by Semaj and Tyler Zimmerman
We’re reposting an essay written by a couple members of ¡ella pelea!, a group that organized against budget cuts, cuts to ethnic studies, and for open enrollment at UT-Austin from 2009-2011, on the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. It fits in with the broader conversations happening now on the union question, feminism, and the content and methodology of liberation. We did a study of the League together and wrote this essay to draw lessons for communists and other militants today in the fight against capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and the State. We try to incorporate the best of the League experience while confronting its historical and political weaknesses.
This is the link to the original post.
For reference purposes and to explore past conversations we’ve had here on the League, check out this post from HiFi and the conversation that follows.
The League of Revolutionary Black Workers emerged in Detroit in the late 1960s, a period of growing dissatisfaction with the mainstream integrationist civil rights organizations and the failures of the Democratic Party to address the subjugation of black people in a comprehensive way. A new movement which came to be known as Black Power or Black Liberation, grew out of these failures and gave birth to a new identity and a number of new mass and revolutionary organizations, one of the most advanced being the Revolutionary Union Movement and the League.
The Black Power movement also conceptualized the oppression of black people domestically within an international context of white supremacy, capitalism, and imperialism. It looked toward and drew inspiration from the national liberation movements that were happening in Cuba, Algeria, and Vietnam as well as the Cultural Revolution in China as a model for what black liberation in the United States could look like. The League was no exception in this regard.
Catalyzed by the Great Rebellion of 1967, an upheaval of Detroit’s black poor against police brutality, poor living conditions, and limited jobs, the League saw the necessity of organizing black workers. Formed by a core of organizers who worked in the auto industry, they were also instrumental in organizing the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM), in the Dodge Main auto plant and which pushed for addressing atrocious workplace conditions, speed-up, and the extension of the working day as well as their racist implications. Some DRUM militants were a part of previous civil rights groups but were discontented with the politics and took a more radical political stand that contextualized white supremacy through the framework of capitalist social relations.
The Failed Anti-Racism of the Civil Rights Movement
One of the central critiques of civil rights groups made by black power militants was that it was largely beholden to the Democratic Party and Federal Government for mitigating the conditions of the black southerners. Certainly, the new mass activity that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) organized around help bring new life to the civil rights struggle as they broke with the conservative politics and organizing approaches of the NAACP. This was demonstrated by the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 which saw the creation of a completely autonomous and self-organized system of mass transit. While this was not completely directed from the top, SCLC organizers were a positive force that fused with this self-organization and gave it a more conscious purpose.
In the long-term, they were incapable of safeguarding the self-activity of blacks as they strove to draw all of it under the wing of the SCLC leadership. Such an orientation is the reason that Ella Baker left the organization and advocated for the wildcat sit-ins of 1960 by black students to remain independent. She saw the bureaucratizing effect SCLC had played on the movement and the new vitality black students brought to it with the sit-ins. This led to the formation of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) which served as an organizational bridge and transition from civil rights to black liberation.
The influence of the federal government precipitated a split in SNCC between desegregation campaigns on the one hand and voter registration on the other. The Kennedy Administration refused to intervene in the brutal attacks by random whites on black and white freedom riders in 1961 unless SNCC shifted their focus onto voter registration and end their desegregation work. While the organizing done by SNCC around voter registration was very dynamic, it also served to buttress the Democratic Party who could parlay that organizing into votes for their candidates.
Ultimately, the black power movement saw that organizing in this fashion is not an effective anti-racist strategy in that it hinders the movement from making demands that would challenge white hegemony.
Another major critique of the civil rights movement is that they actively sought out white liberal participation. This hindered the movement largely due to the fact white liberals were more hesitant to address white supremacy outside its Jim Crow manifestations and this sacrificed the more comprehensive ways black folks experienced white supremacy. This spoke to the civil rights movement predominately middle class composition. Organizing black workers around their specific concrete oppressions were not a part of the platform for these groups. SCLC and CORE viewed black freedom as having suffrage and being integrated in the same school with white folks. The demands that these groups organized around largely benefited just the black middle class who weren’t facing the niggermation of River Rouge.
The Dynamics of Race in 1960s Detroit and Urban Insurrection
The 1965 Watts riot and the rebellions of the late 1960s concretely connected the State’s role in the oppression of black workers at home and abroad and threw open the door on the limitations of civil rights organizations. These rebellions also spoke to racial tensions among the working class itself and these manifested in an uneven and contradictory way in Detroit.
In Detroit the established Polish community, no doubt having deep class struggle roots, had long been reined in by the Polish patronage apparatus that bargained for access to officialdom in exchange for controlling and stamping out independent rank and file initiative. They received the better jobs in the factory and were less subjected to the 90 days rotation, though they were exploited just as black workers. The factories had a policy that it could legally fire an employee anytime before a 90 trial period and black workers more so than other workers were the target for this egregious policy.
In the 1960s, white Appalachians began to immigrate into the Midwest and although these workers were not embraced by the Polish and other established white ethnic groups, they were more tolerated than their black counterparts. Their contradictory position meant that, on the one hand, they shared the body politics of Polish workers who were more open to association with them than with black workers, and on the other hand, they existed outside the ethnic patronage machine and shared a similar class position with black workers which led to a confusion as to who the enemy was. At times they fell into the seductive proto-fascism of George Wallace who talked about the rich stealing from the working man in collusion with “the nigger.” Yet during the Great Rebellion, they took part alongside urban blacks in the destruction and looting of capitalist property. Some even acted as snipers, shooting the cops who inflicted similar harassment and violent upon them as blacks.
The RUMs’ Challenge to White Supremacy
On May 2, 1968, production workers at Detroit’s Dodge Main facility walked out in protest of the increased speed of the line, without the approval United Auto Workers local leadership. With the Great Rebellion still fresh on their minds, a group of black workers participating in the mainly black wildcat strike proposed the formation of a new autonomous organization called DRUM, the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement. Within a matter of months, similar RUM units proliferated throughout Detroit and reaching as far away as New Jersey.
The experience of the Revolutionary Union Movements provided an effective anti-racist framework in that it organized black workers into autonomous workplace units independent of company and union influence. It challenged the white supremacist model that stratified black workers and kept them in the most dangerous and dirtiest jobs and prevented the safety and health and even advancement of blacks into better positions due to the collusion of union and management and the massive profits generated from this exploitation.
Though the RUMs were preceded by forms of autonomous black working class organization in the 1910s and 20s, the predominance of reformism in the late 1950s and early 1960s, as indicated above, effectively harnessed black workers to the State and to capital. The UAW hierarchy’s support for the work of the SCLC and other mainstream civil rights groups meant that black workers fighting against the racist UAW in the plants found no support from SCLC, whose would have alienated their liberal union benefactors. The influence of the federal government in the organizing strategies of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee meant wedding black organization to the designs of the federal government. Inside the plants, however, the prevalence of black union caucuses were unable to seriously challenge the condition of blacks in the workplace. This was due primarily to two reasons.
One, the company and union were so hostile to black representation, despite their ostensible support for civil rights, that they often resorted to illegal tactics to prevent blacks from occupying official posts in the union. Two, and most importantly, the historic absorption of trade unions into production meant their collaboration with capital and mediation of rank and file struggles. The early CIO, for example, turned the autonomous activity of workers who struggled for control over the pace and organization of work into concessions that benefited workers outside the workplace. Meanwhile, what goes on inside the plant, “the transformation of sweat and blood, literally, into finished products,” continued to be determined by the interests of capital.
The strikes of black workers in the late 1960s were completely outside of and against the trade union structure precisely because they struck at the process of production itself. This more effectively challenged the racism of management and union and broke the stranglehold of the reformism of caucuses. The limitations of black union caucuses were in their orientation to the union bureaucracy rather than to the rank and file. In Detroit’s Eldon Avenue Gear and Axle plant, Jordan Sims, a respected black unionist, pursued such a strategy with little results in the 1960s.
The RUMs were a completely new subjectivity that broke with this form of activity and it substituted the free association of workers over the machinations of the bureaucracy which was restricted to the terms of the contract. In this way, their anti-racist strategy threw up the limitations of both the civil rights groups which organized outside the workplace and black caucuses that organized from within but confined their demands to the “fruits of labor” rather than self-activity of the workers themselves.
The League of Revolutionary Black Workers and the Pivot of Labor in Anti-Racism
militants from the RUMs and the LRBWThe League of Revolutionary Black Workers rode the wave of black insurgency in the factories set in motion by Detroit’s “Great Rebellion” of 1967. Though League cadre were active years before the Great Rebellion, their radicalism had a new currency with the growing tide of militancy among black workers who constituted the RUM organizations. The Great Rebellion gave a new legitimacy to forms of struggle and confrontation with capitalist property and state power that the civil rights establishment opposed. Additionally, it led to the emergence of a black working class identity that largely stood in the shadow of the middle class in the civil rights era.
Unique to the League’s perspective was the intensity of exploitation of black workers particularly resulting in the immense profits of the “Big Three” auto companies, Ford, GM, and Chrysler. They placed this within a historic narrative that linked the chattel slavery of the antebellum South to the contemporary wage slavery of the industrialized North. The negligible investment into the reproduction of slave labor led to massive returns in the cotton trade which laid the basis for and funded the industrialization of the 19th century. League militants were able to link race and class in a dynamic fashion that neither black nationalists nor white class reductionists could appreciate:
“Black workers have historically been the foundation stone upon which the American industrial empire has been built and sustained. It began with slavery over 400 years ago…That is, the capital which was used to build industry in Europe and America essentially came out of the cotton trade…We’re essential, and key, to the continued operation and continued smooth functioning of a highly industrialized, highly complicated machine.”
The auto companies attributed their increased output in the late 1960s to new, more efficient machinery and automation. The reality was much different. The auto manufacturers were merely increasing the pace of the line, while the UAW looked away, a process black workers called “niggermation.” The League’s forefronting of niggermation put class struggle on an anti-racist basis.
In addition to the League’s perspective on the white supremacy inherent in capitalism, they focused on organizing black industrial workers because of the strategic position they occupied in the economy: heavy industry, transportation, and distribution. In several plants, blacks were an overwhelming majority as the auto companies saw they could exploit their labor to a higher degree. A broad organization of black workers independent of the union bureaucracy could cripple the functioning of white supremacist capitalism through a general strike, the on-the-job actions of individual workplaces being a prelude to such a strike.
The role the union bureaucracy played in the capitalist system which ensured the stratification of black workers meant that the struggle had to be independent:“The organization…must be free from political and financial ties to the union hierarchy which prevents independent action of the part of the rank and file.”
This method contrasted then with what was largely an overemphasis in the black power movement on confronting the means of dominating labor (the State) leading to an under appreciation of fighting the means of exploiting labor (capital) upon which the State is based. While the League leadership tended to vacillate on their orientation to the State, their focus on the centrality of labor better positioned them to fight white supremacy as it manifested in production. While the Black Panther Party attempted to organize the black lumpen as a paramilitary unit outside the workplace, the League had a more holistic approach to organizing black workers and unemployed that didn’t depend on the adventurism that often plagued the Panthers, valid as their work was.
Yet while the League was able to circumvent such adventurism and the cult of personality of the Panthers, the lack of clarification on the role of the union bureaucracy and the content of the RUMs is what partially facilitated the break-up of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. Throughout their existence they held a line between trying to capture the union bureaucracy though “revolutionary slates,” on the one hand, and building and strengthening independent black organization on the other. While such a strategy differed in form from traditional black caucuses due to the anti-capitalist politics of the League, its content was consistent with its emphasis on “bad leadership,” no matter how militant it sounded.
Nevertheless, the League refused to narrow their work to electoralism as they positively oriented to the wildcat strikes, praising them and striving to give them a broad political character. This manifested, for instance, in linking the war in Vietnam to the war inside in the plants. They deaths inside the plant due to company negligence, faulty equipment, and speed-up led to more workers dying in the plants every year than in the war itself.
They argued that a pure class struggle is an illusion and that if there’s any hope to displace and destroy capitalist social relationships, the rank and file labor movement had consciously take up and support independent black demands and attack the hierarchy of labor powers in how it set different layers of the working class in competition with each other.
The Failure of the League on the Centrality of Patriarchy
The League of Revolutionary Black Workers’ failed for a number of important reasons, yet one of the most important of these reasons that historians of the League have not sufficiently explained, was their theory and practice as it related to patriarchy. While the program of the Black Workers Congress, a new organization that appeared in the early 1970s and to which a number of League members belonged, pointed to the sexual harassment many black women faced in the plants, they catastrophically failed to integrate patriarchy into an overarching analysis of value production as well as take serious the development of black women militants and support their independent demands and struggles. At worst they were guilty of sexual harassment and misogyny in their day-to-day relationships with women workers as the experience of ELRUM, the Eldon Avenue Revolutionary Union Movement, indicated.
John Watson in the introduction to the League’s 1970 documentary, Finally Got the News, was able to dynamically elaborate the historic and contemporary relationship of race and class in America unlike any black nationalist or white socialist. But the inability to situate patriarchy into that narrative constituted a monumental weak point that the resulting repression and capital offensive coming down on the working class used to their advantage.
How did this collapse to patriarchy spell doom for an effective anti-racism? For one, it didn’t see how the oppression of women in general and black women in particular hinged on the continued oppression of black men and women in production. This evolved historically out of the separation of productive and reproductive labor. Yet this separation constituted a gendered form, confining women to the production and reproduction of labor power itself. But what is central about this is that the labor power exploited in service of that purpose was seen as not having value and as such was unwaged.
Chattel slavery was also unwaged but this didn’t prevent the League from seeing the relationship of unwaged labor in the production of value. While they didn’t fall into class reductionist arguments of orthodox Marxism that American slavery was not capitalist or was at best auxiliary to the struggle of waged workers, they like most other revolutionary men were eluded by the fetishism and hidden nature of women’s reproductive work (cooking, cleaning, laundry, sex, caring work, etc.) which daily provided capital with fresh, rejuvenated labor power to be set in motion another day. As Selma James argued in Sex, Race, and Class, “the capitalist got two laborers for the price of one.”
Women’s work went beyond confinement to reproduction. When men went on strike, court injunctions preventing their continued disruption of production saw women doing picket duty and fighting police and company thugs. They have historically been central not only to men’s ability to continue producing value, but in their concrete workplace struggles that women were seen as alien to.
This theoretical and practical weakness of the League meant their incapacity to integrate the oppression of women more fully into their program and in prioritizing the development of women militants at home and in the workplace. Their dynamic anti-racism was nullified by their failure to fit patriarchy into capitalist social relations. Had they done this, it is possible that the decline of the RUMs due to company repression could have been circumvented by a concerted effort of the League to organize black women at home.
This makes their view that there is no pure class struggle all the more ironic and tragic in that they oriented to women not much different than white labor, socialists, and communists oriented to black workers. Militants today can draw much inspiration from the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, but it is our task to pay close attention to their pitfalls so as to ensure the success of new movements for liberation in the future.
 James, C.L.R., Negro Americans Take the Lead, Facing Reality Press 1963.
 Carson, Clayborne, In Struggle, 1984.
 Georgakas, Dan and Marvin Surkin, Detroit: I Do Mind Dying, p. ?
 Watson, John, Finally Got the News, Black Star Productions, 1970
 Geschwender, James, Class, Race, and Worker Insurgency, 1977.
 James, Selma, Sex, Race, and Class, 1975.
5 thoughts on “The League of Revolutionary Black Workers for Militants Today”
I like what this piece has to say about DRUM et al, but I think you’re boxing in the civil rights aspects a little too neatly.
While representation within bourgeois democracy is not a goal and not very useful outside of mitigating the worst that capitalism can dish out, I think the struggle to attain it was more so about the often seen sign “I am a man” than it was, “I want to vote” The demand for the vote and the demand for integration was an outburst from the Black South demanding to be treated as human. Also, I think the criticism that this movement was about the black middle class is baseless. The movement fought against lynching, for better education, and to recognized as human. The black middle class of the South would be teachers and preachers, they made up a tiny percentage of black people and were generally not supportive of the movement outside of major cities where they had more freedom. In most of the South, it was sharecroppers and the working class that made up the movement and fought for it.
Going along with that, I think the treatment of the NAACP and the SCLC are fairly shallow. If you take the RUM’s as your vantage point, its easy to look back ten years and pick out all the flaws of 54-65, but if you go back in time, you get a different view. The NAACP held together a skeleton of black organizers throughout the South. In some towns the NAACP would be a few black men, they would receive papers and such from the office from time to time and get little help when they needed it. But when things started to shake up, that skeleton started coming to life. When SNCC came into rural Mississippi, they met up with old NAACP organizers who helped them get their footing.
My point is better made by this speech that CLR James made in the late 60’s, the point of which is that the theoretically advanced position of Black Power, was only possible through the dialectical development of the black masses. I believe this is the link I want, but it may not be, its too long to read it through right now. http://www.marxists.org/archive/james-clr/works/1967/black-power.htm
Sorry for the rambling nature of this, I appreciate the article outside of these criticisms
What you’re saying makes sense, although I would qualify it by saying that the historical development of Black Power, which includes the RUMs, occurred through the milieus of organizations such as the NAACP. While this may be an important point, I don’t think it’s the same dynamic that CLR James was describing in the speech you linked to. In that speech, James described how Black Power represented the highest political level of Black consciousness that would have rejected Du Bois’s talented tenth even though James believes that Du Bois’s politics were appropriate for its time. That’s certainly debatable even for the NAACP before the 1950s. The experience of the African Blood Brotherhood and the revolts of 1919 marked an advancement beyond the liberal politics of the NAACP. We also can’t forget the hesitance of the NAACP to struggle around the Scottsboro case. Barbara Ransby’s well know biography of Ella Baker is also littered with countless political critiques of the internal functioning of the NAACP.
I think it’s more helpful to think about the period in question — 1954 through 1965 — in a way that captures its tension. Instead of that period being one in which the NAACP and similar organizations were a skeleton that came to life, I think it’s more accurate to say that they were being negated; they were a point of departure for something new that would completely oppose the old. The experience of Robert F Williams as early as 1959 represented one such break and negation. The struggle of SNCC cadre against the SCLS is another. We shouldn’t fetishize the old as much as we shouldn’t dehistoricize the new.
“The League of Revolutionary Black Workers’ failed for a number of important reasons, yet one of the most important of these reasons that historians of the League have not sufficiently explained, was their theory and practice as it related to patriarchy.”
Thanks for this piece–I very much agree that the RUM movement is an inspiring historical “what if” with a lot of relevance for revolutionaries today in thinking through the possibilities of revolutionary politics rooted in working class self-activity. I am concerned with the conclusions you make about patriarchy and the RUMs, both as rigorous history, as well as because of the political lessons “for today” that such a conclusion points to.
I am not taking issue with your assertion that the RUM movement lacked a worked out gender politics or practice; this is certainly true, as it was true of the entire left at the time as well as most of society in general. Nor do I dispute the notion that a successful revolutionary project must place women’s oppression as central concern. The flaws in ideology and praxis remain in the left four decades later. But is this really the reason the movement “failed” –failed, that is to say, to bring about the revolution they advocated?
This is almost certainly not the case. The reason the movement failed is largely because it remained small–tso the relevant question is “why did it remain small?” or more specifically, why did this revolutionary vision and organization not spread in the auto plants to a greater degree? Was it due to flaws in the “program?” of the group? Errors in theoretical judgement? organizing practice? All of the above?
A third way of asking the same question is why didn’t more autoworkers–who were mostly white and male– join, defend and spread the RUMs? Why didnt more black activists outside the plants develop politics practice inspired by RUMS and work in solidarity with them? In answering those immediate practical questions, the issue of white supremacy in the plants and alliances between bureaucrats and the institutional leaders of the civil rights movement you mention, seem to me to be of more immediate practical concern.
Put another way–what is the counter factual scenario in which better gender politics swept the RUM movement to revolution and beyond?
I’m challenging you on this NOT to question the centrality of gender politics; instead my aim is to challenge the notion that developing perfect platforms, and even theoretical formulations is a prerequisite for practical revolutionary political action, and the idealist notion that ideas shape ( and deform struggle) rather than that struggle, combined with rigorous development of theory through experience, and principled development of platform and demands, can in fact transform not only political and intellectual orientation, but consciousness on a mass scale in ways that might be unpredictable and unimaginable from our vantage point in a defeated, if not entirely stagnant working class and revolutionary movements.
What up lucy,
Thanks for your consistent comradely engagement on this blog.
give a quick context, this was a for a class that Semaj, the co-author,
was taking at UT-Austin. We wrote it together one night at a cafe in
12 hours straight to meet his professor’s deadline. The other part of
the objective limit is the given framework of the piece which was
something really lame like “cite an example of an effective anti-racist
strategy,” so that gets referenced here and there. What we strove as
much as possible to do, however, was to make the paper accessible to
militants and others who wanted to make sense of the League experience,
given that the two of us just finished a study of them, and were doing
“anti-racist” budget cuts work at the time.
To an extent, I feel
like the concluding part dealing with patriarchy was an important
contribution we made that has been absent in accounts of the League and
RUMs. At the same time, it isn’t fleshed out and you’re right that it
is presented a little one-sidedly and subjectively. I like what you say
“the RUM movement lacked a worked out gender politics or
practice; this is certainly true, as it was true of the entire left at
the time as well as most of society in general.”
point. And the League can’t be abstracted from society nor from the
objective development of the Left. Furthermore, and most importantly,
there is also the underdevelopment of women’s struggle and the theory of
it at the time. The League existed formally from 1969-1971 but the
women’s movement didn’t really swell until the 70s wore on. Can’t
really lay the blame for a lack of feminist praxis at the League’s feet
when women had yet to develop the theory and forms of patriarchal
capitalism itself. Of course, the Marxist Feminism of James, Dalla
Costa, and Federici had already been fleshed out to some extent but a
lot of those were rooted in the “hidden” experiences of women in the
home or in previous autonomous movements of women.
Part of it is
the weakness of contemporary League “historians” to incorporate the
gendered content and forms of appearance of the capital-labor relation
into the historical critiques of the League. So it isn’t so much about
the League taken on its own but on posthumous assessments. The other
part is what was fundamentally problematic about the League’s own
orientation toward working class women that has so far not been
seriously treated (and honestly isn’t seriously treated in the above
paper). So just like we can’t abstract the League out of their
objective situation as it relates to gender, neither can we say they
didn’t reproduce gendered relations that became one more aspect of how
capital absorbs living labor and our life-activity.
“failure,” I think what we were trying to get at is why the League
itself failed, in conjunction with other aspects of its praxis, not why
revolution didn’t happen, though I think the inability to challenge the
gendered aspects of the capital-labor relation are a part of that. But
we definitely don’t want to give the impression that the League bears
responsibility for why we don’t have communism. 🙂
Most importantly, your formulation of practical-critical activity/praxis
I think I’m in agreement with and when thinking about the League and
gender, it is less about a one-way relation between their practice and
not having a theory of gender. The educator must be educated. The
League’s own theory is a product of concrete historical experience–not
abstract ideas worked out by a philosopher–including their shitty
orientation toward women. Having a more dynamic theory (such as that
developed by MF at that time) could have opened possibilities to have a
more dynamic relation, to have more women as key shop and organization
leaders, and to possibly open up an orientation toward organizing
domestic workers, paid and unpaid. Could this have changed the fate of
the League? We can only guess but I definitely think it would have been
one less way the League could have been defeated and absorbed by
capital (and by the orthodox Marxism pervading some of their thinking).
terms of the other aspects of why the movement remained small and
isolated, I think we agree, and we try to talk about the objective
aspects of why, for example, white workers in larger numbers didn’t take
part in the wildcats (though some did) or were supportive of the
independent struggle of black workers. We talk about the apartheid
character of the union bureaucracy and various forms of ethnic patronage
systems as well as the League’s own vacillation on the union form.
thanks for this thorough response