At Sparta as at Athens

Right, so I just wanted to make a few short comments on the question of autonomy and self-organisation. And what I’ve been thinking about in this regard is the great flowering of minority radicalism in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. Everybody, of course, knows of the Black Panthers, the great trailblazers of this sort of self-organisation, and there’s an enormous amount could be (and has been) written about them. In some ways, though, I’m at least as interested in the groups that came after and which, in contrast to the rather inchoate politics of the Panthers, were a hugely important part of the New Communist Movement.

There were lots and lots of these groups about, but they’re very little known these days and, with the significant exception of Max Elbaum’s invaluable Revolution in the Air, there’s almost no accessible material on them. This is a pity, because there are all sorts of fascinating aspects to the movement that seem really odd to us now.

One might not have expected, for instance, the emergence of Red Guards in San Francisco’s Chinatown, a place that’s been in the news a lot over the last few days. Actually, from the outside, it would have seemed a deeply unlikely place to be a hotbed of radicalism. Much of the community was petty bourgeois (in the strict economic sense) and the leading figures in the community were extremely reactionary people, fiercely loyal to the Kuomintang. And yet, in the late 60s, a very large layer of Chinese youth became radicalised, partly under the influence of the Cultural Revolution and partly inspired by what the Panthers were doing to resist racism in Oakland. And, with the youth in motion, you found old-time Chinese communists, who had kept a very low profile for decades, coming out of the woodwork. And this combination of circumstances led to some fairly strong organisations and the revival of a tradition of militancy that had been almost forgotten.

And you had similar phenomena in other minority communities. And, what was most important, you had organisations that were not simply ethnic advocacy groups but openly identified themselves as part of the revolutionary left.

Now I’m not going to go in any detail into the history of these movements. I want to consider a few points about their strengths and weaknesses and why they failed in the end, after showing so much potential in their early years. This is where a lot of observers go in for the unattractive phenomenon of Marxist hindsight – you know, like in those books telling you what great things Lenin and Trotsky could have achieved had they only had Cliff or Grant around to advise them. Often the criticism says more about the critic than about the criticised – if you ever hear anyone saying that the problem with the Black Panthers was that they didn’t build a multiracial socialist party with a transitional programme and an orientation to the industrial working class, it’s a bit like criticising a fish for not having feathers.

In the end, the failures of the movements had a lot to do with a period, a fair bit to do with state repression and yes, their own mistakes were a significant factor. But we shouldn’t be so arrogant as to assume that we, the possessors of hindsight, are immune from making those mistakes.

There are three issues I’d like to point out.

The first is that minority radicals, in their great majority, were drawn to some variant of Third World Marxism. This is often held against them, but it’s quite understandable. Yes, cultural links might explain why Puerto Rican radicals might turn to Castroism, or Chinese (and Korean and Filipino) radicals to Maoism. Yes, the CPUSA’s tradition of antiracist work might explain the affinity of many Black militants to pre-1956 Stalinism. But it goes beyond that. The big attraction of these brands of Marxism was their practical involvement in the anti-colonial struggle. Which wasn’t just a matter of “Third World solidarity” or some theory of ethnic minorities as “internal colonies”. You literally couldn’t be a Chinese militant in San Francisco without opposing the Kuomintang, you couldn’t be a Puerto Rican militant in New York without having something to say about what was happening on the island. It’s sobering to realise how few minority radicals were attracted to Trotskyism, which after all is supposed to be the permanent revolution tendency and has an impressively sophisticated theoretical apparatus for dealing with racism and imperialism.

The second is the question of democracy. Let’s take the Black Panthers, who get cut a lot of slack in retrospect because of their cool image. You can talk about the various failings of the Panthers in terms of, say, the primitiveness of their politics, or their backward attitudes towards women, or how the movement became vulnerable to an influx of criminal elements. Most of the Panthers’ internal failings could have been dealt with had they been a democratic movement, but they weren’t. The internal regime of the BPP was one of total military centralism, combined with a compulsory personality cult of “Supreme Servant of the People” Huey Newton. Weirdly enough, although the more orthodox Maoist and neo-Stalinist groups continued to uphold the monolithic party as an ideal, their record in this respect was actually much better than that of the Panthers.

Finally, we have a history on the left of clever white blokes pontificating about whether or not minorities have the right to self-organise. This is really a moot point, not to say an entirely counter-productive discussion. History teaches us that minorities have a habit of self-organising without bothering to ask the permission of clever white blokes. That’s how it works in the real world, and that’s how it should be.

There are some rather transparent parallels for the present day, but I’ll leave them to yourselves for the time being.


  1. johng said,

    April 12, 2008 at 12:55 pm

    Have to admit I’ve never heard a left wing white bloke pontificating about whether minorities have a right to self organise. perhaps i don’t get out a lot.

  2. April 12, 2008 at 3:44 pm

    This particular question has always been a burning interest of mine: how the ‘new communist movement’ attracted tens of thousands of activists of color while Trotskyism attracted tens of dozens. Groups like the Black Workers League (a product of Detroit Black labor radicalism), I Wor Kuen (a radical Chinese American group), and the August Twenty Ninth Movement (an influential Chicano communist group) were at the cutting edge of labor solidarity campaigns (Farrah strike, 1972), Africa support work (African Liberation Day, etc), and a whole range of slightly post-60’s social movements in the U.S. The other question is why did the 1970’s antirevisionist/NCM movement collapse so completely.
    Despite these being based in racially/nationally oppressed groups, all of these formations declared their intent to forge a “multinational communist party”. Just as U.S. Trotskyism started off in one organization and ended up in 23 different groups, U.S. antirevisionism/NCM started off as a thousand local grouplets and attempted to merge by the mid-1970’s.

    Here in Detroit, Michigan it is easy to see why this ‘party building’ push didn’t lead to much. Firstly, the auto industry saw a major downturn in the early 70’s, taking with it the fightback spirit which had been permeating (see “Detroit: I Do Mind Dying” for the blow-by-blow). At the time this looked like the eye of the storm, with a recession and more militancy right around the corner. But Detroit’s rebellious Black working class was being taught a lesson by capital: resist and we’ll make your neighborhoods look like Dresden.

    Black political machines were built in the early 1970’s, which belatedly ushered in the country’s first Black mayors since Reconstruction. Of course this was on the short list of demands put forth by the Black movement, but it also was a bear trap. The Black power movement, especially it’s middle class leadership around groups like CORE, had long advocated ‘community control’. But with no leaver with which to control the economy they were left to ‘manage’ their suffering communities in the face of continued state repression and capital flight.
    Detroit’s Coleman Young came to politics as a red-friendly labor organizer and civil rights activist. He was voted in as Detroit’s first Black mayor and served for the better part of three decades. His tenure turned out to be a sop to the auto industry, an olive branch to the power structure, and a dead end for the Black power era.

    After SDS broke up, ‘party builders’ of every M-L stripe moved to Detroit as part of a movement-wide ‘turn to industry’. No doubt readers of this blog know the drill. These groups were looking to ride the tail of the League of Revolutionary Black workers. Detroit was said to be the Petrograd of the new revolutionary insurgency.
    But what they found was going-nowhere ‘community’ politics and a Black labor movement that was in the process of being totally repressed.
    The depression-inspired ‘upturn’ hoped for the in the 1980’s didn’t happen.
    By the early 80’s most of the self-declared vanguards had collapse.
    Those that didn’t grafted themselves on to Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 88 runs for president, which not shockingly wedded M-Lers to the party they had only slightly ruled out. It was quite a convenient exit strategy.
    From Angola to Sri Lanka, Mao’s actual existing foreign police was not particularly pro-people of color. But in the mid to late 60’s the old Chairman made one or three great anti-colonial pronouncements. Fortunately for him these were widely circulated and good for PR.
    Maoist here in the US had their finger on the zeitgeist of their era: the emerging movement led by people of color. The SWP did a fabulous job tailing Malcolm X (I’m not being disparaging, they were ahead of their time) and for (big points here) defending Robert F. Williams.
    BUT, like the old U.S. Socialist Party of Debs, they had very little in the way of a special program with which to fight white supremacy. For all of it’s flaws, antirevisionism/NCM addressed race like no other force on the left since the CP of the early 1930’s.
    I have a horrible sickness to fess up to: I collect Marxist literature from decades past. I have to say,1970’s antirevisionist/NCM newspapers and journals spend entirely more time examining and-it is suggested-involved in the struggle of people of color. The Trotskyist papers run a story or two about police abuse or Black issues in the unions, but it is muted and most of the time begins on page two or three.
    I’m still a ballpark Trotskyist on the majority of issues, but the Maoists beat us in the 1970’s here in the U.S.
    I’m not suggestion column inches in the party press is why we lost, but there is a reason out there and I want to put my finger on it.
    If anyone wants an update on what antirevisionists/MLers are doing now I’ll write one up for you.

    PS: Trotskyist groups beat Maoists in the 1970’s on two issues the most clearly: gay rights and unions in general. All the ML groups turned to industry, but only the International Socialists (mostly in the Teamsters) really pulled it off. Also, IS and Workers World Party (especially) championed queer liberation while antirevionists either thought gays were a part of the bourgeoisie or would scare the workers.

  3. charliemarks said,

    April 13, 2008 at 5:57 am

    In the film, Panther, it is a Chinese small businessman who turns the BPP onto Maoism…

  4. ejh said,

    April 13, 2008 at 2:09 pm

    OK I admit I looked up the title on Google and couldn’t find it.

  5. johng said,

    April 13, 2008 at 2:12 pm

    Personally I blame the Shactmanites. Only half joking. There is some brilliant archive material available on the web of Hal Draper and others lecturing in the Berkeley teach-ins. Those who took part were to go on to play leading roles in the student movement which through the SDS was to have all kinds of connections with the other movements generated during the period. Despite some excellent interventions in teach-ins the Trots don’t seem to have been able to overcome the marginalisation they suffered through the 1950s and continued to be obsessed with their old internal arguments (the precise tone of voice to be used when saying ‘NLF’ etc). Not nearly as bad as the AWL and similar groups (they did actually take part) but one suspects not greatly inspiring during a period when their were many more inspiring activists. In terms of the Panthers and the various more proletarian off-shoots I strongly suspect the main problem was the appalling past of the CP though, which had done sterling work in the 1930’s before the turn to popular frontism effectively disillusioned a whole generation of black militants (the invisible man etc). Add to that the anti-Communist witch hunts and its not very surprising that when people did start looking for serious ideological answers the alternatives were a bit limited. The other side of things was the lack of synchronisation between economic and political struggles. The massive political upturn around civil rights, anti-vietnam, and then the black power movements did not co-incide with the general offensives against the class that were to begin in the ’70’s. I guess its possible to be unlucky like that.

  6. johng said,

    April 13, 2008 at 2:17 pm

    oh and as so often in these situations what passed for the marxism that had to be critiqued was stalinism, whilst on the other hand the trots were so entirely marginal or on the other hand, by that stage, simply batty (if you had a batty maoist with real forces or a batty trot with none thats not much of a choice) that one suspects most activists facing real state repression and at the same time leading real mass struggles would have had to be pretty motivated to seek them out. There is a contrast with Britain were, despite its many failings, the Trot left grew massively and effectively came to *be* the far left. As far as I can work out the stalinists in Ireland had migrated into the IRA: is there some truth to this?

  7. WorldbyStorm said,

    April 13, 2008 at 3:41 pm

    Not precisely johng, the CPI remained and remains extant and remarkably nostalgic for the USSR. Some certainly did – if we’re talking about the Official IRA (interestingly Peoples Democracy gravitated to PIRA, and in parts to the first incarnation of the IRSP – one might argue that was the magnet for Trotskyists), but I often think that was simply a sort of identification with some, any, existing socialism however flawed. Rereading the United Irishman (from SF) from the late 1960s there were still fairly explicit critical mentions of repressive Eastern European states.

  8. Andy newman said,

    April 13, 2008 at 5:12 pm

    JohnG: “as so often in these situations what passed for the marxism that had to be critiqued was stalinism,”

    Another tired outing for the “a big boy did is and ran away” defence where trots claim they are different from stalinists, depsite being exactly the same in every respect, except thank god they have never had state power.

    I assume the reason that maoism had purchase in 1960s USA was becasue the thesis from mao zedong thought from the nineteen thirties that the main antagonim in Chinese society was japanese occupation, and that the dynamic of a national liberation struggle would grow over into socialism seemed VERY relevent to black Americans in the 1960s, especially as it was reinforced by the positive experience of anti-colonial struggles in the third world winning in this period, and the active efforts of the CCP to identify with that anti-colonialism, hence the Chinese support for the bandung conference, and Zhou En Lai’s visit to Yugoslavia.

    So Maoism appealed becasue its theoretical underpining seemed relevent to their situation, and it was linked to what seemed like current victories, and evident “here and now” successes of national liberation movements in colonial world seemed more attractive than the somewhat abstract notion of working class solidarity in post-MacCarthy USA.

    The appeal of maoism for these black american self educated intellectuals can best be appreciated in Eldridge Cleaver;s “post prison writing and speeches”, where he goes so far as to advocating the Black panther party getting its own nuclear weapons. Though he does explicity talk of an allianc between the Panthers and poor whirte working class americans, he does so on the basis of working class whites at the community level, rather than the workplace, and the panthers seem to have felt that white trade unions were a labour aristocracy benefiting from racism, as far as I can make out from my limited reading. A point of view that is not without some evidence from their experience of prevailing racism.

    Now, we know now that the expereince of maoism in power with the Great Leap Forward and Cultural revolution were pretty disastrous, but it was not so obvious to many at the time – and as has been pointed out by some Chinese intellectuals today, even the negative expereince of the cultural revolution looks differently – for example – through womens’ eyes, as even at its worst Maoism in power was a huge liberation for the position of women compared to what went before; and the same is arguably true of the most oppressed rural peasants.

    It is interesting the even today in nepal the Maoists have a positive appreciation of the cultural revolution which they see as a permanent mechanism against bureaucratistion of the revolution, and “revisionism”.

  9. charliemarks said,

    April 14, 2008 at 6:38 am

    Here’s the link for IMDB:

  10. ejh said,

    April 14, 2008 at 7:44 am

    Bloody awful film, as it happens.

  11. April 14, 2008 at 3:29 pm

    the “Shachtmanite” WP/ISL had some influence among (mainly Black) sharecroppers in southeastern Missouri in the 1940ies, e.g. see

  12. almata said,

    April 14, 2008 at 4:09 pm

    The highpoint for the SWP in terms of black recruitment was in the immediate aftermath of WWII. The SWP did exemplary work fighting Jim Crow in the armed forces. CLR James rejoining the SWP was part of this process.

  13. WorldbyStorm said,

    April 14, 2008 at 8:00 pm

    I kind of enjoyed Panther ejh… a glorious failure on so many different levels…

  14. charliemarks said,

    April 15, 2008 at 12:48 am

    I liked Panther though if i recall correctly there were some elements that seemed a little ridiculous… and an obvious failing (from our perspective) was the lack of a class struggle perspective.

  15. ejh said,

    April 15, 2008 at 6:54 am

    I didn’t give a stuff about the absence of a class struggle perspective, I gave a stuff about the absence of acting, dialogue and other vaguely impotant cinematic elements.

  16. Rob said,

    April 15, 2008 at 2:46 pm

    Thanks for this interesting post Splintered, I personally have a great interest in the Maoism, the Panthers, the New Communist Movement etc., so I always enjoy you posting on these topics. I have actually been thinking about a few of these issues recently owing to a Susan Marks article about exploitation, so I might comment more on this. However, I would like to say a few things on Maoism:

    Firstly, I think people forget that Maoism does have an interesting philosophical basis that transfers into political practice. Marxism and Ortho-Trotskyism etc. have been notoriously bad at dealing (on the theoretical level) with race, gender, ethnicity etc. and their relationship to class. So occasionally you’ll get the terrible ‘they are invented by the ruling class’ type line, which totally seems to miss the point.

    In this respect, the philosophical of underpinnings of Maoism are actually quite useful. In his On Contradiction Mao develops a model of social determination whereby there is a principal contradiction which shapes of influences the multitude of other contradictions that operate within society. However, these other contradictions are not *reducible* to the principal contradiction. For Mao, the principal contradiction is obviously between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, but there are innumerable contradictions which are shaped by this contradiction. So, this means that Mao can take the issue of race, and say that it *does* have a real, material history that is not ‘dependent’ on class struggle. But further he does say that the question of race is *structured* by the ‘principal’ contradiction of class struggle. So in this way Maoism is able to elaborate a non-reductionist, materialist theory of race, gender etc. in a way that no one else really had up until that point.

    Further to this, Mao tends to argue that in given concrete conjunctures different contradictions may assume an overriding importance and temporarily become the principal contradiction. So, for Mao, the struggle against imperialism becomes the principal contradiction in given circumstances. So, this is another way in which Mao’s theory became relevant, as it could be argued that in given circumstances race, gender etc. could become the most important contradictions in the capitalist totality. Obviously this approach has continued influence in the form of Althusserianism and in the stuff put out by the post-Maoists (Badiou, Ranciere) etc.

    Secondly, and linked to this, I would note Andy’s point that ‘the panthers seem to have felt that white trade unions were a labour aristocracy benefiting from racism’. Second international Marxism, Leninism (in most of its variants) and Trotskyism seem to have been loath to address the question as to whether the white working class has benefitted from imperialism. Marx, Lenin , Engels etc. weer all quite willing to say that it *did* – in a short term way – benefit from this – and therefore the task of the workers movement was to try and mobilise the working class against this (Marx’s comments on Ireland come to mind). Lots of Maoists have addressed this issue head on.

    Thirdly, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (I always find it interesting that Marxists leave off the first two words in this phrase), well, again I would point to Andy’s comments on this. Firstly, I would point out that most Ortho-Trots advocated a ‘political revolution’ in the deformed/degenerated workers states, what exactly would that look like? Secondly, the theory behind the GPCR is not exactly unsound, insofar as there seems to be a tendency for ‘workers states’ to become separated from the workers it does seem to be like something has to be done about this. It strikes me that abstract slogans about ‘socialist democracy’ seem to miss the point on this matter, as what counts aren’t formal ‘democratic’ measures, but the meaningful involvement of the populace in shaping their lives. In this regard I do think it’s incumbent on us to explain what can be done about this, whilst I do take the criticisms like the idea of the GPCR can never be a permanent solution to the problem – but the Maoist analysis about the essential problem of a ‘workers state’ seems to be pretty sensible to me.

    I’d also say that the GCPR seemed to be a practical conclusion of the centrality of practice and struggle to Maoism, so it appealed to the same intuitions as found in the ‘socialism from below’ (Lord how I hate that term) crowd.

  17. Andy newman said,

    April 15, 2008 at 4:12 pm

    Rob that is very interesting.

    i think one of the biggest problems among marxists is the erection of self-policing walls between different intellectual and political traditions.

    Though with the benefit of hindsight, we can see that the reality of maoism in power was problematic, there is no need to discount the entire body of maoist thinking and practice, as if we have nothing to learn from them.

  18. Guano said,

    April 16, 2008 at 1:56 pm

    Or perhaps because the Chinese (either directly or through Gen. Giap) had more useful things to say about guerrilla warfare. Samora Machel, Robert Mugabe and Jonas Savimbia have, at various times, been described in the mainstream press as Maoists. This isn’t strictly true, but they did try to use guerrilla strategies that derived from China and Vietnam. The Leninist traditions had nothing to say to liberation movements in rural Africa.

    On the other hand, in the UK, Maoism never seemed at all attractive as, in the Sino-Soviet split, the Chinese were criticising the USSR for not being Stalinist enough. In Portugual post-1974, many Left groups came to the conclusion that the Maoists were agents provocateurs (and if you think about who is head of the European Commission at present they might just have had a point.)

  19. johng said,

    April 18, 2008 at 1:58 pm

    “Another tired outing for the “a big boy did is and ran away” defence where trots claim they are different from stalinists, depsite being exactly the same in every respect, except thank god they have never had state power”

    Andy if Trots really were no different to Stalinists there would be no rational basis to being a Marxist. However as usual you simply ignore any historical detail (the fact that the Stalinists effectively dropped anti-racism disillusioning a whole generation of black activists because of the second world war). I do sometimes wonder where Andy will end up politically with his endlessly jaundiced view of any form of politics moderately to the left of social democracy.

  20. Mike said,

    April 20, 2008 at 6:49 am

    Johng is wrong with regard to the Shactman tendency – more accurately the Draper tendency – it did in fact grow out of the youth radicalisation that was embodied in the SDS. Their major problem was that the pre-existing radical culture was so badly poisoned by Stalinism and that even the relatively small numbers of Stalinist cadre involved in SDS far outnumered the tiny numbers involved with the ISC.All in all the ISC was a tiny current in no more than a couple of cities which could not but mean that there was a vacuum that the so called Maoist gruops expanded to fill.

    As for the League of Revolutionary Black Workers (see post 1 above) I note that some of its cadre were influenced by Martin Glaberman and the other remaining supporters of CLR James based in Detroit. But with that groups opposition to what some here disparage as ‘party builiding’ they had dissolved their group in 1966! With the result that the admitedly interesting writing being produced by the comrades around Glaberman won no audience and left the field open to the rise of Neo-Stalinism (Maoist and non-Maoist) in the form of the NCM and in Detroit the CLP in particular.

  21. April 29, 2008 at 1:32 pm

    […] posts from Splintered Sunrise refer to the KMT election victory in Taiwan, and the influence of Mao Zedong thought among the American New Communist Movement in the 1970s, and the comments discuss the Red Guards in […]

  22. April 29, 2008 at 3:12 pm

    see also “Radical Bloging Is The Main Trend In Our World Today” on the Webpage of Solidarity on todays US-ML-Blogs

  23. chjh said,

    April 29, 2008 at 9:55 pm

    The notion of the erection of self-policing walls between different intellectual and political traditions is an particularly unfortunate metaphor to apply to China. The walls that Chinese Trotskyists spent thirty years imprisoned behind were not self-policed – if only.

  24. ethan said,

    April 30, 2008 at 5:00 am

    Maoism did speak directly to the revolutionary nationalists who came out of the black student movement – from late SNCC and RAM to the Panthers and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers and even into the 70s with Amiri Baraka’s Congress of Afrikan Peoples and the Youth Organization for Black Unity, both previously anti-Marxist cultural nationalist groups. Trotskyism in its main US form [Cannon’s SWP], was condescending toward existing left formations, preferring to recruit untainted newbies out of mass movements and loose coalitions directly into their formations.

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