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
The 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.