USA: the struggle of the workers’ movement against slavery and racism, part 5: The urban riots of the 1960s

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The previous article in this series on the struggle of the workers’ movement against slavery and racism analysed the position of the News and Letters Committees (N&L) on the Civil Rights Movement. It concluded that the group remained very unclear about the bourgeois character of that movement and finally failed to expose it as such. In its attempt to lift the colour line, it blurred the class line, the fundamental contradiction between the working class and the bourgeoisie. Such a position undermines the foundation on which the proletariat develops its struggle as an autonomous force. The Civil Rights Movement was thus not the road to the revolution of the proletariat as News and Letters Committees suggested, but a means of channelling anger about the “race question” into the dead-end of reforming the existing state.

This article intends to take a closer look at the positions of N&L on the violent riots in the big cities in the U.S. in the second half of the 1960s and to respond to the view, put forward by the International Communist Party (Communist Programme) and Bordiga himself, that “this sudden tearing away of the veil of legal fictions and democratic hypocrisy [is] a harbinger of victory”[1].

The eruption of the urban riots

Between 1962 and 1973 at least 525 American cities were affected by rioting[2], with especially intense conflagrations occurring in the “Long Hot Summer” of 1967 and, a year later, in the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King in Memphis, Tennessee. In the summer of 1967, 159 riots erupted across the US and set the whole country ablaze. The most destructive riots of this summer took place in July, in Newark, New Jersey, and Detroit, Michigan. By September 1967, 83 people were dead, thousands injured, tens of millions of dollars in property had been destroyed and entire neighbourhoods were burned. Several contemporary newspapers headlines described the riots as the work of “urban guerrillas”.

Against the background of the riots in the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement gave way to more “militant” organisations such as the Black Panther Party (BPP) and Nation of Islam, at that point led by Malcom X. In contrast to the former, these new organisations no longer recoiled from the use of violence, arguing that black people should use “any means necessary” to obtain their rights. This does not mean that they incited or were in charge of the riots in the black suburbs of the big cities, but they certainly did not distance themselves from the violence used in these the riots. Spokesman of the BBP proudly claimed the right of black people to revolt and use violence, since they were “the victim of intolerable conditions”. At one point even Martin Luther King, apostle of “non-violent resistance”, expressed his understanding for the riots.

In the early 1960s, the situation of the vast majority of black people in the big cities of the US was miserable. African Americans constituted just over 10 per cent of the U.S. population but 46 per cent of them were unemployed. Some black neighbourhoods had 50 to 70 per cent youth unemployment. In the black neighbourhoods housing was poor, amenities were few and living conditions were squalid. Landlords let the apartment buildings deteriorate and turn into slums. Those born in these slums had almost no possibilities to break out of this cycle of misery. Ghetto schools did not provide a solid educational foundation for good jobs. In 1959 the median income of black males was still 58 percent of the median for all men.

Bordiga’s article of 1965 for Communist Programme (ICP) gave a good picture of the living conditions of the black people in the slums of the big cities. “The slave who escaped to the North would come to realise that, no less than before, he was in an inferior position, because he was paid less, because he was deprived of professional qualifications, because he was isolated (…) in appalling ghettos of misery, disease, insecurity, isolating him behind invisible walls of prejudice and police regulations, in which unemployment which bourgeois hypocrisy calls ‘technological’.”[3]  

No wonder that joblessness, poverty, segregation, and housing problems provoked many of the urban riots in the 1960s.

News and Letters’ analysis of these riots

In 1953 C.L.R James had been expelled from the U.S. for political reasons. But his voice had not been completely silenced. In the 1960s he stayed in contact with the group Facing Reality which published a paper called Speak Out. It was rather confused on several issues such as Black Power, Third Worldism, Maoism and student protests, which was not conducive to the cohesion of the group. At the end of the 1960s the group decided to dissolve itself. Martin Glaberman wrote one very short article on the riots in Watts (Los Angeles), in which he supported “the mobility that is horizontal rather than vertical, social rather than personal [and] the instant mobilisation of a working-class community in a serious struggle”.[4]

In those turbulent years, N&L was the other remaining proletarian political organisation in the U.S. In the August-September 1965 issue N&L published an editorial in which it expressed its admiration for the black “revolt” in Watts. “The revolt was both spontaneous and conscious of itself.”  It showed “the self-discovery of their own creativity; the confidence in mass power”. “The black masses have already laid the groundwork for this [social revolution], and shown themselves in the vanguard in these crucial ways.” [5]

In the same year the Situationist International also expressed its sympathy with the riot in Watts and wrote that such a revolt “calls everything into question because it is a human protest against a dehumanised life. Looting is a natural response to the unnatural and inhuman society of commodity abundance. It instantly undermines the commodity as such, and it also exposes what the commodity ultimately implies: the army, the police and the other specialised detachments of the state's monopoly of armed violence.”[6]  

This conception of the potentially revolutionary nature of the riots was shared in the publications of the Bordigist groups[7] in Europe.

In 1965 Bordiga wrote in Communist Programme that “something profoundly new emerged from this burning episode of anger, not vaguely popular but proletarian in nature”.(…) “The Black who shouted: ‘Our war is here, not in Vietnam’, has expressed an idea no different from that of the men who ‘stormed the heavens’ during the Paris Commune and that of the Petrograd gravediggers of the myths of order, the national interest, civilizing wars.”[8]

Two years later Communist Programme described the riots in similar terms: “We revolutionary Marxists remove from the terrible black anger the racial characters in which it is confined by black leaders, bourgeois and petty bourgeois, and welcome it as the revolt of a part of the proletariat.” “We hail the Black outburst of fury as a genuine riot of the American proletariat.”[9]

In 1967 Il Programma Comunista published an article that started with the phrase “The heroic rebellion of America’s black proletarians is destined to unfold […], it marks a watershed in the history of exploited ‘coloured’ people.”“And this is a wildfire spreading not only from one city to another but, far more importantly, from black proletarians to white proletarians who stand alongside them”[10]

On the non-proletarian nature of the urban riots

Can the claim that the riots were proletarian in nature be substantiated?

Let’s first look at the riots in Watts, to which N&L devoted an article written by Raya Dunayevskaya. Although it did not claim that the revolt was exclusively proletarian, it was certainly considered a class question. For this reason, the article consequently spoke about a revolt instead of a riot. Since N&L still defended a conception of workers’ unionism, one might have expected that it would also have come up with some kind of rank and file activity, but any reference to such activity or organisation was absent from the article. It did not even refer to the need for the working class to create organised structures for the defence of its living conditions.

The article did not (or did not want not to) take a position on the completely uncontrolled outburst of anger and the resulting chaos that characterised the riots or on the crowds who attacked motorists with rocks and bricks, pulled white drivers out of their cars to beat them up. Instead, Raya Dunayevskaya wrote that the rioters “gained their strength, not because they were isolated, but because they acted collectively. It was a disciplined strength”.[11]

The same issue of N&L also published an Eyewitness Report of the riots. This report confirmed the completely aimless nature of the events: it turned out to be nothing else than “a small war for limited objectives”, such as “the destruction of the police force” and of “white business”[12].

When important working class reactions take place one of the most important means of the bourgeoisie to derail these reactions is the trade union. But in the articles of N&L there is not a single word about the role of the trade unions or about rank and file unionism. Why were they not used by the bourgeoisie to contain the violent actions of what N&L sees as proletarian actions? The articles doesn’t give an answer, but with the absence of organised proletarian expressions, such as general assemblies, struggle committees, flying pickets, etc. it is clear that there was nothing for the trade unions to derail and no task for these state organs to assume. So there is good reason to dispel the myth that the riots were proletarian in nature.

Two years later, after riots in Newark and Detroit, N&L presented us a similar rosy picture while stores were vandalised, cars were set on fire, and homes were ransacked again.

In the article on the riots in Detroit N&L wrote that these set a newer stage, because of the appearance, for the first time in years, of white and black solidarity inside and outside the workplace. But the article did not tell us how this solidarity was expressed in the practice of the struggle. And the same issue of N&L also makes no mention of expressions of proletarian solidarity. In an article on the riots in the same city Il Programma, which also hailed the solidarity between the black and the white workers during the Detroit riots, was at least honest in its statement that it had “no news, however, as to how, where, when this solidarity was expressed”.[13]

It is only in 1973 that the author of the article in N&L becomes more concrete on what this solidarity really entailed. “When the wrath of the blacks exploded in Detroit the repossession, as well as the sniping later, was integrated: ‘It was just like Negroes and whites were shopping together, only they weren’t paying for anything’.”[14]So, the fact that many white people participated in the looting together with black people, just taking advantage of the unrest to break into the store fronts, would be an expression of proletarian solidarity? It can only be concluded that proletarian solidarity between the white and black workers, fermenting into a kind of organisational association, was completely absent in the riots. 

In the same article N&L also wrote that “three forces - workers, youth, women - coalesced in the urban revolts”[15] but ignores the fact that these workers, youth and women were probably all black people, for the “revolts” in Detroit took place in a black neighbourhood and was mainly undertaken by black people and only attracted some white people to claim their share in the looting of stores. Moreover N&L did not recognize that the riots were dominated by a lumpenproletarian mood, that they were heavily influenced by marginalised elements forced to live by petty crime. These groups were not motivated by class consciousness but by blind hatred, not orientated towards the future like the proletariat, but towards immediate destruction. The interests of such groups were the opposite of the working class. N&L did not raise the demand that these elements should renounce activities such as looting, random arson, etc. and join the struggle of the proletariat, the revolutionary class.

Identifying (in the same article) imperialism and profiteering with “white people”, and slums and poverty with “black people” and considering blacks as the most exploited and oppressed part of capitalist society, all protests by the latter were seen, almost unconditionally, as a step on the road towards liberation. This dangerous confusion was the expression of Dunayevskaya’s long-standing glorification of the autonomous struggle of the black masses as a revolutionary vanguard. N&L’s insufficient break with the counter-revolutionary ideology of Trotskyism was a major obstacle to overcoming this confusion. Like Trotskyism she continued to defend the right of nations to self-determination in the imperialist epoch.

The deep ambiguity of N&L’s political analysis

The reality is that N&L remained very ambiguous about the struggle of black people and the responsibility of the working class in the struggle against racism.

In the article on the riots in Detroit N&L correctly denounced the hypocrisy of the ruling class, the indiscriminate violence against the black insurgents, and showed that the rebellion was a product of ghettoisation. But the same article leaves behind a big question:can blind revolt become social revolution” when “white labor (…) solidarize itself with black labor” only?[16]A proletarian revolution, which is by definition social, rests on two pillars: organisation and consciousness. In the article the question of solidarity was still raised, but the words organisation and consciousness were conspicuous by their absence. So, it did not give any explanation of how an unconscious revolt can turn into a conscious proletarian revolution. Such a development is only possible as the outcome of a conscious process in which the aims and the means are developed step by step in and through the struggle itself. But since the riots showed no attempts to pursue such a process, the perspectives that N&L derived from these riots remained abstract, wrapped in pious wishes.

The riots forced the bourgeois state to openly show its oppressive face, but at the same time they were not and will not be a harbinger of victory, as Bordiga wanted us to believe in his article of 1965. Even N&L had to admit in an article of 1967 that “this form of rebellion does not overthrow capitalism, tear it up by its roots, and build something new as it destroys the old”[17]. Indeed, the riots don’t bring the overthrow of this bourgeois class rule any closer, and remain completely within the confines of capitalism, as with any partial, non-class-based struggle, be it around issues of climate, gender, or any other particular expression of capitalist alienation or destruction.

In the decades following the 1960s riots N&L would give in more and more to bourgeois ideology. A proletarian group cannot continue to assign a vanguard role to black people, compare the urban riots with a revolutionary uprising, welcome the wars in Africa as liberation movements, embrace humanism as a complement to marxism, without having negative consequences for its evolution. The accumulation of such views eventually makes a group succumb to the pressure of bourgeois ideology. The group still exists, but it is no longer part of the proletarian political milieu.

Anti-racism is the worst product of racism

Internationalism, the section of the ICC in the U.S., was the first publication in America that brought some clarification in the perspectives of the proletarian struggle against racism. In an article called: “Proletarian Perspective and Racism – Furor over Bakke” (Internationalism no. 15, 1978), it clearly emphasised that any struggle against racism is doomed to fail as long as it does not lead to the overthrow of capitalist rule itself. But even this article did not go to the roots of anti-racist positions as being a dangerous trap for the working class struggle. Bordiga once said that anti-fascism is the worst product of fascism. The same applies to anti-racism, since the anti-racist struggle leads to nothing else than defence of the capitalist state with a “human” face, where people of colour are allegedly no longer be oppressed and treated as second-class citizens.

Modern slavery - and this was new in human history - was built upon the alleged inferiority of people with a black skin: the colour of your skin brands you as a creature that can be possessed, dominated, violated or killed. Class relations in the U.S. have been permeated with these racial considerations since their inception. The idea of racial inferiority is deeply rooted in the soul of American society, and any abolition of that curse, certainly in the phase of decomposition of capitalism, is not to be expected under capitalist rule, as is shown by the growth of racism and xenophobia and even of armed supremacist groups in the “greatest democracy” in the world.

In the phase of decomposition people of all “colours”, whether black, white, red, yellow or brown, will increasingly be faced with the horror of capitalism in agony, which threatens to drag each and every one of us into its downfall. At this moment in history, the stakes are higher than ever. Any partial, non-proletarian struggle against particular forms of oppression can only exacerbate racial, sexual or other divisions within the working class; in contrast to this, it is the essential struggle of wage labour against capital which has the potential to overcome all such divisions and lay the foundations of a true human community.


Dennis, July 2022


[2] The riots of the 1960s differed from their precursors in 1919 and 1943. In the former years the riots were instigated by white mobs. 1960s they were launched by African Americans and almost all looting and burning occurred in black neighbourhoods, targeting mostly white-owned local shops.

[6]The Decline and Fall of the Spectacle-Commodity Economy”, in:  Situationist International Anthology.

[7] Partito Comunista Internazionalista, which was founded in 1943, published Battaglia Comunista and Prometeo. In 1952 a split broke out in the party. The breakaway group, with Bordiga and Vercesi, called itself the International Communist Party (ICP) and started the publication of Il Programma Comunista and Le Prolétaire. Later on, another split occurred, but now in the ICP itself and the breakaway group, which also called itself the International Communist Party, would continue the publication of Il Programma Comunista. To distinguish the latter group from the ICP, this group is usually referred to as Il Programma.

[11]Raya Dunayevskaya, “Ramifications of the Watts Revolt”.

[12]My feeling is that this was not a riot, but a war. A small war for limited objectives. First was the destruction of the police force as an object of intimidation instead of law enforcement. Second was the destruction of alien white business as a parasitical force in the Negro Community. Both objectives were won. This isnot withstanding the killing of over 30 Negroes after the arrival of the Guard”. (“L.A. Eyewitness Report: The Watts revolt: both a warning and a challenge”, N&L, August-Sept 1967).

[13]The need for revolutionary theory and the class party in America”, Il Programma Comunista, nos.15 & 16, 1967.

[15]Raya Dunayevskaya, Detroit 1967: “‘Law and order’ from the barrel of a gun”. N&L, Aug-Sept 1967.

[16] Ibid.

[17] “Fury of Negro revolts matches determination for freedom”, N&L, Aug-Sept 1967.



Communists and the "race" question