The ‘United’ States as a prison house of nations
By Christopher C.
Challenging racism is paramount for any political project interested in liberation. There are a variety of approaches to understanding racism, but I want to argue that the Leninist conception of national oppression is both more descriptive and more conducive to radical systemic change.
The problem of racism is more than “skin deep”. There is a long history starting from the slave trade that accounts for the divisions between the “races.” Over the course of this history, the divisions became real not only regarding their material basis in privileges or relationship to the means of production but also regarding territory, language, levels of bourgeois exploitation.
That history tells us that racism arose in the context of the African slave trade, without which capitalism could not have emerged. Marx wrote, “Direct slavery is just as much the pivot of bourgeois industry as…machinery. Without slavery, you have no cotton. Without cotton, you have no modern industry. It is slavery that has given the colonies their value…”
Force brought as many as 12 million Africans to South America, the Caribbean, and North America. Somewhere in the vicinity of fifteen percent (15%) of these people died during the middle passage. This amounts to a death toll of approximately 1.8 million from transport alone. These unwilling passengers were chained like stacks of firewood for fear of mutiny, unable to so much as change position for months at a time. The conditions that awaited them in the colonies were not much better. The Atlantic Slave Trade is, to this day, the largest forced population transfer in history.
Because we live in a world so steeped in racist ideology, it is certainly tempting to say that what led to slavery in the first place was racism. But, as Trinidadian historian of slavery, Eric Williams writes, “slavery was not borne of racism, rather racism is the consequence of slavery.” The concept of race has not always existed. It had to be invented to justify how it was that in a land which proclaimed to be a bastion of freedom and equality, human beings were subjected to treatment far worse than animals. It is important to say here that race as a category has no bearing on biology. Alan R. Templeton, professor of biology in Arts and Sciences at Washington University, has analyzed DNA from global human populations that reveal the patterns of human evolution over the past one million years. He shows that while there is plenty of genetic variation in humans, most of the variation is individual variation. It does not mark historical sublineages of humanity. The concept of race is just as made up, Dr. Barbara-Jeanne Fields says, as Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny.
Of course, Santa and the Easter Bunny are stories that children eventually grow out of. This is not so for ideologies. These are not simply handed down from generation to generation. Material conditions in society perpetuate them. Racism emerged from and continues to be reproduced by, political structures that were erected to satisfy a particular set of economic interests. Fields writes, “Probably a majority of American historians think of slavery in the United States as primarily a system of race relations, as though the chief business of slavery were the production of white supremacy, rather than the production of cotton, sugar, rice, and tobacco. One historian has gone so far as to call slavery the ‘ultimate segregator.’ He does not ask why Europeans seeking the ultimate method of segregating Africans would go to the trouble and expense of transporting them across the ocean for that purpose when they could have achieved the same ends so much more simply by leaving the Africans in Africa….No one dreams of analyzing serfdom in Russia as a problem of race relations, even though the Russian nobility invented fictions of their innate…superiority over the serfs as preposterous as any devised by American racists.”
Slavery was an economic institution that racism was created to serve. Racism serves a similar role in capitalism today.
The black abolitionist Frederick Douglass made a similar point centuries ago. He wrote, “the hostility between the poor whites and blacks of the South is easily explained. It has its roots and sap in the relation of slavery, and it was enacted on both sides by the cunning of the slavemasters. Those masters secured their ascendancy over both the poor whites and the blacks by putting enmity between them. They divided both to conquer each.”
Douglass recognized the obvious fact that poor whites in the South enjoyed many benefits relative to the black slaves. This quotation comes from a letter in which Douglass was arguing that black people should have the right to vote: a right that even the poorest white person already enjoyed. Douglass believed, though, that poor white people would be better off without white supremacy. That is, the white workers would be better off without the system of practices thanks to which they enjoyed these privileges relative to their black counterparts. It was precisely that system of white supremacy that prevented both poor whites and poor black people from standing shoulder to shoulder against the enemy who was plundering them both. Douglass recognized, then, that racism had a particular benefit for the owning classes of society.
We ought to consider Douglass’s remarks about racism in the context of Marx and Engels’ remarks about “ruling ideas” in The German Ideology. The system of racist ideas regarding which the “hostility” between poor people of different races played out belonged to the class of slave-owners. It belonged to them not just in the sense that they believed it, but also because the circulation of those racist ideas served an important function in sustaining the power that the owning classes exercised over the workers. They were “ruling ideas” in the sense that they were the ideas that enabled the rulers to rule.
We should also compare Douglass’ thoughts on this division to what Marx said about the division between English and Irish workers. He writes, “All English industrial centers now possess a working class split into two camps: English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker because he sees in him a competitor who lowers his standard of life. Compared with the Irish worker, he feels himself a member of the ruling nation, and for this very reason, he makes himself into a tool of the aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, and thus strengthens their domination over himself. The Irish worker sees in [the English worker] both an accomplice and the stupid tool of English rule in Ireland. This antagonism is artificially sustained…by…all the means at the disposal of the ruling class. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organization…..” We see that Marx did not ignore the oppression faced by workers and non-workers alike. He simply sought to explain their underlying causes. He recognized that understanding the material origins of oppression was key to ending it.
Marx applied the same analysis to the United States. Expressing his support for the North in the Civil War, he wrote, “in the United States of America, every independent movement of the workers was paralyzed as long as slavery disfigured a part of the republic. Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black skin it is still branded.” Even today, labor in the black skin is still branded. It is branded in a way that is useful to a tiny class of people who control the vast wealth of society and therefore control all the things we need to live a decent life. It is useful to this minority class for exactly the reason that Douglass and Marx identified: because it pits labor in the white skin against labor in the black skin.
The point here is not that racism is ‘not real,’ or that is less important than economics. Douglass was very aware of the material effects of anti-black racism, being a black man himself. The point is also not to say that racism is merely an ideological issue. On the contrary, racism has a strong material basis. To make one group feel superior to another group, you must give the first group more benefits than the second. In the time of slavery, this bribery took the form of land. Today, it manifests as housing, education, employment, and unionization.
Marx himself understood that the granting of land and other privileges to poor whites was integral to the bourgeoisie in the fight against socialism. He wrote, “it is possible to square the interests of ‘poor whites’ with those of the slaveholders…To tame them with the prospect of one day becoming slaveholders themselves.” This was a view recognized by the bourgeoisie themselves. When the Paris Commune was formed in June 1868, Ernest Renan criticized the French capitalists for neglecting “colonization,” which was a safeguard against “war between rich and poor.” Racism materially binds some workers to the cause of the capitalists. It is the responsibility of revolutionaries to destroy these privileges, not ignore them. Marxists would not be arguing that workers must be united if we did not think there was anything dividing them in the first place.
Slavery, which as we now know preceded racism, was invaluable to the planter class. Their very existence as a class depended on it. Slavers and slave traders profited immensely from the slave trade. This is a lesson in the limitless barbarity that spawned capitalism. It can also help explain why modern capitalists know no bounds when it comes to securing their ability to make profits.
But racism is not just a byproduct of capitalism. Marxists who claim that it is mean to say that capitalism and racism go hand in hand. The one necessitates the other. This is a correct reading, but it does not follow from this that racism is a “necessary byproduct” of capitalism. To call something a byproduct is to say that it has no function, that it does no work in the process of which it is a byproduct. If am I sawing a piece of wood with which to build a house, I will inevitably make some sawdust. In this scenario, however, the product of my labor is the house, not the sawdust. To call sawdust, a byproduct is to say that is an incidental occurrence whose production serves no purpose in house-building.
Racism is not the sawdust of American capitalism. It is the saw. It is a tool in the hands of the ruling class. Like a tool, it has a definite, material function. Its function is to divide the working class. It is vital that we stop this tool from being used against us.
African-Americans have the political, cultural, historical, and economic building blocks of a nation. It is not merely that racism is ideologically strong, but that in the US context, the racialized division is strong enough to have passed-in accordance with dialectical materialism-over from quantity into quality. It has become something else entirely: national oppression, wherein more or less the entire African-American nation, including much of the black bourgeoisie, is oppressed and exploited by the imperialist white bourgeoisie.
A nation, writes Stalin in Marxism and the National Question, is a historically-constituted people. They share a common language, a common territory, and a common economic life. These components come together to form a common culture. It is necessary for a particular group to have all these characteristics to be considered a nation.
There are two important characteristics to note about Stalin’s definition. First, while territory and geography is a defining feature of a nation, it is not its sole determining characteristic, meaning that within the existential boundaries of a country–itself a recent social development–many nations may exist.
Second, while a common economic life is also a defining characteristic, nations are not formed by class unity. In other words, there is no proletarian nation or bourgeois nation, but rather these two classes are both part and parcel of their respective nations. Despite this, national oppression is irrevocably bound up with class struggle.
Harry Haywood and the Comintern explained why it was necessary to conceptualize national struggles as class struggles. Looking at the exploitation of African-Americans purely as a question of race “slurred over the economic and social roots of the question and obscured the question of the agrarian democratic revolution in the South.” In describing Reconstruction, Haywood writes that the “revolution had stopped short of a solution to the crucial land question; there was neither confiscation of the big plantations of the former slaveholding class, nor the distribution of the land among the Negro freedmen and poor whites.” The White Supremacist counter-revolution of 1877 brought an end to Reconstruction, and through fascist terrorism by paramilitary groups like the Ku Klux Klan, African-Americans were denied the political rights and economic opportunities afforded to White citizens.
Thus, Haywood writes in his 1948 book, Negro Liberation, “The uniqueness of the Negro problem in the United States lies in the fact that the Negro was left out of the country’s general democratic transformation.” Thinking about black oppression in terms of race, then, presented a problem: it obscured the real root of this oppression: exploitation and theft of natural resources.
Race became a category standing above society, not based on any material relations between people. In applying Lenin’s national question to the Black Belt, Haywood showed that there was a way out of this oppression: organization and socialist revolution.
Socialists have always held that the working class is typically made up of the most oppressed people. Some forty percent of entry-level service jobs are occupied by Black and Latino workers, according to a report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Class is not separate from race, gender, or the like. In racist, sexist, or otherwise oppressive societies, these things will play a role in determining class and will also exacerbate its effects. As J. Moufawad-Paul argues in his book Continuity and Rupture: Philosophy in the Maoist Terrain, “class is always clothed in the garments of oppression.”
This is why socialists have a long history of fighting oppression. After the direct intervention of Lenin, the US Communist Party initiated a campaign to free the Scottsboro Boys, nine young black men who were falsely convicted of gang rape in an Alabama court and sentenced to death in 1931. Many black organizations shunned the case due to its sensitive subject matter. The NAACP did not provide a lawyer to the young men until after they had already been convicted.
The CP, however, undertook an international campaign that gained wide support among African-Americans because of its principled defense of the Scottsboro Boys. Ahmed Shawki writes, “A May 16, 1931, protest that began with a March of several hundred Communists…ended with a mass rally involving more than three thousand black Harlemites. At the rally, the throng heard from one of the Scottsboro mothers and Communist speakers….The Scottsboro Campaign carried on for years with events like this one, which succeeded in stopping the Scottsboro executions and ultimately freeing the men.” The CP’s black membership had grown from 200 in 1930 to 7,000 in 1938. This was at a time when segregation was still legal in the South (and legal in all but name in the North), and there were virtually no other integrated organizations in the United States.
In 1928, the CP had fewer than 50 black members in the entire country. By 1930, just two years later, the membership had quadrupled to 200. Eight years later, in 1938, it had seven thousand black members. Nationally, the black membership rose to nine percent (9%) of the total party membership. This was at a time when black people were only eleven percent (11%) of the total population. To reiterate, this was before the integration of the US Military. The Communist Party was, at this point, the most integrated organization in the country.
Black workers were hit hardest by the Great Depression’s rampant unemployment due to racist firing preferences by white managers. In response to the mass demand among African-Americans for jobs, the Alabama Communists organized an unemployment relief campaign in 1933. By the end of the year “the Party’s dues-paying membership in Birmingham rose to nearly five hundred, and its mass organizations encompassed possibly twice that number.” The unemployment relief campaign was particularly successful in its goal “to increase the number of black female members, who often proved more militant than their male comrades, from open confrontation to hidden forms of resistance, and would later prove invaluable to local Communists continuing their work in the mines, mills, and plantations of the black belt.” The Alabama Communist Party maintained high diversity because of its attention to the plight of African-Americans, and in particular, the plight of African-American women.
Southern communists heavily involved themselves in the sharecropper labor movement, whose composition was primarily African-American. In Alabama, for instance, the Party organized the Sharecroppers Union in 1931, which grew to “a membership of nearly 2,000 organized in 73 locals, 80 women’s auxiliaries, and 30 youth groups.” The SCU was openly organized by Alabama communists, and while it drew substantial support from the African-American community, it was also subject to a harsh crackdown by state and non-state actors. Nevertheless, “the SCU claimed some substantial victories. On most of the plantations affected, the union won at least seventy-five cents per one hundred pounds, and in areas not affected by the strike, landlords reportedly increased wages from thirty-five cents per hundred pounds to fifty cents or more to avert the spread of the strike.” The mass appeal of the SCU, an explicitly red trade union, and its tremendous victories demonstrate the power once possessed by the CPUSA in the American South.
Because sharecropping and rural wage labor were dominated by African-Americans, the SCU gave Alabama communists an interesting opportunity to apply the national question to trade union organizing. African-American communist Al Murphy was chosen as the Secretary of the SCU, and the bulk of the union’s leadership was always black. Kelley writes that as Secretary, “Murphy, an unflinching supporter of the Party’s demand for self-determination in the black belt, had very definite ideas about the radical character of the SCU. He saw within every member ‘standard bearers of Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, Gabriel Prosser, Frederick Douglass,’ and regarded the all-black movement as the very embodiment of black self-determination.” The SCU came to represent the embodiment of Black self-determination applied to organizing because African-American cadre themselves comprised the union’s leadership, rather than the white labor bureaucrats that marked most other industrial trade unions in the 1930s. Nearly all of the Party’s black leadership had no prior experience in radical movements, making the SCU an authentic people’s trade union reflecting the class conflicts of the South.
The history of socialists fighting racial oppression goes back even further than this. Marx himself had an impressive history of doing so. Not only did he advocate for abolition, but he was also the head of an organization that prevented the English from entering the Civil War on the side of the South. Many German socialist organizations took up arms against the South in the Civil War.
Historically, Socialists have never shied away from fighting identity-based oppressions. Socialists of today should not and have not abandoned this. This lesson has not, admittedly, always been taken to heart. When Lenin was writing, little attention was paid to the existence of nations in revolutionary circles. The majority of Russian Marxists held that distinctions between nationalities served only to divide the working class. In their view, Russia was already a unified whole, so discussions of national oppression were trivial. The unity of the working class, said most revolutionaries, is the only thing that matters when making a revolution.
Lenin took a firm stance against this view. He understood Russia not as a unified body which was divided only along class lines, but as a “prison house of nations.” He understood that there was no such thing as a Russian as such. Rather, there were a variety of nations. These included Muslims, Georgians, Turks, Azerbaijanis, and others. Under the Tsar, these groups faced an incredible restriction of rights. Many had their languages banned, their religions outlawed and forbidden from holding public office. Jews, in particular, were subjected to brutal massacres known as pogroms. These oppressed nations all faced under development and feudal conditions.
Thus, Lenin understood that the revolution could not be made merely on the basis of formalistic working class unity. To win over and unify the people, special attention had to be paid to the violence faced by the workers of oppressed nations. He was clear that the Party had to oppose Great Russian racism and “national chauvinism” at every turn. The Party was to lead the fight for equal education, cultural rights, and religious expression. Only when oppressed nations rallied behind the Party and its movement could true working class unity be attained. This is consistent with the ideas of Karl Marx, who we now know wrote that “Labor in the white skin will never be free so long as labor in the black skin is still branded.”
Lenin’s ideas about the national question can be summed up by the term “self-determination.” This meant that the workers of oppressed nations had the final say in what happened to them. They had full autonomy, including the right to break away and form their own countries should they choose to do so. This did not mean that socialists would advocate for a separate state in every case. Sometimes, succession would be inadvisable. The concrete results of the struggle for national liberation depended, as all struggles do, on the material conditions of society. Still, the core principle of solidarity with and support for oppressed nations remained constant.
Lenin stressed that national liberation was a struggle that worked in service to and in tandem with the struggle for the liberation of the working class. He rejected imperialist bourgeois conceptions of nationalism, which preached unity between the bourgeoisie of oppressed nations and the workers of oppressed nations. Lenin said that the national liberation struggle’s primary purpose was to unite the working class of the entire world so that they could eventually overthrow global capitalism. Lenin also held that the national question was important because of its relevance to the tactics of revolutionaries. By this, he meant that oppressed nations had the greatest interest in revolution, so it was important to win them over to the Party.
Working members of the dominant nation were often handed things like higher wages or better working conditions (or even land), while the working class of oppressed nations was left to suffer. This meant that oppressor nation workers’ interest in the revolution was greatly diminished. As a result, revolutionaries had to go deeper into “the real masses” of oppressed nations. Oppressed nations face a “particularly revolting division of labor,” one of the hallmarks of class. In the United States, African-Americans are often intentionally given worse jobs than whites. Movements against national oppression (a more accurate name for “anti-racist struggle”) seek to challenge this division of labor. These movements, despite being lead by the bourgeoisie, challenge the existing class order. In this sense, they are allies of the proletariat.
Historically, national liberation has been a linchpin in the struggle for communism. Communists in China, Vietnam, and Cuba gained support by leading national liberation movements. National Liberation is an interest the masses come to on their own. Therefore, it is one that communists can use to link with the masses and draw them into the struggle against capitalism, imperialism, and oppression. National Liberation work reflects a deep understanding of the mass line. At its core, national Liberation is communist and anti-imperialist. National Liberation must be a cornerstone of all socialist work. The proletariat and the Communist Party that represents it must struggle for leadership within national liberation struggles, even if it means allying with the native or nationalist bourgeoisie.
This can be seen in the Russian Revolution, itself partly a national liberation struggle. The counter-revolution of the White Army was defeated because the Bolsheviks urged for “a national struggle of liberation against foreign invasion,” that was intent on turning Russia into a colony of the West. By appealing to the nationalist bourgeoisie, the Bolsheviks were able to repel the invaders and strengthen socialism in the country. The Party was successful in “soldering communist doctrine to the collective…Russian people.” National liberation is in the interests of the proletariat, in the interests of socialism. As Marx put it, those who “cannot understand how one nation can grow rich at the expense of another” are unable to understand “how…one class can enrich itself at the expense of another.” Because national oppression is an economic arrangement predicated on exploitation, it is part and parcel of class struggle. The proletariat finds an ally in its struggle against the bourgeoisie in all members of oppressed nations. The class struggle around national oppression has the potential to form a progressive cross-class unity.
The destruction caused by the Russian Civil War, waged between 1918 and 1922, along with the Allied invasion of Russia by fourteen countries in 1921, forged a sense of unity between the underdeveloped constituent nations of the former Russian empire and the Bolsheviks’ revolutionary government. After exiting World War I through the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and emerging victorious over the tsarist White Army, the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) met with representatives from these formerly oppressed nations and formed the Soviet Union in 1922. The Soviet Union’s recognition of its constituent nations’ right to self-determination finds its embodiment in the 1917 “Declaration of the Rights of the Russian People,” which legally guaranteed “equality and sovereignty of the peoples of Russia, the right of peoples of Russia to free self-determination up to secession and the formation of independent states, abolition of all national and national-religious privileges and restrictions, [and] free development of national minorities and ethnic groups inhabiting the territory of Russia.” Thus, any analysis of the Soviet Union must account for the complexities of its international composition, rather than viewing it as a purely Russian political phenomenon.
After the formation of the Soviet Union, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) implemented a policy of korenizatsiya to encourage the indigenous development of revolutionary leadership among the USSR’s constituent nations. While the CPSU argued that the process of socialist construction for each nation was generally the same, it acknowledged a firm belief that “each nation which has overthrown capitalism seeks to plot the course of its economic, political and cultural development in such way as to be most in conformity with its concrete historical features and progressive traditions.” Korenizatsiya was a means by which the CPSU would help create indigenous communist parties, culture, and economies tailored to the specific needs of the nation in question.
The central component of this, in the view of the CPSU, was the cultivation of native communist leadership in each nation’s party and the promotion of national minorities in higher Soviet institutions. In practice, the CPSU “supported local languages, educated and promoted local elites and thus built new loyalties to the socialist cause” as a part of korenizatsiia.” Reza Zia-Ebrahimi of the London School of Economics & Politics describes this process in a 2007 article entitled “Empire, Nationalities and the Fall of the Soviet Union,” pointing out that “each Soviet republic was flanked with an official culture, official folklore, and national opera-house. Soviet authorities went as far as to develop written systems for local languages that had previously lacked them.” She notes that this policy of nativization also had the effect of combating Russian national chauvinism, citing Ukraine in the 1920s as an example, in which “a Russian residing there also had to be educated in Ukrainian.”
Though the precise manifestations of korenizatsiya oscillated over the history of the USSR and at times nations had less operational freedom-particularly during the glasnost period brought on by Gorbachev-the Soviet state’s dedication to raising the status of national minorities and guaranteeing political representation demonstrates a genuine ideological commitment to national self-determination that inspired oppressed nations around the world.
It is important to recognize that the Marxist-Leninist position on the national question is indeed tactical. Nationalism is a tool that Communists can use to liberate the oppressed masses of society. In determining our support for nationalist movements, we should always evaluate whether or not they serve this goal.
Russia was a “prison house of nations.” It was composed of multiple oppressed nationalities, and as such was not divided solely along class lines. I hold that this is also the case for the United States of America. It, too, is a prison house of nations. I aim to substantiate this claim through historical analysis.
Originally, what would become the United States was made up of many different Native nations. Then, white European colonists landed on the continent. These colonists were primarily English, meaning that they shared a common language, culture, and identity. However, they did not share a common history or territory at the time. Soon, the colonists began pushing westward.
There were two main features of this westward expansion. The first was the genocide of the Natives, and the second was slavery. These two main principles allowed the United States to build its economy and eventually become politically dominant. Throughout this process, Native nations were continually marginalized. Some were simply destroyed, while others were forced into reservations. They were ripped from their land, slaughtered, and subjected to incredibly harsh conditions. White Christian missionaries stole the children of the Natives and forced them to learn English. This meant that Native culture was also destroyed.
There are still reservations, and there are still Natives living on them. Natives are a historically constituted people. Today, there are Native nations within the United States. These nations are still oppressed, still subjected to poverty and isolation. A 2008 report from American Native Census Facts showed that the percentage of Natives living below the poverty line is 28.2 percent. Compare this to 14.5 percent of the general population, according to the Census Bureau. A 2010 study determined that the life expectancy for Natives living on reservations trails that of the general population by almost five years. This is primarily due to underfunded health services. A Gallup independent study said that some reservations are “comparable to the third world,” concerning living conditions. It is plainly obvious that Natives ought to be considered an oppressed nation.
I should note that there is not merely one Native nation, but many. Since there are multiple Native tribes, there are multiple Native nations. Their common territories encompass networks of reservations, and each tribe has different languages and cultural customs. As a result, their struggles are all very different. However, the above issues (poverty, exploitation, and under development) are ones that every Native nation faces. Every Native tribe must be considered its oppressed nation, but they can all find unity with one another in their struggle against neocolonialism.
The second feature of colonial westward expansion was mass slavery. Millions of Africans from the west coast of their home continent were abducted by slavers and brought to the new United States. These Africans stolen into servitude were constituted in a very particular area: the South. In some areas, the concentration of slaves was so great that they outnumbered white slave owners by as much as ninety percent (90%). The effect of this was that, while the slaves came from different African countries, they all began to share a common culture. This culture was created by the economic conditions of slavery, as well as by their struggle against these conditions. Part of this struggle was the creation of a language that was distinct from that of the slave owners.
This concentration persists in some form today. There is a belt, stretching roughly from Atlanta to the Mississippi Delta, in which black Africans still form the majority of the population. One of the areas encompassed by this belt is Missouri. This belt is known as the Kush in Pan-Africanist theory. This area includes Ferguson. Roughly seventy out of one hundred of the residents in Ferguson are black. However, less than one out of a hundred members of the police force in the city is black. You will find similar statistics in the rest of this belt. Almost none of the people with actual power in these communities are black, despite the majority of the population itself being black. African Americans in the United States do not even have surface-level control of their communities, much less control in a substantive sense.
The Black Belt nation continues to face exploitation under the yoke of American imperialism as an internal oppressed nation. A 2005 report released by the University of Georgia’s Initiative on Poverty and the Economy notes that “the 11 states that make up the Southern Black Belt have a combined rural poverty rate of 18.7 percent, translating into almost 1 in every 5 rural residents living in poverty,” and the “urban poverty rate for the Southern Black Belt is 14.0 percent.” Compared to the rest of the country, the “Southern Black Belt has a poverty rate of 14.06 percent, while the national poverty rate is 12.38 percent.” The same UGA report also analyzed the breakdown of poverty rates in the Black Belt by race, showing that 26.35% of African-Americans in the black belt was impoverished, with Latinos at a close 22.99% – despite making up a smaller percentage of the population – and a mere 10.11% of the white population in poverty.
Perhaps the most damning evidence for the continued imperialist and neo-colonialist exploitation of the Black Belt nation came from the Auburn University Journal of Rural Social Sciences in 2010. Dale Wimberley, the author, analyzes the condition of the Black Belt South versus the rest of the American South and the entire United States in his study, ‘Quality of Life Trends in the Black Belt South, 1980 – 2005’. While noting that African-Americans made some gains in this period, Wimberley notes that “in both 1989 and 1999, Black Belt Blacks had higher [poverty] rates than Blacks elsewhere, but Black Belt Whites had lower poverty rates than Whites elsewhere in the South.” He concludes that “For poverty, Whites seem to have benefited from living in the Black Belt as opposed to elsewhere in the South.” The oppression African-Americans in the Black Belt enables whites in the same region to live better lives. There is a term for this relationship: colonialism, in which one nation conquers and rules another by taking over the governance and economic resources of the colonized nation.
A report from the National Bureau of Economic Research authored by Kevin Lang shows that black workers receive extra scrutiny from employers, leading to worse performance reviews, lower wages, and even job loss. The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that, on average, the black unemployment rate is 2.2 times greater than that of whites. Finally, a report from the Economic Policy Institute showed that the wage gap between white workers and black workers is the worst it has been in nearly four decades. Not only do African Americans share a common Economic life, but it is also a life fraught with difficulties and oppression.
I would be remiss not to mention the epidemic levels of police violence faced by African Americans. A report from the Center for Equitable Policing determined that the use of force in police interactions is more than three times greater for African Americans than it is for whites. A study by the University of California found “evidence of significant bias in the killing of unarmed black Americans relative to unarmed white Americans.” Finally, a 2015 analysis by Campaign Zero found no correlation between police killings and violent crime rates. This shows that African-Americans are deliberately targeted by the police, to prevent them from making a revolution. The above facts prove that African Americans, like Natives, are an oppressed nation within the United States.
The Chicano nation must also be mentioned. There are between 10 and 12 million Chicanos in the United States. Eighty-five percent (85%) of all Chicanos are concentrated in the southwestern part of the United States. In many areas of the Southwest, Chicanos are a majority of the population. Chicanos suffer the most brutal forms of national oppression in every aspect of their lives. They are an oppressed nation in the Southwest, fighting for freedom and equality. The hands which strangle the national aspirations of the Chicano nation belong to the monopoly capitalist class. This class is the source of all oppression and exploitation in the United States. The cold-blooded killing of Chicanos by the police has become common fact of life in the Southwest. The minimal health and social services in the Chicano community are being drastically cut back. Chicanos fill the unemployment lines, and their standard of living gets worse all the time. The quality of their education, healthcare, and housing continue to decline in quality. Chicano farm workers are prevented from unionizing (a simple matter of survival) with attacks by police.
The Chicano people have a 400-year history in the Southwest during which they developed into a nation. Chicanos have lived in the areas now called southern California, southwestern Arizona, New Mexico, southern Colorado and southwestern Texas. This was then part of the northern territory of Mexico, at that time a colony of Spain. Most of the inhabitants of these early settlements were mestizos (mixed Spanish and Native heritage) who labored as feudal serfs on the large farms, ranches, and missions of the feudal Spanish ruling class. During the 300 years of Spanish rule, the inhabitants of the area developed a common language and culture. After Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, the Spanish-speaking inhabitants of the Southwest started to become part of the young, but not fully developed, Mexican nation.
Capitalism also began to develop in the area, mainly through the beginning process of unequal trade between the different settlements. Because of the weakness of the Mexican government, it did little with the Southwest and was not able to complete its capitalist development. The area soon fell under the expansionist eye of the United States .
Today the Chicano people remain concentrated in the Southwest and constitute a majority, or near majority, throughout New Mexico and in contiguous parts of Texas, Colorado, Arizona, and California. Although they make up only about 12% of the total population of the five southwestern states, they make up over one-third of the poor families in that region. Most Chicanos still live in overcrowded and overpriced barrios, suffer police repression on a wide scale, and are discriminated against on the job, in the schools, and in their communities. Chicanos represent one of the few racial and ethnic groups in this country that have experienced consistent increases in poverty since 1980 They must fight a continual battle for their survival of their language and culture against a ruling class which teaches the Anglo-American population to look down upon them.
The laboring people suffer the most as they are still being driven off their lands, and are forced to work for the lowest wages and under the worst conditions. The Chicano nation’s oppression has an economic dimension, given that the Chicano farm workers are often super-exploited by the white bourgeoisie. This further drives home the point that national liberation struggles must always be linked with Marxism and that national liberation must be considered an aspect of class struggle.
While African-Americans, Native Americans, and Chicanos are by no means the only oppressed nations in the United States, I feel that these examples are sufficient to prove my point. The situation of the United States parallels the situation of Revolutionary Russia regarding the national question. There is not simply a working class and an owning class. There are several oppressed nations who are waging their own liberation struggles, which amount to struggles against exploitation. To make a successful revolution in the United States, we must support these struggles unconditionally and work to develop socialist consciousness within them. Above all, we must assert that oppressed nations have a right to self-determination.
Just as resolving the national question through programs like korenizatsiia was essential to the success and survival of the October 1917 revolution in Russia, the success of the socialist revolution in the United States will require a strategic alliance between the multinational working class and the oppressed nations within its borders. Historically, the United States has used the super-profits and land ruthlessly extracted from these nations to position itself as the world’s largest imperialist superpower. As such, the liberation of the oppressed nations within the United States is necessary to defeat imperialism and secure victory for the socialist revolution.
Christopher C is a Marxist-Leninist activist and writer.
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