The Split in the Workers World Party & the General Marxist Failure to Understand Settler Colonialism

Update July 23, 2018: following the publication of this article, originally under the title “Third Worldism,” the Workers World Party & the General Marxist Failure on Settler Colonialism the West Virginia branch of the WWP resigned from the organization. In just the past few days the Detroit, MI branch of the Party also resigned, followed swiftly by the Rockford, WI branch as well as members in Milwaukee and Madison. Briefly it also seemed as if the Baltimore branch would also split, though as of this update that has not materialized. In the statement from the former Detroit branch (which can be read here) the “Third Worldism” and anti-settler colonialism of the former West Virginia members is held up as a significant boogeyman, and the supposed treatment with kid’s gloves of those former members by the central party leadership is given as one of the primary reasons for the split. The statement (read here) of the Rockford and other Wisconsin members followers a similar tone, just in a much shorter breath. 

Likewise within the remaining Workers World Party the ideas of “Third Worldism” and of labeling white workers as settlers has also become an issue of concern, which the leadership appears to wish to distance itself from. This is best summed up in Larry Holmes piece Can We Meet the Challenges Facing the Working Class Including Identity Politics? Curiously however, the Party has also an article/talk by a member of United American Indians of New England entitled Indigenous Women, the Land and the Struggle Against Settler Colonialism. I say curiously because the line presented in the article is contrary not only to that put forth by Holmes, but also to the general line of the WWP concerning its understanding of settler colonialism and the Indigenous struggle for decolonization. So much so that I would happily unite with an organization who’s line reflected the ideas in this document, though sadly that is not the case currently.

Finally, other than shifting the title slightly, I have made a few other edits to the article below.

Over the past several days a rupture has been brewing within the u.s.-based Marxist-Leninist/communist organization known as the Workers World Party. This has been the result of apparent conflict between the core organizational leadership and the membership of the Huntington, West Virginia branch of the Party. The dispute has apparently arisen due to the Huntington branch’s critical, anti-colonial approach to the West Virginia teachers’ strike. The core leadership of the Workers World Party took the stance of uncompromising support for the strikers; while the position of the Huntington branch members, who are actually present in West Virginia, has been to raise anti-colonial and anti-imperialist slogans in an attempt to critique this unquestioned and uncritical support from the rest of the Party.

Something which seems to have caught the ire in particular of the rest of the Party has been the prominent placement on the Huntington  branch’s Facebook page (which appears to, as of this writing, been taken down) of the slogan “White teachers owe reparations.” Along with the raising of this demand for white people, including white workers, to pay reparations for the chattel enslavement of Afrikan people, images of Pan Africanist Congress of Azania[i] agit-prop featuring their classic and beloved slogan “one settler; one bullet” have also been posted.

As part of this brewing ideological and theoretical showdown, a short article by Workers World Party member “Mond” entitled White Guilt and Third Worldism: An Infantile Disorder has made the rounds on social media. While I absolutely believe the earnestness of this comrade, and do not doubt their commitment to building a revolutionary movement towards radical social change, the article is full of all manner of misconceptions and misunderstandings, and want I want to do here is to respond to a handful of them. I encourage readers to checkout Mond’s article if they have not already before proceeding. I’d also encourage folks to head over to my previous article series on Indigenous Decolonization which can be found here, here and here, as several points raised by Mond and other critics of Third Worldism can be found there, in both explicit and implicit manners. Some of these issues have also been raised in other writings of mine, in particular my article Fascism & Anti-Fascism: A Decolonial Perspective.

A Quick Word on Third Worldism & My Relationship with Marxism

Before really diving into what I want to say, I want to be clear on something: while I have in the past, labelled my politics and theoretical orientation as Third Worldist, that is not really the case anymore. In part this is because of my movement away from specific Marxist labels. If anything today I would identify as a kind of Independent or Indigenous Marxist, rather than with one of the many layer cake approaches to Marxism which generally entail a fidelity to a chosen lineage of Marxist Ascended Masters. Thus, to be clear, I am not anti-Marxist, a label which has been applied to me by detractors at various times, born out of disagreement with what I say. These critiques, and concurrent shifts in how I label my thought, began really with my initial involvement with the African People’s Socialist Party, in particular their Uhuru Solidarity Movement organization, many years ago and their guiding theory of African Internationalism.

This grown deeper the more I have delved into a more in depth understanding of coloniality, settler colonialism, racial capitalism and the critique of the project of project of Enlightenment modernity from a position of decoloniality, rather than, and indeed in opposition to, the staunchly Eurocentric understandings of postmodernism. To this I am deeply indebted to the thought of theorists like Ramón Grosfoguel, Walter D. Mignolo, José Rabasa, Patrick Wolfe, Lewis R. Gordon, George Ciccariello-Maher, Enrique Dussel. Fred Moten, Cedric J. Robinson and many others. Indeed the growth of theorization around the questions of coloniality/decoloniality emerged from critical engagements with world-systems analysis and dependency theory in so-called Latin America, and many of its principal proponents have taken Marx very seriously.

The other important pillar in this political growth of mine has been my deeper involvement in our own Indigenous decolonization movements within the northern bloc of settler colonialism. Here I am not only indebted to the emerging wave of Indigenous critical theoretical production by people like Glen Coulthard, Audra Simpson, Leanne Simpson and Shiri Pasternak, but most importantly to the grassroots movement of our peoples on the ground looking not towards reconciliation, or to some imported European conception of socialism/communism, as our path to liberation, but to the construction and actualization of genuine Indigenous decolonial futures.

All of that is a long way to set up that, in terms of my perspective on the political economy of the world-system, I think it is without question that parasitism and unequal exchange is maintained by the capitalist Core upon the nations of the Periphery. It is a direct consequence of this that history of the world-system has seen development of a massive labour aristocracy in the Core amongst primarily white workers with petty bourgeois aspirations and global class positioning is a direct material outgrowth of this planetary relationship. Indeed, some argument can be made, as African Internationalism does, that this has always been the case; capitalism was born parasitic, it did not become as such during the era of imperialism as described by V.I. Lenin. As such there was never not a time in the history of the modern world that white workers were not on a pedestal of genocide, slavery and colonial brigandage. In that sense I remain on some level a Third Worldist, even as I may no longer label my politics primarily with that term, and find myself feeling a need to defend it against distortions and misrepresentations by other comrades.

Down To It

Anyway, I think the principle leaping point in any anti-critique of this kind inevitably is a pointing out that quite often orthodox Marxist criticisms of Third Worldism arise from a place of not really understanding both the political economy and broader theoretical issues raised by Third Worldist theory and praxis. I think any attempt at a polemical critique of Third Worldism needs to come from a place of having taken seriously and thus seriously having read Third Worldist literature. I’m not just talking about J. Sakai and those whom also fit into that particular tendency like Butch Lee and the authors of False Nationalism False Internationalism. While that particular political trend has indeed been important to the development of a sort of Third Worldist theory and practice in Occupied Turtle Island, it is neither the beginning nor the end of Third Worldism. Firstly, it must be said that Third Worldism finds its antecedents directly in the struggles of colonized peoples for independence and liberation and in the theorizations of people like José Carlos Mariátegui, Walter Rodney, Pierre Mulele, M.N. Roy, Sultan Galiev, Lamine Senghor, Lin Biao, R.P. Dutt, Ruy Mauro Marini and many others. Beyond them, contributions to what we might call Third Worldism have been made within the works of people like Omali Yeshitela, Zak Cope, Hosea Jaffe and much of dependency theory and world-systems analysis, especially the work of Arghiri Emmanuel[ii]. The point is that to single out Third Worldism as if it is only the line that emanates from the work of J. Sakai and a handful of others who have come since, is to be disingenuous because in doing so one is woefully under-representing the line that one is arguing against.

Another aspect of this critique of Third Worldism–though one not made explicit in this article but which I have seen made several times in the recent period on social media by certain Marxist-Leninist types (Workers World Party members in particular, but also others)–seems to be an incredibly strained attempt to imagine some sort of specific link between Third Worldism and Marxism-Leninism-Maoism. This is a rhetorical leap, and it is one that simply makes no sense, even as a crude attempt at intra-Marxist polemics, because it is demonstrably untrue. It must be said: Maoism and Third Worldism have never been collapsible into one-another. In fact outside of the small (and always was small) Maoist Internationalist and Maoist (Third Worldist) tendencies, Maoists in the imperialist nations have almost always, at a bare minimum, been inclined towards being eurocentrists with a tendency for Orientalism.

Today it is still the case with the current Parti communiste révolutionnaire–Revolutionary Communist Party up here in kanada, in both the majority of branches who swore allegiance to the Central Committee in that party’s recent split, as well as the transphobic Gonzaloites in Montreal who are calling themselves “the Continuators”. Down south we can likewise see this amongst the Montreal “Continuators” erstwhile allies in the decentralized “Red Guard” and allied organizations in the u.s. that have sprung into existence either just before or in the wake of the collapse of the attempts to launch a post-RCP “New Communist Party.” Where their Maoism is not a crude Orientalism that can often be somewhat comically summed up in the parody retort “how can we be eurocentric, Chairman Mao was Chinese!” and/or “Chairman Gonzalo and the Shining Path are Peruvians!”, these organizations, or elements within them have at times exhibited a clear settler chauvanism, intentional or not. What is clear though is that the majority representation of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism in Occupied Turtle island is far from Third Worldist, or at least any conception of Third Worldism that avowed Third Worldists would recognize as such

To again hammer down on a point I have already raised, this attempt to collapse these political trends within Marxism into each other would appear to indicate a lack of actually being familiar with what one is attempting to be polemical against. You can demonstrate the non-Third Worldist politics of the majority of the avowed Maoist movement in Turtle Island movement by both analysis of the explicit programmatic lines laid down by the overwhelming majority of north amerikan Maoist factions, as well as their actual praxis.

Going from what I said near the beginning of this I would also like to reemphasize the point that the vast majority of those fighters and theorists who have contributed the most to Third Worldism have decidedly not emerged from within what one might understand as “Maoism.” Yes there have been, and continues to be, a small minority of Maoists who also claim Third Worldism, but there have also been Marxist-Leninist Third Worldists[iii]. There have even been Trotskyists who have contributed to the development of broad Third Worldist theory, such as the heterodox South African theorist and anti-apartheid fighter Hosea Jaffe. There have also been many who have contributed to the Third Worldist “cannon” who have decidedly rejected the Marxist label in toto, like Omali Yeshitela and Owusu Yaki Yakubu. Indeed I owe much of my own political development to these latter thinkers, which is why for me it is entirely possible to maintain a Third Worldist outlook on global political economy without holding loyalty to the many eurocentrisms that have plagued the Marxist project since its inception.

However, setting aside the question of what exactly constitutes “Third Worldism,” what I really want to draw readers attention to and what I think should be most troubling for genuine anti-colonial and decolonial forces here in so-called “north amerika” is the handling of the question of settler colonialism that one finds in these kinds of anti-Third Worldist polemics and theoretical formulations. Simply put, bundled within the explicit rejection of the perspective on modern global political economy put forth by Third Worldists–by Marxists/communists like the Workers World Party–is also the implicit, though sometimes also explicit, rejection of the critique of settler colonialism and the call for the total decolonization of Turtle Island.

This is in part because Third Worldists (of one stripe or another) have been in the past, and continue to be to this day, the only communist tendency to consistently call for the total dismantling of kanada and the united states and the return of the land, all of it, and not just symbolically, to Indigenous nations. The sole exception is perhaps the Leading Light Communist Organization, but that organization is marginal and irrelevant, even as far as the north amerikan Marxist movement in general goes, and have slowly descended into extreme levels of seeming self-parody. Those Marxist-Leninists (and Maoists, and Trotskyists etc) who reject Third Worldist political economy are the same purported leftists who instinctively move away from the call for Indigenous land repatriation, and this is outwardly reflected in their programmes, slogans and praxis.

However it goes further than a knee-jerk opposition to Third Worldist programmatics into the domain of the actual theoretical perspective of Workers World Party-type Marxist-Leninists. These self-labelled revolutionaries would, and quite often do when confronted directly in debate, argue that it would be an absolute injustice to the white worker to make a call for the return of land. In essence, theirs is a theory and philosophy that requires as one of its fundamental premises the always-already genocide and dispossession of Indigenous nations and the emptying out of Turtle Island. They require this fundamentally as the ground on which to build their new socialist/communist society. They radically (in the sense of getting to the root) cannot enact their vision of “revolutionary” socialist change without prefigurative anti-Indigenous violence.

This is why, hand-in-hand with their rejection of Third Worldist political economy, they reject the critique of settler colonialism as (as put by the late Patrick Wolfe) a structure, not an event. They may talk about settler colonialism (and in this regard modern north amerikan Maoists are almost always better than Marxist-Leninists like the Workers World Party) but implicit within their theoretical treatment of the subject is the understanding that settler colonialism is only (one might even say merely) an onto-historical event that can and must be understood only as history and legacy. Indeed this kind of thinking about “the history of settler-colonialism and its legacy of racism” is explicitly made twice within comrade Mond’s article.

This kind of perspective, which sees settler colonialism only as historical event, fails to grasp the material fact that settler colonialism is an ongoing structuring process—not only as one of central foundations (along with the ongoing theory and practice of antiblackness and slavery/enslavability) of north amerikan capitalism but of the entire modern/colonial/capitalist world-systema process that drives towards the elimination of Indigenous people and the continued dispossession of our lands. It is not merely a fact of history who’s residual legacy is racism. The difference between understanding settler colonialism as ongoing, living, breathing eliminative anti-Indigenous violence continuously enacted by the settler colonial nation-state[iv] on Indigenous lands, nations and bodies versus it merely being a question of histories and legacies has profound impact on how one understands the current juncture and the growing calls for decolonization within our Indigenous Liberation Movement and those of our closest allies.

Further, the rejection of settler colonial critique and of Third Worldist political economy by Marxist-Leninists and Maoists is hard, if not impossible, to separate from the idea that it would be an injustice imposed upon the white north amerikan worker to return Indigenous land and to smash global imperialist parasitism. This is because at the uninterrogated heart of their worldview is the idea that it is fundamentally just for the white worker to have not only what they already do, but to have more. Indeed the essential injustice of the capitalist system is precisely that they do not have more. Thus, because of the ineluctable link between what the white worker has, as well as their potential to accumulate more, and the processes of ongoing Indigenous genocide and dispossession, the ongoing theory and practice of antiblackness and enslavibility, and the ongoing parasitism of the imperialist nations on the colonized world it is injustice to call for those structures to be overturned in the most revolutionary fashion possible.

This is white power chauvinism in the raw. Further, it is important to recognize that it does not matter if the person making the argument is white or Red, Black or Brown. This is why the critique of what many of us refer to as the “white left” holds no matter the supposed multinational formation of most of the mainstream Marxist/communist movement in Occupied Turtle Island.

Finally I want to close off this commentary by addressing the claim that Third Worldism, and by extension settler colonial critique, leads to a politics of nihilism and do-nothingism. In short, it is utter nonsense to also make the argument that it is only white (petty) bourgeois male academic types who are those upholding Third Worldism. While I myself am perhaps one those wilely academic types, I can say this because I can point to both past and present revolutionary organizations and movements for whom these sorts of charges are demonstably false.

One particular example that I can point to immediately, because of my direct experience with them, is the African Peoples Socialist Party-USA. While I know comrades within the Party may reject the label of Third Worldist, the fact is that the Party’s guiding theory of African Internationalism, like the broader Third Worldist perspective, raises to central importance the question of imperialist parasitism and explicitly moves to demonstrate that all white people—including the workers—live on a pedestal of said parasitism. Like other Third Worldists, and unlike the Marxist-Leninists of the Workers World Party, the African People’s Socialist Party is one of those formations who takes seriously the fact of ongoing settler colonialism, and as such the Party makes explicit the call for the destruction of the political entity of “north amerika” and the return of the land to Indigenous nations. The Party is far from a do-nothing arm chair organization. You can see this in the streets where they do mass work all over Occupied Turtle Island. The Party also engages in active solidarity building efforts with Indigenous peoples and organizations to further the struggle against colonialism, in all its forms, right here on this continent. The Party is also a Black liberation organization that has, since the mid-1970s, brought many white people under their banner to make the revolutionary struggle for reparations and the liberation and unification of Africa and African People worldwide. This directly speaks against the proposition that to recognize the fact of white power parasitism means that one would be unable to organize forces from within the settler population towards revolutionary social transformation.

But this is true beyond the African People’s Socialist Party. There have been, and continue to be many others as well. Variants of the Third Worldist line have been taken up by several sectors within the New Afrikan Independence Movement, including perhaps most importantly the Black Liberation Army. The modern day Maroon and liberation heroine Assata Shakur has made many contributions to this line of thinking. Others such as the late Owusu Yaki Yakubu and Sanyika Shakur have also made many insights. The same is true for forces within the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party and other modern Pan-Africanist movements and organizations.

Likewise, Third Worldism, though not by that name, is often the default position of people within the Indigenous Liberation Movement. Our day-to-day confrontation with living settler colonial violence leads many of us to recognize that it is materially unrealistic to rely upon the settler masses for alliance, and we know that it is undeniably true that everything that the settler has is because they have stolen it from us and all other colonized peoples. We don’t need advanced Marxist “science” in order to see these things.

In the end it is the Marxist-Leninist organizations, like the Workers World Party, who fail at producing a correct theorization of the current situation in Occupied Turtle Island. It is their perspective that has never been able to explain why it is that in north amerika in particular the Marxist movement has been met overwhelmingly with one hundred-fifty years of failure to organize the supposed proletarian settler masses for communist revolution. They have also been consistently unable to attract the loyalty of those of us from whom this continent was first stolen. Why? Why don’t Natives for the most care for Marxism-Leninism, Maoism and the many other variants on the same set of central themes? We know why, and I think it is high-time that we began to take seriously (as many, many others already have) those perspectives that might be able to begin offering us a more accurate understanding of this world.

Endnotes

[i] Against the neo-colonialist African National Congress, the Pan-Africanist Congress of Azania maintained the true revolutionary Pan-Africanist, anti-settler colonial line during the anti-apartheid struggle in Occupied Azania (so-called “South Africa”) alongside organizations like the Azanian People’s Organisation. Today, while both the PAC and AZAPO continue to be active, they have been joined by organizations like the African People’s Socialist Party—Occupied Azania and the Black First Land First organizations in raised criticism of the neo-colonial, pro-capitalist policies of the ANC and the continual demand for the return of stolen Indigenous Azanian land, without compensation, including criticism of the current nature of the attempts by the ANC and the Economic Freedom Fighters (the EFF itself being a recent split from the ANC-Youth League) to nominally push for such an agenda. You can find these criticisms on the pages of the BLF and APSP-OC.

[ii] While the work of Emmanuel is the body that most explicitly carries Third Worldist overtones, any careful reading of dependency theory and world-systems Analysis lends itself quite easily to Third Worldist conclusions if one considers seriously the question of imperialist/colonialist parasitism. This is the case even if the authors themselves do not necessarily take that theoretical next step, often due to political commitments which this shift may disrupt (such as, for example, in the large body of work of Samir Amin).

[iii] Indeed, and quite humorously (at least to myself), the line of Global Class War that has long been central to the theoretical and practical outlook of the Workers World Party (as formulated by its chief founder Sam Marcy), much like most of dependency theory and world-systems analysis, can lend itself quite easily to a Third Worldist perspective of some form. Perhaps this is what lead the Huntington, West Virginia branch to eventually take up a seeming Third Worldist line.

[iv] But also not only the settler colonial state. To focus on settler colonialism as only a governmental project of the state, and thus to dismiss the active role of the settler population—what J. Sakai, Sanyika Shakur and others refer to as the settler “garrison” —leads to all manner of mistheorization. The individual settler had, and still has it must be emphasized, a wide degree of agency in forwarding the settler colonial project. As Patrick Wolfe noted:

Its [the settler colonial project’s] primary dynamic arose permissively in the absence of official regulation. This highly productive absence should caution us against viewing settler colonialism as a narrowly governmental project. Rather … settler invasion typically combines a shifting balance of official and unofficial strategies, initially to seize Native territory  and subsequently to consolidate its expropriation. Rather than something separate from or running counter to the colonial state, the irregular activities of the frontier rabble constitute its principal means of expansion (2016, 40-41).

This active role of the settler masses in genocidal colonial violence and the maintenance of the dispossession of Indigenous nations of their lands deeply complicates the possibility for Indigenous-Settler solidarities, even beyond the question of the settler working class’s global positionality as a labour aristocracy.

References

Wolfe, Patrick. 2016. Traces of History: Elementary Structures of Race. London, UK: Verso.

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