Black Liberation and Socialism

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Ahmed Shawki, the editor of the International Socialist Review, has authored one of the most compelling books on radical black history and black liberation, with Black Liberation and Socialism easily being essential reading for anyone interested in the ongoing struggle against racism and the historical achievements and failures of the movement. Beginning with the context of Hurricane Katrina and the deeply-rooted racism in the United States and the prejudices and priorities of the federal government, Shawki begins from the premise that the United States is headed towards an “inevitable and tumultuous conflict” in which race—and African-Americans in particular—will be at the center. To Shawki, this is a logic conclusion as he argues in the opening of the book that blacks have always been at the center of every period of radicalization in US history.

Shawki begins his analysis of black history with the abolitionist movement, which he describes as one of the most important social movements in US history in that it not only showed that racism was not immutable but that it can be successfully challenged both by blacks and whites. Abolitionism was a vibrant movement that grew from the margins of society to gather mass appeal, incorporated a variety of differing tactics and political philosophies, and set the foundation for black separatism and radicalism. Shawki moves on through the reconstruction period that challenged white supremacy and describes the failure of populism and the almost total disenfranchisement of blacks that resulted from its failures and the attempts of Booker T. Washington and the interracial unions in the early 1900s to confront racism. From here Shawki moves on to describe the Socialist Party, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and the Communist Party all of whom were integrated organizations that worked to organize poor workers regardless of race in an effort to challenge the working class. However, this progress was stunted by the anti-Communist witch hunts of the 1950s and retreat of the labor movement, which ultimately gave rise to the independent black civil rights movement because the left and the organized political parties failed to address the plight of black Americans. Out of this context, Malcom X and Martin Luther King arose, whom Shawki describes as the most successful and inspirational of African-American leaders. Shawki analyzes both the successes and failures of the civil rights movement and brings the reader to the present day, all the while making a variety of intriguing and useful interpretations of history.

For the most part, Shawki’s insights as a socialist give the book a strong focus on class—a focus that is often absent from history books and especially those dealing with the black liberation and civil rights movements. While there is one section in which Shawki gives a disproportionate amount of attention to fairly obscure socialist and communist political parties and organizations, his socialist background is otherwise a strong asset to the book. Shawki approaches the history of racism in the United States not only as a history of black oppression but also as a history of how the ruling class has been able to use racism to maintain its own power and wealth. To that end, Shawki examines the economic origins of slavery, examines the way class functioned in the populist era, examines the ruling class’ response to the upheavals of the 1930s, and examines the way in which racism continues as a tool of the ruling class. For Shawki, this class analysis is essential to understanding the struggle for black liberation and explains why these movements have failed many popular movements have been co-opted by the white ruling class that has been willing to accommodate some level of black integration—for example participation in the political process—as long as the underlying framework of capitalism is never challenged. Throughout the book, Shawki also describes how racism has been used to divide poor white and African-American workers, who on a basic level, are both being used by the ruling class and capitalism as a means to prevent each other from joining a common struggle for liberation.

Shawki presents his history as a means of continuing the struggle, making it clear that there is both much to learn from and much to be inspired by in the rich history of resistance in black history. His brief historical sketches and analyses of key historical movements provide valuable insights into the origins and functions of both racism and the movements against it, resulting in a book that helps illuminate why contemporary society functions as it does. Black Liberation and Socialism gives the reader an analysis and framework for understanding black history and resistance and charges the reader with the task of taking the lessons of history and using them to build an organized movement both against racism and for liberation. With the rich traditions of resistance profiled in the book, it is no easy task to be sure, but its necessity is indisputable.

Ahmed Shawki, Black Liberation and Socialism, (Haymarket Books, 2006).

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