I'm not a Bordigist, but... This text by Bordiga on the Watts Rebellion of 1965 seems somehow relevant to recent protests against racism.
I discovered the French translation and realised that there was no decent English translation of the text available. Plus, the French edition had some relevant footnotes, including one quite harshly criticising Bordiga for being soft on the American Antebellum slave economy...
I'm not a Bordigist, but... This text by Bordiga on the Watts Rebellion of 1965 seems somehow relevant to recent protests against racism.
“Black” anger shakes the rotten pillars of bourgeois and democratic “civilization”
Once the outburst of the “black revolt” in California2 had passed, international conformism buried the “embarrassing” event under a thick cloak of silence! While the “enlightened” bourgeois was still anxiously seeking to discover the “mysterious” causes that had hindered the operation of the “regular and peaceful” mechanisms of democracy, any observer on either side of the Atlantic could be consoled by recalling that, after all, explosions of collective violence by “colored people” are nothing new in America and that, for example, an equally serious explosion occurred in Detroit in 1943, without any significant follow-up3 .
But something profoundly new emerged from this burning episode of anger, not vaguely popular but proletarian in nature, something to be followed not with a cold objectivity but with passion and hope. And it is this that makes us say: the black revolt was crushed; long live the black revolt!
The novelty – in the history of the struggles for emancipation of black proletarians and sub-proletarians, and not for the history of class struggles in general – is the almost perfect coincidence between the pompous rhetoric of the presidential promulgation of political and civic rights4 , and the eruption of an anonymous, subversive, collective and “uncivil” fury on the part of the “beneficiaries” of the “magnanimous” gesture; between the umpteenth attempt to entice the tortured slave with a miserable carrot that costs nothing, and the instinctive and immediate refusal of this slave to remain blindfolded, bent and cowering.
Harshly, instructed by no one – not by their leaders, more Gandhian than Gandhi, nor by a “communism” in the mode of the USSR, which, as L’Unità5
hurried to say, rejects and condemns violence – but educated by the hard lessons of the facts of social life, blacks in California have shouted out to the world, without having the theoretical consciousness, without needing to express it in a well-developed language, but by claiming in the thick of the action the simple and terrible truth that legal and political equality is nothing as long as there is economic inequality, and that it is possible to end it, not by laws, decrees, sermons or homilies, but only by overthrowing by force the foundations of a society divided into classes. It is this sudden tearing away of the veil of legal fictions and democratic hypocrisy, which has baffled and can only confuse the bourgeois. It is this which has focused the enthusiasm of real Marxists, and it is this which needs to capture the imaginations of proletarians asleep in the artificial cocoons of the metropolises of a capitalism historically born under a white skin.
When the American North, already on the rails to full capitalism, launched a crusade for the abolition of slavery prevailing in the South, it did not do so for humanitarian reasons, or out of respect for the eternal principles of 1789, but because it was necessary to uproot a pre-capitalist patriarchal economy and to “liberate” the work force so that it would become a huge resource for the greedy capitalist monster. Thus, before the Civil War, the North encouraged the flight of slaves from the Southern plantations. It was enticed by a workforce which would be for sale dirt cheap in the labour market, and, in addition to this direct benefit, would enable it to reduce the pay of the workforce already employed, or at least to stop it increasing. During and after the war the process was rapidly accelerated, becoming generalised.
It was a historically necessary transition to overcome the limits of an ultra-backward economy, and Marxism saluted this, without forgetting that “liberated” in the South, a black workforce would find in the North a mechanism of exploitation already in place, and even more ferocious in certain aspects. In the words of Capital, the “good Negro” would be free to deliver their skin to the labour market for it to be tanned. Freed from the chains of Southern slavery, but also the protective shield of an economy and a society based on personal and human relationships, instead of impersonal and inhuman relations6 , free, that is to say alone, naked and unarmed.
And in reality the slave who escaped to the North would come to realise that, no less than before, he was in an inferior position, because he was paid less, because he was deprived of professional qualifications, because he was isolated in new ghettos as a soldier of an industrial reserve army and as a potential threat of disintegration of the connective tissue of private ownership, because discriminated against and subjected to segregation as one who must not feel like a human being but a beast of burden, and as such to sell himself to the first bidder without demanding more nor better.
Today, a century after his alleged “emancipation”, he is granted the “plenitude” of civil rights by the same act whereas his average income is dramatically lower than that of his white fellow citizen. His wages are half that of his brother with white skin, the pay of his female partner is one third of the partner of the latter. In the very act in which the golden metropoles of business confined him in appalling ghettos of misery, disease, insecurity, isolating him behind invisible walls of prejudice and police regulations, in the very act in which unemployment which bourgeois hypocrisy calls “technological” (that is to say it is an “inevitable” price to pay to advance on the path of progress, not the fault of present society), has its most numerous victims among his brothers in race, because they are in the ranks of unskilled workers or sub-proletarians consigned to the most arduous and unpleasant jobs, in the very act where he is the equal on the battlefield to his white brothers to be turned into cannon fodder, it is not at all the same when he comes up against the policeman, the judge, the tax officer, the owner of the factory, the union honcho, the owner of his slum dwelling.
And it is also undeniable – and incomprehensible for twisted minds – that his revolt broke out in California where the average wage for blacks is higher than in the east. But it is precisely in this region of capitalist boom and so-called “affluence” that the disparity of incomes is the greatest. This is where the ghetto, already long enclosed along the Atlantic coast, becomes quickly surrounded by the presence of an obscene display of luxury, waste, of the good life of the ruling class – which is white!
It is against this hypocrisy of egalitarianism Jesuitically enshrined in law, but denied in the reality of a society with deeply dug class trenches, that black anger exploded, in the same fashion that anger explodes among white proletarians, drawn into and heaped up in the new industrial centres of advanced capitalism, crowded into shantytowns, in the monotonous slums, in the hovels of the very Christian bourgeois society where they are “free” to sell their labour power so as ... not to starve. In the same way that the holy fury of the dominated classes always explodes and, as if that were not enough, they are scorned and maligned as well!
“‘Premeditated Revolt’ against the rule of law, the rights of our neighbours and the maintenance of order!” exclaimed McIntyre7 , the Cardinal of our Holy Mother the Church, as if the new slave-without ankle-chains had a motive to respect a law that keeps his head down and his knees bent, or that this white “neighbour” has always had “rights”, or that he could see in this society based on the triple lie of liberty, equality, fraternity, something other than disorder raised to the level of a principle.
“Rights are not conquered by violence” shouted President Johnson8 . A lie. Blacks remember, if only from having heard that whites had to wage a long war to conquer the rights denied them by the British metropole. They know that blacks and whites, temporarily united, had to carry out an even longer war to obtain even the appearance of an “emancipation”, still impalpable and remote. They see and feel every day chauvinist rhetoric exalting the extermination of the Red Indians, the march of the “Founding Fathers” to new lands and “rights” and the brutal violence of the Western pioneers, “redeemed” to the civilization of the Bible and Alcohol. What is all this if not violence?
Inchoately, blacks have understood that there is no problem in American history, as in the history of all countries, that has not been resolved by force, that there is no right that it is not the result of often bloody, always violent clashes between the forces of the past and those of the future.
One hundred years of peaceful waiting for the magnanimous concessions of the whites, what have they brought them, except the little that the occasional explosion of anger has been able to snatch, even with fear, from the miserly and cowardly hand of the master? And how did Governor Brown9 , defender of the rights that the whites felt were threatened by the “revolt”, respond, if not by the democratic violence of machine guns, truncheons, armoured cars and a state of siege?
And so, what is this, if not the experience of oppressed classes under every sky, whatever the colour of their skin and their “racial” origin? The black, no matter if he is a pure proletarian or sub-proletarian, who shouted in Los Angeles: “Our war is here, not in Vietnam”, has expressed an idea no different from that of the men who “stormed the heavens” during the Paris Commune and that of the Petrograd gravediggers of the myths of order, the national interest, civilizing wars, and who finally herald a human civilization.
The bourgeois cannot console themselves by thinking: these are distant episodes that do not concern us, there is no racial question here. The racial question is now, more and more obviously, a social question.
The fact that the ragged unemployed and semi-unemployed in our Italian South no longer find the safety valve of emigration, the fact that they cannot travel beyond the sacred frontiers of the motherland to be skinned alive (and get slaughtered in disasters due not to fate, unexpected vagaries of the atmosphere or, who knows, the evil eye, but the thirst for profit of Capital, its frantic search for savings on the costs of materials, means of transport, safety devices, and perhaps for future gains in the reconstruction following disasters which are inevitable and anything but unpredictable even when they are hypocritically deplored), the fact that the slums of our industrial cities and our moral capitals (!!) are swarming, and will be even more than is the case today, with outcasts without work, without bread, without-reserves, means that you have an Italian “racism”, already visible today in the recriminations of the inhabitants of Northern Italy against the “primitive” and “uncultured” Southerners.
It is the social structure which we are condemned to live under today that gives rise to such infamies. It is under its ruins that they will disappear.
This is what the “black revolt” in California – not distant nor exotic, but happening right here in our midst – presents, as a warning and reminder, to those who, drugged by the democratic and reformist opium, and who doze without memory in the illusory dream of affluence. The revolt is immature and defeated, but is a harbinger of victory!
- 1From Il programma comunista, n° 10, August 1965 (unsigned article by Bordiga). The original Italian version can be found on the site of the group “Programma comunista”: https://www.internationalcommunistparty.org/index.php/it/326-il-programma-comunista-1960-1970/il-programma-comunista-1965/2782-la-collera-negra-ha-fatto-tremare-i-fradici-pilastri-della-civilta-borghese-e-democratica
The French version was published in Le prolétaire, n° 515, 2015:
- 2This text relates to the Watts Rebellion, which took place from 11 to 16 August 1965, in South Los Angeles.
- 3 Over the summer of 1943, race riots against black workers broke out in Detroit, Los Angeles, Mobile and Beaumont, most of the time over the question of jobs, related to internal immigration of black workers coming to “support the war effort”. In Detroit there was a general confrontation between groups of whites and blacks along the Belle Isle bridge. The riot spread across the city. Sailors attacked the blacks. Out of 34 people killed by the police, 24 were black. Another important race riot in 1943 happened in Harlem, in August. On the first of that month a black soldier intervened when a white cop tried to arrest a black man. Shots were exchanged and the soldier was injured. A rumour spread that the soldier was dead. The riot began. Rioters looted shops, smashed windows and fought with the police. On 2 August, the Republican mayor Fiorello La Guardia called on the US Army to intervene and impose a curfew. The Los Angeles riot in June 1943 is less well known. It was between white soldiers on leave and bands of young Mexicans and American blacks (and other ethnic groups too), belonging to the rebel subculture of wearing “Zoot suits”. The riots were sparked off by the aggressive actions of a group of racist sailors.
- 4The Civil Rights Act of 1964 declared discrimination based on race, colour, religion, sex or origin illegal. Following this was the Voting Rights Act, forbidding “racial discrimination in the exercise of the right to vote”. The text was adopted on 4 August 1965 by the US Congress and signed on 6 August by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
- 5 Organ of the Italian Stalinists, edited at the time by Luigi Longo, who followed the line of Palmiro Togliatti (disciple of Antonio Gramsci), that of the “Italian road to socialism”.
- 6 This assertion by Bordiga about the supposedly “more personal and human” “social relations” in the slave-owning South is an abusive interpretation of Marxism, considered as the theory of the obligatory passage from an “inferior” phase, less alienated and “softer”, to a “superior” phase of the exploitation of man by man, the culmination of capitalist alienation. As the historian David Davis says: “Yet we must never forget that these same “welfare capitalist” plantations in the Deep South were essentially ruled by terror. Even the most kindly and humane masters knew that only the threat of violence could force gangs of field hands to work from dawn to dusk ‘with the discipline’, as one contemporary observer put it, ‘of a regular trained army’. Frequent public floggings reminded every slave of the penalty for inefficient labor, disorderly conduct, or refusal to accept the authority of a superior.” (David Brion Davis, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World, 2006). If you want to compare the situation of the black worker, a slave before the Civil War, then after his supposed “emancipation”, “freely” selling his labour power to the capitalists, the image from Greek mythology of “going from Charybdis to Scylla” would be more exact. From the slave plantation to the modern industrial Gulag, with ultraliberal or state capitalist sauce, there is one “invariance”: the total dehumanisation and depersonalisation of the exploited, the savagery of exploitation under the whip of overseers in the South idealised by Margaret Mitchell (Gone with the wind), the bullets of the bosses’ militia, and the Pinkerton agents in the Yankee North.
- 7 Cardinal James Francis Aloysius McIntyre (1886-1979), of Irish descent, he was the son of member of the mounted police of New York. Named Cardinal in 1953 by Pius XII, hostile to Communism and also to priests who supported the Civil Rights Movement, he described the rioters as “inhuman, almost beasts” and supported the racist Chief of Police of Los Angeles, William H. Parker (1905-1966). The state’s ferocious repression caused the deaths of 34 Black Americans, slain by the bullets of the Los Angeles police (LAPD) and the National Guard.
- 8 Democrat Lyndon Johnson was the President at the time, having gained this position after the Kennedy assassination, when he was Vice President. His “Great Society” program included recognition of Civil Rights for blacks, the “war against poverty”, the institution of social measures in the health sector such as Medicare for the elderly and Medicaid for the poor etc. It was on his watch that US involvement in the Vietnam War, begun under Kennedy, really intensified. During the hot summer of 1967, characterised by black insurrections much more important than those of 1965, from Atlanta, Buffalo to Detroit, Johnson called out the army: “We will not tolerate lawlessness”, he declared and 43 people lost their lives, 1,189 were injured and 7,000 were arrested. In Detroit, a workers’ city, white proletarians also participated in the insurrection.
- 9Pat Brown (1905-1996), Democrat Governor of California from 1959 to 1967, called out 3,900 National Guards to put down the black insurrection. He was also the father of Jerry Brown, who has since been the Governor of California twice.