The killing of George Floyd in plain sight by the Minneapolis police rightly shocked millions of people across the world. The killing of a black person by the police is not an unusual event, particularly in the US.
Black Lives Matter was founded in 2013, after the acquittal of George Zimmerman, a Neighbourhood Watch volunteer, for the killing of black teenager, Trayvon Martin. However, it really took off in 2014 after the police killings of Mike Brown in Ferguson, and Eric Garner in New York. Garner was asphyxiated just like George Floyd who repeatedly told his cop killer “I can’t breathe” as he held his knee on his neck for almost nine minutes. Numerous other black Americans have been killed since 2014 by the police including Tanisha Anderson, Breonna Taylor, Jonathan Ferrell, John Crawford, Ezell Ford, Laquan McDonald, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Samuel DuBose, Jeremy McDole, Alton Sterling, and Philando Castile. There are many, many more. And there have been demonstrations and riots before against the monumental racist oppression of black workers in the US from Watts in 1965, through Los Angeles in 1992 (following the acquittal of cops who beat Rodney King to a pulp) to Ferguson in 2014.
2020 though is different. On this occasion, probably as a result of overt and deliberate nature of the killing being captured on a mobile phone, it ignited a series of demonstrations, protests and riots across the US, and in many other countries largely under the banner of Black Lives Matter. In the US the specificity of the killing, i.e. the murder of an unarmed black person by a white police officer was the main initial focus of the protests, whereas in the UK and other European countries where police killings are less prevalent, Floyd’s death was seen more as symbol of a wider racist malaise in society. As communists and internationalists, we are programmatically opposed to racism as a barrier to the unity of the working class, a unity which is fundamental to the revolutionary process of abolishing capitalism. Our comrades of the Internationalist Workers Group (USA) and Klasbatalo (Canada) were among the first internationalists to react with a statement. Entitled Minneapolis, Police Brutality and Class Struggle it was distributed in many cities throughout the US and Canada (as well as in the UK, Italy, and Australia).1 In this article we attempt to examine the significance of BLM in the wider context of the development of class struggle and proletarian internationalism.
Racism in the US
Perhaps more than any other western country, the history of the US is a history of deeply entrenched racism. The founding fathers of ‘the land of the free’ were pretty much slave owners to a man. Jefferson had over 600 slaves and Washington around 320. Of the first twelve US Presidents only two had never been slave owners. Slavery characterised the economy particularly of the Southern plantation states until 1865 when it was abolished after the defeat of the Confederacy in the American Civil War. For the victorious and more Northern states slavery was seen as an anachronistic impediment to the development of a modern capitalist economy – why incur the overheads of slave ownership when you can employ ‘free’ wage slaves at less expense instead? Unsurprisingly, emancipation from slavery provided little by way of social advance or equality for America’s black population. After the Reconstruction era, Jim Crow laws which gave states and local municipalities powers to impose racial segregation were introduced, and remained in force for around 100 years, until the pressure of the civil rights movement in the 1960s forced their formal repeal.
Until that point segregation was not only enforced by law but also by white supremacist vigilantes such as the Ku Klux Klan who terrorised and murdered black people who got too “uppity” (successful?) or wittingly or inadvertently crossed the lines set by Southern white society. This situation kept most African Americans in a permanent state of disadvantage, confining them to the worst housing, education, health care and other pubic facilities. Moreover this state of poverty ensured a supply of cheap black labour for American capital. The ‘great migration’ of 1916 -1970 saw some six million African Americans move from the rural South to the Northern industrial cities such as Chicago, Detroit and New York, where they usually ended up in the lowest paid jobs. Whilst this offered greater social freedom as segregation was not official policy in the North, continued poverty and racism, including a number of violent race riots ensured that Northern cities soon became unofficially segregated along racial lines, and still remain so today to a far greater extent than is generally the case in other metropolitan capitalist countries. The civil rights movement might have ended Jim Crow but the subsequent history of the USA shows that it did not end racist state action.
In this context it is hardly surprising that black people have all too often found themselves at the sharp end of America’s brutal criminal justice system. As we have shown the killing of George Floyd is no isolated example of police racism, and even just one month after the event, it is certainly not the last. Statistics are not entirely clear but the general picture is that whilst black people account for approximately 13% of the US population they represent around 24% of people killed by the police, so are disproportionately significantly more likely to become victims. However race is not the only factor, as the statistics also indicate that victims of police killings are more likely to come from poorer neighbourhoods, suggesting that class is also a significant factor, and to see this issue in purely racial terms is an over-simplification.
More compelling evidence of racial discrimination in the criminal justice system arises from looking at the prison system. The statistics are shocking; the USA has 5% of the world population yet holds 25% of the world’s prisoners of which over 40% are black. 1 in 17 white people go to prison compared to 1 in 3 black people.
The 13th amendment to the US Constitution prohibits slavery … except for prisoners. In the US, over a million prisoners are forced to work for as little as two cents an hour or sometimes nothing at all. Private corporations are profiting from a new form of slavery as the private prison labour industry is growing at a rapid rate.2 The corporations that employ prisoners include Starbucks, Victoria’s Secret, Whole Foods, and Nintendo who have all used prison workers to increase corporate profits. The huge increase in prisoners was funded, in part, by corporations looking for cheap labour. Many ‘respected’ companies funded the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which passed the “Prison Industries Act” to expand prison labour. The Federal Government itself promotes the “business opportunities” at dozens of federal prison factories across the country.
Looking beyond the criminal justice system we can see that by most indices black people in America are significantly worse off than white people. Official unemployment statistics issued by the US Bureau of Labour Statistics show that prior to the escalation of the economic crisis fuelled by Covid-19 in the second quarter of 2019 unemployment amongst black people was 6.1% compared to 3.1% for white people and 3.5% for the total population. For the second quarter of 2020 unemployment for black people has risen to 16% and to 12% for white people. Whilst the black unemployment rate is still considerably higher, the rate of increase in unemployment has been significantly higher for white people. The figures illustrate a more complex picture than simplistic notions of white privilege and black oppression – the key determinant of disadvantage remains class rather than race.
This explains why this time feels different. We have had four decades of decline of living standards for workers in all the leading capitalist countries3 , but especially amongst low paid workers of all ethnic origins. During that time high paid jobs have disappeared, as manufacturing has shifted to the lower wage economies, mainly in Asia. And the bursting of the speculative bubble of finance capitalism has only added to the pain. As a comrade wrote on our website
"The residual effects of the 2008 “financial crisis”, colossal debt, low growth, low pay, austerity, in a word, the erosion of living conditions of the vast majority were still very much present as the downturn began manifesting itself. This however was merely the warm-up act for the present catastrophe, opening up before our very eyes and whose eventual depth we are yet to experience."4
Previous protests have largely been confined to black neighbourhoods and black people but in the demonstrations and riots across both the USA and the world young white workers have joined the demonstrations in great numbers.
Racism in Britain
The origins of contemporary racism can be traced to the origins of capitalism. The idea of the inferiority of black people was first used to justify the slave trade and slavery and then further developed later in the 19th century to justify the imperialist colonisation of Africa and other counties and continents primarily populated by people of colour, with the attendant atrocities often perpetrated against the indigenous populations. In the US racism was used to divide black and white workers from the outset.
In Britain it was different; whilst the primitive accumulation of capital was largely funded by the slave trade and the repatriated profits from the plantations in the Americas, within the UK itself, the small number of black people who could be counted in their thousands did not require the working class to be fundamentally differentiated along racial lines. However, maintaining the structure of the capitalist economy demands that workers regard other workers as competitors for employment, accommodation, entry to educational institutions, etc. This is an important window of opportunity for nationalist and racist ideas, whose effects Karl Marx was already observing in the 19th century. But what he saw was that the British ruling class used innocent starving Irish farm labourers as scabs to break strikes in the mines and factories, nationalism (backed by religion) was more the weapon of choice.
"Every industrial and commercial centre in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker. His attitude towards him is much the same as that of the “poor whites” to the Negroes in the former slave states of the U.S.A.. The Irishman pays him back with interest in his own money. He sees in the English worker both the accomplice and the stupid tool of the English rulers in Ireland. This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organisation. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power." (Marx to Sigfrid Meyer and August Vogt in New York, 9 April 1870)
Thus racism undermines the only way to successfully resist the daily impositions of the system — class solidarity. In spite of the internationalisation of capitalism, the bourgeoisie exercises its rule in the form of national states. In opposition to this, the proletariat is an international class, a class of migrants. Every split weakens its struggle and tightens the screws of exploitation. For this reason, it is an urgent task for communists to struggle without compromise against racist ideas and for this reason we can see sparks of hope in the current support for anti-racism amongst many workers.
There have been precedents. During the American Civil War some sectors of the working class in Britain supported the blockade of Confederate ships in the hope that a victory for the Union would lead to the abolition of slavery. This was at great cost to themselves as the ships carried the cotton that would be manufactured into cloth in England, without which workers in the textile factories were laid off. Of course not all workers were prepared to pay that price and some actively opposed the blockades. Racist ideology and its pseudo-scientific ‘justification’ in the form of eugenics became widespread in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, fostering notions of the superiority of white Europeans and justifying the subjugation of the indigenous populations of the British Empire. Anti-Irish sentiments and anti-semitism were common, but racism against black people did not manifest itself as a major phenomenon in Britain itself until the 1950s when (initiated by the government to provide labour during the post-war boom) mass immigration from the Caribbean and other Commonwealth countries started to take place.5 Whilst the British ruling class are not slow to play the race card when it suits them, usually in terms of hostility to immigration, it would be an overstatement to say that the UK is as racially divided as the US. This is not to downplay the issue - whether it is poverty or incarceration rates, people from ethnic minority backgrounds are over-represented compared to their proportion of the general population.6 The Metropolitan Police force was famously branded “institutionally racist” in 1999 by the Macpherson inquiry into the fatal stabbing of black teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993. Macpherson defined this as “the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin”. This form of racism is seen in “processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantages minority ethnic people”. There is little evidence that is has changed since few of Macpherson’s recommendations have been implemented. This comes as no surprise to revolutionary internationalists and only emphasises that it is not enough to demand reform – we need a complete change of system.
Under Capitalism No Workers’ Lives Matter
It is clear that racism is functional to capitalism. As communists and internationalists we abhor racism and the divisions it can foster within the working class. But what about anti-racism and movements such as BLM, should they be supported or are they also effectively fostering racial divisions themselves? Earlier we argued that race and class constitute a complex matrix where racial oppression and class exploitation collide and interact. The form in which oppression appears may seem to arise out of race, gender or other numerous forms, but those who experience the worst of it do so primarily because of their economic exploitation as proletarians or their marginalisation as workers surplus to requirements. Whilst we recognise that there are glass ceilings that hinder women in attaining the highest levels of bourgeois society, the real problem is for women who struggle to support families on low and precarious incomes or welfare benefits. Similarly middle class black people will encounter degrees of social racism but those who really suffer are the unemployed and low paid black workers who struggle to survive against both state and capitalism. And those real problems are also the problems that affect all workers irrespective of race, gender or whatever other oppression you care to name, it is the fundamental problem of the economic exploitation of the proletariat.
The problem with BLM is that it divides workers along the lines of oppression rather than recognising the basis of capitalism is the fundamental and universal problem of economic exploitation. This is not lost on the bourgeoisie who in the main have no problem in endorsing and recouping these movements. BLM has been fully endorsed by most politicians except those of the far right, not to mention just about every celebrity worth their salt. Inane virtue signalling gesture politics such as ‘taking the knee’ or the idiotic spectacle of white police officers washing black peoples’ feet have become the modus operandi of this circus. The big names of corporate America make donations (in order to boost market share from the good publicity) whilst many of them only employ black workers as cleaners. Demands to defund, reform or abolish the police have no meaning when the function of the police is essentially to protect the property of the bourgeoisie rather than to protect workers.
We do however have to recognise genuine people who would like to see a better world are attracted to these sort of movements. Our point it that capitalism might make gestures about race or gender or almost anything you like but they will remain just that. The divisions capitalism has created won’t disappear overnight but once its divisive existence is out of the way we can begin a serious fight to heal the wounds it has inflicted on humanity. This is the struggle communists and revolutionaries are organising for.
The only force capable of toppling more than statues, emphasising token gestures like bending the knee, of toppling the entire system of oppression is the working class: black, white or anything else, united. As Karl Marx wrote “Labour in a white skin cannot emancipate itself where it is branded in a black skin.”7 Only this working class, united in its own revolutionary International, can take down capitalism, a class society, rotten with prejudice and reeking of inequality. The movement that was engendered by George Floyd’s murder may already be subsiding but if this leads to a wider questioning of capitalist society that has produced such exploitation and oppression then it will be a first step towards a more general anti-capitalist movement. The next step is to organise in a new revolutionary working class international. No society in history has been eternal and all the signs are that this one is long past its sell-by date. Its gravediggers across the world need to unite in order to finally bury it.
- 2For more on US prisons see https://www.leftcom.org/en/articles/2018-09-03/new-us-prison-strike-takes-us-to-the-dark-heart-of-capitalism
- 3This is now regularly and openly admitted by many capitalist commentators. See, for example https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2020-the-fleecing-of-the-american-worker/ The graph in this article shows that workers pay in the US kept level with rising productivity until the mid-1970s when the post war boom ended and then they diverged massively so that workers pay has grown by 115% whilst productivity has grown by 252%.
- 5"In spite of his later vocal opposition to black and Asian immigration in general, Health Minister Enoch Powell championed the recruitment of overseas nurses in the early 1960s. As historian of the NHS, Charles Webster suggests, this apparent anomaly was perhaps because the immigration of nurses not only ‘provided a plentiful supply of cheap labour, reduced wastage, and undermined the shortage argument’ but also ‘strengthened his hand in pressing for a strong line against the nurses’ pay claim, which itself was his chief weapon in his wider campaign to induce colleagues to adopt a more aggressive approach to the control of public sector pay.’ Immigrant nurses were therefore an expedient means of providing political leverage." (See http://www.historyandpolicy.org/policy-papers/papers/immigration-and-the-national-health-service-putting-history-to-the-forefron) The immigration policies of the current government are of course helping it ensure 100,000 vacancies in the NHS during the pandemic.
- 6According to the June 23 report of the Office of National Statistics, the average household income of white Britons was almost 65 per cent higher than that of black ethnic groups if the impact of taxes and benefits are excluded. The same report says that income inequality had been rising for 2 years before coronavirus. In 2017, the Lammy Review, a report on the outcomes for Black and Minority Ethnic people in the criminal justice system in the UK used 2016 figures to find that “Despite making up just 14% of the population, BAME men and women make up 25% of prisoners” (p.3: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/643001/lammy-review-final-report.pdf). Two years later it was reported that more than 50% of young people in jail were from BAME backgrounds https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/jan/29/more-than-half-young-people-jail-are-of-bme-background
- 7He uses similar formulations in a November 1866 letter to Francois Lafargue, and in Vol.1 of Capital.