Race, the National Question, Empire and Socialist Strategy in the USA

[Contribution to the Reimagining Society Project hosted by ZCommunications…]


Preface:  When envisioning a piece for this ZNet exchange I originally thought in terms of elaborating on a vision for socialism or the importance of raising the question of socialism in the context of the current intersection of crises (economic, environmental and of capitalist state legitimacy).  While I believe that such a discussion remains legitimate, the question of strategy and history looms over my thoughts, most especially, the weight of the history of racist oppression, national oppression and imperialism on the practice, consciousness and vision of the US Left.  For that reason, the following will suggest a framework in considering an approach toward socialist strategy in the USA.


          It should be noted that the observations and analyses offered here are not meant to be universal in their application.  This essay focuses on the nuances relative to strategy in the USA.  Certainly there are lessons that can be drawn that are applicable elsewhere just as there are international lessons that are applicable to the USA.  Nevertheless, this essay focuses on the problem of the construction of a radical/socialist Left in the USA that will have a chance to succeed.


          "Race" and empire continually emerge as factors that distort both the objectives of the US Left, but also distort the intermediate steps towards achieving said objectives.  In fact, as I have repeatedly argued, "race" in particular is the tripwire of US politics.  It is the feature of US politics that repeatedly unsettles and destabilizes progressive political movements.  Combined with empire, the US Left is remarkably different from other Lefts around the world, not just due to nationally-specific conditions, but due to the unevenness of the Left vision itself.


          A classic example of this problem is found in the work and life of the famous novelist Jack London.  Author of The Call of the Wild and The Iron Heel, London was an important socialist in the early 20th century, and is proudly declared as such by many white socialists to this day.  Yet London was a very contradictory figure.  While an open advocate of socialism, he saw no contradiction between his notions of "socialism" on the one hand, with white supremacy on the other (which, according to many critics, played itself out even in his heralded, The Iron Heel, the novel describing a fascist-like government and a socialist resistance).  London saw no contradiction in being in favor of socialism, yet a "socialism" for white people. 


          In the development of any Left strategy generally, and socialist strategy in particular, there must be recognition of the centrality of racism and national oppression in the USA.  This formulation is not aimed at suggesting that racism and national oppression are "more important" than other forms of oppression.  Rather, what is being suggested is that the history of the USA and its formation as a racist-settler capitalist state necessitates a proper understanding of the forces that hold the formation together and simultaneously serves to undermine insurgent social movements.  To put it another way, this is not about the perception of oppression; this is about the actuality of social contradictions and their implications for change.


Race and the Left


          It is almost a cliché to speak in terms of "race" as a socio-political construct, nevertheless, "race", as we have come to know it since the 1500s, is undeniably so.  For the purposes of this essay the critical features of an understanding of contemporary race and racism in the USA include:


Ø  The lack of scientific relationship to biology since there is only the human race.


Ø  The creation of categories of inferior and superior based upon arbitrary characteristics and definitions.


Ø  The creation and perpetuation of a system of oppression of the "inferior" group in all aspects.


Ø  The reinforcement of a relative differential in treatment—and its ideological justification—between those considered inferior and those considered superior.


Ø  The use of race as a principal means for social control.