RCP Reply

Key Questions on the Liberation of Black People in the U.S.

Revolutionary Worker #1222, December 14, 2003, posted at rwor.org


Our Draft Programme upholds the right of self-determination of Black people, who constitute an oppressed nation, to form a separate republic (country) of their own in their historic homeland. It emphasizes the importance of land, self-rule in the form of autonomy, and equality of languages and cultures for other oppressed peoples, especially Native Americans and Mexican-Americans. It also recognizes the particular dynamics of the struggle in Hawai'i and special issues of sovereignty and the right to self-rule in some form on the part of indigenous Hawaiians.* It supports independence for Puerto Rico. And it puts forth measures and policies to overcome discrimination and inequality for all oppressed nationalities.

Now NAPO argues that the right to form a separate state applies not just to Black people but to other oppressed peoples in the U.S. (NAPO refers to African-Americans, Mexicanos, Native Americas, and Hawaiians, etc.). Are all oppressed peoples and national groupings in the U.S. nations with the right to self-determination? To be clear, the right of self-determination of nations means not only the right of an oppressed nation to determine its own affairs as a nation in general but more particularly the right to form a separate state of its own in its own homeland.

Marxism-Leninism-Maoism holds that whether a given community of people is a nation, or something else, can only be determined by applying objective criteria. A nation is a concrete historical phenomenon.

Whether a specific community of people constitutes a nation is not a subjective determination. In other words, it is not that "what people think they are...they are." People's consciousness certainly reflects something about reality, but this is not the deciding criterion. A nation is not a state of mind. Nor are a people a nation because they could have developed into a nation, but particular historical factors prevented this from happening. A nation is not a status that an oppressed people, or its political representatives, can simply lay claim to, if they so decide. A nation is a material fact.

A nation is a community of people formed on the basis of a common territory, a common language, a common economic life, and a common culture. The development of modern nations is linked to processes of commodity production and the rise and spread of the capitalist mode of production.

Nations are forged through a dynamic and complex process of development, change, and transformation. Each experience has a certain uniqueness. But what is important to emphasize in the discussion here is this. The historical processes welding a people into a nation result in an economic and social interconnectedness. These processes result in an "internal cohesion" and degree of development that provide the material basis to establish separate nation-states. If there is not a material basis for a people to form an independent state, then why argue that self-determination and independence are at the core of their struggle?

We have to approach different national questions differently.


How do we understand the historical development that has shaped the conditions of life and oppression of the various oppressed nationalities the United States? On the one hand, they share common features of oppression--violence and terror, discrimination, segregation, and mutilation and debasement of cultures. On the other hand, there is a distinctness to each of the "national questions" in the U.S. Each of these peoples has a distinct history and a distinct current situation--and careful analysis shows that for each the best solution to their future liberation has distinct characteristics. Our Draft Programme takes account of both the common features and the particularities of the various national questions.

In this light, we can consider three different situations among oppressed nationalities in the U.S.

Let's start with Black people. Through a distinct historical process, African-Americans, were forged into a nation--"spread out over" and at the same time "rooted in" the territory of the Black Belt (an area that runs in an arc through 12 states of the South and is called the Black Belt because of the color of the soil). African-Americans were forged into an oppressed nation separate from and dominated by the oppressor European-American nation. This process began in slave days, but its turning point came following the Civil War. Stripped of their rights and denied land after the reversal of Reconstruction, Black people were transformed in their great majority into semi-feudal sharecroppers.

Slavery was destroyed and an oppressive plantation-industrial system developed in the South. On this new economic foundation, a process of class differentiation gradually took place among Black people. Growing numbers of Black people became laborers in mines, iron furnaces, and tobacco factories. Increasing numbers of Black farmers began to acquire their own land. In the segregated cities of the South, professional and entrepreneurial classes slowly expanded (although there was no Black elite of wealthy bankers and merchants, and the vast majority of Black people in the cities were manual laborers).

What was occurring among Black people was the class differentiation characteristic of a nation-- though it was distorted and stunted by semi-feudal subjugation, repressive labor relations, and a structure of enforced white supremacy.

The situation of Black people underwent further development in the 20th century. In great numbers, they were transformed from peasants into urbanized proletarians. The 20th century saw two great waves of migration out of the South. Today, as a people, African-Americans are still subjected to national oppression (though it takes new forms). And there remains a large concentration of Black people in the Black Belt South: several million still live in the rural areas and millions more live in the cities.

The common experience of oppression, and the fact that Black people had been welded into a nation, with all the basic characteristics of a nation, is why there continues to be the right of self-determination for Black people. There exists a material-social and historic basis for the creation of an independent Black Republic.

The Chicano people have a different path of development. We would refer people to the discussion in our position paper, The Chicano Struggle and Proletarian Revolution in the U.S. But to highlight portions of that analysis relevant to this discussion:

"There is a distinct Chicano people, whose relationship to Mexico is part of their defining characteristic. Chicanos have a culture that is influenced and affected by Mexico, but is different from it. Their heritage--and historic and present-day national oppression--continues to infuse Chicanos with a common identity. But the make-up and character of the Chicano population reflects this wide diversity of its origins. Chicanos have different histories and roots and speak different languages (Spanish and English and wonderful variations of both). And, although Chicanos share a certain economic as well as social history, this never has been on the level of a common economic life--an economic life rooted in a common territory and "woven together" throughout that territory--that is characteristic of nation."

The position paper elaborates on this. When the U.S. seized the territory of the Southwest from Mexico, the level of integration among the Mexican settlements there and their level of economic development were not sufficient to give rise to their own development into a nation. The oppression of the Mexicans in the Southwest forged them into a distinct oppressed people (a national minority) within the U.S., but a separate Chicano nation never came into being. Today, the majority of Chicanos have their origins not in the Southwest but in Mexico.

There's another important factor in understanding the Southwest. The history of the Southwest is also a complex history of the Navajo, Hopi, Pueblo, and other Indian peoples with distinct historical experiences.

Our Programme upholds the right of the Chicano masses to land denied them and the right to self- government in large areas of the Southwest. It also recognizes the land and territorial rights of the various Native American peoples who populate the region, and makes clear that proletarian revolution must also recognize that Mexico has rights and claims in this region. All this must be addressed according to revolutionary principles.

It is clear that the problem cannot be simply solved by each of these peoples declaring independence in these territories--where there are complex conflicting claims.

As for the Native American peoples: There are well over 500 distinct Indian tribes; Native Americans are not a single nation. The various Indian peoples have their own common histories, as well as common linguistic and cultural bonds. Many of the tribal communities had long-standing communal, agriculturally based economies at the time of the arrival of the colonial-settlers. But that marked the start of a protracted genocidal onslaught against the Native Americans.

Military attack and conquest, the wars and forcible campaigns for removal and relocation, the internment and incarceration, cultural mutilation and forced assimilation did not destroy and disintegrate many of the peoples. But all this did have profound effects on social-economic development.

The indigenous economies were largely shattered; land and herds were expropriated. The federal reservation system functioned to keep the Indian peoples in an enforced state of dependency and led to systematic impoverishment. Internal (on-reservation) economic development was blocked. Processes of class differentiation and capital accumulation were severely held back. The potential basis for the development of national markets was limited. Growing numbers of American Indians would become wage- laborers--but this largely occurred off the reservations, although there has been a history of wage-labor in mining and timber industries.

Our Party recognizes the historic and ongoing land and natural resource rights of the various Native American peoples. The Draft Programme puts forth autonomy as a key measure that the new socialist state will implement to address the rights to genuine self-rule and the special needs of the Native American peoples. The Draft discusses the measures that the socialist state must take to focus economic and social resources in the most oppressed communities and regions of the country, applying the principle of "raising the bottom up." These are some of the key ways in which inequality and impoverishment affecting American Indians and other oppressed nationalities will be overcome.

We feel this approach corresponds to the revolutionary interests of the Native American peoples. On the other hand, our Party very much wants to learn from analysis by Native Americans, as well as others, about the changing economic structure on the reservations and class transformations among Native Americans, especially over the last three decades. These are important questions in their own right, and they also bear on the direction and demands of the Indian peoples' struggles.

To conclude this part of the discussion. To say that Black people form an oppressed nation with the right to self-determination, while Chicanos are an oppressed national minority with the right to autonomy, and to uphold the right of self-rule for the various Indian peoples is not to say that one people's oppression is "worse" than the other, or that their demands are more important--there is no hierarchy of oppression. It is not to say that one group "deserves more" than the other. Rather, it is to make an analysis of historical development and material-social conditions--and of what will solve the real problems.

All oppressed people deserve liberation, and our Programme is a concrete plan for getting there. The point is to end national oppression. The particular policies and measures spelled out in the Programme all flow from the same principles of ending inequality and the same task of digging up the roots of national and all oppression. They serve the common long-term struggle to revolutionize society and create a global community of freely cooperating humanity.


National oppression is built into the structure and functioning of U.S. society. It is continually reproduced and brutally reinforced by the capitalist-imperialist system. Socialist revolution in the U.S. must make the destruction of white supremacy and the development of true equality among nationalities a central concern.

The Draft Programme puts forth a comprehensive approach for uprooting national oppression.

It indicates the kind of immediate measures that will be taken to wipe out segregation, dismantle the old police forces and crush racist vigilante groupings, and rebuild the former ghettoes and barrios. It discusses how the barriers to full participation in society will be broken down and how, through education and culture, society-wide efforts will be carried out to combat racism and national chauvinism. It sets out policies regarding equality of languages and cultures and envisions a flourishing of national cultures. The Programme upholds the right of Black, Chicano, and Native American peoples to land they have been historically, and down to the current day, robbed and dispossessed of. It discusses how the new socialist society will integrate workplaces, neighborhoods, and schools--and how these and other measures will increase contact between peoples and help overcome inequality and break down racism.

In addition to these measures and policies, the socialist state will also uphold the right of Black, Chicano, Native American, and indigenous Hawaiian peoples to forms of autonomy (and the Programme recognizes the particular dynamics of the struggle in Hawai'i and special issues of sovereignty). Now many people who have read and studied the Draft Programme have asked to know more about autonomy- -what it is and isn't.

Autonomy refers to forms of self-rule or self-government exercised by the formerly oppressed nationalities in areas of sizable historic population concentration. Territorial autonomy exists within the framework of a multinational socialist state. It is not the creation of a separate state with its own armed forces, foreign policy, or currency. For very important reasons, you can't have a unified state with many armies, but the key point of autonomy is that oppressed people have the capacity to rule themselves in areas of historic concentration.

Autonomy is a policy to meet the historic rights and concrete needs of particular oppressed nationalities. Autonomous regions or areas will have administrative control over various aspects of social, economic, and cultural affairs. Autonomy will allow for the establishment of localized institutions; adoption of specific language policies; administration of finances and utilization of resources to address particular economic and social priorities; the right to take necessary measures to develop culture, education, arts, and health services; the waging of social and political campaigns and the carrying out of particular reforms related to specific conditions and needs.

The Draft Programme also explains that autonomy policies would be carried out under guiding principles: that promote equality and unity and that combat exploitation and oppression. And the autonomous areas would not be walled off from the rest of society--there would be interaction and interchange between them and others and with all of society--and no one would be forced to live in them.

These are not just "good ideas." In the Soviet Union during the revolutionary years and in China when it was socialist under Mao, autonomy policies were applied. In the Soviet Union, written languages were developed for formerly oppressed nationalities that only had spoken languages. In revolutionary China, masses were engaged in struggles to determine appropriate organs of self-government. In the least developed minority nationality regions, local industry was established; health-care systems combining traditional and modern medicine were set up. Institutes for the study and dissemination of the histories and cultures of different peoples were created. These were empowering experiences.

The objective, again, is to carry forward the struggle to uproot national oppression, to achieve genuine equality, and to unleash the formerly oppressed masses to take part in the larger struggle to remake society and do away with all exploitation and oppression.

(to be continued)


* The wording about Hawai'i in Part 5 has been changed from the original website version to make it consistent with the presentation in the Draft Programme and with the subsequent discussion within this reply.

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