From the Ground to the Sky -- The Black Radical Tradition

Michael C. Dawson
By Lynn Koh
Dec 26, 2013

A Review of “Blacks In and Out of the Left”

For two decades, Michael C. Dawson has studied the relationship between politics and public opinion in the African American community.  His first book, Behind the Mule, established the concept of ‘linked fate’, the idea that policies or events which are beneficial to one’s racial group are also personally beneficial, and explored how class and other factors influenced an individual’s belief in linked fate.  Later books charted the range of African American political ideologies and their potential popular bases of support, and the persistence of racial divides in public opinion.  "Blacks In and Out of the Left" is a very different book.  It asks what progressives may learn from studying the history of 20th century black radical activism. 

Dawson makes a number of arguments about left politics and black radicalism, but I found the long second chapter most valuable.  Here, the author compares the two periods of dramatic upsurge in black activism:  the 1930’s and the ‘long sixties’.  In the 1930’s, the CPUSA became a dominant force on the left and developed a significant purchase within black radical politics; the explosions of the 60’s and 70’s, on the other hand, led to a bewildering range of organizations with different political ideologies.  In between, from 1945 to 1955, the black left suffered a relentless assault from the state with the complicity of black liberals.  The result was that by 1955 the black left found itself isolated from most of the political movements and milieus it had flourished in until that point; emblematically, the two great turning points of that year in world and U.S. history – Bandung and Montgomery – lacked the participation of black radicals. 

This decade is called ‘the sundering’ by Dawson, and he provocatively draws attention to it as a historical event whose consequences ripple outwards through the second half of the century.  Whereas black liberals and leftists worked together in popular front organizations in the 1930s, particularly the National Negro Congress, the sundering meant that it was nationalists and leftists who organized in coalition during the Black Power era.  Furthermore, Dawson claims that the sundering drove a deeper wedge between black and white workers, such that by the 1960’s they “all too often viewed each other as enemies” (88).  Finally, black internationalism suffered because their absence from the Bandung conference and subsequent moments in building the Third World project meant that radicals did not hold a grounded, realistic view of national liberation movements. 

During the height of the civil rights and Black Power movements, militant organizations tended towards a particular type – ones that projected a broad emancipatory vision but were rooted in black communities.  Dawson coins the term ‘third-path organization’ to describe these, which might be glossed as “national in form, revolutionary in content.”  There is a line, if not a lineage, that connects this type of organization to the organizing efforts of early twentieth century black leftists like Hubert Harrison that left the Socialist Party and other white-dominated left organizations after struggling unsuccessfully to move their politics on racism.  Although he does not explicitly state it, Dawson seems to judge favorably the political potential of third-path organizations.  Drawing on Laclau and Boggs, he sees a relatively organic development in the politics of these groups.  Because the problems which confront the black community require solutions that perforce strike at the foundation of U.S. capitalism – in short, because for the black community the solution is revolution --  third-path organizations may galvanize broader, multiracial, radical political efforts in tandem with work to concretely improve conditions afflicting blacks.  Radicalism, we might say, proceeds from the ground to the sky. In this way, black radicalism comes to occupy the role Marx designated for the politicized proletariat – a universal class birthed from the crucible of particular struggles. 

"Blacks In and Out of the Left" charts the tragic end of many of the movement’s key organizations.  The League of Revolutionary Black Workers and the Black Panther Party suffer debilitating, even deadly, political splits; the African Liberation Support Committee’s diminishes into ineffectiveness due to the shift of leading activists into Leninist party-building; the various strands of black nationalism devolve into complicity with the status quo.  Within the realm of factors that the left could plausibly have influenced, Dawson pinpoints the turn towards Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy and the lack of an adequate social analysis as particularly debilitating.  The first because it tended to both downgrade the significance of racial justice struggles and withdraw organizers from mass work into sectarian organization building, and the second because it proved impossible to develop a political strategy for black radicalism without a grasp of how the racial and economic orders were changing.

The strength of the book is its accessibility and fluency; it compresses much history into a few brief chapters, and it is impossible for any author to argue conclusively for her points within these constraints.  I found some of the points quite convincing and other less so; many of the New Communist Movement cadre, for instance, prioritized racial justice struggles as a matter of political line even if much energy was wasted on sectarianism.  I leave it to the reader to judge the conclusions for herself.  However, I think that taking the story forward into the 80’s would have complicated Dawson’s narrative in important ways.  In the trajectory of Black Power politics through the Gary, Indiana conference and into the National Black Independent Political Party and Jesse Jackson campaigns, nationalists and leftists formed important links with the black liberalism and the liberal wing of the Democratic party.  These formations consistently projected social democratic politics or more radical political programs.  As in other historical episodes, these alliances were fraught with contradictions and ended up failing for their own reasons.  But in delineating the possibilities for black radicalism and the limitations imposed by the overall political and economic landscape, another rich set of lessons can be found here.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Lynn Koh is a long-time activist in the anti-war movement, and is a labor organizer in the Bay Area.

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