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Black Liberation and Socialism Paperback – February 15, 2006
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Now the people's Party says to these two men, 'You are kept apart that you may be separately fleeced of your earnings. You are made to hate each other because upon that hatred is rested the keystone of the arch of financial despotism that enslaves you both. You are deceived and blinded that you may not see how this race antagonism perpetuates a monetary system which beggars both.'"
The following passage from Ahmed Shaki's book, a quote from the Populist-turned-White-Supremacist Thomas E. Watson, was used to describe the economic and political landscape of the early 20th century. Even after 100 years, it still effectively describes today's racial and economic realities. And even though Watson eventually succumbed to the brutal hatred and bigotry that he initially fought against, his description of society should still remain with us as we work to combat the racism and poverty that remains endemic in U.S. institutions, politics, and economics.
That's because the brutal racism that black citizens experience originates from an oppressive economic history. This brutal racism wasn't borne out of a vacuum. It took concerted efforts from powerful economic and political interests to sow hatred and mistrust between blacks and whites. And as Shawki writes, it will take concerted efforts of both black and white citizens to replace our racist, exploitive economic order.
Shawki's book is an invaluable source of information on the turbulent, at times inspiring, at times retrograde history of Black Liberation and Socialism in the U.S. He shows that the gains that black and white citizens have made over the last century weren't simply handed over. Brutal, sometimes bloody struggles were necessary to wrest basic rights from an economic system based on maximization of capital and criminalization of skin color. Rights to vote, organize, and negotiate better living conditions, employment opportunities, and political representation came not from benevolent politicians but from millions of workers and citizens struggling for their basic independence. Shawki shows through several historical instances, from Reconstruction to Depression-era strikes to the Civil Rights Movement, how populist, cross-racial struggle can extract significant benefits and concessions from the ruling interests of society.
Rather than accepting their place as disposable appendages to a ruthless system of slavery and poverty, writers like Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Dubois sought to inspire people to fight against it. Shawki writes how they were some of the first to join other oppressed groups, whether black or white, in the long struggle against racial supremacy and economic exploitation over the last 150 years. The figure on the book's cover, Malcolm X, is a prime example of the turbulent political changes many advocates of socialism and popular struggle emerged from in their fight for political and economic independence. He was a black nationalist and is remembered as one of the most passionate proponents for black separatism in the U.S. But before his untimely death, Malcolm X realized the importance of a unified, common struggle against economic oppressors, who subject the poor masses of both black and white to the same wretched economic and political conditions.
As Shawki writes, just because the deeds and words of figures like MLK and Malcolm X are enshrined in the history books doesn't mean that their struggle is anywhere close to over. Racism still infests our society. Contrary to the musings of politicians, our political and economic order is still very much beholden to capital. The progress of black liberation and socialism also hasn't gone in a straight line: it's encountered countless painful setbacks in the face of betrayal, systematic state violence, and accommodation by black elites.
The struggle for political, racial, and economic freedom is as ongoing as it ever was. Books like these, which serve to educate us on the historical details that ruling interests would prefer we ignore, are the first of many steps to fundamentally alter our society in a way that is beneficial to human development.
Meanwhile, racist police brutality against Black people is a scourge that plagues cities from coast to coast. The murder of Trayvon Martin struck a nerve because the problem continues to be so widespread---even though a Black man occupies the White House. Combine that with what Michelle Alexander has called "The New Jim Crow"---a prison-industrial complex that is locking up more Black men today than there were slaves before the Civil War---and what we see is a profound social and economic crisis facing Black America. And it shows no signs of getting better any time soon---in fact, Obama's policies (laying off public sector workers, cutting back on social services, privatizing public education, and all the rest) are making the problems worse.
What is to be done? How can we fight for a world without racism? How can Black liberation be won?
These are difficult questions, and Shawki's book doesn't give us any easy answers. But he does put forward a framework for thinking about how to move the struggle forward which draws on the lessons of every major Black movement in American history that has fought against racism. He begins with the story of how the US was built on genocide and slavery, and discusses the (often ignored) resistance of slaves to a system which exploited, oppressed and dominated them while treating them like mere objects. He discusses the legacy of Marcus Garvey, Black Communists and Socialists, Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, The League of Revolutionary Black Workers, among other groups. All along the way we learn lessons from the past that we can apply to the struggle today. There's a reason we don't learn about our own history---and the history of struggle in particular---in school.
Shawki argues that Black liberation is impossible without challenging the capitalist system which was both founded upon slavery and colonialism and continues to profit from racial oppression. Unless we wrest wealth and power from the 1% and empower Black workers to take their destiny into their own hands, liberation is unthinkable.
Perhaps one of the greatest strengths of Shawki's book is that it unearths a forgotten history of radical struggle against racism within the socialist movement in the US. He discusses debates between Trotsky and the Trinidadian Marxist CLR James on the question of Black Nationalism and anti-racist struggle. These are important debates that we rarely learn about today, but there's a lot we can learn from them.