Although I’m not a Trot I actually like a lot of the presentations given at the ISO’s Socialism conferences and I’ve learned great stuff by listening to some of them before. This one though is really grinding my gears.
Admittedly what I find most irritating here is not the political content of the talk per se, but rather the repeated punctuation of patronizing giggles when Anton Ford brings up the idea of the Black nation and presents it as an outlandish and unrealistic idea imposed on Black Americans by that devious Joe Stalin. In fact, whatever you think of the Black nation thesis, it is ignorant to be unaware of its roots in Black American thought (back to WEB DuBois in the 19th century if not earlier) and it is disrespectful to use it as a punchline in view of the Black Communists who fought, suffered and in some cases died in pursuit of that goal during the period in question.
However, the real problem with this presentation is not its manners or even its ignorance but rather its bad method. Ford discusses the explosive growth of black cadre in the Party during the 30s and connects this to the Party’s vision of social equality as well as the Party’s practical work around the Scottsboro case among other examples. That’s fair enough as far as it goes, but by treating the Black nation thesis as a silly and impractical foreign idea, it’s impossible to explain why the Party held up this political line at exactly the period when that explosive growth happened. (And, although it isn’t addressed in this presentation, why that growth slowed in the period when the party backpedalled on this line.) This is a fundamental problem for someone who I expect sees himself as a materialist historian, and it ought to be very unsatisfying to us.
We should be equally unsatisfied that the issue of Garveyism is barely mentioned in this talk. It is a kind of leftist myopia which is sadly all too typical to focus on the growth of Black CP cadre numbering in the single-digit thousands during the same era where the Garveyite newspaper reached hundreds of thousands and UNIA members may have numbered in the millions. Granted that the topic of the CPUSA and the Black struggle is worthy of its own specific consideration, I think that if we understand that ideas have a material basis then it’s necessary to pay attention to the material connection that underlies these two ferments which emerged from the same population at roughly the same time.
Isn’t it indeed much more fruitful to consider Black Communism as a left wing of Black national politics? This explains why orientation towards Black communities took such distinct forms, and why colorblind appeals to working-class unity were so unsuccessful. It also explains why Black revolutionary currents with different politics have arisen in similar time periods throughout American history, while that is left unexplained for the dogmatic Trotskyist view.
tl;dr = this speech sucks, read Hammer and Hoe instead.