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International Socialist Review, Summer 1963


Sylvia Weinstein

“No More Water”


From International Socialist Review, Vol.24 No.3, Summer 1963, pp.98-99.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Fire Next Time
by James Baldwin
New York: The Dial Press, Inc., 1963 120 pp. $3.50.

The two essays that comprise this book appeared originally in the New Yorker and The Progressive under the respective titles of Down at the Cross and My Dungeon Shook.

To indicate the apocalytic character of the “Negro problem” in this country, which imparts such an explosive quality to the forces which it has set in motion, the author derives the book’s title from a “song by a slave” which carries the prophetic warning: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time.

What is significant in Baldwin’s writing – at least to this reviewer – is not so much the consummate artistry with which he plumbs the emotional depths of Negroes’ hatred for the Jim Crow system and all that it implies in terms of humiliation and oppression, but his recognition that a fundamental solution can be thought of only in terms of power.

The thought occurs again and again in the major essay in this volume entitled, Down at the Cross – Letter from a Region in My Mind. Yet, nowhere is the concept fully and adequately developed. Baldwin speaks of power in terms of the individual, group, community and state, without clearly delineating one from the other. For example, he tells of his admiration for the Black Muslims when first he witnessed a demonstration of their “power.” It was at a street-corner meeting in Harlem. He writes:

“I have long had a very definite tendency to tune out the moment I come anywhere near either a pulpit or a soapbox. What these men were saying about white people I had often heard before. And I dismissed the Nation of Islam’s demand for a separate black economy in America, which I had also heard before, as willful, and even mischievous, nonsense. Then two things caused me to begin to listen to the speeches, and one was the behaviour of the police.

“After all, I had seen men dragged from their platforms on this very corner for saying less virulent things, and I had seen many crowds dispersed by policemen, with clubs or on horseback. But the policemen were doing nothing now. Obviously, this was not because they had become more human but because they were under orders and because they were afraid. And indeed they were, and I was delighted to see it ... I might have pitied them if I had not found myself in their hands so often and discovered, through ugly experience, what they were like when they held the power and what they were like when you held the power.”

This was the “power” displayed by a militant group determined to defend their right to speak against interference by the cops. It is this quality that Baldwin finds so admirable in the followers of Elijah Muhammad.

But of all the varieties of power exercised in the Negro struggle for emancipation, Baldwin seems to recognize that the apex of the power structure is political power – control of the state apparatus at all levels. For, as he emphasizes, “there is simply no possibility of a real change in the Negro’s situation without the most radical and far-reaching changes in the American political and social structure.”

It is precisely on this decisive point that Baldwin’s thinking becomes the fuzziest. Viewing the struggle in terms of black versus white and recognizing that the Negro people constitute a minority of the population, Baldwin is led into a blind alley.

White Americans, he avers, “are not simply unwilling to effect these changes; they are in the main, so slothful have they become, unable even to envision them.” Ergo, he falls back on a mystical faith in human nature. He says he knows, “that people can be better than they are. We are capable of bearing a great burden, once we discover that the burden is reality and arrive where reality is.”

And what is the reality?

“... we are living in an age of revolution, whether we will or no, and that America is the only Western nation with both the power and, as I hope to suggest, the experience that may help to make these revolutions real and minimize the human damage. Any attempt we make to oppose these outbursts of energy is tantamount to signing our death warrant.”

Wishful thought and the apocalytic warning are here combined. It is not only wishful thinking but a dangerous delusion to entertain the idea that the rapacious American ruling capitalist class can act in any way other than they have been doing – as the spearhead of counter-revolutionary reaction on a world scale.

“White” America is divided into social classes. The ruling capitalist class derives its profits and privileges from the exploitation of labor, both black and white. Its monopoly of state power converts government into an instrument of the ruling class whose material interests are served by perpetuating the system of racial discrimination at home and counter-revolutionary tyranny abroad.

The white worker, inoculated at a tender age with the virus of race prejudice and brainwashed throughout his life by the rulers of white society, must learn through the very material conditions of his existence that “labor with a white skin cannot be emancipated where labor with a black skin is branded.” It is this common interest in the struggle against labor exploitation and the evils it brings that must and will unite black and white in the struggle for political power.

The struggle for political power, if it is to be effective, presupposes political organization; that is, an independent labor party based on the trade unions in alliance with the Negro and other minority people. To clear a path to this alliance, the white worker must break with the reformist labor bureaucracy which is determined to retain its coalition with the Democratic party, just as the “new” Negro has broken with the Uncle Tom leadership of the Negro struggle. It is along this road that the conquest of political power can become a reality.

The Cuban revolution has demonstrated that the conquest of power in revolutionary struggle against all forms of exploitation led inexorably and quickly to the overthrown of racial discrimination in all of its hideous forms.

This is the “reality” of our day. It is this reality that will inevitably hew a path into the consciousness of the American working class – especially if the process is speeded by the application of the considerable talents of such rebels as Baldwin and his co-fighters in the struggle for Negro emancipation when they have thought through to the end the fundamental essence of the power struggle in America.

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