Originally published in the January 2016 issue of Liberation Newspaper
As this newspaper goes to print, a conference is opening in Philadelphia named “Reclaiming our Future: the Black Radical Tradition In Our Time.” It is bringing together leading Black radical intellectuals, activists, artists, pastors and thinkers—from the historic 1960s and 1970s generation to the present-day Black Lives Matter movement.
But the most exciting element of this event is not the speakers themselves. It is the conference’s ideological intervention: clearly naming the capitalist system as the enemy and raising socialism as the alternative. Nearly 1,500 participants are expected to attend, reflecting the explosive growth of Black activism in the last 18 months.
The conference begins, notably, with a panel titled “The Moral Bankruptcy of Capitalism: The Black Radical Tradition as Socialist Alternative.” Cornel West and Anthony Monteiro are its two speakers and Kashara White of the PSL is its moderator.
It is never a bad time to raise crucial ideological questions. But now, with millions wondering if and how a change can ever truly come, it is especially timely.
Protests and heroic direct actions abounded in 2015, accompanied by unprecedented press coverage and social media visibility for the Black Lives Matter movement. But the year nonetheless saw another 1,200 police killings—one every eight hours. The year ended with the non-indictment of officers in Cleveland and Texas, in the murders of Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland respectively.
In Minneapolis, another young Black man was killed, plus five unarmed protesters were shot days later by white supremacists directly in front of the precinct. In San Francisco, cell phone cameras captured a firing squad-style police execution of Mario Woods. In New York, the cop who killed unarmed teenager Ramarley Graham in 2012 is back on the beat with a $25,000 raise.
In Chicago, a mass movement is calling for the resignation and arrest of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and other top officials for the criminal cover-up of the murder of Laquan McDonald. But Emanuel has held his ground so far with the predictable backing of the state’s cops, lawmakers, prosecutors and judges.
As Barack Obama begins his final year in office, the country is no closer to being “post-racial” than it was seven years ago. Racism and white supremacy are so deeply interwoven into the country’s capitalist system that they cannot be uprooted by elections. Oppressed people are still oppressed. The extreme inequality has gotten worse. The Pentagon is again committed to an endless (and very lucrative) war in the Middle East.
All these injustices relate directly to the question of who holds power. This country’s capitalist ruling class has developed institutions of state power to maintain the status quo, using violence if necessary. And in the United States, the state has always operated in the service of exploitation, imperialism and national oppression.
But the situation cannot last. The state and the media tell the people in a thousand different ways that they are powerless, but the people themselves, once brought into struggle in the streets, their workplaces, schools and social movements, become conscious of their power for the first time.
So far that newfound sense of power has been mobilized to demand important reforms and basic accountability. But as the existing power structure disappoints the people, rejecting their demands, more and more people begin to see that they must in fact seize the power—become the power.
This requires not just opposing “the system,” but identifying what that system is, how it works, and studying historical lessons for how it can be overthrown. The Black Radical Tradition conference in Philadelphia is correct: Socialism is the alternative.
Socialism is the system in which the working class and oppressed people take power. Under socialism, the economy and all of society is reorganized in the interest of people’s needs, equality and liberation. Housing, education, employment, food, health care, child care—all the basics of life—are guaranteed as rights. A central task of a socialist government in the United States would be to eliminate white supremacy, racism and privilege, to recognize the right of all oppressed nations to self-determination, and provide restitution for centuries of theft.
That is the world that generations of revolutionaries have fought for. That is the future that must be reclaimed in the present.