Lessons from the League of Revolutionary Black Workers

2009 December 10

The following are a few basic and rough notes on the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. For the purposes of this post they are mainly based on “Dying from the Inside: The Decline of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers” by Ernie Allen, a key account of the organizational issues of the LRBW. These aren’t exhaustive notes, since it is possible and necessary to dig much deeper into the issues raised by the LRBW. Instead, they represent some basic starting points for a more thorough discussion of one of the most important groups and experiences of the Black Power and New Left period.

However, they are informed by other important readings on the LRBW that can’t be missed. These include Detroit: I Do Mind Dying by Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin, A. Muhammad Ahmad, The League of Revolutionary Black Workers, 1968-1971, and Class, Race and Worker Insurgency: The League of Revolutionary Black Workers by James Geschwender.


1. To understand the origins of the LRBW we have to grasp two interrelated issues. First, is the particular place and experience of black workers in the United States. Second, is the history of the United Auto Workers as it developed out of the mass CIO labor movement of the 1930s. Specifically, we have to look at the formation of an industrial union bureaucracy with its integration into capitalist production.

2. We need to understand the historical relationship between black labor and the apartheid system that has controlled it This system has deep roots in the stages of development of American capitalism. First as a source of the super-profits of enslaved labor extracted under a regime of racial terror. Second, as a debt-bonded peasantry that boosted falling profit rates of Southern agriculture and commodities under a racial caste system of Jim Crow segregation. Third, migration to the north to become industrial workers at the heart of American capitalism, but relegated to the lowest-tiered jobs and wages, generally excluded from production and skilled work until WW2, and subject to an elaborate system of discrimination and segregation to enforce this closed, racially-based labor market.

3. The role of the UAW bureaucracy was double-sided. One one side it helped subordinate workers to the assembly line by channeling grievances into periodic negotiations for the contract, thereby maintaining capitalist control over the day-to-day functioning of the factory. The other side of this role in controlling workers was enforcing the racial division of labor that not only facilitated job competition between black and white workers, but ensured that the status of black workers remain largely unchanged. Therefore the ways in which the bureaucracy functioned as an extension of capitalist power overlapped with its role as a white labor patronage network.

4. Attempts were made by black workers, with contradictory success, to build an alternative patronage structure that would uneasily be integrated into the New Deal labor-liberal coalition and protect against white hate strikes and violence. This began most visibly with A. Philip Randolph’s march on Washington in 1941 for wartime production jobs and continued with the Trade Union Leadership Conference, a black caucus in the UAW, that sought to breakdown discriminatory barriers to upgrading black labor.

5. Black workers had greater access to production jobs into the 1960s at the same time when the auto industry, facing declining profits, instituted speed up of the assembly line, growing disinvestment in the factories, lay-offs and falling wages.

6. In 1967 black people attempted an insurrection in Detroit. In 1968 a massive wildcat strike of majority young black workers shut down the Dodge Main assembly plant over work conditions. There was continuity between the two events. The experience and struggle against the racial system of oppression in the community spilled over and logically linked the experience and struggle against exploitation in the factory. The LRBW attempted to formalize this relationship by giving it organizational form and situating it in a wider political framework which black people of Detroit and around the country had concretely experienced and understood: the racial system that had always governed the specific exploitation of black workers and that had led, at different points of development, to increased profits for capitalism.

7. By focusing on the direct action in the factories of younger black workers, the LRBW represented a break with the loyal oppositionism of the older black worker politics in union caucusing and the liberal-labor coalition. DRUM activity set itself in direct opposition to the union reform United National Caucus inside the UAW led by Pete Kelly, a white man, and Jordan Sims, a black man.

8. While DRUM failed (refused) to lead advanced white workers in the strike movement, no similarly organized white workers emerged to challenge the relationship of the class nature of the union bureaucracy, speed-up, and disinvestment (and later de-industrialization) to the system of white supremacy. This two-sided problem has led to a prolonged period of reaction in which falling living standards, deindustrialization, disinvestment in social infrastructure was justified as a consequence of black workers demands, immigrant workers, other nations and, finally, the whole of the working class itself.

9. As other RUMs spread to more factories with the successful DRUM wildcat strike, the LRBW was formed by a group of radicals who had worked together on several projects, including the Freedom Now Party and the paper Inner City Voice, and with important individuals of the Detroit radical left, including Grace Lee, James Boggs and Martin Glaberman, as well as Milton Henry, a founder of the Republic of New Africa. Therefore an upsurge in mass activity fused with experienced revolutionaries. These revolutionaries were attempting to work out an approach to the racialized nature of capitalism and the deep racialized divisions in the American working classes. By trying to integrate black nationalism and class struggle at the point of production they were working out the relationship between the paramount struggle against white supremacy to the idea of workers control as the negation of capitalism.

10. The LRBW expanded into community organizing, particularly around education, other industries, including hospitals, created its own media, established the framework for a national formation called the Black Workers Congress, had a security wing, acted as a social center, opened several offices, had thousands of supporters and hundreds of organizers. Its core organizers were around 50-60 people.

11. The formation of the LRBW was in response to particular problems facing the upsurge. By 1969 the RUMs were “declining in influence” what were “fortunate to pull out a handful” of people to meetings, whereas in 1968 these meetings could “attract hundreds”. “The wave of popular discontent unleashed in the 1967 rebellion–upon which the Revolutionary Union Movement had built itself–had now subsided. It might be more accurate to say that it had been engulfed by increasingly violent gang activity and street crime” (77). Within the plants, RUM organizers were the victims of constant firings and intimidation, while printers would not print the Inner City Voice. The LRBW was meant to consolidate the gains of 1968 and centralize activity in order to overcome these difficulties.

12. The deep organizational problems of the LRBW, however, didn’t alleviate these problems, but instead distracted from them. These had several features.

13. An unintended consequence was that in-plant organizing slowly began to lose its central place in the LRBW. As a result, the original base and membership of the group–workers in the auto plants–began to drift away while more middle class people entered the new projects, especially as their technical knowledge was useful in many of the new areas of work. The consolidation and strengthening of the RUM formations suffered from lack of attention. “The League did not succeed in confronting the problems of declining mass revolutionary sentiment”; instead these “political failures were masked by a false sense of organizational successes in other areas” (78). The question of how to understand and integrate insurgent activity with the methods of protracted struggle was never solved. Was the LRBW a mass or revolutionary organization? Or both? What was the relationship between the two?

14. These issues were not addressed in any programmatic way and instead became a major source of division in the leadership of the LRBW. This division indicated a lack of political and strategic unity among the leadership that suggested only a loose association prior to the formation of the group. The influx of money from the James Forman-led Black Economic Development Conference tended to aggravate this problem by enabling an autonomy to the factions within the leadership that otherwise wouldn’t have existed. This was an obstacle to coming together to fix the internal problems of the group.

15. The leadership of the LRBW was not simply divided over emphasis on nationalism or class struggle, but how these ideological positions manifested themselves in specific orientations. General Baker and Chuck Wooten were in-plant organizers, while others spent considerable time on other projects connected to the League and interacting with the white (and predominately middle class) Left. This was rooted in different strategic conceptions of how to strengthen and expand the work. One side argued that a quick expansion of activity was necessary, while another felt that there needed to be more “coordinated expansion” along with “consolidation of existing organizational ventures”, and still another wanted little to do with anything outside of organizing with black workers in the plants.

16. Women were used as political footballs in the factional, political and organizational struggles inside the group. Patriarchy mediated many of the political and organizational problems of the LRBW and subordinated women around them. While relationships with white women among some in the leadership was the basis of criticism among the rank-and-file, black women, unlike men, were often prevented from having relationships outside the organization because they were said to be a “security risk” (86).

17. Allen points out that there was not enough time spent on the development and support of the organization and its members. Behind this was the idea that these issues just “take care of themselves” and are not a central component of organizing as well as building a group.

18. The leadership, represented in the Executive Board, “conducted itself almost as an autonomous organization”. The increased scope of the organizing led to a “lack of visible or responsive leadership” (88). The leadership of the LRBW did not pay attention enough to the organizational question. This led to lack of political mentorship of newer members and the rank-and-file that reproduced not only ideological uneveness, but lack of guidance on methods of work and organizing. They did little to support and train new layers of leadership which was summed up in the struggle between the Central Staff and the Executive Board. That the leadership tolerated “extremely lax organizational discipline” was the other side of the fact that they had no notion of “strengths and weaknesses of individual rank-and-file members” (87). Finally, the leadership had difficulties in breaking down political education into terms that workers without extended learning could understand. These factors took on a structural form in the group where there were no vehicles for or commitment to consistent political discussion and self-reflective discussion on the group’s work and development among the leadership and among the group as a whole.

19. Ultimately, Allen points to an important objective basis for the internal problems of the LRBW: “In the absence of a strong and independent workers’ movement, however–as our own New Left experience clearly demonstrated–self-anointed ‘vanguards’ have a tendency to degenerate into highly centralized, bureaucratic, sectarian organizations” (p. 108-109). Further, the RUMs and the LRBW came face to face with an important problem: how to base itself on direct action and insurgent struggle without losing touch with the capacity of the workers to struggle and, at the same time, not be recuperated into the logic of the liberal-labor coalition where labor and racial peace are principles rather than tactical truces?

  • Nate

    hey thanks so much for this! I’m working on some prep for an educational discussion thing about the League for Black History Month in Februaary. I’ve read about the League, the two books on them, but haven’t read either the Ahmad or the Allen articles. If you had to pick just one electronically available article on the LRBW to give to people who had never heard of them before which of the two would you pick, Allen or Ahmad? Or something else?
    Also – have you seen the film they did, Finally Got the News? Definitely worth a look.

  • Will

    Here are some thoughts

    1. The strategic importance of multi-racial organizing. If the class is divided along lines of race, what is the consequence when people of color refuse to work with whites who might be willing to struggle with them. In the case of the LRBW, they were positioned ideally to forefront the needs of Black workers and the Black community while bringing together anti-racist whites. I remember reading about strike actions in Detroit I Do Mind Dying which were not successful because white workers could not relate to the League. What is interesting is many Black workers crossed picket lines as well. What is the difference between race pride, fighting white supremacy and racial chauvinism and racial sectarianism?

    2. To continue on the broad strokes of MLove’s outline of Black people’s relationship to the development of capitalism: where are Black people today? What do cities like Detroit tell us about the class composition of the Black community? Are Black people integrated into the heart of capitalism the same way they were in the 1950s and 1960s? What role did struggles like the League have possibly played in the political decision of American capitalists to move production to Canada, the American South or to the Maquiladoras in Mexico?

    3. My last point is the issue of patriarchy in terms of the organizing the League was doing. I was skimming Detroit I Do Mind Dying again and noticed this, which demonstrated pretty damn clearly how patriarchy damns the working class “What really turned people off was this one leaflet they put out on the union secretaries. There was an old retiree named Butch and several white secretaries in the office. ELRUM put out a leaflet running that these white women were prostitutes for Elroy Richardson, the black president of the local. They all kinds of viscous stuff that people could not relate to. We knew these women and did not perceive them in that fashion. People were really put off by that issue” (95).


  • Will

    Some more thoughts and questions:

    A) It appears that the League had deeper structural problems in dealing with the question of patriarchy then I realized. In the chapter Niggermation at Eldon the authors write, “ELRUM clearly failed to rally women to its ranks. Two of the workers killed at the plant during this period were women, and their deaths were an indication of the harassment and poor working conditions women faced. It was an open secret that dating foreman had its rewards, just as refusing them had its punishment. … ELRUM never developed a concrete program for dealing with such problems” (103).

    I feel the League consistently narrowed the audience it could have reached: women, layers of Black workers who did not like the language of the League, and white workers. Who was the League’s audience if they failed to reach these folks?

    B) Mlove could you go into a little bit more about the relationship the League folks had with Jordan Sims. From what I understand it was a little more complicated then what your notes allude to. It is seen in this passage in the book “ELRUM’s attitude towards individuals such as Jordan Sims and supporters of Wildcat posed another kind of problem. ELURM was somewhat sectarian toward them and judged Sims, at best, was an honest reformist stuck in trade union attitudes, and at worst, could turn out be another of those ‘traitors from within’ that the League warned about” (102).

    What working relationship can an independent group like ELRUM have established with Sims? What role do you see a formation like ELRUM playing in union elections which Sims participated in? How do you assess ELRUM’s support for Sims in the 1971 union elections (97)?

    C) One of the dimensions which this post goes into and I find to be vital is the organizational question. The League was built in the heat of struggle. Nationalists and class struggle Marxists came together; different class layers came together resulting in different strategic conceptions of where the League should be headed. Further more, they were headed towards major recessions in the U.S. which only complicated the organizational and political questions. What does this say about how revolutionary organizations are built? The historical experience of the League has been vital in how I have thought about how such a project should be built. The importance of a common political education and reaching an agreed upon strategic orientation are vital aspects to keeping the group together. These are day to day operations of an organization which cannot be neglected.

    As I have travelled through this journey, I have more and more seen that the core of the revolutionary organization is its grassroots leaders (the League called them the second line leadership). The skeleton of the organization is built around them and yet the League failed to integrate these leaders into their organization. They also failed to develop tools which could help these organizers at the point of production.

    Ernie Allen gets at this very well, “Hamlin, moreover, was pained to think that the LRBW had to take time away from life-and-death struggles in order to discuss organizational problems. He indicated that if the League were involved in continuous struggle against the enemy, organizational difficulties would cease to exist (94).” I have heard such sentiments from many radical activists to this day. The contemporary argument goes that debates and discussions inside revolutionary organizations just take away from building the movement. In other words, the time spent inside the revolutionary organization can be more fruitfully spent in building movements.

    D) Lastly what lessons are we to learn from the League in terms of what separates a mass organization from a revolutionary organization? What are the differences? If we have a mass organization why do we need revolutionary organization? How did the League fail to address its own character? What could have a revolutionary organization contributed to the struggles of the Black workers and the Black community in Detroit that a mass organization might have not been?

    I remember Allen talking about it in terms of how in the U.S. revolutionary organizations have used “What is to be Done” to build such a formation. Under non-mass movement times this led to highly centralized and bureaucratic groups. I also do not believe mimicking WISTD can ever lead to a democratic and healthy rev organization. According to Allen, democracy is left for the mass organization. Is Allen getting to the core of the problem? Are their deeper flaws in his approach to building a revolutionary organization?


  • mlove

    Nate, I think Ernie Allen’s essay is the best even if its scope is limited to the internal problems of the LRBW. Since this is an important part of what we need to learn it makes it a key supplement to the books on the LRBW. The problem with Ahmad’s essay is for a beginning audience it lacks focus. The picture it gives also tends to blur the complexities of the divisions and tensions in the LRBW. He tends to just say the conflict developed inside the group as the leadership outside the plants embraced some form of class reductionism Marxism and the in-plant leadership and the rank-and-file were all straight nationalists. Allen introduces the organizational problems of the LRBW that really complicate this picture.

  • http://spiritualdesert.blogspot.com/ Mamos

    thanks mlove, this is a really helpful review.

    We are using the Detroit I Do Mind Dying book on the League as part of our internal study group here in Democracy Insurgent. It’s very helpful in terms of thinking about the relationship between trade unions and rank and file organization, and the relationship between workplace and community organizing. It also makes clear the need to foreground the concerns of the most oppressed layers of the working class (in Detroit in the 60s this meant Black workers) in order to build class struggle, and it shows how class struggle labor organizing can be a viable strategy of Black Power insurgency against white supremacy.

    Let me take a stab at Will’s question about the League’s relationship to Jordan Sims. I don’t know a lot of the details about Sims or his organization, or about the League’s relationship to him, but I will say a few words here about the similarities and differences between independent shopfloor organizations like the RUMs and the kind of trade union reform caucusing that Sims apparently represented.

    Before we read the League book folks in Democracy Insurgent studied Don Hamerquist’s peices from the STO archives on Trade Unions and Independent Organizations (from the “Workplace Papers”: http://www.sojournertruth.net/workplacepapers.pdf.) Hamerquist argues that the we can’t rely only on trade union reform caucuses because the folks who build these often get caught up in burecratic maneuvering that other workers will be rightfully cynical about if the union is not fighting for them. This is especially true for women and people of color who are often shut out of union processes. We have seen this in our own experiences organizing at UW: immigrant workers have moblized for large direct actions against management but have significantly demobilized or gotten burnt out when it comes to parliamentary reform struggles to reform the union leadership. This is because these struggles are often based on bylaws, legal frameworks, and meetings run by Roberts Rules which are designed to be inaccessible to all but the best educated workers. Rank and file folks seem to feel their own power more in direct, face to face conflict with management and at their best they bypass corrupt and racist union bosses and make them irrelevant by moving against management without their approval and against their disapproval.

    At its best, the Revolutionary Union Movements in Detroit and elsewhere went beyond trade union reform caucusing. They were examples of what Hamerquist calls indepdendent mass organizations on the shopfloor. They took direct action against management without seeking the approval of the union burecracy and they didn’t seem to get bogged down in parliamentary maneuvering inside the UAW…. when they had beef with the UAW they took direct action against the union too, and didn’t focus solely on running for elections.

    At the same time, the level of workers self-activity and insurgency in the workplace will rise and fall…. it is not only the union bureaucracy that is holding workers back, it is a host of other factors as well, and sometimes workers will cling to the union structure and will try to reform it rather than taking direct action against management if they do not yet feel they have the collective power and confidence to move without union protection. We have seen this process happen at UW where the devastating effects of management retaliation and restructuring have demobilized and demoralized workers, which turned folks focus more inward….. In other words, they needed the union more to protect them against retaliation (even when it could not/ would not do so they had the illusion that it would) and this caused them to become more and more preoccupied with the union president and what he wasn’t doing for them, which lead to half-hearted and unsuccessful attempts to remove him from office using parliamentary and legalistic processes. As I said before these parliamentary procedures themselves proved to be demoralizing, confusing, and disempowering for a lot of workers. Myself and other writers for GF tried to persuade workers not to get bogged down in focusing on the union president, or, if they wanted to remove him, to try and do it through mass organizing and direct action, not through legalistic channels. We lost these debates though, which, in my opinion, set the organizing work back quite a bit.

    Hamerquist recognizes that every struggle can not immediately lead to the desirable goal of workers’ councils and workers self management. Therefore he recognizes that an independent organization needs to be open and relatively loose, able to navigate the ups and downs of mass struggle – it can’t just be a clandestine small group of revolutionaries that agitates for councils. In particular, an independent group can and should open up space for insurgent trade unionists who can’t express healthy trade union politics through the currently degenerate and collaborationist AFL CIO bureaucracy. If these folks move in struggle alongside revolutionaries some of them might become more and more radicalized through practice and through building a common organizing culture over time.

    Until that happens though, some of the rank and file folks who come around the independent formation will want to do trade union reform work, especially in lower movement times when it is harder to propose a concrete alternative to this work. This is okay as long as the group doesn’t bogged down in this work exclusively. It seems the RUMS also had this sort of thing going on, especially as the initial insurgency after the Great Rebellion and the wildcats died down. They did get involved in union elections, demanding more Black folks in office, etc., but their main focus remained agitating for shop floor organizing for direct action. I generally think this is the right approach. As revolutionaries we shouldnt’ encourage folks to focus on union elections and we should debate against making this a priority but we won’t always win these debates and it’s okay to build groups that engage in this from time to time…. that being said, if we find the group is being coopted entirely into the trade union structure then it’s time to leave and build a new formation. We need to walk a fine line where we meet folks where they are at but we also refuse to help build a new Rainbow Coalition of multiracial labor bureaucrats who help the bosses manage white supremacy and capitalism.

    In my mind, this mixed, complex approach is ideal for working with a wide range of rank and file militants. But it’s different when you’re dealing with someone like Jordan Sims, who is a kind of social democratic ideologue, and a possible future progressive union bureaucrat or Rainbow Coalition misleader. With these folks, I think it’s more important to maintain organizational autonomy so they don’t turn our organizations into election committees for themselves. But I could still see the possibility of working in united fronts with these folks on specific case by case bases, on specific issues like fighting safety violations, organizing to reject a concession contract, etc. The key thing is not to enter into a Popular Front where radicals need to subordinate our politics and silence ourselves in order to win over the support of these reformists. Here in Seattle we have worked with folks like Sims at some points but have also had tension with them at others. It’s important not to needlessly shit on them if significant groupings of workers are inspired by what they represent because that is a recipe for sectarianism and isolation from the rest of the workforce. But at the same time, it’s also important to make principled critiques of the limitations of their approach and to emphasize the need for direct action over inner union reform caucusing.