The curious rise of white “left” nationalism

BY:Jamal Rich| December 23, 2021
The curious rise of white “left” nationalism


In Western European countries it used often to be said: “We must have fascism before communism.” First the capitalists will abandon democracy and introduce the fascist dictatorship, and then the workers will overthrow the fascist dictatorship. But the Communists replied, no, we will fight together with all the democratic forces to preserve bourgeois democracy and to defeat the fascists, and that will create the best conditions for going forward to win working-class power and to commence to build socialism.

—Maurice Cornforth, Materialism and the Dialectical Method

There is a concerning, but not surprising, trend that is exposing itself among the left that smacks of social democracy and class collaboration. This trend, though seemingly harmless, is damaging to youth coming into the movement. It wraps itself in Marxist verbiage while its conclusions end up taking positions of the right. Those who promote these ideas are falling into the hands of the racist monopolists and reactionaries. As a result, they will slow progress toward socialism, potentially putting us on the march toward fascism.

Let me remind readers that our party, the Communist Party, was in part founded in response to the rejection of the anti-Marxist denial of the special character of racist oppression in the U.S. held by the old Socialist Party. Our late chair, Henry Winston, said in Strategy for a Black Agenda,

While the Communist Party saw from its inception that the struggle against racist oppression was part of the class struggle, it also recognized that Blacks were oppressed as a people and that labor with a white skin and labor with a Black skin could not be free unless the special demands of the triply oppressed Black people were put at the center of the struggle for progress and socialism.

An ideological trend that might be classified as “white left nationalism” repeats the mistakes of the old Socialist Party on its approach to the national question. These white left nationalist trends shout “class, class, class!” and “left, left, left!” while deploring what they call “identity politics” and narrowly pointing to historical failures of socialist projects and the left in the United States in particular.

They repeat the line voiced by New Left “socialists” and Third Worldist Maoists that the working class in the United States has betrayed the movement for socialism and that it is time to think of it in a “new way,” if not completely ignore it as a mainspring of revolutionary activity.

At best this is a defeatist position.

Much of these ideas come from folks who contributed to what we now call the crisis of petty bourgeois radicalism, where middle-class “radicals” reach a certain level of consciousness and want to take shortcuts to revolution and leave the masses (less conscious sections) of people behind in this process. These ideas persist to this day in various forms of postmodernism, anarchism, and Maoism.

Instead of seeing revolutionary potential in the U.S. working class, these forces promote a newfound fetishization of the “lumpen-proletariat” (that is, declassed strata) as the new revolutionary class, urban peasant guerilla warfare, and other theories associated with the Frankfurt School for Social Science (like Herbert Marcuse). A seemingly odd combination of national nihilism (downplaying of a country’s traditions) and national chauvinism (an overemphasis of the same) also plays a part.


“Identity politics,” or struggle for equality?

With respect to what’s derisively called “identity politics,” “political correctness,” “wokeness,” or “cancel culture” (but what we call the struggle for equality), these forces allege that addressing discrimination contributes to disunity and de-emphasizes “class,” by which they mean white male workers.

Our party does not reduce all struggles to class. It participates in the equality struggles of racially and nationally oppressed peoples (African American, Puerto Rican, Mexican American, Middle Eastern, Asian American, Native American and other Indigenous nations, etc.) and recognizes that true liberation will come from a) fighting on these issues in the here and now and b) in the process of the battle for a different political, social, and economic system — socialism. Both have to happen simultaneously.

The overwhelming majority of the different specially oppressed peoples in the United States are working class — upwards of 80% to 90%. And they are oppressed in that they face special forms of mistreatment because of their race, that is, the color of their skin, the texture of their hair, and so on. This means that, to build the requisite unity needed for substantial class struggle victories, and to liberate the entire working class, the struggle against racism and national oppression must be put at the center of all these struggles.

These are all-class questions, meaning that we are championing the equality demands for entire peoples, regardless of what class or strata they come from. The racially oppressed and women face historic and present discrimination in the form of pay and voting rights, for example, no matter their class position.

And let us not forget that this country was founded on the near genocide of its native population, and the modern capitalist system was built on the backs of African peoples.

The Communist Party in the United States has historically been at the forefront of the global struggle against white supremacy. This includes but is not limited to the struggle to free the Scottsboro Nine; fighting Italian fascist aggression in Ethiopia; the battle for equal wages between black, brown, Asian, and white workers; bringing the charge of genocide against the African American people to the United Nations; along with campaigns against Jim Crow segregation here and South African apartheid abroad — the list goes on.

All of these struggles included many forces across the political spectrum (not strictly Communists) who came together on these issues — a united front was and remains an essential part of the struggle.


A false unity

But, while championing the fight for unity, the CPUSA doesn’t treat the concept as an abstract ideal or promote unity at all costs. Indeed, there’s a false unity implied by dismissing the democratic struggles of sections of our class in order to supposedly organize reactionaries under the pretext of bringing in “white workers.” As noted by Ferdinand Smith, leader of the National Maritime Union in a letter to William L. Patterson in 1958, “Unity is always a most desirable thing but unity at all cost can be a mistake of the first order.”

As noted by Gerald Horne in a recent piece, the “attempt to build ‘class unity’ without confronting these underlying tensions often has meant coercing oppressed nationalities — Blacks in the first place — to co-sign a kind of ‘left-wing white nationalism’.” What Horne is trying to argue is that if we don’t reckon with this country’s foundational history regarding settler colonial genocide of its native population and the class collaboration inherent in subsequent enslavement of African peoples, we’re likely to end up uncritically uplifting slave owners, putting ourselves in a conundrum of uniting with the ideological descendants of those who created the conditions in the first place. Horne was attacked by right-opportunist Trotskyites on the World Socialist Website for his important contributions on these topics.

Former chair of the CPUSA’s Black Liberation Commission Roscoe Proctor noted in his must-read pamphlet Black Workers and the Class Struggle:

 There are many differences within the working class. These differences, though not inherently contradictory, are constantly used by the ruling class to pit one section of workers against another, thereby dividing the working class against itself and weakening its struggle against the capitalist class. Among these differences are differences between young and old, male and female, skilled and unskilled, craft and industrial workers, white-collar and blue-collar workers.

Without a doubt, one single most powerful weapon in the arsenal of the ruling class used to cause division in the ranks of the working class is racism. Together with anti-Communism, racism historically and today has blinded white workers from seeing that their true class interest lies in unity with Black and other oppressed workers at the point of production and in fighting against all such oppression throughout the society.

So, “left” nationalism among whites in this context blinds them “from seeing that their true class interest lies in unity with Black and other oppressed workers.” White Americans cannot struggle for progress while participating in the oppression of Black and other specially oppressed workers and peoples.


“Working class” ≠ white workers

It’s important to point out here that white “left” nationalism is not a working-class concept but is instead a feature of middle-class radicalism.

Often you’ll hear it when folks use the term “working class” or “Trump voters” when what is actually meant is “white workers.” Trumpsters do it all the time when they talk about the GOP as a “workers’ party.” Listen and you’ll hear a subtle switch, replacing in the mind’s eye people of color with workers of the majority nationality. It’s precisely here that the deep chauvinism lies. This applies not only to how people think about it but also in how interests are framed. The alleged interests of the majority of one people in the multiracial U.S. nation are identified with the interests of the entire class.

The term “white left nationalism” is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. Why? Because it identifies the interests of the majority nationality with the interests of the country as whole, superseding class interests or even general democratic demands. But white Americans as a people do not in general share interests separate from the multinational United States. This is because a) there are class divisions in the white population and b) white folks do not face special forms of discrimination because they are white. For this reason, the real interests of the majority of white Americans, who, by the way are also workers, lie with the rest of the country’s workers and multi-racial and multi-national peoples, and not with the minority white bosses.

This can more readily be seen with the term “white nationalism” so widely used today. However, there is no “white nation” as such in our country. Obviously, there is a white identity forged from various Euro-American nationality groups in no small part over and against people of color that grew out of attempts to justify capitalism’s racial-social division of labor. Here, the majority “white” nationality was urged to participate in the subjugation of other oppressed peoples by posing a false all-class us-against-them unity. An identity conceived and rationalized in this way can only be anti-democratic and right-wing, a nationalism that always assumes the form of the chauvinism of its ruling class. Chauvinist slogans like “Make America Great Again,” “America First,” “The American Century,” and “Law and Order” are cases in point.

That’s one side of the equation.

At the same time, there’s always been an anti-racist, working-class, and democratic component in this emerging nationality grouping, often latent and submerged but now and again emerging to fight the good fight, a stand seen most recently in the mass movement protesting the Breonna Taylor and George Floyd murders. As its democratic character grows, deepens, and takes on consistent working-class positions, it becomes not left nationalism but anti-racist proletarian internationalism.

As a political trend, left nationalism does indeed exist and can play a progressive role, but only in situations involving racially and nationally oppressed peoples. Taken out of that context, it turns into its opposite, as seen in various calls for a so-called “patriotic socialism.”

In the case of oppressing nations, as Lenin once acutely observed, nationalism is always backward and reactionary, a relic that in his words should be shelved for observation in a “museum or zoo.”

Thus the fight for class unity imposes on white workers the imperative of addressing the special oppression that exists against others in our multi-racial, multi-national, multi-gender working class.


Confusion on the left

Below are some examples of how these issues manifest:

1. “74 million people voted for Trump, which means a lot of workers support fascism in this country. We need to organize these people at their rallies and events,” an anonymous conversation with a new CPUSA member.

The fact that tens of millions of people voted for an extreme-right candidate like Trump does not mean the entire working class supports the fascist-like policy of certain sections of the ruling class. It does mean that certain sections of the population — in particular, the white petit bourgeoisie, class collaborators who support racist policy and have romantic intentions of becoming the monopolists — support reaction.

The fact that some working people voted for a fascist does not mean we need to go to Trump rallies. Not only would we be setting ourselves up for provocations, but it’s likely that such efforts would be self-defeating. It does mean that we, in our places of work, school, and communities, work to build unity of action on the issues to win people — whether influenced by Trumpism or not — over to the struggle against racism and white supremacy.

In Black and White—One Class, One Fight, Henry Winston noted,

The Communist Party helped make a lasting contribution to the history of the United States when, in 1928, and two years later in 1930, it adopted resolutions on the struggle for Black Liberation which opened up new vistas for the total struggle for democracy and its extension, and for the fight for economic, political and social equality for the Black people in the U.S.

These were resolutions to be fought for not alone by Black Communists. They were, above all else, documents to guide the Party as a whole — and, in the first place, white Communists — for work among the white masses, to win them for the struggle against the chief source of Black oppression, which was, and remains, the monopolies.

That is why one of the main tenets of the Party in such a struggle has always been that white Communists should be among the first to challenge those monopolists and apologists for the monopolies who justify the special oppression of Black workers.

2. “January 6 was a good thing! White workers led that uprising! We need to be organizing January 6 people!” (paraphrased from anonymous article by a new CPUSA member and an anonymous email sent to the DC District during the J6 events).

Those who hold such positions are confused about the class makeup involved in the J6 insurrection. Our district in Washington, D.C., clearly noted that the different forces involved included the likes of the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, Three Percenters, American Firsters, the Boogaloo movement, Turning Point USA, Falun Gong cultists, Q-Anon conspiracy theorists, reactionary Cubans, Vietnamese, and Hong Kong and Tibetan separatists.

It also included petty bourgeois forces like real estate developers, former intelligence agents, right-wing politicians, professional managers, and small business owners. A small section of it was working class. Forces within the Capitol Police and Republican Party played a major role in allowing fascists to enter the Capitol to potentially murder sitting members of Congress. There was no revolutionary character to this insurrection, as it was financed and provoked by reactionary sections of the ruling class and the fascist street thugs that carry water for them.

3. The Biden administration is identical to Trump’s. The recent Republican victories are good for the working class so the Democratic Party will die once and for all! The popular front is dead! We need a true working-class party representative of our people!

This statement completely ignores the social makeup and correlation of forces that tend to vote for the Democrat or Republican parties. While it is objectively true that the Democrat and Republican parties are both backed by ruling-class interests and do not represent the interests of the working class, it does not mean that there are no differences between them. The two corporate, duopolist parties represent two factions within the imperialist ruling class, with one tending toward fascism and the other being open to small minimal capitalist reforms (supporting policy on climate change, voting rights, etc.). Consider the following from Lenin’s “Left Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder:

The more powerful enemy can be conquered only by exerting the utmost effort, and by necessarily, thoroughly, carefully, attentively and skillfully taking advantage of every, even the smallest “rift” among the enemies, of every antagonism of interest among the bourgeoisie of the various countries and among the various groups or types of bourgeoisie within the various countries, by taking advantage of every, even the smallest, opportunity of gaining a mass ally, even though this ally be temporary, vacillating, unstable, unreliable and conditional. Those who do not understand this do not understand even a particle of Marxism, or of scientific, modern Socialism in general. (emphasis in the original)

What Lenin said above is true of united front politics in general. Our role as the CPUSA is to apply the Communist plus as we engage in mass struggle on issues. And while doing so, we must build sustaining coalitions that bring together a large coalition of forces. Take for example the recent victory in Chicago, the adoption of the Empowering Communities for Public Safety ordinance, fought for by the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression. This mass coalition organizes around the issues of racism and police violence (which are linked), involving labor unions, churches, cultural/nationality groups, community organizations, Chicago aldermen, and more. They would have never achieved victory if it were not for the hard work of organizing this mass effort.

Though reforms may give illusions about the capitalist system, radical reforms can also expose the limitations of the system and lead to greater consciousness of the need to change it and fight for socialism.

On the other hand, sectarian politics are a dead end and a recipe for defeat. One example of this is the local D.C. Cuba Solidarity Committee, which has been unable to pass a resolution denouncing the blockade on Cuba because it is wrapped in ultra-left verbiage that will never pass through a Democratic-controlled city council. Sectarianism is an ultra-left tendency that separates conscious forces from the rest of the masses of people. The CPUSA was at its largest at the height of the popular front against fascism in the early 1940s. After this period and following the McCarthy period, the party continued this policy by developing formations such as NAIMSAL and NAARPR. This energy is needed today.

As Georgi Dimitrov brilliantly stated at the 7th Congress of the Communist International, “Whoever does not fight the reactionary measures of the bourgeoisie and the growth of fascism at these preparatory stages is not in a position to prevent the victory of fascism, but, on the contrary, facilitates that victory” (emphasis in the original).

4. By calling the Republican Partyfascist,” we lose white workers for our movement. We need to organize them!

If we are afraid to name our enemies, then we are disarming our class. The GOP is not yet an openly fascist party, but there are clearly fascist-minded people in and leading it. If its current trajectory is not halted, that is what it will become. And while it’s true that little is accomplished by yelling “fascist” at folks, it’s also true that tactics are needed for raising issues in ways that point out the fascist danger inherent in today’s Republican Party. This is particularly the case after January 6th. This includes using the “F” word. Thus the issue is not whether to say it, but how and when.

To continue with Dimitrov:

Fascism not only inflames prejudices that are deeply ingrained in the masses, but also plays on the better sentiments of the masses, on their sense of justice and sometimes even on their revolutionary traditions. . . .

Fascism aims at the most unbridled exploitation of the masses but it approaches them with the most artful anticapitalist demagogy, taking advantage of the deep hatred of the working people against the plundering bourgeoisie, the banks, trusts and financial magnates, and advancing those slogans which at the given moment are most alluring to the politically immature masses. . . .

Fascism is a most ferocious attack by capital on the mass of working people;
Fascism is unbridled chauvinism and predatory war;
Fascism is rabid reaction and counter-revolution;
Fascism is the most vicious enemy of the working class and of all working people. (emphasis in the original)

How do we stop this march toward fascist victory? By forming a united front which is “establishing unity of action of the workers in every factory, every district, in every region, in every country, all over the world. Unity of action of the proletariat on a national and international scale is the mighty weapon which renders the working class capable not only of successful defense but also of successful counterattack against fascism, against the class enemy.”

Comrades, let’s struggle against the march toward fascism in this country, and not contribute to its victory, which will end us all!

Image:  “D is for….320/365” by AndYaDontStop is licensed under CC BY 2.0).


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