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The Black Liberation Struggle: What Really Happened Off the ’60s —And What Did Not
The masses answered this question, unmistakably. People rebelled in hundreds of American cities,25 and the revolutionary stance of leaders like Malcolm X and forces like the Black Panther Party resonated with millions in the streets and campuses of the U.S. Many things fed into this—including, again, the international situation which, as pointed out earlier, was marked by a great upsurge in national liberation struggles and the influence of a socialist China under the leadership of Mao.
With this powerful upsurge hammering the walls of the social order, some barriers to Black people did fall. Some African-Americans were given opportunities to enter college and professional careers, and social programs like welfare, community clinics, and early education programs were expanded. Government spending for training and jobs that would employ Black people increased. Some discrimination was lifted in credit for housing and small businesses. Most of this was in the form of small concessions—not only did this not begin to touch the real scars of hundreds of years of terrible oppression, but discrimination continued in all of these arenas. Nonetheless, these advances were hardly insignificant.
Even more important than these particular concessions, in some ways, were the “intangibles.” The consciousness of not just African-Americans but other minorities, and many millions of white people as well, radically changed. People sharply challenged the lies that for decades had been taught in American schools and had been driven home in American culture through works like Gone With the Wind and Birth of a Nation. The REAL history of slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the whole period of the 20th century began to be unearthed and brought forward.
The ’60s showed that a movement that had Black people as its most solid base of support and the struggle for their emancipation as its leading edge, and that drew connections to other outrages of the system and other struggles against that system, could also inspire and draw forward people of other oppressed nationalities within the U.S., students of all nationalities, and then spread as well to women, to white proletarians (“poor whites”;), soldiers and beyond. All kinds of people began to look at everything about this society with fresh eyes—and with the blinders suddenly taken off, they didn’t like what they saw and decided to question it and fight it!
To put it another way, the ’60s showed that when masses rose up in rebellion against the powers-that-be, and when that was coupled with a political stance that called out the system as the problem, and when a growing section of that movement linked itself to and learned from the revolutionary movement worldwide…well, when all that happened, you could radically change the political polarization in society. What could hardly be imagined yesterday suddenly became a real possibility for tomorrow, which demanded action today. (Some of these same phenomena, in microcosm, also occurred in the Los Angeles Rebellion of 1992, over the acquittal of the police who had beaten Rodney King. While the initial spark came from the Black masses, significant numbers of Latinos and whites, especially the youth, either joined in or politically supported it, and many, many people were at least temporarily drawn into political life and some to a much more radical and even revolutionary political outlook.)
The ’60s also dramatically showed that the rulers of this system, for all their power and viciousness, are not all-powerful—not when the people whom they rule over rise up and rebel in their hundreds of thousands and then millions. Seriously challenged and battered by the Vietnam war and the struggle “at home,” these rulers actually fell into serious disarray, and sharp battles broke out within their ranks, which provided further “oxygen” for upsurge from below. In many respects, the ruling class was put on the political defensive, and even lost its “legitimacy” in the eyes of millions. This whole upsurge within the U.S. also had a tremendous effect internationally—both exposing America’s lying pretensions about its “free society” and giving inspiration to the masses in countries all over the world.
But while this tremendous struggle brought down some barriers to formal equality, and while the rulers were challenged and the system shaken to its foundations, the people were not able to make revolution. And here we have to make an important point: revolution is not just a cool word that means “lots of change”; revolution has a very specific meaning. It means that the people overthrow the system and deprive its rulers of their political power and, as the essence of that power, the ability to wield armies and police against the people. Revolution further means that a new power is then established, with new aims and objectives and the means to enforce those aims and objectives. There WAS a revolutionary movement in the ’60s—and that is something of monumental significance. But there was NOT a revolution—and that too has monumental significance, in understanding what did happen…what didn’t happen…and what must yet happen.
The elimination of some formal discrimination, the expansion of a middle stratum of Black people, and the emergence of a few “Black faces in high places” did not and could not tear up the deep roots of white supremacy (nor still less bring about the broader emancipation that was needed). And the elimination of formal discrimination also could not deal with the class position of the masses of Black people—as members of the proletariat, the propertyless class that is either directly exploited by capitalists or kept as part of the desperately impoverished “reserve army of the unemployed” which can be more readily and ruthlessly exploited when it serves the capitalists’ purposes, and which the capitalists seek to use to depress the conditions and fighting spirit of the proletariat overall. The struggle of the African-American people for liberation is tied by a thousand threads to the struggle of the proletariat for the full emancipation of all humanity. There is no brick wall between these forms of oppression—they are constantly intertwining and interpenetrating, as was seen in Hurricane Katrina. Indeed, there is a common enemy at the root of both these forms of oppression—the capitalist-imperialist system. There is a common solution to both—communist revolution—and the proletariat, as a class, has no interest in maintaining any form of oppression and every interest in wiping out all forms of oppression.