Articles Issue #41
BY Bayard RustinJanuary 8, 2023
BY Bayard RustinJanuary 8, 2023
Passages between brackets are drawn from the manuscript version of the essay and differ slightly from the published variant.
July 7, 1970
We on the democratic left are living through a real crisis. And precisely because I believe the Socialist Party has a very vital role to play in this period, I would like to say something about the problems we confront.
One aspect is that many people on the [so-called democratic] left today substitute psychology for politics. Now, I have no objection to a lifestyle, or how you wear your hair, or whether you eat pig’s feet[, or whether you want to dress so one cannot distinguish between male and female except upon very close inspection]. But to substitute this “how I feel, what my thing is,” for politics, is an extremely dangerous attitude which the Socialist movement must fight. In fact, the Socialist movement is one of the few movements which has the credentials for fighting it.
[The many people today are in fact selling out, and are cop-outs, precisely because they do not engage in politics. They cannot be made to engage in politics. And my great fear—and I haven’t been able to make up my mind whether I’m for the 18-year-old’s voting, because the radicals and the progressives who are young in fact do not turn out, the conservatives do. And I’m rather convinced this may be an assist to the right, but I am not certain.]
The second aspect is that these people substitute morality, and very often predictions of doom morality, for programs. It is fashionable to assume that the United States is going fascist, that there are concentration camps up in the hills, that nothing can work now. This creates a mood of desperation which is extremely dangerous. In this respect I refer back to the abolitionists, who were extremely moral people, who were extremely anxious that black people should be brought out of slavery. But those of them who had nothing but morality, disappeared into the woodwork once the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, not to be heard from again. And when black people cried out, “Give us forty acres and a mule,” they did not assist in that struggle because they were purely moralists and did not understand its economic dimensions.
I suspect that many people in this room had better understand that, just as the abolitionists were a moral movement with no economic and social program, so it is likely that the last people on whom we can depend, when the war in Vietnam is over, are the peace people. Like those abolitionists, they will go into the woodwork, because a movement cannot be sustained which is purely moral, but which has no political and economic undergirding. And it is for that reason that I think we need to be prepared. YPSLs [Young People’s Socialist League] should go into the peace movement, not only to talk about Vietnam, but to say to the peace movement: “You say that you will be for doing something in this nation when the war is over. But we are going to have to put up a tremendous struggle to get that money and you must put into your peace program, now, a social and an economic program for the ghettoes.”
Blacks are also sometimes guilty of obsessive moralism. Take the question of white racism. Simply telling white people that they’re blue-eyed devils or that they are a racist is dangerous and counterproductive. [I think perhaps the most dangerous thing that ever happened now, as I look back upon it, is the Kerner Report.] It becomes a cop-out for blacks who don’t want to develop programs[, so they call people racists]. And it’s a cop-out for whites who are titillated and delighted to be abused and called racists. And thus Stokely Carmichael can come back to the United States and demand (and receive) $2,500 a lecture for telling white people how they stink.
The third aspect of this crisis is to substitute slogans for analysis. Thus, many blacks no longer need to think about an unbearable reality. If a debate comes up, you simply stop the discussion by calling the person with whom you are in debate an Uncle Tom. This is exactly what the Ku Klux Klan did in the South, stopping any debate by the center by the use of a nasty term. Thus, it’s claimed that only someone who’s under thirty can understand a problem, or someone who eats soul food. And in like manner, one take out his frustrations as a peace person by equating hard hats with fascists and brown shirts.
Now the fact that if anybody simply uses the word “hard hat” to dismiss a whole mass of people with whom we should be in alliance, he is not thinking. He is failing to see that it is people in the economic circumstances of the “hard hats” who are the only people in the United States saving and borrowing to send their own children to college. The children of the rich can get away without their parents necessarily having to save for their going to college. These are the people who are most grievously hit by the economic circumstances that Leon Keyserling described. These are the people who never had a chance to get an education and who profoundly want one, and who in their perverse manner show their profound appreciation of education by being angry at those whom they think misuse it. [And therefore I say to the young people here, that have got to fight the business of accepting slogans rather than analysis. Now that is one problem, and it is going to require plumage on our part, because all too often when one ought to stand up and speak out against kookism one doesn’t do it. The time has come when we need to do it.]
What we must do is analyze the present political situation so that we can know where our strengths lie. Now, a good example of this point is the NAACP. There is no organization that can be called a national organization in the black community except the NAACP. It is the only black organization which organizes almost a half million dues paying members and which collects almost five million dollars exclusively from black people. The Urban League does not get its money from black people; SCLC does not get its money from black people; CORE never got its money from black people. And yet today, the one organization which is never discussed is the NAACP. The Panthers do not have one thousand members. Most of the kids you see on the street are not Panthers. They are there to sell a paper, for every one they sell they get a dime. There are about one thousand Panther members in the country, half of whom are FBI men watching the five hundred legitimate members. And yet, it is these types, and the SDS types, and the Weathermen types that everybody gives attention to. I say to the YPSLs that there is one place that you can get the Socialist Party going, and that is amongst the black middle and working classes, amongst the white working classes and the rational middle classes. [That’s where you should be.] Forget the Weathermen, forget SDS, and forget the types of college kids fundamentally who are white, elitist and who are a happy, charming group of people, who are rich and who probably are not going to contribute very much either to thinking or political action. The average family which has children in SDS makes $23,000 a year, a very sobering thought when you consider that the average American family makes $8,000 a year. That is the injustice which SDS should be protesting. Now my friends, we must give attention therefore to those areas where something can grow, as against where something appears to be dramatic because the press needs to sell its papers.
President Nixon’s objective is very clear. It is to destroy that coalition which Franklin Delano Roosevelt established and upon which every important social change in this country has depended. He wants to destroy that coalition and establish one of his own, the same type of alliance which was established in 1876 of Southern conservatives and Northern Republicans. Now his strategy for doing this is to woo the South, and his tactic is a creation of division and polarization. Whatever he has done has been calculated to divide black from white, young from old, hawks from doves, rich from poor, and—in his statement following the Carswell rejection—to separate North from South. That is his tactic.
I maintain that there are two elements in our society which can block Nixon’s strategy and they are the labor movement and the minorities, particularly the blacks. I, therefore, say to the young people in the YPSL: You ought to recognize that economic progress is the basis for maintaining our coalition—that we are going to win because we emphasize, above all others, the economic issues in this society. Because there is no possibility for black people making progress if we emphasize only race. [We must emphasize the fact that the civil rights problem is at heart an economic problem.] You can psychoanalyze every white person in the United States until he comes out pristine pure tomorrow morning, filled with love for black people—and that will not provide jobs for blacks or build housing. That is a political task which we must face.
Our thanks to Benjamin Fong and Dustin Guastella for bringing this essay to our attention.