In September we posted The Rise of Black Counter-Insurgency, a text by Shemon originally published on the website Ill Will. It made a sharp analysis of the “George Floyd rebellion” of past summer and of the efforts to contain it and make it harmless for capitalism. We introduced the text with some critical comments, to which Shemon reacted on the (non public) discussion list Meltdown. We repost his comments below, with his permissioni.
The IP intro raises a lot of good points and shortcomings of what I have been writing.
Some brief comments:
1. No doubt that the struggle has to spread to the workplaces. The question is why hasn’t it in the mass way that it has spread to the streets? The struggle cannot remain at the level of riot and fighting the police. I 100% agree. The question is why do people fight in the streets and not in the workplace? Even if we tell most people of striking at the workplace, they just shrug their shoulders and move on. It must reflect NOT a false consciousness, but their real materialist analysis of where they are strong and where they are weak. Perhaps that is too generous. I would be curious to hear from others what they think? Why do proletarians fight in the street, but not in the workplace?
2. We see the attacks on cop cars, carceral infrastructure as revolutionary abolition. I dont know if I would call the consciousness of everyone revolutionary, but their deeds are revolutionary abolitionist. This is a particularly US framework for thinking about the relationship between abolition and communism.
3. We focus on the violence because that is what the movement has been to some extent. And a hyper focus can be a problem. Probably resulting in narrow armed struggle stuff which I am against.
4. The next step point that IP makes is very important. I think many on the far left are practically and theoretically trying to figure that out. I thought that an opening might have happened when the NBA players went on strike. The reality is that proletarians pay way more attention and give more respect to the NBA then Ill Will Editions or any of my writings! I thought the NBA strike might have set off a larger proletarian strike but it did not happen.
I cannot emphasize how difficult the next step question is.
Finally, I really appreciate the IP’s serious and comradely critiques. Apologies for the brevity.
There is a lot more to be said, but I am in Rochester, New York right now. It has been very interesting. Maybe a couple thousand people came out last night. It was almost entirely working class, very multi racial. Also some older people. What was most astonishing is the home made character of the shields and equipment. People made shieids out of baking sheets, trash can lids etc. There were not the usual anarchists coming out to protest. Things are going to explode in this country. I am telling you!
I replied on the same list.
Shemon asked: “I would be curious to hear from others what they think? Why do proletarians fight in the street, but not in the workplace?”
First, proletarians do fight in the workplaces. There was a spike of wildcat strikes, in the same period as the mass protests. It’s true that these actions were short and rarely involved an entire company. Not very radical, you might say, compared to the street riots. Except that it takes guts today to stand up to the bosses, at a time when millions of new unemployed are looking for work. Some have paid for it, being sacked by the same companies that declare their support for Black Lives Matter.
Why did these strikes – and the ones going on today – remain so limited? Fear of losing one’s job is obviously a big factor. There is also a sense of isolation. Workers are more than ever separated from each other, and from the streets. It adds to a fragile self-confidence. That self-confidence grows when those who stand up and fight, feel the wind of mass support in their backs. In that sense a mass movement that would have joined them in solidarity, could have catalyzed a dynamic in which struggles in the workplace and in the streets reinforce each other, and self-confidence and class awareness grows in both.
But we’re not there yet. Shemon writes: “Even if we tell most people of striking at the workplace, they just shrug their shoulders and move on.” Why? According to Shemon: “It must reflect NOT a false consciousness, but their real materialist analysis of where they are strong and where they are weak.” “Perhaps that is too generous”, he adds. I think that it is indeed, if by ‘generous’ he means overstating their class consciousness, their understanding of who is on their side, and who is their enemy. In order for a link between struggle in the streets and struggle in the workplaces to be forged, it must be recognized on both sides that their fight is the same. That understanding is still lacking, in the streets as well as in the work places.
Maybe when they shrugged, they figured, quite realistically, that few workers would take the risk to leave their workplaces to join a struggle for ‘Black Lives Matter’. The reactions of the beige-pigmented part of the working class to this slogan have been mixed. I think most, especially the young, are sympathetic and supportive. I may be wrong but it’s my impression that in the protests in most cities young whites were the majority. Others are indifferent, figuring, it’s a black thing, it’s not about us. Then there is also racism, whose past isn’t past yet, that is based on fear and now is inflamed by trumpist propaganda. Conceiving the white part of the working class as a uniform “stubborn” bloc is a mistake, as it would be to see the black part as a uniformly more revolutionary block.
Shemon thought a NBA strike might have set off a larger proletarian strike but that did not happen. It would be sad indeed if the development of the class struggle depended on the example of sport idols. This reliance on black millionaires leading the way implies a recognition that the struggle was still more about race than class. And, as Shemon explained, black politicians and ngo’s, BLM included, worked hard to keep it that way. Nothing wrong with fighting ‘white privilege’, but you can hardly expect the majority of workers to “commit their bodies to the uprising” (as Shemon thinks they should) if the goal does not go further than that.
The goal cannot just be that blacks are treated the same way as whites. First, because this goal is utopian within the framework of capitalism. Capitalism could get rid of slavery. It could get rid of legal segregation. It can make more room in its board rooms and institutions for people of color and women. It can take down confederate statues and forbid the use of the n-word. It is flexible that way. But it will never abandon the tool of racial division because it’s essential to its rule. As Shemon wrote, there’s nothing it fears more than proletarians of all colors and ethnicities fighting together. It will never stop punishing the poor for being poor. It will never stop to use race, ethnicity and religion when in need of a scapegoat.
Second, because being treated the same way as whites is not all that great either. Many in the white working class are in pain, as the higher than ever rate of suicide and opiate addiction illustrate. Their misery is nothing to aspire to.
Third, because, to fight capitalism, it requires a power which can only be generated by a class movement that overcomes the racial divisions, that melts the mutual prejudices because it sees the struggle as a common one, for common interests.
Black identity politics are as much an obstacle to this as white privilege. Which is not to deny that the specific conditions of black proletarians have pushed them to the front of the resistance to capitalism. But they too remain vulnerable to appeasement, to the framing of the conflict in racial terms. For the struggle that we hope will develop, a struggle of revolutionary abolition, as Shemon puts it, the realization that its not about achieving racial equality in capitalist society but about the working class coming together to abolish its exploitation (and thereby itself as a class) is a vital necessity.
The last part of this reply was also a reaction to a new text Shemon wrote, together with Arturo: The Return of John Brown: White Race-Traitors in the 2020 Uprising. In the second part of this article I will discuss their text, and the whole question of race and class in America, in more depth.
i Shemon added the following comment: I think there is some confusion over the proletariat fighting in the workplace. At one point I do say that there have been workplace strikes. My point was that they have not been as widespread, as decisive, and as powerful as the riots. If the standard is general strikes, workplace occupations, and councils, things are awfully awfully quiet. I just don’t want to be caricatured as some anti-worker communist.