From Black Power to Ethnic Politics: Class Contradictions of Black Nationalism

Cedric Johnson.  Revolutionaries to Race Leaders: Black Power and the Making of African American Politics.   University of Minnesota Press, 2007.

Revolutionaries to Race Leaders: Black Power and the Making of African American PoliticsCedric Johnson‘s Revolutionaries to Race Leaders traces the ideological cooptation of one of the twentieth century’s most vibrant social movements.  The Black Nationalist resurgence of the 1960s and 1970s demanded nothing short of self-determination, but in the end was left with powerless political machines, ravaged urban economies, and the near complete absorption of the movement into the preexisting, capitalist, white supremacist power structure.  In addition, the movement succumbed to debilitating internal contradictions.  Cedric Johnson aptly demonstrates how an attempt at a cohesive “Black politics” became simply “ethnic bloc politics,” well within the framework of the mainstream American political schema.  Through this process we see the burning hope of a generation neutralized and asphyxiated.

Johnson makes the argument that the race for “Black unity” papered over the real political contradictions between the radical and conservative wings of Black Nationalism that raged just below the surface.  Despite its beginnings as grass roots insurgency and a militant mood, Black Nationalism evolved in the direction of traditional twentieth-century US ethnic politics, Johnson argues.  This transformation, which happened chiefly at the top, channeled the movement away from mass mobilization and demands for radical social justice up to and including revolutionary action, in the direction of electoral politics and what Johnson describes as “elite race brokerage.”  This boils down to unelected and elected community leaders making deals with the white power structure, with the working-class grassroots almost entirely out of the picture except as passive but loyal voters.

Thankfully, Johnson dismisses the tired “good Sixties/bad Sixties” dichotomy popular with some liberal historians.  This approach venerates the early, “less militant” period of Civil Rights and anti-war agitation and heaps scorn on the movement’s turn to radical politics towards the close of the decade.  Instead, Johnson employs an analysis based on non-Leninist Marxist, influenced by the academic approach sometimes called the “new labor history.”  Although detached enough to convey the full range of contending ideologies fairly, Johnson retains a commitment to mass, democratic class struggle politics throughout.  Instead of looking at the full scale of the Black Nationalist movements’ political disintegration Johnson mainly focuses on the intellectuals and ideologues of the movement, choosing Harold Cruse and Amiri Baraka as important archetypes.

Harold Cruse and the Dawn of the New Nationalism

Johnson traces the reappearance a Black Nationalism subculture in the 1950s through its cultural, leftist, and capitalist phases in the 1970s.  This investigation begins with a look at the work of Harold Cruse, a towering intellectual figure of Nationalism’s post-war revival.  Cruse was a product of the Old Left, but he desperately sought to break through its orthodoxies, especially as he moved towards a Nationalist position.  Cruse would eventually put forward the idea that Black people are an internal colony of the United States, a nation within a nation.  This interpretation of Black oppression has roots that go back past the early Communist Party, the Garvey movement, and indeed back to Martin Delany and his co-thinkers in the nineteenth century.  Cruse, though, claimed to have broken permanently with his early leftist roots.  He rejected the legacy of Black involvement in the Communist movement as debilitating detour away from the struggle for self-determination.

By the time he produced him major work, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, he had also incorporated an analysis that Johnson says reflects a “mainstream social science notion of ethnic pluralism.” Cruse’s analysis would eventually articulate a vision of “ethnic bloc” politics.  White Protestants, white Catholics, and white Jews had emerged as defined historical and political “blocs,” although today’s race scholars may remark that these forces have since coalesced in to a simple “white bloc.”  Cruse asserts that Blacks need to compete “at the table” as a unified bloc, forged around a basic concept of ethnic self.  Johnson is quick to point out two serious flaws in Cruse’s ethnic bloc nationalism, starting with its dismissal of the genuine political conflicts within the Black community, many of which are determined by class and social power.  It is also a back-door acceptance of what might be called the “white veto” in US politics, according to Cruse’s understanding.  The Black bloc could never hope for real liberation, Johnson insinuates, when it is elbowing for power alongside — and in competition with — the contending racial blocs.  Both aspects of Cruse’s analysis, the internal colony theory and the “ethnic bloc” realpolitik, are headed in the direction of deep conservatism, Johnson maintains.

Part of the reason why Johnson is so critical of Cruse’s model is its rejection of the concept of mass mobilization, mass participation, and from-below social change.  Johnson takes Cruse to task for simply forgetting activism when describing Black self-determination.  Black media ownership is essential in Cruse’s schema, for example, but Johnson wonders where the plan of action is and where the Black masses fit in.  He also questions exactly what elite brokerage can accomplish.  His calls for revolution start to sound increasingly containable: “[…] having discarded popular mobilization, his calls for cultural revolution amounted to a mere politics of cultural recognition within the state-market arrangements” (emphasis mine, page 23).

Johnson goes on to investigate another key intellectual turned political godhead, Amiri Baraka.  Like Cruse, Baraka came up through New York bohemia.  Like Cruse, he was forever transformed by a trip to Cuba in the early 1960s.  For Cruse, Cuba was a living expression of the Afro-Asia anti-colonial movement announced by the 1955 conference in Bandung, Indonesia.  It signified the vanguard role that colonized people would play in transforming the world.  For Baraka, still known as up-and-coming writer LeRoi Jones, Cuba was proof that social transformation could be brought about by revolutionary action.  Baraka turned away from his counter culture past and henceforth would be known as a hyper-political artist, and an intellectual with extensive political commitments.

The Nationalist Move towards Political Power

Northern resentment at the lack of progress on the Civil Rights front was the heartbeat of resurgent nationalism.  This explosive mix of dashed expectations and daring hope came together in the “long, hot summers” of 1965-1968, when Northern cities, along with Watts in California, reached a violent crescendo on the streets.  Talk of rebellion was prophetic, as working-class Blacks leveled racist businesses, destroyed inhumane housing, and literally cleared the streets of the hated police.  The media called them riots, mere orgies of violence, but increasingly young Black people saw these summers as the prelude to a social transformation as radical as the US Civil War a hundred years previous.  State reaction was swift and deadly in many cases, such as Detroit, amplifying police occupation in the aftermath of the uprising.

Baraka was right at the center — in the whirlwind — of the events that shook Newark, New Jersey in 1967.  The connection between the Summer Rebellions and the move towards Black control of Black life and resources, the credo of his new Nationalism, was not lost on Baraka.  Laboring to channel the willingness to confront the social structure into something more long lasting — political power — became the raison d’etre of Baraka his co-thinkers in Newark.  Newark was now thought of as “New Ark,” the perfect vehicle for step one: Black control of Black cities.  Johnson pays particular attention to the role of Baraka and the new Nationalists in the successful election campaign that brought to power Newark’s first Black mayor, Kenneth Gibson.

Baraka’s Nationalist project in Newark stated plainly that “we will nationalize the city’s institutions as if it were liberated territory in Zimbabwe or Angola.”  Mayor Gibson’s vision was strikingly more modest, wanting to build a welfare state along the lines of the “Scandinavian model” of social democracy.  The Johnson and Nixon administrations had their own desire for something approaching Black “ownership” of city bureaucracies.  Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, commissioned to investigate the rebellious mood in Black cities, sighted the need for the quick development of an “urban Negro leadership echelon” to function as what the author calls “racial technocrats.”

Johnson wonders how much control can be wrestled from capitalism — in terms of economic or even social power — with a city-by-city framework, something akin to “Nationalism in one city.”  Johnson tellingly looks to Fanon and his critique of national independence: new flags and new national anthems are no substitute for far-reaching, revolutionary changes that reshape the nation.  Native-born elites have “reactionary designs,” just as post-colonial (and neo-colonial) regimes across Africa and elsewhere had proven.

Baraka imagines Nationalists acting as a “Trojan horse,” working with less radical forces all the while playing a “vanguard” role in the fight to transform the cities.  Although focusing on grass roots mobilization to a much greater extent than Harold Cruse, Baraka’s strategy for Newark and other cities in fact shares his focus on community leaders being essentially in the driver’s seat.  Despite these top-down shortcomings, the Nationalist push for power and a profile in Black life had many thoroughly electrifying aspects, which even critics like Cedric Johnson recognize.  The Nationalist reemergence created “vibrant public spheres” in cities from Los Angeles to Detroit and Newark.  Part of this greening involved nearly unprecedented community campaigns against poverty and a vibrant Black-owned press that rigorously turned out original poetry, sociology, history, and topical political material.  The move towards Black-centered art, theatre, and culture was undeniably vibrant and empowering to a generation that had grown up with few signs of an Afro-centric subculture.  Johnson notes, however, that the move by the movement’s leaders towards formal political involvement did much to erode this resonant cultural reawakening.

Pan-Africanism and Internationalism

Despite the disheartening coup against Kwame Nkrumah, the assassination of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, and other setbacks in the anti-colonial tide, Blacks radicalized by Civil Rights and the resurgent Nationalism epitomized by Malcolm X increasingly felt connected to what Cuba had termed the “Tri-Continental” push against colonialism and the emerging phenomenon of neocolonialism.  The international scene was followed closely, and a sense of solidarity imbued formations from the Revolutionary Action Movement to Baraka’s Congress of African People.

Many of those working to build real connections with African liberation struggles would coalesce around the African Liberation Support Committee.   The meridian of this coalition was undoubtedly the demonstration organized in 1972, which saw a mass mobilization converge on Washington, DC.  The demonstration targeted the embassies of the white-minority regimes of Southern Africa, including the offices of corporations that made millions from Apartheid.  Johnson exalts the crystallization of mass anti-imperialist sentiment in the Black community but also notes this show of strength marked the beginning of the end.

Part of the early success of the ALSC lay in its ability to build the kind of united front the movement had been yearning for.  By building a unifying set of goals (namely, Portugal out of its colonies, and an end to white-minority rule in South Africa and Zimbabwe), the group could be broad enough to reach out to Black Congressmen but also include the far Left and Nationalists as well.  Africa Liberation Day became an annual event, continuing as a cohering part of the radical Black political scene.  Johnson also provides some very useful historical contexts through which to view this Pan-African and internationalist insurgency, including a look at solidarity with Ethiopia in the 1930s.

From the substantial groundwork laid by the Africa liberation support groups grew a gnarly political debate that nearly sucked the energy out of the movement.

The Debate over Marxism

With so many of the African liberation struggles — from the Portuguese colonies of Mozambique, Angola, and Guinea-Bissau to the settler regimes elsewhere — drawing inspiration from Marxism, with socialist thought so widely disseminated amongst radicals, and with the limits of cultural nationalism becoming so apparent, it is little wonder that a Third-World-centric version of Marxism became important in the Black Nationalist current.  It would also prove to finally split the movement along lines demarcated long ago.  Firstly, there was the debate about Marxism’s roots in Europe, not Africa.  At the heart of that debate lay the question of Marxism’s relevance to the situation in the global African Diaspora.  In the Mao-inspired terminology of the day, it was a sharp “two-line struggle.”   Forces leaning towards Marxism asserted that Africans worldwide were the most exploited by capitalism and were overwhelmingly a part of the working class.  Clearly, this pointed to the relevance of Marxism, which they were quick to note was embraced wholly or in part by the likes of Guinea-Bissau’s widely-admired Amilcar Cabral to Angola’s Augustine Neto.

A popular slogan in this wing of the movement was “Black workers take the lead.” Johnson argues that the increased involvement of working-class Blacks, and indeed the growing prominence of pro-working class language in the movement, was very often undermined by the trend towards “ideological clarification.” Nevertheless, a variety of Marxism influenced by Mao Tse-Tung and national liberation was emerging as an undeniable force on the Black Nationalist scene.

The currents loyal to an earlier vision of cultural nationalism, and indeed Black capitalism, ridiculed the converts to Marxism.  It was a perspective with roots in Europe (though it also had, the Marxists may add, plenty of precursors in African history), and cultural nationalists believed reverently that all knowledge relevant to African people could be found in the African Diaspora.  Black people had hitched their wagon to “white” movements for too long.  This current put forward a social program not dissimilar to Booker T. Washington’s vision of racial uplift, albeit with a far greater premium put on the culture of the African continent.  Johnson also points out some similarities between the contending spheres of the Nationalist terrain.  For one, both currents emphasized the need for political education and the study of history.  Johnson compares reading lists of both conservative nationalist study groups and anti-capitalist nationalist study groups.  Nationalists read historical works by cutting-edge Afro-centric historian Cheik Anta Diop, along with works on US leaders such as Marcus Garvey.  Left nationalist study groups focused on books like DuBois’ Black Reconstruction and Walter Rodney’s seminal How Europe Under Developed Africa.   Both currents also invested incredible time and energy in to original historical and sociological research, often starting printing cooperatives and producing books and pamphlets.

The conflict between conservative, cultural nationalists and more radical, anti-capitalist nationalists — with early roots in the 1960s — finally came to a head in the mid-1970s.  Simultaneously, Marxists fought amongst themselves in an effort to build influence and adherents.  All around, it was a sectarian mess.  The backdrop of this unraveling was a severe economic downturn that hit the Black working class hardest and a general downturn in political involvement amongst the movement’s base.

Other Attempts at Political Organizing

There were some bright spots in all of this haze of defeat.  The National Independent Black Political Party emerged in the 1970s, based partly on the network created by the Black political conventions that had anchored swathes of the nationalist current.  The most important Black political convention was the one that took place in Gary, Indiana in 1972.   The prospect of independent political vehicles was a part of the discussion and out of the meeting came the National Black Political Assembly.   This body was built to facilitate and cohere the potential for independent Black political campaigns and indeed a new party.  Out of this project emerged the National Black Independent Political Party later in the 1970s, with future independent Presidential candidate Ron Daniels playing a key role.  Both these formations, Johnson points out, are something of an organizational bridge between the high tide of Black Power and the era of Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow Coalition of the 1980s.  The NIBPP was more than an attempt at an electoral vehicle — in fact it was most geared towards community organizing projects and mobilizations that emphasized mass participation.  In tandem with this approach was an emphasis on cultural education, research, and even attempts at programs such as credit unions and housing cooperatives.

Although Johnson makes note of the NIBBP’s political successes in a time of growing conservatism, he points to the tension between the party base and the more conservative leadership.  This tension was not nearly as pronounced in the NIBPP as in other Black political formations of the era, but it nonetheless remained.

Although not credited here, the Black political conventions, including the Gary, Indiana convention of 1972, had important predecessors in the nineteenth century.  Black political conventions were the central meeting spaces for the wider abolitionist and nationalist communities and often served as the springboard for new ideas and new campaigns for Black liberation.

Why and What’s Next

Johnson makes it known from the first chapter that, despite an intrinsic connection with any social movements of the oppressed, he believes the Black Nationalist revival of the 1960s and 1970s was born deformed and never lived to political adulthood.  “Race-first” politics never could unite radicals and conservatives, revolutionaries and “respectable” race leaders, much less Marxists and aspiring capitalists.  There were moments when it seemed like a vibrant, viable Black radical United Front was being born, especially around Africa solidarity.  But ultimately the class divisions in Black society made Nationalism per se an untenable tendency.

Johnson states plainly that the emergence of purely “ethnic politics” “limited the parameters of black public action to the formal political world.”   Increasingly this turn towards “respectability” engendered “elite entreaty, racial self-help, and incremental social reforms.”   Formal, bourgeois politics acted as a straightjacket for the resurgent Nationalist movement.  Those continuing to embrace some form of radicalism found themselves not only isolated but routinely caught in battles over ideology.  The small welfare state of the United States did create a containable layer of “racial technocrats” in the cities, and even the ideological framework of the formerly militant movement was largely absorbed into traditional forms of political participation.  Mass participation and what Johnson calls “democratic struggles” were sorely missed by the mid-Seventies.  Never mind the slow deterioration of what briefly appeared to be a class-based strain of Nationalist-inspired radicalism, which for Johnson is the most troubling.

There are of course some big problems with Johnson’s analysis.  Although he never claimed to write a history of Black Nationalism, it would have been useful to examine exactly why so many Blacks came to the conclusion that they were indeed a nation that needed true self-determination.  Most histories of Nationalism will include at least a cursory look at the roots of the Black Nation thesis, from the end of chattel slavery through the Northern migration in the first half of the twentieth century.  Johnson’s book would have benefited from some look at why this outlook has remained potent, from Marcus Garvey through Louis Farrakhan.

Johnson’s look at the movement’s decline would also have benefited from a more panoramic view of the overall decline in the bargaining power of Black workers, the dissolution of the New Left in general, and the early-70s’ economic downturn that brutalized Black-majority cities and indeed most Black communities.  It would also have been helpful to remark on the state’s role in physically confronting the larger radical Black movement, though he does not claim to trace the history of the Panthers or COINTELPRO.  Too much responsibility is put on the shoulders of the fledgling movement, with material and subjective factors beyond its control underplayed.  The Nationalist current was killed from without, as well as from within.  A closer look at the role of the Democratic Party is also missed here.

Johnson’s insistence on class politics — quite nearly to the exclusion of all Black-identified political mobilization — negates some of the major contributions that Nationalist-minded movements have made to the overall liberation movement inside the United States.  The Southern Civil Rights movement was a product of Black struggle that, despite being led by workers and students, built bridges to other layers of Black society around a concept of unifying “ethnic self.”  Johnson is right to delineate how these cross-class movements can sputter to a stop under the weight of contending class interests, but he can not quite strip their legacy of meaningful political mobilization.  Some of these Black-centered, cross-class movements have had a potent, lasting effect on the Black liberation struggle.  They are an expression of Black self-activity and non-Black radicals must find ways of building solidarity with it, even when we see the movement’s contradictions.  There is a Black liberation struggle in the US that, although in many ways dovetailing class battles, has an autonomous momentum all its own.  Too often Johnson hoists a class-reductionist model on what is a nuanced struggle with a particular, unifying history.

Johnson does see a way forward for the Black liberation struggle, although he would hardly call it such.  In his thoughtful conclusion he points to openings for reinvigorated union organizing, grassroots mobilizations that involve direct action, and radical labor-community campaigns that target systematic oppression as pointing the way forward.  Johnson’s end point is the need for a broad, revolutionary socialist politics.  Not all of his critique of the Black liberation struggle adds up, leaving a blind spot on the future of race-based social movements.  But his commitment to from-below, anti-capitalist struggle still provides a clarifying reexamination of the zenith and nadir of the tumultuous Black Power era.

Bradley Duncan lives in Detroit and blogs at <>.

| Print