From the Archives: Introduction
Much of the work of Viewpoint has revolved around presenting translations of significant texts from international traditions of revolutionary theory. This is not accidental; we are convinced that to meet the challenge of understanding the present we have to look beyond narrowly conceived political or national traditions. However, we have come to realize that this work of expanding the toolbox also has to begin closer to home. Indeed, much of the American radical tradition seems just as foreign and forgotten to us today, and a wealth of material in English has been simply abandoned to the archives. Yet it is impossible to understand the contemporary problems of political practice without revisiting the history of the American Left, in the spirit of critical and non-sectarian reinvention.
As a first move towards this historical excavation, we present “Black Editor,” an interview with John Watson, who would go on to be a founding member of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. In some respects this interview seems quite dated – its gendered language, its focus on the American auto industry – and yet it speaks to the present in a remarkable way. The relation of race and class, the politics of cultural nationalism, the role of the black bourgeoisie, are all contemporary problems in the strongest sense. Especially significant for our purposes is Watson’s emphasis on the role of the newspaper, based on his experience as editor of Inner City Voice and the South End. His account of the relationship between publishing and political organization is a challenge to left journals today, and the publication of this interview in Radical America, an important publishing project emerging from Students for a Democratic Society, is an indication of the kind of theoretical and political circulation that ran through the movements whose legacy we collectively inherit.
Black Editor: An Interview (1968)
The following is from an interview with John Watson, the editor of the Inner City Voice, Detroit’s black revolutionary newspaper. Watson has had a wide experience in the movement, both in various aspects of the black student movement and as a black auto and newspaper worker. In addition to being editor of the Inner City Voice, Watson is now the editor of the Wayne State University newspaper, the South End.
Q: What were the origins of the Inner City Voice? What are its aims? What has been its experience?
A: The Inner City Voice was created in response to certain adverse conditions that black militants had found in Detroit and in the country as a whole, conditions stopping the further development of a permanent and powerful revolutionary movement among black people. In the last ten years there has been a rise in consciousness among blacks, particularly students, that created an entirely different political climate. But this has serious drawbacks and hang-ups. The major one is the general instability of the movement. As far back as 1960 or 1959 there were people involved in various organizations that were single issue oriented, they had some particular object such as a sit-in campaign, police brutality, war, the peace movement, etc. These organizations had a life of their own – internal organizational activity, with lots of people doing concrete work against the system. But they could not sustain themselves, they would fall apart. Then there would be a new upsurge, a new organization.
There was a wave-like character of the movement, it had its ebb and flow, and because it had single issues it had no clear ideology. There was everything from bourgeois integrationists to black nationalists to Marxist-Leninists. But the movement could not keep up with either these single purpose organizations or with the general movement of the black community. Before the July Insurrection we had an advanced community but no organization or leadership as advanced. Therefore, there was no organizational continuity. That is one of the lessons that the July Insurrection reinforced.
How to build a party, a black Bolshevik Party? How to organize black workers, coordinate the activities of black students, how to break away from the old radical organizations? As students of history we went back to see how people did these kinds of things, how in particular they attained relative permanence. We had studied the history of the Russian Bolsheviks and found a specific pamphlet by Lenin called “Where to Begin,” written in 1903, before he wrote What is to be Done? where he described the role a newspaper could play. A newspaper was the focus of a permanent organization, it could provide a bridge between the peaks of activity. It creates an organization and organizes the division of labor among revolutionaries. Revolutionaries do something, not just a meeting on Sunday, making speeches and passing resolutions. It creates the kind of division of labor needed not just for the newspaper but for a revolutionary organization.
It was these tasks that we set out to perform through the creation of the Inner City Voice. The people who created it were Marxist-Leninists, revolutionary socialists, or at least thought of themselves in this way. We wanted to build an organization of black workers, of black students, both in high schools and colleges, and ultimately to create a black Marxist-Leninist Party, flowing from the newspaper.
This was no easy task – we draw all our resources from the black community. And there was no experience among us in terms of publishing, we had no experience insofar as conducting a business operation, we had no money. When we first began we went around to a lot of people. Lenin’s idea about a newspaper seemed so logical to us but unfortunately many people didn’t see it. Only some young black radicals did. We had only to face the question of going ahead and creating that kind of paper. We had a lot to learn. We had an organization that operated day-to-day rather than week-to-week and meeting-to-meeting. And that kind of activity got us involved in all the problems of people working closely together on a day-by-day basis. We had to solve this.
We started work in May of 1967. We worked through the July Insurrection and came out finally in September. There was a great deal of criticism of the paper, we had too many typos, the articles had errors, etc., etc., but the important thing is that each issue has improved from the experience of the last issue. We had to make our own experience, typos and all.
When we first began there was the question about whether we were a vague black nationalist organization or a Marxist-Leninist organization. The revolutionaries won despite the fact that because we have not yet written out a program, many essentially reformist people came around to play off the rhetoric of the movement.
The Inner City Voice has proven many things. It is a very popular paper. We have been printing 10,000 copies each recent issue and these have been almost all sold. We are popular despite the sporadic nature of production – we have only been coming out about once a month. Even the most reformist cannot attack us because we have created an independent base in the black community. No one can redbait us – a lot of people read the paper and we can attack and hurt those who call us “Black Power Communists.” The power of the black left has been able to increase through the Inner City Voice.
We are well received in the black community. Most of our problems are financial. The organization of circulation is very diffuse. It is difficult to get back full value from sales. But we have managed to survive. And more than that. Since the initiation of the Voice, several other things have happened. All of them, including the development of the Voice, are part of an objective development around which groups could coalesce. And this has been so because the first problem has been solved: despite the ebb and flow of activity, we have a permanent organization.
Around the Voice there is a conglomeration of activity. We have our office in a large building with our own coffee house and with our own school, teaching black history and now courses in Marxism-Leninism. The coffee house is very popular with the community. Also housed in the same building is the new publication, the Black Student Voice, which coordinates the activities of the spontaneous groups that have been formed in inner city schools. We are involved with organizing workers. At the Dodge Main plant in Hamtramack, 60-700 of the workers are black. Some of the Inner City Voice people were working there and were deeply involved in a wildcat strike. Out of this came the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement and now a weekly paper, DRUM. This is a very important development because this is the first time recently that black radicals, any radicals for that matter in the country, have organized workers.
What we know is that black workers have the power to close down the American economy. Only workers can end the war and black workers will be and are in the lead. Only the working class can carry through the revolution. Ultimately we must see all segments united around the working class in a revolutionary party – workers, students, intellectuals, community organizations.
The newspaper is moving in this direction. The Inner City Voice has gone far to accomplish what Lenin described in “Where to Begin.” It has been the focus of a permanent organization, it provided a bridge between peaks of activity. It has organized the division of labor among black revolutionaries and created a network throughout the community.
Q: Stokely Carmichael in a speech to the Black Panther conference in Oakland some months ago said that socialism and communism were not for black people, despite the fact that he had been going all over the world, including to the OLAS conference in Havana, speaking for socialism. What is your reaction to all of this?
A: Our position on this is that it is bullshit. To say socialism or communism is irrelevant is foolish and we oppose this. We know, of course, that you don’t go around to the ghetto community and tell them with every breath that socialism is the answer. You organize around concrete issues. But in a public debate in which this subject comes up, we oppose Stokely. There are a number of different kinds of black nationalists. I don’t know exactly where Stokely stands. There are black capitalists, there are black mystics, there are black community organization types, there are those with no ideology, there are those who see it as a straight cultural matter, a matter of identity.
We take a Marxist-Leninist position. The question of black people in the United States is a caste and class problem. Black men are exploited as a function of the capitalist system as a whole by white capital. Racism is a tool which the man uses to carry out his exploitation. And we are no more for integrated capitalism than segregated capitalism. Neither are we in favor of a separate state, based on the same class lines as in this society. We are against a separate state which a black capitalist class exploits black proletariat. We are opposed also to all sorts of haphazard analyses which certain revolutionaries talk, even semi-socialist terms, haphazard talk which doesn’t tell us what to do with the United States capitalism and imperialism. As to separatism, we leave that question until it can be decided by the whole black people, after the destruction of capitalism.
If Stokely comes to Detroit, in a city with socialized production, owned by capitalists, in which speedup, bad working conditions, automation, “niggermation” (in which one black man does the job previously done by three white men) prevail, what does he say? Is he for the white capitalists? Is he for turning the industry over to black capitalists? Is he for destroying industry? Is he for black workers being exploited no more than white workers?
There is a struggle over cultural nationalism and it not an abstract ideological question. There is all sorts of analyses but unless we see slavery and racism as extended under capitalism as tools of capitalism, we cannot go anywhere. What should we do? Work primarily with students? Work primarily with workers? Get students involved with workers? These are concrete questions.
I don’t know whether Stokely has capitulated to the cultural nationalists. I am surprised by someone who goes around the world and makes all sorts of statements, revolutionary statements, and comes back here and makes statements like the one at the Black Panther rally. We note that Huey Newton, the Black Panther leader, from jail said that blacks must be socialists. Not an abstraction which you preach at people but a concrete ideology which directs what you do.
A lot of black nationalists go around and say we need a new ideology because the experiences of black folk are different. But these people have never studied history, not even the history of black people in this country. They talk of a new ideology, out of the sky, rather than looking to Marxism-Leninism. Not that the Marxism of the past had all the answers. But we know that Marxism is a particular method and that it is a newer and more inherently revolutionary method of gaining black freedom than haphazard analysis. Of course, there should be discussion in the movement but this is our point of view. There are all sorts of people who say that what we need is black unity. But the thing is that the real world doesn’t operate that way. There are real differences in the black community and some of them are class or at least semi-class based. We are one contending force in that community. We have to put forward not a diluted reformist program based on a false unity, but our point of view and win that struggle. We cannot unify with everybody. That’s bullshit. Certain programs we can support wholeheartedly, certain programs we can support tactically and certain programs we can’t have anything to do with at all. We can coexist with cultural nationalists but we are black Marxist-Leninists and therefore when Stokely is attacking socialism he is attacking us. How can socialism be irrelevant? We don’t understand that.
This interview was conducted on Sunday, July 7, 1968 in Detroit, Michigan and first appeared in Radical America 2, no. 4 (July-August 1968), 30-38.