You Can't Understand MLK's Politics Without Understanding His Critique of CapitalismHistorians in the News
tags: Martin Luther King, capitalism, socialism
The United States has observed a national holiday dedicated to the life of Martin Luther King Jr. since 1986. King was a monumental figure in U.S. history, a tireless fighter for equal rights for Black people, and a pioneer in nonviolent civil disobedience. But in the years before his assassination, he also became increasingly outspoken about economic policy and economic justice.
What are the economic preconditions of nonviolent civil disobedience? Were King’s economic views tangential or essential to his civil rights philosophy? And how has U.S. capitalism reconciled itself to King’s work and legacy? Those are a few of the questions that came up in my recent conversation with FP economics columnist Adam Tooze on the podcast we co-host, Ones and Tooze. What follows is an excerpt, edited for length and clarity.
For the full conversation, look for Ones and Tooze wherever you get your podcasts.
Cameron Abadi: To start with Martin Luther King Jr.’s work on mass nonviolent protest, what exactly are the economic preconditions for that kind of civil disobedience? Historically, is this a phenomenon of a certain level of economic development?
Adam Tooze: You might think so if you had some kind of evolutionary theory of political development and attenuation of violence where opposition to violence was dependent on college education or some index of that type. But it would be historically wrong. After all, the 20th-century icon of nonviolence before MLK was [Mohandas] Gandhi in colonial India, and left-wing critics of Gandhi would say that he was about class politics—it was the politics of the upper class, and it was about containing the threat of popular violence and the ultimate threat of a peasant revolution, Mao-style. But whatever take you have on Gandhi and nonviolence, it was certainly a politics of a poor society, which mobilized tens and then hundreds of millions of people in opposition to the British Empire. And it used the tactics of the poor. So, if a colonial government imposed a tax on a certain commodity, you tried to do without it. So, for instance, you can strike, you can boycott state events, you can turn your back on the official dignitaries who visit. And nonviolent protest in this form is much more crucially dependent on different types of discipline, the ability to discipline protesters, on the one hand. But it’s also, of course, a question really of disciplining power. And I think those are much more crucial determinants of whether nonviolent resistance becomes possible or not.
I mean, think about the instance of National Socialist Germany. Nonviolent resistance in the Warsaw ghetto is not going to make that much of difference to a genocidal Nazi regime. On the other hand, nonviolent protest by German women against the euthanasia campaign in Berlin actually did stop the Nazi regime. So it’s a condition of the incredibly tense and complex balance between the means of protest on the one hand and the kinds of forms of repression that are used on the other hand.
CA: I’m curious if King’s social justice vision was always integrated with a broader economic vision. It seems as if he became more invested in social democratic ideas over time, or is that a mistake? Was there always an internal connection between his social justice ideas and a broader economic understanding of society?
AT: I think there’s a stage theory here, which is not entirely unreasonable, and it was an explicit tactic of King’s in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to have a first wave starting in the mid-1950s to achieve the passage of the Civil Rights Act in ’64 and the Voting Rights Act in ’65. And then to move on to a wider campaign for social transformation in American society. And that was always understood as a phase model. But those two phases were always interlocked and in fact inseparable. I don’t think there’s any question at all that from the beginning, from King’s early childhood, the two things were closely linked. He grew up in quite a prosperous family, but he was born in 1929. So he was immediately exposed to the poverty of the Great Depression. And in one of his earliest college papers, written in 1950, King wrote that “there are two inseparable twins, the twins of racial injustice and economic injustice. These are directly linked.” This is the authentic voice of somebody who clearly understands that his spirituality, his politics of racial liberation and social and economic justice are just completely inseparable.
And in that first struggle, the bus boycott in 1955, which is now remembered, of course, for Rosa Parks’s activism, if you look into the biography of Parks, she was a social justice militant, first and foremost, who since the ’40s had been linked to American leftism. Her husband had been involved with communist-associated movements in the 1930s. And so the Montgomery bus dispute, for all its sort of iconic elementary school simplicity, was in fact an act of American social radicalism. And if you think about it, if it’s true that 75 percent of the bus customers are Black, it’s also true that they are, by definition, working-class. I mean, this is a social justice issue because why are you riding a bus? You’re riding a bus because you don’t have a car. And that is a marker of your working-class status in 1950s American society. So this neat distinction between the phase of political and legal civil rights and the economic struggle that comes afterward is false. And after Martin Luther King’s killing, Coretta Scott King carries this campaign onward.
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