Marx, Du Bois, and the Black Underclass: RAM’s World Black Revolution

Barbara Jones-Hogu, Nation Time (1969)

No document better represents the contradictory, syncretic relationship of Black Power nationalism to the Communist movement of the 20th Century than “World Black Revolution,” published by the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM) in the summer of 1966.

From its spectral opening line – “All over Africa, Asia, South, Afro and Central America a revolution is haunting and sweeping” – to its resounding final appeal – “Brothers and sisters of the Black Underclass in all countries, UNITE” World Black Revolution was meant to mark a dialectical leap forward in, and break with, the history of Marxism. Its simultaneous re-articulation and rupture applied especially to Marxist conceptions of class struggle and what the Communist International had called in 1919 “world revolution,” its program for building Communism across the globe. Specifically, World Black Revolution argued that political actors in the Third World, nominated here the “Black Underclass,” had shifted the gravity of revolution: colonial caste, not class, was now the “primary contradiction” of world revolution As well, the geographical coordinates of revolutionary strategy had undergone a profound adjustment. In an epochal shift, a “united front” of peoples from Africa to Asia had replaced Europe and the European proletariat as the vanguard of international struggle for human liberation. 1

Yet more than a statement on history’s changed telos, “World Black Revolution” was a critical exegesis, literally a reimagining, of the primary tenets of Marxist thought dating back to the 1848 publication of the Communist Manifesto. Its authors, members of a small cadre of trained black revolutionaries, sought to demonstrate that every major premise of western Marxist historiography and Communist history had failed to address what in Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois, who is cited in the document, called “the color line.” Racism, the authors argued, was in the historical DNA of the West: Greek slavery did not enslave black people, but predicted social relationships of a racial future; 19th-century Western history, reputedly a “golden age” of Marxist thought, engendered colonialism and the slave trade. The Enlightenment itself as Paul Gilroy and others would later argue was buoyed by bones strewn across the Black Atlantic. 2

No theory or practice of world revolution, RAM contended, could fail to account for these events. Thus, the World Black Revolution, elevated to the level of a strategic concept, aspired to define Black Power as an epochal stage and interpretation of world history, a new hermeneutic for a revised historical totality. The internationalism of the Comintern period 1919 to 1943 was now superseded by the age of Pan-Africanism and the age of Bandung, the latter signalling the conference of 29 African and Asian countries meeting at Bandung, Indonesia in 1955. Whereas Lenin had defined turn of the century imperialism as the “highest stage of capitalism,” the Bandung Era was one of “neo-colonialism,” hailed as the “last stage of imperialism.” The World Black Revolution would resolve the “principal” contradiction of the neo-colonial system “White Overclass” over “Black Underclass” resulting in a “dictatorship of the Black Underclass” and a black global state dedicated to building a “world communalist society.” This was literally an apocalyptic history: a “War of Armageddon,” that would leave the “old world” of white Western history in ruins and a new World Black Revolution standing in its place.

Indeed, the argumentative scope of “World Black Revolution” demonstrates a rigorous, if incomplete, grasp of “weak links” in classical Marxism’s orientation to the question of proletarian revolution. Marx, like Lenin and Trotsky, the authors argued, mistakenly assumed that communist revolutions would primarily be incited by the industrial proletariats of the Western capitalist nations. Instead, in the “neo-colonial” period, China, India, Burma, Ghana, Nigeria, Algeriain short, “backward” states of the “global South”were leading the world’s upheavals. RAM also argued that Lenin’s contention that a “labor aristocracy” a layer of proletarians in Europe colluding with the bourgeoisie to profit from the exploitation of laborers in the colonies predicted the “caste” dominance of the colonial era, and proved the correctness of Indian Marxist M.N. Roy’s position in his Comintern debates with Lenin that only alliance with the non-bourgeoisie sections of the colonies would advance world revolution. More egregiously, Stalinist programs like the “Popular Front” had betrayed Communist (specifically Soviet) support for anti-colonial liberation or for black freedom in the U.S., where the CPUSA had retrenched its fight against racism in order to defend the Soviet Union against fascism. These complaints echoed the experiences of forerunners to the World Black Revolution like Trinidadian Marxist George Padmore, who famously broke with the Comintern over its betrayal of Ethiopia, and more dubious assertions by influential former Marxist and Communist Party member Harold Cruse, who saw in the Marxist Left a conspiracy to destroy black radical autonomy. “World Black Revolution” argued that failures on the part of the Soviet Union and Marxist Left to support black and Third World liberation had consigned the project of European Marxism to the dustbin of white supremacist history. In turn, independent black revolutionary organizations and cadre were needed to supplant Communist parties and their associations, like the Communist International. The Revolutionary Action Movement, authors of “World Black Revolution,” were none other than the cadre and vanguard of this new revolutionary era.

Who and What was RAM?

RAM member Muhammad Ahmed (aka Max Stanford) is assigned authorship of “World Black Revolution” (though its composition was likely collective) and has written the only complete internal history of the Revolutionary Action Movement. 3 Aside from that unpublished history, the best account of RAM’s origins lay in Robin D.G. Kelley and Betsy Esch’s 1998 essay “Black Like Mao: Red China and Black Revolution.” 4 Kelley and Esch trace the organization’s beginnings to 1961. In that year, Robert F. Williams, an NAACP organizer in Monroe, North Carolina, fled the U.S. to Canada then to Cuba to avoid trumped-up kidnapping charges. Williams had established himself as a local and national spokesperson for black self-defense ideology in the U.S., and threw himself into support for Castro’s new revolution once in Havana. Inspired by Williams’s example, black members of Students for a Democratic Society, activists with the Student Nonviolent Coördinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality formed “Challenge,” a student organization led by Donald Freeman, a student at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland. According to Kelley and Esch, the group was especially taken with Harold Cruse’s 1962 essay “Revolutionary Nationalism and the Afro-American,” arguing for the internationalization of the black U.S. freedom struggle. In 1965, Max Stanford would publish “Revolutionary Nationalism and the Afro-American Student” in Daniel Watts’s newspaper The Liberator, one of several vehicles for early writings by RAM members, along with Robert Williams’ newspaper published in exile, The Crusader. 5

Between 1962 and 1966, RAM formed small organizational core groups in Northern California, Cleveland, and its headquarters, because it was Stanford’s home, in Philadelphia. Early members associated with RAM or its periphery included future Black Panther leaders like Huey Newton; future African-American Studies academics including Cedric Robinson and Ernest Allen, and the future founder of the US Organization, Maulana Karenga. In 1964, RAM members traveled to Cuba, including Luke Tripp, Charles “Mao” Johnson, Charles Simmons, and General Baker, members of the student group Uhuru who later played key roles in the formation of the Detroit Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement and the Detroit League of Revolutionary Black Workers. Finally, RAM boasted as mentors former communists like Harry Haywood and Harold Cruse, “Queen Mother” Audley Moore, and ex-Trotskyists James and Grace Lee Boggs, one-time collaborators with C.L.R. James in the Detroit-based group Facing Reality. 6

RAM used its theoretical organ, Black America, where “World Black Revolution” first appeared, to delineate an organizational protocol heavily indebted ideologically and tactically to Maoism and the Chinese Revolution of 1949. RAM, like the Black Panther Party later, aligned itself with China after the Sino-Soviet split of 1961 because of its example of a “colored” people’s revolution, Mao’s personal support for black liberation in the U.S., and shared confidence in Maoism’s suitability to an “internally colonized” black U.S. population. 7 These became key tenets of RAM’s anti-revisionist Marxism. For example, RAM published a “Code of Cadres” liberally borrowing from Quotations from Chairman Mao. It also released a wide-ranging “12-Point Program” (a potentially rough blueprint for the Ten-Point Program of the Black Panthers) which called for the development of freedom schools, rifle clubs, and black farm cooperatives, strongly advocated for “African socialism,” and advanced an analysis that African-Americans were colonized subjects with a right to self-determination, directly aligning themselves with the non-aligned countries of the Third World. RAM cadre were also nearly entirely male, masculinist, and impatient: revolution in the United States, they argued, might be won in 90 days.

The group predictably attracted national attention, and the intensity of the scrutiny severely affected its ability to operate, even clandestinely. In 1966, the year the Cultural Revolution began in China, both Life and Esquire magazines ran “exposés” identifying RAM as a China-backed internal subversive organization waging war on white America. As part of the federal government’s wider crackdown on black dissidence, RAM members were arrested and charged in 1967 with conspiracy to instigate a riot and to assassinate Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young. In 1968, in an attempt to outmaneuver the FBI’s COINTELPRO program, RAM changed its name to the Black Liberation Party, or African American Party of National Liberation. By 1969, it had largely dissolved. 8

World Black Revolution: Limitations and Perspectives

How does one assess “World Black Revolution” as a guiding document for black and human liberation? The ledger is mixed. For example, the essay’s invocation of Frantz Fanon’s famous dictum about colonialism “You are white because you are rich, and you are rich because you are white” to explain global capitalist relations falls short. Unlike Fanon, World Black Revolution flatly equates colony with “class,” failing to adumbrate capitalist and class relations within the colonies, or to differentiate adequately the combined and uneven development of capitalism, thereby sustaining a false equivalence of class and race. This leads the essay to replace populations and classes with racial groupings (white and black nationalisms) in an unsuccessful attempt to update the Bolsheviks’ theory of reactionary and progressive nationalisms. This analytic confusion spills over into the discussion of imperialism. Imperialism, specifically U.S. imperialism, is elevated in this text to the level of an almost autonomous subject, a commonplace in the radical political discourse of the period. But it leads to crucial blind spots with regards to the complexity of imperialism as a global phenomenon tied to the establishment and enforcement of capitalist relations via governmental policy, military force, but also modes of financial regulation and strategies of accumulation, with at times contradictory effects – particularly in the interplay between national and international, economic and political actors.

Second, and relatedly, the essay lacks a coherent or usable theory of the state. Its call for a “dictatorship” along “communalist” lines (the inspiration is Julius Nyerere’s “Ujammaa” program of African socialism in Tanzania) does not go far in explaining how social relationships between men and women and children will be transformed after the old older is swept away, nor why a specifically African socialism was a proper template for World Revolution. 9 Similarly, the essay’s variant on Communist Internationalism a “world communalist government” and Black World Revolutionary Government does not articulate how old communalisms or nationalisms will wither away. Indeed, the traditional Marxist argument that worker control of the state, abolition of private property and proletarian internationalism were preconditions for the end of nationalism proper are not convincingly substituted for by the Maoist-inflected exhortation for a People’s Liberation Army on a world scale, or injunctions to burn the whole system to the ground: “burn baby burn…the fire next time.”

Finally, the essay discloses a weakness for festishizing militarization, provocation, and guerrilla war absent a strategy for making revolution permanent. Rendering the Watts Riots as a spark to light a “prairie fire” was a prefigurative and spontaneous expression of the gap between the “cell”-sized movement RAM represented and its epic political ambitions for revolution. Like Mao’s Little Red Book, the relatively short essay, featuring extensive citations, sought to (and was perceived by its authors) punch far above its political weight, a manifesto seeking a mass movement rather than the other way around.

In this latter regard, “World Black Revolution” as a document belongs on a temporal and political chain that would include other aspirant manifestos of the post-1945 period: We Charge Genocide!, the 1952 Civil Rights Congress appeal to the United Nations against epidemic state violence and black Death; Robert Williams’s 1961 self-defense manifesto Negroes with Guns; the 1962 Port Huron Statement by Students for a Democratic Society; the 10 Point Plans of the Black Panther Party, Young Lords, and Red Guards, and Mao’s Little Red Book itself.

In addition to the Black Panthers, members of the Detroit League of Revolutionary Black Workers and Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement were clearly influenced by RAM’s argument for the centrality of the black working class, and class struggle, in taking on and taking down capitalism. 10

Finally, the essay embeds important ideals, conflicts, and failures riving many 20th-century revolutions. The Communist International’s precarious balancing between support for decolonization and building workers’ solidarity across national borders is seen foundering on the shoals of Black Power fifty years later. Stalinism’s betrayal of the principles of Bolshevik internationalism both motivates the particular anti-revisionism found in “World Black Revolution,” while also serving as a traumatic distorting mirror of the text’s own imaginative swerves from Marx and Lenin’s conception of class struggle, party, state, and revolution. China and Cuba’s devolutions into cults of authority is limned in the document’s lionization of revolutionary agitators like Robert F. Williams (whose detailed outline of a strategy of protracted war in the United States context, “USA: The Potential of a Minority Revolution,” is cited at length in the text), who learned to emulate those same tendencies in support of both regimes. The essay’s normative masculinity was also a guerilla version of the sexism that would foster splits within Black Power by black women who were sometimes told their position in the revolution was prone. 11

Yet for all these limitations, World Black Revolution should be read by all students of the U.S. and world revolutionary Left who seek to apprehend the dynamics of political thought which revolutionary conditions can produce. Its synthesis of history and ideas remains a poignant experiment in what James and Grace Lee Boggs called “dialectical humanism,” a mode of philosophical practice that seeks to transcend a limited present in the name of human freedom and liberation. 12

References   [ + ]

1. There is significant conceptual weight to the term “black,” although it is often elided in the text. As a qualifier of revolutionary struggle, “black” carried an eminently political and even generic connotation; as in James and Grace Lee Boggs’s elaboration of Black Power, the world black revolution included under its banner all “people of color who are engaged in revolutionary struggle in the United States and all over the world.” James Boggs and Grace Lee Boggs, “The City is the Black Man’s Land,” in Racism and the Class Struggle (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1970), 50. There are fascinating overlaps here with the political meaning of blackness in the Haitian Constitution of 1805: see Sibylle Fischer, Modernity Disavowed (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), 233.
2. See Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995).
3. Maxwell C. Stanford, “Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM): A Case Study of an Urban Revolutionary Movement in Western Capitalist Society” (M.A. thesis, Atlanta University, 1986).
4. Robin D.G. Kelley and Betsy Esch, “Black Like Mao: Red China and Black Revolution” in Afro-Asia: Revolutionary Political and Cultural Connections Between African Americans and Asian Americans, ed. Fred Ho and Bill V. Mullen (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), 97-154. See also Kelley’s essay in the collection Is It Nation Time?: Robin Kelley, “Stormy Weather: Reconstructing Black (Inter)Nationalism in the Cold War Era, in Is it Nation Time? Contemporary Essays on Black Power and Black Nationalism, ed. Eddie S. Glaude (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 67-90.
5. Kelley and Esch, “Black Like Mao,” 107-109.
6. Ibid., 109-111. See also Dan Georgakas, “Young Detroit Radicals, 1955-1965,” Urgent Tasks no. 12 (Summer 1981).
7. See for example Mao Zedong, “Statement Supporting the Afro-American in Their Just Struggle Against Racial Discrimination by U.S. Imperialism, August 8, 1963” in Afro-Asia: Revolutionary Political and Cultural Connections Between African Americans and Asian Americans, 91-93.
8. Kelley and Esch, “Black Like Mao.”
9. See Julius Nyerere, Ujammaa: Essays on Socialism (London: Oxford, 1968).
10. A good account of DRUM remains Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin, Detroit I Do Mind Dying: A Study in Urban Revolution (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012 [1975]).
11. The allusion is to Stokely Carmichael’s comment “The only position for women in SNCC is prone” as reported by James Cone in Out of the Revolution: The Development of Africana Studies, ed. Delores Aldridge and Carlene Young (New York: Lexington Books, 1973), 414.
12. For an account of “dialectical humanism” in the work of James and Grace Lee Boggs see Stephen Ward, In Love and Struggle: The Revolutionary Lives of James and Grace Lee Boggs (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016). See also Bill V. Mullen, Afro-Orientalism, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), chapter 4, “‘Philosophy Must be Proletarian’: The Dialectical Humanism of James and Grace Lee Boggs,” 113-162.

Author of the article

is Professor of English and American Studies at Purdue University. His books include UnAmerican: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Century of World Revolution (Temple UP, 2015); W.E.B. Du Bois: Revolutionary Across the Color Line (Pluto Press, 2016); andAfro-Orientalism (Minnesota UP, 2004).