Socialists and the civil rights movement

A Freedom Budget for All Americans

Recapturing the Promise of the Civil Rights Movement in the Struggle for Economic Justice Today

IN THE current era of neoliberal assaults, it is heartening to read about another period when the status quo was challenged. The civil rights movement did not emerge in a golden age—after all, it emerged in the period of the Cold War—but it opened the way to greater social gains.

There are many lessons from that period that can inform today’s generation of activists. Toward that end, Paul Le Blanc and Michael Yates have produced an engaging history that, not only lays out the hopes and promises of the civil rights movement, but also reveals the crucial role of socialists in that struggle. Most importantly, they show how reformism can be both an ally and an impediment in the course of struggle. 

Three years following the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, three of the leaders of that historic gathering—A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and Martin Luther King, Jr.—issued “A Freedom Budget for All Americans.” promising “the full and final triumph of the civil rights movement.” This linking of

economic justice for all to the struggle for racial justice for Black Americans set an agenda that challenged liberalism and “sharply posed questions of reform and revolution in the American experience.”

Drawing on a wealth of resources, from books and pamphlets to interviews and correspondences with some of the participants from that period, Le Blanc and Yates lay out the contours of struggle that sought to take President Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” to their logical conclusion—“social ownership and democratic control of the economy, and its utilization to meet the needs of all people in society.

As the authors explain, “the Freedom Budget that was advocated from 1966 to 1968 was explicitly not a program for socialism. However, it was developed and advanced most effectively by socialists.” Some socialists called it a transitional program for social and economic change. To understand the vital role that socialists played in this period, then, requires an explanation of what socialists fought for and why there were differences within the broad socialist camp. Therefore, Le Blanc and Yates take up the historical antecedents as well as the contending strains of socialism within the civil rights movement. This history, mostly left out of even the best accounts of this period, is vital for understanding the dynamics of the struggle and how “the diverse and sometimes divergent forces gave rise to ‘The Strategy,’” to undo institutional racism and make concrete Roosevelt’s vision. This history is also important for understanding the contradictions that developed as “The Strategy” was implemented, for example, why the Democratic Party became the graveyard of “The Freedom Budget.”

To help explain the sometimes-divergent strategies of the socialist participants, the authors have appended a section on “Marxist Perspectives.” The importance of this appendix is noted by its placement not at the end of the book, but early in the narrative between chapters two and three. Beginning with Marx and how his ideas applied to the struggle against racism in the United States, the authors provide an outline of the differences between the perspectives of the Socialist Party (SP), the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), and the Communist Party (CP). They conclude that “despite important political differences among them, all were inclined to embrace the basic outlines for challenging and overcoming racism in the United States.” Where they differed in the long run was how to achieve the economic equality promised in the “Freedom Budget”. Not only were there inter-organizational differences, but also within the Socialist Party and its affiliates—the most influential section of the Left in the civil rights movement and the focus of this book—major differences developed.

The impact of the civil rights movement motivated all of these groups, but it was not the only issue in play. Thus, we learn that Max Shachtman of the SP embraced and recognized the revolutionary potential in the struggle for racial justice but rejected anything, or anyone connected to the Soviet Union. At the end of his political life he embraced the right wing of US imperialism, finding more in common with Nixon and Reagan than even their counterparts in the Democratic Party, let alone the socialist camp. On the other hand, the CP supported Soviet foreign policy and subordinated its activities to that guiding principle.

Still, the Young Peoples Socialist League—the youth group of the SP—under the direction of its national secretary, Joel Geier—a “Shachtmanite” (the 1940s version) at the time—grew ten-fold between 1961–63, as it embraced the civil rights and antinuclear movements. Geier broke with the Shachtman wing of the party in the early 1960s and went on to help found and lead the Independent Socialist Clubs and its successor, the International Socialists.

At the end of the day, it was the guiding lights behind the March on Washington—Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph, and their comrades in the SP, especially Tom Kahn and later Michael Harrington, along with King himself—who set the pace and organized “The Strategy” that doomed the Freedom Budget. Their insistence on maintaining ties to the liberals inside the Democratic Party as the road to winning the Freedom Budget disarmed a movement and led to splits that assured the SP a negligible role in the larger radicalization to come. King was the only one of this group to break to the left and challenge the pillars of social and economic dominance before he was assassinated in 1968.

One example of the SP leadership’s thinking is summed up in Michael Harrington’s assessment in the early 1960s that “the United States is an almost-imperialism.” This meant that the government was subject to pressure through the Democratic Party that would, as the authors summarize, “gradually [reform] away negative aspects of the domestic oppression and global injustice.”

However, just as the Freedom Budget was rolled out, the war on Vietnam escalated. In the end Harrington’s halfway imperialism was made whole, and the debate inside the movements shifted. Now it was a “guns or butter” debate with the inside strategists, such as Rustin and Harrington insisting the government could do both. That is, US imperial war could continue along side a domestic economic justice program. In effect they were giving cover to US imperialism.

It was a doomed strategy from the beginning. The liberal wing of the ruling class was not about to jeopardize its position in the world by tying itself to a program of economic justice or even full racial justice. While they were willing to end Jim Crow—a perception problem for the US internationally—Democrats were not about to restructure the federal budget to undo defacto segregation or legislate more than a token jobs program to overcome poverty. Thus, the “coalition of the bottom and top,” as Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) leader Bob Moses characterized the alliance of socialists, communists, independent radicals, revolutionary Jesus followers, and liberal Democrats and Republicans, collapsed as the priority of profits before people shaped real politic. 

While right-wing SPers were willing to countenance imperialism in the hopes that they could persuade their DP allies to offer them some butter, the left wing of the movement headed in another direction. SNCC evolved into Black Power, and student radicals became the New Left, largely represented by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). But that is another story.

Le Blanc and Yates give careful attention to the evolving dynamics of a strategy of accommodation with the left wing of the US ruling class. Resting on a flawed theory of imperialism and an overestimation of liberalism’s ability to break from its benefactors, the SP majority along with its allies followed a strategy that in the end disarmed a movement. The authors best summarize this lesson:

The history…to achieve the Freedom Budget—and a considerable amount of history since then—has shown that both parties are committed to maintaining a system of economic inequality and injustice and that neither is an adequate vehicle for achieving the objectives of the Freedom Budget. It can be argued that one or another represents a “lesser evil,” but choosing the “lesser evil” has inevitably involved making compromises that only led to more compromises.

The book does not rest, however, on simply chronicling a failed strategy but offers some concrete suggestions for taking what was “an interesting and inspiring history” forward to understanding today’s struggles. Although not offering a “blueprint for winning the objectives of a New Freedom Budget,” the authors do recognize “something lacking in most contemporary struggles”—“an overarching ideology or mindset, which can offer guidance for what needs to be done and how to go about doing it.” Toward that goal they suggest that any serious movement should be grounded in five principles that were implicit in the original freedom budget but were buried by the Democratic Party: “Liberty and justice for all; Deepening democracy; Commitment to future generations; Comprehensive solution; and Harmony with global neighbors.”

Their conclusion is clear: “Forces of progressive social change must move forward outside and independently of the state, but ultimately the New Freedom Budget’s objectives cannot be achieved unless the government is confronted and compelled to take action by the democratic power of social movements representing society’s majority.”

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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