by W.R. Hothersall
The U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS), a pillar in maintaining popular American facades such as “freedom” and “democracy,” ruled on June 29, 2023, in Students for Fair Admissions Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College (and in a parallel case involving the University of North Carolina) that race was no longer permitted to be used as a factor in college admissions. Such a decision is widely opposed by the non-white demographics that it serves to target and will further limit the participation of historically oppressed sections of the U.S. population within the existing framework of bourgeois democracy.
The Origins of Affirmative Action in the U.S.
The historical context for the introduction of affirmative action legislation into U.S. society is the period shortly following the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which (in writing) made illegal the practice of segregating or discriminating on the basis of race or gender at places of public accommodation. Such legislation did indeed provide far greater civil protections for non-white persons than they were previously afforded and simultaneously transformed the brazenness of institutionalized American racism into something more covert and sinister.
The impetus for the passage of civil rights legislation such as affirmative action during the 1960s (including the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968) was essentially the result of intense and widespread anti-racist, working-class discontent and mobilization, led primarily by working-class and petty-bourgeois Black leadership. The most high-profile of such mobilizations was the August 1963 March on Washington drawing approximately 250,000 people to D.C., the majority of which were Black, under the slogan “Jobs and Freedom.”
These factors, combined with racist partisans of the ruling class viewing such opposition as a serious threat to their power, set the stage for the passage of such legislation in the name of “promoting equality” and “fighting racism,” as defined, of course, within the parameters set by the ruling class. Additionally, the national liberation struggles raging throughout the colonized world at this time (particularly in Vietnam) served as touchstones for U.S. progressives and revolutionaries alike in tying domestic anti-racist struggles to international anti-imperialist struggles.
Defending Affirmative Action as a Reform from a Marxist-Leninist Standpoint
The policy of affirmative action in the present-day U.S. is a reform within the framework of capitalism designed to increase the representation of women and non-white people through “job hiring, admission to institutions of higher education, the awarding of government contracts, and other social benefits.”1 Affirmative action is designed to target these demographics because of their disproportional and historical exclusion from the profits reaped by the original European colonizers of North America and their descendants. Such a reform allows for increased participation of historically exploited sections of the population in the everyday functioning of capitalist society, making their existence marginally more tolerable.
Notably, affirmative action is overwhelmingly supported by those demographics which it targets. An April 2023 survey shows Black and Latinx support for affirmative action registering at 77% and 68%, respectively.2 Mainstream bourgeois media outlets typically cite numbers indicating support from the general population, which the same survey reports as sitting at 53%.3 The average is weighed down by the white population’s perspective on the issue, which sees only 47% in support of affirmative action measures.4 Such framing serves to downplay the overwhelming non-white support for affirmative action and give more plausible deniability for reasons to oppose it (or at least not support it).
It is, of course, the job of the reformists to stop at reforms and the job of the Marxist-Leninists to both be the best fighters for reforms and to simultaneously point the way beyond them and tie reform struggles to the ultimate struggle for socialism. If taken to its logical conclusion while unattached to the revolutionary struggle for socialism, the fight for affirmative action means fighting for a society in which representational racial parity exists among a still-surviving class of exploiting capitalists.
An effective struggle for affirmative action as a reform under capitalism exposes the reasons why such policies were necessary for the ruling class to implement in the first place, shows why racism strongly persists (and is again seemingly on the rise) in spite of powerful waves of reforms, and is never satisfied with any grand “solutions” that confine themselves to maintaining capitalist relations of production. This work involves both exposing the misleaders of the anti-racist movement (particularly those hostile to the struggle for socialism, clearly laying out their hypocrisy for all to see) and convincing anti-racist militants of the necessity of tying the struggle against racial oppression to the struggle against all forms of exploitation.
U.S. Marxist-Leninists Respond to Bakke v. California Board of Regents and the Boston Busing Crisis
Historical precedent exists for U.S. Marxist-Leninist (at least in name) organizations responding to a SCOTUS case striking back at affirmative action. In Bakke v. California Board of Regents, Alan Bakke, a disgruntled white UC Berkley rejected med school applicant, appealed to the courts claiming that he had been “discriminated against” because a quota had been allotted to a certain number of non-white applicants. The court found in his favor and simultaneously rejected the use of quotas while holding that race could be used to a certain extent in determining college admissions.
The opposition to the Bakke decision among American progressives and revolutionaries alike was all but unanimous. The opposition included but was not limited to the following organizations:
- The Communist Party USA5
- August Twenty-Ninth Movement
- Revolutionary Communist Party
- Philadelphia Workers Organizing Committee
- Workers Congress (M-L)
- League for Proletarian Revolution (M-L)
- Revolutionary Workers Headquarters
- Workers Viewpoint Organization6
- I Wor Kuen
The New York City-based Asian American Marxist-Leninist Collective I Wor Kuen (IWK) took the lead in establishing the Anti-Bakke Decision Coalition (ABDC), a collection of over 80 progressive organizations united on the issue of opposition to the Bakke decision and the reactionary “theory” of “reverse racism.”7 Two months earlier, the Marxist-Leninist group calling themselves “Rectification” led the creation of the National Committee to Overturn the Bakke Decision (NCOBD).
“With left-wing but not necessarily Marxist-Leninist [Black] activists playing a key role, NCOBD sponsored the largest nationwide demonstration against Bakke, which turned out 20,000 people in Washington, D.C. on April 15, 1978.”8
While different groups had varying levels of success, none failed to recognize the connection of the struggle for affirmative action to the passage of civil rights legislation and correctly understood the outcome of the case as a means to roll back gains made in the preceding decade. Most importantly, all of these groups recognized affirmative action as a reform measure by which historically oppressed peoples could at least marginally fight back against some of the various structures of white supremacy.
Another reference point for U.S Marxist-Leninists regarding anti-racist struggles is the Boston Busing Crisis of 1974-1975, in which integrated busing was to be used as the primary means of desegregating Boston schools (the federal government initially compelled the desegregation but allowed the local government to determine how the desegregation would be carried out). While initial hesitation existed within the Black community of Boston regarding the prospect of busing being an effective tool for desegregation, their support for the policy was consolidated in response to the formation of a wantonly racist Anti-Busing Movement and the increasing threats against Black community members, particularly school-aged children. As for the Marxist-Leninists, “the movement was divided over the basic issue of whether the Boston battle was mainly a fight against racism or a confrontation with a ruling class plot to use busing to divide workers [author’s emphasis].”9
Organizations that followed the second line of thinking ended up forming some bizarre and reactionary conclusions, most notably the Revolutionary Union or RU (later to become the Revolutionary Communist Party or RCP in the fall of 1975). The RU severely minimized the racial content of the Boston struggle, with the result being a borderline alliance with the pro-segregationist, anti-busing reactionaries. Such tone-deafness reached a fever pitch when the October 1974 edition of the RU’s newspaper screamed “People Must Unite to Smash Boston Busing Plan” at a time when pro-segregationist forces were physically assaulting Black Bostonians, with at least one local resident reportedly mistaking the paper for a right-wing tabloid.10
While the Workers Viewpoint Organization also opposed busing in the name of “working-class unity,” the RU was otherwise relegated to “near-complete isolation. Years later, both factions of the by-then-split RU would issue re-evaluations acknowledging that they had been wrong in not seeing racism as the centerpiece of the Boston conflict. But the left’s map had changed so much by then that these self-criticisms were hardly noticed.”11
If a dictatorship of the proletariat is ever to be achieved in the U.S., Marxist-Leninists must be the leaders in the struggles against all forms of exploitation, with the fight against racism being of particular significance as it relates to the history of the conditions within which we struggle for revolution. Analyses that essentially amount to a handful of members of the ruling class sitting in a smoke-filled backroom plotting how they can divide the working class are far too simplistic explanations for the struggles we face. The struggle against racism in the U.S. is infinitely more complicated than merely pointing to the necessity of interracial working-class unity in every instance as the end-all-be-all solution.
Undoubtedly, sophisticated sections of the ruling class understand that racism is a powerful weapon that can be used to prevent interracial working-class unity and further secure the rule of the capitalists. However, racist laws and court decisions are the results of ever-changing historical conditions, including the interrelation of class forces at a given place and time. Such are the conditions that must be thoroughly discussed and analyzed in all situations if sustained, cohesive, and mass support can rally behind the banner of anti-racism and against all forms of exploitation.
Our reality is that, within the U.S., there is both mass support and mass opposition to affirmative action simultaneously. Affirmative action serves as a means by which representation of historically oppressed communities can make life more tolerable under capitalism, and in this sense, it must be supported and struggled for. It may also serve as a means by which opportunists channel revolutionary energy into harmless reformism, disconnecting the anti-racist struggle from the fight for socialism and thus obscuring the ways in which we can work to bring about permanent changes as opposed to temporary ones that can always be revoked under capitalism. Educating progressive-minded persons on the history of the anti-racist struggle in the U.S. and its relation to contemporary struggles, connecting the anti-racist struggle to the fight for socialism, and being the most in touch with the needs, aspirations, and demands of historically oppressed sections of the U.S. population: these are among the tasks facing U.S. Marxist-Leninists in the essential struggle against white supremacist racism and capitalism.
1. “Affirmative action,” Britannica, updated June 28, 2023, https://www.britannica.com/topic/affirmative-action
2. Alexandra Marquez, “Poll: Support increases for affirmative action programs,” NBC News, April 27, 2023, https://www.nbcnews.com/meet-the-press/meetthepressblog/poll-support-increases-affirmative-action-programs-rcna81762
3. Marquez, “Poll: Support increases for affirmative action programs,” https://www.nbcnews.com/meet-the-press/meetthepressblog/poll-support-increases-affirmative-action-programs-rcna81762
4. Marquez, “Poll: Support increases for affirmative action programs,” https://www.nbcnews.com/meet-the-press/meetthepressblog/poll-support-increases-affirmative-action-programs-rcna81762
5. Communist Party USA, “Political Affairs 1978-08: Vol 57 Iss 8,” (New York: Political Affairs, 1978), https://archive.org/details/sim_political-affairs_1978-08_57_8/page/14/mode/2up?q=bakke
6. “Bakke Case – Marxist-Leninists Defend Affirmative Action” (Marxists Internet Archive), https://www.marxists.org/history/erol/ncm-5/index.htm#bakke
7. “California Aggie, Volume 96, Number 21,” (Third World Forum, October 6, 1977), https://cdnc.ucr.edu/?a=d&d=UCD19771006.2.36&e=——-en–20–1–txt-txIN——–
8. Max Elbaum, Revolution in the Air, (New York: Verso, 2006), 243, https://thecharnelhouse.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Max-Elbaum-Revolution-in-the-Air-Sixties-Radicals-Turn-to-Lenin-Mao-and-Che.pdf.
9. Max Elbaum, Revolution in the Air, 190, https://thecharnelhouse.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Max-Elbaum-Revolution-in-the-Air-Sixties-Radicals-Turn-to-Lenin-Mao-and-Che.pdf.
10. Max Elbaum, Revolution in the Air, 190, https://thecharnelhouse.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Max-Elbaum-Revolution-in-the-Air-Sixties-Radicals-Turn-to-Lenin-Mao-and-Che.pdf.
11. Max Elbaum, Revolution in the Air, 191, https://thecharnelhouse.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Max-Elbaum-Revolution-in-the-Air-Sixties-Radicals-Turn-to-Lenin-Mao-and-Che.pdf.