Tag Archives: race

US Marxist-Leninist electoralism in the ’70s and ’80s

I recently read two good things on US Marxist-Leninist groups in the ’70s and ’80s: Out of Oakland: Black Panther Party Internationalism During the Cold War (2017), and “Lessons From One Left to the Next: Revolution in the Air Revisited”.  The first is a book on the Black Panther Party (BPP) and its international organizing efforts, and the second is a book review on the New Communist Movement.

It is extremely interesting to see how the BPP, as it started to fall apart after 1971, started to very rapidly turn toward electoral politics.  And this turn didn’t even try to maintain much of a veneer of revolutionary communism.  In 1973, the BPP more or less fully pivoted away from revolutionary struggle and focused on electing Bobby Seale as Mayor of Oakland, and Elaine Brown to the Oakland city council.  Their leaflets urged voters to “Elect Two Democrats”; they advocated for the economic benefits of having police officers live within city limits; and they proposed a “Multi-Ethnic International Trade and Cultural Center” on the grounds that it would help trade and cultural exchange with developing countries and help grow local businesses and tourism.  By the end of the decade, the BPP was basically nothing more than an appendage of the Democratic Party; Elaine Brown attended the 1976 Democratic National Convention as a delegate for Jerry Brown’s presidential campaign.  (Malloy 217-9).

What the hell happened?  The book doesn’t go into much detail, since its much more about the way BPP’s politics and philosophy on internationalism changed over time, than about the internal dynamics of the party domestically.  My own hypothesis, as argued here, is that the BPP was materially dependent on social bases outside of its lumpen-proletarian core membership, namely elite white liberals and black businessmen.  For a short while, these groups were willing to support the BPP in its radical program.  But as the Vietnam War winded down and the US government opened up space for the emergence of a black middle class, these groups became increasingly moderate, and the BPP was forced to follow this moderating trend.

Of course, the BPP wasn’t the only revolutionary group operating during this time period, even if it was the biggest and most visible.  The New Communist Movement saw a number of radical left groups organizing explicitly around Marxist-Leninist lines in the ’70s and ’80s, in the aftermath of the New Left movements of the ’60s.  Unfortunately this area of organizing seems rather understudied comparatively to the ’60s movements, which is why resources like Paul Saba’s bare-bones website, part of the Marxists Internet Archive, are so useful.  The Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), which is now a creepy cult around its leader Bob Avakian, is one relic from this era.  Another large and relatively well-organized group was the Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist), which was founded in 1977 and collapsed in 1982 — perhaps for the better, given that the party opposed gay liberation, supported the Khmer Rogue, and called on the US to arm mujaheddin fighters in Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion in ’79.  This report, written by a leading member who resigned in 1980, seems like very interesting and insightful reading on the trials and tribulations of the CP(ML).

Around the same time, another very interesting group formed, the League of Revolutionary Struggle (LRS), which unlike the CP(ML) was largely composed of people of color organizing around national liberation movements.  The LRS was a merger of I Wor Kuen (made up of Chinese Americans), and the August 29th Movement (made up of Chicanos).  It soon merged with the East Wind Collective (made up of Japanese Americans), Seize the Time (made up of Blacks and Chicanos), and Amiri Baraka’s Revolutionary Communist League.

Sounds super cool, right?  Except, skimming through the documents, the most active campaigns that the LRS seems to have engaged in was…campaigning for Jesse Jackson in the Democratic Party primaries in 1984 and 1988.

What is it with Marxism-Leninism and milquetoast electoralism???

But snark aside, the post-’68 movements are extremely interesting, not to mention important, given that they were attempting to organize and (supposedly) trying to stir up revolutionary struggle at precisely the time when capitalism was restructuring into its modern neoliberal form.  Taking a closer look at the activities and internal debates of the New Communist Movement groups could tell us a lot about how to deal with such a terrain of struggle, give us a better understanding of US radical organizing that is more recent than the ’60s, and of course give us valuable lessons for today at a time when the debate within the radical left around democratic socialism, revolutionary struggle, and the Democratic Party is heating up.

The “triple selection” of Indian America

Caravan Magazine recently published an excellent review/essay of two books on the history of South Asian immigration to the United States: The Other One Percent: Indians in America (2016), and Desis Divided: The Political Lives of South Asian Americans (2016).  It seems that a key theme of both books is to examine and unpack differences with respect to the South Asian diaspora in the US, specifically around the issue of the “model minority” stereotype.  Indian Americans today appear to be the single most socio-economically successful ethnic group in the country.  Why?

The authors of The Other One Percent argue that Indian America is largely shaped by processes of a “triple selection”, that has created a population that “does not resemble any other population anywhere: not the Indian population in India, nor the native population in the United States, nor any other immigrant group from any other nation.”  This “triple selection” consists of 1) the caste system selecting upper-caste men for education, 2) limited access to higher education selecting for an elite strata within the first group, and 3) the post-1965 US immigration system, designed around importing skilled techno-scientific workers, selecting the cream of the second group.

What really caught my eye, however, was the commentary around the nature of education systems in post-Independence India, which echoes what I’ve been attempting to study and write about, about the relationship between Asian America, mid-century anti-imperialist politics, and the production of skilled technical workers:

The Indian government had invested heavily in English-medium public higher education in science and technology—in places such as the Indian Institutes of Technology, which were mostly fed by urban English-medium private schools—even while grossly neglecting public primary education. This system soon produced tens and later hundreds of thousands of engineers amid a sea of functionally illiterate people. This talent pool was composed almost wholly of men from elite castes and classes, who were only too eager to escape from a country that could not offer them enough opportunity to apply their skills. And so the demands of the US labour market were met with a ready supply.

This gets at the central irony of the efforts of postcolonial nation-states, that they attempted to modernize a supposedly free and independent country, but did so in a manner that was easily and rapidly recuperated by global capitalism.

So what then are today’s organizing opportunities in Indian America?  I still think there is a lot of potential in merging efforts around radical tech worker organizing with parallel efforts in India America, given the disproportionate number of Indian techno-scientific workers.  Between upholding and spreading radical philosophies and histories around science and technology, organizing against contemporary racial oppression, and merging these efforts into class struggles, there are good avenues to stoke rebelliousness among workers who may otherwise happily continue petite-bourgeoisie and yuppie lifestyles.

Radical left critiques of liberal identity politics

The last few years — and particularly the 2016 election season and its aftermath — were packed with a variety of contentious perspectives on race, and how to best go about fighting racism and white supremacy.  In particular, there has been lots of development around radical left critiques of mainstream liberal identity politics.  Here is an incomplete selection of some essays that I find compelling.

Who Is Oakland: Anti-Oppression Activism, the Politics of Safety, and State Co-option is a lengthy essay from a group of radicals in Occupy Oakland that analyzes and critiques a variety of issues associated with mainstream conceptions of race and identity.  The piece touches on the nature of non-profits, the way elites of color can and do participate in white supremacy (and thus, the inadequacy of making elite institutions “more diverse”), the role of capitalism in producing/reproducing racial stratification, the way liberal analysis tends to essentialize/reduce/boxe-in people to their respective “identities”, the way liberal analysis tends to infantalize and remove agency from people deemed “oppressed”, the way identity politics can be cynically used to erase people of color from allegedly “white” spaces, and more.

Dear #BlackLivesMatter: We Don’t Need Black Leadership by R.L Stephens II of Orchestrated Pulse is a critique of observed tendencies for “identity politicians” to exploit the people and the communities they claim to speak for in order to increase their own individual power, and looks to the historical examples of the ’60s-era Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and mass politics during the Reconstruction era as political models to emulate today.

Fighting racism and the limits of “ally-ship” by Khury Petersen-Smith and Brian Bean in Socialist Worker is a critique of the concept of “allyship”, specifically in the way it over-emphasizes individual inter-personal relations at the expense of mass struggle.  

From charity to solidarity: a critique of ally politics by Cindy Milstein in ROAR Magazine is a critique of the concept of “allyship”, specifically on the way it depends on a narrow and superficial understanding of race, the way it reinforces unhealthy tendencies of guilt and self-righteousness, and how it pushes people away from being autonomous political actors.

The Safety Pin and the Swastika by Shuja Haider of Viewpoint Magazine analyzes the way many parts of liberal identity politics is being appropriated by the far-right as a way to create an unironic form of “white identity politics” that is used to uphold white supremacy and white nationalism, and the need to return to substantive multiracial organizing and grounding anti-racism with anti-capitalism.

White Purity by Asad Haider of Viewpoint Magazine is a critique of privilege theory, arguing that we need to see white supremacy as detrimental to white people as well as non-white people, as argued by old-school communists like W.E.B. du Bois.

A letter from students and workers “of color” in the Takeover of Humanities 2 is a communique from a group of leftists at University of California, Santa Cruz, countering critiques from liberal campus activists about the alleged “whiteness” of an occupation, and raises larger points about multiracial organizing and the tendency of certain kinds of “identity politicians” to side with institutions of power.

Black Panther Party and the Young Patriots Organization, Chicago 1969

The shiny gloss of liberal tolerance, coating a violently racist global system

Nike recently announced a new line of athletic hijabs, making them the first multinational fashion/clothing company to do so.  How progressive!  And yes, they do have their “swoosh” corporate logo on the side.

Liberals will likely laud this move, and conservatives will likely get irritated, but I’d prefer to get away from America’s culture wars and ponder what the supply chain for manufacturing these hijbas will look like.  As of 2014, most of Nike’s clothing was manufactured in China, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Malaysia.  Any guesses as to what conditions might be like for the Muslim women working in the Indonesian, Pakistani, and Malaysian sweatshops that will be making Nike’s hijabs?  I’m a bit surprised that Bangladesh isn’t on that list, but looks like Nike has slowly backed out of the country since the series of garment factory collapses in 2013, most notably the Rana Plaza collapse that killed more than 1,000 workers.

Point being, mainstream culture wars in the West around race, religion, etc. tend to completely ignore the way discrimination functions in global capitalism — especially when the focus of discussion is on the aesthetic nature of commodities, and are driven by the public-relations strategies of powerful multinational corporations.  And it isn’t like people don’t understand the inherently superficial nature of corporate liberalism (after all, “college diversity brochure” is a constant punchline all by itself), but it still feels like this kind of cringey pandering is the dominant trend of anti-racist theory and practice in the US.

The juxtaposition between mainstream corporate liberalism against the racialized and violent nature of global capitalism is captured beautifully in the introduction of this recent essay on race and the 2016 election:

Back in the day, two knucklehead members of my old union local at a Union Carbide plant in New Jersey fashioned KKK hoods out of chemical filtration paper and paraded through the lunchroom on Halloween. The corporate HR executive sent to investigate summarily terminated both workers within hours of arriving at the plant. She loudly proclaimed the company’s “zero tolerance” to racial harassment.

Now this was very interesting considering that her employer was the prime suspect in the unpunished industrial murder of 764 mostly African American workers on the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel in the 1930’s and its current corporate chairman, Warren Anderson, was a fugitive from justice wanted by the Indian government in connection with the 1984 criminal manslaughter of at least 15,000 Indians in Bhopal. Over the next 15 years, the same HR exec who showed Phil and John the door was the point person in the shutdown of all three unionized Union Carbide plants in New Jersey, leaving behind a series of toxic waste sites contaminating communities throughout the state and 2,000 black, white and Hispanic workers, many suffering from uncompensated industrial diseases.

This episode comes to mind while contemplating the detritus of the Republican and Democratic conventions and the growing trope that the rage of the white (male) working class has propelled both the Trump campaign and the critique of the Clinton campaign from the left. The politics of race and gender often obscure much more than they reveal. It is true that individual white workers can be horribly racist and misogynist. But it is also true that the worship of “diversity” often serves as a cover for gross hypocrisy and ruthless class rule.

Obviously, the take-away here should not be that individual acts of racism, bigotry, prejudice, etc. should be tolerated.  On the contrary, these people should (and do) get their ass kicked.  But casting individual prejudice as 100% the source of racism and bigotry, as many mainstream liberal commentators seem to argue, ignores the larger systematic ways in which racialization is an inherent tendency of an unequal and hierarchical capitalist world, and in fact can often be manipulated to justify the power and privilege of the ruling class.  Nike hijabs will do very little to either fight Islamophobia in the US or raise the status of working-class Muslim women globally.  But expropriating and collectivizing Nike’s Asian factories, on the other hand…

America’s internal colonialism

I just came across an excellent article on race in America in Vanity Fair, written by an MSNBC host to plug his upcoming book.  A surprising source for an analysis that revives, at least figuratively, the idea that black communities in the US are part of a process of internal colonization.  It’s an odd mixture of Marxian anti-imperialist and liberal discourse.  Here is the thesis:

Nixon was, of course, correct that black Americans “don’t want to be a colony in a nation.” And yet that is what he helped bring about. Over the half-century since Nixon delivered those words, we have created precisely that, and not just for black Americans but for brown Amer­icans and others: a colony in a nation. A territory that isn’t actually free. A place controlled from outside rather than from within. A place where the law is a tool of control, rather than a foundation for prosperity. We have created a political regime—and, in its day-to-day applications, a regime of criminal justice—like the one our Founders inherited and rejected, a political order they spilled their blood to defeat.

And here is an observation on how colonialism, both historic and present, relies on complicity by elite layers of the colonized people:

From India to Vietnam to the Caribbean, colonial systems have always integrated the colonized into government power, while still keeping the colonial subjects in their place.

Half the cops charged in the death of Freddie Gray were black; half were white. The Baltimore police chief is black, as is the mayor. And Freddie Gray, the figure upon whom this authority was wielded?

Well, to those in the neighborhood, there was never any question what race he would be.

This is what distinguishes our era of racial hierarchy, the era of Black Lives Matter and the First Black President. Black political power has never been more fully realized, but blackness feels for so many black people just as dangerous as ever. Black people can live and even prosper in the Nation, but they can never be truly citizens. The threat of the nightstick always lingers, even for, say, a famous and distinguished Harvard professor of African and African-American studies who suddenly found himself in handcuffs on his own stately porch in Cambridge, Massachusetts, just because someone thought he was a burglar.

And a passage comparing and contrasting the rule of law in Nation and Colony:

In the Colony, violence looms and failure to comply can be fatal. Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old black woman who died in a Texas prison cell, was pulled over because she didn’t signal a lane change. Walter Scott, the 50-year-old black man shot in the back as he fled a North Charleston police officer, was pulled over because one of the three brake lights on his car was out. Freddie Gray simply made eye contact with a police officer and started to move swiftly in the other direction.

If you live in the Nation, the criminal-justice system functions like your laptop’s operating system, quietly humming in the background, doing what it needs to do to allow you to be your most efficient, functional self. In the Colony, the system functions like a computer virus: it intrudes constantly, it interrupts your life at the most inconvenient times, and it does this as a matter of course. The disruption itself is normal.

And a rare observation that while the US security apparatus disproportionately targets black people, it is also part of a wider system of repression against the working class in general:

The Colony is overwhelmingly black and brown, but in the wake of financial catastrophe, de-industrialization, and sustained wage stagnation, the tendencies and systems of control developed in the Colony have been deployed over wider and wider swaths of working-class white America. If you released every African-American and Latino prisoner in America’s prisons, the United States would still be one of the most incarcerated societies on earth. And the makeup of those white prisoners is dramatically skewed toward the poor and uneducated. As of 2008, nearly 15 percent of white high-school dropouts aged 20 to 34 were in prison. For white college grads the rate was under 1 percent.

All of this echoes the points I tried to make in an essay I wrote 2 years ago on police violence, about how in numerous working-class communities across the US the police are more or less an exploitative and lawless occupying force.  And there has been much, much more hard evidence on this that has come out since then, ironically in no small part due to the various Department of Justice investigations into the police forces of many major cities like Chicago and Baltimore.  Thanks Obama!?

Anti-imperialist techno-science in India and China

I’ve gotten a short blog piece published in Hyphen, an Asian American magazine/blog, titled “The Subversive Roots of Asian Scientists and Engineers”.  It takes a look at the way nationalist anti-imperialist movements in India and China through the early and mid 1900s consistently merged with domestic engagement with science and technology, and the way this influenced education policy after the 1940s — laying the groundwork for creating a large mass of educated and skilled scientists and engineers who could migrate to higher-waged jobs in the US.  The underlying theme of the post is to look at the model minority stereotype from a more historical and global perspective, as well as in a way that reinforces radical leftist politics.

In light of this history, those who talk about how minorities need to stop talking about racism, and simply emulate Asian success, are asking for an irreconcilable contradiction.  “Asian success” is rooted in a history of political militancy and anti-racism, that put scientific and technological development and education at the center of their strategies, and which required major victories against imperial subjugation to fully play out.  If Black and Latinx people are to “follow” the example of Asians, then the first step would be a re-affirmation of ongoing liberation struggles against white supremacy and US imperialism.

From slavery to imperialism

What were the continuities between the elites of the slave economies of the southern United States before the Civil War, and the elites that pushed the formal imperial expansion of the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s?

This was a question that crossed my mind earlier this year when I was doing some casual reading and reflecting on the aftermath of the Civil War.  Aside from the brief period immediately after the Civil War, when the slaver/planter elites were on the backfoot during Radical Reconstruction, the relative socio-economic and political power of these elites remained largely intact.  Thus, it stands to reason that the interests of these former slavers was a powerful force behind the expansion of US imperialism by the turn of the 20th century.

Jacobin has recently published an interview with the author of This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy (2016), which re-empahsizes the power of the Southern planter class in the US state, and which touches on issue of foreign policy.  One relevant argument discussed in the interview is that the US slaver elite saw slavery as necessarily being an international system, and pushed US foreign policy to act accordingly prior to the Civil War.  For example, on views on Cuba:

…many Southerners wanted to acquire Cuba, for all different reasons: some had immediate commercial interests involved, some of them wanted to project US power into the Caribbean, and of course there was the pure domestic political desire for Cuba as another slave state (or many slave states).

But other slaveholders were much more ambivalent about annexing Cuba. And ultimately, the most important thing for Southern leaders was not territorial acquisition, but the preservation of Cuban slavery. Whether Cuba was Spanish, American, French, independent, whatever, mattered far less than whether it was slave or free. They would much rather see Cuba Spanish and enslaved than American and free. It’s not fundamentally about political allegiance, it’s about the preservation of a certain kind of social system, and a certain kind of class power.

Another relevant book that I recently came across is The White Pacific: US Imperialism and Black Slavery in the South Seas after the Civil War (2007), which looks at the continuities between the southern slave economy and the slave/indentured-labor markets of various Pacific Islands. From the summary:

Worldwide supplies of sugar and cotton were impacted dramatically as the U.S. Civil War dragged on. New areas of production entered these lucrative markets, particularly in the South Pacific, and plantation agriculture grew substantially in disparate areas such as Australia, Fiji, and Hawaii. The increase in production required an increase in labor; in the rush to fill the vacuum, freebooters and other unsavory characters began a slave trade in Melanesians and Polynesians that continued into the twentieth century.

The White Pacific ranges over the broad expanse of Oceania to reconstruct the history of “blackbirding” (slave trading) in the region. It examines the role of U.S. citizens (many of them ex-slaveholders and ex-confederates) in the trade and its roots in Civil War dislocations. What unfolds is a dramatic tale of unfree labor, conflicts between formal and informal empire, white supremacy, threats to sovereignty in Hawaii, the origins of a White Australian policy, and the rise of Japan as a Pacific power and putative protector.

All of this just goes to show how important it is to trace the way class and capitalism undergoes a constant process of decomposition and recomposition.  Nothing in history is really “new”–its always built on the formations and movements and dynamics of previous eras.  A more optimistic look at this dynamic can be seen in the evolution of the radical left in this era: the Radical Republicans paved the way for the Knights of Labor, which paved the way for the Industrial Workers of the World and the Socialist Party of America.