In a recent piece in Jacobin magazine by fellow Marxist and scholar, Cedric Johnson, titled “Reparations Isn’t a Political Demand,” Johnson argues against reparations for slavery being a legitimate demand for a social movement. Such is not the case. We need a reparations movement in this country and socialists should support it.
Contrary to what Johnson argues, reparations are not an “abstract moral claim” but rather a concrete economic demand that aims to repair the very real damage to Black folks in America that has arisen from the material conditions and modes of production that are a part of this country’s history.
Let us not mistake the difference between economic and political demands. Economic demands can go a long way to solidarize revolutionary forces, and reveal the revolutionary potential of the masses.
V.I. Lenin’s pamphlet, Economic and Political Strikes, argues that “the economic and the political strike support each other, each being a source of strength for the other. Unless these forms of strike are closely interlinked, a really wide mass movement—moreover, a movement of national significance—is impossible. When the movement is in its early stage, the economic strike often has the effect of awakening and stirring up the backward, of making the movement a general one, of raising it to a higher plane.” Therefore, there is far more at stake with the reparations fight than merely moral suasion.
Reparations are not merely a moral demand and the demand is not just coming from the Black bourgeoisie, but rather from the Black working class, as Brian Jones argued in his recent piece in Jacobin magazine, “The Socialist Case for Reparations”. Johnson, however, argues:
“Jones’s claim that elites do not support reparations is simply not reflected in the past few decades of sporadic debate and attempts to operationalize the reparations demand. For example, Michigan congressman John Conyers, a founding member of the CBC, has been one of the foremost sponsors of legislation on reparations, and for much of its history, the CBC has consistently voted in support of more progressive labor rights and redistributive public policy than most of their congressional colleagues.
Randall Robinson, the founder of the foreign policy lobby TransAfrica, and the late Ronald W. Walters, longtime professor at Howard University and campaign manager for Jesse Jackson during his 1984 and 1988 bids for the Democratic presidential nomination,both advanced the reparations demand in their speeches and writings during the nineties. And in the early aughts, Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree championed one of the most practical approaches to the reparations demand: a flurry of lawsuits against Aetna, Fleet Boston, New York Life, and other corporations whose origins rested in profiting from the slave trade.”
I will point out that citing four examples of individual Black bourgeoisie advancing the demand of reparations is anecdotal evidence and not proof that it is a demand emanating solely from the bourgeoisie.
I wish to go further to point out Johnson’s failure to acknowledge one of the “major historical tendencies of capitalism,” rationalization of social relations. “Simply put, as capitalism developed, individual capitalists’ adaptations to the class struggle needed to be rationally organized and disciplined, a function beyond any individual capitalist but appropriate for the capitalist state.”1
Even if you can point to a few individual capitalists advancing reparations as a strategy in the class struggle, it doesn’t mean that it will be the strategy that the state will adopt. Individual capitalists have never been in complete consensus on what strategies to employ in the class struggle, but the state has always known what tactics to use or how to adapt the capitalist system to conditions that arise in times of crises.
In order to argue that the Black working class is not interested in reparations Johnson discredits a recent poll by YouGov as being irrelevant. The poll found that 59% of Black Americans support cash reparations. He claims that “only 119 Blacks were sampled, making the results of that survey completely useless for drawing conclusions about the sentiments of the national black population.” I recently ran across a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted in February 2002 that found 55% of Black Americans support cash payments based on a similar number surveyed, 146.
At first glance it appears that this small number of Black people that were surveyed is insignificant when compared to the total population in the U.S., 45.7 million, I agree. Statistical science has more to offer than mere appearances, however. It turns out that a random sample of 119 from a population of 47.7 million can be used to reliably infer that there is majority support amongst Black Americans for reparations, 59% according to the YouGov poll, with a 9% margin of error. Similarly, the 2002 study conducted by reputable pollster, Gallup, along with CNN and USA Today, also shows that there is 55% support for cash reparations with an 8% margin of error. Although it may appear that these polls are dismissible, mathematics tells us otherwise.
One cannot help to take portions of Johnson’s argument as sounding, at least on the surface, if not a tad bit class reductionist, then a smidgen color blind. When Johnson states:
“We can all agree that at various historical junctures, the majority of blacks have been a hyper-exploited and submerged part of the working class.”
I say, “the majority of Blacks have been a hyper-exploited and submerged part of the working class,” not only at “various historical junctures” but specifically and continuously throughout the history of the United States.
And when Johnson asks:
“But if class struggle is the fundamental conflict, why then is there a need for the rhetoric of reparative justice?”
He is responding to what Jones wrote here:
“all profit is theft — if workers were paid the full value of their labor, there would be no profit. Reparations therefore must be targeted at the class of people who benefit from this theft.”
Jones is arguing that it is the bourgeoisie that should be responsible for paying reparations, not all whites. The emphasis on class over race in this case, is to argue against the post-modernist, identity politics driven idea that all white people are the source of racism, not the capitalist system; therefore whites should be the ones to pay reparations to Black folks. Jones is very clear, multiple times, that we are arguing for reparations for people of African descent, not the whole working class.
For readers who may pick up on these arguments and be tempted to put race to the background in the struggle against capitalism, I wish to say the following.
The American Communist Party program in 1921 states that the “…task (should) …be to destroy altogether the barrier of race prejudice that has been used to keep apart the Black and white workers, and bind them into a solid union of revolutionary forces for the overthrow of our common enemy.”
In the words of Marx; “In the United States of America, every independent workers’ movement was paralyzed as long as slavery disfigured part of the republic. Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded.”
Revolutionaries should be putting the fight against racism above the immediate fight against the capitalist class by the working class. Any other order will not work because a society plagued with racism has little chance of waging a successful struggle against a system that uses racism to divide the working class.
Looking at Johnson’s passage here:
“Activists have employed the language of reparative justice in the John Burge torture settlements, which awarded compensation to citizens whose civil rights were violated by the Chicago Police Department, and also in the legal cases that sought restitution for victims of the forced sterilization program in North Carolina.
These cases are not the same as the demand for slavery reparations, but rather, like the settlements paid out to the Japanese internment camp and Holocaust survivors after the Second World War, these cases sought renumeration for a defined legal category of victim. Reparations for slavery, in contrast, is based on a more complex scenario of repair for intergenerational offense, a matter that in all likelihood cannot be rectified through the same legal strategy”.
I would not advocate for a legal system campaign, but rather an on the ground grassroots campaign. Whether the reparations come from putting pressure on the legal system and/or legislatures or even a seizure is not as important as the need for the battle to be fought from the bottom up.
Furthermore, with a bottom up fight, “Actionable set(s) of proposals to organize around” are what will come out of organizing and fighting for the demand. By forming coalitions, coming together and debating about the way forward “actionable set(s) of proposals to organize around” will be conceived of.
Johnson makes a good point here, however, that reparations are “based on a more complex scenario of repair for intergenerational offense.” This is exactly why, from a Marxist perspective, reparations are such a powerful demand to pursue. The fact that reparations are a more complex scenario is because confronting the specific, continuous and lasting effects that racism and slavery has had on Black people in the United States requires one to look at how capitalism and racism here have always been, and still are, deeply intertwined. It requires you to question the entire capitalist system and how it operates. Winning a demand like this would result in hundreds of millions of Americans being able to clearly see capitalism’s contradictory, repressive and oppressive nature and making them question the system entirely. What was invisible will become visible.
If we ignore the continuous and lasting effect that slavery and racism have had in the United States, ie., the “intergenerational offense,” than we have failed to grasp the dialectical nature of how the racist and harmful culture prevalent in society has been influenced by our brutally racist history. As the Guinea-Bissau national liberation revolutionary, Amilcar Cabral, laid out, there are “strong, dependent and reciporical [sic] relationships existing between the cultural situation and the economic (and political) situation in the behavior of human societies.” And, “culture is the vigorous manifestation on the ideological or idealist plane of the physical and historical reality of …society.”2
Marx, in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, said: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” Marxists should absolutely see racism today as intricately linked, and a result of, the country’s legacy of slavery and racism.
And so, when Johnson says that:
“We can’t go back in time and address slavery, dispossession, and debt peonage as they were unfolding. By default we are stuck with addressing oppression in our midst, which is descendant from this longer history but actively determined by contemporary processes.”
“Oppression in our midst” is not the result of solely “contemporary processes” and oppression is not merely “descendant from the longer history” but rather a direct result of it. If we fail to recognize how the reign of terror that has been the history of Blacks in America has affected the society that we currently live in then we fail to understand Marx’s philosophy of historical materialism.
Reparations are a powerful demand that will have a ripple effect in the consciousness of society that’s worth pursuing so when Johnson says:
“In other words, some black citizens may support reparations as an ideal, but in the everyday fight to protect and advance their lived interests, other issues like policing, rising housing costs, livable wage employment, and quality education may rightly take precedence over reparations, and form the core of their political commitments”.
I absolutely agree. I don’t agree, as I have already pointed out, with the assumption that only “some Black citizens… support reparations.” As C.L.R. James said, the independent Black struggle “is in itself a constituent part of the struggle for socialism,” and “the independent… [Black] …struggle, has a vitality and a validity of its own; that it has deep historic roots in the past of America and in present struggles; it has an organic political perspective…” Following from this is that it is not advantageous for socialists to dictate what the demands are for the “independent… [Black] …struggle”.
This brings up the inevitable question. How should socialists approach the demand for reparations while participating in the struggle for Black liberation? If it were the case that Black Americans are not calling for reparations, we would still be advocating for reparations as a sound demand but not by pushing the demand on the movement.
Joel Geier lays out in Socialists in Movements that, as socialists, we engage in movements and we vie for influence, not by being sectarian, pushing demands on it or reducing arguments to class, but rather by engaging in the struggle, offering sound tactics and concrete successes that flow from sound theory and creating space for mutual and democratic debate.
1.) Sidney L. Harring, Policing a Class Society, The Experience of American Cities, 1865-1915, 8
2.) Amilcar Cabral , National Liberation & Culture, Feb. 20, 1970, Translated by Maureen Webster