In moments of peak political tension during the Black Lives Matter and California campus movements of 2014-15, a few words of Amiri Baraka came with me to every meeting:
gained only thru struggle
long sought for
must be fought for
“Unity gained thru struggle,” Baraka said in 1979, is “the basis of the party yet to be built.” This poem (“Countries Want Independence, Nations Want Liberation, and the People, the People Want Revolution!”) signalled the absorption of his organization, the Revolutionary Communist League (once the Congress of African People) into the League of Revolutionary Struggle. The LRS was itself the product of a merger between the Chinatown communist group I Wor Kuen and the Chicano August Twenty-Ninth Movement – and so unity through struggle was specifically cross-racial struggle, a unity which stretches across the exploited with a radical and universal commitment:
From the iron streets of Black Blood Hurricanes
The Spanish speaking avenidas of gringo racist ugliness
The oppressed Chinatowns and Japantowns and Asian
struggle history arenas – from exploited white workers
sons and daughters of indentured servants east European
& south European original ghetto dwellers
from the red nations whose rich history
is this land itself, whose struggle against
brute genocide goes on this very hour
from the struggle of the women, twice oppressed
and our third world sisters, with three strikes already thrown
by our enemies. Unity of our struggles means terror in the
Unity of just struggles, means
death to imperialism and revisionists sweat gallons of dead lies
thinking of ways to obstruct our revolutionary
construction. They weep into our fires trying to put them out
Revolutionaries Unite is what the fire says Revolutionaries
This historical moment seems distant now. In some ways, that’s a relief – the New Communist Movement, which arose in the ashes of the 60s New Left, ate itself alive with dogmatism and sectarianism, leaving behind jaded and disillusioned former militants, opportunistic politicians, and authoritarian yet ineffectual “Leninist” parties.
But alongside the failures, there are the paths not taken. In that post-60s moment of communist revival, coherent organizations developed from the very real mobilizations generated by various ethnic nationalisms, while the divisive and reactionary dangers of nationalist ideology were openly rejected. Briefly it seemed possible for a diffuse multiplicity of social movements, advanced by a dizzying proliferation of identities, to come together in an anti-capitalist orientation and collectively declare: revolutionaries unite.
In the United States, we have never really managed to reconcile ourselves to this history, our history. Yet its contradictions are with us at every step. In California, the 1960s nationalist upsurge – from the Black Panther Party, whose history is now part of the public school curriculum in Oakland, to the Third World Liberation Front, whose student strikes won the first Ethnic Studies departments at San Francisco State and Berkeley – profoundly and irrevocably transformed the political culture. But they left a complicated and ambiguous legacy, one we felt as the 2014 cycle of struggles began.
While the “legal” police lynchings in Ferguson and Staten Island showed us the reality of racism in capitalist society, the uprisings demonstrated that it is always possible for mass movements to emerge, presenting us with new opportunities. Every issue matters for militants; every outburst can be generalized in the struggle for a new politics. But as long as individual issues are tied together by the economic structure that reproduces exploitation and domination, you have to dig at every opening to try to get down to the core. For those of us who have been working to build new movements over the course of the past decade, this past year was like a return of the repressed from Occupy. Despite initiatives like Occupy the Hood, those 2011 movements never reached the poor-est neighborhoods. The 2014 movements represented the possibility of bridging that division with the kind of analysis Baraka presented in “Stop Killer Cops”:
Ford and Rockefeller know the state must live off violence
none of us want to be poor and oppressed so they pay
their souped up hit men to patrol our lives with murder
His uniform soaked wet to his skin, fly hung open, and
the blue black weapon whipped in freakish frenzy
to come in the blood from the youth’s ripped head.
How sick is this killer cop? How sick is
this government? how sick is capitalism?
Stop Killer Cops was not only a poem, but a national Congress of African People campaign, which led anti-police demonstrations and intervened in police review boards. In 2014, however, joining such an analysis to an organizational practice proved to be somewhat out of reach. Without a widely accepted theory of the political economy of urban space and the repressive apparatus of the capitalist state, it grew increasingly difficult to bring the Black Lives Matter movement into relation with ongoing anti-capitalist struggles, since they supposedly corresponded to different and unrelated identities. The upshot of this assumption was that only black-led organizations could organize around “their” issues, despite the deep political divergences among these organizations, some of which represented the elite interests of a black bourgeoisie and explicitly sought to suppress grassroots militancy.
Among intellectuals, the most reactionary separatist tendencies were granted the status of a pseudo-philosophy with the ascendance of Frank Wilderson’s so-called “Afro-Pessimism.” A fundamental symptom of this trend was the proliferation of the term “anti-blackness” in the place of “racism.” The latter, more quotidian term implies an anti-racist struggle that unites oppressed groups. The “anti-blackness” problematic radicalizes and ontologizes a separatist, black exceptionalist perspective, rejecting even the minimal gesture towards coalitions implied by the term “people of color.” It claims, on the basis of dubious interpretations of Gramsci and the historiography of slavery, that “blackness” is founded on “social death,” the loss of identity and total domination imposed upon slaves at birth (despite the fact that the source of this term, sociologist Orlando Patterson, used it to define all forms of slavery, including non-racialized ones). It follows from Wilderson’s reasoning that the whole of “white” civil society is founded on this absolute violence, whose entire history is reduced to an effect of a purported white enjoyment of black suffering – “as though the chief business of slavery,” in the inimitable words of Barbara Fields, “were the production of white supremacy rather than the production of cotton, sugar, rice and tobacco.”
Contradictory Legacies of Black Nationalism
What does Baraka teach us about the politics of “blackness”? Komozi Woodard’s Nation Within a Nation: Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and Black Power Politics proposes Baraka as a second model of the development of black consciousness – the first being the exemplary case of Malcolm X’s “path of the grassroots to self-transformation and ethical reconstruction.” Baraka’s was the path of an intellectual who gravitated towards a mass movement. His initial participation in the Beat culture of Greenwich Village reflected a “romantic rejection” of society which opened the way to a phase of cultural nationalism. This rejection converged with the collective, grassroots development of black consciousness to which Malcolm X gave powerful voice.
A Nation within a Nation shows that this convergence was an organizational phenomenon and not simply a matter of consciousness. “Black nationality formation” was constituted by the processes of economic and political development that built parallel institutions, responding to the exclusion of black people from the core institutions of American society with autonomous forms of self-organization. This process stretches back to Black Arts, which was not only an aesthetic style but also a parallel formation encompassing institutions like theaters, schools, and community art centers – above all the Harlem Black Arts Repertory Theater/School (BARTS). Baraka expanded such practices in his hometown of Newark with the artistic and community center Spirit House, and ultimately the infrastructural initiatives of the Congress of African People (CAP), which extended to housing and consumer cooperatives.
The ideology of cultural nationalism represented these organizational developments. However, black nationality formation turned out to be a deeply contradictory project. The urban rebellions in Harlem, Newark, and beyond had already convinced policy makers of the need to avert future conflict through economic intervention, consolidating the legal enfranchisement of blacks won by the Civil Rights movement. What emerged was an uneasy relationship between black self-organization and the white power structure. In fact, BARTS itself was funded by the anti-poverty and anti-riot initiative Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited, with substantial backing from the Johnson administration.
Furthermore, the real grassroots bases of nationalist formations attracted mainstream politicians, including technocrats like Kenneth Gibson. Baraka’s early political career as a nationalist was devoted to the successful campaign to elect Gibson as Newark’s first black mayor. Such political alliances fit into the project of building a black united front, CAP’s central strategic orientation.
Nationalism did, at one time, appear as a potentially revolutionary ideology. The construction of new parallel institutions mobilized a general antagonism against a social structure based on the systematic exclusion of blacks. The possibility of overcoming the marginalization of the black working class provided an objective albeit tenuous basis for unity between the intellectual leadership and the grassroots base. But the mainstream incorporation of the parallel institutions, marked by the electoral success of the black elite, demonstrated the capacity of the capitalist state to absorb the nationalist challenge.
In Revolutionaries to Race Leaders, Cedric Johnson describes how the lingering ideologies of racial unity left over from the Black Power movement rationalized the top-down control of the black elite, which suppressed class politics as it secured its own entry into the mainstream. The consequence, Johnson writes, was “the transformation of black politics from radical protests and systemic change toward a politics of insider negotiation and incremental payoffs within the established political order.” The black political class ascended in the 70s context of economic crisis, deindustrialization, and rising unemployment. A politics conceived solely in terms of racial unity precluded any structural challenge to the capitalist imperative to transfer the costs of the economic crisis onto labor. As black politicians facilitated the employers’ offensive, they turned against the working-class elements of their popular support.
Baraka experienced this directly in Gibson’s Newark. Concluding that Gibson was little more than a neo-colonialist, Baraka opened up to Marxism, and set about reorienting CAP accordingly. In his poem “History on Wheels,” Baraka captured the new effects of the incorporation of black political elites:
…The way the rich blackies showed
after we marched and built their material
base, now niggers are left in the middle
of the panafrikan highway, babbling about
eternal racism, and divine white supremacy
a hundred thousand dollar a year oppression
and now the intellectualization, the militant
resource of the new class, its historical
valorization. Between them, john johnson
and elijah, david rockefeller rests his
Baraka’s Marxism never wavered, but it was situated in a continually shifting conjuncture. Anti-capitalist movements in the 1970s had to respond to a two-pronged assault – the harsh attacks on workers by capitalists who sought to eliminate all barriers to accumulation, and the erasure of any maneuvering room for social-democratic reform. The latter consisted not only in the pro-business allegiances of liberal politicians, but also the consolidation of the organized labor bureaucracy into “business unionism.”
Social movement organizers from the civil rights, anti-war, and feminist movements played a central role in the labor militancy that responded to this assault. New Communist Movement formations organized heavily at workplaces, and some, including Baraka’s League of Revolutionary Struggle, had members implanted in factories to develop militant caucuses within unions like the UAW. But the utter force of crisis and restructuring and the drastic rightward shift of American politics overwhelmed the fragmented left completely. We have still not come to terms with the consequences. As Max Elbaum has shown in his indispensable Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che, a certain dogmatic catastrophism had prevented communists from formulating a strategy suited to their period. When their assumption that a revolutionary crisis was impending turned out to be false, no new strategy clearly presented itself.
Now that the nationalist moment had waned, along with its organizational forms and strategies, militants were faced with an open question that had plagued the New Communist Movement from the beginning: how could a revolutionary organization be built in the forbidding US climate? Marxism provided a clear account, a class analysis, of this process, its contradictions, and the political tasks which lay ahead; but in the context of capitalist restructuring and the decomposition of the working class and its political institutions, the movement lost its anchor in any political-organizational alternative.
This political crisis of the New Communist Movement would be overdetermined by semi-nationalist remnants. As Johnson’s aforementioned book demonstrates, the blind spots of racial unity persisted past the Marxist turn of Black Power. Even a revolutionary nationalism continues the assumption of a unified black “community” with unified “interests.” The fully elaborated doctrine that now took hold was nourished by the 1920s and 1930s Comintern theory of a black nation in the American South, often interpreted to mean that unity with the “national bourgeoisie” of the black community could realize the democratic interest of self-determination. Despite the harsh lessons of the 1970s, this approach left Baraka and many other black radicals susceptible to subsuming their politics into the minimal program of black politicians in Reagan’s America. In the context of this right-wing assault, digging in one’s heels in the black united front may have indeed seemed the best way to defend the achievements of the movements of the 60s and 70s. In reality, it meant a capitulation to the neutralizing tendencies that had emerged to contain them.
This moment was continuous with the New Communist Movement’s most drastic moment of disintegration – an emerging trend which sought to move away from sectarianism and dogmatism at the end of the 70s and the beginning of the 80s was systematic with the total defeat of the left. Without any programmatic alternative, many movement veterans invested their hopes in Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition. Baraka had known Jackson since the old days – the latter appeared at a wide range of Black Power events leading call-response chants of “What time is it?” “It’s nation time!” Despite his intense skepticism of Jackson’s opportunism, Baraka supported the campaign. His calls for joining this support with a mass mobilization against the Democrats were not heeded, and the capitulation to Jackson turned out to be a severe strategic miscalculation when the latter’s efforts ended up lending a rainbow aura of legitimacy to the right wing of the Democratic Party. In the new political context of the 1980s, when unity conceived in racial terms could not possibly lead in a revolutionary direction, subjection to black elites meant following the imperatives of austerity. The problem persists even into the present, full of resonances with the 1970s, with the overarching force of crisis and the sense of an organizational void.
Contemporary Separatism and its Consequences
With ideologies of racial unity functioning as a clear block to the development of mass, antagonistic politics, it is no wonder that the seemingly extremist languages of blackness and anti-blackness seduce intellectuals into reconciliation with the status quo. Of course, in the occasional moments that Afro-Pessimist discourse does discuss the black political class, its tone is one of severe criticism. But this criticism reproduces the political dynamics that led to its rise in the first place: black leaders are castigated for their coalitionism, thus reinforcing the ideology of racial unity that obscures their class positions; and their reformist program of bringing black people greater citizenship rights is rejected in language reminiscent of earlier critiques of integration, obscuring the political incorporation of the black elite that has been taking place since the end of segregation. The ideology of blackness in Wilderson’s Afro-Pessimism functions as a disavowal of the real integration of black elites into “civil society,” now hardly a “white” thing. When the lethal effects of white supremacy are exerted by a racially integrated ruling class, blackness as an anti-political void becomes a convenient subject-position for the performance of marginality.
Separatist ideology prevents the construction of unity among the marginalized, the kind of unity which could actually overcome their marginality. In a 2014 radio interview, Wilderson attacked the view that the experience of black people in Ferguson was in any way comparable to that of Palestinians. Attributing this view to “right reactionary white civil society and so-called progressive colored civil society,” he proclaimed: “That’s just bullshit. First, there’s no time period in which black policing and slave domination have ever ended. Second, the Arabs and the Jews are as much a part of the black slave trade – the creation of blackness as social death – as anyone else… anti-blackness is as important and necessary to the formation of Arab psychic life as it is to the formation of Jewish psychic life.”
You wouldn’t know from listening to Wilderson that activists in Ferguson had been in close contact with Palestinians, who pointed out that the same tear gas canisters were being fired at them and shared street-fighting tactics learned from bitter experience. A solidarity statement signed by a range of Palestinian activists and organizations declared: “With a Black Power fist in the air, we salute the people of Ferguson and join in your demands for justice.” This solidarity was returned in January when a group of Ferguson activists visited Palestine.
Internationalist commitments had helped Baraka to recognize the limits of the strategy of the black united front. In 2008 he had militated in favor of Obama, going as far as to lambast the “anti-Obama rascals” who failed to see his campaign as an opportunity for “drawing the excited masses to the left.” But holding out against the evidence couldn’t last; the 2011 military intervention in Libya confronted Baraka with the internal contradictions between his anti-imperialism and the black united front, even if he did not have the opportunity to travel much further down an alternative theoretical road before his 2014 death. The ruthless political teaching of a poem called “The New Invasion of Africa” turned harshly against Obama, and exposed the historical antagonisms obscured by Wilderson:
But that’s how Africa got enslaved by the white
A negro selling his own folk, delivering us to slavery
In the middle of the night. When will you learn poet
And remember it so you know it
Imperialism can look like anything
Can be quiet and intelligent and even have
A pretty wife. But in the end, it is insatiable
And if it needs to, it will take your life.
“That brother’s meant to cool us out,” he said in “I Liked Us Better.” It was a kind of repetition of the lessons learned from the 1970s, with a marked note of despair at the decline of mass mobilizations and revolutionary ideologies. “I liked us better when we were quick to throw our fists in the air.” Where does it leave us?
Wilderson claims that Afro-Pessimism seeks to “destroy the world” rather than build a better one, since the world is irredeemably founded on “anti-blackness.” In reality, this separatist ideology may turn out to provide a new worldview for the emergent bureaucracies in Ferguson and beyond. During the peak of the Black Lives Matter movement, Afro-Pessimist language spread rapidly on Twitter and Tumblr, encouraging a wide range of activists to describe police violence in terms of the suffering imposed upon “black bodies,” and to try to monopolize the very category of death. It was a somewhat stupefying choice of words at a time when black people in Ferguson were constituting part of a global struggle to refuse to accept suffering, to refuse to die. But what should draw our attention is that the “representatives” of the movement who got the most media play included the executive director of the St. Louis Teach for America, an organization that has played a driving role in the privatization of education and the assault on teachers’ unions. In fact, a group of these “representatives” enthusiastically met with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan during his visit to Ferguson – white civil society or not. If such tendencies continue unchecked, the only world that will be destroyed is the one in which poor black students can attend public school, or expect someday to get a job with benefits.
The Struggle Continues
The struggle against privatization at the University of California Santa Cruz in 2014 worked unsuccessfully to link up with the grassroots movement against police violence. Identity politics and separatism undermined the movement’s multi-racial student-labor coalition. During a weekend of political discussion among the most dedicated activists, we collectively read and discussed the interview “Black Editor” with John Watson of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, who explained the organizing function of their newspaper. While printing and selling newspapers is no longer an up-to-date tactic, the problem it set out to address seemed quite contemporary:
As far back as 1960 or 1959 there were people involved in various organizations that were single issue oriented, they had some particular object such as a sit-in campaign, police brutality, war, the peace movement, etc. These organizations had a life of their own – internal organizational activity, with lots of people doing concrete work against the system. But they could not sustain themselves, they would fall apart. Then there would be a new upsurge, a new organization. There was a wave-like character of the movement, it had its ebb and flow, and because it had single issues it had no clear ideology.
Since the 2008 crisis we’ve been through three waves of struggle, and again no clear ideology has emerged. For this reason, it is hard to accept Johnson’s argument in Revolutionaries to Race Leaders that the entire debate between nationalism and Marxism within Baraka’s circle was conducted to the detriment of real organizing, since it privileged “doctrinaire ideology” over “historically specific, temporal political issues.” While the dogmatic repetition of slogans from China and Africa certainly did, at times, function as an obstacle to theorizing the specificity of the United States in the 1970s, this does not obviate the fundamental role of the ideological struggle – which is also a process of political education, with the goal of collectively formulating a perspective that links discrete and specific campaigns into an ongoing challenge to the capitalist system. Ideologies are produced by material practices, and in the absence of antagonistic perspectives, ephemeral single-issue organizing is too often invaded by the dominant ideology. As Baraka wrote in “The Dictatorship of the Proletariat”:
it shows you how powerful, how strong and cruel powerful
these capitalists are. these superbillionaire blood suckers
cause they put words in schools, radios, newspapers, televisions
It was clear to us in our political experiences at Santa Cruz that the different ideological positions represented different practices of politics. If the classical black nationalist experiment yielded the outlines of a class analysis, our experimental anti-capitalist practice has yet to discover an organizational form. And there is no substitute for an anti-capitalist organization.
The errors of past organizations are impossible to ignore: they yield important lessons. But we have to resist the temptation to resort to teleological explanations, which trace today’s disease back to poisonous seeds: that nationalism was never anything but a reactionary delusion, and that the 1970s proliferation of communism was hopelessly Stalinist. That might help you sleep at night, but you don’t explain history that way. A certain openness is required to find buried possibilities, reminders that once upon a time movements against racism said to each other “revolutionaries unite” and tried to work towards ending capitalism.
And it’s essential to ask what kind of unity is meant in the practice of collective organizing. It cannot be unity within a particular identity, which erases political contradictions, subjects us to the dominant ideology, and prevents us from generating mass mobilizations. It also cannot mean ideological unanimity: there must be diversity and debate, theoretical freedom alongside ideological struggle. This is among the most important points to draw from the New Communist Movement, whose sectarian culture of denunciation suppressed the kind of open debate that could have led beyond its sterile theoretical impasses. Unfortunately, it is this sectarianism that lives on in our contemporary call-out culture.
How can we discover a kind of unity beyond identity? How do we generalize the passage Baraka made, from the particularism of black nationalism to a universal project of emancipation organized on a mass scale? Baraka’s critique of race thinking, the incomplete epistemological break with identity, is an ongoing struggle that has to be waged again with conviction and vigilance. More than ever, we need such moments of transition and experimentation to guide us on the path to mass organization. The challenge is overwhelming. But every defeat, every failure, every limit, is followed by a new upsurge – a new spark which shows the fire can never be put out. Revolutionaries unite.