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.