On Transitional Organizations

This excerpt from a 29 May 1983 letter written to Spartacist League/U.S. Central Committee member Deborah Maguire is taken from the SL’s Internal Discussion Bulletin whole No. 41, August 1983.

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It wasn’t until years later that I realized that the basic element in the NAACP argument, which had been put forward by all the leading people, was that they couldn’t believe or admit to the maturity of the existing con­scious­ness among the hundreds and thousands of blacks, who were militantly pressing toward integration. They considered blacks to be still without con­scious­ness until they developed a na­tion­al­ist con­scious­ness.

Nearly 20 years later Ed Keemer showed up at a social function during the 1963 convention in New York. The Black Muslims were at the height of their popularity, and that was what the convention was all about. Needless to say, my resolution on Revolutionary Integration didn’t get much of a play. That’s putting it mildly: I was slaughtered.

I talked to Ed Keemer, told him how I had felt about having remained silent during the discussion of his proposal in 1946. He said, rather wistfully, alluding to the void that the Black Muslims had stepped into—“We could have had all that.”

If he was correct in 1963, and I suspect that he was, similar prospects may be in store today. How­ever, the problem is more complex. At that time, the black workers were about the only ones in motion. Today the key to organ­iza­tion of the oppressed minorities, lies principally between black and Chicano, here in the West, and I suspect that a simi­lar relation problem exists with Puerto Riqueños.

In this situation, while it may not be possible to build a genuinely multi-ethnic organ­iza­tion right away, it is wrong to close the door on it, which I believe the Labor/Black designation does.

The problem of Black/Chicano relations is com­pli­cated by matters of principle. Chicano con­scious­ness developed very late, but having lain quiescent for so long, it came on strong. This con­scious­ness has been and will probably continue to be somewhat nation­al­istic—as is the case with native Americans.

While there is quite sufficient common ground to make a unified movement possible, there are important points of conflict. When the Chicano movement began to assert itself, it was confronted with the results of the years of pressure exerted by the demands. They did not take kindly to much of the integrationist achievements. They have adopted a spirit of passive resistance to school integration, for instance, asking only for bi-lingual teaching, while the Indians loudly advance counter-proposals.

A not unimportant factor in this conflict is the fact that blacks had been awarded most of the social service jobs in minority communities. The Latinos were thus deprived of being serviced by their own, which handicapped them in their relations with the agencies. Not only that, but those jobs were considered to be plums in the ghetto and barrio.

The lack of sensitivity to black problems is illus­trat­ed by the most prominent Chicano candidate for City Council in the local election here, who has as his campaign manager the fellow who was attorney for the Bus Stop organ­iza­tion a year or so ago.

I recall one experience I had here in LA before I left for Seattle in 1956. The CP had an organ­iza­tion a little similar to the one that you propose, called the Southeast Interracial Council, I think. It was about evenly divided between black and white, the whites being either CP functionaries or middle-class types. I became active in it in about 1955, and remained so until I left. Their in­ter­est was mainly in legislative matters. We went on lobbying trips to Sacramento to protest racist and McCarthyite bills before the Assembly and Senate. Other local actions largely pertaining to legislative problems. My principal in­ter­est was to pick up a couple of contacts, which I did. I had planned that once integrated in the or­gan­iza­tion, I would begin an opposition to their absorp­tion with legislative matters, etc., but I left for Seat­tle before I could do that. I contacted the (black) secretary of the organ­iza­tion after I returned here in 1969 (?). They are immersed in the Southside Dem­ocratic Clubs.

A few days ago I wrote one letter on the Black/Labor project and discarded it. I had been confused about what, essentially, this first ex­peri­men­tal stage is. I was misled by the idea of a “tran­si­tional,” multi-ethnic organ­iza­tion.

The organ­iza­tion adheres to the full party pro­gram. This is too narrow a base for a transitional organ­iza­tion, except in a very narrow sense. A transitional organ­iza­tion, in the sense that the Old Man taught, requires a transitional program. We start from the present mass con­scious­ness, with its immediate demands, and build a programmatic bridge toward the ultimate demands. Labor/Black may be adequate for the present, because it obviously reflects what you have. But if you intend a multi-ethnic organ­iza­tion that designation will not attract the Latino militants.

To me, what it adds up to is that you are really assembling a non-(party) membership black cadre. This is not a bad first step. The radical blacks are the key to a broader really transitional organ­iza­tion.

We were on the verge of such a development in 1946. During the war and immediately after, we never had it so good. The CP had deserted the field, and could not come back except with the Progressive Party. So, we had the black cadre, at least in New York, where I was organizer of the Chelsea Branch off and on for some years, Los Angeles, and Detroit. I was able to spend 2 summers at the Grass Lake Camp which is near Detroit, where we had a fabulous black movement. It was led by (Dr.) Ed Keemer (Jackson in the Militant). He proposed to the Political Committee that he be authorized to launch an independent organ­iza­tion to fight against discrimination, racism, etc. The ques­tion was referred to a group of NC members in the Midwest, and to the Trotsky School, which contained 3 NC members.

Keemer made his proposal, and the brains went to work on him. The principal argument with which they destroyed his proposal was that the black workers, when they reached a social con­scious­ness, would move to the NAACP—just as the working class first moved to the AF of L as they developed con­scious­ness.

The three black comrades—Milton Richardson, Joe Morgan, Ernie Dillard—and myself just sat there like wooden Indians selling cigars. If learning from failure and error is really so great, I ought to be smartened up pretty good, for I have had my share of both. My failure at that time was largely just ignorance, but also partly a too great respect for my betters, so to speak.

That episode disturbed me. I had an ugly feeling that everybody except Keemer had been wrong, but I didn’t know why. I decided to try to analyze why I had that feeling, and when I realized that the brains had, indeed, been wrong, I brought it up in the school, asking that we find some way of getting the decision against Keemer reversed. I didn’t get much response, but George Novack finally agreed to present my ideas to the P.C. Of course, nothing came of it.

Virtually the entire black cadre disappeared within a very few years. This was partly because of the fundamentally nationalist-separatist feelings of most of the leading white people, who had been indoctrinated by C.L.R. James in his nationalist period. After he changed his mind, he hadn’t admitted an error, but just quietly slid over into the opposite, as though there were no con­tra­dic­tion. Consequently, the indoc­tri­na­tion remained intact. The desertion of the black comrades was also caused by the fact that the strictly political activity of the party was too narrow a framework for them—they required action on pressing problems.