Black Left Unity and Our Fight for Ideological Clarity

I’m very grateful for having been invited to this important event in the life history of the African American Left. I want to express my appreciation to Saladin, Abdul and the others responsible for bringing us together. I appreciated and am in agreement with the presenters that preceded me.

Philadelphia is legendary in the history of the Black liberation struggle, as a center of protest and resistance, and it remains that. The Black Power Conferences, the Black Panther Party’s Constitutional Convention, the legendary NAACP chapter, headed by Cecil B Moore, the “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaigns that united four hundred ministers and their congregations in overturning racist hiring in some of Philadelphia’s largest corporations. Philadelphia in recent times is best known for the 1985 bombing of the Move family’s house, killing eleven children, young people and adults and also for the fact that two of the world’s most important and well known political prisoners and intellectuals are from the Black liberation struggle in Philadelphia, Russell Maroon Schoatz and Mumia Abu-Jamal.

I visited Mumia a few weeks ago. He’s doing extraordinarily well. He’s writing another book on imperialism. And he looks forward to his release from prison. Our fight to realize his freedom is intensifying. Pam African who remains one of the most extraordinary figures in the post-civil rights post Black power period remains a stellar leader and example for growing numbers of radical youth. If Mumia is off death row in a lot of ways it has to do with her. We continue our fight for the release of the Move 9 who are in their 34th year behind bars. The movements to free political prisoners, against police brutality, stop and frisk and for the educational rights of our youth and children is giving birth to a new youth movement composed of both students and nonstudents. This is very encouraging. In many ways they’re attracted to Mumia and the movement to free him, but all of those things emerging from the crisis of capitalism that imperils their lives. They’re finding their way in the ways that youth will find their way. Most of us are very hopeful about that.

In the case of the retaliatory firing of myself by the dean of the college of liberal arts at Temple University, a strategic component of the fight for me to be reinstated are students and young people. Among the campaigns that they are developing is one with buttons and t-shirts declaring, “I was taught by Dr. Monteiro.” As Temple became a center of student activism for Mumia’s freedom and increasingly for justice for Russell “Maroon” Schoatz, the administration, the Fraternal Order of Police, and probably Republicans in the state Senate started looking with anger at these efforts. They believe such developments of a democratic and free speech movement had to be stopped. Furthermore, at a forum on Trayvon Martin in the fall semester, I was on a panel with Philadelphia’s DA, Seth Williams. In the course of the discussion I engaged him on the case of Mumia. I insisted that it was hypocritical to call for justice for Trayvon and not call for justice for Mumia. He, of course, took issue with me as I did with him. I am certain that political forces far beyond Temple and African American Studies want to know who is this “Black radical” and how can we get rid of him.

Philadelphia’s working class, especially the Black and Latino working classes, are extremely poor. A growing impoverished white working class is seen throughout the city. In fact it seems to me that the words Black, working-class, and poor are synonymous. If you say Black you can assume you mean poverty and extreme poverty. The growing poverty and crisis of the white working class has not yet produced a trend to anti-racist and working class solidarity with African Americans. However, I remain hopeful the psychological trends produced by crisis will force changes, all be they incremental, among the white working poor in particular.

But I’d like to talk about the ideological struggle in this time of crisis. I don’t know that humanity has ever seen a time like this. By which I mean, never have the dangers been so great, not just for the working class but for humanity itself: side by side with this historic economic depression is the ecological and climate disasters, the threats of wars of new types and weapons of new types and genocide against nations and peoples all over the world. Finance capital has produced a global calamity. Eighty-five families own more wealth than 3.5 billion people in the world.

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The Capitalist Economy: The Rise of Inequality And New Ideological Challenges

The rise of economic inequality is now so severe that even the captains of finance capital and their ideological minions had to make it the center of the agenda at Davos, Switzerland. Rather than the failure of markets, as the Davos crowd would have it, inequality reflects the capitalist markets working precisely as they should. Inequality has nothing to do with market imperfection: the more perfect the capitalist market, the higher the rate of return on capital is in comparison to the rate of growth of the economy and of wages, the wider is inequality. The higher this ratio is, the greater inequality is. And what we see are historically high returns on capital, reflecting higher rates of exploitation of labor worldwide.

The six-decade period of growing equality in western nations – starting roughly with the onset of World War I (which began after and in fact offset the depression of 1913) and extending into the early 1970s – was unique and highly unlikely to be repeated. That period represented an exception to the more deeply rooted pattern of growing inequality.

Those unusual six decades were the result of two world wars and the Great Depression. The owners of capital – those at the top of the pyramid of wealth and income – absorbed a series of devastating blows. These included the loss of credibility and authority as markets crashed; physical destruction of capital throughout Europe in both World War I and World War II; the raising of tax rates, especially on high incomes, to finance the wars; high rates of inflation that eroded the assets of creditors; the nationalization of major industries in both England, Germany and France; and the appropriation of industries and property in post-colonial countries.

At the same time, the Great Depression produced the New Deal coalition in the United States, which empowered an insurgent labor movement. The postwar period saw huge gains in growth and productivity, the benefits of which were shared with workers who had strong backing from the trade union movement and from the dominant Democratic Party. Widespread support for liberal social and economic policy was so strong that even a Republican president, who won easily twice, Dwight D. Eisenhower, recognized that an assault on the New Deal would be futile. In his own words Eisenhower argued, “Should any political party attempt to abolish Social Security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear from that party again in our political history.”

The six decades between 1914 and 1973 stand out from the past and future because the rate of economic growth exceeded the after-tax rate of return on capital. Since then, the rate of growth of the economy has declined, while the return on capital is rising to its pre-World War I levels, that is the levels they were at at the time of the 1913 depression. This means, simply, that the rate of exploitation has increased. For Black workers this is doubled edged, the increasing rate of exploitation goes alongside catastrophic levels of poverty, unemployment and underemployment. The crisis for the Black working class is all-sided, comprehensive and, under the current regime of capital, irreversible.

If the rate of return on capital remains permanently above the rate of growth of the economy, it generates a changing functional distribution of income in favor of capital and, if capital incomes are more concentrated than incomes from labor (a rather uncontroversial fact), personal income distribution will also get more unequal — which indeed is what we have witnessed in the past 30 years. On a global scale producing the grotesque fact that 85 families have more wealth than 3.5 billion people. Or the astounding fact that 147 global corporations control most of the resources ,production and finance of the planet.

The ideological relationships and the ideological struggle under these circumstances take on new significance to humanity. Ideological processes occurs occur through propaganda and and the penetration of human psychology. Propaganda says things are getting better, in spite of the fact that most people say we’re still in a recession. On the other hand it produces a culture of distraction, to prevent a culture of resistance arising. At the psychological level a collective psychology of nihilism, egotism, and celebrity worship all of which attempts to have the working people internalize attitudes that predispose them to defeatism and “let me do my thingism.”
At the levels of elites, especially for African American elite academics and intellectuals, the ruling class strategy is to produce a discourse that privileges petit bourgeois concerns, with personal identity, “high” culture and matters that do not impact the masses. In fact, the racial bribe is such that these elites are paid well not to talk about or identify with Black suffering.

Amiri Baraka, Cultural Revolution and the Ideological Struggle

Another part of this is the project by elite Black academics to treat the lives and works of outstanding Black radical intellectuals as dead carcasses to be feasted on and deconstructed by these intellectual hyenas. This is now the case with the revolutionary legacy of Amiri Baraka. The same thing goes on with Du Bois and Baldwin, among others.

It is well known that Baraka from 1974 until his death insisted upon a class analysis of culture and politics. His break with petit bourgeois and cultural nationalism was replaced with the idea of Cultural Revolution, anchored to the Black proletarian. However, many of his so called friends from the Black Arts Movement act as though he remained a cultural nationalist. At his funeral none of them mentioned his Marxism, anti-imperialism and rejection of narrow cultural nationalism.

On the other side, academic “experts” are crafting ways to talk about Amiri in ways that make it look like his revolutionary work is not serious, not his best work, is bombastic and propagandistic. Even the so-called feminists among them (female and male) don’t mention the decisive ideological role of his comrade and wife of almost 50 years played in his making his great leap away from petit bourgeois and nationalism. It was she who leapt ahead of him.

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.

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.

This period, for the petit bourgeois is unpalatable and distasteful. We must defend Baraka’s oeuvre as a living and not a dead carcass to be picked over by intellectual hyenas.

Obama, Imperialism and Ideological Struggle

If there’s anything that the Obama administration and its foreign policy teaches us, is that imperialism has no limits in what it will do and the weapons that it will use against people. And it does this with arrogance, triumphalism and a celebration that I don’t think any of us has ever seen. We can talk about the Reagan and Bush Administrations, but I don’t believe any of us have ever seen anything like this. Drone Wars, targeted assassinations, the continuing operation of Gitmo prison, wars against Libya, Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen, the turn to encircle China, the support of right wing and fascist forces in the Ukraine. Along with this domestic spying and repressive means using the electronic media surpass anything Hoover’s FBI or COINTELPRO were capable of.

Now of course this creates enormous problems psychologically and ideologically for the Black liberation struggle. The majority of Black folk, albeit disappointed, see Obama as possibility, as progress, as “we now getting our shot at power”, rather than as a representative of imperialism and racism. The Obama symbology has (and let’s hope temporarily) weakened the normal and necessary oppositional stance of Black folk. The Obama presidency rather than opening possibilities for the Black Left, as many leftist thought, has produced the opposite, the relative isolation of the Black Left and the rise to prominence of a new Black petit bourgeoisie. It embraces and apologizes for Obama at any cost. The Black Left has not effectively waged the necessary ideological struggle to clarify precisely what Obamism is. The outstanding exception is the Black Agenda Report. A central task in this moment is for us to ideologically retool, to sharpen our analysis and to within the left fight for both ideological and practical unity on key issues.

Sadly, for the first time in the history of polling Black people support war over peace, and support NSA spying at higher percentages than whites do. You know back in the 1950s, William L Patterson made the statement that the Black liberation struggle is the Achilles’ heel of American imperialism. Well if remain that we have been severely weakened as US imperialism’s Achilles’ heel. We have to find ways to strengthen ourselves as the Achilles’ heel of American imperialism. Because we can’t be internationalists unless we are anti-imperialist, and if we’re not internationalists we’re not left, if we’re not internationalists we’re not revolutionaries. We can’t be internationalists unless we are ideologically clear about imperialism and the multiple and varied forms and manifestations it adopts in order to adapt to its crises and the changes in the global political economy.

We must help our people to understand there cannot be Black liberation on the terms of American imperialism. Malcolm and Martin Luther King taught us that in the 1960s. So we’re confronted in the struggle for unity, Black unity, the unity of Black people, the unity of the working class, and the unity of the people in general, with ideological challenges that are new, ideological challenges that arise in the context of the general crisis at a new stage.

Questions of Stages of the General Crisis of Imperialism

Understanding the question of the stages of the general crisis of imperialism is paramount to understanding imperialism. Hence, for us at this moment the question is, what stage are we at? Each stage of this general crisis has produced revolutionary possibilities that were taken advantage of by revolutionary forces somewhere in the world, be it the Russian revolution, the Chinese revolution, the Cuban revolution, the African independence movements, the armed struggles in southern Africa. At this stage, what will be the forms of revolutionary struggle and of the transition from imperialism to socialism? Understanding stages of crisis has meaning beyond merely understanding how the economy functions, it can help guide our analysis of the modes of transition away from imperialism.
I’d like to underline the concept of transition. One of the mistakes of left sectarian politics is to assert that it is possible to go from the system of capitalism in crisis to socialism. Every revolution is, in a sense, a transition state, and a moment in the process of the complete overhaul of human relationships. Every movement proceeds through transitions. And so we have to consider what are the forms of transition at this stage? I agree with Saladin, that our struggle, by the nature of the global crisis, is inevitably international. Hence, in considering the modes of transition we have to place them within the framework of international developments. We can fail to recognize this at our own peril. We, our struggle, the consciousness of our people are part of events in South Africa, Greece, Venezuela, and wherever people are fighting for a better and peaceful life, Each and every struggle is inevitably and unavoidably tied to every other on the planet. We are in the stage of history when the only answers, the solutions and way out of the crisis have to be conceive from an internationalist standpoint. In other words, our national struggle cannot afford to be nationalistic. Our struggle can be national but it must in essence be international and that’s what I think we mean when we say the working class essence of our struggle must be brought to the fore. And if it is working class in essence it means it is a part of all struggles against neoliberal capitalism and neo-liberal globalization. The new normal of capitalism, stagnation, low wages, part-time jobs, and catastrophic levels of unemployment, is the same throughout the world, in every continent and nation.

Working Class Analysis as Opposed to “Radical Structural” Analysis

I think we serve ourselves better in understanding the new normal of poverty and unemployment not by focusing upon Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers and other statistical measures, but by our own observations and direct experiences with the working class. This does not mean we don’t deal with official governmental and other statistical and quantitative measures of the economy and the conditions of working people. We must decide where we begin. I suggest we begin at the level of the lived experiences of working people, particularly Black working people. We must anchor our analysis and understanding at the level of the people, in the factories, communities, welfare offices, churches, union alls etc. There are neighborhoods where nobody works, most young people have been in jail, everybody’s been racially profiled at one time or another, most young men have been stopped and frisked, one half of the young men are either in prison or under the control of the criminal justice system, women and children live in extreme poverty. Government data doesn’t capture this level of misery. But we have to fully grasp the meaning of all of this. It is a picture of oppression that is only equaled by that of the Palestinian people. I suggest that no people on this planet except the Palestinians experience the levels of oppression that we African Americans do. And I think that ours in some ways goes beyond there’s because we experience a type of human diminishment.

Questions of the diminishment of the humanity of Black people have to be considered. Corporate created popular culture operates to diminish Black humanity, not unlike late 19th and early 20th century minstrelsy and Hollywood stereotypes. The anti-black symbology, often performed by blacks, is at new and dangerous level. It says to our children each and every day that you are worth very little and don’t expect anything in this life or from this system, producing a nihilism and expectations of immediate gratification. And if you think you’re going to get out of line, we have forces out here that can deal with you in the most extreme and violent manner. The souls of Black people are attacked each and every day. We haven’t found an answer to it yet. Our people have not yet produced in this period a real culture of resistance, liberation and self and people’s self-affirmation.

The over two million Black young people under the control of the criminal justice system, the vicious severity of the treatment of Herman Wallace’s 41 years in solitary confinement, Mumia 30 years in solitary confinement, surpasses in barbarity even the apartheid regime in South Africa. Even they treated its most dangerous political prisoners with more humanity.

Many people who call themselves left, Marxist and revolutionary examine the system from a structural theoretical position. They and their analysis are disengaged from, separated from the people. I would suggest that for revolutionaries a more accurate way of looking at the system is by understanding the oppressed and exploited victims of the system. Because all of us read tens of studies produced by and published in white left journals, and we could name hundreds of white left academics who produce volumes of empirical evidence about the system. What they never do is talk about the system from the bottom up, from the people, from Black folk, from the working class. The absence of working class centered analysis leaves their analysis devoid of an in depth explanation of Black oppression and dehumanization. Moreover, looking at the system from the top down, from a purely structural standpoint, leaves the analysis unable to show possibilities of changing the system.

On the other side looking at it from the day-to-day lives of the people, as difficult as their lives are, you can see possibilities for change. And then you can see in different ways what the ideological challenges are.

Neoliberal Black Ideologues and the Struggle for Our Future

I think there are three principal areas of ideological struggle against black neoliberalism. First, the Obamites. Public figures like Reverend Al Sharpton and academics and public intellectuals like Charles Ogletree and Melissa Harris-Perry fall into this group. A whole army of academics could be added to those whom I’ve named. They provide political and intellectual cover for Obama’s neoliberal economic and social policies, and his neoconservative foreign policies. They claim that Obama is a liberal and some insist a progressive. As the true nature of Obama’s policies become known and as the situation of Black folk becomes direr, their apologies for Obama become increasingly dishonest, bordering on open lying. They consider Obama’s left critics to be enemies of Black progress, deserving unmitigated attacks, marginalization and something coming close to a witch-hunt. Their attacks upon left critics of Obama have begun to take on forms of anti-communism.

Secondly, bogus Pan-Africanism manifested as new forms of cultural nationalism. This line supports US neo-colonialism in Africa and is aligned with neo-colonialist and pro-West forces in Africa. They hide their true politics behind calls for an African Renaissance and for the cultural unity of Africans throughout the world. They oppose anti-imperialist unity across Africa and anti-imperialist solidarity between the African Diaspora and the continent. This form of Pan Africanism is unquestionably pro US imperialist. They generally support the Obama Africa policies or are silent about such policies as AFRICOM and military intervention in Libya, Somalia and support to Paul Kagame’s genocidal regime’s war in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

Lastly right social democracy, which is the most developed and ideologically experienced and sophisticated center of anti-radicalism, anti-communism and neoliberalism. Claiming to support liberalism reforms at home, i.e. gay marriage, gay rights, certain women’s rights, Black elected officials, and claiming that such reforms prove that capitalism, even under neoliberal economics, can be democratic and progressive. As against class struggle, anti-racist and national self-determination they propose creating new civil society institutions. Civil society formations, they insist, are forms of people’s power against hegemonic institutions like the state. Right Social Democracy’s essence, is anti-radical, opposing advanced democratic resistance and struggle, and ultimately defend the system, even as it becomes more authoritarian and anti-democratic. Like bogus Pan Africanism and cultural nationalism, right social democrats disguise their pro-imperialist/neoliberalism behind so-called cultural analysis and claims of supporting democratic renewal through culture, such as changes in racial, gender and sexual identity. All of this they claim can go forward under neo-liberal policies and neo-colonialism. The political economy and the crisis of capitalism and the growing exploitation and suffering of working people worldwide is absent from, goes unnoticed and is never put forward in their discourses.

The Planet Erupts in Struggle

The planet is being shaken each and every day by mass struggles; hundreds of millions of people, from Thailand to Egypt to Mexico and Greece to South Africa rock the foundations of the old and decadent system pushing humanity towards a new epoch. Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua in combat with imperialist backed oppositions continue to consolidate people’s democratic state power.

Obama apologists, neoliberal intellectuals, bogus Pan-Africanists and right Social Democrats argue there is no alternative to capitalism. The Cubans and Venezuelans don’t agree with that. And in fact, even though it is not the socialism that I would prefer, the BRIC countries especially Brazil, Russia, India, and China, still represent, if not state socialism, opposition to neoliberal capitalism and US hegemony and Empire.

US imperialism is today the greatest danger to humanity and to social progress. Unity against US imperialism is the main task of our time. We must fight for unity, Left unity, Black Left unity, Black unity, working class unity and international unity against war and neo-liberal capitalism. We need a global advanced democratic front. To achieve this in our country we must fight for an updated analysis and theoretical understanding of the current crisis. Proceeding from our long and glorious history and we must pose again at the start of the 21st century the questions posed by W.E.B Du Bois at the start of the 20th century i.e., how to unite democratic struggles and aspirations to international events, and how to undermine and ultimately defeat the anti-democratic and authoritarian regime of the color-line as part of the struggle for social progress and socialism. This is our task. We have our marching orders.

About Anthony Monteiro

I am a activist and scholar who is a professor in the Department of African American Studies at Temple University.
This entry was posted in Black Intellectual, Political and Ideological Issues. Bookmark the permalink.

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