By Noel Ignatiev
As each day has brought fresh evidence, many who a week ago excitedly hailed Missouri as a model upsurge have shifted their attention to other topics. My title is meant to indicate the provisional character of what follows. I hope others who share my outlook will respond. The goal should be to produce a statement that can help revolutionaries make sense of an ongoing struggle and guide their intervention in it, so that the next time something comes up their response will not consist of uncritical applause followed by disappointment.
Either the U.S. is a very democratic, even revolutionary, place, where gladiators fire the president of an important ruling-class institution—something Spartacus failed to accomplish in four years of war—or events at the University of Missouri and on campuses elsewhere say something about popular consciousness and how capital maintains its rule.
Many of the participants in the struggle in Missouri are now declaring, “We are revolutionaries.” That sentiment, coming from them, is to be welcomed. But are they?
A more useful question is, Do events at Missouri and on campuses elsewhere constitute a revolution, even on a small scale, and do the actions of the participants represent a revolutionary intervention?
A revolution is the overthrow of one class by another. It not only brings about changes in methods and personnel but destroys the existing state and puts another in its place. It necessarily entails a period of dual power, in which two societies, neither strong enough to suppress the other, contend for supremacy. These characteristics are present whether the revolution is global, continental, national, or local.
By this standard, events in Missouri and the movement on campuses nationwide do not constitute a revolution.
1. Instead of seeking to destroy the governing structures of the universities and the university itself as an institution serving the elite, it seeks changes in personnel and new programs that expand administrative authority. While many speak of “systemic racism,” few articulate what that means beyond the general tendency of white people to be clueless.
2. Instead of taking measures to defend themselves from white-supremacist attacks, the participants call upon the university to provide them with “safe spaces” and “trauma centers.”
3. In the guise of combating “hate speech” it demands the prohibition of all speech (and Halloween costumes) that students may find offensive. That tendency is not merely reformist but reactionary.
That is the negative side. These shortcomings should not lead us to condemn the movement or dismiss it as of no consequence. Without a movement, there is nothing. In a movement people move.
On the positive side:
1. The movement grew out of and is seen by many participants as an extension of the fight against police murders of black youth. It is no accident that it began in Missouri, close to Ferguson, where resistance to the police reached new heights and set an example of how to struggle.
2. The intervention of black students from working-class backgrounds, specifically football players whose willingness to risk scholarships and careers set an example of courage, was crucial in bringing pressure to bear on the university administration, and has introduced a new tactic to the movement.
Difficult to determine whether positive or negative:
1. It has brought together virtually all of black America. Some of its features—the reliance on administrators and the focus on individual expressions of “racism”—reflect not only the immaturity of any movement in its initial stages but the hegemony of a privileged class over the black masses for whom the criminal justice system, public schools and the department of children’s services are of greater concern than “micro-aggressions.” I am reluctant to make too much of the millionaire background of the leader of the movement at U. M.—quite often revolutionaries have come from the upper classes—but it does seem that his participation is motivated at least as much by personal ambition as by concern for the black masses, that he is representative of those black people who have gained admittance (not without difficulty and friction) to the petit and even grand bourgeoisie, and that his influence is something working-class students will have to overcome.
2. It has gained wide support among white students. While it is gratifying to see so many whites rallying in support of black demands, their presence tends to set limits on the movement. At Valdosta State in South Georgia whites in pickup trucks displaying the Confederate flag repeatedly circled the campus calling black students names and threatening them. This past spring black students held a Black Lives Matter rally at which one of them stomped on the U.S. flag; a gun was later found in his locker, a token of his belief in self-defense against white supremacists. The focus of discourse then shifted from the police, about which many whites saw the justice of what black students were saying, to desecration of the flag and “violence,” with which few whites sympathized.
In this country capital rules not so much by repressing dissent as by absorbing it (with the threat of repression ever present). Problems with the boss? Set up a National Labor Relations Board to mediate the conflict. Troubles with the police? Set up a review procedure and make the cops wear body cameras. Mediation invades every sphere of life. Got a problem with racial epithets? Don’t threaten to punch out the offender (as Tommy Knox did when we were ten years old and he thought I was about to use a bad word for black people). Ban “hate speech” and set up an agency to monitor the ban. Sexual harassment? Don’t listen to accuser and accused and take appropriate action; set up an agency to hold secret hearings and decide how to handle it. Some topics evoke painful reactions? Drop Oedipus Rex from the curriculum and compel instructors to include “trigger warnings” on syllabi. Want a black student center? Don’t take over a building, the university will provide one. A grade school bully? Don’t get a few kids together to correct him, let the teacher have the children talk it out. Saddened by someone shooting up a schoolyard full of children, or even by the death of a parent? The school will provide grief counselors. Even when ordinary people assert themselves independently of official agencies (as they did at U.M.) the result is yet another agency that deprives them of any power over their lives. The Obama Administration is the master of this approach, and even the opposition of “racists” and “reactionaries” is useful to it. An example was its response to the church killings in Charleston: prayer, a history lesson, a “hate crime” indictment, a call to let the forces of law-and-order deal with it—and gun control (lest some black people take it into their heads to defend their churches).
Revolutionaries must draw a sharp line between that path and the actions of the young people in Ferguson who hurled tear-gas canisters and Molotov cocktails at the police.
U.S. history, above all the history of abolition and the freedom movement, shows that whenever the black masses move with determination they rally enough whites behind them to bring about change. The ruling class, when forced to grant concessions, does so in a way that expands the authority of capital and its representatives. Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” and Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” celebrate that process, and marginalize the role of black revolutionaries (the ex-slaves and the black masses in the streets and workplaces) in favor of Lincoln, LBJ and MLK.
From time to time significant numbers have broken out of the bourgeois/liberal consensus. Du Bois told their story in Black Reconstruction in America and James Foreman in The Making of Black Revolutionaries. So far the break has been no more than temporary, and after an interval of doubt capital has been able to consolidate its rule based on a new consensus. The task of revolutionaries is to make sure the next time is different.
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