Du Bois and Bourgeois Democracy: A History of the United States

DU BOIS STATES in Black Reconstruction, “The record of the Negro worker during Reconstruction presents an opportunity to study inductively the Marxian theory of the state (1992:381).” Charles Lemmert (2000:222) is right when he insists that Black Reconstruction “thinks race through in more enduringly substantial ways” than The Souls of Black Folk. It is, moreover, global in its scope and its intellectual and ideological implications. In thinking about Reconstruction, Du Bois was also thinking about the present and future of race, democracy, class conflict and the state. In Black Reconstruction he goes beyond themes that had appeared in his John Brown (1909): insurrectionary violence, the political and ideological agency of the slaves and state power. In Black Reconstruction Du Bois openly discusses the possibility of the dictatorship of the proletariat in several states of the former Confederacy, counterrevolutionary violence, the race-class dynamic and racialized democracy. He also looks at what we today would call racialized relationships of production. At the core of this set of production relationships is what he called “a wage for whiteness.” It is a work of theory and empirical research. Its point is to talk about the future. The paradigm it presents is revolutionary and transgressive. It establishes a framework for a larger revolutionary research project concerning US democracy, the racialized state and the relationship of class and class conflict to race and race conflict. It carries enormous predictive power. Which is to say, its categories of analysis provide a way to explain and indeed predict the modalities and regulatory principles of institutions, social structures and social classes and groups that make up American society.
At last, Black Reconstruction is successful as an act of ideological and theoretical displacement. It displaces liberal, social democratic and Marxist analysis of the state and democracy. In their place he proposes that race and racialized relationships of production are the organizing principles of American society. And that class taken outside of this historically constituted framework is theoretically impoverished. It is rare that so ambitious a project is so successful in realizing its intended goals, as is Black Reconstruction.
BLACK RECONSTRUCTION asserts that the twentieth century is a long century that begins with the overturn of Reconstruction; that out of this defeat comes the modern US state, modern class and race relations and so on. But more than this the book sums up the seventy-five-year historical period from 1860 to 1935, and on this basis establishes the ideological, philosophical and political framework for the struggles for civil rights and bourgeois democracy through the middle to end of the twentieth and into the twenty-first century. The work insists upon the centrality of African Americans as the principal agency of progressive and revolutionary change. And points to the conservative and at times reactionary impulses that animate white working people’s consciousness.
Du Bois is the first to establish whiteness as a social category and as such a critical core dynamic in the American social structure. In the end Du Bois redefines what class analysis is. He takes it beyond class reductionism and dogmatism to recognition of the embeddedness of class in race and that classes in the US context are racialized. For black people, the class conflict and bourgeois democracy are shaped in the context of the struggle against white supremacy and for freedom. Black freedom and democracy, Black Reconstruction argues, is the beginning and end of class analysis.
AT THE UNIVERSITY OF BERLIN Du Bois had done considerable study in the methods of political economy. The German social science academy distinguished itself in that it sought to join historical and political economic studies with concrete empirical research. Du Bois’s research while in Berlin reflected this, especially his study of the small and large-scale agricultural production in the American South during slavery.( n14)
This line of research unfolded throughout his career, eventuating in his notion of a racialized system of production. Political economy as understood at the end of the nineteenth century meant exactly that, the joining of economic analysis to an analysis of the state and economic and social policies. From a reformist, indeed Fichtean and Fabian standpoints, this meant using the state as an instrument of advanced and progressive consciousness and policies.( n15) Hence, socialists imbued the state with programs and policies that reflected their scientific findings and progressive ideas, geared to improve the conditions of working people. There is no doubt that Du Bois throughout his career saw this as one way to advance the immediate and practical interests of the racially oppressed black people. A clear conclusion of his 1896 work, “The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America 1638-1870,” pertains to the failure of the state to enforce the 1808 treaty outlawing the international slave trade. The practical lesson that he drew from this. study was that the state has the power to move events in one or another direction, either towards the moral good or its opposite. Hence, it is clear that Du Bois as a young Ph.D. believed that knowledge linked to state power could alter race relationships. This represented his early commitment to positivism and a scientistic sensibility. This stance perhaps reflected practical necessity given that blacks were almost completely powerless and disenfranchised and living under what was virtually a fascist dictatorship in the southern states.
DU BOIS’S PROFESSIONAL CAREER started in the period of the Nadir, when blacks had been completely deprived of civil and human rights. The justification for this denial was that blacks were less than human, without history, and had no standing as equal citizens within society. As a political text Du Bois’s 1897 speech before the American Negro Academy “The Conservation of Races” is a defense of the rights of citizenship for blacks based on their being part of human history and civilization. Likewise, the political and ideological meaning of The Souls of Black Folk should be read as a passionate defense of the civil and human rights of black folk within the context of bourgeois democracy. The argument made in Souls and “The Conservation of Races” is that blacks had made fundamental contributions to US culture and the shaping of its democracy, were in fact at once the most consistent democratic force in the nation, but ironically were themselves without full legal and human rights. He insists this was attested to by their collective strivings; making black folk the best defenders of the spirit of the Declaration of Independence.
Du Bois argues that the current situation of blacks was occasioned by the overturn of Reconstruction and the return, as he says, of blacks back toward a new form of slavery. The courts, he points out, had become the universal device for the reenslavement of blacks. Du Bois’s intellectual work is overarchingly political and confronts him not just with the color line, but the racialization of society’s hegemonic political and social institution, the state.
DU BOIS UNDERSTOOD that the modern US state was both liberal and racialized, which meant that he had observed the contradiction between expanding democratic rights for whites and the equally significant fact that the state operated as an instrument of racial subordination. This feature could be found in European states as well. The difference was that European powers primarily exercised the racialized dimension of state power in their colonies and in wars of national conquest and suppression (see Du Bois’s “African Roots of the War”). The uniqueness of the American situation is that both features were exercised within the national boundaries of the US nation-state. The liberal view is that the state constitutes a neutral player standing apart from, or above race and class, as the legal arbiter of societal relationships. The proto-fascist, authoritarian view is that the state is an open instrument of the interest of a race-class in its struggle for liberty, national consolidation and progress. These views coexist and are mutually supportive. The liberal view is almost solely associated with social contract theory and with the liberal view of the state advanced by John Rawls (1971).( n16) The proto-fascist or authoritarian view is as American as Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and Lincoln.( n17)
Moreover, while present throughout Du Bois’s early works, including The Souls of Black Folk, is a clear predisposition to support the insurrectionary path to changing the racialized American state; this aspect becomes more pronounced in his writing after 1920, reaching its peak in Black Reconstruction. His view would supersede several extant socialist and communist constructions. On the one hand, his view would supersede the Fabian idea that the state plays a technical function and organizes the intellectual resources of society for the purpose of advancing the technical and social relationships of society.( n18) It would also go beyond the classical Marxist-Leninist position, that the state is the concentrated expression of the repressive power of the dominant class. In superseding these views Du Bois would insist that the Western state was racialized and thus constituted the concentrated power of the white race and hence defended existing race relationships within their national boundaries and internationally through colonialism and imperialism.
THERE EMERGES from the analytic dimension of his work the paramount role of African American political and moral agency in the context of the American republic. The slave rebellions and insurrections, the role of the Haitian Revolution and its leader, Toussaint L’Ouverture contributed to Du Bois’s conclusion that the role of the white masses in the history of resistance to repression was exaggerated by historians and had not measured up to the maroon and slave resistance. Du Bois’s startling view that the slaves refusal to work after 1862 constituted a general strike represented a revolutionary approach to American history writing. From this the sense that the crisis of slavery from 1860 to 1880 constituted a revolutionary situation and that black folk were the principal agents of revolutionary change lead logically to the hypothesis that in several southern states a “dictatorship of the proletariat” to use his language, could have possibly emerged. It is as important to examine how these ideas worked themselves out in strategy, tactics, organization and politics. The bulk of his work addressing the pressing need for blacks to achieve bourgeois democratic rights and liberties as a part of the struggle for full liberation, would require practical day-to-day organization, education and agitation.
Du Bois’s organizational work speaks above all else to his attempt to implement his ideas. In every stage of his career he was in some organization, or organizing and editing some political or scholarly journal. However, it is apparent that he fully understood that the path of bourgeois democracy for blacks would not proceed as it had in Europe or for that matter as it had for whites in the United States. It would be, in the end, a struggle for bourgeois democratic rights without the leadership of an existing or aspiring bourgeoisie. It would be as he conceptualized it in Souls a struggle for these rights by a people. The texture of this struggle was similar to what became the national liberation struggles of the mid twentieth century. At the start of the twentieth century rather than a revolutionary path to achieve these rights the reform path was the only available option available to blacks.( n19)

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James Arthur Baldwin, perhaps the greatest essayist in the English language, matters because of his unconditional defense of humanity. He is one of the most original thinkers on racial and social matters. He matters because he uncovered the workings of the machinery of racism and its pedestrian and predatory day-to-day practices and assumptions. He matters because he rigorously demonstrated how modernity engages complexity and difference. He gave us the concepts and language to talk about and begin understanding the oppressive system of white supremacy in holistic ways. He probed its forms, its depths, its psychological and social psychological dimensions, its conscious and unconscious workings, its human devastation, especially for Americans. Baldwin showed that the dialectics of racism conditioned the dialectics of the social order. Economic exploitation and inequality function within the boundaries it sets, not the opposite. White supremacy was, he taught us, far more than ideology and more than a derivative of the economic system, as Marx and his followers claimed. He inverted the European Enlightenment’s and scientific orthodoxy’s agreed to assumptions and logics concerning white folk, and even what sociological reasoning asserted about race. Race was neither natural nor normal. Whiteness was an abnormal and pathological (in both psychological and societal meanings) reality, birthed by the needs of the slave trade, slavery, capitalism and European empires. However, like the HIV virus, it began to attack and take over the host from which it sprang. Brought into the world by slavery, capitalism, empire and their existential necessities, white supremacy takes them over and subtly and progressively they become it. Rather than the system becoming a capitalist, imperialist and white supremacist system, as we normally think of it: the system itself becomes a white supremacist system within which the machinery of capitalism and imperialism operate. It obviously produces its own racial, gender, sexuality protocols, meanings and intersubjectivities. However, as we have seen in the 21st century in reproducing itself, the system transforms, transfigures and reconfigures itself in order to sustain itself. Whiteness and white supremacy, finally, can be reinvented through new racial, gender and sexual identities, protocols and practices. Yet the system remains what it is. A “revolution” thereby could overturn capitalism, and its earlier identity practices without substantively changing the system: its principal material essence would remain and be produced and reproduced even within a new, conceivably socialist economy, women’s, gay and trans equality, black civil and voting rights and even a black President in a new time/space era. For Baldwin a genuine revolution must ultimately overturn the system of white supremacy, and the identity practices and existential meanings of whiteness. There is not and cannot, as he thought, be a revolution that does not destroy whiteness. However, a great irony defines this moment. The white supremacist system morphs and reconfigures itself by reconfiguring identities and its definitions and meanings of difference. These reconfigurations are mere changes in, not of the system: often changes that give life to it, by transfiguring white supremacy and expanding the definitions of what whiteness and normality are. To many such reconfigurative changes are an indication of expanding personal freedom, political democracy and the renaissance of civil society. Pop culture, pop art, and transgressive cultural and personal identity practices, indicate for some people, especially those from the petit bourgeoisie, a substantive transformation of the system. It is argued that the trajectories of fundamental and revolutionary change will occur through the change of and expanding social space for multiple identities and protocols of difference. Ironically, however, rather than the dawn of a new revolutionary moment these, more or less superficial changes, and expanding social and cultural space for them, are but an indication of systemic decadence and what in Latin is called a momento mori, a reminder of the system’s impending death. This is so because at the level of the system the mere change of identities is usually a diversion from and an obscuring of the overriding systemic question, the destruction of white supremacy. But the refiguring of what are decadent and dying social, cultural, racial, gender, sexuality and economic relations, as well as the growing poverty and chaos of everyday life, especially for working people, in no way indicates the onset of a new and more human society, but its tragic opposite.

Baldwin saw the start of the real American revolution when Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Angela Davis and young radicals like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Black Panther Party focused their political practice upon exposing, clarifying and attacking white supremacy and its many manifestations. Whiteness, while emerging within the specific time/space continuum of modern capitalism, nonetheless can outlive it, producing post modern and even post capitalist white supremacist realities. Realities that can accommodate identity changes and changes in the ways social differences are articulated without addressing the main problem, white supremacy and white identity.

Baldwin saw and thought about these realities deeply. He thought in places far removed from normal and acceptable thought practices. Measured on multiple dimensions he was an outsider: a fact he gladly embraced. His phenomenology was predicated upon an outsider-insider duality. He was, substantially in, but not of the space/time continuum of US and Western epistemic protocols. This made him prophetic, subversive and transgressive. He self defined his social and ideological positionalities. He was, as far as was possible, a self defined human. He acknowledged all of the varied identities applied to him by the social and cultural systems that defined the world he inhabited. None of them quite fit him, as he thought. He was a “black gay man” in a white supremacist society. The race, class, gender, sexuality preferences and intersectional matrices said something about who he was, but did not fit all of who he was and his possibilities. He was, as he thought, even as child, far more (as they say in the streets: “way more”) than the meanings of all those words separately or in some marginalizing combination when applied to him. For instance, many people who did not know him or never experienced him in person or through his novels, plays and essays took shortcuts, defining him only as a “gay black man”. That combination of words and meanings of course than and now (although less so now) meant a broken, indeed pathological and dangerous person on every scale of human normality. He of course insisted he was human and was not and would never allow himself to be anyone’s definition of him, especially if the societal meanings of those words cursed, stigmatized or stereotyped him. For instance, Eldridge Cleaver, a leader of the Black Panther Party and the famous essayist, in his book Soul On Ice attacked Baldwin as inauthentic in black and revolutionary terms and the white man’s tool to divert the black revolution. Cleaver insisted Baldwin was a petit bourgeois counterrevolutionary whose life was defined by what he considered  desires that did not fit a black or revolutionary definition of masculinity. For Cleaver homosexuality was a petit bourgeois and counterrevolutionary impulse. He called Baldwin a “faggot”. Jimmy responded by informing Cleaver in the essay “To Be Baptized” that he did not know what Cleaver’s experiences were in or out of prison, but assured him, that he was not one of the “sissies” (Baldwin’s words), he had encountered in his life. Many of them, Baldwin asserted, had been broken on the wheel of life, still struggling, not merely with their sexuality, but their humanity as black men. But he counseled Cleaver that as a revolutionary he had more in common with himself, because the artist and the revolutionary are driven by profound urges of love for their people, even when the people they love often misunderstand them.

But more than being a writer Jimmy decided he wanted to be James Baldwin, whatever that was or would become. The characters in his novels and plays are like Dostoevsky’s in Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, complex subjects, products of unpredictable intersubjectivities and circumstances. He was able to write Giovanni’s Room, a novel situated in Paris where none of the characters were black and all of the main ones were homosexual or bisexual. He said, however, it was not, as many still believe, a “gay novel”. He said it was a novel about people attempting to find human community, generosity, empathy and love: and how, more than not, they fail. That is the case, while the places and racial identities and even sexual preferences were vastly different, in for example, Go Tell It on the Mountain, Another Country, Blues For Mr. Charlie, Tell Me How Long The Trains Been Gone and If Beale Street Could Talk. And just as it diminishes his intellectual, artistic and philosophical enterprises to call his other novels “black”, it is just as misleading to call Giovanni’s Room “gay”: just as misleading as it is to reduce Baldwin to  “a gay black man”. That might be what he is to you, or the society in which he lived, but not what he was, or for that matter what he strove to be. Just as his life’s journey, in spite of every obstacle, was to be James Baldwin, which for him meant to be human in the sense of a free, self-defining and self-actualizing, his characters had the same strivings. His oeuvre is a type of multivolume autobiography of humanity in the time of white supremacy. It can be thought of as a form of humanity’s self-narrative, told by a living, striving part of humanity. The narrative is about more than black folk, gay folk or poor folk, they are the concrete forms he gives to the human: but it is about the complexities, tragedies, comedies, strivings, pathologies, failures that humans experience as they attempt to be human: while ironically trying to hold on to nonhuman (perhaps prehuman) and semi-human culturally invented identities and practices.

He was completely honest and courageously principled when defining who he was. In a 1984 interview for the Village Voice with Richard Goldstein, Baldwin was asked, “Do you feel like a stranger in gay America”. His answer was progressive for then and now, although because of time for different reasons. Baldwin answers:

“Well, first of all I feel like a stranger in America from almost every conceivable angle except, oddly enough, as a black person. The word “gay” has always rubbed me the wrong way. I never understood exactly what is meant by it. I don’t want to sound distant or patronizing because I don’t really feel that. I simply feel it is a world that has very little to do with me, with where I did my growing up. I was never at home in it. Even in my early years in the Village (the Greenwich Village section of Manhattan), what I saw of that world absolutely frightened me, bewildered me. I didn’t understand the necessity of all the role-playing. And in a way I still don’t.”

The interviewer returns to that question later on, asking, “Do you think of the gay world as being a false refuge?” He answers,

“I think perhaps it imposes a limitation which is unnecessary. It seems to me simply a man is a man, a woman is woman and who they go to bed with is nobody’s business but theirs. I suppose what I am really saying is that one’s sexual preference is a private matter. I resent the interference of the State, or the Church, or any institution in my only journey to whatever we are journeying toward. But it has been made a public question by the institutions of this country.” He went on to say that on all questions of identity and preference, he refused to think from within the language of the positionality or intellectual geography of the oppressor.


James Baldwin’s mind and observational capacities were unsurpassed. He was, as such, a figure not of the past, but of our now/time. He was and remains a thinker for us in what he called “the long meantime”, the time of America’s long and terrifying racial counterrevolution. Amiri Baraka in his eulogy at Baldwin’s home going service, brilliantly observed, “His spirit is part of our own, it is our feelings’ completion. Our perceptions’ extension, the edge of our rationale, the paradigm for our best use of the world.” And then Amiri concludes, “For Jimmy was God’s black revolutionary mouth. If there is a God and revolution his righteous natural expression. And elegant song the deepest and most fundamental commonplace of being alive.”



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The social and class catastrophe at least 150 million US people face will in no way be affected by the 2016 Presidential elections. Wall Street has already taken over the White House (this occurred as early as the Clinton Presidency and perhaps earlier), the Congress and the Supreme Court. Some believe  the people desserve what they get and that the worse it gets for them the better things will be because it will force them to struggle against their conditions. There is an element of truth to this. When people realize that their alleged leaders and their government are in fact their oppressors and even the enemies of their well being , are frauds and perpetrators of frauds, at that point they realize that if they are to escape the catastrophe of their daily living it is they who must act. At the point of this realization, social, political and ideological passivity gives way to anger , rage and spontaneous and militant action. At the same time we who think deeply about these matters must never lose sight of the fact that the crisis is foisted upon the people by a decadent and parasitic ruling elite; that tiny , yet powerful ruling class, that benefits from the system of debt, phony money, obscurantism, and oppression. It is they who are responsible for the constant outrages against the people and against humanity. At the point the people are awakened to the true nature of their situation and see, if even naively and through a veil dimly, a new political, psychological and ideological moments begins to emerge. The people almost spontaneously rea;ize something of their power and if they are to be saved it will take their efforts and that they , not anyone else will determine their fate. We are quickly approaching that moment. In large parts of Africa and Europe, the Middle East and South America and the Caribbean the tipping point has already been reached, the class and social struggles are at a new and intensifying stage. We are not far from that moment here. However, what role must we who think deeply about these matters play. Are we to remain on the sidelines decrying the “ignorance” of the people? Are we to mock the masses and tell them “see we told you so”? Or are we to join the great resistance? Is this not the moment to do that which we claimed we sought all of our lives, that is be part of something much larger than ourselves, to be part of a great mass movement? We the advanced guard must act courageously and with truth and humility. In this fraud democracy that we live in and in the midst of the propaganda and obscurantism that defines this current election cycle, we must constantly remind the people that their most potent weapon is not the vote (a vote that changes nothing but merely legitimizes and endorses their oppression), but the truth. We must insist that for the people the future is theirs if they but dare to stand up and to struggle.Fear and doubt must be replaced with collective courage and decisiveness. To the apologists for this obscene and decadent system, especially for those who claim to be “pragmatic” representatives of the people (even referring to themselves as “pragmatic radicals” and “pragmatics nationalists”), and especially the Negro apologists for Obama and his wing of the ruling class, we can only express our utter contempt for you and welcome the opportunity to engage you on the battlefield of struggle and of ideas. Like the ruling elites that you serve and who many years ago bribed you and continue to pay you off, you will soon find yourselves on the scrape heap of history. We who are fighters passionately and with resolve defend the Glen Fords, Cornel Wests, Margaret Kimberlys , Nellie Baileys,Chris Hedges, Noam Chomskys, Dr Jill Steins, Cynthia Mickinneys of our world and other fighters for the people. An attack upon them is an attack upon the people and their resistance, it is an attack upon the possibility of true freedom and real democracy, it is an attack upon the advanced guard itself, and we will treat it as such. Philosophy is the consciousness of the epoch. The philosophy for this time, for this epoch, is grounded in the struggle for freedom and the wellbeing of the people. The consciousness of the epoch is the recognition of the truth the global arrangements of economic and political power are about to come to end. Fear remains an enemy of this truth. In the end, let us act. Let us act with love, understanding that love is that level of consciousness that recognizes the oneness of humanity and hence the oneness of truth.

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October 4, 2011 at 6:24am

We face the fierce urgency of now, either we act decisively and purposefully or confront economic, political and social chaos. Western capitalism is on the verge of collapse and catastrophe. The crisis is systemic. It is what Marx called a momento mori, a reminder of death. The economic crisis is compounded by war and the ideological preparation for new wars. The people are confused , uninformed and leaderless. The ruling elites are more and more seeing fascism and other forms of the dictatorship of the most reactionary forces of the capitalist class as a real and living option. Most black churches, rather than calling for action, preach quietism and submission. Martin Luther King starting with his graduate studies at Crozier Theological Seminary thought and acted differently; in the face of repression and war he proclaimed that Christians must act to challenge injustice and war. He proclaimed the fierce urgency of now; the Christian and moral imperative to act and to sacrifice one’s self for the larger interest of humanity. While a graduate student at Crozier Theological Seminary he learned lessons from his studies of German Catholic and Protestant Churches during the time of Hitler. Most churches and churchgoers were silent as Hitler and his Nazi party rose to power, as they attacked and outlawed unions,leftwing political parties, Jews, homosexuals and others. Most Christians interpreted Christian love and pacifism so as to justify inaction, quietism and in many instances collaboration with the Nazis. As WWII was started and as it intensified a small group of Christian pastors concluded they must act. A young pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer and others decided they must do something dramatic; something that would seemingly go against traditional interpretations of Christian love and pacificism. They agreed upon a plan to assassinate Hitler. In the interest of peace and in keeping with their pacifist commitments and duty to love one’s neighbor as oneself they agreed they had to eliminate the head of the Nazi regime. Their plot failed , Bonhoeffer was arrested and executed several weeks before the end of the war. King learned from Bonhoeffer’s expression of Chrisitian love as a call to act against evil. He also drew lessons from the German churches’ submission to unjust power and its failure to challenge nazism. White supremacy and segregation, King reasoned, was an evil and unjust racial system, in many ways comparable to nazism. It was the duty of Christians to oppose it; it was a moral duty to act. Hence, King’s articulation of Christian love was anchored in action.To be a Christian was to be committed to action. Christian love ,for him, was a revolutionary impulse. He spoke , therefore, of the fierce urgency of now; that is the urgency to act in the face of oppression, war, poverty and economic exploitation. He insisted “Time waits for no man” and was fond of quoting the Turkish poet/philosopher Khalil Gibran, “The moving finger writes and having written moves on”. As the capitalist economic system descends to its deepest crisis in living memory and with it the prospect of unimaginable human suffering, combined with war, the answer is collective action. King was accused of being a communist because of his attachment to the poor and the oppressed and his opposition to imperialism, colonialism and war. Now more than ever we need a Christianity in the spirit of King. Now more than ever we need an anti-war and pro poor people, pro-working class Christianity. We need an anti-fascist Christianity. Like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the anti-Hitler Christians in Germany and Martin Luther King and the courageous civil rights fighters we need a revolutionary Christianity. A courageous Christianity of the poor.

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The African National Congress: The Rise and Tragic Fall of a Revolutionary Movement

It is widely believed that the 1994 election brought the ANC to power and Nelson Mandela to the presidency of South Africa. Such a view is historical revisionism and diminishes the centrality of the revolutionary struggle. It was the fifty-year struggle that broke the white regime’s capacity to fight that brought on elections and Mandela’s presidency. It was not enlightened and transformed parts of the white regime or the “liberal” West that made this possible. To grasp 1994 and the events afterwards we must understand what came before. After 1948 the ANC and its allies moved to become a revolutionary movement. The revolutionary alliance composed of the ANC, the South African Communist Party (SACP), Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) and the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU), was the most extraordinary movement in Africa’s anti-colonial history and one of the great movements of the 20th century.
The colonization of South Africa proceeded in a unique manner, occurring over 250 years. In this time white settlers confronted African resistance, the most well known are the wars of the Zulus, lead by their great military/political leader Shaka Zulu. The British Boer War of 1899 established the British Empire and English settlers as the dominant force in South Africa. In 1948 the Nationalist Party, the Party of Afrikaners (Dutch speaking settlers) took power in an all white election. The system of apartheid (in the Afrikaner language means separation) institutes a new system of white supremacy. This system was defined by its similarities to the US Jim Crow system and the pro Hitler and neo-Nazi declarations of its leaders. All Africans in South Africa were viewed as legal outsiders in their own nation. Africans land was forcefully taken. The wealth of the nation was concentrated in white hands. Blacks were forced to carry the dreaded passbook, live in squalid townships and fictionally independent and resource depleted “Bantustans,” i.e. homelands for the so-called Bantus. It was a police state that rivaled the well-known fascist regimes of the 20th century. The whole system was openly and blatantly white supremacist, that defended the interests of the white minority and foreign mining and banking corporations based in Britain, the US and other European nations.
“It was a police state that rivaled the well-known fascist regimes of the 20th century.”
The first steps of the ANC towards a revolutionary solution to the problems of colonialism, apartheid, black dispossession and labor super-exploitation came with the founding of the ANC Youth league by an insurgent and impatient generation. Among the insurgents were Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Nelson Mandela, Duma Nokwe and Alfred Nzo. Founding the Youth League represented a break with the old methods associated with the leadership of Chief Albert Luthuli and the generation that sought legal reforms and gradual change in the pre-apartheid system of colonial rule. The insurgent, and soon to be revolutionary generation, were more in tune with the fact that apartheid was a more brutal system than what came before it. They believed, as well, that the international situation after World War II favored their struggle and the tide of African independence would soon engulf all of southern Africa. A good part of this group was either in the South African Communist Party (SACP) or soon to be members and leaders. They would lead the great Defiance Campaign of the 1950’s. It was the leadership of Walter Sisulu that in 1955 called for the Congress of the People, that adopted The Freedom Charter. One hundred and fifty six of the defiance campaigners – among them Mandela, Tambo, Mbeki , Walter Sisulu, Dennis Goldberg, Ruth First and Mac Maharaj – were put on trial in 1956 for treason under the infamous Suppression of Communism Act. A five-year court battle ensued. All were ultimately acquitted.
March 1960 was a turning point in the transformation of the ANC and the movement for freedom in South Africa. The Sharpsville massacre occurred at a demonstration called by the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) where 69 unarmed Africans were murdered by the regime. For the ANC a red line had been crossed, making armed struggle decisive to the people’s movement. In 1961 the ANC commits itself to the formation of a military wing – Umkonto weSizwe (the Spear of the Nation). Once committed to people’s war and armed struggle the ANC also committed itself to the armed seizure of power by the people. At the same time that the ANC prepared for peoples war the regime instituted a new Constitution that proclaimed South Africa a white republic, legislating white supremacy and “separate development” for the black majority.
For most of its history the ANC was a movement seeking to change the system of colonialism and apartheid by means of legal protests and reforms. This path was similar to the way most of Africa had achieved independence. Political parties such as the Convention People’s Party in Ghana, Tanganyika African Union, and Kenyan African National Union were examples. Algerians fought a long and bloody armed struggle, but this was the exception. The turn to people’s war would fundamentally change the ANC and its relations to the people and to the regime. New international alliances would have to be developed. New ideological relationships within the ANC and between the ANC and its allies would be necessary. Ideologically and organizationally the ANC was transformed. In the end, the ANC changed from a broad anti-apartheid and anti-colonial movement to a revolutionary party of liberation.
At Morogoro, Tanzania, in 1969 the ANC held its first national consultative conference which quickened the actualization of the ANC as a revolutionary party, committed to toppling the fascist colonial state by armed means. Armed struggle, the Morogoro delegates insisted, would be combined with mass resistance and intensified class conflict in the mines, farms and factories. The Morogoro conference upheld the correctness of the Freedom Charter and its language that South Africa belonged to its people. It called for the return of the resources of the nation to the people and highlighted the centrality of 250 years of African resistance. In substance the Morogoro meeting put the ANC and its allies upon the path towards a revolutionary democracy and a socialist economy.
Morogoro began the final push towards consolidating the unity of anti-apartheid solidarity against the regime. Successive and continued national uprisings followed. The Soweto Uprising of 1976 and the Black Consciousness Movement, personified in Steve Biko, initiated a new moment in the national liberation struggle. The decade long uprising of the 1980’s galvanized by the heroic actions and personality of Winnie Mandela, demonstrated to the South African people and the world their fighting spirit and resolve and undermined the legitimacy of the regime worldwide. After Morogoro few within the movement questioned the need for armed resistance. After the regime’s brutal crushing of the 1976 student uprising, several thousand youth left the country to seek military training. In the 1980’s the uprising increasingly became a people’s armed uprising, taking on the form of people’s war. In this period Umkonto gains the support and confidence of the people and its leader Chris Hani became a national hero. The ANC’s revolutionary slogan of that period was “Make South Africa Ungovernable and Apartheid Unworkable.” As the armed struggle and people’s war intensified so did the class struggle, especially among miners in the gold, silver and platinum mines. The highpoint of the class conflict of this period was the 1986 strike of 300,000 miners. The apartheid economy was shaken to its core. Never in Africa, and seldom anywhere else in the world, had armed struggle and class conflict merged into a mass revolutionary uprising. Side by side with the setbacks for the police and military in the largest townships, Soweto and Alexandra, and attacks upon the puppet Bantustan “governments,” the most powerful colonial army ever assembled in Africa, the South African army, was defeated in Angola in 1988 by a combined force of the Cuban and Angolan armed forces, Umkonto we Sizwe and fighters of SWAPO of Namibia. As a revolutionary party the ANC along with its allies led the struggle to topple apartheid. In so doing it transformed itself and the world’s understanding of the revolutionary potential inherent to the struggle for African liberation.
Freedom was not handed to the people as a gift from a more enlightened and changed white regime and its American and western backers, but came about through unrelenting and bitter struggle. The white regime and its American and European backers raised the white flag and sued for peace negotiations in the late 1980’s. This led to the freedom of Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners and the legalization of the ANC, the SACP, PAC and other banned organizations. (For more detail see my previous BAR articles “Nelson Mandela The Contradictions of his Life and Legacies” and “Nelson Mandela, Free Market Capitalism and the Crisis of South Africa.”)
The question that is without a final answer is how did a revolutionary movement get transformed into a bourgeois electoral party along lines of the British Labor Party or the Democratic Party in the US. How did a stellar organization defined by ideologically and politically sophisticated and self sacrificing leadership become a debased and corrupt institution serving as apologists for western transnational banks and mining companies and neoliberal policies? When did the ANC cease being the party of the people, especially the working masses, and become one serving the interests of a parasitic and comprador black petit bourgeois? When did people whom the South African people and the world see as revolutionaries and freedom fighters, such as Thabo Mbeki and Cyril Ramaphosa become committed to neo-liberal capitalism and a democracy that defends white interests and sacrifices the African working class? Why did the SACP abandon its revolutionary history and adopt a social democratic and reformist worldview, and as a result become apologists for a corrupt capitalist government? Why has the Congress of South African Trade Unions become an ally of a government that is against the working class and the poor?
It seems clear the turning point occurred between roughly 1988 and 1991. Without the deployment of the tremendous moral and political authority of Nelson Mandela in the service of a deal that saved the interests of the white minority and the West the current situation is inconceivable. He and his supporters accepted a deal where elections that made him president would take place, but the seizure of power by the people would not. Whites would give up total power in return for holding on to strategic power, especially in the economy. The substance and subtext of the Mandela symbology contests the call for the revolutionary seizure of power as a mistake and replaces it with the bogus notion of a “Rainbow Nation” and multiculturalism. To claim the moral high ground they proposed a Truth and Reconciliation process rather than trials under international law for the perpetrators of crimes against humanity. Reparations and land redistribution, along with nationalization of the mines, banks and factories are all off the table. A limited democracy prevails and power remains where it was during the height of apartheid. The West deployed every means of propaganda and PR to make Mandela not just a great man, but also a messiah and a savior. At the same time there is the racial and class bribe to the black elite, thereby inventing a tamed and compliant black misleadership class.
“The substance and subtext of the Mandela symbology contests the call for the revolutionary seizure of power as a mistake and replaces it with the bogus notion of a ‘Rainbow Nation’ and multiculturalism.”
A significant, yet little known event in the process of turning the ANC against itself, and ultimately the people, was the publication in the African Communist (the theoretical journal of the SACP) of an essay by the then chairman of the SACP Joe Slovo. The article, “Has Socialism Failed” claimed to be an explanation of the events in the Soviet Union that led to its collapse. He sided with the stance of Mikhail Gorbachev (then General Secretary of the CPSU) that existing socialism was a failure. Slovo said the party should abandon Leninism for Social Democracy (the historical opponent of communism within the international left). In attacking existing socialism as a failure Slovo attacked one of the main pillars of the ANC and the revolutionary alliance. He also called for the abandoning of revolutionary ideology and acceptance of social democracy, elections rather than power and a liberal bourgeois state, rather than people’s power.
Lastly, of major political and symbolic significance was the 1991 demand by the ANC leadership for Umkonto to cease all military operations against the regime. This was literally pulling defeat from the jaws of victory. There were no grounds for undermining Umkonto as a fighting force at a time when the regime and its black puppets continued attacking the people.
The revolutionary offensive of the people after Mandela’s release was called off, and it was argued the black resistance was endangering peace and reconciliation. It was insisted by some that the ANC-led alliance and the great mass of the people were anti-democratic, even “racialists” and therefore had to be toned down and reined in. To the rising black elite and bourgeoisie the masses and their fighting organizations were threats to the “Rainbow Nation.” Through the uses of bourgeois propaganda a new South African narrative was advanced. Through Mandela’s example of reconciliation, it insists, white racists and fascists were suddenly transformed into democrats. F.W. De Klerk, the last white prime minister, and responsible for the murders and imprisonment of thousands of freedom fighters, was given the Nobel Peace Prize and presented as a democrat and anti-apartheid figure. Winnie Mandela, on the other hand, was politically marginalized and demonized as a dangerous outsider and unreasonable radical. In the name of reconciliation no one from the white regime has been tried or gone to jail for what the UN had called crimes against humanity.
When Mandela was released from prison, the three most popular figures in the nation were, Mandela, Winnie Mandel and Chris Hani. Winnie and Chris Hani opposed the new direction of the ANC under Mandela. Hani became chair of the SACP replacing Slovo in 1991 after the party’s leadership rejected Slovo’s anti-revolutionary and social democratic positions. Hani at the time of his assassination in 1993 was the head of two of the most powerful organization in the ANC led alliance, Umkonto and SACP, with huge popular standing. Hani was viewed as a possible future president of South Africa, which would have pushed aside the likes of the pro-capitalist Thabo Mbeki, Cyril Ramaphosa and Jacob Zuma.
The vilest, most ugly, commercialized and corporate aspects of African American “popular culture” are fed to the youth. A generation having little or no memory of the struggle has is being smothered in dehumanizing, misogynistic, homophobic “Black culture.” This is part of the political, cultural and ideological diminishment of the poor and working masses. The new leaders of the nation have a plan to alter the consciousness of the people, replacing images of revolutionaries and resistance fighters with thugs or hyper individualistic and selfish entertainers and clowns. On a daily basis Tyler Perry minstrelsy and Oprah Winfrey imitators are fed to a now confused, leaderless and ideologically disoriented nation. While the majority of black South Africans endure the farce of a “Rainbow Nation,” whites are held responsible for nothing and in return give nothing to the nation while getting wealthier and transferring vast amounts of money to foreign banks and hedge funds. The daily racist insults have somewhat abated, though they still occur far too regularly, but are replaced by new forms of institutionalized white supremacy. White supremacy without the obvious hand of white people is the form of social and political control, which replaces legal apartheid. Indeed, these are cruel ironies that must play havoc upon the collective consciousness of black South Africans.
The path of the ANC from revolutionary party and tribune of the people to the party of government in “the free South Africa” is a story of great sacrifice, struggle and, in the end, a tragedy for the people. The road from the Freedom Charter, to the Morogoro Consultative Conference, to the 1994 elections, to the murder of 34 miners at Mirikana in 2012, is the ANC’s road from revolution to counter-revolution. The road from Chief Albert Luthuli, Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo to Jacob Zuma and the current leadership, is the road from revolutionary sacrifice and commitment to venality, corruption and bootlicking.
Soon after Mandela’s mortal remains were lowered into the ground from which his ancestors sprung the press was filled with accounts of the nation’s largest union, the National Union of Miners, withdrawing its support from the ANC. Other reports tell of Cyril Ramaphosa, former head of the mineworkers union, now billionaire, having called for and signed off on the murders of the 34 miners at Marikana. The South African and international media are filled with stories of President Jacob Zuma’s money deals and multiple wives and girl friends. Every day there are new accounts of corruption and theft by government and ANC officials. And as the world reflects upon Mandela’s legacy the spectacle of white wealth and black poverty and misery haunts the discussions. In the end, we see not a free nation, not a nation united to abolish the past and build an egalitarian future, but a divided nation with a black government that protects white and western wealth and enforces black poverty.
What is South Africa’s future? Can the dream of the Freedom Charter and the Morogoro Conference ever be achieved? To the last question the answer is yes. To the first the answer is that the immediate future for South Africa is a new struggle grounded in the Freedom Charter and the Morogoro Conference. Oliver Tambo in 1969 summed up the spirit of Morogoro, he said, “Close Ranks! This is the order to our people; our youth; the army; to each Umkhonto we Sizwe militant; to all our many supporters the world over. This is the order to our leaders; to all of us. The order that comes from this conference is: Close Ranks and Intensify the Struggle!”

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Amiri Baraka On Class Struggle and Cultural Revolution

Amiri Baraka, the poet/activist who was laid to rest in his native Newark, New Jersey, last Saturday, came to understand 40 years ago that all art is ideological. “It is the courageous move from cultural nationalism to Cultural Revolution that liberated Baraka, and ultimately us, to understand the democratic and revolutionary possibilities inherent in our artistic and cultural traditions.”

“It his turn to Marxism-Leninism, socialist realism and proletarian art and politics that gets him in trouble with “those who know about these matters.”

We need to be clear about who we’re talking about when we talk about Amiri Baraka. For many that seems difficult. There’s a certain Amiri that the petit bourgeois and respectable academics can’t bring themselves to deal with, listen to or confront. How many poets, musicians, music critics and historians, literary critics, academics and the rest ever mention his positions on class struggle in music. Amiri said, “In Black music, like everything else in the world, class struggle is going on. In Black music class struggle between those who want to make Afro-American music the appendage of European concert music and those who understand music is the expression of the great majority of Afro-American working people.” The composer, Arthur Blythe, composed a piece entitled “In The Tradition.” Amiri said in introducing the suite, “Class Struggle in Music Nos 1&2,” performed with saxophonist David Murray and drummer Steve Mc Call, that The Tradition in Afro-American music is the tradition of class struggle and the fight for ideological clarity. He demanded, “come out of Europe,” get down with “American music,” its “nigger music.” The only music you really have, he insists, if you call yourself “American,” is Black music. For whites that want to save face, go back to your working class poor people’s music in the Appalachian coalmines and country music before it was commercially appropriated.

The Baraka from 1960 to 1972 is the Baraka most easily digested by the petit bourgeois. They claim in this period he did his best work, produced poetry, plays and essays of lasting value. Afterwards he becomes, they say, ideological, repetitive, anti-poetry, propagandistic and bombastic. The academics defenders of “real art” and “important literature” did the same thing with Du Bois and Baldwin. Du Bois was OK until Darkwater, “The Souls of White Folk” and his history masterpiece, Black Reconstruction in America. Baldwin was the white elite’s favorite until The Fire Next Time and the real fire, Blues For Mr. Charlie. In the case of Du Bois and Baldwin it is the radical, anti-capitalist and socialist turns that turn off the elite.

“The only music you really have, he insists, if you call yourself ‘American,’ is Black music.”

In the case of Baraka it his turn to Marxism-Leninism, socialist realism and proletarian art and politics that gets him in trouble with “those who know about these matters.” In reality, though, Baraka never left the blues, Bessie Smith, Billie Holliday, Sarah Vaughn (Sassy) and Dinah Washington. He never left bebop or hard bop, or for that matter Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Jackie Mc, Art Blakey, Lee Morgan, Max Roach, Philly Joe Jones, Coltrane or Thelonius Monk, to name a few. In fact he got even closer to The Music (classical African American/American Music), as he moved to the left, championing and working with the avant-garde—the next generation, the flamethrowers and revolutionaries. Albert Ayler, Ornett Coleman, Cecil Taylor, David Murray, Hamiet Bluiett, Andrew Cyrille, Grachan Moncur III, Arthur Blythe, Don Pullen, Craig Harris and more. They inspired his Afro-proletarian poetry and plays and he inspired them and gave them confidence to remain true to their proletarian roots and vision.

Baraka steps out front ideologically. The artist, musician, dancer, composer, painter, poet, novelist, he thought could be part of the vanguard, the revolutionary leadership. Du Bois told us in 1926, all art is ideological; the issue is which ideology the artist upholds. For Baraka, like Paul Robeson, the artist must choose to fight for the people or to betray them and hence the mission of art itself. It is the courageous move from cultural nationalism to Cultural Revolution that liberated Baraka, and ultimately us, to understand the democratic and revolutionary possibilities inherent in our artistic and cultural traditions. Genealogically, his turn to the Afro-American working class and their traditions comes out of tough ideological debate and soul searching. Amina Baraka, his wife and closest comrade, leapt ahead of him, insisting upon a complete break and new start. It is she, the poet, dancer, singer, theorist who insisted there be no compromise with sexism or homophobia in the name of “culture.” She understood, like he, that “In The Tradition” meant the tradition of class and national liberation struggle.

“He announced that Afro-American people’s art must be anchored to the working class (the proletariat), uphold the right to self-determination of the Afro-American people and position itself as a force for ideological clarity against imperialism.”

The academics, cultural gatekeepers and the generally backward attacked his new work or, for fear of stirring up his ideological and rhetorical wrath, ignored him. He could no longer get published in the US—he was whited out by the American mainstream. Yet he persisted.

1974 to 2013, almost forty years, is his longest, his most innovative, experimental and creative period. The petit bourgeois poems of the beat period, the nationalism of both the Black Arts Movement and Cultural Nationalism, of the early New Ark years, are reworked, given a new and more profound proletarian grounding after 1974. He announced that Afro-American people’s art must be anchored to the working class (the proletariat), uphold the right to self-determination of the Afro-American people and position itself as a force for ideological clarity against imperialism.

Those for whom this period is unpalatable, admit it, you find this part of Baraka’s life and work distasteful. Admit it and stop frontin’. Baraka’s oeuvre is no dead carcass to be picked over by intellectual hyenas.

Amiri chose! We had no choice in the matter. He chose the Afro-proletariat and class struggle in art and music. We either accept his artistic and ideological choices or we reject them. He is, ultimately, the sum of the choices he made.

The literary, cultural and political opportunists and buzzards are busy, and have been for some time, in finding ways to dismantle/deconstruct Amiri’s legacy. We of the Afro-American Left must defend him and especially his choosing revolution in and through art and music.

Who is Amiri Baraka? It’s easy, just listen to him. He tells us who is he. He never hid. And neither should we.

Anthony Monteiro is a professor of African American Studies at Temple University. He can be contacted at tmon(at)comcast.net.

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Amiri Baraka is gone. Where shall we go? What is to be done? Let us remember Baraka was a revolutionary, communist, anti-imperialist and internationalist who deployed art and language in the cause of Black liberation, working class freedom and human emancipation. His extraordinary intellect, combined with an extraordinary will and unshakeable principles and morality. In spite of his glorious mind he never privileged himself. He often seemed embarrassed when people made over him.

Never has poetry, music, drama, literature, eulogy, music commentary and criticism been so effectively deployed in the cause of freedom. It was obvious that for him art and revolution were two sides of an inseparable dialectic; in other words, if you didn’t want revolution you didn’t want art, at least art committed to the people. Far more than the usually construed academic option where art and reality are like form and content, in his praxis it was the unity of the historically inevitable, collective consciousness and the existential.

Amiri’s was a long journey, that mirrored the complexities and contradictions of the time he lived, and his ambition to use his indomitable   will, passion and drive to right the wrongs of history, especially the crimes committed upon his beloved Afro-American people. His life did not proceed linearly. Like all things in history and nature it advanced in and through contradictions. Yet, at the end of the day he was a genius seeking to do all he could to free his people. In the course of his life he became a part of us and we of him.

Through our grief and tears we must prepare for the ideological onslaught of the buzzards of the ruling elites (the NYT threw the first blow) and its black and white academic deconstructors who will now seek to invent and reinvent Amiri. The defense of Amiri is the defense of our national liberation and working class emancipatory aspirations.

Like Du Bois and James Baldwin, Baraka was a social force. His power arose from the connection of his genius to the black masses. This relationship deepened over his life giving a power to his intellect which I’m sure amazed him as it did us. To those who will invent a Baraka that fits their ambitions and class interest, we remind them as he did when speaking of James Baldwin “’reality’ exist independent of any of the multivisioned subjectivism that nevertheless distort and actually peril all life here. For me, one clear example of the dichotomy between what actually is and what might be reflected in some smeared mirror of private need, is the public characterization of the mighty being for whom we are gathered here to bid our tearful farewells!”

Amiri discovered his poetic voice in the middle 1950’s as a part of the beat poets. Yet while finding his own voice he shaped the voice of American poetry. In those years he was an organizer of journals, poetry slams and protest. His radical vision challenged the political and cultural frameworks of an America preparing the century of American empire and war. His poetry was democratic and radically anti-establishment, albeit, as he admitted, petit bourgeois. He invents new meter, rhythms, punctuation and spelling creating a type of Baraka-speak. He attacked the dullness of academic poetry. For him, like his friend Alan Ginsburg, poetry was from the people and should reflect their lives. All the time he desired to go beyond the isolation of poetry, bohemianism and hip beatnikism. He says, “The abject racism and economic super exploitation, denial of rights and national oppression and the imperialist overbeing was pressed upon me even in the eastern city of LaLa Land, “The Village”. It grew, this sense of it, as I grew, intellectually, experientially, ideologically…whatever. I had seen a pattern, social, aesthetic, and ideological, that had worked on me…”

The assassination of Malcolm X in 1965 forced Amiri to rethink not only where he should locate his efforts, but also who he must become. He relocates to Harlem, later moving to Newark NJ, his hometown. In Harlem he leads the Black Arts Movement and for the first time sees Black Art as a democratic and potentially revolutionary force. In a certain sense he was putting to practice the thesis in his landmark Blues People (1963). However his Black Arts praxis morphed into cultural nationalism and his becoming a follower of Kawaida philosophy and Maulana Karenga. The democratic and revolutionary possibilities of Black art were trumped by the sexism, and homophobia of cultural nationalism. In Newark, in search of black authenticity he becomes for a time a Muslim, changes his name to Ameer Barakat and later Swahilized to Amiri Baraka. He founds Spirit House and participates in the 1967 Black Power Conference and during the Newark uprising is beaten to within inches of his life by Newark police. However, he does something previously not attempted by Black nationalists, he attempts to join cultural nationalism to electoral politics. Who could remember a poet, more , AfroAmerica’s leading poet and playwrite involved in the nitty gritty of electoral politics. His efforts help to elect Newark’s first Black mayor Ken Gibson and in 1970 he forms the Congress of African Peoples (CAP). In this swelter of cultural and political activity profound ideological contradictions arise between the democratic essence of Black culture and the anti-democratic character of cultural nationalism, especially its sexism. His wife Amina Baraka (formerly Sylvia Robinson) challenges the misogyny of the Kawaida doctrine. She points out the inconsistency of fighting for Black liberation but oppressing women. Baraka was also aware of the left and revolutionary trend within the liberation movements in southern Africa. The Marxism of Amilcar Cabral and the socialism of Kwame Nkrumah and Julius Nyerere particularly influence him. Amina Baraka insists that they make a complete break with Karenga’s doctrine. At the Sixth Pan African Congress in Dar Es Salam Tanzania in 1974 Baraka delivers a speech entitled “Revolutionary Culture and the Future of Pan African Culture” where he stated if African American nationalism did not advocate for socialism it would become reactionary. Throughout 1974 he used CAP position papers to signal his increasing move away from cultural nationalism, defining it as narrow and reactionary nationalism and linked his thinking to Marx, Lenin, Mao and African and third World Marxists. He recognizes that neither Kawaida nor Black electoral politics could produce the type of revolutionary ideology he aspired to.

Amina Baraka insists upon a complete break with cultural nationalism and a “Bolshevik”, i.e. Leninist, reconstruction of CAP. CAP is renamed, the Revolutionary Communist League. Cultural nationalism had lost perhaps its best-known and most effective organizer. The Afro-American radical tradition acquired a most formidable intellect and voice.

In a 1976 interview he defines culture in class terms, rejects the racial strategy of cultural nationalism and rejects his previous stance against unity with white folk. He says,” I think the purpose of real art today is to show people how to make revolution in this society”. Concerning Black struggle he proclaims, “we’ve got to fight for revolution, because racism and oppression will never eliminated until the system of monopoly capitalism is eliminated. Racism, after all is built upon the economic foundations of capitalism, and it won’t collapse until its material base us destroyed.” While positioning his thinking within what he called the “revisionist communist movement” and “Marxism- Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought” his views are also close to those articulated in 1973 by Henry Winston, Chairman of the Communist Party USA, that culture separated from a class consciousness could never be a weapon of liberation.

Baraka’s early Marxism is dogmatic, highly rhetorical, sectarian and infantile. However, coming from within cultural nationalism it was seen as a repudiation of Karenga and his Kawaida principles. His enormous stature as a result of his literary achievements, his role in Black electoral politics and the National black Political Convention in Gary Indiana in 1972, made his drastic ideological shift a highly significant ideological. His changes reflected other changes among young African American radicals, including the Marxist forces with in the Black Panther Party, the leftist move of Stokely Carmichael’s (Kwame Ture) All African Peoples Revolutionary Party and the formation of Black revolutionary formations, known as the Revolutionary Union Movement, within the United Automobile Union. The left and Marxist trends within the African Liberation Struggles and the consolidation of the Cuban Revolution and Cuba’s selfless support for African independence were strategic influences.

Once making the initial break the issue for Amiri and Amina was how to develop their new ideological stance, and how to address the burning questions of the Black movement, especially sexism and increasingly homophobia. What form would revolutionary culture, music, art and literature take in an advanced democratic and revolutionary struggle? What internationalist stance should be adopted and what side of the Soviet Union-Chinese ideological split should be taken. What was the relationship of the Afro-American struggle to the armed struggles in southern Africa. And what would be the relationship of the struggle for Black Self Determination to  African Liberation and the movement towards world revolution, i.e. the world revolutionary process.

To break from the traps of dogmatism and left sectarian politics Baraka is forced to rethink and resistuate himself in the African American radical traditions. W.E.B Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction in America and James Baldwin are irreplaceable in his understanding the advanced democratic character of the Black struggle, and its working class foundations. By the mid 1980’s Amiri and Amina had along with others worked out the principle groundings of their Marxism, which understood the centrality of democracy and Black liberation to the class struggle and socialism. However, he needed a better grasp of black resistance.

His return to Baldwin (the non Marxist and non Black Nationalist) that presents him with the intellectual groundings of a real Black Marxism in a nation whose ruling class was forever flirting with right wing authoritarianism and fascism. In his eulogy at Baldwin’s funeral he passionately and emotionally insists, “He was spirit because he was living. And even past this tragic hour when we weep he has gone away, and why, and why we keep asking. There’s mountains of evil creatures who we would willingly bid farewell to—Jimmy could have given you some of their names on demand—We curse our luck, our oppressors—our age, our weakness. Why &Why again? And why can drive you mad, or said enough times might even make you wise!” He continued, “His spirit is part of our own, it is our feelings’ completion. Our perceptions’ extension, the edge of our rationale, the paradigm for our best use of this world” Amiri proclaims, Jimmy “was like us so much, constantly growing, constantly measuring himself against himself, and thus against the world.” And than he shows how Baldwin will help shape the intellectual architecture of the rest of his life.

“At the hot peak of the movement Jimmy was one of its truest voices. His stance, that is our judgement of the world, the majority of us who still struggle to survive the bestiality of so called civilization, (the slaves) that is true and not that of our torturers, was a dangerous profundity and, as such, fuel for our getaway and liberation!

He was our consummate &complete man of letters, not as an unloving artifact, but as a black man we could touch and relate to even there in that space filled with black fire at the base and circumference of our souls. And what was supremely ironic is that for all his aestheticism and ultra-sophistication, there he was now demanding that we get in the world completely, that we comprehend the ultimate intelligence of our enforced commitment to finally bring humanity to the world!

Jimmy’s voice, as much as Dr. King’s or Malcolm X’s, helped sheppard and guide us toward black liberation.

And for this, of course, the intellectual gunmen of the animal king tried to vanquish him. For ultimately, even the rare lyricism of his song, the weeping aesthetic obsession with feeling, could not cover the social heaviness of his communication!

The celebrated James Baldwin of earlier times could not be used to cover the undaunted freedom chants of the Jimmy who walked with King and SNCC or the evil little nigger who wrote Blues For Mr. Charlie!

Along with this there was always the music; the blues, R&B, gospel, bebop, hardbop, free jazz and avant-garde jazz. He returns again to music. (see the collection Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music). He analyses, but searches for the progressive and revolutionary kernel of all Black music. The blues of Bessie Smith and Diana Washington and the advanced re-articulation of the blues in Billie Holliday; he embraced the avant- garde like the later Coltrane, Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler, Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, Grachan Moncur III, Nina Simone, Fred Hopkins, Craig Harris and David Murray. In the music he saw a pure form of the democratic and social transformative aspirations of Black folk. He said, “The music is created by people in struggle. For whom struggle is one constant tone of life’s registration. It shapes every aspect of Black life.” Ultimately, though, “We need a Cultural Revolution in the US and internationally, to reorient the world and ultimately transform it where we and everybody else is self-determining. Our music, naturally, will be a big part of that because that is how we communicate with ourselves, each other, and the world.”

As the American ruling class after Reagan moved to consolidate the American global Empire as the single superpower and “indispensible nation”, Baraka realized the threat of constant wars abroad, threatened bourgeois democracy and made fascism at home inevitable. After the 2001 attack upon the World Trade Center and the Pentagon he proclaims in the poem “Who Blew Up America”, that it was a dangerous alliance of domestic and international forces seeking a rationale for war and repression that were behind it. He conceived of anti-fascist strategy for unity that meant in electoral struggles siding with the “lesser of two evils” between the Democrats and Republicans. This strategy reversed an almost 25 year rejection of the two party fraud. By 2007 he is in the embrace of Barack Obama. At the end, however, he saw that rather than a lesser evil Obama was but a new articulation of the same old evil with but a different symbology. His anti-fascist strategy did not and could not work. It failed! Which leaves us to find the foundations of new democratic and revolutionary possibilities.

In the end Amiri returned to Baldwin and Du Bois. In 2007 essay on Baldwin he proclaims,

In these days of American Weimar, with a counterfeit president for a fake democracy, it is a deeply inspiring and absolutely necessary weapon and shield of true self-consciousness against an oppressor nation, its lieutenants, deranged pets, hired killers, artists, academic courtesans, and the dangerously uninformed, to reflect on the obvious grandeur, wisdom, and strength of that tradition of the Afro-American intellectual, artist, teacher—and know that it is revolutionary and democratic. Jimmy B. is high up in that tradition.

Amiri’s was a complex life , which reflected the complexities of the Black liberation struggle. He leaves this earth standing upon the ideological and political ground that defined Du Bois as he left this plane, capitalism is an unsustainable system, it brings fascism and war and therefore for the sake of humanity it must be replaced with socialism.


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