prominent Black feminist and historian; and Leith Mullings, who is a well-known Marxist anthropologist and feminist. The five of us began talking about what is to be done in the Black movement. Partially as a result of these dialogues, there was an attempt to build the Black Radical Congress, which was intended to be a democratic membership organization of the Black Left and Black activists—of Black nationalists, democratic socialists, people in the labor movement, community-based groups, community activists, Marxists, all people who oppose what America’s capitalist economy has done. A series of organizational meetings took place in Chicago, Washington DC, Atlanta, and New York, culminating in a National Congress in Chicago.

Would the Congress be a multi-racial formulation?

It is a Black formation. In a racially stratified society, Black identity can become a basis for organizing collective movements of resistance. Any kind of analysis of American society has to begin with the great social divisions which from the beginning fostered social hierarchies of power and privilege and sets of dependent relations. The first division was between Europeans and non-Europeans, especially Black slaves and American Indians. The second was the division between labor and capital. The third was the gender stratification between men and women, the superiority granted to males by the weight of patriarchal law and property ownership, physical violence, and social control. Those three divisions all contributed to the historical construction of the United States, of the national identity of America, which is defined by whiteness. To challenge those great divisions one needs specific formations that draw on the collective memories and resistance movements of those who have been oppressed.

But the key in understanding their power is also in understanding their limited vision. Because there is not Black strategy for health care that can be addressed solely in New York City for providing decent public transportation for Latinos and Latinos alone; there’s no strategy that will clean up the environment for Pacific Island Americans alone. So we have to be aware of the power and importance of organizing not just around identity, but the materiality of daily life, which still in many respects is racialized for people of color. You build from that, but you have a grander social vision that transcends it and recognizes the strengths and limitations that are drawn from the particularity of identity.

How can we revitalize the socialist current in the Left?

Socialism lost its way largely when it became decoupled from the processes of democracy. My vision of a just society is one that is democratic, that allows people’s voices to be heard, where the people actually govern. CLR James sometimes used the slogan “every cook can govern” to speak to the concept that there should be no hierarchies of power between those who lead and their constituencies. Our challenge and task is not to construct a comprehensive blueprint for an alternative society. It is to in a small modest way speak to a vision of what society might look like if we didn’t have 43 million people without medical care; if we didn’t have a half a million people in the U.S. last year being turned away from an emerging health clinic because they had no health insurance; if you had a society where several million people didn’t sleep in the streets or were under-housed. That’s a vision that can be realized through struggle, but it must be a struggle that harnesses the capacities, the intelligence, the will, and the insights from our collective experiences. That’s what I mean by radical democracy. That’s why I’m a socialist—because I deeply believe that an ethical and a humane society is possible through struggle.


South End Press is an independent non-profit book publishing company run on the model of workplace democracy. It was co-founded in 1977/1978 by Michael Albert and Lydia Sargent.