Blog Posts


hate pictureby Ellen Isaacs

appearing on Counterpunch, November 7, 2018

We live in a nation totally beholden to racism. Founded on racism, built on racism, surviving by virtue of racism. From the near total eradication of Native Americans by disease, slaughter, and death marches; to the enslavement of 12 million Africans and the continued oppression, imprisonment, impoverishment and wanton killing of their descendants; to the exploitation and deportation of immigrants; to the Jews and Irish and Italians being eventually admitted into invented whiteness in order to turn them anti-black, but still maligned; to the wars fought against “gooks” and “ragheads” to increase rich men’s profits – US capitalism survives on racism. And the US that survives this way is not beneficial to any of its working people, tearing us apart from each other, impoverishing our souls and our pocketbooks, depriving us of health and learning and peace needed by all and the strength we could have in our oneness. Separated, we are likely to be led down the road to fascism.

Today we are witnessing national agonizing over the murder of 11 Jews, those only grudgingly admitted members of the white circle, although 6 million others were  slaughtered as the US did little and turned back escapees begging for refuge on the ship St. Louis. Nonetheless, we know all their names and have witnessed the funerals of these latest victims and shared the grief of their intimates. This is not regrettable, it is only in contrast deaths of the approximately 1000 killed by police each year, nearly half of whom are black or Latin (Atlantic, 5/8/18), about whom we learn little and mourn less.

Screenshot_2018-11-03 Hate crime victims in 2016

Despite these harsh words, it would be an error to seek a cause for these disparities in the sculpting of our brains or the failure of our morality. No, we live in a nation that needs racism and thus it is inserted purposefully deep into our souls in our neighborhoods, our classrooms, our media, our pulpits, our clinics, our labor unions –in most of our American experiences. This blog has many articles on the overt creation of racism (Lerone Bennett), and racism in housing, health care, immigration and migration, labor organizing and others areas our lives, things we are not taught and that are kept hidden from us.


Even today, wages and the opportunity to work remain vastly different by race. 51.3% of young black high school graduates are underemployed compared to 33.8% of whites; 23% of young black college graduates are unemployed vs. 12.9% of whites. 330,000 black high school graduates are not employed at all. ( Keep in mind that unemployment rates do not count workers who have been discouraged from looking for work for more than one year, although those numbers are tabulated, nor those who have given up after more than a year of unemployment. According to, the Labor Department even counts as employed someone who works as little as one hour a week and earns as little as $20 a week. The Federal Reserve finds that only one fifth of the difference between black and white can be accounted for by differences in education, age and location. (


2.3 million Americans are in prison, 59% of whom are black, Latin or native American – not “employed”, but providing free labor. Black and Latin workers who are acknowledged to be full time employees earn about 75% of the wages of white workers, disparities based on education, training, and differences in wages paid for the same work.


According to the Center for American Progress report Unequal Education of 2012, schools are just as segregated and unequal now as they were in 1954 when Brown vs Board of Education was decided. The average white student attends a school where 77% of students are white and 40% of black and Latin students attend schools where over 90% are non-white. Not only are students deprived of knowledge and kinship of each other, but schools with over 90% students of color spend $733 less per student per year than schools with 90% or more whites.


How do we accept these disparities in our own country? How do we not rise up against the death of over 10,000 Yemenis and starvation of half of the population? How do we explain our ability to accept the death of half a million Iraqis due to sanctions before the invasion even started? How do we turn away from the deaths of thousands of Gazans imprisoned in their illegal concentration camp? How do we explain the assignment of troops to go to the border and threaten migrating families fleeing the ravages of US imperialism? We can only explain it by racism, and without that racism this government, under Democrat or Republican, would not be able to maintain profits at home or wield its imperialist might around the world.


So let us mourn all of those who die by violence or die young or die by neglect perpetrated by the ruling class or those whom they win to carry out their racist policies. Let us celebrate  times we have fought together, in many union battles, in Selma, in Ferguson, in Charlottesville and many, many more. Let we who work, whether builder or waiter or teacher or unemployed, unite together in every way, in every struggle, in all our mourning, in all our resistance and continue together until we found a world based on equality, one that seeks to provide the fullest life for all. Not a capitalist world, for sure.

How We Can Support the Caravan and Fight Racist Terror

5ed6324758d64391b97eabe8dee21718_18by Karyn Pomerantz, Nov. 1, 2018

As we write, thousands of men, women and children are traveling to the southern U.S. border with Mexico. The largest group of the migrants who make up the “caravan” are from Honduras. They are fleeing poverty, corruption and violence that is largely the result of over 100 years of US domination, beginning with massive banana plantations. This American business took over most of the best land, and later the US came to dominate mining, coffee and banking as well. To keep its interests safe and also play a role in fighting the Sandanista rebels in neighboring Nicaragua in the 1970s, the US developed and dominated the military. Although a liberal reformer, Zelaya was elected in 2006, the military, with US support, overthrew him in 2009. Since then, poverty, crime, drug trafficking and police violence have driven ever more people to flee.

These conditions are not unlike those in other Latin American countries, such as El Salvador and Guatemala, from which migrants also come. Similar conditions also account for the over 200 million migrants currently seeking a survivable place to settle around the world. While each country has its own specific causes for migration, from wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria to hopeless poverty in Pakistan, India, and Somalia, these migrations reflect the drive for cheap labor, resources, and markets by the major capitalist countries, topped by the US. For decades, the US has off-loaded its manufacturing industries to countries with un-living wages, impoverishing workers in the US and other countries, especially exploiting black, Latin, and Asian people. (See Migration: a reflection of capitalism in this blog at

Rulers around the globe, from Trump to Modi in India, Bolsonaro in Brazil, and Orban in Hungary, use racism and nationalism to attack migrants and blame them for society’s ills. These ideas are not different from those of white supremacists who have murdered blacks, Jews and anti-racists from Charlottesville to Kentucky to Pittsburgh, encouraged by the White House. For most African Americans, racist terror began under slavery never stopped. Klan and Nazi organizations have flourished throughout US history, blaming black and Jewish people for the economic and social problems created by capitalism.

We have also seen powerful movements to fight racism and inequality around the world, from revolutions in Russia and China, reforms in Cuba, anti-colonial movements in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and the civil rights movement in the US. With the murders of black and Jewish people this past week and the growing Administration threats against the caravan, many are asking what we can do to oppose these trends. The following proposes some ideas. You can use the Comments section to add your own suggestions.


  Mass at the border to greet and protect the caravan. Stop the police and military from arresting and shooting the marchers with massive action.

  Speak up against racist and nationalist ideas. There are no such entities as “illegal” people or “invaders.” There are no distinct human races with different capabilities. Jewish people do not control US policy; they are rich and poor, conservative and radical.

  If you are in the armed forces, refuse to follow orders to detain or attack people trying to cross the border.

  Refuse to work in a detention center which imprisons migrants.

  Join the sanctuary movement and find placements for immigrants and oppose deportations.

  Organize demonstrations and vigils against deportations and racist violence.

  Confront white supremacists wherever they rally.

  Forge friendships and political alliances with people from different backgrounds. Fight for each other’s issues, such as open borders and against police violence, to grow the anti-racist movements and build trust.

  Build a stronger, inclusive labor movement to organize for better working conditions and to unite US born workers with immigrants. During the early 20th Century, the AFL (American Federation of Labor) opposed immigration fearing that Eastern European and Mexican workers would take “American” jobs and spread communist ideas. The CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) organized immigrant workers during the 1930s; immigrant women working in the garment industry created the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, one of the most militant unions in that period. Mexican workers organized the United Farmworkers Union in California led by Cesar Chavez and Delores Huerta and struck big agriculture for better wages and safer working conditions. Thousands supported the grape boycott to pressure growers to recognize the union (California has the strongest labor movement in the US with 22 percent of the workforce unionized while the national average is 11 percent).

   Support immigrants on the job. Unions can oppose “reverification” actions where ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) can demand to see the immigration status of employees. Many unions have represented workers caught by this policy and lobbied against it in California.

   Defend Immigrants with sanctuary places, legal aid, and amassing people at sites where raids occur and at the border. The meatpackers union exemplified fighting racism off the job when they defended black residents who moved into segregated Chicago neighborhoods during the Great Migration. They also guaranteed that black union members serve on the executive boards and other leadership positions.

  Reject anti-communism when it is used to attack mass struggle. Communists built the CIO and led many labor struggles in the shipping, garment, and meatpacking industries among others. The Russian Revolution in 1917 inspired people around the world to challenge capitalism and build a more equitable society. Important anti-racist communists in the US, such as Paul Robeson, William Patterson, and Claudia Jones, led campaigns to free the Scottsboro boys, falsely accused of raping a white woman, abolish racist ideas, publish progressive newspapers, support international anticolonial struggles, and build antiracist organizations.


  Do not remain silent in the face of racist speech or acts.

  Do not defend or excuse racist speech as “free speech”. Fascists use free speech principles to recruit members and build deadly movements.

  Do not adopt nationalism and separatism as a response to racism and anti- Semitism. For example, Zionists in Israel use the history of the Nazi holocaust, which murdered six million Jews, to justify oppression of Palestinians.  Farrakhan, a black nationalist, voices hate against Jewish people.

  Do not allow violent racist attacks to be portrayed as “not the American way.” Violence and white supremacy instigated by a small financial elite have always dominated American domestic and foreign policy, from the war against Britain, enslavement, colonizing South America and Asia to conducting the current wars in the Middle East and exploiting globalized labor.

  Do not think that voting out Trump and the Republicans will end deportations. Obama deported more immigrants (3.5 million people by 2012) than all previous administrations. The police have murdered black and Latin citizens with impunity under liberal and conservative administrations.

Capitalists and the politicians who represent them need cheap labor to maintain profits, and the super-exploitation of immigrants, as well as women and non-white workers, helps maximize profits. Immigrants are also scapegoated and blamed for many problems, like unemployment.

We must not allow white supremacists to build their movement attacking workers of color, native born or immigrant. We need to unite students, employed and unemployed, immigrant and US born from all backgrounds to oppose racist ideas and practices. As Ibram Kendi writes in Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (Epilogue): 
“Racial reformers have customarily requested or demanded that … White Americans sacrifice their own privilege for the betterment of Black people… based on a myth that racism materially benefits the majority of White people, that White people would not gain in… an anti-racist America…. It is also true that a society of equal opportunity would actually benefit the vast majority of White people much more than racism does. 
…eradicating racism must involve Americans committed to antiracist policies seizing and maintaining power … over the world.”

We have an opportunity to realize this potential to create a more equal world. But we must fight racism every day.

Kavanaugh – The Tip of the Iceberg

By Karyn Pomerantz, October 16, 2018

Kava nopeThe Kavanaugh hearings and his confirmation as a Supreme Court justice have opened a floodgate of women’s stories of rape and sexual harassment, building on the many recent accounts from the #MeToo movement.  Kavanaugh’s arrogant behavior represents the entitled status of ruling class men who wield their power without consideration for anyone except corporate and right wing politicians.  His danger extends beyond his individual actions to the realm of policy:

  • support for the Patriot Act and torture,
  • opposition to abortion,
  • threats to end the pre-existing condition protection in the Affordable Care Act,
  • support for the public charge policy that would deny immigrants’ use of federal benefits, such as Medicaid and food stamps, whether they were here legally or not
  • support for the detention of immigrants years after they were charged with a crime no matter how minor,
  • support for adding a citizenship question to the 2020 US Census.

His nomination represents the ruling class’ assault on the social safety net with Trump leading the way.

The hearings revealed how the power elite tries to shame and intimidate women into silence.  According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, sixty-three percent (63%) of the people who are raped do not report the crime while only 12 percent of child sexual abuse is reported. One in five women and 1 in 16 men are sexually assaulted while in college, yet over 90% of students do not report the assault. Sexual violence also occurs in same sex relationships.  Over 46 percent of lesbians, 75 percent of bisexual women, 40 percent of gay men, and 47 percent of bisexual men reported forms of sexual violence (NSVRC, Statistics About Sexual Violence, Viewed 10-9-2018).


Racism has always been used to depict black men as hyper-sexual violent rapists (of white women) yet black men have a lower rate of rape than white men. (RAINN, Perpetrators of Sexual Violence: Statistics, Viewed 10-13-18).  Among women raped, 17.7 percent were white and 18.8 percent are black. Native Americans have the highest rate of rape, twice the rate of any other groups (RAINN, Victims of Sexual Violence: Statistics, Viewed 10-13-18).

While rape is one of the severest forms of violence, there are many other assaults on women’s health and well-being, that disproportionately affect black and Latinx women:

  • High maternal and infant mortality rates
  • Immigration policies of detention, deportation, public charge policies, and migration caused by severe poverty and violence
  • Poor access to health care, abortion and contraception in many areas
  • Economic exploitation by employers; women make 80 percent of white men’s earnings while black and Latinx women earn even less
  • Economic exploitation in the home providing unpaid domestic labor
  • No access to education and expensive school fees that push girls to engage in sex for money in many countries
  • High rates of HIV

kav fight for 15While the media highlights white middle class women in #MeToo, poor women working in fast food, hotels, and factories have joined efforts to prevent sexual harassment.  USA Today reports that workers at McDonald’s filed a suit, and some city councils are passing policies against sexual violence ( September 2018. Viewed 10-13-18).

Legislative and electoral strategies cannot eradicate sexism; it is too profitable due to women’s lower wages and free household labor.

Women have long fought their oppression, demanding equal pay, education, health care, reproductive rights, and political participation.  During the 19th Century in the US, women rebelled against slavery and organized for voting rights.  Women in the Lowell, Massachusetts textile mills led the first strike to demand better conditions and wages.  They played significant roles in the civil rights movement during the early and mid 20th Century, holding leadership positions in SNCC and CORE, two mass anti-racist organizations.  Black women, such as Lucy Parsons, Louise Thompson, and Claudia Jones, advocated for socialism and communism and defended the Scottsboro Boys, who were falsely convicted of raping a white woman in the South in the 1930s.  Many immigrant women led the union organizing drives in the garment, farmworkers and textile industries in the late 19th Century and the first half of the 20th Century.

kav chinese womenIn the newly launched Soviet Union, Alexandra Kollantai and other communists established communal kitchens and housekeeping to alleviate the burdens of domestic labor.  Women also joined and led the revolutionary liberation struggles in China, Vietnam, and South Africa.

Hundreds of women teachers went out on strike in West Virginia in 2018 to demand funding for education and a living wage, and women are joining unions and struggles to raise the minimum wage in the Fight for $15 campaign. Recently, women initiated Black Lives Matter and MeToo!. More women have entered political races for local office since the Trump election.  Hundreds of women protested Kavanaugh’s nomination and confirmation to the Supreme Court risking arrest to do so.

Racism Weakens the Women’s Movement

While the civil rights struggle inspired women’s activism during the 1960s and 1970s, leaders of the women’s movement marginalized and ignored the specific needs of working class and black, Latinx, Asian, and Native women.  Racism weakened the movement for women’s liberation by separating women based on their racial classification and economic status, and choosing a more narrow set of demands and issues that appealed to middle class educated white women.  This was not new.

White women suffragists threw black women under the bus in 1869.  Trying to win support for voting rights from Southern Democrats, they excluded black women and their issues in their movement, prioritizing women’s issues over racial justice.  The Fifteenth Amendment allowed voting for black men but denied this to women. Suffrage leaders Stanton and Anthony lashed out at black men, accusing them of illiteracy and the inability to understand political issues.  (Men often accused women of the same problems).  When Frederick Douglass offered a compromise that would allow voting for any excluded group, Stanton and Anthony rejected it.

kav black and white unity signThe dissension broke the suffrage movement at this time, which was only renewed decades later.  In 1913 suffragists led by Alice Paul and others organized a parade of 5,000 women down Pennsylvania Ave in Washington, DC to promote voting rights. Yet they relegated black suffragists to the end of the march!  Using arguments popular through US history, they did not want to alienate Southern participants but they themselves held the same attitudes (Kendi I. Stamped from the Beginning. NY: Nation Press, 2016).

In 1963, Betty Frieden’s immensely popular book, The Feminine Mystique, addressed middle class white women’s oppression as free household labor and advocated for equal rights for professional women in the workplace.  There was no acknowledgement of white and non-white working class women’s needs.  She and other women established the National Organization of Women (NOW), and developed and promoted the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) with demands for non-discriminatory employment opportunities, maternity leave, child care, abortion, and contraceptives. NOW, led by Friedan, proposed an electoral, legislative approach to winning the ERA that led to opportunistic compromises.   ERA proponents eliminated many provisions in the ERA to gain wider support among state legislators.  As it became clear that NOW did not fight for black women, many left the organization (Smith S. Women and Socialism. Chicago: Haymarket, 2016).

Don’t Trust the Liberals-Build a Mass Militant Movement

NOW’s reliance on electoral politics rather than building a mass movement doomed it to failure.  It supported Bill Clinton who demolished welfare for poor women, advocated sexual abstinence, and opposed gay marriage.  Obama extended the Hyde Act banning federal funds, such as Medicaid, to pay for abortions to the Affordable Care Act.  Yet NOW and moderate women’s groups clung to the Democratic Party.

kav women's lib marchMore radical women renounced this incremental strategy.  They staged demonstrations against labor practices and cultural norms, such as beauty pageants, bridal showers and prevailing standards of beauty.  The Boston Women’s Health Collective wrote Our Bodies, Ourselves to teach women about their health, sexuality, and birth control, criticizing the medical establishment for medicalizing women’s conditions.  The book addressed women in other countries and the racism experienced by US women.  Thousands read the book; it is still in print today

Marxists condemned capitalism as the source of sexism in the United States and opposed US imperialist wars while the conservative leaders of the Feminist Majority led by Eleanor Smeal supported the war in Afghanistan as an opportunity to liberate women there.


During the 1960s and 1970s, separatism of men and women became popular.  Feminists accused all men as the source of sexism, blaming the “patriarchy” or male supremacy as the cause of women’s oppression. Many men adopted the ideology of male supremacy and the so-called ideal of masculinity, such as hyper-sexuality, aggression, and heterosexual orientation, traits used to justify sexual violence. Black men were seen as especially threatening to women.

Black women feminists opposed separatism, arguing that feminists needed to combat racism as well as women’s oppression.  They developed the concept of intersectionality in the 1970s put forward by Kimberle Crenshaw (See blog post on Intersectionality, October 2018, ), acknowledging that women (and men) experience multiple forms of exploitation, especially racism.  While sexist practices, such as rape or fewer job promotions, affect all groups of women, black, Asian, Latinx, and Native women suffer much more.  They could not ignore the effects of racism on men and women.

The Cohambee River Collective of black feminists led by Barbara and Betty Smith published the Cohambee statement that pledged their solidarity with black men:

kav cohambee statement“… we feel solidarity with progressive black men and do not advocate the fractionalization that white women who are separatists demand… we struggle together with black men against racism while we also struggle with black men about sexism.

These lessons can guide the current generations of young men and women to build an inclusive movement based on class: solidarity among workers and opposition to capitalism.  Reject the Democrats and voting as the way out; they will only use us to preserve this system.”


See more about sexism at:



by Ellen Isaacs

Stamped From the Beginning by Ibram Kendi is indeed, as it claims to be, a very complete history of the origin and practice of anti-black racism in the United States. The story begins with the development of racist ideas of African inferiority as the rationale for the capture and brutalization of Africans for enslavement by the Portugese in the 1400s. The author then traces the history of the importation of these racist ideas to the Americas to justify slavery and the continuation of discrimination to this day.


What is particularly thought provoking is the author’s characterization of seemingly non-racist ideas as being all too often actually racist in content, ideas which he characterizes as “assimilationist.” Assimilationists hold the idea that black behavior is inferior and attribute this inferiority to environmental factors, such as climate, culture, poverty or discrimination. In other words, the standards and culture of the predominant white society are assumed to be superior and the failure of blacks adopt that standard must be explained and overcome. Until twenty years ago, when DNA mapping proved we are all one species with more individual than group variation, most subscribed to the view of black and white being biologically distinct groups. Assimilationists, however, even now see blacks as a whole having less desirable traits than whites. Anti-racists, on the other hand, recognize disparities that result from ever-present discrimination, but do not see black people as having been rendered inferior. They see blacks as individuals, who each harbor strengths and weaknesses, but deny that there is any such thing as group traits that can be attributed to all or even many blacks.


Kendi also wishes to make clear the causes of racist ideas. He disputes the oft-repeated concept that racism arises out of ignorance or inborn human proclivities, which then cause discrimination. Conversely, racial discrimination leads to racist ideas, and then to ignorance and hate. Racial discrimination springs from “economic, political, and cultural self-interest…Capitalists seeking to increase profit margins have primarily created and defended discriminatory policies out of economic self-interest.”(pp 7-8). In his conclusion, he reiterates that “If racism is eliminated, many white people in the top economic and political brackets fear that it would eliminate one of the most effective tools they have at their disposal to conquer and control and exploit not only non-whites, but also both low-income and middle-income white people.” (p508) Thus it is a matter of power, not the lack of education or moral betterment, that maintains the sway of racist ideas. “Power cannot be educated away from its self-interest.”


In between these broad statements about racism are 500 pages of details of American history, many of which will be familiar to our readers, but some not. It is interesting to recall that William Lloyd Garrison, a leading abolitionist of the early 1800s, fought for an immediate end to slavery but only gradual equality, reflecting the common belief that blacks had been rendered so incapable of thought and judgment by their bondage as to be unable to function independently. Others proposed removal of ex-slaves to Africa or other distant lands – colonization – feeling that they could never be equal citizens in the U.S. As to the path to liberation, Garrison opposed violence, such as Nat Turner’s slave rebellion, and hoped that moral persuasion would end the heinous practice of slavery.


Frederick Douglass, a runaway slave and the leading 19th century black abolitionist, saw the need for black organizing, but thought that the environment of Africa and the experience of slavery had made the black man into a socially and morally inferior being. After completing his education at Harvard, he believed that some blacks could equal whites through education, what Kendi calls “upward suasion,” and that most white Americans could be rid of racist ideas through their own education. Thus he simultaneously harbored anti-racist, assimilationist, and upward suasion ideas.


Abraham Lincoln, the politician credited with the actual end of slavery, did not see the Civil War as a struggle to end that practice, nor had he a belief in black equality. In 1862, Lincoln said, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union.”(p219) The actual Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 freed about 50,000 slaves in Union occupied Confederate states, but continued slavery for nearly half a million in border states, in order to woo their owners to Union loyalty.(p221) Lincoln also favored colonization of freed slaves to either Haiti or Liberia, feeling that the black race could never be equal to the white. Only with the end of the Civil War and the 13th Amendment were all slaves finally liberated. Thus the circumstance of Lincoln’s presidency during this tumultuous struggle for national unity has endowed his legacy with anti-racist content, when he was actually a racist opponent of slavery.


Many other anti-racists, such as W.E.B. Dubois, Malcolm X and Angela Davis are profiled in depth in these pages, more than we can delve into here. But a portrait very relevant to the present is Barack Obama, the embodiment of racial reconciliation, the usher of the post-racial society. Although the Democratic Party had expected Hillary Clinton to be its nominee, Obama’s skilldul oratory and optimistic call for change captured the electorate. He first had to confront anti-racist ideas when his friend, the pastor Jeremiah Wright, was quoted as saying, “The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing ‘God Bless America’. No, no, no…God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human.”(p490) Obama described Wright as having a “profoundly distorted view,” and explained that because of discrimination blacks had disrupted families and defeatist attitudes. He blamed the poor attitudes of young black people for leading them to unproductive lives as opposed to fewer opportunities and little wealth resulting from discrimination. Although Obama often called for an end to discriminatory practices, he just as often called for an end to poor black behavior. The millions who had been thrilled by the advent of the first black president were immersed in the illusion of the end of racism, a wish far-removed from reality, as that president promoted assimilationist and not anti-racist views.

multiracial pic

Kendi is clear that a “society of equal opportunity,without a top 1 per cent hoarding the wealth and power, would actually benefit the vast majority of white people much more than racism does”. (p504) He disparages the concept of white privilege and declares it in the interest of whites to be free of racism – “altruism is not required.” However, it is a weakness of the book that does not make the point that the anti-racist movement must be multiracial, both in membership and leadership. He does not critique the rising tendency for organizations founded by black anti-racists, such as Black Lives Matter, to become nationalist and exclusionary of anti-racist whites, perhaps a reason they are funded by the ruling class (Soros and the Ford Foundation in this case). No movement can be large enough or strong enough to threaten the power of the 1% unless it is multiracial. Nor can we overcome the trenches of separation dug deep between us unless we organize and fight together. Kendi does say that protests are not enough and must be part of a larger strategy to alter the structure of power. But for simply learning what happened on the journey of racism and thinking about what racism really means, this is a highly worthwhile volume.


Intersectionality: A Marxist Critique

by Barbara Foley, September 26, 2018

This is a slightly revised version of an article with this title that appeared in Science & Society 82, 2 (April 2018): 269-75.

intersectionality graphic2  Intersectionality, a way of thinking about the nature and causes of social inequality, proposes that the effects of multiple forms of oppression are cumulative and, as the term suggests, interwoven.  Not only do  racism, sexism, homophobia, disablism, religious bigotry, and so-called “classism” wreak pain and harm in the lives of many people, but any two or more of these types of oppression can be experienced simultaneously in the lives of given individuals or demographic sectors.  According to the intersectional model, it is only by taking into account the complex experiences of many people who are pressed to the margins of mainstream society that matters of social justice can be effectively addressed.  In order to assess the usefulness of intersectionality as an analytical model and practical program, however—and, indeed, to decide whether or not it can actually be said to be a “theory,” as a number of its proponents insist—we need to ask not only what kinds of questions it encourages and remedies, but also what kinds of questions it discourages and what kinds of remedies it forecloses.

It is standard procedure in discussions of intersectionality to cite important forebears—from Sojourner Truth to Anna Julia Cooper, from Alexandra Kollontai to Claudia Jones to the Combahee River Collective—but then to zero in on the work of the legal theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw, who first coined and explicated the term in the late 1980s.  Concerned with overcoming the discriminatory situation faced by African American women workers at General Motors, Crenshaw demonstrated the inadequacy of existing categories denoting gender and race as grounds for legal action, since these could not be mobilized simultaneously in the case of a given individual: you had to be either a woman or nonwhite, but not both at the same time.   Crenshaw famously developed the metaphor of a crossroads of two avenues, one denoting race, the other gender, to make the point that accidents occurring at the intersection could not be attributed to solely one cause; it took motion along two crossing roads to make an accident happen (Crenshaw, 1989).

While Crenshaw’s model ably describes the workings of what the African American feminist writer Patricia Hill Collins has termed a “matrix of oppressions,” the model’s spatial two-dimensionality points to its inadequacy as an explanation of why this “matrix” exists in the first place (Collins, 1990).  Who created these avenues?  Why would certain people be traveling down them?  Where were they constructed, and when?  The spatial model discourages questions like these. The fact that the black women in question are workers who earn at best modest wages, but make the bosses of General Motors (GM) very rich, is simply taken as a given.  That is, to return to the metaphor of intersecting roads, the ground on which the roads have been built is a given, not even called into question.  While Crenshaw succeeded in demonstrating that the GM workers had been subjected to double discrimination—no doubt a legal outcome of considerable value to the women she represented—her model for analysis and compensation was confined to the limits of the law. As the Marxist-feminist theorist Delia Aguilar has ironically noted, class was not even an “actionable” category for the workers in question (Aguilar, 2015, 209).

Although intersectionality can usefully describe the effects of multiple oppressions, I propose, it does not offer an adequate explanatory framework for addressing the root causes of social inequality in the capitalist socioeconomic system. In fact, intersectionality can pose a barrier when one begins to ask other kinds of questions about the reasons for inequality—that is, when one moves past the discourse of “rights” and institutional policy, which presuppose the existence of social relations based upon the private ownership of the means of production and the exploitation of labor.

Gender, race and class:—the “contemporary holy trinity,” as Terry Eagleton once called them (Eagleton, 1986, 82), or the “trilogy,” in Martha Gimenez’s phrase (Gimenez, 2001)—how do these categories correlate with one another? If gender, race and class are analytical categories, are they commensurable (that is, similar in kind), or distinct?  Can their causal roles be situated in some kind of hierarchy, or are they, by virtue of their “interlocked” and simultaneous operations, of necessity basically equivalent to one another as causal “factors”?

When I ask these questions, I am not asserting that a black female auto worker is black on Monday and Wednesday, female on Tuesday and Thursday, a proletarian on Friday, and—for good measure—a Muslim on Saturday.  (We’ll leave Sunday for another selfhood of her choosing.)  (For a version of this rather clever formulation I am indebted to Kathryn Russell [Russell, 2007].)  But I am proposing that some kinds of causes take priority over others—and, moreover, that, while gender, race and class can be viewed as comparable identities, they in fact require quite different analytical approaches.  Here is where the Marxist claim for the explanatory superiority of a class analysis comes into the mix, and the distinction between oppression and exploitation becomes crucially important.  Oppression, as Gregory Meyerson puts it, is indeed multiple and intersecting, producing experiences of various kinds; but its causes are not multiple but singular (Meyerson, 2000).  That is, “race” does not cause racism; gender does not cause sexism.  But the ways in which “race” and gender—as modes of oppression–have historically been shaped by the division of labor can and should be understood within the explanatory framework supplied by class analysis, which foregrounds the issue of exploitation, that is, of the profits gained from the extraction of what Marx called “surplus value” from the labor of those who produce the things that society needs.  (In considering the historical division of labor along lines of gender, we need to go back to the origins of monogamous marriage, as Friedrich Engels argued in On the Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State.  The historical division of labor along lines of “race” is largely traceable to the age of colonialism, imperialism, and modern chattel slavery [Fields and Fields; Baptist].)  If class analysis is ignored, as Eve Mitchell points out, categories for defining types of identity that are themselves the product of exploited labor end up being taken for granted and, in the process, legitimated (Mitchell, 2013).

exploitation       An effective critique of the limitations of intersectionality hinges upon the formulation of a more robust and materialist understanding of social class than is usually allowed: not class as an identity or an experiential category, but class analysis as a mode of structural explanation.  In the writings of Karl Marx, “class” figures in several ways.  At times, as in the chapter on “The Working Day” in Volume I of Capital, it is an empirical category, one inhabited by children who inhale factory dust, men who lose fingers in power-looms, women who drag barges, and slaves who pick cotton in the blazing sun (Marx, 1990, 340-416).   All these people are oppressed as well as exploited.  But most of the time, for Marx, class is a relationship, a social relation of production; that is why, in the opening chapter of Capital, he can talk about the commodity, with its odd identity as a conjunction of use value and exchange value, as an embodiment of irreconcilable class antagonisms.  To assert the priority of a class analysis is not to claim that a worker is more important than a homemaker, or even that the worker primarily thinks of herself as a worker; indeed, based on her personal experience with spousal abuse or police brutality, she may well think of herself more as a woman, or a black person.  It is to propose, however, that the ways in which productive human activity is organized—and, in class-based society, compels the mass of the population to be divided up into various categories in order to insure that the many will be divided from one another and will labor for the benefit of the few—this class-based organization constitutes the principal issue requiring investigation if we wish to understand the roots of social inequality.  To say this is not to “reduce” gender or “race” to class as modes of oppression. It is, rather, to insist that the distinction between exploitation and oppression makes possible an understanding of the material (that is, socially grounded) roots of oppressions of various kinds.  It is also to posit that “classism,” a frequently heard term, is a deeply flawed concept.  For this term often views class to a set of prejudiced attitudes, equivalent to ideologies of racism and sexism.  As a Marxist, I say that we need more, not less, class-based antipathy.

In closing, I suggest that intersectionality is less valuable as an explanatory framework than as an ideological reflection of the times in which it has moved into prominence (see Wallis, 2015).  These times—extending back several decades now—have been marked by several interrelated developments.  One is the world-historical (if in the long run temporary) defeat of movements to set up and consolidate worker-run egalitarian societies, primarily in China and the USSR.  Another—hardly independent of the first—is the neoliberal assault upon the standard of living of the world’s workers, as well as upon those unions that have historically supplied a ground for a class-based and class-conscious resistance to capital.  The growing regime of what has been called “flexible accumulation” (Harvey, 1990, 141-72), which fragments the workforce into gig and precarious economies of various kinds, has accompanied and consolidated this capitalist assault on the working class, not just in the US but around the world.  For some decades now, a political manifestation of these altered economic circumstances has been the emergence of “New Social Movements” positing the need for pluralist coalitions around a range of non-class-based reform movements rather than resistance to capitalism.  Central to all these developments has been the “retreat from class,” a phrase originated by Ellen Meiksins Wood (Wood, 1986); in academic circles, this has been displayed in attacks on Marxism as a class-reductionist “master narrative” in need of supplementation by a range of alternative methodologies (Laclau and Mouffe).

fish unitedThese and related phenomena have for some time now constituted the ideological air that we breathe; intersectionality is in many ways a reflection of, and reaction to, these economic and political developments. Those of us who look to intersectionality for a comprehension of the causes of the social inequalities that grow more intense every day, here in the US and around the world, would do much better to seek analysis and remedy in an antiracist, antisexist, and internationalist revolutionary Marxism: a Marxism that envisions the communist transformation of society in the not too distant future.

Works Cited

Aguilar, Delia. 2015. “Intersectionality.” In Mojab, 203-220.


Baptist, Edward E. The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.  New York: Basic Books. 2014.


Collins, Patricia Hill. 1990. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment.  New York: Routledge.


Crenshaw, Kimberlé. 1989. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Discrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Practice.”  University of Chicago Legal Forum 89:139-67.


Eagleton, Terry.  1986. Against the Grain: Selected Essays 1975-1985.  London: Verso.


Engels, Friedrich. On the Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State.  New York: International Publishers. 1972.


Fields, Karen E., and Barbara J. Fields.  Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life. London: Verso. 2014.


Gimenez, Martha.  2001. “Marxism and Class, Gender and Race: Rethinking the Trilogy.” Race, Gender & Class 8, 2: 22-33.


Harvey, David.  1990. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the origins of Cultural Change.  Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.


Laclau, Ernesto, and Chantal Mouffe.  Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. 2nd ed. London: Verso. 2001.


Marx, Karl.  1990. Capital. Vol. 1.  Trans. Ben Fowkes. London: Penguin.


Meyerson, Gregory.  2000. “Rethinking Black Marxism: Reflections on Cedric Robinson and Others.”  Cultural Logic 3(2). Accessed 18 May 2016.


Mitchell, Eve. 2013. “I Am a Woman and a Human: A Marxist Feminist Critique of Intersectionality Theory.” marxist-feminist-critique-of-intersectionality-theory/.


Mojab, Shahrzad. 2015. Marxism and Feminism.  London: ZED Books.


Russell, Kathryn.  2007. “Feminist Dialectics and Marxist Theory.” Radical Philosophy Review 10, 1: 33-54.


Smith, Sharon.  n.d. “Black Feminism and Intersectionality.” International Socialist Review #91.


Wallis, Victor.  2015. “Intersectionality’s Binding Agent: The Political Primacy of Class.” New Political Science 37, 4: 604-619.


Wood, Ellen Meiksins.  1986. The Retreat from Class: A New “True” Socialism.  London: Verso.



By Alan J. Spector, edited by Karyn Pomerantz, September 23, 2018

This abridged article describes the life of an SDS organizer during the 1960s student anti-war and anti-racist movements.  For the complete article, see Cultural Logic: Marxist Theory & Practice 2013, pp. 240-277.

This essay is about building a movement against exploitation and oppression, the need for anti-elitist, pro-working class strategy and tactics, and leadership from those most exposed to imperialism in the poorer countries and racial/ethnic minorities in the rich countries. The importance of female leadership is interwoven into the overall struggle to overcome all forms of capitalist/exploitative thought within the movement.

SDS buttonThe rise of a massive oppositional movement among college students to U.S. imperialism and its subsequent decline came out of the internal contradictions inherent in modern imperialist society. This essay is informed by my participation and observation in U.S. society, in the campus anti-war and anti-racist movements at the University of Wisconsin in the 1960s, as a full-time travelling organizer and active participant in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and by participation and analysis of the campus movement as both an activist and a sociology professor over the past few decades.

This short article, however, can, in no way, be considered any sort of comprehensive history of the 1960s, or SDS, nor even as a memoir.

What Was Going On During the 1960s?

On the economic level, capitalism’s cycle of growth, overproduction, falling rate of profit, imperialism, international stagnation, inter-imperialist competition and war was unfolding as it has done periodically. The standard of living of the US working class in general, including of the black working class, improved through the mid-1960s, and the economic contradiction would only begin to significantly sharpen in the early 1970s.  On the cultural level, a contradiction emerges when a class society becomes preoccupied with consumption of consumer goods in a way that leads many, including youth, to feel that the opiate of consumption actually increases alienation even as it pretends to assuage it.

The most glaring contradiction in U.S. society in the early 1960s was the persistence of legalized racial segregation and discrimination. The dominant ideology of that time, consistent with a kind of “anti-working class, racist optimism” was that capitalism was not the problem, but that certain groups were “culturally deprived” for whatever reasons and that with proper education and “uplifting” their lives could be improved and they could contribute more to society. But it was the explicit, legalized discrimination against black people that was the first major crack, the first loose thread which when pulled, exposed the flaws of the whole fabric of society. This was AMERICA – the USA – and people could not eat in restaurants, use washrooms in public buildings, nor even attend public colleges for which they paid taxes? Nor even vote? And dogs were attacking protesters; children were killed in a church?

sds harlem rebellionIn the fall of 1964, at University of California, Berkeley, hundreds of students were arrested for trying to raise money for civil rights organizations and peacefully sitting in, in defense of that right, and the reality and possibility of widespread student protests became an option for thousands of previously complacent students. There had been other smaller protests – a nearby one against the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in San Francisco where mainly youth were attacked with fire hoses. In New York City, the Progressive Labor Party (PLP) held a small demonstration against the as-yet small Vietnam War and also played an important role in the Harlem Rebellion, which was the first such rebellion in decades. Other small socialist groups were organizing on different campuses and there were left-liberals critical of aspects of U.S. capitalism that were teaching at major universities. But when thousands of students surrounded that police car in Berkeley and eight hundred were arrested at the sit-in that was a turning point for the movement. The connection between the black-led civil rights movement in the South and the protests at Berkeley was crucial. Many of the organizers at Berkeley had been trained (“learning by doing and experience”) in the struggles in the South.  This “learning by doing” combined with a profound sense of betrayal at the “contradiction” between the myth of American democracy and the denial of free speech, especially on behalf of oppressed black people, confused and enraged tens of thousands all over the United States. Not only was the university defending the racists, but the intense physical brutality of the police – beating students, breaking arms, all for a minor “trespass” charge – was like ice water in the face of many youth. The sense of betrayal was all the more intense because so many were saying: “This is America. With its flaws, it is still the richest, most free country. We trust America. How could America do this to us?” And that raised questions about what else “America” might be doing.

In the midst of the civil rights protests and the awareness of the reluctance of the federal government to protect basic human rights, the military concocted a lie in the summer of 1964 that a U.S. ship was attacked in international waters by a ship from North Vietnam. Vaguely worded resolutions in Congress and the Senate giving the President open-ended authority to pursue a major war in South Vietnam and North Vietnam were passed overwhelmingly, with little protest from the American people, and the North Vietnamese base from which the nonexistent “attack ship” came was bombed. That seemed to be the end of it. Then in February 1965, President Johnson announced a major escalation of the war, including bombing the supposedly “sovereign” North Vietnam and committing tens of thousands of troops to the war.

Demonstrations appeared in dozens of cities, towns, and on many college campuses. Along with demonstrations came Teach-Ins, which played important roles in exposing the contradictions (lies). At one debate held on the University of Wisconsin campus, a history graduate student argued against a pro-war speaker by presenting what appeared to be a very one sided anti-imperialist, almost Marxist, argument, citing reason after reason that had all to do with profits and nothing to do with human rights, as the basis for U.S. military intervention in Vietnam. Liberal, reformist-minded young people were questioning more and more the very roots of US policy.

SDS Steps to the Front

Students for a Democratic Society came out of an older youth organization based in the social democratic “liberal” wing of the labor movement –the “Student League for Industrial Democracy” or SLID. SDS was founded in June, 1962. Its founding statement, “The Port Huron Statement,” was a manifesto for social justice in the United States. Its emphasis was on opposing racial discrimination in particular and poverty in general, as well as nuclear war, but there was also a strong tone of recognition of the general alienation, even degradation, of life in the affluent U.S.A. For the first three years or so, SDS remained relatively small. Its community organizing project in Newark, New Jersey was perhaps its most notable project, although some SDS members also had gone to the South for civil rights organizing, mainly voter registration.  With the major escalation/bombing in Vietnam in early 1965, SDS called for a national demonstration in Washington, D.C. for April 17. With a Democrat in the White House, and Democratic Party politicians and major union leaders nearly unanimous in support of the war, SDS sharply alienated some of its former allies. The expectation was that a few thousand might show up. Instead, perhaps fifteen to twenty five thousand, mainly college students turned out to protest.

SDS button-changeWith that, SDS chapters began to spring up on many campuses, although in most places they remained relatively small until early 1968. The appeal of SDS was that it was “multi-issue” and therefore “radical” in the sense that by critiquing U.S. society on a number of issues, it opened the door to a criticism of U.S. capitalism in general, rather than just single issues, such as “peace,” which could be discussed as if it was a separate struggle from the core of U.S. society.  The period of the anti-war movement, leading up to the 1968 Democratic National Convention, was one of many local protests by mainly independent campus anti-war groups. There were occasional massive rallies, in particular a huge one in New York City in the summer of 1967. These larger rallies were punctuated with controversy as some in the anti-war movement objected to the presence of otherwise pro-imperialist union leaders and politicians as honored speakers. Locally, there were many types of activities, some just informational, some more militant. There were disruptive, non-obstructive protests, and outright obstructive protests against military recruiters, against ROTC, against war profiteers, especially Dow Chemical Corporation, and against government officials who came to campus. Many of the peaceful obstructive demonstrations (sit-ins, etc.) were met with severe physical violence on the part of the police.

By 1967, SDS had made anti-war activities its main focus on many campuses. It was still relatively small on many campuses, overshadowed by the various independent anti-war groups. What SDS had that was different was a multi-issue approach. Some in the anti-war movement opposed bringing other issues into the anti-war movement, but most in SDS saw anti-poverty, civil rights, student rights and anti-war activities as all interconnected and reinforcing. There were numerous tensions within SDS – some based on antagonism among various socialist groups and some based on emphasis. Those whose interest was “student power” sometimes diluted the distinctly pro-working class origins of SDS.

Worker-Student Alliance

In 1966, the Progressive Labor Party decided to encourage some of its campus members to join local SDS chapters. While their numbers were small (and their size was often overestimated by their opponents), they became among the strongest advocates for building a “worker-student alliance.”  This concept was often misunderstood in a narrow, mechanical way. It did not simply mean “strike support,” although that was important. It meant taking a pro-working class approach to all issues – for example, anti-war activities should emphasize how workers and peasants in Vietnam and working class youth in the U.S. were harmed by the war, rather than emphasizing “peace” in an abstract way or individualist tactics to dodge the draft for personal protection. Bringing anti-war ideas to blue collar workers was at least as important as having students support strikes. Campus struggles should focus on anti-racist actions and pro community actions rather than narrow student rights or demands for more privileges for students.

Urban Rebellions

sds anti racismIn the summer of 1967, major rebellions, often sparked by police brutality, broke out in dozens of U.S. cities. Detroit was the most significant – police were helpless and planes carrying soldiers en route to Vietnam were turned around and sent to Detroit. It took a week for the U.S. government to subdue the hundreds of armed rebels in Detroit. While black workers led that rebellion, many false stereotypes about the rebels continue to be promoted. Thousands of white working class people mingled with the black rebels during the rebellion and there was little, if any, generalized “anti-white” violence although the racist myths about that rebellion have been promoted by the media and this myth has become “common” (though untrue) knowledge; the same is true of the rebellion in Los Angeles following the “Rodney King verdict” – the majority of those arrested were not black during those events.

The attempt to portray the vast majority of black people, then and now, as somehow “outside the working class” actually plays into the racist, missionary attitude that sees black people as victimized but weak. The vast majority of black people are working class; the lives and actions and labor of black people have not been outside the capitalist system—it is what the capitalists in the USA needed and need to sustain their system, the exploitation of slaves, of agricultural workers, of textile, and food, and steel, and auto, and health care and other service workers manifests the potential power of the black working class as a leading force in the whole working class. And as Marx, and some feminists, have pointed out, raising children is work; it is labor that may not be directly compensated by the capitalist class, unless they are hiring nannies/ au pairs to care for their children, but raising the next generation of people, of workers, is an essential part of the labor that keeps a society functioning. Categorizing most black people as “outside” the working class, and picturing the “working class” as virtually all white also plays into the politicians’ often expressed racist line of always talking about the needs of the so-called “middle class” as a way to appeal to working class whites and maintain the lie that black people contribute nothing to society but are merely “charity cases.” Being pro-working class necessitates taking a strong position against racist oppression; being anti-racist necessitates taking a strong pro-working class position.

Turning Point- My Life As An Organizer

In the spring of 1967, I graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, having been deeply involved in the Committee to End the War in Vietnam and the Wisconsin Draft Resistance Union. I believed it was wrong to accept the 2-S college draft deferment while working class men were forced into the military and wanted to work full time for the anti-war movement in some capacity rather than go to graduate school. I had saved up $1700 from working for a road construction company that summer and estimated that I could support myself on that for a year. My expectation was that I would be drafted, would refuse, and probably spend a few years in jail. If enough young men went to jail, perhaps that could help end the war.  Along with perhaps 250 other UW students I had attended the 1965 SDS demonstration against the war in Washington, D.C., but did not get involved in the local SDS chapter. In the spring of 1967, I did send in the six dollars and officially joined national SDS but continued to focus on draft resistance instead of SDS.

That summer, I saw an advertisement in the SDS newspaper, New Left Notes, for a “Regional Traveler” for SDS for the New England region. Wanting to be away from the New York – New Jersey area, but not too far away, Boston seemed to be a good choice. I had a few friends from high school there as well. Under a tree on the campus of Harvard University (from which I had been rejected four years earlier…), I interviewed with the other two regional travelers; one was a member of PLP, the other was an SDS activist in graduate school at Harvard. They “hired” me with the understanding that there was no salary and that I would have to provide my own car and raise money as I traveled for gas and whatever food I couldn’t get from the campus cafeterias. They found me a place to stay. I shared a six-bedroom apartment in Porter Square, Cambridge with two or three others. The total rent was $85/month. The place was something of a dump and was eventually knocked down. I didn’t spend much time there, maybe two or three days every two weeks. My route was Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire and occasionally Western and Central Massachusetts, mainly Worcester. T.’s route was Connecticut and Rhode Island while D.’s was the Boston area, which actually had more schools than all of Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire combined. The responsibilities were to meet with local anti-war activists, assist them in organizing, and encourage them to affiliate their anti-war groups with national SDS, or at least, try to set up an SDS chapter in addition to whatever broader anti-war coalition existed.

sds recruiting

There were perhaps twenty campuses on those two routes: Boston through Durham to the University of Maine-Orono and back; Boston through Hanover (Dartmouth) to Burlington down through Middlebury, Bennington, and back, hitting various places along the way.  My parents loaned me a car for a while; later I scraped together enough money for a small car. Generally, someone would find me an empty bed in a dorm, or a couch in someone’s apartment, or a spot on the floor for my sleeping bag; occasionally I had to sleep in the car. Local activists generally fed me (compliments of the university cafeterias), and they’d pass a hat for gasoline money to get me to the next place. Two dollars could take me a hundred miles or more. There were many hours driving alone, often through the beautiful New England landscape and, later, the less beautiful Route 20 and various state highways in the Midwest, and there was lots of time to think. Contrary to romantic legends, some of us steered very clear of certain types of personal relationships.

The old saying about sailors “A girl in every port” might have been the practice of some traveling organizers, but for many of us, irresponsible relationships could seriously jeopardize building a movement as could marijuana possession and use, which could land someone in jail for ten or twenty years. Having fun with others is an essential part of building good relationships and a strong social movement, but some kinds of fun, in certain contexts, can destroy months of work and even people’s lives. Police agencies look for any kind of crack in the movement or even in someone’s personal behavior to use against that person or to create discord within organizations.  I would generally arrive on a campus in the early afternoon. In the beginning, I was either blindly looking for activists or trying to locate a local contact/friend/relative of an activist from Boston.

Later, as I developed consistent contacts, I’d first meet with a small group that I had closest ties with. That evening there would often be a bigger meeting and then in the morning a wrap up meeting with the smaller group of more experienced/committed activists. Sometimes we would plan demonstrations; sometimes my visit would coincide with a demonstration.  The small meetings would discuss tactics, but mostly politics. We had been taught typical racist, sexist, elitist, anti-working class (and non-working class) history and social science and we were trying to understand the rebellion that was sweeping the world. With some exceptions, today’s students in the public schools are not taught much of anything and therefore do not have much of a sense of history at all, living more for the moment (typical in times of crisis) and having little sense that learning history and social science is important. But U.S. capitalism was not as decayed as it is now, so the dominant culture did often emphasize that learning was important and many college students and youth were reading on their own.   We read Marx, and Lenin, and Mao, although we did not necessarily understand it all! We read Malcolm X and Monthly Review and reprints from the Radical Education Project.

Escalation of the War

sds viet war attack

The war was killing thousands every month. This was a stinging reality that we could not forget and that drove us to seek out answers. We wanted to understand what kind of a system could do that and how these policies could be stopped. There were all kinds of study groups. Sometimes they would be led by a moderately leftist professor or graduate student whom we might later critique for not being militant enough, but we learned how to learn even from people and sources with which we had disagreements. We wanted to understand the economic system that created these policies rather than just focusing on personalities.

In my case, my special focus was on building SDS. It made sense that a multi-issue organization that focused on the war but also tied together struggles around many issues was a type of organization that could grow on, and eventually off, the campus and be an important force for positive social change. I carried SDS membership cards everywhere, along with suitcases full of books, pamphlets, leaflets used at other campuses, and copies of various underground newspapers. Even at some of these relatively small campuses, anti-war demonstrations of fifty or more were not uncommon. Rather than turn this short article into a memoir of those experiences, this information is only included to provide some context to this particular article. Suffice it to say that there were many, many very sincere activists, many from working class backgrounds or semi-professional backgrounds (parents were blue collar or perhaps school teachers) as well as upper-middle income youth at schools such as Bowdoin or Williams; however, another myth about the 1960s’ anti-war movement is that all the participants were from wealthy backgrounds.

By late 1967, increasing numbers of Americans were becoming impatient with the way the war was dragging on. In early 1968, the Vietnamese NLF launched the Tet Offensive, a massive assault on U.S. troops that resulted in about 550 US soldiers killed and 2,500 wounded in one week. In March, the U.S. government announced the conscription of another 48,000 men. That same month, Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered in Memphis and there was another wave of militant anti-police rebellions in dozens of U.S. cities. In March 1968, a campus struggle in France spread into a general strike of millions of workers against the French government. The impact of that strike cannot be overstated. The possibility, the reality, that students and workers could unite in such a powerful way lent great credence to the idea of worker-student unity in the U.S.A.

Columbia University Strike

sds columbia u strikeIn the midst of hundreds of local protests around the United States, the SDS chapter at Columbia University occupied several key university buildings. The demands were focused on anti-war issues but also included more obviously pro-working class/anti-racist demands opposing the construction of a gymnasium that required the destruction of part of the neighborhood. The extreme brutality of the police in arresting the protesters, the film clips on television news of women being dragged down concrete stairs by their hair for the crime of “trespass,” the broken arms and bloodied faces at one of America’s elite Ivy League universities further polarized the American people and further “disproved by contradiction” the myth that there was merely an imperfect democracy in the U.S.A. that could be made to serve the people and “proved by the realities of active learning” that the breadth and intensity of violent repression was far greater and ran far deeper into the core of U.S. society than many had thought.

There is no doubt that 1968 was to be a turning point, and it was only half over. Although Lyndon Johnson had won the 1964 election with the then-largest landslide in U.S. history, he announced his decision to not seek reelection in the spring of 1968. This gave optimism to liberals and some radicals who believed that the capitalist politicians were backing down on the war and Robert Kennedy then emerged as a supposed “anti-war candidate” and had the lock on the Democratic nomination for President. Like his murdered brother, he had the aura of youth, idealism, and a progressive, humanistic image. Many in the anti-war movement were swept into his campaign and had renewed hope that the system could respond in a way that reassured them that the U.S. really was a democracy. Then he was murdered. Irrespective of whether he actually did represent a break from the “Establishment” (he did not…), the impact of his murder further demoralized and alienated many thousands. It was in the context, then, of all these events, from summer 1967 to summer 1968, that SDS held its annual convention in Lansing, Michigan in June, 1968.

The Battle within SDS

If the first period of SDS was characterized by community organizing and civil rights work  the second period, roughly 1965-early 1968, was characterized mainly by anti-war activity and a growing tension between the main SDS leadership that promoted the “New Working Class” notion of social change (that intellectuals would lead the struggle for major social transformation) and various forces that supported reaching out to the blue collar community as a way of building a larger, more powerful movement.

Labor militancy was on the upsurge alongside black militancy and anti-war student militancy. The communist Progressive Labor Party was something of an enigma to many students. On the one side, they appeared to be “Old Left,” referencing Lenin and Marx, opposing drug use, supporting the idea of discipline rather than “do your own thing,” and generally appearing to be dogmatic to many college youth with middle class ideology. On the other hand, they were as militant as any anarchists were in the front lines in battles with the police, eschewed the Old Left pattern of compromise with “the system,” and actively immersed themselves in the daily struggles of everyday people, consistent with the “Maoist/People’s War” principle. This humility stood in stark contrast to the boldness of PLP’s rhetoric, which appeared to many to be very self-assured to the point of arrogance. But one thing was clear: the pro-working class line was gaining adherents and PLP was growing, though, as mentioned above, its numbers were always smaller than perceived. Some members of PLP also predicted that their opponents within SDS would attempt to force them out. The summer 1968 SDS convention in Lansing intensified the conflict within SDS.

SDS Supports the GE STRIKE

It was 1969. General Electric was on strike. Tens of thousands of workers. Despite the arrogant nonsense of some leftists that the whole working class was racist and fascist, these workers went on strike even as the President of the United States adamantly insisted that the strike would hurt the Vietnam War effort. Still, they went on strike. What the SDS students from Michigan State University, from Central Michigan University, from Alma College and from Western Michigan University did was, in a small way, the very best example of working to build a movement to stop the Vietnam War. Students went out to support the strikers, not just in Edmore, Michigan, but in many places, offering support and also discussing, as best as we could, the connections between their immediate struggle and the struggle against US imperialist war in Vietnam. The common slogan was: “Warmaker-Strikebreaker: Smash GE”. Many workers were receptive and open to discussing the issues; the sincerity of the relationships formed was inspiring. Some workers, of course, resented the students, but overall it was a model for how the anti-war, and hopefully, anti-capitalist movement could thrive and grow.

sds dem conventionLater that summer, thousands of mainly young protesters were attacked in extraordinarily brutal ways during the Democratic Convention. For most of them, the crime was staying in a park after it closed. Police on horses and on foot clubbed hundreds. The police attacked random pedestrians on the street and television cameras captured it all. Mayor Daley’s attempts to blame it on the protesters included holding a press conference showing a golf ball with nails and asserting that this was the kind of “weapon” that protesters were throwing at the police; later investigation revealed that those “weapons” were made by the police for the press conference. Autumn semester, 1968, marked the beginning of the most militant period on campuses. Opposition to the war was at an all-time high among youth, and interest in SDS in particular had grown remarkably. As others pointed out, hundreds of people attended SDS meetings – not conferences or demonstrations, but meetings – at schools like Harvard, but also at working class schools like the University of Wisconsin and University of Texas. Demonstrations, big and small, militant and peaceful, were taking place at upper middle-income private colleges in Maine and at inner city schools like CUNY.

PLP, for its part, continued its “base building” strategy of working on local campaigns against the war, supporting urban rebellions, knocking on doors, being militant when they believed it was necessary and trying to build up SDS chapters as SDS chapters. PLP members sometimes set up “Labor Committees” as subcommittees of SDS chapters which mainly did strike support, and PLP also consolidated its base by organizing Summer Work-Ins,” where students took summer jobs, mainly in factories, for the purpose of understanding the conditions and world views of those workers, to bring up anti-war ideas to the workers, and to try to build lasting, real relationships with some of the workers. As a result, despite PLP’s radical rhetoric and adherence to some strict political guidelines, many rank-and-file members respected PLP’s commitment to doing the work. Even as they criticized the Vietnamese leadership, for example, they continued to work hard against the war, often getting arrested, and were one of few groups that actually sent members into the service to organize against the war from within the military.

Richard Nixon won the Presidency. In November of 1968, students at San Franciscosds sf strike State College (now University) struck the school. Their demands focused on more minority admissions and more courses that taught about history and culture of “racial-ethnic” minorities in the USA and people from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. It was, arguably, the most militant, sustained struggle on any U.S. campus. Day after day, week after week, hundreds of students would get arrested, often beaten brutally, and they would be back on the picket lines the next day. The Third World Liberation Front (TWLF) and the Black Student Union led the strike itself but the local SDS chapter participated fully.

Harvard students occupied the University.  PLP and WSA Caucus members canvassed the dorms, knocked on doors, and passed out tens of thousands of flyers explaining the students’ demands against the use of the university to support the war effort.

sds dem conventionOther demands included opposition to the tearing down of working class housing for Harvard’s expansion and a Black Studies program.  Harvard was shut down, completely, for the first time since it was founded in 1636. More importantly, this struggle became a magnet for youth from hundreds of miles around and an inspiration worldwide. While the action was not as large, militant, nor sustained as the actions at many of the working class schools – San Francisco State, University of Wisconsin, and many others – the symbolism of shutting down the pinnacle of capitalist ruling class educational power added to the momentum of the campus anti-war movement and SDS.  As approximately 1500 young people prepared to converge on Chicago for the 1969 SDS Convention, the consciousness on U.S. campuses had reached a new level of quantitative and qualitative opposition to the war. Framing this within the context of Marxist pedagogy is particularly appropriate. The “disproof by contradiction” was manifested again and again as the politicians lied about the war, as the mouthpieces of bourgeois democracy defended racist oppression, and as the myth of democracy was contradicted again and again by the extreme overreaction of police. The “learning by doing” was manifested again and again as students witnessed and experienced physical abuse for non-violent activities.

SDS played an important role at Dartmouth and some other campuses, including a demonstration involving thousands in Berkeley, but 1969-1970 started out a quieter year than 1968-1969. The media blitz about SDS being “dead and gone, except for some crazies” had a powerful effect as did the wave of drugs that swept over campuses often with the passive consent of various government agencies. A few massive demonstrations, strike support for General Electric workers, and later General Motors and the Post Office had major strikes.

Black students were taking more of the lead in campus struggles. Then came the invasion of Cambodia and the killings at Kent State and Jackson State.  The Cambodia invasion and rebellions surrounding them as well as the killings at Kent State and Jackson State and shootings on other campuses caused the massive eruption that shut many campuses for the remainder of the year. Boston-based SDS continued to be active in the anti-war movement but moved towards becoming focused on a campaign called the “Campus Worker-Student Alliance.”  The CWSA was seen as a way to actually make the language of “Worker-Student Alliance” become a reality if students actually had ties with actual workers on a consistent basis; it was a reasonable extension of the WSA, but it was probably done in an imbalanced way. (Chicago 1969: SDS Splits. There are many fuller accounts of the 1969 SDS Convention in Chicago.  See the full article for details and Alan Adelson’s “SDS: A Profile).

The Demise of SDS

There was a combination of factors that prevented SDS in 1969-1973 from taking root and thriving. Foremost were the limits of the situation: the split at the 1969 SDS convention, the lack of membership records, and the intensive media campaign pushing scare campaigns about the Weathermen, anti-communism about PLP, and general demoralization had a powerful impact.

A group of members led by Bernadine Dohrn, Mark Rudd and others created the Weathermen, and attacked the worker-student alliance concept and Progressive Labor Party members at the 1969 SDS convention, splitting he organization into factions.  The Weathermen believed revolution was imminent and enacted confrontational acts hoping to incite workers into revolution.  They had few ties to workers and built anti-communism by their arrogant actions.

The welcome Nixon got in China, which confused many socialists and other leftists, also demoralized SDS members since Nixon could not get a welcome in any U.S. city! The Vietnam War appeared to be winding down, although there was a significant, short-lived outburst of protest when Nixon Kissinger authorized the bombing of Hanoi-Haiphong.  The Democratic Party nomination of George McGovern gave hope to many and siphoned off much of the anger; the combination of “carrot (McGovern) and stick (repression)” as well as the rise in unemployment all took their toll. Furthermore, many in the government concluded that they would rather tolerate the “cultural rebellion” of the Woodstock generation, (psychoactive drugs, opposition to dress codes, less repression of sexuality). Finally, it could be argued that because PLP had become the dominant force within what was left of SDS after the split and the lack of membership records that could have allowed the organization to broaden out, the perception was very strong that joining SDS now meant basically being in an organization that would follow PLP’s line.

Some of PLP’s predictions did come true: the blood of millions of Vietnamese and others has been squandered as the once-communist Vietnamese government embraces U.S. capitalism and Cuba moves that way, China embraces capitalism and carries out imperialist policies in Africa, and most national liberation struggles, whether in South Africa, the U.S.A., or elsewhere, became vehicles for small groups of ex-rebels to become the new capitalist exploiters and partners of today. There is a lot at stake in having a more accurate analysis; the collapse of the heroic struggles in the USSR, China, Vietnam, Cuba, and elsewhere demonstrate how the lives of millions of heroic rebels can be wasted. Critiquing the line and consolidated leadership of various movements is essential. The struggle over “line” is not just some abstract theoretical issue for intellectuals. But when struggling among the grassroots, the debates are more fruitful when carried out in the context of actual struggle, rather than simply making verbal declarations and asking someone to “take it or leave it.” There were several interrelated errors that severely weakened the campus anti-war movement from within.

The inability of SDS to broaden out its line to the community and the weaknesses/erroneous perceptions, analysis, and strategy in the struggle against racist oppression. Call it “worker-student alliance” or “community outreach” or anything similar, the inability of the campus anti-war movement to sufficiently engage the off-campus community not only weakened the anti-war movement at any given time, it also left the students unprepared for how to function when they would leave the campus.  As others have written, after thousands of protests, some involving hundreds of thousands of people in one place—after shutting down hundreds of campuses, driving the military off campus, facing armed police and soldiers, the movement had to transform. It could either intensify its militancy without broadening its base or it could broaden its base. Broadening the base does not have to mean diluting the politics; it should mean taking the politics to others that might not agree. People have contradictory ideas tugging at them, contradictory perceptions, contradictory impulses, and contradictory philosophies.

Lessons Learned

Fully integrating our lives with the lives of others with whom we might have disagreements on some points and learning from others while struggling with others is the only way to integrate the activist movement into the broader population. “Struggling with others” should not mean “shouting at others” or insisting that they immediately agree with the “logic” and the “evidence” that are offered in words. People believe what they believe not simply based on the “logic” of the theory but on the ways that they believe various ideas relate to their lives.  Participating with others in everyday struggles–for a stop sign, against unfair school policies, supporting strikes, opposing police brutality, demanding services from the government, and even helping others deal with problems that appear to be merely “personal,” such as family problems–all these can become what Lenin called “schools” which can more powerfully illuminate what capitalism is “made of” and what the anti-capitalist movement is “made of,” building solidarity and trust. The “worker-student alliance” made some small steps in that regard, but it was inadequate and sometimes artificially done. Nevertheless, there were those who tried to implement the outreach.  Of course, to some, “outreach” meant diluting one’s politics and becoming a Democratic Party activist, but there were many thousands of others who did not abandon their philosophies, becoming social workers, teachers, labor activists, community activists, medical workers, hoping to implement their humanistic philosophies despite the decline of the movement. But the movement itself, as an organized force, continued to decline. Some big protests against Reagan’s assault on the labor movement, some solidarity demonstrations in opposition to U.S. government support for fascist regimes in Central America in the 1980s kept the flame of organized opposition flickering, but it was not until the major attack on Iraq in 2003 that the movement erupted again in such large numbers. If the organized campus movement had been able to maintain its organization throughout those decades and extend the grassroots militancy in an organized way to the broader population, the movement would be much more powerful today. The pressures on young people when they leave college can be intense; one has to learn how to be an effective organizer with only a few available minutes on many jobs, as opposed to the hours that students often had while on campus. Adjustments to jobs, to families, to economic stresses can all intensify the “take care of the moment” mentality. It is not inevitable.

Overcoming Racial Divisions

The students were not adequately mentally-politically prepared to integrate their political philosophies into the lives of “everyday” (working class and semi-professional) people. Understanding this politically as students and having “flesh-and-blood” genuine relationships with off-campus people while still students, are crucial. Related to this is the extreme racial segregation within the movement that was the result both of the pre-existing racial segregation in U.S. society and the inability of the white students to build genuine, honest relationships with black students and workers, the latter which was masked by leftist theories about “self-determination.” There were many small exceptions on many campuses, and many major struggles did build grassroots alliances (two especially significant ones were the San Francisco State and the City University of New York struggles). Often, though, either issues of racist oppression were ignored, or they were seen as some kind of separate struggle. Within the movement, the concept of “self-determination,” still strong today, resulted in “coalitions at the top” where leaders of different groups discussed “coordinating” activities rather than having the grassroots members develop the deep, genuine unity and solidarity on a personal basis that is essential to having unbreakable unity.

SDS before and after the 1969 Split was basically a “white student” organization. It often lent support to the increasing numbers of struggles led by black students, and later Latino students, starting especially in 1969, but it was often of the “support coalition” type, rather than genuine solidarity based on personal ties. Virtually all the groups, including the Marxist groups, believed that “self-determination” meant that “black people should determine their own destiny,” which in practice meant that “white people had no right to criticize what any black leader said or did.” The problem with this was several-fold. First, it created fiefdoms within the movement, where various leaders had their own positions of power to protect. Second, it was contradictory, because there were black people who criticized other black people–how could a white person agree with both of them? This non-class analysis of racist oppression created huge contradictions within the minds of white students, but it also conveniently allowed many of them to give in to the racist impulses towards separatism that were a part of their upbringing within the traditional racism of U.S. society. Saying: “It’s not my place to criticize or even comment” becomes a way to avoid the discomfort of struggle. Struggle, even criticism, after all, is not an insult or inconvenience. It can be the highest form of compliment, while deferring can actually be a kind of insult by implying that members of “other racial-ethnic groups” cannot be treated as equals but rather have to be treated as if they were hyper-sensitive weaklings.

Relying on the people, the working class and its allies among semiprofessionals, and even some professionals, means not relying on the capitalists. Another error related to this was relying too much on the capitalist media to promote the activities of the movement. By 1968, a major section of the capitalist class was beginning to move towards a position of winding down the Vietnam War, and their media seemed to report every protest of five or more people from New York to Pocatello, Idaho. Relying on them to build our movement creates a dependency; the news blackouts of protests often involving hundreds in the 1980s and even today are evidence of that.  Even today, many progressive activists lament the conservative media and pine for the day when the left can have more influence on television and radio. That would be better, of course, but it is not the main problem. The conservative movement in the post-1980s U.S.A. did not grow mainly because of the media. It grew through the churches, block clubs, PTAs, community organizations, where conservative activists did face-to-face work with hundreds of thousands of people, everything from conservative religious classes to sports leagues and marriage counseling. It is the approach used by Hamas to further their nationalistic aims, and anti-capitalist forces in Vietnam and in China, most notably, also effectively used it. In order for the movement to grow by more than “ones and twos” it must first grow by ones and twos, and the lack of trust generated by capitalist ideology and the ways that capitalist society structures our lives and therefore our thoughts can only be overcome by developing relationships and activities that structure all our lives and thoughts in cooperative, humanistic ways so that our militant actions will be carried out by the grassroots and not by a few self-appointed egotists such as the Weathermen.  (The Weather Underground advocated bombings and conducted crazy actions where women ran through high schools half naked to provoke an anti-sexism response.  They received much publicity that slandered the work of other anti-war and anti-racist activists, ed.)


Opposing elitism does not necessarily mean opposing organization or even leaders, but leaders should be held to a higher standard, not given higher privilege, and all forms of cultism have to be rejected. The struggle to develop more female leadership includes both the struggle against sexist oppression in society and against sexist ideas and practices within the movement. These ideas are very deeply rooted in history and will not just disappear with some preaching or sincerely proclamations of one’s presumed sins. And perhaps a major Achilles’ heel of the progressive movement is the failure to address and oppose all forms of racist discrimination and ideology. All forms of oppression are not identical, although all are deadly. There is, however, a particular commonality involving discrimination based on perceived (invented) “physical races,” ethnic/cultural/language groups, caste, and often, religion. Any passivity in the face of this only leads to a severely weakened movement, deprived of the leadership of people whose experiences have tempered them into insightful, committed leaders.  In the U.S., this has obviously meant opposing the oppression of African-American descendants of slaves. Increasingly, this has also meant opposing discrimination against Latinos, most especially undocumented immigrants. Native Americans continue to experience crushing oppression, and discrimination against working class Asians exists in the workplace as anti-Muslim discrimination (with collateral damage to Hindus and Sikhs) has intensified as U.S. and Euro capitalism feel threatened by the growing nationalism in some parts of the world.

Opposing this racism and building these ties is key also to building our “globalization from below” movement to counter the capitalists “globalization from above.” These ties, and not simply calling conferences where delegates from various leftist groups discuss issues, will form the core of a global movement for social justice and equality. The campus anti-war movement of the 1960s, including SDS, did try to address issues of racist oppression, but the failure to fight through on this one hundred percent and the failure to build solid, genuine, deeply developed personal ties was a fatal problem then and remains a problem today.

If the young progressive, anti-imperialist, anti-sexist, anti-racist, pro-working class activists of today hope to build a movement that transcends the campus anti-war movement of the 1960s, including SDS, which did “rock the house” with hundreds of thousands of supporters, it will have to confront and reject the pro-capitalist ideas of egotism, romanticism, elitism and separatism–learning from the successes but unflinchingly rejecting what was corrosive to the movement. Learning through the struggle over contradictory ideas and learning through experience are how a movement is built.

Students and workers today have a tremendous opportunity to build a multiracial and multiethnic movement.   Trump’s anti-immigrant and pro-fascist practices have mobilized thousands to confront racists, strike public schools, and demand environmental justice.  Students have an important role to play in developing ties to workers on and off campus, overcoming the errors of earlier movements (ed).

sds dem convention


Racism is a key glue that sustains capitalist oppression.  We must put the struggle against racist exploitation and oppression, which includes imperialism,  at the front of the broader class struggle.

Further Reading

The most detailed account of the development and decline of SDS can be found in Kirkpatrick Sale’s encyclopedic work: SDS (Vintage Books, 1974). It is currently out of print; used copies are available and the entire text is available on the internet at:

An interesting, if impressionistic, account of the practice of SDS after the split can be found in SDS: A Profile, by Alan Adelson (Charles Scribner’s Sons; First Edition 1972).

Post-split SDS, based in Boston, had a useful pamphlet: “Who are the Bombers: Often the Rulers,” available at this website: This copy is not in perfect form; other versions may be available in university archives.

One can find PLP’s perspective on that period in various articles that have appeared on their website: and in an anonymous article “The Rise and Fall of the Anti-War Movement” that can be found at this web address:

Some other Marxist groups have written about that period; the International Socialists have a somewhat superficial account in one of their publications. There are dozens of books written about that period.

 Mark Rudd’s (Weatherman an Columbia U strike leader) website ( and his account, Underground (William Morrow, 2009)

repeats some of the superficial analysis of the struggle within SDS but at least it has some genuine self-criticism

I particularly recommend Katha Pollitt’s insightful piece not merely on the Weathermen, but on how they and others are rewriting history: Katha Pollitt, “Bill Ayers Whitewashes History, Again”, The Nation, December 8, 2008, available on line at:

Jesse Lemisch wrote a thoughtful piece, also as much about the distorted rewriting of history as it is about the Weathermen: Jesse Lemisch, “Weather Underground Rises from the Ashes: They’re Baack!”, in New Politics (Summer 2006), available on line at: and here: the Weathermen.html