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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

Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones (review)

claudia jones book coverClaudia Jones: Revolutionary Communist

 by Sarah Harper and Karyn Pomerantz, September 9, 2018


This blog post is part of a series that briefly reviews the immense contributions of black revolutionaries fighting racism and capitalism, primarily in the United States during the early to the mid-20th Century.

Some people view Marxism and communism as a white thing since the most famous revolutionaries, such as Marx, Lenin, and Mao, were white or Asian.  Even progressive history books largely ignore the revolutionary contributions of American black communists, such as William Patterson, Paul Robeson, Ben Davis Jr, Louise Thompson, and Lucy Parsons. They and many of their comrades advocated for working class unity to topple capitalism around the world in spite of Jim Crow intimidation, the patriotism pushed during World War II, and McCarthy era imprisonments and black lists.

Many white communists and socialists believed eliminating capitalism would automatically abolish racism and sexism.  They have been criticized for not always emphasizing the need to prioritize the fight against racism and sexism under capitialism as necessary to bring about its overthrow. Communist leaders did not consider the unique oppression of black women workers who were oppressed by class, gender, imperialism, and race. While eliminating capitalism removes the reasons for each form of oppression, black women recognized the need to prioritize the fight against racist ideas and practices.  Black women progressives raised the critical need to fight sexism in the Party and society. Many all-black revolutionary groups, such as the Marcus Garvey’s Return to Africa Movement and the Black Panther Party, promoted a nationalist perspective instead of building united working class organizations and movements. These blog posts highlight the work of communists and socialists who worked for solidarity among all groups of workers.

Communist Party USA Leader:  Claudia Jones

Claudia Jones was a prominent leader of the Communist Party USA (CP) from the 1930s to 50s. This review of her life and political work will cover her political philosophy of multiracial internationalism, her life as a journalist, her involvement in the arts, and her commitment to a socialist solution.

She was born in Trinidad in 1915 and immigrated to New York City in 1924 when she was 8. Her mother died at age 37 from overwork at a factory, and her sisters became domestic workers. Jones joined the struggle to free the 8 Scottsboro Boys in 1931, who were falsely accused of raping a white woman.  The white woman later admitted that she lied. Jones also listened to the speeches of communists on Harlem street corners. These experiences propelled Claudia to join the Communist Party (CP) USA in the 1930s.

Her contributions included youth work, journalism, and anti-apartheid campaigns. She served as editor and founder of many communist and anti-racist publications in the US and England, where the US deported her.


Claudia Jones became a principal organizer and main theoretician for the CP in the 1940s and 50s.  She was one of the first to write about the linkages between race, class, gender and imperialism.  Her commitment to socialism, internationalism, and community organizing influenced many feminists in the 1970s and later, including the Combahee River Collective of black women in New England.  In response to white feminists’ attacks on men and the patriarchy as the cause of their oppression, the Collective wrote:

“We struggle together with Black men against racism while we also struggle with Black men against sexism.”

They also called for a socialist solution.

Jones urged communists to recognize the militancy of black women workers:

“We can accelerate the militancy of Negro women to the degree with which we demonstrate that the economic, political and social demands of Negro women are not just ordinary demands, but special demands flowing from the special discrimination facing Negro women as women, as workers, and as Negroes….Yes, and it means that the struggle for social equality of Negro women must be boldly fought in every sphere of relations between men and women.” (Claudia Jones, “For the Unity of Women in the Cause of Peace!” 1961 p.29).

The militancy of black women, she argued, arises from their experiences and treatment by the ruling class.  If they are marginalized by the left, their power, political involvement and militancy are diminished. “Once Negro women undertake action, the militancy of the whole Negro people, and thus of the anti-imperialist coalition, is greatly enhanced” (p.38).

She recognized that black men and white women communists’ resistance to this militancy creates one of the biggest barriers to any successful political movement of black and other oppressed peoples. The neglect of black women weakens the anti-imperialist class struggle. Class struggle and anti-imperialism for Jones are not materially separated from black women’s oppression. Jones argued for the inclusion of black women in CP leadership, more Party involvement with women’s issues, and more analysis of women’s oppression. Black women’s oppression is essential to anti-imperialist unity in class struggle.

claudia-jones-speakingOppression Stimulates Organizing and Resistance

Jones highlighted the ways capitalism oppressed black women to secure higher profits and labor. As the most oppressed group, black women experienced large wage differentials (continuing today), had no Social Security if they were domestic workers (most were), and suffered high unemployment rates.  Under the New Deal during the Depression in the 1930s, FDR’s National Recovery Administration set national wage and labor practice codes but excluded black workers from earning higher wages.

These conditions led to rebellion and unionizing among black women, displaying the militancy that Jones predicted.  They were active, bold labor organizers.  During the Depression, they carried out strikes in multiple industries, fought for equal wages under FDR’s New Deal programs, and helped organize the CIO.

Black women workers organized the following actions (a very brief sample):

  • 100s of women struck and occupied the Bagging and Manufacturing Company in Charleston, SC to demand a uniform wage code for all workers
  • Domestic workers in Edisto Island, SC also struck for wages set by the NRA even though the National Recovery Administration (NRA) did not cover them
  • Black and Latin workers organized strikes in St. Louis, Tampa, and Philadelphia over New Deal wage policies
  • Black and white women farmworkers in NJ demanded NRA wages although the NRA excluded them
  • Acknowledging that the NRA did not cover farm, domestic, educational and government workers, black workers in Birmingham organized the Forgotten Workers of America to advocate for increased pay and better workplace conditions.

The Communist Party USA led many labor strikes and union organizing including the CIO. They urged the unions to include workers of all nationalities and racial categories.  Immigrant Latinas, such as Luisa Moreno, directed many union struggles with black, Mexican, and white workers to overcome racism and pay differentials, and provide a base for struggles. (African America and Latinx History of the United States, chapter 6). Jones emphasized the unique position of black women:

“It is incumbent on progressive unionists to realize that in the fight for equal rights for Negro workers, it is necessary to have a special approach to Negro women workers, who, far out of proportion to other women workers, are the main breadwinners in their families.  The fight … to upgrade her on her job is a major way of struggling for the basic and special interest of the Negro woman worker (Left of Karl Marx).”

Racism flourished during this time, but several unions, such as the Meatpackers, made anti-racism one of their guiding principles.  Off the job, black people were lynched and murdered.

Publishingclaudia jones with gazette

The CP designated Claudia as an editor and writer for their newspapers and pamphlets.  Claudia used these positions to disseminate Party ideas, promote various campaigns, and urge more attention to women’s issues.

She also wrote poetry and established the West Indian Gazette and Afro-American Caribbean News when she lived in England.

Jones’ writings and communist activities in the US led to her imprisonment for a year in Alderson, West VA (with union organizer Elizabeth Gurley Brown) under the McCarron-Walter Internal Security Act of 1952. She was deported to England in Dec of 1955, ironically transported on the luxury ship, the Queen Elizabeth I.

Community Solidarity and Carnival

There was a large Caribbean population in London. However, Claudia experienced the racism of the Great Britain Communist Party (GB CP) and the snobbish behavior of the Caribbean intellectuals who tried to isolate her. She turned to journalism to overcome this divisiveness by creating the Gazette. The Gazette included articles on international events, local business ads, the arts, and political positions.  Its goal was to create a sense of community among the different groups of Caribbean immigrants.  It called for multi-ethnic collaboration. The immigrants were also galvanized by a race riot in 1958 in Notting Hill against the growing Caribbean population. As a consequence of the race riot, a gang of white youth murdered Kelso Cochrane in May 1959. After the murder she thought it would be very helpful to start a carnival celebration to develop relationships among people from former Caribbean British colonies.  The Carnival was not just about dancing and music. It had very political overtones of fighting racism and colonialization. Her work helped create the West Indian diaspora.

Her work in the Caribbean community may have had nationalist overtones, but she had never swayed from her internationalist socialist outlook.

Claudia Jones was rooted in the Marxist Leninist ideology. However, she did not believe it dogmatically. She analyzed the current conditions, especially among black women workers and ways that they would become a potent force for revolution. Being marginalized by the GB CP did not deter Claudia from continuing her work.

Despite deteriorating health, FBI harassment, and prison time, she stayed politically active until her death in 1964.  She continued to advance international unity and socialism, maintaining her membership in the Party to struggle for women and racial equity. Claudia is buried in London to the left of Karl Marx. Her life reminds us that we must make the struggle against the super-exploitation of members of the working class — blacks, Latins, women, immigrants, and other minorities – a priority in all struggles against oppression and injustice. Capitalism uses racism and sexism not only to increase profits but to separate us from each other, in our daily lives and in our struggles for betterment. In unity lies our strength.

See Davies Boyce C. Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones. Duke University Press, 2008.

Stop White Supremacists in DC – August 12, 2018- Join the Ranks of Anti-Racist Protesters

by Karyn Pomerantz, 8-7-18

On August 12, 2018, white nationalists will rally across the street from the White House in Lafayette Park to help build a movement of racist terror.  Trump’s presidency has emboldened them, giving permission for them to rally, spew hateful lies, and kill as they did in Charlottesville last year.  Even without Trump, capitalism needs racist organizations to win people away from multiracial organizing for better conditions and against war and fascism.   This brief article describes the types of responses anti-Klan and anti-Nazi activists have used in the past.  It is by no means a comprehensive account.

Some people and organizations, such as churches, prefer to ignore these marches and rallies. They claim this will force the fascists to retreat while barely being noticed.  Pacifists may protest but keep their distance to avoid violent confrontations.  Yet history shows that allowing racist groups to organize jeopardizes the lives of the working class directly, as in lynchings, or indirectly, as in spreading fear to act for reforms and revolutionary change. You may be in the group who prefers inaction because of the real threat of violence.  It takes a lot of courage to confront these groups, but direct action can deter them from attracting new members or operating in a given location.

blog kkk 1925

The Klan has staged marches several times in DC.  In 1925, 30,000 robed Klansmen marched down Pennsylvania Ave.  In 1990, 44 KKK members needed police protection to reach their destination, as they did in 1982.  At that time, multi-racial groups, infuriated by the police role, took direct action, shutting down streets and skirmishing with the police.

blog nazis hold anti-semitic signs

Many times, anti-racists have driven Klan and Nazi groups away.  In the 1970s members of the International Committee Against Racism (InCAR) attacked the Nazi Party HQ in Arlington after their members distributed anti-Semitic fliers.  Soon after, the Nazis shut down their HQ and stopped leafletting.

blog nazi demo in arlington 2017

Just last year, over 100 Arlington neighbors mobilized in two hours to oppose six Nazis giving salutes in a strip mall.  blog residents protest neonazis in arlington 2017 number 2




Baltimore was also the scene of anti-fascist actions as residents disrupted a skin head march in 1987 in Belair and at City Hall, stopping them from demonstrating.

During the early 1980s InCAR members showed up at many racist rallies in the Eastern US to physically fight the white supremacists, leading the Grand Wizard of the Klan to announce in an interview that these protests stymied their recruitment of new members.  Two years ago, anti-racists beat and chased white supremacists out of Anaheim, Ca.

There are many more experiences in the US and other countries that indicate the success we can have stopping racist terror and building our own movement.  Yet our efforts are not always successful as the police attack on demonstrators in Portland, Oregon in August 2018 revealed.

Racist groups serve capitalists well.  They spread rotten ideas about exploited people to divide the working class and scare many from fighting the system, opposing wars, organizing unions, immigrating for better opportunities or supporting immigrants. These are life and death issues, not merely rhetoric.  We know from the experience of Nazi Germany or the Jim Crow South that extreme racist ideas can take hold in substantial portions of the population if they are repeated loudly and often enough.

The rulers know they are outnumbered and need these organizations to control us. Let’s not fail to destroy them. FIGHT WHITE SUPREMACY. STOP THE RACISTS IN THEIR TRACKS.

COME OUT AUGUST 12, 2018blog protesters hold anti nazi signs





by Al Simpson

In this article we’ll discuss one of the largest, best organized and most well-armed labor insurrections in U.S. history: the Battle of Blair Mountain. As you’ll see, brutality, open cynicism, and treachery on the side of the bosses were not in short supply, while workers displayed courage, daring and unity.

The Period Before the Battle of Blair Mountain.

The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) called a strike for November 1, 1919 in all the soft (bituminous) coal fields. They had foolishly agreed to a wage agreement to run until the end of World War I, and since the war was over, they sought to capture for themselves some of the industry’s wartime gains. Even though the war was over, the federal government invoked wartime measures that made it a crime to interfere with the production or transportation of necessities. Ignoring a court order not to strike, 400,000 coal workers walked out. The coal operators claimed that Bolshevik leaders had ordered the strike and were financing it, and some of the bosses’ press echoed this lie. After a 5-week strike the miners received a 14% raise, much less than what they wanted.

During and after the 1919 strike, the bituminous coal operators aggressively pursued their aims. They opened non-union mines and employed scabs to run them. They switched production to the scab mines, where wages were lower, and cut the amount of work the union mines would get.

In response to organizing efforts, coal operators used every means to block the union. One of their primary tactics was to fire union sympathizers, blacklist them, and evict them from their homes. Many of the evicted miners’ families went into tent colonies where they got some shelter but hardly any food. These tent colonies would be attacked from time to time by company goons.

The Mine Operators Push Racism

The mine operators tried to foment racism by having segregated quarters for the miners. But the miners worked together and were around each other for many hours almost every day, so racism did not keep them apart. Plus, the living quarters were not that far apart, so there was constant contact of people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. The UMWA fought against racism because of the interracial character of the workforce and because of the constant threat that racism would eat away at the workers’ most important weapon: solidarity. This was unusual as the American Federation of Labor was focused on organizing skilled, white workers in craft unions. But by 1902, the UMWA had 20,000 black members, between ten percent and fifteen percent of the total membership[i].

The Battle of Blair Mountain

The goals of the West Virginia coal miners during 1920-21 were simple. They just wanted to organize a unionand have it recognized by the mine owners. But things went steadily downhill for the UMWA in 1920.

In mid-September, the efforts of coal operators to import strikebreakers caused rioting at Williamson, WV. Federal troops were summoned to protect the scabs and their families as they arrived at the train station and to escort the scabs to work. The presence of federal troops allowed coal operators to reopen several mines with the use of scabs. Coal operators also obtained court injunctions that forbade the UMWA from interfering with mine operations.

By January, 1921, eighty percent of mines had reopened as non-union mines. In these non-union mines, the operators forced all employees to sign yellow-dog contracts as a condition of employment. A yellow-dog contract (also called a yellow-dog clause of a contract, or an ironclad oath) is an agreement between an employer and an employee in which the employee agrees, as a condition of employment, not to be a member of a labor union. In the United States, such contracts were, until the 1930s, widely used by employers to prevent the formation of unions, most often by permitting employers to take legal action against union organizers. In 1932, yellow-dog contracts were outlawed in the United States under the Norris-LaGuardia Act.

At first, the union miners would picket or otherwise disrupt the scab mines – this included industrial sabotage such as dynamiting coal tipples. The coal operators countered by employing armed thugs and private detectives to deter the miners and murder individual militant organizers. With eighty percent of the mines being non-union and with sustained attacks by cops, private detectives and hired thugs, the very existence of the union in West Virginia was imperiled. The union had to make a stand.

In mid-May, 1921 union miners launched a full-scale assault on non-union mines. The battle started on May 12 along the banks of the Tug river with striking miners shooting at the state police, deputies and coal company officials. Union men blew up the company’s power plant. Union snipers also fired at nonunion miners. The employers’ side in the battle included nonunion miners, West Virginia State Police and Kentucky National Guardsmen. The conflict quickly consumed the entire Tug River Valley. Thousands of shots were fired from rifles, pistols, and even machine guns. Bullets flew right through homes as families cowered in fear. Bridges and coal tipples were dynamited. Businesses and schools closed. The “Three Days Battle” was finally ended on May 14 with a truce and the imposition of martial law. From the beginning, the miners perceived the enforcement of martial law as completely one-sided. Hundreds of miners were arrested; the smallest of infractions could mean imprisonment, while those on the side of “law and order” were immune from punishment.

The bosses committed some of the most heinous violence. On August 1, 1921 Sidney Hatfield traveled to McDowell County to stand trial on the charge of dynamiting a coal tipple. Along with him traveled a good friend, Ed Chambers, and their wives. As they walked up the courthouse stairs, unarmed and flanked by their wives, a group of Baldwin-Felts agents standing at the top of the stairs opened fire. Hatfield was killed instantly. Chambers was bullet-riddled and rolled to the bottom of the stairs. Despite Sally Chambers’ protests, one of the agents ran down the stairs and shot Chambers once more in the back of the head at point blank range. Word of the murders spread through the mountains. The miners were angry at the way Hatfield and Chambers had been killed, the moreso because it appeared that the murderers would face no punishment. They began to pour out of the mountains and take up arms. Miners along the Little Coal River were among the first to militarize and began actions such as patrolling the area. Sheriff Don Chafin sent Logan County troopers to the Little Coal River area, where armed miners captured the troopers, disarmed them and sent them fleeing. Thousands of miners embarked on the now famous Miners’ March through Logan County.

On August 7, 1921, Frank Keeney and Fred Mooney, who were leaders of District 17 of the UMWA, which encompasses much of southern West Virginia, presented the miner’s demand for union recognition and collective bargaining rights to Governor Ephraim Morgan. Morgan summarily rejected the demands. When rank-and-file miners heard about this, they became more restless and began to talk of a march on Mingo, in southern West Virginia, to free imprisoned miners, end martial law, and organize the county. But directly in the way stood Blair Mountain, Logan County, and anti-union sheriff Don Chafin.

According to historian Clayton Laurie, President Warren Harding now felt compelled to send federal troops, having concluded that Governor Morgan and county officials were themselves part of the problem. As the reader has already seen, the governor and the local officials were inflexible in denying even the smallest union demands. In addition, they forced the union to use violent methods because the authorities and the company agents would respond to union activity with violence.

At a rally on the same day, August 7, Mary Harris “Mother” Jones called on the miners not to march into Logan and Mingo counties. where she feared that the lightly armed union forces were no match for heavily armed Logan County deputies. Nonetheless, armed union men began gathering at Lens Creek Mountain on August 20. Four days later an estimated 13,000 had gathered and began marching towards Logan County. Impatient to get to the staging area for the fight, miners near St. Albans, commandeered a Chesapeake and Ohio freight train, renamed by the miners the Blue Steel Special, to meet up with the advanced column of marchers. Meanwhile, the anti-union sheriff Don Chafin had begun to set up defenses on Blair Mountain. He was supported financially by the Logan County Coal Operators Association as he created the country’s largest private armed force of nearly 2,000. Since the anti-union forces had set up operations near the top of the mountain, they had a strategic advantage. The first skirmishes occurred on the morning of August 25, while the bulk of the miners were still 15 miles away.

Whenever there was a cease fire, a decision by the miners to return home, or a truce, Chafin’s men would launch an attack on the miners or commit atrocities, thus restarting the fighting.

On August 8th, President Warren Harding threatened to send in federal troops and Army Martin MB-1 bombers. After a long meeting, the miners were convinced to return home. But there was a lot more fighting to come. Within hours of the decision, there were reports that Chafin’s men had shot union sympathizers in the town of Sharples, just north of Blair Mountain—and that families had been caught in crossfire during the skirmishes. This infuriated the miners and they turned back toward Blair Mountain, many traveling in commandeered trains. On August 24, the main body of coal miners headed towards Blair Mountain. They weren’t too particular of how they got there, as Lon Savage wrote in Thunder In the Mountains: The West Virginia Mine War, 1920-21:

They commandeered every form of transportation: automobiles, trucks, teams of horses and mules and trains….Near Charleston WV, they halted a truck with a piano in the back, set the piano out on the road and loaded it with miners and forced the driver to take them to Blair…Black miners pushed into Jim Crow restaurants and demanded food, and it was served.

Frank Keeney and Fred Mooney, leaders of UMWA district 17, made a last-minute attempt to call off the march after meeting with the War Department’s General Harry Bandholtz, who warned that any violence would prove disastrous for the union. The proposed ceasefire they negotiated collapsed when two miners died in a skirmish with Chafin’s forces. By August 28, some 10,000 union men had massed near the border of Logan County and began trading gunfire with company supporters. To distinguish one another in the dense forests, many of the miners tied red handkerchiefs around their necks. They soon became known as the “Red Neck Army.”

By August 29, the battle was fully engaged. Chafin’s men, though outnumbered, had the advantage of higher positions and better weaponry. Private planes were hired to drop homemade bombs on the miners. Teargas and pipe bombs loaded with nuts and bolts for shrapnel were dropped, but inflicted few casualties. At least one of the bombs did not explode and was recovered by the miners and was used months later during treason and murder trials that were held in the aftermath of the rebellion. On orders from General Billy Mitchell, army bombers from Maryland were also used for aerial surveillance.

Miners display a bosses’ bomb

The heaviest fighting in the Battle of Blair Mountain began on August 31, when a group of around 75 miners ran into some of Chafin’s so-called “Logan Defenders” on a wooded ridge. Each side asked the other for a password and received the wrong answer, prompting a shootout that killed three deputies and one miner. That same day, the main army of miners started a two-pronged assault on Chafin’s trenches and breastworks, earthworks thrown up to breast height to provide protection to defenders firing over them from a standing position. Scores of union men streamed up the mountainside, but despite their superior numbers, they were repeatedly driven back by the defenders, who riddled them with machine gun fire from the high ground. The miners made more progress when the battle was renewed on September 1. That morning, a detachment of union men assaulted a spot called Craddock Fork with a Gatling gun liberated from a coal company store. Logan forces fought back with a machine gun, but after three hours of heavy fire, their machine gun jammed. The miners surged forward and briefly broke the defensive line, only to be repulsed by a fusillade of bullets from a second machine gun nest located further up the ridge.

The Importance of Racial and Ethnic Solidarity

The union understood the importance of diversity in leadership of the struggle. Black miners served in a wide range of union political positions, which cemented strikers’ solidarity. This does not mean that black miners did not still face significant discrimination, but there was a large amount of progress as many racial lines were crossed. One of the earliest committees formed to prepare for the Miners’ March had three officers: one black, one white, and one Italian immigrant. Throughout the campaign black miners served as commanders and logistics officers, and an armed black miner even led a group of white miners during the heavy fighting at Blair Mountain.

The UMWA was also able to assimilate many different immigrant groups to a substantial degree. They were offered positions of authority and respect as union officers. In this way and more, the miners wove the interests and concerns of immigrant families into their struggles.

Women were fundamental in demanding change in coalfields society. They wrote militant songs for the movement, prepared and sustained families during long and brutal strikes, served as prominent union activists, and in some cases fought alongside men. They also helped keep the scabs out. In the tent cities, women kept pots and pans on the floor to deflect bullets.

The Fight Continues

Intermittent gun battles continued for a week, with the miners at one time nearly breaking through to the town of Logan and their target destinations, the non-unionized counties to the south, Logan and Mingo. Up to 30 deaths were reported by Chafin’s side and 50–100 on the union miners’ side, with hundreds more injured or wounded.

By September 2nd, federal troops arrived. Realizing that the miners would lose if the battle continued against the military, Bill Blizzard passed the word for the miners to start heading home the following day. Miners fearing jail and confiscation of their guns found clever ways to hide rifles and handguns in the woods before leaving Logan County. Nearly one million rounds had been fired.

After the battle, 985 miners were indicted for murder, conspiracy to commit murder, accessory to murder and treason against the State of West Virginia. Though some were acquitted by sympathetic juries, others were imprisoned for years. The last was paroled in 1925. At Bill Blizzard’s trial, the unexploded bomb was used as evidence of the government and companies’ brutality, and he was acquitted. The strike-related trials bankrupted the UMWA in southern West Virginia. Membership plummeted from 50,000 to 10,000 over several years. It took until 1935 for the rest of the mines in southern West Virginia to become unionized.

Strikes are Never Completely Lost

Strikes are never completely lost because of the organizational techniques the workers learn and the bonds they form. They learn how to run a strike – what works and what doesn’t and crucially, the workers also learn about who they can trust and whom they can’t. These techniques, bonds and lessons would serve the miners well in the years to come.

The Big Picture:

The UMWA has been attacked and bankrupted several times, so this was nothing new. It was just another phase in their struggle. It reflects what the bosses can get away with in different historical periods. The story of the Battle of Blair Mountain, shows the desperate lengths that the bosses and their government will go to preserve profits and stop workers from organizing. The miners countered this with their most powerful weapon, solidarity across racial and ethnic barriers.

Observe that the miners were subject to arrest for just about anything they did, but the persons on the bosses’ side could do anything they wanted to, including murder, with impunity. Why did all levels of government back the coal operators and never the miners? Why is this? Let’s get further insight into what was going on.

The State

People talk about the state, but it isn’t well defined. We are not talking about the states that comprise the United States. What we mean here is a collection of institutions and agencies that enforce the rule of the ruling class, the capitalists, over the working class. The job of the state is to maintain profits, markets, access to raw materials and to prevent rebellion by workers. Ultimately, the capitalists stay in power using force, via the military, the police and many other agencies. Periodic voting only allows us to choose which representatives of the state we wish to empower.

We should keep in mind that we are supposedly guaranteed certain rights such as freedom of speech and assembly, no arbitrary searches without a warrant, due process of law and so on. But nowhere are American workers guaranteed the right to survival; that is, a job, income, food, shelter or health care. Whatever we have above the minimum that must be given in order to keep the working class in minimal working condition has been won through struggle, strikes or other mass actions. Even then, it will be taken back as soon as possible, by busting unions, raising prices, raising taxes or by other means.

The cops are the first line of defense for the capitalist rulers. Yes, they solve crimes, but their primary function is to protect the bosses. What you see on television are shows that depict the cops as heroes, regular men and women, and hints that they are part of the working class. But if the cops are so wonderful, then why do so many people hate and fear them? Why do the cops kill so many people, especially people of color, and always seem to get away with it? These are good questions. The answer is that the cops are NOT part of the working class. They are part of the state apparatus that oppresses the working class. Cops are professional strike breakers and racist murderers.

Let’s get back to the question of why the cops and other persons who represent the capitalists can get away with anything. Notice that in all the crimes described in the Battle of Blair Mountain, the bosses’ side used of the weapons of war including conventional bombs, chlorine gas bombs, machine guns, and so on, but there was never any thought of punishing any state actors, no matter what their crimes. This is endemic to class society. Their behavior today is no different; only the details have changed.

Today, we must continue to remember the lessons of Blair Mountain. Our strength comes from the unity of all workers, no what their national origin or color of their skin. The agents of the state – the politicians, federal or local police, armed forces and courts – will always oppose the workers when bosses’ profits are threatened. Whether a particular struggle is won or lost, we are ahead when we learn to rely on ourselves and understand how the system works.


List of Refences

  1. Vendées : It is also remembered as the place where the peasants revolted against the Revolutionary government in 1793, A guerrilla war, known as the Revolt in the Vendée, led at the outset by peasants who were chosen in each locale, cost more than 240,000 lives before it ended in 1796 (190,000 Vendeans who were republicans or royalists and 50,000 non-Vendean republican soldiers; according to the Jacques Hussenet and Centre Vendéen de Recherche Historique’s book “Détruisez la Vendéee.
  2. Sociallist Worker:
  3. West Virginia History:
  4. Military History Battle of Blair Mountain:
  5. The West Virginia Encyclopedia, Ephraim Franklin Morgan.
  6. Wikipedia Battle of Blair Mountain:
  7. com Battle of Blair Mountain:
  8. IWW Environment Unionism Caucus:
  9. Ayers, Rothrock and King 2007
  10. Ever heard of the Battle of Blair Mountain? Federal troops were called against 13,000 miners.
  11. Role of Women from the Register Herald newspaper, Beckley, West Virginia

Al Simpson is a mathematician who lives in the United States


de68477b1c0cbe9b83344d94e4639bdf--classroom-resources-graffitiby Alan Spector

Presidential Speech given at the 2013 Annual Convention of the Association for Humanist Sociology

An apple growing on a farm in Western Michigan. Another apple growing wild on a tree outside of Rome, 2,000 years ago. A Yamaha motorcycle. So, which of these have the most in common. The obvious answer, and it is a correct answer, is the two apples. But is there another way to look at the question? ‘‘Sociological Imagination,’’ as conceived by C. Wright Mills and utilized by many social scientists, provokes us to consider not just what things are ‘‘in themselves’’ but also what they ‘‘are’’ in their broader contexts and relationships to people, institutions, and broader social processes. Certainly, the two apples have a great deal in common. What does it take to create an apple? A seed, proper soil, water, and sunlight and time. But the modern, farmed apple also needs something else—it needs the belief of the farmer that growing that apple might help create a profit. Today’s apple and today’s motorcycle have something in common: They both need entrepreneurs who believe that they can make a profit from that enterprise. And, therefore, they both need a particular type of political economic climate that favors the development of both the apple and the motorcycle.

If the modern apple farmer does not believe that he or she can make a profit from the growing of those apples, then those apples will never be ‘‘born.’’ As an entrepreneur, the farmer does not care if the apple is eaten or not, as long as it is sold. Or if the modern apple farmer is offered some money by someone who will cut down the apple trees and put up a Walmart store, then again those apples will never be ‘‘born’’ even if there is sunlight, soil, and water available. In a sense, today’s apple is very similar to the apple of the past, but today’s apple is fundamentally different from the apple of the past because it has embedded in its very existence the political economy of the current era. Similarly, the Yamaha motorcycle will only be created if managers and investors believe that it is economically favorable to do so. Commercially farmed apples are not grown to be eaten; they are grown to be sold. Commercially produced motorcycles are not produced in order to be ridden; they are produced in order to be sold.

Racism as it exists in the world today did not exist in precapitalist society. Certainly, there was hostility between different groups of people and tribes and clans and families, but that is very different from the racism of today. For example, one could imagine a Roman soldier arguing that Nubians as a group are rude because of a bad interaction he had in the market, but that’s very different from the racism that exists today. Back then, so-called whites could own so-called blacks (of course, those concepts did not exist as such), and vice versa. Slavery was not based on the (often flexible) notions of ‘‘race’’ we have in today’s world. Similarly, sexism (discrimination against females), which began millennia before racism and is more deeply rooted, is nevertheless not the same today as it was 2,000 years ago. Of course, there are commonalities and some threads that are continuous but overall, there are profound differences. For example, a man in ancient Rome might have physically beaten his wife and a man today in Dallas might physically beat his wife. Some argue that both are simply reflective of something universally flawed in men. Or one could use the sociological imagination and understand that the conditions in the broader society have a profound effect on the behavior of individuals. For example, the man in ancient Rome might believe that it is his religious duty to beat his wife. The man in modern Dallas might have stress-induced hormones or chemicals (job-related, alcohol-related, early childhood trauma) whirling around in his brain, and channeled through the culture of a society that often dehumanizes women, just explodes and assaults the wife. None of this is excusable, of course, and stress or does not stress, that behavior cannot be tolerated and must be stopped, by force if necessary. What is similar in both instances? Biological size? If that were the case, then large men would routinely be beating smaller men with the frequency that women are abused. Is it a culture and social, political, and economic structures in both societies that justify this behavior? Yes, but the specific social, political, and economic structures are not identical any more than a car that will not start because of an engine problem is ‘‘the same’’ as a car that will not start because of an electrical problem. To the untrained eye, they might appear the same, but the underlying situation is very different. When one seeks to solve the problem of ‘‘the car that will not start,’’ one needs to understand the specific cause. If we truly seek to end race–ethnic oppression (racism), we need to understand the specific factors that create and shape racism in particular contexts.

Many social scientists, myself included, often refer to the concept of ‘‘race’’ and the practices of racist oppression as being ‘‘socially constructed’’ because it is so important to shatter the foolish myth that ‘‘race’’ has any biological meaning (Brace 2005; Lewontin 1982; Race: The Power of an Illusion 2003). But perhaps it would be more accurate to refer to them as ‘‘political economy constructed;’’ the term ‘‘socially constructed’’ leaves out the power relations within the ‘‘social,’’ whereas ‘‘political economy constructed’’ opens the door to a more precise investigation. Capitalism remade the world. It rolled over the world, blew it up, flattened the remains, shattered families, religions, languages, cultures, ethnicities, and remade a new world. Of course, this did not happen at once. It took centuries. And of course there are vestiges of the old, but only if they do not threaten the new set of class relations.

Consider Bronzeville, on the near South Side of Chicago. City officials talk about how they are rebuilding this neighborhood. They are not rebuilding the neighborhood. They have almost completely destroyed neighborhood, drove out the majority of the population, flattened many buildings, and are now putting new buildings up on the same land where the old neighborhood was that will be inhabited by different people. Yes, it is still Bronzeville. But just as when Heraclitus, a highly underrated Greek philosopher said: You cannot step into the same river twice, so too do we need to explore in order to understand how underlying dynamics may not be so apparent when obscured by superficial appearances.

Contingency and Necessity in the Development of Modern Racism

At an American Sociological Association conference, someone once asked me the kind of ‘‘framed question’’ that might force someone into a forced choice between two erroneous alternatives. I was asked: ‘‘Are you saying that it was inevitable that capitalism had to become racist?’’ This type of question is, of course, a ‘‘setup,’’ the kind of question that people who want to deny associations and causal relationships toss out to trap the other into one of the two untenable positions. It is often used against leftist radicals and other humanists. If the speaker answers: ‘‘yes,’’ then the retort is ‘‘So, then, you are not a scientist at all. You are saying that something is inevitable. This is dogma. You are not open-minded. Science has to acknowledge other possible explanations.’’ If the speaker answers: ‘‘no,’’ then the retort is ‘‘So you agree then, that capitalism can exist without racism—that racism is not essential to capitalism.’’ Of course, this kind of reasoning can be applied to any assertion about how one variable might have an effect on another variable. So how do we answer? Well, nothing is ‘‘Inevitable–Inevitable.’’ The sun might explode tomorrow, making tomorrow’s sunset ‘‘not inevitable.’’ An unpredictable earthquake might prevent the Super Bowl from proceeding. The Chicago Cubs might overcome their inevitable collapse and win a World Series . . . well, maybe not that one.

Seriously, everything is probabilistic. Nothing is ‘‘Inevitable–Inevitable’’ with an Absolute upper case ‘‘I.’’ Was it ‘‘inevitable’’ that humankind would learn how to develop the wheel? Well, yes, but no, not inevitable—there might have been an asteroid collision, but probabilistically speaking, for all practical purposes, yes, given trial and error and memory and enough time. Consider it is in the dynamic of capitalism that enterprises must maximize profits. It is not inevitable in so-called human nature that we are doomed to being insatiable for money. But within the limits of capitalism, as in the game ‘‘Monopoly,’’ those firms that are not successful at maximizing income/profits will eventually be overcome.

A discovered invented way to maximize profits is to segment the labor force. In precapitalist society (and today), the division of labor by gender has been most pro- found, but there have been other ways—age, ‘‘ability/disability,’’ being on the losing side of a war, and so on, as ways to increase the wealth of ruling groups. Early capitalism became class society on caffeine. When the capitalist class began to develop more strength, in the 1500s, conquest and technology began to rapidly remake the world. In the 150 or so years since capitalism’s ascendency as the basic political– economic system of the world, we have witnessed changes unimaginable just three centuries ago. Today, capitalism is class society on methamphetamines.

Five centuries ago, as capitalist processes were developing (but not yet universally triumphant), the ‘‘discovery’’ of the Western Hemisphere by wealth-seeking empires created a scramble to acquire more wealth (Galeano 1973). Initially, it was gold, but it soon became apparent that the largest wealth lay in the soil—but it was wealth that could only be realized through the labor of the laboring class. Indentured servants were brought in, and, as has been documented, the very early social and legal status of African servants was the same as that of European servants (Bennett 1993). That soon changed as it became apparent that universal slavery was unworkable and that creating a superexploited sector of the laboring class would provide the benefits of extra profits, of providing the material basis for deflecting the possible antagonism of the rest (European origin) of the laboring class, and, later, actually holding down the compensation for the so-called whites (now wage laborers) by having the superexploited group to use against them. There are conspiracies in history, but it is not conspiracies that mainly shape history. Nor is it accident. More false dichotomy. It is ‘‘trial and error,’’ not necessarily planned way in advance, but if something ‘‘seems to work,’’ then it gets repeated and institutionalized. Was it ‘‘inevitable?’’ Is it ‘‘inevitable’’ that a Monopoly game will eventually have only two players? Yes and no—no, because it is possible that the game could be disrupted, but ‘‘yes’’ in the sense that within the limits of the game, it ‘‘has to’’ evolve this way.

Thus, it is ‘‘probably inevitable.’’ Which is, of course, a little silly, but it makes a point. It was probabilistically ‘‘inevitable’’ that capitalism had to maximize profits, that to do so successfully, it had to segment the labor force, and that one of the key bases of that segmentation would likely have to do with ‘‘place’’—whether place of origin or maintained and sustained through segregation/separation, because this separation facilitates the winning of the less-exploited/oppressed groups away from allying with the more exploited/oppressed group. And with that came the invention of race and racism, at least, as it exists in the world today.

So, was it ‘‘inevitable’’ that capitalism had to become racist? How do we handle that question? How about: ‘‘No, it was not inevitable that capitalism had to become racist—it was only the case here on Earth.’’ If racism and race did not exist, capitalism would have ‘‘had to’’ invent them—and, by the way, racism and race did not exist, and capitalism did invent them. Certainly, the processes and patterns of racist exploitation and oppression as they exist today are directly traceable to those early processes, with a distinct disconnect from whatever might, in appearance, seem to be similar from precapitalist societies. The question of ‘‘which came first’’ can similarly lead to nonproductive discussions, based on false dichotomies. Even if capital- ist processes began to develop before racist policies, the reality is that racist policies so completely saturated and shaped capitalist policies that today, they cannot really be separated, except in isolated cases. There is only ‘‘racist–capitalism’’ or ‘‘capitaist–racism.’’

Another metaphor: Consider a person who must have an artificial heart pump or a pacemaker inserted into the heart in order to live. Is that machine more a part of the person’s body than their hands or their eyes? On one hand no. It is not ‘‘organic.’’ But on the other hand, it is more a part of the person’s body, because without it, the person can no longer live. The person’s body is adjusted to the machine in order to live. Hence, that person is no longer just ‘‘a person,’’ rather that person is a ‘‘pacemakered person’’ or ‘‘heartpumped person’’ (and the pacemaker that now also changes with use actually becomes a ‘‘personized pacemaker’’ or something like that) as there is a dialectal dependency, a unity between the person’s biological body and the machine. So too is there now only ‘‘racist–capitalism’’ or ‘‘capitalist– racism?’’ They are so interconnected that, for all practical purposes in the foresee- able future, on this planet, neither can survive without the other.

The root of modern racism, then, is exploitation, rather than oppression. It is the seeking of profits, rather than psychological gratification, that is at the root (Cox 1948). Of course, these oppressions—political suppression, violence, cultural discrimination—are all devastating to the subjugated group. Fighting against forms of oppression is central to building consciousness and commitment to oppose all of racist oppression and exploitation; such struggles in the past century included opposition to lynching, the right to join unions, the right to vote, opposition to segregation, demands over education, campaigns against police brutality and incarceration, and struggles against racism in the media and culture. But asserting that oppression, rather than exploitation, is at the root begs the question of where it comes from. In the justified effort to avoid narrow ‘‘economic determinism’’ (where oppression is ignored and everything is reduced to the battle for higher wages), it is important to avoid the opposite one-sided extreme of ‘‘psychological determinism’’ (where it is assumed, either directly or by implication/omission that the first cause is something in the brains of people). Brains are very important. Consciousness is very important, central to the struggle. But understanding that the root comes from exploitation helps keep our understanding centered on the core processes and helps keep clear that it will not be possible to overcome racism, in all its forms, as long as capitalist processes continue to reward racist policies and the ideas that reinforce those policies. That does not mean that racist oppression and racist ideas will disappear shortly after the profit incentive is removed. That is nonsense. An uprooted tree can live for a long time. However, without destroying the root, it will be impossible to destroy the tree. It is even more complex than that, however, because while the roots are the core of the tree, it is possible to damage the roots by damaging other parts of the tree. Moving from the metaphor, since capitalism and racist oppression are so intertwined, it is impossible to overcome capitalist oppression without a mighty struggle against racism.

Sometimes social scientists, myself included, use the language of ‘‘the intersection of race and class.’’ There can be a problem with that formulation however if it is implied that these are separated ‘‘oppressions,’’ with different origins, parallel, that ‘‘intersect’’ here and there, rather than understanding that class relations in all their complexity (not just ‘‘low wages or how much money is in one’s bank account’’), but that class relations that materially reward certain arrangements for the ruling class are what give rise to and mutually saturate racist oppression. So of course, some people can be doubly, or triply, or ‘‘quadruple’’ oppressed and it is important to recognize that. But separating them out can lead to the kind of identity politics that actually undermines the ability of the oppressed group to overcome that oppression.

Developing a Useful Concept of Racism

A few words about how I use the term ‘‘racism.’’ Racism is about ideas, but it is also a system of practices. Nobody assumes that fascism, or capitalism, or socialism are only ideas—they are systems of processes. So too is racism, a complex system of processes and ideas that reinforce each other (Omi and Winant 1986). When we create definitions, we have to be careful that we do not let our words utterly redefine the reality. Our words exist to advance our understanding of processes, not to ultimately define something. Different languages use different words. The term ‘‘racism’’ is often too broadly defined, as when I heard a white student say that the local (white) police were ‘‘racist’’ against kids like him because they would not let him use his skateboard. Well, perhaps they were prejudiced against youth, but somehow, the word ‘‘racism’’ does not seem to apply, especially, given that the root of the term ‘‘racism’’ is ‘‘race.’’ At the opposite extreme are those who insist that ‘‘racism’’ should only be used in reference to ‘‘black–white’’ relations in the United States. That seems to be too narrow. It is important to understand the social–political–economic processes if we are to have a definition that is useful. There are other ‘‘oppressions’’ that share much in common with racist oppression—discrimination based on age, or against those with different ability, discrimination based on height, or weight or perceived ‘‘beauty’’ and certainly discrimination based on gender. But while these have much in common, there is something distinctive that runs through discrimination based on perceived ‘‘race’’ as well as ethnicity (often different from perceived ‘‘race’’), language, religion in some but not all instances, and even citizenship. Imperialism also relies on racism to justify the extreme exploitation and often violence that victims of imperialism experience.

What is distinctive is the role of separation. Wealthy powerful people once were young and will someday be old. They might bear a child with a physical or mental ‘‘disability.’’ Men or women generally have someone in their life with whom they love. Such people may still practice discrimination or have prejudiced attitudes based on age, or ‘‘ability’’ or gender, but it is much easier to marginalize, isolate, and create a culture of ‘‘otherness’’ against people who are more physically separated, either by origin or by design. This facilitates discrimination and oppression. None of this is absolute, of course. There are many exceptions, but the dynamic that is facilitated by separation has some distinctive characteristics. Besides so-called race and ethnicity, religious conflict is sometimes characterized by this dynamic. Not absolutely, but often, religion is confounded (sometimes intentionally) by racist pseudoscience; the average person in the United States does not picture a European when asked to picture a Muslim. Consider imperialist Japan’s abuse of Chinese and Korean women; Nazi and other European slaughter of Jews; Zionist discrimination against Arabs; Muslim discrimination against Buddhists in Afghanistan and Buddhist assaults on Muslims in Myanmar; Hindu assaults on Muslims in India; discrimination against Roma (so-called gypsies); non-European immigrants in Europe; Northern Italian scorn of Southern Italians; the mistreatment of indigenous people from Canada to Latin America to Australia to Northeast India; and conflicts among Christians in Yugoslavia or Ireland and of course, against especially black people in the United States, and Latinos and Muslims—wherever there is widespread discrim- ination or conflict that spills over to civilians, we see a commonality centered on so- called race or ethnicity or, often, religion. Because separation is such a core feature to this particular cluster of discriminations that I am categorizing, imprecisely, as ‘‘racism,’’ it therefore means that the struggle against all forms of separation/segregation is absolutely essential to the struggle against these forms of racism, just as the struggle against racist oppression is the cutting edge of the struggle against capitalist oppression.

Again, there are other forms of discrimination and oppression that are deadly and need to be opposed. And the cluster of discriminations that I am including as types of ‘‘racism’’ are not identical, but all definitions are clusters with fuzzy edges, and this helps to clarify what is common in the dynamics of these discriminations. While we do not want to get mystical with numbers, it is interesting that the wage gap between white and black workers in the United States has remained around 60 percent for the past 50 years. That is very close to the wage gap between ‘‘whites’’ and Hispanics in the United States, Protestant and Catholic workers in Northern Ireland, between Jewish and Israeli Arabs (citizens of Israel) workers and between white workers and Caribbean/African/Pakistani/Bangladeshi immigrants in Britain. Some places are more extreme (South Africa) and some are less. It is worth noting that the ‘‘wealth gap’’ (as opposed to wage gap) between white and black families (how much in total assets a family owns minus liabilities) in the United States is nearly 20 to 1, higher than in South Africa. In any case, it would be very wrong to reduce all the multidimensional, life-destroying forms of oppression to a simple ‘‘wage gap’’; the point here is to simply explore some of the core dynamics that drive these processes.

Ideas, Behaviors and ‘‘White Privilege?’’

Ideas are important. The complexity of our ideas is what separates us from other species and what gives rise to social organization. All kinds of ideas can pop into people’s heads in all kinds of combinations of ways; our creative imaginations gen- erate so many different thoughts that it is difficult to conclude whether one or another random idea is more important. While the initial flash that sparks an idea is certainly important to explore, it is more important to understand why certain ideas take hold among large numbers of people while others are discarded. Whether a person might randomly ponder about the importance of supposed ‘‘racial’’ differences, or height, or deepness of voice is less the central issue than how one’s life experiences, and especially the social–political–economic structure rewards, rein- forces, perpetuates, systematizes, and institutionalizes those ideas.

To see the genesis of systems of racist exploitation/oppression as being within the minds of people begs the question of why there is not a similar, massive, world- wide system of stratification, exploitation, and oppression based on more documentable physical differences, such as height or eyesight, rather than the conveniently flexible, unscientific notions of race, often ‘‘flexibly’’ confounded with culture. If racist exploitation and oppression by the powerful exists to serve the material interests of the capitalist class (as a whole, with exceptions of course), why, then do some members of the working class go along with this oppression, or worse, sometimes participate in it?

Since the late 1960s, it has become fashionable to assert that white people, as a group, have interests that are opposed to the interests of racial minorities, especially black people, and are fundamentally allied with the white capitalists who wield economic and political power in capitalist society. Sometimes this takes the form of asserting that there are great psychological benefits associated with feeling superior. While there is, no doubt, some satisfaction that some white people derive from not being in the more oppressed group, it is doubtful that most white people walk around constantly enjoying, in a self-aware way, the fact that black people, in general, have lower economic and social standing in U.S. society. But what of the material advatages afforded to white people in general? Can they be so easily dismissed?

On average, white people earn about 65 percent more in wages per capita than black people (or Hispanic/Latino people). The typical wealth of white households is about 20 times the median wealth of black households—mainly because of home ownership. Equality of public educational facilities is not guaranteed by law, and educational opportunities in the black community are very limited (Kozol 2012). Discrimination in hiring persists (Bertrand and Mullainathan 2004). Black people are incarcerated more often and for longer periods of time than white people for sim- ilar alleged offenses. Black poverty is higher, unemployment is much higher, discrimination in employment has been absolutely documented, infant mortality rates are scandalous and devastating, and black people have higher mortality rates from most diseases and live shorter lives. There is no question that taken as a statistical group, white people, on average, have easier lives. There are, of course, many white people who have more difficult lives than some black people, but again, taken as an average, there is no question that racist exploitation and oppression are devastatingly real. This reality must be exposed, called out again and again, and fought with every ounce of energy that we can muster.

The question becomes: Do white people, as a whole, benefit from the existence of racist exploitation and oppression? Is the term ‘‘white privilege’’ the best way to describe the differentials between the two groups? Clearly, wealthy white people benefit from racist exploitation and the oppression that sustains it. Their wealth is derived from the profits from the working class, enhanced by racist (and imperialist) wage policies. White working-class people live longer lives and generally have better health, better schooling, and nicer homes than do black working-class people. I can personally detail encounters with traffic police where I likely avoided deserved penalties because I am ‘‘white.’’ So clearly, and unambiguously, there are advantages, material, life-enhancing, life-sustaining advantages that even many white working-class people experience But the core question remains: Is it a ‘‘Privilege,’’ with an uppercase ‘‘P,’’ for most nonrich white folks to live under capitalism? Is there a difference between using the language of ‘‘relative advantages’’ even ‘‘huge relative advantages’’ as opposed to language that implies that it is in the fundamental material interests of most white people to support the exploitation and oppression of blacks and other racial–ethnic minorities?

If it is, then the interests of all white people would lie in suppressing others, and there is no hope for white people, except to appeal to some sort of moral self- sacrifice. Such is the language of ‘‘giving up one’s white privilege.’’ What does that mean, exactly? Sometimes these phrases become a way of symbolically assert- ing something without having to actually do anything. Surely, white people, all people, should be willing to risk their position, their status, their material well- being, to protect, and defend the condition of others experiencing oppression. But one is reminded of President Clinton ‘‘apologizing for slavery’’ while slashing welfare support and being complicit in the imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of black men. Interestingly, many of the ones who assert that ‘‘all white people are guilty’’ often end up mainly blaming white working-class people and offering milder critiques to those, like themselves, who are enlightened (and generally of somewhat more affluent means). It also often only treads very ‘‘lightly’’ on those black politicians who themselves are often fronting for rich (white) capitalist interests.

None of this is meant to excuse active participation, complicity, or even passive acceptance by white people of the oppression of others. But would we then say that an unemployed black worker in the United States is ‘‘Privileged’’ because she does not live in poverty in Ghana, and is that Ghanaian ‘‘privileged’’ over someone in Ethiopia? All of this moralistic rhetoric (embraced by many capitalist foundations, by the way) obscures the causes and genuine interest groups that fundamentally sustain this oppressive, racist system.

In fact, by diverting the focus away from the capitalist political–economic basis for modern racism, this ‘‘guilt’’ approach actually dilutes the struggle against racism. If we are all guilty, then none are more culpable than others and we wallow in a swamp of original sin rather than organizing to fight against the oppression. The problem is not that it is ‘‘antiwhite;’’ the problem is that by failing to focus the struggle against racist exploitation and oppression on the main causes, it sustains not only class exploitation and oppression in general but more specifically racist exploitation and oppression. The problem is that it is not just ‘‘antiwhite,’’ but that, in effect, it is ‘‘antiblack.’’ This is related to criticisms of Obama that are often dismissed as racist; many, many of those criticisms are racist. But some of those criticisms are based on the belief that Obama is not opposing racism enough, and in fact, that some of his policies sustain racism against black working-class people, Latinos, and ‘‘people of color’’ in other countries.

Do most white working-class people benefit from living in this capitalist system? Certainly within the United States, and many other places, wages for white workers are lower where the gap between black and white is larger, and where wages for black workers are higher, including relative to white worker wages, the wages of the white workers are also higher. Widening the gap doesn’t mean ‘‘there’s more for the white workers;’’ on the contrary, narrowing the gap makes it more difficult for one group to be used against the other to lower the wages for both. As the relative gap between black and white family incomes narrowed, the absolute economic condition of white families improved. In recent decades, as the gap between black and white family incomes has widened, the absolute economic condition of white fam- ilies has declined. One did not rise at the expense of the other.

But there are even more profound reasons for ‘‘majority’’ ‘‘white’’ working class (very loosely defined here to include all sorts of service, white-collar, semiprofessional, and some professional people) to oppose racism. It is because the profits made from racist exploitation and the political disunity fostered by racist culture/ ideology is what sustains this capitalist system of war, of economic instability, of artificially limited scientific, especially medical research, of unhealthy foods and lifestyles, of corrupt, superficial, competitive culture that corrodes and destroys human relationships. And then there’s war. Do most white folks benefit from that? Is it a ‘‘privilege’’ for most working-class (broadly defined) people to live under capitalism? If not, what would it take to change the situation? How important is racist superexploitation to the capitalist system. Consider if the U.S. capitalist class simply raised the wages of all black workers (not even counting Latinos) to be equal to the average wages of the average white worker, the capitalist system would col- lapse. That is how important racist superexploitation is to the capitalist system and that is how important the struggle against racism is for the broad struggle for social justice against capitalist oppression. Sure, there are perks. And the perks are not just illusory. They are real. Real, genuine, palpable, tasty, health giving, life sustaining. But they are real like the real cheese, tasty, healthy, life-sustaining cheese . . . in the mousetrap.

As social scientists, as humanists, as thinkers we have to learn to see beyond superficial appearances. The cheese looks good. It is good. It is not illusory. But what is it attached to?

Oppose Color-blind Racism

The discourse around these issues is so saturated with racism that it is easy, but wrong, to categorize what is being put forward here as typical ‘‘color-blind racism’’ that is substituting bland ‘‘class rhetoric’’ as a way to avoid acknowledging the life- destroying role of racist oppression and as a way of avoiding confronting the ways that many white people, including working-class people, act to help sustain racism. Critiquing the notion that all whites fundamentally benefit from racist arrangements is not necessarily ‘‘protecting’’ white people from having to accept responsibility for behaviors that may be complicit, or worse, in sustaining racism. It is exactly to con- front white folks, and all folks, with the understanding that if they/we are serious about ending racist oppression, we must go after the roots of that—the capitalist class relations that create, reward, and sustain racist oppression, and if we are serious about ending all forms of exploitation, oppression, and subjugation, we must put the struggle against racism at the forefront of all struggles.

Because there are so many examples throughout history of calls for unity, which then kicked black folks, in particular, off the train once it was running, the burden of proof lies with those who do receive the immediate advantages to demonstrate their willingness to risk those advantages. That is not the same as moralistically declaring that one has ‘‘given up their Privilege’’ (sometimes quite profitably by giving work- shops to help people assuage their guilt or worse, a public relations for institutions that maintain racist policies). But the skepticism about ‘‘class’’ rhetoric has a real basis in history. The old slogan of ‘‘Black and White Unite’’ should be ‘‘Black and White Unite against Racism’’ because the struggle against racist exploitation, oppression, and ideology must be the cutting edge of the struggle for social justice, exactly because it is the fracture that weakens the movement for social justice while at the same time, holds the key to being the point of entry to weaken the oppressive structures of capitalism.

Racist exploitation and oppression grow out of the class relations of society, but they are not simply collapsible to ‘‘higher wages.’’ On the contrary, they are the sharpest expression of capitalist oppression, as if the blade of a sword is the weapon of class struggle, but the very edge of the blade is the struggle against all forms of racism, including, as mentioned, imperialism. Asserting that racist exploitation and oppression flow out of the class struggle need not be the same as supporting the notion of ‘‘color-blind racism.’’ In fact, as discussed earlier, the edge of the blade and the rest of the blade are not two separate things; they are fundamentally parts of the same thing, so fundamentally ingrained in each other that neither could exist in any serious sense without the other. The struggle against racism must be at the forefront of all struggles because racist oppression saturates all aspects of capitalist social relations, whether we realize it or not.

Why Do You Care?

Every so often, some asks me: ‘‘Why do you care so much about racism? Is it some sort of ‘thing’ with you?’’ Mostly white folks ask me that, students wonder why it runs throughout my courses, rather than just being a ‘‘one-week unit’’ in Introductory Sociology or Social Problems or Stratification. Occasionally, serious black folks ask me versions of that question. The first time I was asked it was during a campaign to save the job of a black professor who was being unfairly terminated. Someone came up to me and asked me why I cared so much about it. I just looked at him and asked: ‘‘Should I care about you?’’ He looked confused. So I asked him again, looking him straight in the eye: ‘‘Should I care about you?’’ ‘‘Well, er, um, sure, I hope so,’’ he said. ‘‘So,’’ I replied, ‘‘what kind of question is that?’’

The point is that antiracists have to stop being so defensive or apologetic about the importance of this struggle. Many humanists/leftists/progressives, whatever . . . ponder the question of why there is no strong leftist, or prosocialist, or class conscious movement in the United States. The ones in Europe have many, many flaws, but compared to them, we have a situation in the United States where tens of millions of people believe that Obama is a socialist. Conservatives in Europe are more pro- gressive than many in the liberal wing of the U.S. Democratic Party on many issues. There are lots of reasons why there is so little, for now, class consciousness in the United States. Partly it is the culture of individualism, intensified by home owner- ship, the automobile culture, the mythical cowboy culture, the ‘‘United States is Supreme’’ type of nationalism, the temporary bribes (‘‘cheese?’’) of easy credit to temporarily maintain a lifestyle with some physical comfort. But a core reason is the racist division within the population, something that has been ingrained in U.S. culture since two centuries before there was a United States! While European imperialists certainly used different aspects of racism in their imperial conquests, mainly overseas, we now see more of the U.S. type of internal racism developing in Europe as well, and we see a divided movement, split between leftists preoccupied with labor issues and ignoring racism, and ethnic groups immersed in identity politics who remain skeptical of the traditional Left. Who benefits from the existence of a race–ethnic based ‘‘reserve army of lower paid labor?’’ Who benefits from a divided grassroots populace, divided by illusions, and forced institutional arrangements based on politically constructed, perceived ‘‘race and ethnicity?’’

Hence, yes, we all should ‘‘care.’’ Not as charity, but for survival. Our lives and our destinies are one. If, for example, all the black workers in the United States, and nobody else, had gone on strike at the start of the devastatingly destructive Iraq War, it would have been the most powerful strike in the history of the United States, and perhaps a million lives there as well as thousands of lives here, and millions more impacted negatively by that war—they/we would have been spared great misery. It’s not charity. It’s sisterhood/brotherhood. It’s what the word ‘‘solidarity’’ means.

All this should lead to the realization that the struggle against racism, broadly defined, is not just another of the many struggles we need to carry on in order to cre- ate a humanistic world based on social justice. Just as racist exploitation, oppression, and ideas saturate every part of human life, distorting our institutions and relation- ships in complex, subtle, and not-so-subtle ways—just as all of our struggles for social justice are undermined by the existence of racist ideas and racist institutional arrangements in society . . . so then must we ensure that the struggle against racism is part of every struggle for social justice in which we are involved, from the most explicitly political to the most personal in our relationships.

It is not so-called reverse racism (a nonsensical rhetorical tool to deny the inten- sity of actual racism) to emphasize the struggle against racism any more than it is reverse discrimination to toss a buoyant lifesaving device to someone in the water when someone on the boat complains that they want one also! And it is not ‘‘charity’’ to offer solidarity to brothers and sisters. It is important to keep in mind that in the most fundamental sense, black people (and increasingly many Latino people) have not been ‘‘outside’’ the system; black and Latino working-class people have been holding up the system as agricultural workers, steel workers, auto workers, coal miners, health care workers, and more, while being underpaid not just in wages but in social services, education, and housing. It is not a question of ‘‘white’’ allies; it is a question of solidarity and equality. However, it is true that most ‘‘white’’ people do not grasp how profoundly widespread and intense racial discrimination is—from the different types of anxiety that white people feel when followed by a police officer to the humiliation of being followed in retail stores or vilified in the media. And this is on top of the massive economic discrimination. So the burden is on all of us, but there is a special need for those with weaker understanding of these dynamics to take the initiative to become educated and committed to opposing them. Many people have had the experience of someone asking the oft-repeated question of ‘‘Why do the black students sit together in the cafeteria?’’ Perhaps readers of this might ask that question themselves. One could try to consider sociological explanations that evade issues of race, or of networks, but even without looking too deeply into it, shouldn’t the question be: ‘‘Have you ever gone over and introduced yourself?’’ Per- ceived so-called black separatism is less widely practiced than is exaggerated in the media and more important, ‘‘white separatism’’ is often considered ‘‘natural’’ and the question is seldom asked: ‘‘Why do the white students sit together in the cafe- teria?’’ Actually, while the media discourse on race and racism still mainly rein- forces racist divisions, and while economic and social gaps are widening, it seems to be the case on many colleges, especially working-class ones, that there is more social interaction than in the past. This is good, important, and needs to be nurtured. Antiracists should not be apologetic or timid. We are not the weird ones. We have to internalize and project, with confidence and strength—not arrogance or elitism, but confidence and strength, that it is the racists who are the weird ones. We have to practice thinking and saying things like: ‘‘Do people really believe that stuff?’’ rather than asking people to give up their perceived ‘‘normalcy’’ and join us, the abnormal ones, on a great moral crusade. Seriously, racist ideas are nonsense and, again without exhibiting personal arrogance or using personal insults, these ideas should be confronted the same way we would confront the idea that horses can talk.

Racism and Capitalism—Crisis and Resistance

The struggle for social justice is more important now than it has been in the past 75 years, perhaps ever. The world is an increasingly dangerous place. Capitalism as a world system has limits, and while it has not reached its limits everywhere, there are huge pressures building up. Severe cutbacks in the standard of living even in the wealthy countries, fragmentation, intensified nationalism camouflaged by talk of global economic integration. The pressures will try to be contained through cut- backs, then political suppression, but ultimately, they will likely explode in one way or another. If that sounds apocalyptic and silly, just ask why should we believe that after hundreds of generations, this generation will be the one that sees the start of eternal peace here on Earth. The youth of today will face a much more difficult world than my generation faced. We cannot fully prevent certain massive political–economic processes from developing along certain pathways, but we most certainly can have an impact on how devastating they will be and how we can make the world a better place.

The struggle against racist exploitation and oppression can never be won without defeating the profit motive of capitalism that rewards it. It is not just the ‘‘1 percent,’’ but rather the system as a whole, which rewards and therefore creates these practices. The struggle for social justice on all fronts, the struggle against capitalism and its destructive dynamic of profits over people can never be won without a massive struggle against all forms of racism. This is not just a slogan. The two are not ‘‘two’’—they are integrated, fully unified parts of a single system. Let us all commit ourselves, again and again through action, to transform our neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, community centers into self-conscious centers working for social justice, with the struggle against racism ever present in those struggles. And let us continue to transform the Association for Humanist Sociology (AHS) into an organization that can set that example to ourselves, our colleagues, our students and staff, and our communities by fully incorporating into AHS the struggle against all forms of racism and imperialism and by transforming the membership of AHS to more fully reflect the ‘‘racial–ethnic’’ and international diversity of the human race.


Bennett, Lerone. 1993. Before the Mayflower. New York: Penguin.
Bertrand, Marianne and Sendhil Mullainathan. 2004. Are Emily and Greg More Employable

than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination. Chicago,

IL: University of Chicago School of Business.
Brace, C. Loring. 2005. ‘‘Race’’ Is a Four Letter Word: The Genesis of a Concept. Oxford,

England: Oxford University Press.
Cox, Oliver Cromwell. 1948. Caste, Class and Race. New York: Monthly Review Press. Galeano, Eduardo. 1973. Open Veins of Latin America. New York: Monthly Review Press. Kozol, Jonathan. 2012. Savage Inequalities. New York: Broadway Books.
Lewontin, Richard. 1982. Human Diversity—Scientific American Library Series. New York:

  1. H. Freeman.
Omi, Michael and Howard Winant. 1986. Racial Formation in the United States: From the

1960s to the 1980s. New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Race: The Power of an Illusion. 2003. [DVD] California Newsreel.

Alan Spector is a Professor of Sociology at Purdue North West and long time anti-racist, anti-war activist, 















juneteenthby Ellen Isaacs

Should June 19 be a day to celebrate the end of chattel slavery, sob about the delayed emancipation of 200,000 slaves in Texas, rage over the 150 year continuation of racism, or resolve to continue the fight to end racist wage slavery and war? Despite the urge of black Americans to seize a day to celebrate their own freedom and empowerment, there are many reasons why the events remembered on this day obscure the many anti-racist battles that have been and must be fought by workers.

Two years before June 19, 1865 came Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which excluded slave states that were not in rebellion against the Union – Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware, and Missouri – and Texas, which was not a battleground. In fact, many planters and other slaveholders decamped to Texas with over 150,000 slaves in tow, in order to escape the raging Civil War. In June, 1865, after the surrender of General Robert E Lee and the Union victory in New Orleans, word finally came to Galveston, Texas that the slaves were free. In fact, the 13th Amendment, officially ending slavery throughout the country, was not passed until December, 1865.

Moreover, Abraham Lincoln, lionized as the liberator of slaves, was no believer in the equality of blacks. In 1858, Lincoln said, “I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races…” Lincoln favored setting up colonies for blacks in Africa and Central America and requested funds from Congress to deport freed slaves. His main motive for fighting the Civil War was preservation of the unity of the United States, not abolishing slavery.

Other history we do not learn about or celebrate is that of the multitude of rebellions against slavery, many of them interracial, from the 1600s to the 1800s. In their book The ManyHeaded Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic, Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Reducer document many of these. Among them are the Barbados rebellions in 1649, which united Irish and African slaves; Bacon’s rebellion in Virginia in 1676, which united slaves and white indentured servants; the New York City Conspiracy of 1741, which united African Americans, white indentured servants, sailors, and Irish immigrants; Nat Turner’s slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831; and John Brown’s multiracial antislavery campaign culminating at Harper’s Ferry. Of course, the most successful was the Haitian rebellion, which abolished slavery and colonization on that island by 1804.

Racism Never Ended

At the end of the Civil War, freed slaves became wage laborers on former plantations, sharecroppers, or domestics. For a short time, their well-being was protected by federal troops during Reconstruction from 1865-77. Once this protection was withdrawn, white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan flourished, often made up of local law enforcement. This Jim Crow era was characterized by the open murder of thousands of black workers, rampant imprisonment, impoverishment and indebtedness of former slaves and total segregation.

Although many of these abuses were gradually mitigated through mass migrations of black workers to the North through the end of World War II, court decisions, and then the Civil Rights Movement, racism has continued to flourish in the all parts of the U.S. Today wage differentials between white men and black and Latin workers add up to almost $800 billion dollars a year, nearly half of annual corporate profits. Differences in social spending on such services as education, health care and housing add up to hundreds of billions more dollars, making it clear that American capitalism would be hard put to survive without racism. Black workers continue to be incarcerated at five times the rate of whites and be murdered disproportionately by police, accounting for 63% of those killed (223 deaths in 2017) while comprising 13% of the population. No cop has ever been convicted for murder of a black American. Schools, hospitals, and neighborhoods are just as segregated today as they were 50 years ago.

All Workers Are Hurt by Racism

It is popular today to talk about “white privilege”, as if white workers created racism (even though many may harbor racist ideas), benefit from it or should be paralyzed or separate themselves because of guilt. In fact, anti-black racism was purposely and methodically created in the U.S. of the 1600-1700s to justify slavery and separate white indentured servants and poor farmers from Black slaves. (see Before that there had been social mixing and intermarriage between whites and non-whites. Racist propaganda continues unabated today, from pseudo-scientific theories of racial differences to racist stereotypes in the media and tolerance of white supremacist groups and utterances by politicians.

What the ruling class fears is us recognizing is that the lowered standards for wages, health, education, housing bring down the standards for everyone, even as black, Latin and other minority groups continue to be super-exploited. Even more important, the separation into different schools, job categories, unions, and neighborhoods keeps us divided when only multiracial mass action would enable us to fight back effectively. Ultimately, as we have seen, capitalism relies on racism for profits and to minimize rebellion. US rulers also rely on racism to win workers, white, black and immigrant, to fight foreign wars for markets and resources by painting Muslims, Arabs, Asians and others as inhuman enemies.

It is heartening to witness the mass uprising against the separation and incarceration of immigrant children, which has actually forced a minimal change in Trump’s policies. But we must use this power of the unity of millions of workers to outlaw racism once and for all and build an egalitarian society. That will be the proper day for celebration.


imagesA conservative news site used one black woman’s opinion to argue that racism is obsolete. Another student, whose article is reproduced here, refuted the first student critic on College Media Network on 6/21/18.




Viewpoint: Antagonistic Reaction to Angela Davis Speech Shows Why It Was Necessary

Conservative news site uses one black woman’s opinion to argue that racism is obsolete.

By Elena Neale


Activist Angela Davis gave a commencement speech at Bryn Mawr College on May 19. A black woman who was in the audience wrote a critical letter of the speech in her local newspaper. A right-wing college news site used that letter to argue that racism is no longer an issue.

Patricia Jackson penned a letter to the Delaware County Daily Times titled “What Angela Davis did not say at Bryn Mawr” on June 16. Jackson, an African-American social worker, wrote that Davis’s speech did not address the privilege of students in the audience or real problems in American society.

“She did not tell these Millennials that the greatest threat to women is not a white male patriarchal society, but the explosion of single motherhood in our cities, where men abandon the children they father, leaving the women to soldier on against all odds,” Jackson wrote.

Jackson’s analysis is intriguing, yet it ignores the correlation between the white patriarchal society Davis discussed in her speech and the burden placed on many black single mothers. These are not separate conversations.

In her speech, Davis addressed white supremacy, the prison industrial complex and the exploitative nature of capitalism. These concepts lie at the root of the issues Jackson deems important. White supremacy and the history of racial discrimination embedded in American society created discriminatory employment practices and housing laws such as redlining that keep many black Americans in poor inner-city neighborhoods.

How can capitalism be the best system to lift people out of poverty when its very framework relies on the imbalance of power between the rich and the poor?

Police racism is one of the primary reasons so many African American fathers end up in prison, leaving mothers with sole responsibility of their children. Black single mothers are the most likely group to end up in poverty in the United States, other than children.

Jackson, like so many people, did not draw the connection between economic inequality and race in her letter.

“[Davis] did not say as Winston Churchill did, decades ago, that capitalism, as imperfect as it is, remains the best economic system known to mankind, and the best to lift people out of poverty,” Jackson wrote.

How can capitalism be the best system to lift people out of poverty when its very framework relies on the imbalance of power between the rich and the poor? Its individualistic nature allows those born into positions of racial and economic privilege to build upon their privilege while those less fortunate are told that it is their fault for not taking advantage of the opportunities provided them by American society.

Capitalism refuses to acknowledge that, despite what the Constitution says, we are not all born equal.

The College Fix, a conservative news site, published an article on June 18 applauding Jackson for her critique of Davis’s speech. The headline included the words “From one black woman to another, you blew it.” The College Fix used the fact that one black woman criticized another black woman’s passionate call to action to discredit the significance of Davis’s speech.

The article is an attempt to diminish the reality of racism and pretend that we live in a colorblind society where black and white Americans begin their lives on a level playing field. This is simply not the case.

Activists like Angela Davis must continue to give speeches deemed “radical” by conservatives. This is how change happens. Education on the causes of some of the most serious issues in the country leads to an understanding of how they are all related and have a common denominator: capitalism.

Capitalism allows the wealthy to maintain their status through the oppression of the poor and the working class. Combined with structural racism, capitalism perpetuates the segregation of black Americans in inner-city neighborhoods and limits their opportunities for upward mobility.

Instead of blaming black men for the “explosion of single motherhood” in inner-cities, we need to ask tougher questions.

Why are so many black men leaving their families? The answer is not simple, but it can be pieced together by analyzing the structures that have left black men with few employment prospects and about a one-in-three chance of being imprisoned at some point in their lives.

Locating the root of the issue is the only way to discover lasting solutions to poverty, economic and racial inequality in the United States.

Elena Neale is a Politics and Latin American/Latino Studies Major at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She was previously a reporter for the student-run newspaper City on a Hill Press. In her free time, Elena enjoys playing on the UCSC women’s club ultimate frisbee team.