The Anti-Marxist Elitism of J. Sakai’s ‘Settlers’

J. Sakai offers an anti-worker analysis of revolution. Fred Hampton offered us an alternative we must learn from.

We are Marxists and Marxism teaches that in our approach to a problem we should start from objective facts, not from abstract definitions, and that we should derive our guiding principles, policies and measures from an analysis of these facts.” — Chairman Mao Zedong

Introduction

Across the history of organizing the masses of the working class, certain forms of decadence and distortions of theories, histories, and tendencies have arisen within Marxism. Typically these bastardizations of historical materialism can be codified as petty bourgeois. We see these organizations, ideas, and figures throughout the history socialist struggle, portraying themselves as in the interest of working-class liberation, yet steeped within utterly bourgeois sympathies and reaction.

Petty bourgeois reaction is present in every single significant revolutionary event in recent history. Whether it be Bourgeois Liberals in the Paris Commune, the Mensheviks in the October Revolution, the Kuomintang in the Chinese Revolution, or the German Social Democrats in the Spartacist Uprising, these forces have continually stood against the interests and revolutionary character of the working class. Each example represents a dereliction to the working class and highlights their subservience to the ruling bourgeoisie.

Currently, a petty bourgeois ideology plagues the Western Socialist zeitgeist, which has largely been spread by the work of writer J. Sakai. It evades a name, but we can refer to it as “First-World Third Worldism” (FWTW). In most circles, it is taboo to present a single criticism of their book Settlers, written in 1983. Virtue signaling towards POC comrades, FWTW’s own guilt has suspended historical materialist analysis, not allowing critique of an ultraleftist, anti-Marxist line. Nevertheless, it must be confronted head-on, why a self-professed anonymous Maoist such as Sakai, with no known connection to organizing nor even academic circles, should be adopted, without question, at face value, by Marxist-Leninists.

The renowned Kevin Rashid Johnson, Minister of Defense of the New Afrikan Black Panther Party, who is currently incarcerated in the Pendleton Correctional Facility in Indiana, has already decidedly closed the case on Sakai’s FWTW infantilism in this piece on the subject. Anyone who has found the time to read Settlers should have no excuse for navigating this text. However, it can be a lengthy read, and this essay will reiterate and summarize Comrade Rashid Johnson’s points, as well as provide further examples of how the FWTW ideology corrupts the workers’ movement internationally, and how we should instead be moving forward.

Trotsky and his Ideology as a Case Study for Petty Bourgeois Reaction

Leon Trotsky had a well-documented disregard, and in many cases, outright resentment for the peasantry of Russia. Growing up in a wealthier Jewish family of farmers in Ukraine, he had refused to learn the language of Yiddish which was spoken across the Pale of Settlement among the Jewish working class, seeing it as beneath him. This made matters difficult in his attempted interactions with the majority of Jewish peasantry, as most were banned outright from being literate in Russian during the Tsarist period.

A Menshevik merely until weeks before the Bolsheviks took power in Russia, Trotsky is a petty bourgeois figure within Soviet history. While he made significant military successes towards the Bolshevik cause in the newly created Soviet Union, his belief in socialism was rooted not in the wants and needs of the Soviet working class, but contradiction-laden, bourgeois, academic, and adventurist ideals. In his theories on permanent revolution, a concept many self-identifying Trotskyists fail to understand themselves, an assemblage of petty bourgeois theory is made crystal-clear.

Trotsky and his followers believe that only in the industrialized world can socialism truly succeed, and while revolutions can experience success in less developed regions, as was Russia in the early 20th century, they can only become outposts for international revolution. This runs counter to Marxism-Leninism’s Socialism in One Country theory put forward by Joseph Stalin and Nikolai Bukharin, in which wherever a socialist revolution allows communists to take power, they should be interested in building up productive forces such as industry and agricultural collectivization, rather than prolonged international class war.

Permanent Revolution has effectively proven to be a failing ideology in building socialism, not only against the successes of Socialism in One Country projects that built actually-existing-socialism in the Soviet Union, China, Korea, Cuba, and Vietnam, but because of how void Trotskyism is of a proletarian character.

Soviet Workers Commemorate the October Revolution in 1938
Soviet Workers Commemorate the October Revolution in 1938

What do we mean when we say ideology is “void of proletarian character”? We simply mean that the effects of an ideology’s propagation and successive implementation run contrary to the working class as a whole. In effect, it is petty bourgeois; formed in the interests of reactionary elitist liberalism. We see this at first in the fact that the overwhelming majority of Russian, and later Soviet, citizens did not want to be fighting an imperialist war. The phrase “Land, Bread, and Peace” characterized the 1917 Soviet Decrees, declaring the redistribution of land, worker’s rights, and exit from all imperialist wars. Thus, it is naïve, and can only be categorized as petty bourgeois adventurism to declare a permanent revolution necessary. The working class of Russia wanted peace, not further war. Trotsky’s bourgeois character ran in direct conflict with the needs and wants of the working people of the Soviet Union.

To summarize this, one only needs to see which individuals have championed Trotskyism, and thus embodied the class character of Trotskyism. Trotsky himself collaborated with the United States, incriminating Communists who worked to fight Fascist Franco in Spain, during his time in Mexico:

In June [1940], Robert McGregor of the [US] Consulate met with Trotsky in his home… he met again with Trotsky on 13 July… Trotsky told McGregor in detail of the allegations and evidence he had compiled… He gave to McGregor the names of Mexican publications, political and labour leaders, and government officials allegedly associated with the PCM [Mexico and the USSR were the only countries in the world to materially support the fight against Franco’s Fascism in the Spanish Civil War 1936–39]. He charged that one of the Comintern’s [the Communist international’s] leading agents, Carlos Contreras served on the PCM Directing Committee. He also discussed the alleged efforts of Narciso Bassols, former Mexican Ambassador to France, whom Trotsky claimed was a Soviet agent, to get him deported from Mexico.

Max Schachtman, considered the father of Trotskyism in the United States, completely condemned the Soviet Union as being equal to the capitalist west in impeding true socialism, yet later defended the imperialist actions of the United States in Vietnam. Tony Cliff, a similar figure of Schachtman from the United Kingdom, declared a strict position of neutrality towards the Korean War, claiming the Soviet Union and the United States were equal in having imperial motives in Korea. While the USSR was providing medical and air support to the newly-established Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the United States was carpet-bombing Korea indiscriminately, as well as committing war crimes such as the No Gun Ri Massacre in 1950. Trotsky and his disciples should learn from the masses, not the other way around.

J. Sakai and the Western Maoist Bourgeois Ideology

Establishing the petty bourgeois character of Trotskyism, it would be irresponsible not to address more popular forms of similar ideology within the contemporary Left. Trotskyism has been on a steady decline in popularity, as its ineffectiveness has been proven through decades of mediocre political action. Right now, however, well-meaning comrades who identify themselves with scientific socialist principles are falling prey to similar reaction, calling for utopian, albeit materially bankrupt ideas based in what is found in J. Sakai’s Settlers, a book towing what Comrade Rashid Johnson condemns as the “vulgar labor aristocracy line”. Here is a longer quote from Rashid Johnson’s aforementioned essay on the subject:

Settlers cites episodes from the extensive history of “white” racial oppression of people of color in Amerika and the relative privileged status that “whites” at all social-economic levels have enjoyed at the expense of peoples of color, and which has allowed even working class and poor whites to betray the interests of their counterparts of color. The main theme of Settlers is “white” racial treachery, betrayal, brutality and privilege that claims to know no class distinction. The conclusion being that these factors combine to create a uniform class of “whiteness” that has no proletarian sector.

One could easily write off Sakai’s work as an infantile self-projection of what is petty bourgeois in American society. Throughout the book, statistics are left unsourced, and quotes from labor leaders and communists are manipulated in a way to slander these figures as white supremacists. In one of many problematic segments, Sakai is found misrepresenting the quotes of Communist William Z. Foster to portray Foster as a racist. Along with Black Communist James W. Ford, Foster ran in the 1932 Presidential election and made self-determination for the Black Belt a significant part of the Communist Party program. As the first party secretary, Foster helped establish the party as the first and only US political party to be racially integrated in 1919. The CPUSA was one of the first organizations to organize against Jim Crow lynchings, calling for a death penalty for lynchers. Knowing this, it becomes far less likely that Sakai is in good faith of his usage of Foster’s words. Yet online, far too many Marxists are regurgitating Sakai’s anti-Marxist rhetoric. If we are seriously invested, dedicated, and determined to build a socialist society in the United States, we need to cast off these ultraleftist analyses void of all materialist outlook.

What Sakai and others (most recently Rainer Shea in a disjointed article on colonial chauvinism which leans heavily on Sakai’s anti-materialism) utterly fail to realize is how whiteness, historically and presently, is employed by the bourgeoisie to divide and conquer working Americans as a whole, across racial barriers. As Angela Davis has said, the white working class “has nothing to gain” from the US’ legacy of racism. The words of Sakai only present themselves as a strawman for ultraleftists to wag their fingers at working Americans from their spaces of elitist inactivity, for nothing will be sufficient for them to step out of their comfort of critique and join the masses in building a sustainable and powerful socialist movement.

Do not be mistaken. The primary effect, intended or not, of the inherently petty bourgeois rhetoric is to create unnecessary rifts and divisions among the working class of the United States. Certain points of unity, such as that an overwhelming majority of the American working class (white or not) are patriotic and “Proud to be American”, are seen as settler-colonial sentiments, and not to be used in uniting the working people within the United States. As Sakai himself identifies with Maoist lines of thought, let us listen to what Chairman Mao Zedong thought when it came to the topic of Chinese nationalism, within his writings “On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People”:

Over nine-tenths of [China’s] inhabitants belong to the Han nationality. There are also scores of minority nationalities, including the Mongol, Hui, Tibetan, Uighur, Miao, Yi, Chuang, Chungchia and Korean nationalities, all with long histories though at different levels of cultural development. Thus China is a country with a very large population composed of many nationalities.

Also elucidating are Mao’s words on national chauvinism, in “Criticize Han Chauvinism”:

[Minority nationalities] inhabit extensive regions which comprise 50 to 60 percent of China’s total area. It is thus imperative to foster good relations between the Han people and the minority nationalities. Both Han chauvinism and local-nationality chauvinism are harmful to the unity of the nationalities; they represent one kind of contradiction among the people which should be resolved.

Comrade Mao understood the role of the revolutionary vanguard is to unite the people along with one key identifier. He did not discount himself as a Han unable to be a revolutionary. By Sakai’s misguided understanding, Mao as a Han would very much be a part of some sort of labor aristocracy, unable to relate to the struggles of Hui, Uyghur, Tibetan, Mongol, Miao, Yi, Chuang, Chungchia, and Korean peoples. Obviously, this was not the case, and Mao Zedong led a glorious and successful effort to unify a plurinational region and begin the building of socialism in China.

Similarly, it is not that Marxism-Leninism, as applied to the United States’ material conditions, is incapable of addressing colonial chauvinism. On the contrary, no other mode of analysis among Marxist tradition is equipped to structure a strategy in unifying the working class of the United States, as well as healing the most marginalized within American society, such as Black and Indigenous residents. Take the example of the Communist Party USA’s own aforementioned program in 1932 under the leadership of William Z. Foster. The CPUSA helped begin the 20th-century civil rights movement as we know it today, with such inspiring Black organizers such as Harry Haywood, Paul Robeson, Louise Thompson Patterson, Cyril Briggs, James W. Ford, and Claudia Jones. The CPUSA gave free legal defense through their legal arm, the International Labor Defense, to the Scottsboro Boys, nine innocent Black Alabaman teenagers wrongfully accused of raping two white women in 1931.

There is a lengthy history of the CPUSA (and Marxist-Leninists at-large in the United States) being one of and sometimes the sole voice against white supremacist reaction in the political landscape of their time and country. Of course, like any group composed of tens of thousands of people, mistakes are made. Joseph Stalin himself advised that the CPUSA should take action against any individuals they perceive as racist, and the Party did just that. The reckless characterization that twentieth-century communists largely embodied inherent white supremacist sentiment that effectively betrayed the workers’ movement is not only ahistorical, but it also plays conveniently into all anti-communist canards of Marxism being inherently white.

Therefore, let’s set aside the petty bourgeois sentimentalities, and work towards building a socialist movement in the United States that champions the worker, not the bourgeois academic. But how?

Combatting Petty Bourgeois Reaction Through Working-Class Unity

Why was twenty one year-old Chairman Fred Hampton overtly assassinated in cold blood by the Chigaco Police Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation? We know too well the tragic, devastating effects of the COINTELPRO sabotage and infiltration Marxist organizations faced in the latter segment of the 20th century. Yet, rarely was the United States government so bold as to raid a young revolutionary’s home while they were drugged by an informant on secobarbital, fire almost a hundred rounds in a cramped apartment, and shoot said revolutionary point-blank in the head, twice.

There was something very frightening to the United States ruling class that Fred Hampton embodied. Without a doubt, he resembled a young, growing awareness of Black power, being on its face a threat to the status quo of capitalist United States. But why Chairman Fred Hampton?

When we hear the phrase “Rainbow Coalition” within the context of the American political landscape, one immediately thinks of the doomed 1984 Presidential campaign of Reverend Jesse Jackson. The program that they presented was offered as an alternative to the neoliberal austerity of Reaganomics, which disproportionately affected a ‘rainbow’ of people, such as people of color, women, union members, queer people, the unemployed, and many other groups felt largely marginalized and alienated by corporate-controlled politics.

However, Rev. Jackson was not the first to introduce such a coalition by that name, and its origins come not from within either the Democratic or Republican Party, but the Black Panther Party. In Chicago on April 4, 1969, the city’s chapter of the BPP under the leadership of Fred Hampton created the original Rainbow Coalition. Along with the Panthers, other groups such as the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican Marxist-Leninist group, led a struggle against capitalism and police brutality across Chicago neighborhoods.

Soon after its founding, several other groups such as the Brown Berets, the American Indian Movement, and the Red Guard Party all brought in Chicano, Indigenous, and Chinese communities respectively into a joined struggle against poverty and state-sanctioned violence. However, there was one group that every petty bourgeois radical liberal would have shouted down at in Chairman Hampton’s mix. That was the Young Patriots Organization (YPO), a group of impoverished white socialists that came from the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago. In the 1960s, Uptown became a refuge for economic refugees from Appalachia, looking for better job prospects.

But the question still stands: Why did the Black Panther Party build a coalition with a White Southern group? Anyone with only an adolescent frame of analysis would say it was a mistake. Yet, in looking deeper within the history of multiracial struggles across working-class Americans, one finds materially-shared causes. As economic refugees, the YPO organized to protect poor white Appalachians in Uptown against police brutality. In the late 1960s, impoverished white Southern migrants were frequently harassed and brutalized by the Chicago Police Department. Abuse from landlords was also common, and through these struggles, Comrades Bob Lee and Fred Hampton saw a revolutionary inroad to be made.

Here is a quote from Black Panther Bob E. Lee on the subject:

First of all, the Patriots’ leader William “Preacherman” Fesperman was one of the best human beings I have ever met. He was originally from North Carolina before he moved to Chicago. However, many of the Panthers left the group when we built alliances. Some didn’t like the Patriots, some just didn’t like white people in general. They were heavy into nationalism. To tell the truth, it was a necessary purging, except for these niggers took themselves out of the organization. The Rainbow Coalition was just a code word for class struggle. Preacherman would have stopped a bullet for me, and [once] nearly tried.

Together, the Young Patriots and the Black Panthers seemed like an odd coupling. Here were black militants in leather raising their fists next to denim-clad, confederate flag accessorizing white southerners. Yet, aside from aesthetics, there existed virtually no contradictions in working together to strengthen the working class. Jointly, and later with the Young Lords, they organized free breakfast programs, opened up free medical clinics, and militantly protected Chicago working class neighborhoods from police brutality. This recorded meeting in which Bob Lee is speaking to the White Appalachians highlights how necessary such racial unity among the working class was needed, and how much of a threat it posed to the racist and classist establishment.

This understanding of building a multiracial working class movement was not isolated to the instance of 1960s Chicago. In Robin D. G. Kelley’s book Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression, the historian describes how the Communist Party in 1930s Alabama was able to unite Black and White workers, even including former KKK members, into a movement that was explicitly anti-capitalist and anti-racist:

Their opposition to the planter class and the “Big Mules,” combined with the crises created by the depression, momentarily outweighed their racism.” In fact, several white recruits were reportedly former KKK members. These Klansmen gone Red, along with other Southern whites who exhibited racial prejudice, grudgingly conceded that blacks had to be organized in order to improve their own conditions.

The examples of racial solidarity in the United States, against bourgeois attacks and whitewashing from the state and western academia exceed these two examples, but nonetheless they offer US communists inspiration in building a sustainable movement towards a socialist future. The future can not be found in revisionist, elitist, race-reductionist histories of J. Sakai, but in the dedicated organizing of the working class of Fred Hampton and the Alabama Communist Party. Let us learn from the work of our historical comrades, and honor their work by repeating their successes and learning from their mistakes.

Conclusion

The racial capitalist structure in the United States is deeply entwined by the US government’s legacy of slavery and ethnic genocide of the native population. The bourgeoisie have worked very hard to alienate white workers from their fellow workers of color, simply by a manufactured notion of whiteness. Until now, they has been very successful in providing a comfort within American society for the majority of the white working class. This labor aristocracy that Sakai discusses is not novel to him, and in fact has existed for quite a while.

However, to lay the blame at their feet as to why the United States has not witnessed a proletarian revolution is a terrible mistake. The working class is not stupid, and they know they have nothing to materially gain from racism within US society. It is the robber barons of past and present that have amassed more and more wealth through the division of the working class. And those who do not acknowledge this, like Sakai, are simply working to the bourgeoisies benefit. These lackeys for the ruling class may invoke revolutionary vocabulary, but in effect, only have kept the working class thoroughly divided.

Every historical labor aristocracy has carried immeasurably more revolutionary potential than any simultaneous petty bourgeois class. We must not forget this. In addition, we must not forget the eternal truth that tie all true Marxists in their work: when workers of the world unite, workers win.

Studying and promoting the science and practice of Dialectical Materialism, helping to build a more disciplined Left.

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