At the Providence Anarchist Book Fair, August 15, 2009
James Herod, August 26, 2009
It was obvious why several good friends of mine like him. He is an engaging man, with a low-keyed and modest demeanor. Unlike the two other former Black Panthers I've heard speak, he showed no trace of arrogance or condescension toward his predominantly white audience. He did not preach at us, scold us for not being revolutionary enough, or try to shame us into starting a guerrilla war against the US ruling class. Plus he was clearly a sincere, committed, and determined revolutionary who had been and still is in the struggle for the long haul.
The setting was a workshop held at the Book Fair from 6:00 to 7:30 pm. Ashanti and his Palestinian wife, Vivian, had just moved to Providence. He mostly wanted to introduce himself, explain who he was, describe his past activism, and find out what was going on in Providence. He talked a lot about his former work in the Black Panther Party, in the Black Liberation Army (BLA), about his nine years in prison, and about what he was interested in doing now. He was seeking to learn how he could plug into the radical movement in Providence.
He seemed to enjoy enormous credibility among these young anarchist activists. There is the serious danger here, however, of romanticizing the Panthers, the BLA, and doing time in prison. Even though Alston now identifies with anarchism, he offered virtually no retrospective criticism of Panther politics. Yet, not only were the Panthers not anarchist, they were not even socialist. They were hardly even aware of capitalism. Their party was extremely hierarchical. Even their best programs, like the breakfast program, were based on a "serve the people" model (as opposed to fostering self-sufficiency). It's true that they stood up to the cops, and took up arms to defend themselves and their communities, but these militant qualities cannot make up for a flawed politics. It is a mistake for contemporary anarchists to look to the Panthers for inspiration. But Alston did not point this out.
Actually, the problem goes even deeper. During his main presentation he did not once mention the word capitalism. Nor did he use any of the following words even once: class, working class, workers, or wage-slavery. He didn't even use the bastard word (from identity politics) "classism." During the discussion period (Q&A) that followed he mentioned the word capitalism once, when speaking against MegaChurches, who were preaching a kind of vulgar capitalism, he said. In advising us not to look to leaders to solve our problems he described John F. Kennedy as a "ruling class figure." That was his only mention of class in the entire hour-and-a-half workshop. A few of his questioners had used the words capitalism, class, and workers, but he did not reciprocate, or pick up on the ideas.
So then, what was his conceptual framework? Two of his main concepts were Imperialism and Colonization. He applies these internally to the United States. He sees blacks in USAmerica as an internal colony. They have been colonized, just like Native Americans were, he said. It's legitimate to say that Native Americans were colonized. They were the indigenous inhabitants here. But it makes no sense to apply that category to blacks. They were imported from Africa to work as chattel slaves. They were never a colony of imperialism here. They were, from the beginning, just a part of the capitalist labor force. To say that they were a colony is a gross distortion of the concept.
For Ashanti Alston the world consists of Empire and Colonies. But where is capitalism? Isn't Empire just the international dimension of Capitalism? Isn't it an Empire of Capital? No. Not for him. So what drives imperialism? Who is behind it? Imperialism by whom and for whom? The answer: White Supremacists. White Supremacists create Empire. They are the Imperialists.
This is how capitalism gets dropped from the conceptual framework, which is a key feature of Identity Politics. During his talk he also mentioned, in addition to AIM (American Indian Movement), the Young Lords, "heterosexism" (thus implying gay and lesbian liberation), and women's struggles. Thus he touched on the main groups of Identity Politics. He never talked about any workers' struggles for liberation from capitalism.
But at least he was uncompromising in his opposition to imperialism, insisting that it must be brought down totally. He is definitely not a reformist.
For someone like me, listening to Alston talk about the Black Panthers and the Black Liberation Army, his talk served as a sort of recap of how Identity Politics emerged. The scene was the late 1960s. The New Left, or the Movement as we called it, was beginning to disintegrate. When SDS split in the summer of 1969, and one wing decided to take up arms against the Empire, forming the Weather Underground, the New Left's long-standing hatred of the working class started to yield ominous results. The Movement had always dismissed the working class for being racist, sexist, and imperialist, as indeed it mostly was. The Empire (capitalism was never mentioned) was going to be brought down by Third World Revolutions. The Weathermen merely hoped to harass the Empire from "the belly of the beast." But if a revolution were to happen here, it would be made, not by the working class, but by the Movement – by women, blacks, queers, students.
When we add into this brew the New Left's thorough repudiation of the Old Left (and hence of Marx, and the Marxian analysis of capitalism), the scene is set for the emergence of Identity Politics: Women's Liberation, Black Liberation, and Queer Liberation, the three movements that were to dominate the Left in the United States for the next forty years. It was also within this same political context and conceptual framework that the Panthers and the BLA emerged. These ideas were in the air. Unfortunately, a full account of this history will have to wait for a longer essay.
Another key concept Alston used during his talk was "self-determination." But this idea arose in the context of speaking about the internal black colony, which needed to achieve "self-determination." It is the whole colony that needs to achieve self-determination, which includes businessmen, landlords, shop keepers, civil servants, and everyone else (but no mention even here of workers). That is, there is no class differentiation in this concept. It is not seen, even partially, as workers fighting for and winning workers' self-management of their workplaces by kicking their bosses out. No. It is the "community" as a glob that will achieve self-determination. So once again capitalism is left out of the picture, as are the classes which capitalism creates.
It is interesting, and perhaps significant, that Alston uses the concept of self-determination rather than other similar expressions, like community autonomy, self-management, or self-government, expressions more typically used by anarchists. The concept of self-determination is closely associated with nation-states, and the National Liberation Movements of the colonial world. Many of these movements were not anti-capitalist. They sought to oust their imperial masters, but only in order to set themselves up as a local ruling class within their still capitalist economy. They soon discovered, however, that their capitalist imperial masters were a step ahead and simply shifted from direct colonial rule to indirect colonial rule, that is, to neo-colonialism. Not being anti-capitalist, these movements were not class based, just like the struggles among blacks and native americans for "self-determination" are not class based. Many Native Americans seem to think that if only they could get their land back, and establish their own independent and self-determined nation, that their problems would be solved and they would be free. This is absurd, of course, especially for anarchists, who don't even believe in nations.
There were also many national liberation struggles which were anti-capitalist, namely, those fought by Marxist parties. These movements also discovered, even in victory, and much to their dismay, that they could not escape the Empire of Capital, but were simply re-colonized in new ways.
Thus, the concept of self-determination is compromised, and has always been ambiguous, with regard to true liberation. It is first of all a myth that any nation can be "self-determined." Every nation is intimately linked in numerous ways to the capitalist international system of nation-states, and to the capitalist world market and division of labor, from which is it impossible to escape, as a single nation. Second, almost by definition, the concept of self-determination washes out class, and hence capitalism, as an explanatory factor.
A few years back Alston helped establish the Anarchist People of Color. This gets us back to White Supremacy. The only reason for such an organization is to separate these people from whites. Why is that necessary? Because whites are the carriers of White Supremacy. The two ideas go hand in hand. One is meaningless without the other. These are two really awful concepts, which have done and are doing enormous damage to the anti-capitalist struggle, and hence to the eradication of racism also. They simply eliminate capitalism (and class) from the analysis. Regrettably, space in this short essay is insufficient for a thorough critique and demolition of these ideas. This will have to wait for another day.
Toward the end of the workshop Alston did start talking in more general terms about community building. But he made no effort to couch this within a different conceptual framework than the one he had already presented. So it fell sort of flat. It really didn't make much sense. How were these white anarchists to relate to all this? How can they undertake community building within the theoretical framework he had outlined, that of Identity Politics. What tasks can they undertake within this conceptual framework?
Well, not many. Their enemy, in this scheme of things, is their own white supremacy, heterosexism, or patriarchy. These attitudes and behavioral patterns are the things they have to fight against. When you eliminate capitalists as the enemy this is what you are left with. Thus the 97% of the population in the United States which is heterosexual, the 70% which is neither Latino-, African-, Asian-, nor Native-American, the 49% which is male are reduced to dealing with their own prejudices as the only path toward liberation. So instead of fighting their oppressors (they have none according to this analysis), they must see themselves as the oppressors and try to stop oppressing. Could this get any weirder? Or more ludicrous? Is it any wonder that this ideology has no appeal whatsoever to the vast majority of the population?
Ex-Panthers, it seems, have some difficulty making the transition to anarchism, like withLorenzo Ervin's ridiculous attempt to combine black nationalism with anarchism, or with Kazi Toure's glorification of guerrilla warfare. With Ashanti Alston it is Identity Politics that is messing up his anarchism. How sad it is that his race seems to have blocked him from comprehending the world in which he lives.