On Afro-American Nationhood

Haywood

Because there is apparently presently a question of which position some Marxist-Leninists in the process of organisational construction should take on the question of Afro-American/New Afrikan nationhood, and I take the position, in common with the US ICOR affiliate ROL, as well as the FRSO, that there is such a national question and it is a dividing line between us and the revisionists who we approach this question when organising, what follows is a brief review of Stalin’s criteria for nationhood in “Marxism and the National Question”, how I feel they do correctly apply to the Afro-American people, as well as some notes on what I feel are the shortcomings even of many self-described Marxist-Leninists in the United States who agree, on paper, that Afro-Americans are a nation, collective victims of national oppression, and best organised on the basis of national liberation in the first instance.

“A nation is primarily a community, a definite community of people.”

Nobody except the most committed opponents of defining humans as members of social groups will deny that Afro-Americans represent a definite “community” of some sort. I will therefore continue directly to:

“a nation is not a racial or tribal, but a historically constituted community of people.”

I mention this because some people have assumed the Black Belt Nation hypothesis rests on skin colour alone. I assume most Marxist-Leninist readers know this is not the case, but I will nonetheless emphasise that the historical constitution of the Afro-American nation and people has to do with the culture formed around the descendents of slaves in the US south, who happen to be on average of significantly higher Sub-Saharan African ancestry than the rest of the population of the United States, but this fact, and the resultant intense racism in the United States, does not make the Afro-American nation more a “race nation” than any other, as victims of national oppression and chauvinism in every country are subjected to insane racist theories by the oppressor nation, whose exploiter classes emphasise pseudo-scientific essentialism based on purported genetic differences as a means of creating a visceral hatred of the oppressed nation, thus dividing the toiling masses of various nations.

“a nation is not a casual or ephemeral conglomeration, but a stable community of people.”

Here we begin to reach points of controversy, as dialectics teaches us that things are always changing and always in motion, and thus no social construction is completely stable. Indeed, as Stalin goes on to say:

“It goes without saying that a nation, like every historical phenomenon, is subject to the law of change, has its history, its beginning and end.”

The Afro-American national formation began at the very earliest with the failure of reconstruction after the US Civil War, and has roots which go before this important historical moment. Whatever the twists and turns in cultural development, it is generally agreed that Afro-Americans have a distinctive culture, which is stable in terms of the population still roughly constituting the descendants of slaves from the US south, as well as those elements which have been assimilated to that culture through marriage and cohabitation, resulting in acceptance by the community itself.

“a common language is one of the characteristic features of a nation.”

As everyone who comes to the US notices almost immediately, Afro-Americans generally speak a very distinctive variety of English, both in their homeland and in exile.

a common territory is one of the characteristic features of a nation.”

As is known, Marxist-Leninists defending the national character of Afro-Americans hold that the Black Belt South is the historical common territory of this nation, and that those Afro-Americans living outside of it are victims of exile imposed by a reign of KKK terror (tacitly supported by the political elite of the south associated with the aristocracy which historically owned the Afro-American people as slaves).

“an internal economic bond to weld the various parts of the nation into a single whole.”

What’s very interesting about the economic basis of any nation, and the administrative necessities it present to the bourgeois state of the oppressor nation when dealing with the territory of an oppressed nation, is that we can find evidence for it with a critical reading of the state’s own documents, even when the state does everything possible to claim national unity between oppressor and oppressed.

While the state does not formally recognise Afro-Americans as a nation as they do for indigenous nations such as the Navajo, it is to be noted that the Black Belt is economically distinct as a geographical location in terms of the US state’s own economic considerations.

More to the point, as Marxists, we all know that this region, which roughly corresponds to the slave-dominated regions of the early US, was distinguished primarily by the economic relationship between the white landed aristocracy and the African slaves and their descendants. We can only explain the failure of reconstruction with reference to this economic reality, and we can further only explain the subordinate place of the Afro-American masses (inside and outside of that territory) with reference to this distinct economic formation compared to the North of the United States. The KKK reign of terror, the betrayal of the left of the Republican Party, the Great Migration, almost every significant point in the history of the Afro-American people in the south is explainable by their status as the descendants of slaves. The political landscape of the south was accordingly shaped by the struggle of the ruling elite to suppress Afro-American civil rights (to this day), predicated primarily on an economic balance of power which, while based fundamentally on the struggle between impoverished slave descendants on the one hand and the descendants of the slave-owning aristocracy on the other, has also shaped the social dynamics of proletarian whites and bourgoies Afro-Americans in the south as well. As Afro-Americans were driven to the north by KKK terror (with the tacit support of the state), many of these dynamics were replicated in the north, but it is worth noting that despite the mutual penetration of the social and economic realities of north and south, the two are still economically and socially distinct, in the minds of local whites and Afro-Americans, principally with reference to this history!

Granted, considering a common economic life, economic cohesion […] one of the characteristic features of a nation”, we have to be clear that a large chunk of the Afro-American people in the United States presently live outside of their historical homeland. What success has been seen from the reverse migration has not yet nullified the initial exodus. But it is widely acknowledged that Afro-Americans inside and outside the Black Belt are subject to a tiered economic existence, whether as a weaker national bourgeoisie relative to the oppressor nation bourgeoisie, or as a super-exploited section of the labour pool of US citizens. The greater significance of this pattern within their historical homeland, which itself constitutes a distinct economic reality for that region, is well known.

Finally, we come to the issue of “a common psychological make-up, which manifests itself in a common culture, is one of the characteristic features of a nation”. Acknowledging the distinctive culture of Afro-Americans is something that more or less everyone is willing to do, but the psychology of Afro-Americans is worth emphasising here: there is a strong conception of a distinct Afro-American history, with Afro-American leaders, a memory of expulsion from the Black Belt, the geographical source of “down home” culture, and indeed, most Afro-Americans, except those most enamoured with the leadership of the imperialist US and their politico-cultural dictats, will almost invariably refer to the Afro-American people when referring to “our people” and “us”.

Are Afro-Americans a nation, and so what if they are?

I think as the above text has made clear, I believe the idea that Afro-Americans are an oppressed nation is fairly easy to demonstrate. However, formal commitment to this categorisation of this particular social conflict in the United States is far from my goal. The Party for Socialism and Liberation and Worker’s World Party will both formally commit to this description of Afro-Americans, but downplay the question of national liberation as a specific struggle with a geographic basis in favour of using the idea of “nation” as a stand-in for what is in fact a rather garden-variety anti-racism of the type many Trotskyite groups could (and do) embrace. The national question is employed as a recruiting method to assure non-white recruits that their problems will be solved in socialism. The RCP can make the same claims, as can the various “MLM”s who reject the cult of Bob Avakian; but without concrete, material commitment to aiding the raising up of the struggle for the immediate liberation of the Afro-American people, these declarations are of no consequence.

The only thing that should matter to us, as Marxist-Leninists, and to the Afro-American people, as an oppressed people, is what we are doing right now to actually aid in their liberation, to put them in control of their own lives and destinies, and to bring low their oppressors and exploiters. And “there won’t be racism after our party launches the revolution”, or “we’ll count you as a nation if we come to power” are not good enough. They are equally abstract and meaningless from a concrete perspective regardless of the difference in tone with regard to the specific formal idealist commitment to describing the source of Afro-American oppression and exploitation today (“racism” or “national oppression).

If organisations that are being formed or built are debating whether or not to include in their points of unity that Afro-Americans are a nation, and that they have a national territory, and it is the land on which they were slaves and which is still ruled by their ancestors’ slavemasters’ descendants, I would tell them that they should do this. But whether or not groups do this, my question is: what are you practically doing to unite in struggle and struggle in unity with the Afro-American left which already exists, primarily in the south, where it has a long history? Failure to acknowledge Afro-Americans as a nation is no reason not to work with groups like the NAPO, MXGM, etc. Projects like Cooperation Jackson are progressive even if Afro-Americans are not a nation, just as the Green Party can run good campaigns even if their theoretical approach is totally eclectic.

If your reason for not following and supporting the quite advanced struggle (relative to almost all other struggles self-described Marxists in the United States are engaged in) of Afro-American revolutionaries active within groups like Cooperation Jackson (and while I encourage all individuals to financially support this organisation’s work, as organisations one should go even further, rendering whatever practical solidarity one is able) is that “Afro-Americans are not a nation”, my objection wouldn’t be so much the theoretical difference between us on this question, but rather a chauvinistic attitude towards Afro-Americans (if one would render active solidarity to similar struggles carried out without red, black, and green flags) or ultra-leftism and sectarianism (if one simply opposes all practical solidarity with other groups).

But, if one were to investigate the historical, economic, and social conditions underlying the relative success of groups like Cooperation Jackson, it is also my personal belief that one would come to agree a formation that we would call “nation” stands at the heart of it.

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