ISBO's second book: The Bottom Will Rise and Create a New World
Table of Contents
Welcome to the second book in the series The Bottom Will Rise and Create a New World produced by the organizing collective of the International School for Bottom-up Organizing (ISBO).
Readers of our first book will know that ISBO is training organizers from among the most oppressed to lead in the creation of a new world revolutionary movement based on egalitarianism. In our experience, the most oppressed are the poorest, darkest-skinned people on the planet. It is they we think are most capable of leading the movement to create a new, egalitarian world, and we especially need the leadership of the women among them. We believe that there is an unspoken consensus among the people at the bottom that humanity should be organized along a principle of share and share alike in unity. The job of organizers is to bring this agreement into conscious action.
ISBO has organizing projects in several areas of the Americas, in which we are working to put this vision into practice. We are located in the Americas at this time, but envision a united, international movement. Our organizing projects provide the practice that produces, tests and corrects the ideas and understanding we need as we develop our international movement.
We are currently experimenting with creating egalitarian prototypes, including working to construct self-sufficient economies in the areas where we are organizing. We expect that our third book will report on the successes and failures we experience as we walk along that path. The guiding principle of these prototype economies is that each person honestly give what they can of resources and labor, and receive what is collectively produced based on need.
All the ideas you will see in these pages are works in progress. We don't feel that we are in possession of "the truth," and invite all of our readers to agree, disagree, add and subtract - and mainly, to become active with us either as organizers or much-needed supporters and helpers.
All of the ideas in these pages are the product of collective discussion based on practice and on our knowledge of history. We are actively researching the lessons of the international movement against slavery and the Underground Railroad in the Americas in particular. The actually words you will read were crafted from our collective discussion by two of our organizing trainers, Curtis Muhammad and Kathy Fischer. Chapter One therefore introduces them to you. The following chapters contain documents coming out of our practice and our research over the last two years.
Thank you for reading, and we hope to hear from you soon!
You can contact us at:
or P.O. Box 7295, Port Antonio Post Office, Portland, Jamaica
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Who We Are and How We Came to Be Building Revolution Together
Curtis Muhammad and Kathy Fischer
It is hard to say where to begin our story. The thread can be traced back and back and back to the beginning of inequality among humans. (Remember that the beginning of inequality is quite separate from the beginning of humans; in fact, we've existed in inequality a mere five or ten percent of the time humans have lived on the earth.) But for the sake of time, let us be modern, and only take our story back as far as the struggle against slavery in the Americas.
We find that personal histories are mingled into the history of the movement. Our own personal histories are examples of this. We share some of that with you not because we think our histories are special, but because we think they contain events similar to what millions of others can also find in their family histories.
One of us comes from a family that remembers an African ancestor named Reuben Upkins who claimed his own emancipation in the 1770s in New York and gave his family the freedom name they still bear today. The other comes from a family that remembers a Native American ancestor named Massassoit who led a rebellion against enslavement and genocide in the Massachusetts colony and had his head put on a pole in 1676 in the Plymouth, where it remained for 25 years.
More recently, one of us remembers walking past the tree on which his cousin was lynched, each time he went to church. The other listened at the kitchen table to the stories of her aunts, uncles and cousins murdered in gas chambers, and of her ancestors active in the fight against slavery in the US.
The father of one of us was forced to flee his town and baby son after defending himself in a gun battle with the Klan. The father of the other was nearly lynched in Louisiana while helping to organize black and white sugar workers into a union.
One of us as a teenager became an organizer in the middle of the storm, in southern Mississippi. The other as a teenager soaked up the stories told by Mississippi freedom fighters taking respite in her home, and stepped onto the more rearguard battle lines at her school on the South Side of Chicago.
One is the proud, angry and determined embodiment of the unquenchable insistence on equality and freedom that is the lifeblood of the dark-skinned people who find themselves at the root of the tree of human oppression. The other is a descendent of freedom fighters who has realized in her belly since youth that the spark of freedom for all humans lies in the hands and hearts of the people at humanity's roots.
The dictionary defines "radical" as "growing from a root of a plant." We are radicals. We are dedicated to the liberation of humanity, led by those at the root, from the ground up.
* * *
This is how we think it happened: the rough outline from slavery till now.
Naturally, African people resisted enslavement on all levels, and all the levels came down through time in different ways. At the earliest, people fought and died during capture, during the Middle Passage and on arrival. The first of them came into a society of servants that included kidnapped European poor whites, and a dangerous unity developed among them. They say that "white" Americans whose families go back to those days also carry black blood. Together these folk ran away and joined rebellious Native Americans, who took them in as brothers and sisters. (Undoubtedly, the two of us - one called black and the other called white - each carry the blood of black, white and Native American ancestors in our veins.)
Further along, those in power realized they had to drive a permanent wedge between the "races" (as they defined them). By convincing white laborers that they were "better" than black, they produced for themselves a whole set of people who fitted shackles to their own ankles and clicked shut the lock. They slaughtered and exiled the original occupants of the continent, decimating their numbers, but always against fearless resistance. Meanwhile, they worked also on the minds of black people to convince them of their own inferiority, and, although they had much effect, they never were successful in snuffing out the fire of resistance.
The next several centuries for black folk were stories of rebellion: informal and organized uprisings, runaway colonies, and the creation of a massive international organizing project to carry slaves away to freedom. The runaway colonies in many countries were governments unto themselves, sometimes including tens of thousands of people. Most of these efforts were aided and abetted by indigenous people and conscious whites. The leadership was often collective and included women and men.
Although some rebellions and maroon colonies were run from the top down, in many others the predominant theme was equality and unity of purpose; one for all and all for one. Although most of this history has been hidden or destroyed (just as the European colonizers destroyed the temples and libraries of the people they found living in the Americas when they arrived), some of it has been documented, and more of it lives in the stories passed down through the generations.
One of the tasks that has been assigned to us by the blood of our ancestors is to uncover and display that history for the use of future generations' struggle for liberation.
We have come across communities of escaped slaves that trained their children to go back into the belly of the beast and become organizers. We have come across documents that recognize the complete equality of humans at a time when even the most revolutionary Europeans still considered dark skin a mark of savagery and the female gender weak and inferior. We will continue to dig into this history and allow light to fall on it, for within those experiences and thoughts of our ancestors, we believe lies a guide to liberation for all people.
* * *
When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, history converged, and our story also converged. But to understand the two strands of that convergence, we need to step back a hundred and fifty years.
In the 1800s, oppressed people the world over were rising up and learning how to defeat the enemy. In the Americas, it was the story we were just telling, of slave rebellions, maroon communities and underground railroads: of people learning how to fight for, create and defend equality. Our knowledge of the struggles at that time in Asia, Africa and Australia is limited to a general picture of rebellion against slavery and colonialism. In Europe, it was the newly creating working class rising against their exploitation, and the people of education studying them and drawing a map from them to a future of equality.
Some of the most forward-looking events in those times (in the Americas and Europe, for we confess our knowledge is mainly limited to those places) were
- maroon colonies of escaped slaves, such as the Elgin Settlement at the end of the Underground Railroad in Ontario, Canada,
- the Underground Railroad in North America itself - a group of over 3,000 organizers led by escaped slaves,
- the Reconstruction communal experiments in the US South, led by former slaves, and
- the Paris Commune.
It is particularly unfortunate that the European revolutionaries were limited in their vision by the racism of the time, for as they developed the ideas that would frame world revolutionary practice for the next hundred fifty years, they ignored the lessons of the black American revolutionaries. This proved to be a fatal oversight.
At the same time that the liberation movements in the Americas were being systematically taken apart and destroyed, the communist movement took hold in Europe and began to spread throughout the world. Its vision of the laboring masses rising up to overthrow the oppressors once and for all, and of establishing a world of equality and sharing, grabbed people's hearts and imaginations.
By the 1920s and 30s, communists were beginning to understand that their vision must include working people of color. In the US South, some of them courageously struggled to build unions of black and white together, in some cases uniting those the slave owners had spent so much effort in dividing. This organizing was one of the threads participating in the development of the mass movements of the 1960s. The efforts to fight for black leadership within the movements of the 1930s were often opposed by the main communist party leadership, and indeed black leadership never developed in a significant way within the communist movement.
The Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s did have black leadership, because they were initiated and led by black students and the poorest of Southern black folk. From the time that Reconstruction was crushed in the 1870s, black communities in the South had organized to take care of themselves in a hostile environment. There was a long history of sharing in farm communities and of collectively taking care of needs such as health care, education, and self-defense against racist attack. The young people who grew to lead the Civil Rights and Black Power movements came mainly out of this history, and some also out of the history of communist organizing in the South. The convergence of these two strands had a profound impact on the future of the revolutionary movement.
But despite their bravery and profound mass impact, neither Civil Rights nor Black Power produced liberation or equality. Neither did the victorious communist revolutions of the 20th century, nor the national liberation movements in former colonies, which often were also led by communists. By the time of Katrina, not only had Russia and China become leading capitalist governments whose people suffered under tremendous oppression, but the unity of US radicals had been thoroughly disrupted, with a black thread and a white thread pretty much separate since the early 1970s despite some attempts to build unity.
When the two of us met again for the first time since the 60s, what ignited our work together was the vision of another convergence of the two historic strands: of bringing the communists together with young black revolutionaries, under the leadership and in the service of Katrina survivors. We hoped that bringing those forces together during the trauma of capitalism's attack on the black people of New Orleans would once again light the fires of mass movement that we saw in the 30s and the 60s. Maybe this time, we could overcome the mistakes of the past and surge forward toward liberation once again.
We were dramatically mistaken. The attempt to organize the poor, black survivors of Katrina was attacked on all sides and by all organizations: all levels and parties of government, Homeland Security, the FBI, liberals, anarchists, black nationalists and organized communist groupings. We were completely isolated and eventually defeated - at least on the turf of New Orleans itself.
In enormous pain, disappointment and confusion, we retreated to try to understand the lessons of this trauma and discover a way forward.
What we have concluded so far - and this is theory that can only be tested in practice - is that the communist movement's failures stem from racism. (We include black revolutionary parties in this assessment.) We came to this conclusion despite the fact that in the 20th century, some communists fought and died in anti-racist struggles, and raised black-white equality to a level of principle in theory. Communist theory for its first hundred or more years had said that people of color first must attain independent capitalism before they would be ready to fight for communism and equality. This was the theory of all communist parties until the late 60s, when a few - which were in large part products of the US civil rights struggle - began to move beyond that analysis. There was a qualitative shift among breakaway communists who rejected the old Soviet-line parties, which had forsaken revolution; among some, there was an inkling of rejection of the nationalist anti-colonial revolution idea and a holding up of egalitarian principle. But this shift was not yet a complete break from the old ideas that held the movement back. As an overall theory, communist thought from its birth left out the revolutionary experience and thinking of the world's people of color. In particular, the African-led anti-slavery revolution and the egalitarian thrust of organizations and communities in the Americas were overlooked. This was not because the European communists didn't know about them, but because their estimate was that African peoples and their struggles existed within a lower and more backward layer of humanity than European peoples and their struggles.
Communism maintained that the most advanced class was the industrial working class of Europe, and, later, of other mainly white parts of the world. We have concluded that the concept of class must be deepened to include skin color, because capitalism made skin color a marker of class, a symbol and excuse for exploitation. The poorest and most oppressed of the laboring peoples are, with very few exceptions, those with the darkest skins. This fact has created the immense political force of internalized racism - the heaviest chain on oppressed people of all hues. Our hypothesis is that the only way to remove this chain is by organizing the people at the bottom of the social and economic structure of capitalism to lead all oppressed people to rise against our common oppression. The communist movement, despite its courage and commitment to equality, has not understood the vital necessity of black leadership. The black nationalist movement has not understood the common oppression of nearly all of humanity and the necessity for the poorest of dark-skinned folk to be the leaders of a united movement for liberation. The people who came closest to that (that we are aware of) were the African-Americans of 19th century North America who led the struggle to overthrow slavery, and their white and indigenous allies within that movement. They had a vision not only of ending slavery, but also of creating an egalitarian society to replace it.
The communist and nationalist revolutionaries of the 20th century both submitted to the temptations of wealth and power that resulted from becoming rulers of nations. We draw two lessons from these betrayals. One is that egalitarian revolutionaries must not be nation-builders or nation-rulers; ours must be an international vision and struggle. The other is that no small group of advanced thinkers can hold power as representatives of the masses of oppressed people: the masses of oppressed people themselves must hold power.
This raises the unresolved question (in our minds) of how revolutionaries should organize themselves. We tend, at this time, to think that revolutionaries should position themselves as organizers rather than as the vanguard that most revolutionary parties consider themselves. "Vanguard" means a leading position, out in front of a movement, or leading the military into battle. A problem with this idea is that those who consider themselves in the front cannot help but consider the masses of oppressed people as followers, people who need to be "won over." They come to think that they are at a higher level than the mass, and therefore more able to make correct decisions than the rest of the people. This idea led directly to corruption when the vanguard party became the instrument of state power. We feel that revolutionary organizers should think of ourselves as servants of the people rather than as their leaders. Our role should be to put all the knowledge, experience and skills we possess at the service of the people, to organize people around principles of strict egalitarianism, and to be the facilitators who enable the people themselves to rule in their own name.
How this will look in reality is not completely clear to us. We think that the anti-slavery warriors who planned to establish a liberated zone in the Appalachian Mountains and conduct a guerilla war in the mid-19th century had a vision of it. We also think that Stalin and Mao and the people around them had a vision of it that was extinguished (or deserted by them) before it could take form. (We refer to the discussions around a new constitution of the Soviet Union proposed by Stalin in 1936, in which he advocated removing the communist party from the state, saying that "all power belongs to the working people of town and country," and to the egalitarian thrust of the Cultural Revolution in China, which attempted to remove corrupt party members from power and establish complete egalitarianism and internationalism.) These are also parts of our history we are committed to lifting up to the light.
* * *
A note on men and women, love and revolution:
Readers may expect a document named "Our Story" to include a more personal note. We are a man and a woman. We are a black man and a white woman. There are not many partnerships like ours trying to do what we are doing. We have raised many eyebrows. Even in this day and age, the combination of racism and sexism, both so deeply embedded in the human psyche by this capitalist system we live in, have caused former comrades to make each of us aware that because we are working with each other, they do not trust us. On each "side," there is an assumption that one of us is using the other.
Most assume that we are intimate partners: a man and a woman together? Must be. Some assume that our political unity is a product of sexual attraction and as such can be disregarded. (Marx and Engels, Huey and Eldridge, Stokely and Rap didn't have this problem.) Indeed, we ourselves at first assumed that we must be intimate partners, until we realized that the powerful feeling that drew us together was not sex or individual love, but rather a mutual, abiding love for humanity and revolutionary spirit. It took some time and some pain, but we were eventually able to figure out that we are not a couple; we are a pair of revolutionaries working with each other to advance the revolutionary movement.
We learned and are continuing to learn things in that process that make us see that male-female issues are on the front burner of the human struggle and the revolutionary movement. Relationships between male and female human beings have been complex, fraught, and frayed since the rise of that two percent of humanity that managed somehow to grab property and power for its own and rule the rest of us. We don't know, but we think it is possible that the very first form of human oppression came with the disruption of the equality between the sexes that was the hallmark of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Certainly under capitalism, people regard their mates as their property, and sex as a commodity to be bought, sold: owned, whether by prostitution or by marriage. Because sexism is so deep among our people, it has become a key focus of our ongoing research and in our on-the-ground organizing laboratory.
We challenge every aspect of sexism and all the accepted roles and divisions between men and women. Humanity finds itself living by rules that are not related to equality, humanity or honesty. Masses of people hold to standards of monogamy that everyone knows it aren't real for huge percentages of people. They accept different standards of sexual and relationship behavior for men and women. Or they practice marriage that encourages multiple wives and partners for men and punishes women by death for having multiple partners. Rape is practiced on a mass scale. Murder of sexual partners, overwhelmingly of women, is practiced on a mass scale. And at the same time, men en masse are divorced from their function as parents, separated from their fatherhood. Black men in particular are demonized as the cause of everything wrong with the family and with youth, and taught to judge themselves failures if they can't provide financial support for their children. Women around the world will tell you that their men are the cause of most of their problems. And vice versa. The amount and depth of anger is mind-boggling. It is as if the enemy has crept into the heart of our communities in the night and turned our most intimate relationships into battlefields.
Humanity is living an intricate web of lies and misunderstandings between men and women. Sometimes it seems nearly impossible to untangle ourselves from it. We suspect that future generations will come closer to answers about how men and women will best work out issues like sexuality and love. What we know, however, is that a human being, and human sexuality, is not property that can be owned and controlled by another human being. We know that without developing love, trust, respect and unity between men and women, we cannot move the revolutionary struggle forward.
Our organizing work is the laboratory where we learn the truth and errors in our theories from the people themselves. Poor, black women from the ground have raised these issues within our work. We have found that our recent organizing is characterized by ongoing profound, painful and honest discussions about experiences ranging from child rape to absent fathers. Women and girls do not feel safe in their own communities and sometimes in their own homes. Men and boys feel like they are expected to participate in behaviors that violate their own sense of humanity and justice, and like they are being blamed for things they can't control. These discussions have resulted in heartfelt decisions to address these problems, by for example confronting men in the community who abuse young girls, by extending the conversation to family and friends, and by including male and female in everything we do, from child care to security. Perhaps this sort of organizing will eventually result in young people who grow up to not automatically assume that a male and female revolutionary working together are a couple.
We hope that you, our readers, will judge our story and our work on its merits, without the allowing sexism and racism to cloud your vision.
* * *
We do not know what we will see in our lifetimes. History seems to be moving rather slowly at this time. But it is clear that the movement for liberation of humanity from oppression needs a new vision. We do not reject those heroic revolutionary fighters who came before us, however imperfect their vision was. We know we stand on their shoulders. We honor our ancestors in the struggle, and consciously draw from the best of the anti-slavery struggles and the best of the communist and anti-colonial struggles, but we step in a new direction from all of them. We think revolutionaries today need to have the courage to break from the loyalty to past beliefs that has led to stagnation. We think the courage to do that will come mainly from those at the roots, at the bottom, those whose commitment to freedom and equality is not hindered by such loyalties. Therefore, we have turned our organizing efforts and our research and writing to the service of new organizations of people intent on creating a new world from the ground up. Our outlook is to test these new theories by training revolutionary organizers who will build egalitarian prototype organizations and eventually prototype communities - liberated zones. As that practice develops, a way forward for world liberation from all forms of oppression can hopefully become more visible.
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Using Historical Research to Study the Science of Liberation
presented to Graduate History Seminar at the University of the West Indies Mona, Jamaica, March, 2010 by Curtis Muhammad and Kathy Fischer for ISBO
Always remember you have within you
the strength, the patience and the passion
to reach for the stars to change the world.
escaped slave and organizer of the Underground Railroad in North America
Introduction to our research goals
Our goal as historians is to study the science of liberation that was used over and over again by Africans in the Americas struggling to be free.
It is our contention that virtually everyone else who has studied the question of how to transform an oppressive society, including Marx and the Marxists, has ignored this knowledge and experience. Those who desire to see a better world are all paralyzed, not knowing how to get out of the mess the world is in, fearing that there is nothing to put in the place of rampant capitalism, lacking information on how to achieve liberation and how to sustain and run a just world.
In our view, humanity has always struggled to live a just, caring and loving existence, and there exists in the communities of the most oppressed an educational system that trains people how to do that. For us, that is where the "academy" resides: the highest level of education is learning the methodology of how to care for your family, your community and your world. We are proposing a different concept of academics, of education, of everything. Our purpose in studying history is to help us build a new world, which requires us to be bold and creative, to think outside the box. Along with a laboratory in which to try out knew hypotheses, this is what a scientific method requires.
If we want to understand how to establish justice and equality, how to liberate people, we should study those who did just that in the Americas, and their descendants. Our purpose is not only the documentation of history, but also the utilization of its lessons in the real world.
Context of the research on which we are embarking
The context of our research comes from reading and from life experience.
A story: One of us, Curtis Muhammad, lived in Liberia for many years. On his first trip there in 1968, strolling through a cemetery, Curtis was overwhelmed to see his family surname on a headstone. This was a stunning moment because his family had created a unique name for itself generations earlier upon liberation from slavery, and is the only family in the world that bears that name. Last October, in a small village in Nova Scotia, Curtis saw his family name on a ship's ledger of freedmen sent to Canada in 1783 as payment for their services to the British during the American Revolution. This combination of personal documentation and oral history help give outline, context and motivation to our quest.
It is clear that Africans who were brought as slaves to the Americas began immediately to plot resistance, escape and rebellion. Jamaica, in particular, became home to a high percentage of rebels, as a site for initial training of slaves to be sent on to North American ports such as New Orleans, Charlotte and Mobile: the "un-trainable" also became "un-saleable."
Throughout the Americas, hundreds of thousands of slaves escaped and created free communities in which they sustained and governed themselves, raised and educated their children, and which they defended against incredible odds, often for generations.
Tens of thousands also escaped across borders whose crossing granted them freedom. In the US, for example, the Underground Railroad was an organization of 3,000 people who risked their lives over many years to liberate thousands of individuals: an organization created, crafted and led by escaped slaves, mainly women. In former British, American and Portuguese West Africa, there are "tribes" today who descend from slaves that amazingly escaped from British, American and Portuguese territories in the Americas, and who are conscious of that heritage: the So-So Guinea in Guinea, the Congo People in Liberia, the Krio in Sierra Leone, for example. Many of these peoples have roots in Jamaica and North America.
After abolition, Africans experimented with communal and relatively egalitarian living in many places for a time. Jamaicans engaged in the development of Free Villages, a movement about which we want to learn much more. In the United States, the Reconstruction period from approximately 1865 to 1877 saw the development of thousands of collective farming communities across the former slaveholding South, which built their own homes, schools, churches, roads, lumber mills, grain mills, and other industry, as well as sending hundreds of elected officials into local, state and national government. This work was led by recently liberated, illiterate former slaves, and by people who had escaped along the Underground Railroad, established self-sustaining communities in Canada and possibly elsewhere, and who returned to help build a new world for themselves and their brothers and sisters. These experiments were crushed with brutal force and gave way to the Jim Crow period.
The lessons of these experiences live on among the poorest and most voiceless people in the US to this day. For over 80 years, legal racism prevented the participation of African people in the South in government, and maintained a hailstorm of racist terror. Throughout this reign of terror, black communities survived and thrived using the methods of their forebears, from sharing farm implements to creating schools, universities, hospitals and local industry. They maintained a constant, oftentimes violent, struggle against racism that culminated in the mass movement of the 1960s, which abolished legal Jim Crow. The authors of this paper were active participants in that movement, and it is that movement, containing as it does an unbroken thread of resistance going back hundreds of years, that gave birth to the research and organizing work in which we are engaged today.
The outlines described above are written in broad strokes. Our knowledge of these activities and the written documentation of them primarily reflect activities observed by outsiders. Little work has been done to uncover the internal workings of these movements and communities and bring them to light. Most Africans in the Americas have inherited a history that frames them as victims, albeit victims who in some measure resisted their oppression. Written history until now has not framed Africans in the Americas, correctly in our opinion, as experts in the science of liberation. A brief look at the Provisional Constitution crafted by the community of escaped slaves who planned the raid at Harper's Ferry in the US, known to most by the name of its white military commander John Brown, reveals the sophistication of their formulation of how to govern in a just and egalitarian way.
It is this latter history that we strive to lift, learn from and publicize. We plan research in several countries in the Americas to unearth both the history of liberatory struggles and the thread of thought and culture begun in those times that still exists among the grassroots descendants of those struggles today.
The brief report below was written for a general audience after our recent trip to Nova Scotia and Ontario in Canada, following the trail of the Jamaican Maroons, the Black Loyalists, and the Underground Railroad. In each of the communities we visited, we found individuals who possessed tremendous knowledge of the history and many primary resources, often sitting on shelves bundled in file folders, passed down orally, or in dusty archives. Our objective is to locate young researchers and funding for them to sit down in such places to find the history hiding there, as well as in similar places in Jamaica, Colombia, the US, Mexico, Peru, Venezuela (all places we have visited and found areas for study), and elsewhere.
Our writing is deliberately non-academic. Everything we find and write up we strive to make as available as possible to the people at the bottom of the socio-economic heap, and for their use in present-day struggles for liberation, justice and equality. For this reason, we are also seeking translators who can render our work in the major languages of the Americas, which often, as in the case of Jamaica, are not the official languages.
We welcome your input as we craft this research.
* * *
Report on Research Trip to Canada, October 2009
"Self-reliance is the true road to independence."
(Mary Ann Shadd Cary)
The second international meeting of the International School for Bottom-up Organizing held in Jamaica in August, 2009, agreed to the following proposal:
that ISBO continue to research the hidden history of historic movements of dark-skinned folk on the bottom and publish it widely, and we continue to discuss and deepen our understanding of how the lessons of those movements can help light our way to victory in the struggle for an egalitarian new world.
At ISBO's first meeting, in October 2008, we began a discussion about the relationship between class and hue (skin color). We suggested that one of the main reasons the revolutionary movements of the 20th Century, both communist and nationalist, had failed was because their thinking was distorted by the racism of the day, so they did not understand how hue and class are two sides of the same coin. That led them to downplay the history and experiences of dark-skinned freedom fighters throughout the non-industrialized world.
Our research is based on a belief that great wisdom and genius lies among the people on the bottom. By unburying and lifting up the experience of freedom fighters from the bottom, we will learn lessons that are necessary for us to move forward on a revolutionary path. We think this could be the missing link in revolutionary knowledge: the information we need to create a successful revolutionary movement. If we combine this historical knowledge with the genius and leadership of people on the bottom today, we think we can successfully build a new world of equality and justice.
In the 19th century, when revolution was in the air, black Americans put this sentence on a poster calling black men to join the Union army to fight slavery in the US: "If we are not lower on the scale of humanity than Englishmen, Irishmen, White Americans, and other Races, we can show it now." The general attitude then - and NOW - was and is that the darker your skin, the "lower on the scale of humanity" you are. This racist idea, which is internalized by people of every skin color, has blocked revolutionary leadership coming from the dark-skinned bottom, the very people who are most dead-set against the oppressors who rule us all.
History is written as if the liberation of African people from slavery in the Americas, and all other progress made since then, resulted from the efforts of white abolitionists, white political leaders, and a few famous black individuals. Nothing could be further from the truth. Poor black people have been the authors of their own liberation, have organized rebellions, escape routes and communities, and have given leadership to those principled white people who joined the fight for freedom and equality. Our research is aimed at making this truth known and applying the lessons of it to our own bottom-up organizing in the Americas and eventually the world. (ISBO is only in the Americas right now. However, we believe that the same principles will be found to apply worldwide.)
Throughout the Americas, "there were movements of enslaved people from the bottom that had principles of equality within them. These were slave revolts, movements to abolish slavery, underground railroad movements and maroon communities. They all had strengths and weaknesses, but we think we can learn lessons from them for our own struggle." (2009 ISBO Research Proposal) One common thread was that these folk set up self-sustaining communities, in which they provided their own food, shelter, transportation, communication, health care, and education, often giving leadership to and uniting with indigenous people and poor whites. Reconstruction in the US was an example of this we already have some knowledge of. In addition, we are aware of such communities in Mexico, Peru, Colombia, Guyana, Jamaica, Venezuela, Brazil - in fact, throughout the Americas and even in West Africa - formed by previously enslaved people of African descent in the Americas. We have lived, visited and done research in a number of these areas in the past.
Two of us volunteered to use our own resources to continue this research and report on its lessons to ISBO organizers and other interested people. In October 2009, we followed the trail of former slaves from the US into Canada. We will soon travel to South America. This is a report of the trip to Canada. Note: photos from this trip can be viewed at www.peoplesorganizing.org.
* * *
We began in the province of Nova Scotia, which is on the Atlantic coast of Canada. Black people in Nova Scotia got there in several ways.
At the time of the Revolutionary War for independence of the United States from England (1770s-1780s), Nova Scotia was a British colony. During the War, England offered freedom and land to American slaves who escaped from their "owners" and came over to help the British. Several thousand of these Black Loyalists were transported to Nova Scotia at the end of the war in 1783, and others came as slaves or servants to whites Loyalists at the same time.
A few years later, in 1796, several hundred Jamaican Maroons who had been double-crossed at the signing of a Peace Treaty with the British in Jamaica were also removed to Nova Scotia.
Nearly all of the Maroons and about 1,500 of the Black Loyalists demanded and achieved transportation to Africa. In 1792 and 1800, they became the founding population of the Sierra Leone Colony.
In addition, slaves also came to Nova Scotia on the Underground Railroad. All three of these groups were made up of people who valued freedom enough to take great risks to achieve it. Once in Canada, they faced brutal racism, discrimination and neglect. They formed self-sufficient communities in several areas, and their descendents have honored their history.
We visited several of these communities.
Halifax, Nova Scotia
Halifax is the capital of Nova Scotia and an important shipping port. The Maroons were brought here. During the four years they stayed, they played a major role in building the main British fort guarding over the harbour, which is called the Citadel. They lived in the community of North Preston, several miles away. They continued to be rebellious, rioting in the streets and refusing to become farmers on the land they were given. They demanded to be taken to Africa, which happened in 1800.
North Preston is still a black community. We were invited to tea in North Preston by a woman we met in a store. She is publishing a book about the life and wisdom of her grandmother who lived to the age of 107. Her grandmother was a griot in the community, and also a bush doctor. (A griot is a person in an African community who memorizes and teaches the history of the community by word of mouth.) Many of the black people in this area, including these women, are mixed with Mik'Maq Indians, who were living here before the Europeans arrived. They have organizations which bring together black and Mik'Maq as one people. This woman and the others we met in her home welcomed us with open arms. They served us a whole meal, including vegetables from their garden. North Preston is a rural community, and the home was heated by a wood stove. This would have been a very harsh environment for the Maroons arriving from a tropical climate.
Near North Preston, in Dartmouth, we visited the Nova Scotia Black Cultural Centre. The Maroon drummers we visited in Charles Town, Jamaica, during the meeting of ISBO came to this Museum in the summer of 2009, and one of the Founders of the Museum, Dr. Henry Bishop, hosted them and drummed with them. We met Dr. Bishop there and he introduced us to the Museum and in particular to the destruction of a historic black community in Halifax called Africville.
Africville was a community of black people living in Halifax beginning in the early 1800s. It suffered greatly from racism, unemployment and neglect by the city, which gave it no services and put slaughterhouses and dumps in the area. But still, it became home for hundreds of people, with an active church and its own school. In 1969, the whole community was bulldozed to the bare earth by the city, supposedly for the construction of a large bridge. Many homeowners had no title to their property, because their ancestors had settled so long ago, and they were only paid $500 for their houses.
Visiting Africville felt like being in a town of ghosts. The site is near the base of the bridge and is now used as a dog park. But as we were driving away, we saw protest signs and stopped. One man, with help from his brother and others, maintains a vigil on the site of the old Africville School. The two brothers identified themselves as descendents of Jamaican Maroons. Their mother was a Mik'Maq Indian. They were young boys living in Africville and attending the school when their neighborhood was bulldozed. They had stories about their heritage that we haven't been able to find in writing. One of these stories is printed below.
* * *
When I was twelve years old, Africville School was bulldozed and we were sent to a new school. We were all put back a year because they said our education was inferior. But my teacher, who was from Jamaica, respected my intelligence and told me to go to the sixth grade classroom (the grade I was really in) and sit on the floor in the back. They were teaching about the ancestors of different Nova Scotia names, including mine.
I ran home and asked my grandmother where our people were. She took me to my aunt's house and said, "Victor wants to know where his people are. Do you think we should share that with him?" My aunt said yes, and they took me up the hill to a place where the earth was sunk in. They told me "You are standing on your people. The British commander executed them (Maroons) here. It took six months to clean up the carnage. They were dumped in a hole here."
The story is that two young black girls were raped. They went to the Commander at the Citadel to get justice. The Commander looked around and saw that there were more Maroon soldiers than white people and decided it was a dangerous situation. So they executed some of them. Do you see that dead tree on the top of that hill? That's where it happened. I was lying on the ground there one day in the 1990s and picked up a green human finger bone. The bones are rising to the surface.
We have tried to corroborate this story. A historian who knows the Maroon history says that the numbers and names of people on record that came from Jamaica and left for Sierra Leone four years later match up too well for a mass execution to have happened. But we also know that these stories told from grandparent to grandchild down through the generations come from some truth. Hopefully some day, someone will be able to unearth the reality behind this oral history.
* * *
Birchtown, Nova Scotia
From Halifax, we went three hours west to Birchtown. In 1783, thousands of Black Loyalists landed here on ships from New York after the American Revolution. They were supposed to get land and supplies, but mostly did not. They carved out a self-sustaining community three miles from the port town of Shelburne, where the jobs were, and had to walk those miles every day to work. The first winter they spent in tent-shaped pit houses, dug into the ground and covered with logs, like the temporary housing of soldiers of that time. Winter in Nova Scotia is very long and very cold. It is amazing that they survived.
A year later, white soldiers returning from duty rioted against the black workers, because the employers were paying black workers only one third of the going wages, so the whites couldn't get jobs. This was Canada's first race riot; several black settlers were killed and a big part of Birchtown was burned down. In an echo of that violence, the first museum commemorating the Black Loyalists was burned down a few years ago. We visited the new museum, located inside the old Birchtown School.
The escaped slaves who left New York on those ships bound for Nova Scotia were all listed in a ledger called "The Book of Negroes," because as "property," the British were supposed to pay the Americans for them. They never did, but the book contains the names, former "owners," and other information about the men, women and children who settled in Nova Scotia after escaping slavery. The Black Loyalist Museum took all those names and put them on a big board. In a spine-tingling moment, Curtis saw his ancestor's name on the board. He knew this was his ancestor because of the oral history passed down to him from his grandmother.
|A note about oral history: Many things about the history of our people on the bottom were never recorded in writing. Years ago, in some areas in Africa and other parts of the world where most people did not read and write, history was kept by word of mouth. This is called oral history. The people who kept this history were very brilliant people who could memorize centuries of information. This tradition has been carried on to the present moment in some families. Whether history is written or oral, a good researcher has to make sure it is true. But oral history is just as valid as written history.
A final note about Nova Scotia:
Our visit only scratched the surface. Each institution we visited (The Black Cultural Centre in Dartmouth, the Nova Scotia Archives in Halifax, and the Black Loyalist Museum in Birchtown) has a library and numerous individuals who have a great deal of knowledge. Also the people in the communities have much knowledge recorded orally and in writing, like the women who hosted us in North Preston and the men protesting at Africville. It is clear that we need to go back there and dig deeper. The people who founded these communities were made up of escaped slaves and former Maroons. They maintain a knowledge and spirit of their heritage, and they have faced severe racism in the past and present. They have united with the First Nations people (the Canadian name for Native American Indians) as one people. We are sure there is a history of common suffering and unified struggle to be uncovered there.
Ontario: Where the Underground Railroad Ended
This was the first place we visited in Ontario, and the home of a historic community called the Dawn Settlement, founded in the 1830s by slaves who ran away from the US South using the Underground Railroad. It was a self-sufficient farming community, and established a school called the British American Institute, "one of the first schools in Canada to emphasize vocational training." Although it did not last very long, it was an inspiration for things to come. A vocational school was a theme in the experience of escaped and emancipated slaves as they established communities where they could take care of their own needs. We will come back to this theme in the conclusion of this report.
|The Underground Railroad was not under ground and was not a railroad. It was a secret organizing movement run by escaped slaves and their supporters, black and white, that guided runaway slaves to freedom. Individuals, usually former slaves, would go South at great risk to their lives and act as "conductors" for freedom-seekers. They went from one safe house to another. White people and Native Americans helped by providing hiding places, food, and transportation, and by carrying messages and information. A famous leader of the Railroad was Harriet Tubman. Ontario was one of the main destinations, because slavery was illegal there.
One of the leaders of the settlement was the Reverend Josiah Henson. A book called Uncle Tom's Cabin was written based on his life, and it became a huge best seller that influenced thousands of white people to fight against slavery. Henson was also a member of the Freemasons, and our research leads us to suspect that some members and leaders of the Freemasons were part of a secret society that helped organize the Underground Railroad and prepare for an armed struggle against slavery.
The historic marker out front lets you know that you are at the First Baptist Church of Chatham, where a Convention took place in 1858 to plan a war on slavery. The plan was to start with a raid on the armory at Harper's Ferry, Virginia, and then move into the mountains to establish a liberated zone where slaves could escape, and where the guerilla war against slavery could be based. The military commander would be John Brown, who was a white abolitionist that had led violent battles against slave owners who were trying to bring slavery into Western states of the US.
Chatham was one-third black at that time, and the Convention in 1858 was three-fourths black. The whites at the meeting had proved themselves in battle with John Brown against slavery in Kansas. The Provisional Constitution they approved laid down plans for a society that would be far more egalitarian than anything yet thought of anywhere in the world at that time. It assumed the equality of all humans, black and white, male and female. Chatham was a hotbed of the anti-slavery movement.
We visited the Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society (http://www.ckblackhistoricalsociety.org/john-brown/john-brown.html), which commemorates the Harper's Ferry raid and provides the history behind it. In the back room the walls are lined with books, papers and huge three-ring binders full of information about the freedom fighters who established this community. The people who created this center and collected this information, and who manage and share it now, are fully aware of the importance of the history they are sitting on, and very generous about sharing it.
The Harper's Ferry raid and the Provisional Constitution have gone down in history as the work of one white man, John Brown. We knew that couldn't be true: the ideas in the Constitution were too profound to come out of the brain and experience of one white man. We asked one of the people's historians about it. We explained that we are dedicated to showing that people on the bottom are the authors of their own freedom. She responded, "I didn't go to college, and if they taught you that we didn't author our own liberation, I don't need it." Nearly 80 years old, she is like a walking encyclopedia, pulling 100 year old books off her shelves to show us history that has been lost. She told us that she agreed that the Constitution was not likely to have been the work of John Brown, and named numerous black men who had met with Brown hosted him in their homes, in the US and in Ontario, including Frederick Douglass, George de Baptiste, William Webb, and William Monroe. Monroe, she said, chaired the Convention in Chatham and was a pastor in Detroit, where there were violent battles against slave catchers in the black community. As she put it, these men and others "could have had input, because [the Provisional Constitution] wasn't what I'd expect; it outlines a way of life and how to treat people."
North Buxton, Ontario
Just outside of Chatham is the rural community of North Buxton. From what we found out, this seems to be the place where Chatham got its radicalism. This community was originally called the Elgin Settlement, and was founded by freedom fighters arriving on the Underground Railroad. A white abolitionist minister, acting on the advice of black ex-slaves, bought the original land and sold parcels to the escaped slaves at cost, making his own property available for people to live until they had the money to build homes. He then stepped back and the people ran the community.
The Buxton Historical Site and Museum are run by descendents of the first settlers who have dedicated themselves to discovering and sharing the history of this amazing community. Like most communities settled by escaped slaves, a majority of its members went back after slavery ended in the US to find their families and build communities during Black Reconstruction. But this community was known even in its time as a center of radical organizing. The school bell was donated by "the coloured inhabitants of Pittsburgh," one of many communities in the US that helped support it. The Museum tells the story of slavery and the fight against it, including violent mass uprisings against slave catchers in the 1850s. The people who were freed in these battles often ended up in Buxton.
This community was self-sufficient as well, with its own industry as well as agriculture. Once again, the school was a very significant part of the history. It was a one-room schoolhouse with one teacher for grades one to ten. There were two important lessons about the education at this school. One was that it was so excellent that its graduates were admitted to universities after grade ten. It was so excellent that the public school nearby, which served the white children, closed down because all the white parents took their children out and sent them to the Elgin School. The other aspect was that the content of the education produced anti-racist organizers. Many graduates became active conductors on the Underground Railroad, including a founding member of the black Freemasons, Thomas Stringer. They volunteered and recruited other black men to fight in the US Civil War, including the first black officer in the Union Army, Martin Delaney. They went back after the Civil War to help organize Reconstruction, including John Rapier, one of the first black Congressmen in the US. Stringer and Delaney were also part of the Convention that planned the raid on Harper's Ferry and approved the Provisional Constitution, and Delaney led a trip to West Africa looking for land for former slaves to settle on.
Even later, when many of the people had gone back to the US, the community and its school continued to be conscious. In 1879, the spelling sentences in the curriculum were about fighting slavery. And to this day, every Labor Day weekend, there is a Buxton community Family Reunion that 4,000 people attend from all over the US and Canada.
"If we are not lower on the scale of humanity than Englishmen, Irishmen, White Americans, and other Races, we can show it now."
(in the fine print on the poster)
This is a poster recruiting black men to fight for an end to slavery by joining the Union Army in the US Civil War, signed by Frederick Douglass and about 50 other black freedom fighters. For people living in Canada, already free and safe, enlisting in the US Army meant a risk not only of death, but worse yet, of being re-enslaved. But this risk did not stop them.
A final note about Ontario:
We are convinced that our ancestors in freedom-fighting organizing were in places like Chatham and North Buxton. The places beckon us back, to delve deeper into the stories of the community and into the three-ring binders in the museum offices. This is a place for ISBO. Should we have our next annual meeting there?
Conclusions and Ideas from the Research So Far
We are products of the Ella Baker "school" of organizing. Ms. Baker sent SNCC organizers into Mississippi to ask the people what they wanted organizers to do. At the time, young civil rights workers were staging sit-ins to integrate various businesses and transportation. But the poor people in Mississippi wanted power, and felt the way to get it was to get the right to vote, which the racist government denied to them. Ms. Baker said that the people have a consensus: it is the job of the organizer to find out what it is and organize them around it. SNCC agreed to organize for the right to vote, and a mass movement resulted. We have been asking the people in our community in Jamaica what they want us to do. In every house visit we get the same answer: skills training and education for the youth, so the youth can have a future and make a contribution to their community.
Because we are revolutionary organizers, we do research to serve our movement. We are not just trying to write books (though that might happen too). So we ask ourselves, how does our research connect to this consensus of the people in the community where we are organizing in Jamaica?
There are several themes becoming clear through our research so far. One is egalitarianism in the movements of anti-slavery fighters. Another one is the strong, black, bottom-up leadership that lies just slightly buried, but not hard to uncover, that puts the lie to the history we have been taught in most of our schools.
But one theme in particular that stood out to us on this trip is the one quoted at the top of this report: "Self-reliance is the true road to independence." This quote is from Mary Ann Shadd Cary of Chatham. (Shadd Cary was the editor of the Provincial Freeman, an anti-slavery newspaper in Ontario in the 1850s. She was the first black woman editor in North America, and the first woman editor in North America. Her descendents operate both the museums in Chatham and in North Buxton.)
We noticed that schools, and particularly vocational schools, were the focus of many of these communities. This was true in Dresden, Chatham, Buxton, and also across the US South during and after Reconstruction. These communities existed in the context of tremendous racism and dehumanization. They saw the necessity of sustaining themselves, so they taught their youth all the knowledge and skills necessary to maintain their farms, process and preserve their own food, build and maintain their homes, their health, transportation, communication, education, and revolutionary political organizing - all the necessities of life.
These communities produced revolutionaries who transformed the world by ending African slavery in the Americas and establishing liberated areas where they lived. Today, ISBO is training revolutionary organizers to build egalitarian prototype communities and transform the world even further. The more we dig up of this history, and the more we apply it to our own practice, the faster we will move toward creating a new world and burying all forms of oppression once and for all.
Is the first lesson from our research that we should create vocational training and bottom-up education for our youth?
A Note to Readers: We invite input, ideas, guidance, advice, information and stories to help us in our research. Please contact us at email@example.com. Thank you.
Just Posted: New Research Findings: Black Freedom Fighters Led the Underground Railroad, June 2011
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Creating Prototypes in the Struggle for Egalitarian Revolution
(This document has been modified from the original call to ISBO's founding meeting in 2008.)
How can we build a new world? What lessons can we learn from those who came before us about how to build a revolutionary movement that will not repeat the mistakes of the past? How do we build a true egalitarian movement that is led by those most oppressed, the dark-skinned folk on the bottom, rather than by a "savior" or by middle class intellectuals?
These are the questions the International School for Bottom-up Organizing seeks to study by creating a collective made up of active organizers doing honest work among people at the bottom anywhere in the world.
In the world today, two percent of humanity has come to oppress and exploit the great majority, and has created governments that enforce and maintain their control. The entire world is under the control of the rich and powerful, who are mostly fair-skinned men. We know from experience that we can't "fix" the two percent; the people will have to build a new world and fight power with power. In so-called "primitive" times, the people ruled and kept the greedy two percent in line. Somehow, hidden by the mists of unwritten time, that was turned on its head. All of recorded history has been the struggle of the people to seize the world back from the grasp of the greedy few and achieve a society based on equality.
For the past hundred and fifty years or so, that struggle has been particularly intense, and quite a few revolutions have occurred. However, those courageous attempts at ending oppression were reversed, and we are left to face the same struggle as our ancestors did. The fact that these revolutions failed has made many people feel like fighting for a better world is useless.
Many of us have even come to believe our enemies' propaganda that we are too stupid to be capable of creating and running our own society, or even our own organizations. This is especially true of those at the bottom of society, who are the poorest and darkest-skinned, including those who are working, unemployed or in the so-called informal economy. Women are victimized and children are voiceless. Maybe this hopelessness helps explain why so many have latched onto the dream of a "knight in shining armor" such as the Obama phenomenon.
But we realize that we will not be rescued from the top. The next election will not save us. Our new world is about the bottom rising up, expressing its genius, and leading us into an egalitarian future. This will not happen by itself, but only through the diligent, persistent, courageous efforts of honest, committed organizers over a very long period of time.
How can we move from where we are now toward creating a new struggle for an egalitarian future?
We think the people on the bottom need to begin creating prototypes of a liberated society. A prototype is a real-life example. By prototype, we don't mean a utopian community off in a world by itself. We mean to create organizations that will take on the needs of the most oppressed and that will work out of love, respect and equality: each person will work and give according to their abilities and commitment, and the collective will take care of the whole community based on need, not greed. Everyone will have equal voice, and we will make decisions by consensus.
We don't know yet what these groupings will look like, what they will do, or how they will relate to each other until they actually exist. However, from participating in the movement over the last fifty years, we have developed some ideas. (See "The Bottom Will Rise," "The People's Circle," and "Some Thoughts on the Unity of Class and Hue.")
One thing that is clear to us is that ours is an international struggle that must be led by the poorest and darkest, especially women. Oppression by race, class and gender is the same across all national borders. We all need the same freedom and equality; we all have the same oppressors. Our movement will work toward an internationalist, egalitarian world. We foresee a world in which the genius and creativity of humanity is set free, in which all humans share and share alike, whether in starvation or in plenty: in which we are free to love and truly take care of one another.
This vision will not happen by itself. The goal of the International School for Bottom-up Organizing is to create organizers who are visionaries and scientific thinkers, organizers who set bottom-up organizing in motion, and to connect the groups in different parts of the world with each other. If the brief ideas set out in this document strike a chord in your heart, and you are ready for a life-long commitment, we hope you will respond to this call and help design a new liberation movement.
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Summary Report of Second Session of the International School for Bottom-up Organizing
Jamaica, August 2009
Magic happened in Jamaica between August 15 and 23, 2009. It was one of those moments in history when the whole is something much greater than the sum of all the parts. As with any other moment in history, it was a link in a long chain of the people's struggles against inequality, injustice and oppression. The roots of ISBO go back to the organizing of plantation workers by SNCC in rural Mississippi in the 1960s under the guidance of Ms. Ella Baker, and further to the radical organizing in the South in the 20s and 30s, and before that to self-sufficient black communities that evolved out of Reconstruction, which in turn owed their inspiration to the valiant struggles of slaves and their allies in rebellions, maroon communities, the Underground Railroad and the abolitionist movement - not only in the United States, but all over the Americas.
Descendants of these struggles from Jamaica, Colombia, Venezuela, the US and England came together to learn from each other and to continue the process of creating a new movement based on bottom-up organizing. They left with a profound commitment to build a revolutionary movement to create a new, egalitarian world, a movement to be led by the poorest and darkest, especially women. They left with new tools, new knowledge and new comrades, to embark on deeper and more radical organizing, determined also to build strong and fruitful support networks, and to expand ISBO organizing to other parts of the Americas.
The second ISBO session built on the foundation laid in October, 2008 in Caracas, Venezuela, at the founding meeting of the organizing school. Since that meeting, ISBO produced a book of documents of that first session, called The Bottom Will Rise and Create a New World. Organizers are working on a second book now, which will include a detailed report on the second session, as well as documents developed during the organizing work between the two sessions.
The school began with personal introductions, in which each person talked about themselves and discussed how they came to be at the meeting. We heard moving stories about days without food, dropping out of school to work so the family could eat, struggling to make sense of a world that casts a person aside because of the color of his or her skin. These stories began to make comrades out of former strangers. Before moving on to the rest of the agenda, we held a workshop on the "house visit," and then went out in the community to try out what we'd learned, introduce ourselves to the community and invite people to a community meeting happening that afternoon. Attending the meeting was an education in itself, as the community was struggling to move forward after losing a great deal of money through mistakes involving untrustworthy individuals. Elders in the community took a firm stand about the need to fight for what's right, defeat the dishonest elements and stay on course.
Reports from two organizing projects in Colombia and one in Jamaica followed, illustrated by videos and photographs, and a report about fundraising efforts in England as well. These created lively discussions on topics such as the need for bottom-up organizations to remain independent from government agencies and corporate funding, the history and legacy of maroon communities, the Highlander school model, dealing with male domination in some projects, the role of the CIA in South America today, and the use of the international spotlight as a protective device for organizers working in police states. A particular focus was on the agreement that organizing on the ground everywhere in the world should be done on the basis of the same ISBO principles, not on the basis of solidarity between groups doing different types of organizing. On the other hand, solidarity and alliances with other groups could be useful in the organizing of support networks in the "rear," such as among supporters in the US and the UK.
Each day for the first several days, we had a lively discussion around two prompts: what is wrong with the world as it is? and what kind of world do we want to create? These discussions drew on the varied experiences and histories of the people and places at the meeting, and confirmed our consensus that we want to create a unified, just and loving world, in which each person's problem is also your own. A world in which religion does not oppress people or set them against one another, in which people are free to come and go all over the planet as we like, in which the genius of dark-skinned people arises from its position of degradation and oppression to provide leadership for all. An egalitarian world, in which people know how to collectively take care of themselves, in which inequality by race and gender are relics of ancient history, in which world power is a baby's cry.
Two trips away from the meeting place were key to the learning process. We spent most of one day at a maroon community, where we were treated to a lesson in maroon history and culture and took part in drumming and dancing, eating and swimming together with young Jamaican maroons. This experience was very inspiring, and cemented the sense between the Jamaican, Colombian and Venezuelan participants that we are all one people: ISBO members from other countries kept commenting that they felt like they were at home. On another day, we visited a beach and heard from a representative of a community group that is fighting to save the beach and the people who make their living on it from privatization by the tourism industry (and we enjoyed the sun and the sea!). We realized that, for all its good work, it is largely made up of small business people (including many not originally from Jamaica), and it hasn't figured out how to incorporate the poor and working people of the community who are the main users of the beach into the struggle. This helped us see the great importance of bottom-up leadership.
Several profound conversations happened as a result of group members raising issues. The first was a discussion of internalized racism, brought up by one of the newer Jamaican organizers. The essence of this discussion was, do we really think the dark-skinned people on the bottom can lead this movement, or do we think educated people, white people, or "outsiders" will be more capable, more honest? This challenged unconscious assumptions of black inferiority and white superiority of many members. Likewise, a discussion about whether the elders who initiated ISBO should continue to be the "movers and shakers," or whether young people were ready to step up and lead proved a very provocative and uplifting session. Several younger members dedicated themselves to stepping up for the long haul.
A particularly deep discussion resulted from some criticisms raised by female participants about certain behaviors of some male participants that were hurtful to women As one young man said when confronted with a possible one-minute time frame for his comments, "I can't say anything in one minute, because what I have too much to say." The group decided to allow as much time as each person needed, and spent four intense, emotional hours on the discussion. There were many revelations, many tears, and many self-criticisms. The pain suffered by women was exposed in raw form, and many young men expressed the pain they suffered because severe racist oppression prevented their fathers from being real parents to them: we realized that this is a serious and general issue we need to address. Everyone learned things they hadn't even known they needed to learn: things that weren't even on the school's agenda. At the end of the conversation, a young, male, maroon descendant from Colombia called for everyone to show their unity, respect and love for each other by hugging every other person in the room, which we all did. This act represented the magic that happened that week, as we saw the painful process of criticism and self-criticism create a higher unity and true comradeship.
On the last day of the school, we once again went into the community to do house visits. Then we helped community youth paint one of the community centers the local group is rebuilding. It was great fun, and each participant signed their name on the freshly-painted front of the building to commemorate the activity and the School meeting.
Finally, each participant committed him or herself to ongoing work. There will be a local organizing school in Colombia in the coming months to train new organizers to work with the current ISBO organizers. Fresh, young Jamaican organizers committed themselves to attend ongoing organizing classes to study and learn movement history, politics and organizing. An elder man volunteered to help be a father to some of the young men. Others volunteered to work on writing and translating the new book that will come out of this session, to create a hip-hop CD to accompany the book and tour with it, to build support work in England and the US, and to participate in international travel to open up new areas of organizing.
A year ago, an infant collective developed, which struggled through ISBO's first year, issuing a book, raising funds, and digging deeper in the local organizing. This session, though, went further than its organizers could have imagined. Suddenly, a youth group has sprouted in the community in Jamaica, young organizers are going door-to-door in their communities in Jamaica and Colombia, supporters in the US are committing time and a portion of their salaries to guarantee that the work can continue, young organizers are writing poetry and songs, and discussing their work with each other independently of the elders. The love and determination of these young people can be felt crossing borders and seas. Truly, something magical has happened.
* * *
A Note to Readers:
An organizer is one who creates, nurtures and maintains organization, and ISBO is an organizing school. We, the volunteer staff of ISBO, believe that the graduates of this year's session are organizers. Movement building is about slow grinding work, slow progress, creeping along inch by inch, and every now and then there is a big "leap forward" and the pace of progress and forward motion is speeded up. We believe that ISBO is experiencing its first "great leap forward."
If you wish to experience this great historical moment please watch out for the next edition of the ISBO book and read the notes from some of the most important sessions. While you are reading, please remember that ISBO recruits students from the bottom of society: the poor and often not academically trained, not "movement intellectuals".
Please send your comments to us so that we can continue to learn and grow. We welcome your input.
The ISBO Collective
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Letter to Young Radicals in Preparation for SNCC's Anniversary Conference
(Originally an e-mail sent to the SNCC list-serve in January of 2010)
To: Young radicals everywhere (and older ones too!)
From: The organizing trainers' collective of the International School for Bottom Up Organizing
In reference to: 50th Anniversary meeting of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee)
(NOTE: Our communications always collectively developed and written.)
This is a letter to the young radicals who are trying to find direction for rebuilding a movement in the US to create a just and equal world, and who respect, admire and want to learn from the experience of the 1960s radicals in SNCC who set out to eradicate racism and change the world. We encourage you to attend the SNCC 50th anniversary commemorative meeting in North Carolina this April.
Right now, as you read this letter, there is a determined campaign to distort the true story of what SNCC did and stood for and how it changed history. You need to know this so you are not misled. You need to know this because the true story of SNCC contains lessons for present-day organizing we cannot do without.
Early SNCC organizers in places like Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Arkansas were guided by elders in the community who had been struggling against racism in the previous decades. This tradition of bottom-up struggle against racism had unbroken roots going back to the days of slavery and slave rebellions, the Underground Railroad and maroon communities of escaped slaves. It moved through the amazing experiences of free, collective living led by former slaves during the Reconstruction after the Civil War. It remained alive in ongoing resistance to Jim Crow and various strategies for self-sustenance that kept black folk strong, united and proud against all the vicious physical and psychic oppression surrounding them.
The early SNCC organizers had and promoted a deep respect for the genius of the people themselves, though they might seem powerless, though they might not be able to read and write. This respect and confidence was borne out in the massive struggles of the early 60s for the right to vote, in which thousands of those same "powerless," "illiterate" black sharecroppers overturned Jim Crow.
Unlike most other civil rights groups and so-called leaders, SNCC took a bottom-up approach to organizing. It was guided by the leadership of women such as Ella Baker, Septima Clark, Ruby Doris, Fannie Lou Hamer, Annie Devine, Victoria Gray, Annelle Ponder, Aylene Quinn, and many others throughout the black-belt South (many who these writers can't name because our experience was in Mississippi). These profound women taught a humble, relationship-building, persistent organizing method. SNCC was about knocking on doors, talking for hours with individuals, conducting classes on reading, writing and politics. SNCC staff members met in interminable meetings, often all night, to achieve the consensus necessary to move forward. White volunteers to SNCC dedicated themselves to serving the poor black folk they lived among and following the leadership of black local people and black SNCC field secretaries. People came to trust and rely on SNCC because every time SNCC folk were knocked down, they stood back up and kept on going. They trusted SNCC because SNCC wasn't about some charismatic leader arriving with fanfare to give an inspirational speech and leaving just as fast. It was about young people who lived with them, ate with them, slept with them, faced the Klan alongside them and devoted their lives to them. It was about young people who refused to buckle under either to lynching or to various tactics to buy them off or turn them aside.
In the middle 60s, the organizing of the South surged into the North in the form of the Black Power movement. Rebellions erupted in the major cities. The Black Panther party and other organizations germinated and grew. The student movement against the Vietnam War was initiated in large part by white youth who had volunteered with SNCC in the South. SDS adopted the organizing methods of SNCC and worked tirelessly for years knocking on doors in dormitories, staying up long hours talking and meeting, and finally bursting into actions that galvanized the whole country and helped end that war. Soldiers who came out of the black struggles mounted mutinies inside Vietnam itself until the US military was crippled in its ability to conduct the war. The power elite and its government feared outright revolution and began extraordinary measures to derail the movement.
The patient, persistent, humble and bottom-up organizing method of early SNCC was the genesis of much of this mass eruption. SNCC effected international struggles, both directly - by being invited to meetings and planning sessions in Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere - and indirectly by the spread of the mass movements generated out of the Southern black struggle.
As youth who despair at the state of the country and the world today, and are seeking ways to build a new movement, you well know that the struggle SNCC helped start is far from over. You know that electing a black president has not eradicated racism, police terror, the cradle-to-prison pipeline, unemployment or war. It has not made men and women equal collaborators; it has not saved the world from ecological destruction.
Only the people themselves have the power to save themselves and the earth. As the early SNCC mentors taught, the role of the organizer is to organize the people to lead themselves. It is not flashy work; it is a persistent daily grind based on humility, love and belief in the genius of the people.
This is the work the International School for Bottom-up Organizing is teaching, and the kind of organizing ISBO is doing in the Americas: a direct descendant of SNCC.
However, SNCC field workers moved in many different directions after the 60s; not all of them continued organizing. The US government made a concerted and successful campaign to destroy the militancy and organizations of the 60s. COINTELPRO, which was a counter-intelligence program of the government, targeted, murdered and forced into exile many of the most revolutionary black leaders. Meanwhile, the temptations of political influence seduced others into going to work for the very government that they had previously struggled against, opting for trying to change the world from the top down rather than the bottom up. Still others simply went back to living life, pursuing careers, and tried in their own ways to continue to fight racism and oppression within whatever sphere they were in. The government also bought off or infiltrated and led astray most white-led radical/revolutionary organizations coming out of the SNCC experience and the 60s.
A number of SNCC staff members became successful politicians, worked within government policy institutes, worked for the State Department in ambassadorial positions, became heads of institutions or highly respected professionals within the status quo. It is this group that has the most influence on the current interpretations of what SNCC was.
Of course, the system's normal methods of rewriting history also exist. Many books have been written that manage to hide the true essence of SNCC. Hollywood has produced movies in which the FBI appears to be the heroes of the civil rights movement. Even now, Spike Lee is producing a major film focusing on the first white SNCC field secretary. Where are the books and movies about the sharecroppers who risked and lost their lives in the struggle? Where are the movies about the daily door-knocking, the sleeping on floors, the freedom houses where young, mainly black organizers struggled with overcoming racism and sexism and experimented in creating free and equal relationships, the living on $10 a week, the non-dramatic, persistent, hard, dirty work it took and takes to really organize a movement?
But we can expect the government and the racist system to distort history in their own interest, to bury the knowledge necessary to continue the struggle. What is particularly galling is that many former SNCC members, who have made their peace with the US government (particularly its current leadership), are distorting that history, too.
The upcoming 50th anniversary celebration of SNCC, planned for this April, is an example. Many of the keynote speakers are present or former government officials. The committee to organize and plan the event is self-selected and top down: a complete reversal of SNCC principles. Far from a humble opportunity for serving and lifting up the genius of the most oppressed, this conference treats SNCC as dead history, a subject of academic interest and nostalgia. Where are the workshops on current organizing? Where is the training of organizers? Where is the laying bare the current oppression of black America, which in many ways is deeper, more violent and more intense than it was when SNCC was working in the South?
Without these - without the SNCC spirit of bottom up and black leadership - this conference will be a travesty, a distortion, a lie.
We call on young people who want to walk in the shoes of SNCC to do their own investigation. Read books like Charles Payne's I've Got the Light of Freedom. Interview SNCC field workers who are still organizing the people on the bottom, still carrying on the SNCC principles. Learn about people like Ella Baker, Septima Clark, Ruby Doris and Fannie Lou Hamer. Attend organizing training through the International School for Bottom-up Organizing, led by former SNCC members who are still actively organizing. Go into the community, find the people with the darkest skin and least resources (these are one and the same worldwide!) and ask them what they would have you do. Bring them together to meet and discuss what they need, based on principles of equality.
But don't think of SNCC and the Southern organizing as a dead tradition for a long-past world. Don't imagine that the struggle was won while right now black men are being shot down in the street, black babies are dying from lack of medical care, schools are falling apart, young people are being sent to die to protect oil pipelines and profits in the Middle East and Afghanistan, while poor people are homeless and jobless and hungry inside the richest country in the world, while the rich and powerful pollute and destroy the earth. Don't think that electing Obama is the beginning of a new world. Only the people themselves, led by those most oppressed and despised, the poorest and darkest, can create a free, just and equal world. If you want a new world, become an organizer who serves the people.
Thank you for reading this.
The ISBO organizing trainers' collective
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What Is SNCC's Legacy?
(another e-mail to the SNCC list, January 2010)
Dear Friends on the SNCC list serve:
Several friends have pointed out that it is unclear to them who and what ISBO is, so before getting into the issues of this letter, we want to clarify.
The International School for Bottom-up Organizing (ISBO) is a new school, founded just over a year ago, which considers itself descended from SNCC. As will be mentioned below, its genesis was in New Orleans after Katrina. ISBO believes that the movement to create a new and egalitarian world must be led by the poorest and darkest among us. It currently exists in five countries and has its most active organizing projects in poor, African-descended communities in Jamaica and Colombia, led by ISBO-trained organizers from within those communities. Curtis Muhammad is part of ISBO's Organizer Training Collective that sends letters to this list. Communications from ISBO come from firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can read and see more at www.peoplesorganizing.org.
ISBO considers this discussion about the SNCC conference an important one, and, like the rest of its work, is documenting it for training purposes and to ensure an accurate record of this history for the use of future freedom fighters. This documentation we hope will help record history in a way that will make it hard for those in power at a later date to change that history to fit their agenda.
What Is the Legacy of SNCC?
How Can We Best Use the 50th Anniversary to Pass It to the Younger Generation?
Part One: Haiti, New Orleans and Bottom-up
ISBO teaches a SNCC-type meeting style we have dubbed the "People's Circle;" in such a meeting, made up mainly of people from the bottom, everyone sits in a circle, everyone has equal time to speak, and decisions are made by consensus (see: http://www.peoplesorganizing.org/survivors.html#tpc). A people's circle today might begin with a prompt like: "was the earthquake in Haiti simply a natural disaster?"
A group of poor black people in Jamaica or Colombia go very quickly to decrying the systematic impoverishment of Haiti by the US and Europe, the vicious racism of the press depiction of Haitians as savages, the long history of attacks on Haiti for its leadership in the overthrow of slavery in the Americas. They also immediately note the military invasion the US is conducting, and particularly note that US President Obama, a wolf in sheep's clothing, is directing the occupation. No one is surprised that (as recorded by the New York Times), airplanes carrying aid supplies could not get into the Port au Prince airport on the 14th and 15th because the US military was giving priority to landing its occupying forces at the cost of unknown thousands of lives lost during the delay.
These people from the bottom are aware, from their own lives, that the people on the bottom in Haiti of necessity organize themselves to take care of their own every day, not only during a disaster, that their spirit is one of selflessness and cooperation. They are also aware that the media will systematically lie and produce images and words to give the world the impression that poor, black Haitians are murderers and looters. They know this because the same things happen to them.
The poor black people formerly of New Orleans are familiar with this paradigm. Against all evidence, the US media similarly portrayed poor black folk in New Orleans as savage, dog-eat-dog looters, murderers and rapists. The voices of the people from the bottom were not heard in the national dialog. The rest of the country accepted the attempted genocide of 100,000 poor black folk in New Orleans as a "natural disaster," the same way the Haitian earthquake is accepted. The country accepted the permanent exile of black New Orleans.
Even the "movement" forces that came to New Orleans proved more concerned with pursuing their own self-serving agendas than with organizing and following the voice of those most impacted by the hurricane. It was precisely out of this experience that ISBO was born, and made its decision to center its organizing outside the US. With great pain and reluctance, Curtis Muhammad, long-time New Orleans resident and organizer, decided that the atmosphere for organizing folk on the bottom, which had been heralded in the early 60s by SNCC, has become so polluted by self-serving reformers, so saturated by internalized racism, that it was impossible for him organize successfully in the US.
ISBO's first two annual meetings were held in Caracas, Venezuela in October, 2008, and in rural Jamaica in August, 2009. They base themselves on the SNCC organizing model and feel they have a significant stake in the documentation of SNCC history, even though most have never set foot on US soil.
Part Two: How Did SNCC organize?
"Producing one warm body at the courthouse took a great deal of knocking on doors. Luvaughn Brown reported that on one day in August of 1962, a hundred people were contacted, ten agreed to go register, three actually showed up, and those three were frightened away from the courthouse by the sheriff." (Charles Payne, I've Got the Light of Freedom)
At the beginning, fear prevailed. After time, that began to change. When asked what made people eventually have the courage to register to vote, someone explained that they had watched the young SNCC organizers: every time they got knocked down, they got back up and kept on organizing.
Percy Larry of McComb put it this way: "Anytime a man come in my community and took the hardships that he took, if he was wrong, I better join with him anyway. He's ready to take a beating, [get] jailed, being bombed and get back on two feet . . . I'm ready to join that fellow, wherever he is, right or wrong." (Payne) Payne continues, "You don't, [Larry] explained, have to understand everything about a man's politics to appreciate the ‘fullness' of a man. . . .Organizers were in a situation in which their character was being continually assessed. Once they were judged to be worthwhile people, they and local people often entered into relationships in which each side called forth and reinforced the best in the other."
Bernice Johnson Reagan once described SNCC organizers in Mississippi this way: "we stood in the way of trouble and drew fire” so that the people could have safe space to develop the struggle.
"Bob Zellner once compared organizing to a juggling act - how many plates can you keep spinning at once? Organizers had to be morale boosters, teachers, welfare agents, transportation coordinators, canvassers, public speakers, negotiators, lawyers, all while communicating with people ranging form illiterate sharecroppers to well-off professionals and while enduring harassment from the agents of the law and listening with one ear for the threats of violence." (Payne)
Who were these organizers? In Mississippi and elsewhere, the great majority of them were young, black Mississippians who "came from backgrounds very much like those of the people they were trying to organize." (Payne)
This was what we in ISBO are now calling "bottom-up organizing." It is part of SNCC's legacy.
Part Two: Black Power
Black power was what those Mississippi organizers were producing. Power, courage and history-changing actions from the darkest and poorest, most illiterate, most despised people in the United States. Profound leadership from the black grassroots. Fannie Lou Hamer, whom the President of the United States had to mute by calling a press conference while she was speaking at the Democratic National Convention, because the sound of black power on her lips was so charismatic.
But the name "Black Power" came a bit later, and when it was voiced that way, it caused white flight, bitterness, and a rift and diversion in the radical movement that still reverberates today. The dehumanization and loathing toward poor black folk has proven an extremely effective tool for denying the genius, voice and leadership of the bottom.
*** "For years, Allison Ross rubbed in skin-lightening creams . . . ‘to be more accepted in society.' After months . . . her skin was not only fairer, it had become so thin that a touch would bruise her face." (NY Times, Jan. 16, 2010: "Creams Offering Lighter Skin May Bring Risks") ***
Black Power popularized the slogan "Black Is Beautiful." Where the inspiration at the courageous actions of sharecroppers resulted in the mass popularity of denim clothing, Black Power appealed to the self-respect and self-confidence of the poorest and darkest: in came Afro hair and clothing and pride in dark skin.
SNCC after "Black Power" inspired mass organizing in Northern cities and inspired poor black urban folk to stop tolerating racism even before they had time to organize themselves. SNCC spokespeople got on national TV to support their actions, and said "Burn, Baby, Burn!" and eradicate racism "by any means necessary." They "stood in the way of trouble and drew fire" so the people could have space to develop the struggle.
Revolution was on everyone's lips. The US government had to turn the 82nd Airborne from duty in Vietnam to put down black folk and the other poor folk they inspired in Detroit. COINTELPRO stepped in to silence the radical voices of SNCC, the Black Panther Party and others.
This is also part of SNCC's legacy.
Part Three: Training Organizers TODAY to Eradicate Racism, End Oppression, and Build a New and Egalitarian World
How do we train organizers to do the juggling act Zellner described above? How do we encourage and support young people who are willing to stand "in the way of trouble and [draw] fire" and provide people at the bottom safe space to develop the struggle?
This is what Curtis Muhammad asked of the 50th Anniversary planning committee in response to the invitation to speak on panel: a space and time to train organizers in the SNCC tradition. He does not think the conference needs keynote speakers, and was NOT asking for time to make a speech, although clearly he was grateful to Diane Nash for offering that opportunity to him. Although he called those to whom one-hour speaking slots were being offered "big shots," for which perhaps it would be appropriate for him to apologize, he did nothing to warrant the unprincipled attacks on him that ensued from some planning committee members. They gave the impression that he was apprised of the plans for the conference and was disrespecting the process, even when they knew that those plans had not been shared with him or made public. He thought the conference needed present day organizing giving workshops on organizing, and offered to set those up. He is DISMAYED, as are we in ISBO, that a three-day meeting of SNCC is not about the business of teaching the SNCC methods of radical organizing to a new generation.
There is a strand of former SNCC members who see President Obama as the victorious end result of the heroic and memorable organizing of the 60's. This group wants to share that vision of history with young people so they can "commit to continuing efforts to make a better America" and "make meaningful contributions to finding solutions to problems in our society where the needs are the greatest. This, we believe, is our legacy." (Letter from planning committee to potential panel participants)
There is another strand of former SNCC members who see things quite differently. They see untold numbers of black youth in prison and being shot down on the streets; black workers losing their jobs and homes; racism on the rise across the culture, from the demonization of black men as dangerous, criminal drug users and sexual predators, to the widespread and growing use of skin bleach, the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military invasion of Haiti: and a black President Obama presiding over all of it. Racism is not on the decline; Obama is not on our side. Organizing those on the bottom is as urgent now than at any time in history, if not more so.
This strand, which ISBO supports, wants to raise up a very different legacy of SNCC: the legacy of training young people to "stand in the way of trouble" and become a new generation of radical and revolutionary organizers.
It is very sad to think, as seems to be the case, that there will be no place or time for this in Raleigh this April.
ISBO would like to express its appreciation for the courage and principles of Diane Nash and those others who have spoken up in defense of Curtis and the bottom-up, black-led organizing that SNCC was famous for.
"I had a sister
She was a soldier,
She had her hand on the freedom plow
She got so old that she couldn't stand up
She said, "I'll stand up and fight anyhow!
"We are soldiers
In the army,
We have to fight
Although we have to die
We gotta hold up the freedom banner
We gotta hold it up until we die!"
Return to the Table of Contents
Why the Central Focus of the World Revolutionary Movement Must Be the Destruction of Racism
Building a Revolutionary Egalitarian Movement Led by the Poorest and Darkest, Especially Women
Who Are We?
The writers of this discussion document are the organizer training collective of the International School for Bottom-up Organizing (ISBO). The paper was written with the help of numerous readers, contributors and critics from several countries. The final document was consolidated, edited and prepared by Curtis Muhammad and Kathy Fischer.
We can be reached by writing to email@example.com, or by calling 773-675-2017 or 312-330-5285 in the US or 876-913-3124 in Jamaica, or by mailing to P.O. Box 7295, Port Antonio, Portland, Jamaica. Further information is available at www.peoplesorganizing.org.
Introduction and Overview
The goal of the revolutionary movement is to end all forms of oppression and build a world of complete equality, created and led by the people themselves. Right now, the movement is stalled. It will not be possible for it to move forward by doing the same things it has done in the past: what didn't work twenty years ago or fifty years ago won't work today either. The struggle for humanity and the world requires a great leap forward.
The purpose of this paper is to propose what seems to be needed to make that great leap forward, which humanity so desperately needs.
First, a disclaimer: The writers of this document are a small collective of revolutionary organizers, supported and assisted by a larger group of readers and critics from several countries who have provided invaluable insight and knowledge to help us craft the ideas presented here. Everyone who has contributed to this thinking considers themselves part of the communist movement. We staunchly reject anti-communism. Although we are offering a critique of the past and current communist movement, we also recognize that anti-communism has been and is, aside from racism, the foremost tool used by the people's enemies to attack and discredit the movement for an egalitarian new world. We are not associated with any party now, but have been long-term members of Marxist-Leninist groupings during our lifetimes, and have taken and continue to take inspiration from the communist-led movements of the 20th century as well as from African-American freedom movements in this hemisphere. Yes, in this paper we will criticize communist leaders for what we think they "got wrong," but it is in an attempt to take what they "got right" beyond where it is stuck. We reject in advance anyone who would describe us as anti-communist. We stand, in part, on the shoulders of the old communist revolutionaries. We are firmly committed to "from each according to their ability, to each according to their need." We call for the science of communism to be applied to a correct understanding of the interrelationship of class and hue and a correct understanding of the historic struggles of dark-skinned people. We feel that only in this way will the oppressed masses of the whole world, of all hues, collectively find our way forward.
Secondly, we equally reject nationalism and any attempt to describe us as nationalist. Our goal is a revolutionary transformation of the entire world made by an internationalist movement that includes all oppressed people, of every hue and "nation." We focus in this paper on the experience of Africans in the Americas because we think that their exclusion from the analysis of what capitalism is, and the exclusion of their thinking and organizing from the modern revolutionary movement have combined to put the movement on a dead-end track. We believe that the relationship between hue (skin color) and class exploitation has not been correctly understood as two sides of the same coin. Anyone can notice that wherever you find the people of darkest hue, in any part of the world, they are nearly always the poorest and most oppressed of all our brothers and sisters. Even within families, those with lighter skin are usually favored over those with darker skin. While we implacably hate the oppression of all human beings of every hue, we focus this paper on the experience of the darkest and their particular role in history and revolution. We recognize with horror the mass enslavement and genocide of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, the slavery, torture, rape and profound oppression of our brothers and sisters in Asia and the rest of the world. However, we also recognize that when white dominated organizations are confronted with their racism, they often point to their solidarity with "people of color" as a way to avoid dealing with dark skinned folk. Brown, red and yellow people are and have been historically tolerated to the exclusion of the dark. This has acted to make unity between black, brown, red and yellow difficult to attain. In this paper, we are presenting the case of the darkest of the dark as the place we must all begin in our struggle to free humanity from hue and class slavery.
The writers of this document suggest that in order for society to move past capitalism and racism, revolutionaries must make use of where the science of Marx and Engels has taken the revolutionary movement up to now, but also move beyond it. It is clear from the writing of those founders of modern communism that they regarded dark-skinned people throughout the world, and specifically, Africans in Africa and the Americas, as less human than Europeans. We will show that they said this explicitly, and that this thinking led them to misunderstand some fundamental aspects of capitalism. On the basis of this distorted and mistaken thinking, they drew conclusions about classes and class struggle that history has proven wrong. They based their analysis on the experience of about 2.5% of the world's people, a tiny, white, minority of the world's oppressed masses.
When they referred to non-European parts of the world as "barbaric," we think they referred not only to non-industrial economies, but also to peoples they considered less evolved. Their emphasis on industrial relations of production creating the most advanced class and the most advanced thinking, we argue, was mistaken. According to their thinking at the time, there was no sense even imagining a communist revolution in a "backward" country, which was a description that applied to all the countries where people had dark skin.
Until now, these racist problems in Marx' and Engels' writing have not been systematically challenged, analyzed and corrected, despite the fact that Marxists and the communist movement have risen above them and become leaders in the fight against racism. Some revolutionaries, particularly dark-skinned revolutionaries from outside the European context have been painfully aware of this problem, but hesitant to criticize the founders of modern communism for fear of giving comfort to the enemy, or for fear of being seen as giving comfort to the enemy. However, true revolutionaries do not believe that any individual is perfect and do not accept the cult of the individual. We need to have the courage to look objectively at the science of revolution without worrying about whose toes we step on in the process. It is time to move beyond the Eurocentric stamp that Marx and Engels put on all subsequent revolutionary thought.
The Roots of the Modern Revolutionary Movement
The 19th century was the birth-century of what most of us today consider to be the modern revolutionary movement. That century opened with the successful revolutionary takeover of Haiti from French slaveholders by African former slaves. By the 1830s, slave resistance, escape, and massive slave rebellions in the colonies, with the alliance of an abolitionist movement, ended chattel slavery of Africans in the British Empire (though its rule in India, China and elsewhere continued to contain elements of slavery for another hundred years). In the 1840s, revolutionary movements of factory workers swept Europe and produced the communist theories and organizing of Marx and Engels and the communists. During this same period, a remarkable movement was happening within the capitalist/slave republic of the United States that produced some of the most egalitarian thoughts and actions of the century and resulted in a massive civil war that ended slavery there. Interconnected with this US anti-slavery movement was a groundbreaking move to recognize the equality of women and demand equal treatment for the female half of humankind. In the 1860s and 70s, black former slaves in the U.S. and workers in Paris both created mass revolutionary experiments in communal living and governance.
The struggle against slavery in the Americas has not usually been considered a part of the modern revolutionary movement. That struggle was born long before the 19th century. It began with organized resistance to slave-catchers in Africa, and existed in every part of the "new world" where enslaved Africans were taken. Within that struggle there was not only resistance and rebellion, but also the creation of independent, free communities of escaped slaves that defended themselves against the slave owners and their governments. These existed in every slaveholding region: the Caribbean, South America, Central America and North America. Former slaves from many regions actually made their way back to Africa, as well, and formed communities there whose descendants still identify with their American-born ancestors. In the Americas, these rebels brought many Native and European Americans into the struggle under their leadership. Many of their leaders, organizers and fighters were women. The anti-slavery struggle was an enormous, mass movement, involving millions of people, which had sophisticated and courageous thinkers and organizers and international connections.
All of these mass struggles produced ideas and inspiration about how to achieve a world of equality and end the exploitation of most of humanity by a small class of people. However, the ideas and experiences of Africans in the Americas have not until now been harvested, analyzed and used as part of the ideology that guides the modern revolutionary movement. There has been a literal disconnect between, in particular, European-based and African-based revolutionary thinking.
The communist movement arose in the 19th century, and it became the main science of revolution and force for revolutionary change in the 20th century, not only in Europe, but also in Africa, Asia and the Americas. It was a tremendous movement, which took power in huge portions of the earth for a brief time, and inspired rebellions and struggles nearly everywhere. People who were involved in struggle during the years from the 1920s to the 1960s thought surely they would live to see the people win victory over oppression and create a free and equal world. The goals of communism reflected the hearts and minds of almost every oppressed person: the goal of creating a world that would operate on the basis of "from each according to their ability, to each according to their need."
However, the communist movement, including its modern descendants, have had some problems and weaknesses, and at least one fatal flaw, that have caused it to crushingly defeat itself, causing sorrow and disillusionment, and condemning humanity to many more years of capitalist slavery, wars and exploitation. There is no country in the world today that is controlled by the people; the countries that had communist revolutions are now capitalist. In fact, they went back to capitalism under the rule of the same generation that made the revolution.
It is time for those of us who are committed heart and soul to egalitarian revolution to face the defeat of the old communist movement and figure out how to move forward from here. We do not think any of the existing parties and groups has yet recognized the profound nature of the errors of the old movement, despite the genuine dedication they may have to the goal of achieving communist egalitarianism. Where did the science go wrong, and how do we fix it?
We suggest that the communist movement's fatal flaw was and still is a misunderstanding of capitalism, and how to overcome it, that stems from blind spots in the thinking of the "fathers" of communism. These blind spots were caused by racism. Although there were other mistakes that need addressing as well, we assert that racism is the primary underlying reason why the communist revolutionary movement failed. This is not to say that communists are racists; communists fight against racism, often heroically. It is to say that the communist movement has not understood racism correctly and this has skewed its whole analysis and strategy. In order for the egalitarian goals of the revolutionaries of the 19th and 20th centuries to come to pass, this fatal flaw will need to be turned into its opposite and the fight against racism will need to become the main strength and the core of the revolutionary movement. The lessons of the African-led struggles in the Americas will need to be studied and learned. And the new movement that results will need to be led by the portion of humanity that has the clearest understanding of racism: those whom racism targets.
The Problem of Racism in the Communist Movement
The problem started because Marx' and Engels' vision was impaired by racism. The problem also started because those revolutionaries who had the greatest understanding of racism - primarily slaves and former slaves and their allies in the Americas - did not have a systematic analysis and vision for transforming the entire system of capitalism. These two strands of revolutionary thought and action have never come together. The science of communism in the early years did not make a correct and thorough analysis of the role of skin color and the struggles of dark-skinned people, and the modern communist movement has not yet done so either.
Marx and Engels, the founders of modern communism, lived in Europe at a time when European governments ruled the world. Europe's people had white skin (with the exception of a few servants and slaves); the people of the rest of the world had dark skin. Europe's ruling classes had brutally driven the European working people off the land and into factories, and had subjugated and enslaved the working people in much of the rest of the world to provide the materials they needed for their factories. Europe's rulers systematically developed a racist way of thinking that said that people with white skin were more advanced, smarter, even more attractive than people with darker skin, especially people with very dark skin, who were described as backward, unintelligent, ungodly and ugly: "savages" who could only improve by being ruled by the white colonial overlords and slave owners.
Marx and Engels resisted that thinking up to a point, but not in a thorough way. They, too, though Europeans were more advanced. They suggested that there were two ways for people in the colonies to move forward. One way was for workers in Europe to make revolution, which would thereby free the colonies to develop. The other was for colonial peoples to fight for independence from the colonists and establish "their own" capitalist republics. Either way, they were not "ready" to fight for freedom and egalitarianism (socialism or communism) on their own. They had to first reach the level of industrial and cultural "advancement" that Europe had already achieved. Some later communists eventually rejected this analysis, but not for a hundred years, and then without an understanding of the deep racism that was underlying it.
Marx and Engels thought that colonial peoples were less advanced than Europeans not only because their societies were less industrialized, but also because their people were less evolved, culturally and biologically. Engels wrote that evolution had happened to a different "degree and direction varying among different peoples . . . and here and there even being interrupted by local or temporary regression." In other words, some people were more evolved than others (who were more like our ape-like ancestors). When writing about evolution of humans, he said, "The lowest savages, even those in whom regression to a more animal-like condition with a simultaneous physical degeneration can be assumed, are nevertheless far superior to these transitional beings [ape-men, also called anthropoid apes]." Part of the way evolution worked to create these different levels of human advancement was that the "transition from the uniformly hot climate . . . to colder regions" called for "new spheres of labor . . . which further and further separated man from the animal." In other words, people living in cold climates are more human than those living in tropical climates. The examples Engels gave of the most advanced, intelligent and creative humans were all Europeans. (These quotes are from "The Part Played by Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man," written in 1876.) It is clear from these quotes that Engels thought white Europeans were more advanced, and that some non-European people were "lowest savages." We can safely assume that Engels' "lowest savages" were the same people that were considered "savages" by many Europeans at that time: first, Africans, who were actively being hunted and enslaved, second other peoples of color, such as Native Americans and Asians. Marx's name is not on this document, but he did not criticize its content, so we can assume he was in agreement with it. For at least fifty years before Engels published this pamphlet, there had been educated, published Europeans and Americans writing and speaking about the equality of all humankind. Frederick Douglass was only one internationally known example. Marx and Engels did not agree.
During the United States' Civil War, which was the war that ended slavery in the US, Marx wrote about it for the British, US and German press, and Marx and Engels wrote many letters to each other discussing the war. From these writings, it is clear that they were against slavery, but the letters do not mention racism or the equality of black and white people. They write detailed analysis of the conduct of the war, and give credit to European radicals: "Without the considerable mass of military experience that emigrated to America in consequence of the European revolutionary commotions of 1848-1849, the organization of the Union Army would have required a much longer time." But they completely miss the pivotal military role that black people played in that war. Slaves left plantations to come to the Union army, weakening the South by leaving it without its full force of agricultural workers. Black people in the North joined the Union Army in large numbers. Even escaped slaves living peacefully in Canada returned to join the fight. These black soldiers fought heroically, even though they were often not paid or properly equipped. It was this mass influx of black soldiers and runaways who won the war for the North. Lincoln acknowledged the necessity of the black fighters when he issued the Emancipation Proclamation: he did so for military reasons, not humanitarian ones (the Proclamation did not emancipate slaves belonging to people who lived in areas loyal to the North). Marx and Engels, even in their private letters to each other, showed no understanding of this well-established military fact, despite the fact that it was being discussed both in writing and from abolitionist platforms in the US and England. They also showed no understanding of the profound vision of and commitment to equality that motivated the black soldiers. Instead, they congratulated Lincoln for freeing the slaves: "it fell to the lot of Abraham Lincoln, the single-minded son of the working class, to lead his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world." (This is from a letter from the International Workingmen's Association to Lincoln when he was re-elected to his second term. In a letter to Engels on December 2, 1864, Marx said that he wrote this letter.) This was a dramatically mistaken analysis of the events and the people. Slaves and free blacks rescued the Union, not the other way around. Marx and Engels, because they did not conceive of black people as fully human, could not conceive of them playing a significant role in the direction of human history, so they literally couldn't "see" it. Racism caused them to be blind to the truth.
During the Civil War, Marx was also writing Capital, which was published in 1867. In the first volume of this long and careful economic analysis of how capitalism works, there are two only two mentions of black people, despite the fact that their labor was a key part of the capitalist economy. In chapter 10, in a list of particularities of capitalism in various countries, we see the quote that has become famous. Here it is in its context:
In the United States of North America, every independent movement of the workers was paralysed so long as slavery disfigured a part of the Republic. Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded. [our emphasis] But out of the death of slavery a new life at once arose. The first fruit of the Civil War was the eight hours' agitation, that ran with the seven-leagued boots of the locomotive from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from New England to California. The General Congress of labour at Baltimore (August 16th, 1866) declared:
"The first and great necessity of the present, to free the labour of this country from capitalistic slavery, is the passing of a law by which eight hours shall be the normal working-day in all States of the American Union. We are resolved to put forth all our strength until this glorious result is attained."
It is remarkable that Marx did not perceive as the "first fruit of the Civil War" the mass, egalitarian movement of the newly-freed slaves, joined by thousands of former slaves who had run away to the North and Canada before the war, a movement that created hundreds of large, collective farming communities all over the South, led by former slaves, and including poor whites. No, for Marx and Engels, the first fruit of the Civil War was among Northern industrial workers, who were overwhelmingly white. "The first and great necessity" was not the struggle against racism and for the equality, unity and brother/sisterhood of all workers, but the fight for a law shortening the workday - again, only for industrial workers, overwhelmingly white. Although later communists use the single sentence in bold print in the above quotation as evidence that communism has always been anti-racist, it was not written as part of a scientific analysis of racism; Marx and Engels did not apply their brilliant scientific tools to the plight of black workers. Yes, they were against slavery, but they were saying here that in order for white workers to emancipate themselves, slavery needed to be ended. While that is true, it omits any needs of black working people, slave or free. Marx nowhere sees the need for or calls for unity or equality between black and white, much less for white workers to follow the leadership of the heroic and visionary black revolutionary fighters of that day.
The only other place in volume one of Capital where black people are mentioned is in the section describing the vicious ways the capitalists first accumulated their money. This appears in chapter 31:
The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.
Here, Marx and Engels use what must be considered a racist description of Africans. The argument that "black-skins" might not have been a racist term in the 1860s would be very hard to sustain, given the deep and widespread racism of Europe at that time. They also used the term "red-skins" to describe Native Americans, but nowhere do they use the term "white-skins" to describe Europeans.
Beyond these two quotes, there is no analysis of black labor or of racism.
By pointing out this racism that Marx and Engels inherited from their environment, we may not be saying much that people don't already know. Most communists realize that Marx and Engels had this weakness in their thinking, but also feel that it was understandable, even excusable, that it did not affect the accuracy of their analysis of capitalism, and that later communists fixed the mistake. It is not a part of the general opinion about Marx and Engels that their thinking was marred by racism. It is worth reminding readers again that Marx and Engels lived at the same time that spokespeople within the strong and vocal abolitionist movement were loudly proclaiming the equality of black and white humanity.
In his book about the abolitionist movement, Adam Hochschild writes:
"The abolitionists succeeded because they mastered one challenge that still faces anyone who cares about social and economic justice: drawing connections between the near and the distant. We have long lived in a world where everyday objects embody labor in another corner of the earth. . . . The eighteenth century had its own booming version of globalization, and at its core was the Atlantic trade in slaves and in the goods they produced. But in England itself there were no caravans of chained captives, no whip-wielding overseers on horseback stalking the rows of sugar cane. The abolitionists' first job was to make Britons understand what lay behind the sugar they ate, the tobacco they smoked, the coffee they drank." (From Bury the Chains)
It was Marx and Engels who taught us that "everyday objects embody labor." How did they miss the fact that the very same class of people who had driven European laborers into factories, the very same class of people who were forcing children as young as six years old to work themselves to death in those factories, that very same class of people was simultaneously sending ships around the triangular slave trade route, buying and selling human beings in exchange for the raw materials on which those childish fingers worked themselves raw? That, from the start, capitalism was a global phenomenon, and "at its core was the Atlantic trade in slaves and in the goods they produced?" The slave trade did not simply provide the capital used to industrialize Europe: the industrial capitalists continued to own or be shareholders in slave ships and slave plantations until slavery was abolished.
It is true that many communists in the 20th century were strong and militant in fighting racism, which is one of the reasons why capitalist governments hated them so much. However, it is our contention that because they did not understand the importance of skin color in the class divisions of capitalism, nor the role of black laborers (slave and free) in the struggle against capitalism, Marx and Engels made big mistakes in how they understood capitalism, and therefore in how they proposed to end it. Said another way, racism caused them to ignore key, essential data, and therefore their analysis was faulty.
Eurocentrism and the Idea that European Industrial Workers Were the Most Advanced Class
The first major writing that Marx and Engels did was called The Communist Manifesto, published in 1848. It set out their main ideas about capitalism and communism. The very first sentence made it clear that their vision was limited to Europe: "A specter [ghost] is haunting Europe; the specter of communism."
They said that capitalism was a system of the owners of industry (capitalists) exploiting the people who worked in the factories (the proletariat, or industrial working class). They pointed out that most people are workers, and that the labor of the workers is stolen by the bosses (capitalists) to make them rich and powerful. They called this "wage slavery." They also said that capitalism contains the seeds of its own destruction, because when hundreds and even thousands of people work together under one roof, the workers will become class conscious and see that they can overthrow their bosses and run the world without them. Marx and Engels felt that the industrial working class was the most advanced class in the world, and would lead the world to freedom and equality. This conclusion was based on their material role and experience in production, not on their consciousness. They said that, for the first time in history, the masses of oppressed people were in a position not only to rebel (which oppressed people had always done), but also to get rid of oppression and exploitation once and for all, and run the world themselves on a basis of equality, justice, and sharing. (They wrote hundreds of pages explaining these ideas in detail; we are only giving a very simplified outline of some of their main ideas.)
What's wrong with this theory? It failed to "[draw] connections between the near and the distant." It failed to notice that while one hand managed factories in Europe, the other wielded a whip amongst the sugar cane. It left out most of the working people in the world. Marx and Engels were only thinking about Europe. At that time, that's where the factories were. The factories in Europe got most of their raw materials from the colonies. But Marx and Engels did not conceive of the people working in the colonies, many of them slaves, as part of the working class, or even part of the capitalist system - even though the same capitalist industries used the products of their labor, and the labor of colonial workers, slave or "free," was also stolen from them for profit, very often by the self-same capitalists. It is most likely that the reason Marx and Engels did not take most of the world's working people into their analysis was because they did not see them as equal people to European workers. Marx and Engels did not apply their science broadly enough, so they reached the wrong conclusions.
Because of racism, their analysis only covered the aspect of production made up of white Europeans who worked in factories, which was only approximately 2 to 2.5% of the people then living in the world.
Marx and Engels recognized that capitalism had already become a world system by the time they wrote the Manifesto. Yet they did not analyze how capitalists made profits from the labor of people whose lives were spent extracting, growing and processing goods for capitalist bosses, because most of those workers were dark-skinned slaves in the Americas or near-slaves in Asia. Many of them (to use a modern term) worked for groups that "contracted out" work from the capitalists, including slave-owning members of African, Asian and North American societies. Others in Europe itself worked on farms in one or another relationship to the owners of the land, and the food eaten by the proletarians came from their labor. After leaving out consideration of the vast majority of the world's oppressed, Marx and Engels concluded that the primary contradiction in the world was between factory owners and factory workers ("the two great classes facing each other"), and that wage workers alone were the class that had the historic mission to transform the world and end all oppression and exploitation. The Manifesto ends with the words, "What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable."
There are several things that jump out as significant problems here. One is the question: how can you make a correct analysis of a world system on the basis of such a tiny minority of the people who were exploited by the capitalist class? The only answer we can see to that question is racism. Marx and Engels concluded that industrial production had transformed the class relations in the world, and therefore factories alone were the place to look for the embryo of the future. They never entertained the notion that something going on outside of Europe could contain the embryo of the future.
The experience of the sugar cane workers who were being deliberately tortured and literally worked to death in the West Indies by the same capitalists who owned the factories in Europe - and who were denied even the biological ability to reproduce by exhaustion and lack of food - that experience wasn't part of the equation, nor a part of what Marx and Engels described as the "naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation" of capitalism in the Manifesto. The working population of the West Indies constantly declined through death. The birth rate was almost nil until the legal end of the slave trade (which didn't completely end then), after which some of the workers were allowed enough food to be able to reproduce. The experience of the rubber extractors in the Congo, who worked in chains, had hands cut off for failure to meet production goals, and who were similarly worked to death, by the same capitalists who owned the factories in Europe - that experience wasn't considered worthy of inclusion in an analysis of capitalism and its future overthrow. These facts were very widely known by Europeans because of the mass campaigning of the abolitionist movement.
The British, just a few decades before the Manifesto was written, sent and lost more soldiers and more money in the campaign to put down slave rebellions in the West Indies than they had in fighting the American Revolution. To Marx and Engels that did not say anything about who were the people that had the potential to end capitalism. The fact that an army made up of self-emancipated slaves defeated the armies of Great Britain and of Napoleon in quick succession - to Marx and Engels that did not signify anything about who were the people who had the potential and the will to end oppression.
A second problem with Marx' and Engels' theory about industrial workers is that it is based on mechanical materialism: that the way production is organized will lead to revolutionary consciousness. In the Manifesto, they added: with the help of deserters from the ruling class who would bring knowledge to the working class. This is circular reasoning. The concept that theory needs to be brought to workers intrinsically contradicts the theory that workers are the class that will naturally lead revolution because of their organization in production.
One of the great contributions that came out of the experience of the Chinese Revolution was the concept that "an idea when grasped by the masses becomes a material force." In their struggle for egalitarianism after the 1949 revolution, the masses in China tried to rise up and take their country back from the former revolutionaries who were quickly becoming the new capitalists. In that movement, they loudly proclaimed that moral incentives should replace material incentives in production and every aspect of life and society. They saw that material incentives and a focus on production had led their revolution to turn into its opposite. They recognized the primary nature of people's consciousness as the motive force of history, and the only way to achieve an egalitarian economy and society. Unfortunately, the leadership of this movement betrayed it. The people's only option became a violent one, which they did not have the strength or organization to win. China became the hellhole of exploitation and death that we see now, because this struggle was lost.
While we certainly agree that the material realities of life mold people's thinking and what is possible in a given historic time, we disagree that methods and relations of production determine how people think and act. It is our conclusion that the struggle for egalitarianism, not the economic struggle, is the primary way forward.
When slaves rebelling at Christmas of 1831 were asked what they were fighting for as they burned down all of western Jamaica's sugar plantations, their answer was "our rights." They weren't fighting over how production was organized. They were fighting to be recognized and respected as EQUAL HUMAN BEINGS, deserving of anything and everything the white plantation owners considered their rights. We maintain that what motivates people to fight is love for humanity and a deep desire for equality and justice. And those with the most commitment are those whose humanity and equality are least respected and most despised, and for whom justice does not exist in the existing system.
A third problem with the industrial worker theory is: what Marx and Engels predicted didn't happen. Rather than becoming revolutionary, industrial workers today, particularly in the so-called "first world" countries, are among the most conservative, fearful, racist and anti-unity of all exploited people. Rather than becoming poorer and poorer, they own more property than any other exploited people. They use their organizational strength for reform, not for revolution, and often in selfish and sometimes racist ways. They strive to protect what they have. Of course there are exceptions to this characterization, and it does not negate the fact that they are severely exploited and need revolution, but overall, it is true. Yet for a hundred and fifty years, people who consider themselves followers of Marx have created increasingly convoluted reasoning in order to cling to a theory that has not proven true. Many still maintain that industrial workers are the revolutionary class, and still focus their energies on organizing them, still considering the poorest and darkest marginal. Just as Marx and Engels ignored the cane cutters and rubber extractors, many modern Marxists ignore or make secondary the roadside vendors, craftspeople, small farmers, raisers of a half-dozen goats, village shoemakers, etc., who eke out the worst livings in the world and live on hillsides threatened by every rainfall - even though they vastly outnumber those relatively lucky few of our oppressed brothers and sisters who have jobs, get a check every week, have some amount of health care and pension, can afford to own a house, a car, TVs, computers, and send their children to college.
Because England had the most advanced industry at the time, Marx and Engels thought that revolution would happen first in England. They were wrong about that, but they were right about one thing: workers in Europe became very class conscious and joined the communists in large numbers. In fact, working people throughout the world became inspired by these ideas of getting rid of oppression once and for all, and creating an egalitarian world, without exploitation of man by man. Within a hundred years after Marx and Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto, there were communist parties in nearly every country in the world, and communist-led revolutions in a huge portion of the Earth.
In 1917, the first communist-led revolution took place - not in England, but in the least industrialized, least industrially advanced part of Europe: Russia. (Actually, most Europeans at the time considered Russians to be Asian semi-barbarians, not "real" Europeans. The Russian language was frowned upon even in Russia itself; the Russian rulers and intellectuals spoke and wrote in French, which was considered a far more refined and sophisticated language.) At the time of the revolution, only a small percentage of Russians were proletarians, according to Marx's definition; most worked on farms and were called peasants. The industrial workers did play a key role in starting the revolution (along with soldiers), but during the four-year civil war that followed, the great majority of the people who fought and eventually won the revolution were from the countryside.
The next communist-led revolution took place not in Europe at all, but in China, which was a British colony just a few years earlier. China also had a tiny industrial working class. But, following the analysis that said industrial workers should lead, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) first organized and led an uprising of industrial workers in the cities in 1927. It was brutally defeated, and in the process many communists were killed. After that, the CCP made a very controversial decision under the leadership of Mao: they left the cities, left the proletariat, and decided to rely on the peasants in the countryside to make the revolution. For twenty-two years, they made war on the old society. They established a free base area behind their battle lines where life was lived by egalitarian principles. In 1949, they finally defeated the enemy and took power in the whole of China.
Marx and Engels were scientists. They analyzed human societies in a scientific way. They developed a theory about capitalism and how to move toward communist egalitarianism. Their theory was then tried in real life. And as history went forward, it became clear that European industrial workers would not free the world. That just wasn't the way it was working. Communist parties have claimed power in the name of the working class, but industrial workers did not actually make or lead the revolutions that happened.
When a scientific experiment does not produce the results that the scientists expected, they try to figure out what was wrong with their thinking and try something different. This is what we need to do now, and to do it we need to examine the history and experience of all of oppressed humanity, not only of European industrial workers. We cannot let loyalty to a theory or to a previous scientist prevent us from realizing that we need to rethink our theory.
Does Capitalism Need to "Fulfill Its Destiny" Before History Can Move Forward?
Before we look at that history, though, we want to examine another flaw in the thinking of Marx and Engels and many communists. In recent decades, others have come to similar conclusions about it as we will present here.
In The Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels say that the capitalist class has played a revolutionary part in history by developing technologically advanced methods of industrial production and organizing masses of workers into it, and that capitalism has drawn even what they called "barbarian" countries into civilization. In our view, they used the word "barbarian" in two meanings: one goes along with the idea that some people were less evolved and "civilized" than Europeans, as we described above. The other has to do with seeing most of the world as less economically advanced (that is, less fully capitalist) than Western Europe. This thinking reflected Marx' and Engels' lack of understanding of the international character of capitalism even then, as we pointed out already. Crucially, it also suggests that capitalism must fully develop its ability to produce goods at the highest levels of technology and efficiency before it is possible to make the transition to a more egalitarian type of society (socialism or communism). In other words, according to this idea, there's no sense trying to make a communist revolution in a "backward" country (which happened to include all the countries where people had dark skin). This goes along with the thought that most people would never even want an egalitarian society unless it was in an economy already capable of producing plenty of everything anyone could need or want. (This thinking was behind Marx and Engels proposing two stages of revolution, first socialism, then communism. The socialist stage, in their writing, would not be egalitarian, only the communist stage, which would come much later, when production and people were "ready" for it.)
This idea that the development of productive forces was the first order of business led to several dead-end roads in the history of struggle over the last hundred and fifty years. For one thing, it led Marxist revolutionaries in "developing countries" to decide to fight for "national liberation" from the colonial powers instead of fighting for communism, based on the idea that they would need to develop a strong, productive, independent capitalist economy first, which would lay the basis for the next step: socialism. Thus the communist movement in colonial countries became tied to nationalism instead of internationalism. These revolutionaries became the new capitalist class wherever they succeeded, and the revolution stopped there.
Another dead-end was that the communist leadership of both Russia and China had the idea that their first priority must be to increase their industrial production. This made them compromise their egalitarian principles in order to bribe the old capitalists, engineers, etc., to work for them and build up industry. (In China, there was a major movement to oppose this during the Cultural Revolution, but it was turned aside and sold out by its leadership.) This policy also included paying some people more for their work than others, based on how much they produced or how "important" their job was for increasing production. The most "important" jobs ended up being those of members of the communist parties, who then became corrupt. (Of course, we are simplifying major historic issues, but there is not space to deal with them fully here.) This led the communist-led governments in these countries also to be tied to nationalism instead of internationalism - but that discussion is beyond the scope of this document. We will deal with this in another document to come.
Finally, when Russia and China turned back to capitalist economies, the so-called communist leaders (actually sell-outs of communism) in those countries and later others claimed that they were recreating capitalism in their countries because it was necessary in order to build production of goods and services the people need.
There is something fundamentally wrong with the ideas that led to these dead ends, which have caused so much pain, hardship and death to so many people. And what is wrong is directly connected to the reasons Marx and Engels overlooked the experience of Africans in the Americas. They were thinking that production of goods and services is more important to moving history forward than is the collective thinking and experience of the people. They concluded that the ability for humanity to be organized around principles of egalitarianism was a direct result of the forces of production, which had reached their highest level under capitalism.
The main problem here is that people are primary and production is secondary, not the other way around. The notion that profit or self-interest is a driving force for the development of society and a necessary step for egalitarian revolution is wrong. Most of the time humans have been around, they lived by egalitarian principles. If human beings have been on earth for about 200,000 years, as scientists think, then for at least 190,000 years of that time everyone lived in egalitarian groups that collectively gathered and hunted their food, built their homes, took care of their children, and created human culture, including language, art, music, storytelling, theater, games, etc., etc., etc. (Note: this is why we refer to Marx and Engels as the "founders of modern communism," rather than as the "founders of communism:" humanity has lived by communist principles for most of its existence.) Until some tiny percent of people got the idea and the ability to keep things for themselves at the expense of everyone else, humanity lived by egalitarian principles. The advent of the profit motive (that is, the development of exploitation and classes) destroyed egalitarianism. You can make a case that exploitation started a process that resulted in technological changes and the ability to produce greater quantities and types of food and other goods, but you cannot make the case that exploitation started a process that would ultimately allow humans to become egalitarian: humans were already egalitarian before exploitation started and have always wanted and been capable of egalitarianism.
Even in much more modern times, there are many examples to show that where the ruling classes are weakest and people are most on their own, they tend to live a more egalitarian lifestyle. For instance, after Reconstruction was brutally crushed in the United States, black people created communities where everyone looked out for and helped each other, shared tools, tended the sick and educated themselves. This tendency also existed in the countryside in old Russia, before the communist revolution, and still exists in many communities, especially rural ones, throughout the world. You also see an egalitarian, humanitarian impulse emerging every time there is a major crisis, from refugee communities in wartime to earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, and snow storms. People do not need the promise of plenty in order to look out for one another!
To repeat, the lesson here is that as the moving force of history, people are primary; production is secondary. Marx and Engels stood this truth on its head. This was part and parcel of what blinded them to the African struggles for equality in the Americas, and what led them to think that European industrial workers were the most advanced class in the world, the people with the potential to transform the world.
The Science of Dialectical Materialism and the Importance of Consciousness
The science Marx and Engels refined is called dialectical materialism, and it has survived the test of time. Although Marx' and Engels' predictions did not come true, this was because they did not include all the information they should have in their analysis, not because the scientific method they were using was faulty. Dialectical materialism is still the best way we know to understand the world. The specific problem of Marx and Engels was that they did not apply that science to the experience of dark-skinned peoples. Because they didn't respect the humanity of black and other dark peoples, they failed to see that working class-consciousness, by itself, could not lead to freedom - because European workers could (and often did) become class conscious without becoming anti-racist. The experience of white workers in production allowed them to see that the boss was their enemy, but not that the black slave or oppressed worker in the colonies was part of their class, and certainly not the importance of joining forces behind the egalitarian vision of dark-skinned people. White workers' experience in industry could lead them to fight against capitalism for a better deal for themselves, while at the same time not preparing them to resist being used by those same capitalists against their own brothers and sisters with dark skins. (It is interesting that the abolitionist movement in England, not the Marxists, were able to organize a portion of British workers to oppose slavery, even though sometimes it meant going against their own immediate economic self-interest.)
The people whose experience in production - and life - allowed them to see the essential equality of all humankind were and still are the oppressed people who suffer the direct and immediate effects of racism. The revolutionary activities of early European industrial workers led to Marx' and Engels' economic analysis of capitalism, and to the development of a movement guided by the concept of struggle between workers and owners of industry over the value produced in production. The revolutionary activities of black slaves and their supporters resulted in the development of a movement guided by the concept of a struggle for the equality of all members of the human race. Put another way, white workers can engage in a fight against their own immediate oppression without fighting for equality (they can't win, but they don't automatically know that). Enslaved and oppressed black folk's fight against their own immediate oppression is a fight for egalitarianism. This is what makes them a more revolutionary force than industrial workers are.
The science of dialectical materialism shows us that the material realities of a person's life give rise to their thinking. By not examining the material realities of the lives of dark-skinned people, Marx and Engels also were ignorant of their thinking at a time when the thinking of black folk in the Americas was probably the most advanced in the world about how humanity should organize, fight, and even govern itself.
Let us now examine what we know about the experience and thinking of the black movement in the Americas before the 20th century.
The Early African-Led Revolutionary Movement in the Americas
Revolutionaries outside of Europe, even while they guided their actions by Marxist thinking, have often also been angry at the assumption that the world must look to Europe for the most advanced thinking about transforming the world. The arrogance of that assumption began with Marx and Engels themselves. We propose that revolutionary thinkers should face the opposite direction and look outside Europe for the most advanced organizing and thinking about how to transform the world.
If Marx and Engels had been looking outside Europe, they would have seen that the leading struggles for equality going on at the time (at least of which these writers are aware) were those of African slaves in the Americas. Rebellion began with the very beginning of the slave trade and never ceased. Some ran away from their chains, some rebelled, some even fought to take power from the slave owners. In many cases, runaways and rebels established "base areas," maroon communities, and defended them against the slave-owners' governments. All these types of struggle happened in every slaveholding country. Some involved just a few people; some included tens of thousands. In most cases they were aware of similar movements in other countries, or were even in contact with them. Most maroons were eventually defeated, or made peace at the cost of principle: they agreed to return future escapees from slavery or help capture them. But many lived and fought with great principle for decades or generations before that happened.
Much of this experience was never documented, because most of the people involved were not literate, or because of the dangers involved in the documentation falling into the wrong hands. What was documented has not influenced the history most of us are taught in school. The historic significance and the influence of this mass freedom movement has been quite deliberately suppressed and hidden; it has been written out of history because it is so dangerous to the two percent that runs the world. An example of the extent of this is the fact that the British sent more troops, far more of whom lost their lives, in their campaign against slave rebellions in the West Indies than they did in the American Revolutionary War.
However, there are some anti-racist historians who have worked hard to dig up this history, especially in the decades since the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. The authors of this document have committed ourselves to finding it, as well as to organizing further research and holding it up to the light, so everyone can draw lessons from it. Although our knowledge has so far only scratched the surface, here are a few representative examples of the extent and political depth of the movement:
- In Brazil, before the 19th century, there were at least ten major quilombos, or maroon communities of escaped slaves. The largest was Palmares, which has been described as an African state inside the territory of Brazil that existed for almost the whole 17th century and resisted constant military attack from the Portuguese before it finally was defeated. Thousands of people lived in Palmares, and we know some things about how it was governed, but not a lot. We know there was an elected king and some hierarchy, but also that people who came from many warring "tribes" in Africa lived in harmony there, as well as people born in Brazil of all hues from very black to nearly white, and including Native Amerindians. What were the principles people lived by in Palmares? How did they achieve unity? What was the experience of women there? Jumping ahead to the 19th century, Brazil saw a tumultuous period of armed uprisings, some of them trying to get better conditions, and others trying to seize power away from the slave owners. In the northern area of Bahia alone, there were nine organized, violent revolts just between 1807 and 1835. It is not an accident that these revolts followed soon after the revolution in Haiti, nor that they coincided with one of the most active periods of slave revolts in the US, Jamaica and elsewhere: Gabriel Prosser in 1800; Nat Turner in 1831; Sam Sharpe in 1831-32 and dozens more. Enslaved people knew what was going on in the world around them.
- In Colombia, there were numerous revolts as well as palenques (maroon communities). Many of them were located in the north of the country, near the Caribbean coast, where their descendants still live in a semi-autonomous region. The Palenque at San Basilio was first defeated in 1619, but went on to fight again. There was another movement in 1696, and more fighting again in 1713-17, when the Palenque finally made peace, but even after that, they lived an isolated and self-sufficient existence until the late 19th century. Today, this semi-autonomous region is under attack once again, by international corporations who are violently displacing black people in order to exploit their resources.
- In Jamaica, numerous slave uprisings ended with the Christmas Rebellion (Sam Sharpe) in western Jamaica in 1831-32, in which upwards of 60,000 people took part (one in five of all enslaved Jamaicans). Not surprisingly, slavery was ended in the British Empire two years later. Again, it was no accident that this rebellion coincided with the uprisings in Brazil and the U.S. Jamaica was also home to numerous maroon communities that fought the British until the mid-18th century. Some of them were captured and exiled to Nova Scotia, where they again rebelled and forced the British to send them to Sierra Leone, West Africa, where they helped found that country. The descendants of these maroons also still have semi-autonomous control of their own districts today.
- In Mexico, maroons led by Yanga established what is credited as the first free town in the Americas in 1618, in Veracruz. The first documented slave revolt in Mexico was in 1537 (45 years after Colombus' first voyage), and the influence of African-descended guerilla fighters in the Mexican war for independence no doubt contributed to the fact that the second president of Mexico, who himself was descended from Africans, announced the abolition of slavery in Mexico in 1822.
- In the US there were slave uprisings during the entire history of slavery. It is less well known that there were extensive maroon communities also. The Great Dismal Swamp area along the border between North Carolina and Virginia had hundreds if not thousands of escaped slaves living in it for generations, and was connected to maroon communities throughout the swamplands that ran from there all the way to Florida, where the better known Seminole maroons lived and fought (and whose descendants live in the US west and in Mexico). How did these courageous people organize themselves? We don't yet know. But we do know something about how another set of maroons lived: those who made it all the way to Southern Ontario in Canada. The Elgin Settlement did not need to defend itself militarily, because by the time it began, slaves could no longer legally be brought into Canada. Despite their ability to live in peace, Elgin and nearby communities of escaped slaves were engaged in the struggle against slavery back in the US, producing guns and sending organizers into the South, and later joining the Union army during the Civil War. Elgin was a last stop on the Underground Railroad (UGRR).
The UGRR was a massive organizing project, led in large part by an escaped slave woman named Harriet Tubman, who had a home in another Ontario black community. The UGRR had at least three thousand active members, who did everything from transporting runaways, to hiding them, to defending them against slave catchers, as well as fundraising and other logistical support. For obvious security reasons, this amazing organizing effort, which spanned thousands of miles, was not documented in detail. In addition to the active members, there was mass community involvement in many Northern cities and towns, where on many occasions hundreds of people took up arms to protect runaways and attack and sometimes kill slave catchers.
Elgin (now North Buxton) was just forty-five miles from Detroit, which was a hotbed of anti-slavery mass activism and violent struggle. At Elgin, unlike many maroon communities inside "enemy territory," there was private ownership of property, but that existed alongside a communal spirit. Like other maroons, the small farmers of Elgin collectively built their homes and barns, shared agricultural tools and equipment, and built workshops to make the tools and equipment they needed, from sawmills to seed-planters. They collectively created the clothing and bedding, washing machines and food-preservation they needed to get through winters. Elgin settlers also built a school and created an anti-racist curriculum for it (an activity that was the focus of many free black communities in the US and Canada). Their school was so successful that the local government school had to close its doors because neighboring white parents sent their children to the Elgin school for its superior education. Meanwhile, a few miles away in Chatham, escaped slaves were making guns. It was in Chatham that the meeting was held which planned the guerrilla war against slavery that almost started at Harper's Ferry, Virginia, led by John Brown. When slavery ended in the US, about two-thirds of the people in Chatham and Elgin returned to their former homes to help in the Reconstruction effort, bringing their skills, their ideas, and their organizing experience with them. It is significant to note that thousands of descendants of this community return to Ontario each Labor Day weekend to celebrate and study the activities of their ancestors.
We need more research. It would appear from what has been unearthed so far that most maroon communities were not models of egalitarianism. Many seem to have had collective rather than private ownership of property, but also to have been top down and militaristic, copying the organization of society they had known in Africa, which included kings and slaves. Most eventually accepted peace in exchange for hunting and returning new escapees from slavery. There are many references to maroons kidnapping women. However, we also must realize that the history we know about was not written by the maroons themselves, and was often written by people participating in hunting them. So we still find ourselves with many questions: what were the principles they lived by while they were fighting? What was their long-term view about the type of society they wanted to build in peacetime? Did they kidnap women, or liberate them? How did their communities treat women?
In addition, most history as written even by sympathetic historians, makes several typical errors. For example, most historians don't look at what women were doing, and assume men were leaders. What has gone down as "Gabriel Prosser's" rebellion in Virginia had a three-person collective planning and leading it: Gabriel Prosser was one of them, but another was a woman. Many historians recorded that rebel leaders had been kings in Africa. How much of this is true, and how much reflects the bias of both the reporters and historians, who thought that leaders must have been "better" than the masses of "average" slaves? Historians tend to accept the idea that individuals make history - especially "exceptional" individuals. For example, Sam Sharpe is credited with leading the Christmas Rebellion in Jamaica. When you stop and think about it, one person could not lead 60,000 rebels. There must have been organizing committees on top of organizing committees; there must have been organizers whose main job was communication and coordination. Who were those organizers? What were they thinking? What were their goals? How many women were among them? The idea that one guy "inspired" everyone to rise up simultaneously and just fight blindly against their slave masters, with no thought of how or for what end, is racist nonsense. The slave owners showed that they were certain about this: after they put down the rebellion, they executed hundreds of rebels for being organizers - people who represented highly valuable "property" to them. We must admit that there is a huge amount of history that we just don't know, mainly because no one with the capacity to record it thought it worth recording.
Statue of rebel fighters against slavery in Curaçao
However, we do know a little more in depth about one aspect of the North American experience, so we will now describe that in a bit more detail. The communities in the northern United States and in Canada did document some of their experience and thinking in the 19th century. We suspect that as more information about the rest of the Americas comes into our knowledge, we will discover parallels and similarities between the North Americans and the black-led movement in other countries.
A Case Study: the Chatham - Elgin - Underground Railroad - Harper's Ferry Contributions to Egalitarian Theory
In reading about slave rebellions in Brazil, we find that a few of them were described as struggles for power, not only against slavery. A similar thing happened as a result of the slave rebellion/abolitionist/Underground Railroad/maroon movement in the U.S. and Canada. There was a plan to raid the Harper's Ferry arsenal and take the weapons into the mountains to set up base areas to make war on slavery. This plan took the maroon and anti-slavery experience a step further: into offensive warfare against the slave owners and their government, with the goal of establishing a free state with its own, egalitarian government.
The Harper's Ferry raid has gone down in the history books as the brainchild of John Brown, the white revolutionary who was its military commander. Unfortunately, even anti-racist historians have described it that way, giving in to two wrong ideas: one, that individuals make history, and two, that white individuals in particular make history. The reality is that Harper's Ferry was the result of a complex history of decades of black-led struggle.
Beginning in 1831, national black conventions were held to discuss, plan and implement methods of freeing black people in the U.S. (slave and "free" alike). There is documentation of many of these, and the abolitionist movement (which, again, tends to be recorded as led by William Lloyd Garrison, a white man who attended and was inspired by the 1831 convention) was born in them. From this documentation, we can see that a wide spectrum of ideas and plans was considered. They researched and discussed origins of racism. They sent delegates to various parts of the world, including Cuba, Jamaica and West Africa, to look into the viability of establishing maroon communities there where black Americans, slave and "free," could go to put the racist US entirely behind them. These and other ideas were sharply debated.
They did not, to our knowledge, however, write down their discussions and plans about illegal activities, such as helping slaves to escape, organizing against slavery in the South, or armed struggle. But we can find reference to all of these things if we look carefully. For example, three of the black men involved in the Harper's Ferry planning are described as being members of a secret black paramilitary organization. Another black participant in the meeting that approved the final plan is described as having recently returned from organizing in the South. (These facts were uncovered by W.E.B. DuBois.) Harriet Tubman's Underground Railroad organization had black, white and Native American organizers throughout the South and the North. When slave catchers appeared in places like Ohio and Michigan, there were organizations already existing in those communities that were able to mobilize hundreds of armed people to attack the slave catchers within hours. There is plenty of evidence of serious, ongoing organizing, planning, philosophical discussion and armed struggle just by reading between the lines of research that has already been done.
The Harper's Ferry plan was officially approved at a meeting in Chatham, Ontario in 1858. John Brown was in attendance, along with ten other white men who had fought alongside him against slavery in Kansas. The other thirty-three men at the meeting, including all of the leadership of it, were black. This meeting approved a document called the "Provisional Constitution and Ordinances for the People of the United States." The raid on Harper's Ferry was the first action taken under the rule of this Constitution, which provided the organizing principles for the society that would be started in the mountains by the guerilla warriors after they took the weapons from the Harper's Ferry arsenal. Historians say that John Brown wrote the Provisional Constitution all by himself, but once again, this is such a simplification as to distort the truth. Brown did present it to the Chatham meeting, but its content is the result of the experience and ideological discussions that had been taking place within the anti-slavery movement for decades. Brown's own actions show that he was in substantial disagreement with a few key parts of it, which we will describe later on.
The Provisional Constitution is the clearest example we know about so far that helps us to see the type of thinking going on within the black-led movement that Marx and Engels ignored. It is a remarkable document. Let us look at some of its key points. To start with, it is worth reading the whole Preamble:
Whereas slavery, throughout its entire existence in the United States, is none other than a most barbarous, unprovoked, and unjustifiable war of one portion of its citizens upon another portion - the only conditions of which are perpetual imprisonment and hopeless servitude or absolute extermination - in utter disregard and violation of those eternal and self-evident truths set forth in our Declaration of Independence:
Therefore, we, citizens of the United States, and the oppressed people who, by a recent decision of the Supreme Court, are declared to have no rights which the white man is bound to respect, together with all other people degraded by the laws thereof, do, for the time being, ordain and establish for ourselves the following Provisional Constitution and Ordinances, the better to protect our persons, property, lives, and liberties, and to govern our actions.
This Preamble is an assertion of the equality and unity of all oppressed people. The "self-evident truths set forth in our Declaration of Independence" refer to these words in that document, which was written in 1776 when the US colonies declare their independence from England: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness." The writers of the Declaration were slave owners, so their definition of "men" did not include black people or women, but the Provisional Constitution clearly claimed equality of all people. The second paragraph of the Preamble puts citizens of the US, black people, slave and free, and all other oppressed people into one category of people who are setting out principles to govern their lives and defend themselves. "The oppressed people who, by a recent decision of the Supreme Court, are declared to have no rights which the white man is bound to respect" are black people. The decision referred to is the Dred Scott decision of 1857, which used those words. "All other people degraded by the laws thereof" is a very broad description, which we can safely assume to include women, Native Americans and poor people in general, all of whom were degraded by the laws of the US.
Some of the provisions of the Constitution are worth highlighting here.
- All officials would be elected for three years, but could be removed sooner for "misconduct." The idea of immediate recall of government officials was a lesson Marxism learned from the Paris Commune years later, though it was not implemented by communist-led governments.
- Voters are defined as "all mature people of sound mind." The word "people" is used, not the word "men." At that time there was a struggle going on for women's right to vote, and that struggle was led by people who were also involved in the abolitionist movement. The use of the word “people” was a declaration that women would vote equally with men in the new society. (This is one area where John Brown disagreed with the Constitution. He even opposed allowing women to attend the Chatham meeting. Several of the black leaders of that meeting had proposed that it be open to women, but Brown opposed the proposal and the others deferred to him.)
- "No person connected with this organization shall be entitled to any salary, pay, or emolument, other than a competent support of himself and family." This was to guarantee that no one would be able to get rich from being a member of the community or its government, a very egalitarian position at the time (and again, a lesson Marx drew from the later Paris Commune in France). (John Brown's actions showed disagreement with this principle as well: he hired Hugh Forbes for a lot of money - far more than "competent support" - to get his expertise in planning the raid. Forbes took the money and ratted on the organization, which forced a lengthy postponement of the raid and caused a number of influential people to lose confidence Brown.)
- "All captured or confiscated property and all property the product of the labor of those belonging to this organization and of their families, shall be held as the property of the whole, equally, without distinction, and may be used for the common benefit, or disposed of for the same object." This is very near to the essence of communism: all property to be held in common and used for the common benefit. This ordinance goes way beyond what the constitutions of the USSR and China provided when the communist-led movements took power in those countries in the next century.
- Everyone must work: "All persons connected in any way with this organization, and who may be entitled to full protection under it, shall be held as under obligation to labor in some way for the general good; and persons refusing or neglecting so to do, shall, on conviction, receive a suitable and appropriate punishment." If you put together this point and the one before it, you are pretty close to the communist motto of "from each according to their ability, to each according to their need," long before it was conceived or written by Marx.
- Arm the entire adult population: "All persons known to be of good character and of sound mind and suitable age, who are connected with this organization, whether male or female, shall be encouraged to carry arms openly." This idea appears in communist thinking several decades later as part of planning towards the transition to communism, but not to be implemented right away. Women bearing arms was a very radical concept.
- There were several items that could be described as enforcing a humane society, such as treating prisoners with "respect and kindness," including the death penalty for raping female prisoners ("Persons convicted of the forcible violation of any female prisoner shall be put to death"); no needless waste of useful property by burning it or killing animals; and intelligence offices to be set up to help families of slaves reunite. Chinese communists implemented many of these concepts and documented them as principles of people's war, several generations later, though not the death penalty for rape.
We have gone into some detail about the contents of the Provisional Constitution, because it demonstrates so clearly the kind of thinking going on within the black-led movement in the Americas during the same time that communist theory was developing in Europe. We believe that this Constitution is unique only in that it was published and is still easy to find, but we strongly suspect that the type of thinking and strategizing that was going on in the US and Canada was also happening in Central and South America and the Caribbean during that time period.
It is also notable that this document and many others coming out of the US anti-slavery movement were available to Marx and Engels, if they had thought them worthy of their investigation.
Did the Communist Manifesto influence the Provisional Constitution? The answer appears to be "no." The Manifesto was written ten years earlier, and could have been read by some of the American writers, but its influence is not evident. The Constitution does not use the class-conscious language of the Manifesto; nor does the Manifesto set out any plan for what would replace capitalism, which what the Constitution is about. On the other hand, Marx and Engels continued writing and building a revolutionary movement for decades after the Provisional Constitution was written. Did they read it? That answer also appears to be "no." There is no evidence in their further writings that it influenced them. It would be interesting to compare the Provisional Constitution with Marx's conclusions about the experience of the Paris Commune, when the working class of Paris took over the city and ran it for several months in 1871 before being brutally defeated. The lessons Marx drew from the Commune became essential aspects of communist theory used by later revolutionaries, but the document he and Engels wrote about it does not mention the Provisional Constitution of the Harper's Ferry raiders. In some ways, the ideas of the Provisional Constitution were more revolutionary and more egalitarian than those of the Paris Commune, particularly about the equality of people of all hues, and of men and women.
Who Should Lead?
There is another profound lesson to be learned from the Harper's Ferry experience: the need for black leadership. Despite laying down his life in the struggle against slavery, John Brown's mistakes led to the defeat of the brilliant egalitarian vision that guided him and his fellow raiders. His refusal to include women undoubtedly weakened the struggle in ways we can only guess at. The Hugh Forbes betrayal cost the confidence of influential people who helped arm and financially support the operation, and possibly part of the element of surprise. But his concern for the safety of white hostages and civilians in Harper's Ferry was the tactical error that delayed the raiding party from taking the weapons and moving immediately into the mountains. Instead of moving quickly, which would have endangered white civilians and hostages, Brown accompanied hostages to their homes (and back) to reassure their families of their safety! Clearly, had black members of the raiding party eager to free enslaved family members been in command, this error would not have been made. This delay allowed the US military to surround and defeat the raid. (A black member of the raiding party, Osborne Perry Anderson, lived to document this history.)
Marx said industrial workers would lead the revolution because he believed that those most oppressed and exploited by capitalism were the ones with the insight, commitment and power to defeat it and build a new world. We think the principle was correct, but he was mistaken about who those people are. Our movement needs the leadership of those people whose struggle against oppression is the struggle for equality, because equality is the essence of communism. It is not industrial workers that we need to lead the movement; it is the poorest, darkest, most oppressed people of the world, particularly women.
We should remember that the 18th and 19th centuries were not prehistoric days. Communication was already global by then. People were aware of what was happening in the far reaches of the globe. Communication may not have been as fast as it is now (although by the time of Marx, Harper's Ferry, the US Civil War, and the Paris Commune, the telegraph was in wide use and moved information instantaneously), but it happened. Both Europeans and black folk all over the Americas knew about the American, French and Haitian Revolutions, and news of slave rebellions spread like wildfire. A Jamaican (Boukman) was one of the leaders of the Haitian Revolution. Cuban maroons had a regular trade with Jamaica. The US and British anti-slavery movements were in regular communication, and black North and South Americans were traveling to a variety of countries and making contacts with supporters there. Slaves escaped to Canada and then sent organizers back to the southern US. Marx had access to this information.
The revolutionary movement should use the knowledge and science of Marxism, but must be willing to criticize and move beyond Marx.
Marx lived in a time when racism was virulent. Marx lived in a time when there was a massive, inspired, creative, revolutionary movement of black peoples in the Americas. Marx lived in a time when there was a huge, public, multiracial anti-slavery movement in North America and Europe, with an anti-racist ideology that called for the recognition of the equality of black people. Marx did not recognize racism for what it was nor try to analyze it. Marx did not advocate the necessity of an anti-racist movement. Marx did not call for the recognition of the equality of black people or for unity of white workers with black. In his analysis of capitalism, Marx did not even recognize that the European capitalists were also the slave traders and slave owners of the Americas (with a slight variation in the United States).
As a result of his racism, Marx's conclusion that European industrial workers would lead the movement to free humanity was wrong. Even at the time Marx was writing, it was dark-skinned people outside of Europe and outside of the factories who had the most advanced ideas and did the most advanced organizing around egalitarian principles. We believe this is still the case.
In view of the evidence, we suggest that it will be the poorest and darkest among us, especially women, who will lead the movement to free humanity. We believe that the role of revolutionaries is to support and argue for poor, dark-skinned people to be in the forefront of the struggle. We propose that, to be true servants of the people, revolutionaries should organize in the countryside and in the cities with their main focus on teaching the poorest and darkest, especially women, to be our leaders. We propose that humanity is ready NOW to build egalitarian organizations and communities, and to prepare to defend them against the attacks of the capitalist forces. We should not wait for the seizure of state power to go to the "next stage" of the struggle. The "next stage" is now.
It is not necessary to "win people over" to egalitarian principles before we can move forward. We suggest that there is already an unspoken consensus for egalitarianism among humanity's most oppressed. The role of revolutionaries is to bring it to light, organize and implement it.
Just as the Harper's Ferry raid would have been more likely to succeed had it been led by the black members of the raiding party, so the international, multiracial movement we build today needs to be led by the section of society that has the most profound commitment to equality: the poorest and darkest among us, especially women.
The struggle for an egalitarian world is not about productive forces or how production is organized; it is about the essential human commitment to equality and justice. As the Chinese communists said, "an idea when seized by the masses becomes a material force." That idea is egalitarianism. Let's help the masses seize it!
The writers of this statement are painfully aware of its limitations. We are aware that, just as Marx' and Engels' theories came up short in the crucible of history, so might these. We are convinced that we and others need to do much more to understand the interrelationship of class and hue within capitalism. We are likewise convinced by our experience in organizing that we need the leadership of women, and that much work is yet to be done to understand that crucial dynamic within the struggle for egalitarianism. Our dearth of knowledge and analysis of other parts of the world, especially Asia, Australia and the Pacific Islands is also evident in this statement.
We beg those readers who, in their hearts, are committed to organizing an egalitarian future, and are willing to question all theories, including those presented here, to join the struggle to put these theories into practice so that we may test them, change them, correct them, and eventually see a vibrant, international movement that can destroy all inequality and allow humanity to live in freedom.
We can be reached by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org, or by calling 773-675-2017 or 312-330-5285 in the US or 876-913-3124 in Jamaica, or by mailing to P.O. Box 7295, Port Antonio, Portland, Jamaica.
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Racism, Communism, Nationalism, Hue, Class
(An Experimental Re-Write of Chapter Seven in Everyday Language)
[Note: Some of our documents have been written in language that is not accessible to everyday people. We are committing ourselves to write for everyone, and to rewrite documents like the one in Chapter Seven. We believe that people from the bottom must lead our movement, and that all knowledge be made available to them so they can achieve that. This is a few pages of our rewrite.]
The world is not run properly any more. A long time ago, people controlled their own communities. They lived in small groups, they found food growing in the bush, hunted animals, caught fish and generally looked out for each other. Everyone had their work to do, and everyone got their share. This is how people lived for most of the time we have been on the Earth.
But now it isn't like that. The few selfish and greedy ones took over and pushed everyone else down. Today, the rich people run everything for their own private benefit. They exploit the rest of us to fill their own pockets, and they don't care anything about black people and poor people. They don't care anything about if babies die from diarrhea or HIV; they don't worry about killings millions of people in wars; they don't care if they spoil up the land, the sea and the air until everything is poison - as long as they achieve their objective, they are happy. They make people into slaves, sell women and children's bodies for sex, force poor people to leave their families and homes to find work, force young people to fight and die in their wars, and they give us nothing in return except pain, sorrow, starvation and disease.
How do they get away with this? Because we let them. Sometimes we fight back heroically, it's true, but so far we have not defeated them very often or very thoroughly. They convince us that we are too stupid and ignorant to be in charge of anything, so we let them do their dirty work and satisfy ourselves to beg them a few crumbs. We do our best to keep our children alive and healthy. We send them to school and hope they can "move up in the world." But, generation after generation, we end up poor, downtrodden and powerless.
It doesn't have to be so.
We, the dark-skinned poor people, the ones who are on the bottom of the heap, and especially the women among us: WE are the roots of humanity; WE have the genius to set the world straight. We know about sharing a few things so everyone gets their share: our mothers are experts at it. We know how to do all the work that is done in the world, because we are the ones that do it every day. We know how to take nothing and make something. We are most of the people in the world, and it is our right and our duty to make things fair and just, free and equal again, like the world is meant to be. It is for us to govern our own communities and our own world and make it peaceful again.
This is our job and our responsibility, and to do it we must learn some things.
The main thing we need to learn is that WE ARE SMART. We can learn anything and everything we need to learn to make and govern a new world. We must start by freeing ourselves of mental slavery.
Before we go on, we will answer the question: who are the people who are writing these words?
We are a small collective of revolutionary organizers, and many other people helped us with the writing. All of us used to be connected with the old movement of revolutionaries that has been going on for a few hundred years, which is called the communist movement and the nationalist movement. But we are not part of those old revolutionary parties any more, even though we used to be. We stand on their shoulders, but our ideas now are different from the strategy of that old movement. We will not attack that old revolutionary movement, because when someone attacks revolutionaries, they are really attacking the people. We learned from them, and we have been inspired by them, even though we think they made big mistakes. We want to create a new world of freedom and equality, so we need to learn and tell others what the old revolutionaries did wrong. We also are inspired by the black revolutionary freedom fighters in the Americas, and that is what this writing is about.
Our basic principle is egalitarianism, which means treating everyone as equals. We believe in the slogan "from each according to their ability, to each according to their need," the old communist and some of the nationalists also believed this. But we don't think they had or have a plan that will get us to that goal. We think the only way forward is to bring the old revolutionary knowledge together with a true understanding that being a "have-not" is also about skin color, which we call "hue." The old revolutionaries only understood that some people exploit other people's labor for their own profit; they called this the capitalist (ruling) class and the working (oppressed) class. Many nationalists thought that racism was the only issue causing exploitation. They did not understand that the rich and powerful chose who to exploit partly (a big part) by their hue. The poorest, most exploited people are the darkest people. The old revolutionaries (the communists) did not pay attention to the struggles of poor, dark-skinned people for liberation from oppression when they were creating their strategy. We are saying that we need to learn about those brave and brilliant struggles and put that experience together with some of the things the communists and nationalists have been saying, and that way the oppressed masses of the whole world, of all hues, will be able to find our way forward to create a just new world.
Some people who are loyal to the old revolutionary movement will probably accuse us of attacking that whole movement. They are wrong. Some of them might also accuse us of being nationalist, or only caring about dark-skinned people. That is wrong, too. Our goal is to build an international movement that includes all oppressed people, from every nation and every hue, to overturn and change the whole world. We are focusing on the experience of Africans in the Americas because we think that experience was left out of the understanding the old revolutionaries had, and that is why the movement has reached a dead end. The old revolutionaries did not see that class and hue are both part of the same thing; they are not different things. Anyone can see that wherever you find the people of darkest hue, in any part of the world, they are nearly always the poorest and most oppressed of all our brothers and sisters. Even within families, those with lighter skin are usually favored over those with darker skin. We hate the oppression of any and all human beings, no matter what they look like, but this paper is about the particular role of dark-skinned people's struggles in changing the world.
The rich few have enslaved, killed, raped, tortured and oppressed the brown, red and yellow people of the world, and also the poor whites. All of that horrifies us and we are determined to end it. Many revolutionary organizations in the Americas and Europe are dominated by white people, though, and when they are criticized for their racism, they like to say they are not racist because they include "people of color." This is a way to avoid dealing with hue, because most of who they call "people of color" are brown, red and yellow, but not black. They and other white people who have not confronted their own racism will often tolerate brown, red and yellow people, but not black people. This has made it hard for anyone of any color to unite with poor black people. We are presenting the case of the darkest of the dark because we think it is the place we all must begin in our struggle to free humanity.
The old saying is still the way things are: "if you're white, you're all right, if you're yellow, you're mellow, if you're brown, stick around, but if you're black, get back."
One of the best things the old communists did was they learned a scientific way to understand how the world and everything in it works. We should use that science to move even farther than they did, so we can reach a true understanding of hue and class oppression and use it to create a new world. That science is called "dialectical materialism."
When we look at the writing of the founders of communism (their names were Karl Marx and Frederick Engels), we can see that they thought Europeans were the most advanced societies. When they analyzed the world and how to change it, they only looked at the white people of Europe. They knew that the world would not be free until the rich and powerful were overthrown by the poor and oppressed, but they only thought about the white working class of Europe when they worked out their strategy. White workers in Europe were only less than three percent of the people in the world, but Marx and Engels thought that the white workers in Europe would free the world, and everyone else was too backward to bother about.
Marx' and Engels' writings laid the foundation for the revolutionary thinking and action ever since. If the foundation is faulty, the building will not be sound, so it is very important to know what mistakes they made. It seems they thought dark-skinned people were less human than white people. They thought parts of the world where dark people lived were "barbaric." (That is the word they used, and it means primitive and uncivilized.) They thought that since Europe had more advanced technology at that time, especially factories to produce items for sale, that meant that Europe would produce the most advanced class and the most advanced thinking. They could not imagine the poor overturning the rich and making a just and equal world in a "backward" country, which is how they described all the places where people had dark skin.
Up to now, no one has challenged the racist foundations in Marx and Engels. Even though communists have been fighting against racism for a hundred years, they have not made a real, thorough analysis of Marx' and Engels' racism. Even dark-skinned revolutionaries who were painfully aware of the racism hesitated to criticize the founders of communism, because they were afraid people would think they were giving comfort to the enemy. But we, the people writing this document, think we need to have the courage to be honest and not worry about whose toes we might step on. All honest revolutionaries know that no one person can be right all the time, and it is wrong to think of anyone as being like a god. It is time for us to move past the white, European-centered ideas of Marx and Engels, and rebuild that foundation so the have-nots can finally succeed in creating a just and equal world.
The Roots of the Modern Revolutionary Movement
At the beginning of the 1800s, African former slaves took over Haiti from the French slaveholders. By the 1830s, slaves had forced slavery to be abolished throughout the British Empire by a combination of resistance, escape and mass rebellions, with the white abolitionists as allies. (However, there continued to be elements of slavery in how Britain ruled in the American colonies, and also in India, China and other places.) In the 1840s, factory workers in Europe rose up in rebellion, and their experiences led to Marx and Engels coming up with their ideas about communism. At the same time, a remarkable movement was happening in the United States. This anti-slavery movement produced some of the most egalitarian thoughts and actions of the century, and the civil war that ended slavery there in the 1860s was the result. Inside of this movement, the equality of women was recognized, and a movement toward equal treatment for the female half of humankind. Then, in the 1860s and 1870s, black former slaves in the U.S. and workers in Paris, France both created mass, revolutionary experiments in communal living and governing themselves.
Most revolutionaries of the 19th and 20th centuries did and do not think of this massive struggle to end slavery as part of the modern revolutionary movement. Actually, that struggle was born long before the 19th century. It began with organized resistance to slave-catchers in Africa, and existed in every part of the so-called "new" world where enslaved Africans were taken. Inside of the resistance and rebellion was also the creation of independent, free communities of escaped slaves that defended themselves against the slave owners and their governments. This happened in every slaveholding area: the Caribbean, South America, Central America and North America. Slaves even escaped and found their way back to Africa, and their descendents still know about this history. The rebel slaves brought many native and white Americans into the struggle. Many of the leaders and fighters were women. This was a huge movement including millions of people. The organizers were very smart, clever and brave. They even had international contacts and coordination.
These mass movements produced ideas and inspiration about how to achieve a world of equality and end the exploitation of most of humanity by a small class of rich and vicious people. But modern revolutionaries have not tried to learn from them. There has been a disconnect between European and African revolutionary experience and thinking.
The communist movement started by Marx and Engels became the main force for revolutionary change in the 20th century all over the world, not only in Europe. It was a huge and powerful movement that inspired and led rebellions all over the globe, and succeeded in taking over huge portions of the earth for a short time. People who were involved in this movement between the 1920s and the 1970s thought they would surely live to see the people win victory over oppression and create a free and equal world. "From each according to their ability, to each according to their need," was the slogan of the goal of communism, and that touched the hearts and minds of almost every oppressed person.
But the bad news is, the communist movement did not achieve its goal. It defeated itself and caused sorrow and defeatism. Humanity was back to many more years of capitalist slavery, wars, exploitation and oppression. There is no country in the world today that is controlled by the people themselves. The so-called "communist" and "socialist" countries are all now run by the capitalist two-percent. The very generation of leaders that won the revolutions turned into greedy enemies of the people.
It is time for those of us who are committed heart and soul to an egalitarian world to face the defeat of the old communist movement and figure out how to move forward from here. We do not think any of the existing parties and groups has yet figured this out.
Where did the science of revolution go wrong, and how do we fix it?
We think the mistakes came from the racism of the founders of communism. Racism made them blind to understanding the true realities of the world. We are not saying that today's communists are racists. Many of them hate racism and fight against it. But the communist movement does not understand racism, and this means its whole strategy is misguided. To move forward, we must see that the fight against racism will need to be the main strength and core of the revolutionary movement. The lessons of the African struggles in the Americas need to be learned and studied. Our new movement must be led by the people who have the clearest knowledge and understanding of racism, and that is the people who are the targets of racism - the poorest and darkest people.
Return to the Table of Contents
Nationalism Is the Enemy of the People's Revolution
At the bottom of this document, you will find a brief essay about nationalism that we sent out to readers for comment a while ago. (We have changed a word here and there since sending it, but it is basically the same document.)
From the responses we've gotten so far we are seeing that our communication with you is faulty. With this letter, we try to rectify that. The first piece was very brief; this letter explains its core ideas more fully.
We are in a process of trying to uncover the theory and practice of the movement that achieved the destruction of chattel slavery throughout the Americas, a movement that we could say won its first major victory with the Haitian revolution at the turn of the 19th century, picked up steam throughout the Americas in the following decades, knocking down slavery in the Spanish colonies beginning in the 1820s, the British empire (1830s), the US (1860s) and finally in Brazil (1880s).
The reason we are trying to uncover the buried knowledge of that movement is because we think it contains profound lessons for the future struggle of humanity to free itself from oppression once and for all.
The former slave masters and their political descendants buried the history for obvious reasons. The revolutionary movement that started in Europe in the 1840s and which Marxism developed out of was not a descendant of the anti-slavery movement, and completely overlooked any lessons it could have taken from it. The reason for this was the overwhelming culture of racism that existed in Europe when it came into being. The result of both these factors is the demolition and near-erasure of people's struggles to liberate themselves, and the lessons of those struggles.
We therefore are basing ourselves on the hypothesis that it is best to question the conclusions of Marxism and not hold them sacrosanct. This presents some difficulties - not only from those who feel that this is akin to blasphemy, but also because the language of Marxism-Leninism gives definitions to the words we are using to express new ideas. We are finding that some readers assume the Marxist definitions and then misunderstand us. We need to use language differently to make ourselves clear.
Secondly, the ideas we are expressing are coming from two sources. One is our research and knowledge about the movements and communities led by black people in the Americas during the anti-slavery struggle and afterward. As we pointed out in the previous document, the anti-slavery movement, Underground Railroad, and resulting free black communities were sophisticated organizationally, technologically, and philosophically, and were led by slaves and free blacks. The other source is our ongoing organizing practice in several communities of poor, African-descended people in the Americas, in the attempt to develop egalitarian organizations and eventually communities. Unfortunately, we have been remiss in sharing this practice with our readers.
So, for example, when we say "egalitarianism now," it is not an abstract slogan. It comes both from the egalitarian practices we are uncovering through our research, and from the egalitarian organizing we are doing - successfully, though as yet on a small scale - in the present.
What is a nation? What is a state?
Historically, nations came into being with capitalism. Capitalists found it useful to create relatively large territories (let's use France as an example) out of diverse populations (in the area that is now France, people once spoke 200 different languages), and create a single government to rule them, a single language, and a new "national" identity. As imperialism developed, the European capitalists captured and annexed territories in other parts of the world, ignoring previous boundaries and methods of rule. Lenin, Stalin, and other Marxists later defined "nation" in a somewhat different way - as a set of people who shared land, language and culture, even if that set of people did not have a government specific to it. This was a step in trying to understand and fight imperialism - which, for example, made Guadalupe in the Caribbean a part of France, and put Algeria under French rule. The Marxists said that Guadalupe or Algeria (which had not previously considered themselves national units) were separate nations and as such had a right to "self-determination."
Whereas nationalism had been strictly an ideology of the capitalists, now it was also adopted by the Marxists. Marxist-influenced radicals and revolutionaries began to fight for the self-determination of non-existent, abstract "nations," such as black people inside the United States. Nationalism was adopted as a revolutionary strategy by revolutionaries throughout the colonized world, who, rather than fighting for the people to rule themselves, ended up fighting for the imperialist-defined Algeria, for example, to become a nation of its own, separate from France.
[Note: When we use the word "nationalism," we refer to a political strategy that focuses on the control and management of nations. This was first a strategy of the capitalist class, and then a strategy of the Marxist-Leninist revolutionaries. Some people use the word "nationalism" to describe the sense of belonging to a certain set of people and loyalty to that set of people as separate from (and usually better than) other people. We suggest a different word is needed for that meaning - perhaps tribalism or racialism. In any case, it is NOT the meaning we intend when we use the word.]
One way to see this adoption of a nationalist strategy is that European Marxists said to dark-skinned revolutionaries in the colonies: you have a right to self-determination; you run your revolutions and we'll run ours. It is important to note that neither the European nor colonized side spoke to the people on the "bottom."
[Another interruption here: When we talk about the "bottom:" imagine sitting down in some country in the world - take your pick: Jamaica, Colombia, India, China, Iraq - and looking for the relationships between the haves and have-nots. In the setting of the have-nots, denote the relationships between all of us and the least of us. If we all do that without allowing ourselves to use previous preconceptions and categories of people (for instance, "working class," "informal economy," etc.) we would not need to say: "Now you know they are going to be the darkest, nastiest, poorest, angriest and hardest to get along with folk in the world." White AND black revolutionaries have had a problem respecting that group of people, but it is precisely the group that made up the movement for liberation from slavery and racism. The closest similar analysis within the communist movement was the way the Chinese CP crafted its strategy for dealing with the "peasantry" before they seized power - they categorized people as rich, middle, poor, and landless peasants, and set themselves the task of recruiting the poorest of the poor and landless peasants.]
To be clear on definitions: the Marxist definition of "state" is the apparatus used by the class in power to rule over the people it oppresses: that is, the government and all its departments (army, police, courts, jails, schools, etc.). The Marxist, anti-colonial revolutionaries who successfully fought for the independence of Algeria or Vietnam instituted new states (theoretically revolutionary ones) in those new nations. People who are not familiar with the Marxist definition of the state often use it as an alternative word for nation - meaning a nation that is independent and has its own government. We sometimes also use the words interchangeably, because not everyone we are writing for is familiar with Marxism, and we are trying to use language in ways non-politically trained people can understand.
Nationalism is anti-revolutionary, anti-people
So: the idea we are trying to raise is that any and all forms of nationalism only serve oppressors. This is true whether we are talking about existing nations ruled by states (from Algeria to Russia to China to France to the United States) OR about non-existent, abstract "nations" of the sort imagined by anti-imperialists, such as black people in the United States, the Bretons in France, or indigenous people in various parts of the world OR about past or future nations ruled by revolutionaries seeking an egalitarian world.
Our research and our experience have shown us that the idea of nation-state is not a useful one for oppressed people seeking liberation. For example, the communities set up by escaped slaves usually met the definition of nation-state, even though they clearly weren't on the scale usually thought of as a nation. They were made up of people who shared language and culture, who controlled a specifically defined territory, who had methods of self-government, and who often had armed forces to defend themselves. This was true not only of Maroon communities during slavery, but also of, for example, black communities in the Deep South during Reconstruction and later Jim Crow. If we use this definition of nation, we can end up with millions of micro-nations. This is obviously counter-productive. In our organizing practice, we confront the results of this type of thinking every day in trying to build unity between communities that are only half a mile apart, but which consider themselves separate entities and to which people harbor passionate loyalties and hatreds.
Secondly, the experience of the last hundred years has demonstrated than even when revolutionary, egalitarian-thinking, well-meaning people who have risked their lives to overthrow oppression take power over a nation (create a state) - that is, the power changes hands from "them" to "us" - within the blink of an eye, "us" becomes "them" again. The same people who led the revolution turn into enemies of the people. If you look closely at the history of communist-led Russia and China, you will see that some of their leadership saw this happening and made attempts to stop the process. Stalin, just before World War Two, proposed that members of the Communist Party not be allowed in government because he saw that many Party leaders had become entrenched power-holders with vested interest in not moving forward toward egalitarianism. He said communists ought to be organizers and political educators, helping people understand and move toward egalitarianism, and that meanwhile, the grass-roots organizations in the communities should be the governmental decision-makers. Mao instigated and organized the Cultural Revolution to "bombard the headquarters" and take down "capitalist-roaders" in the Party in China. In this case, masses of people on the ground took part in changing things in an egalitarian direction. But both efforts proved half-hearted and were abandoned and/or defeated, with the result that the billions of people in those nations are now thoroughly under the thumbs of capitalist oppressors again. (And in neither country did the leadership reject nationalism, but instead called for "defending the motherland/fatherland.")
White supremacy, Marxism and nationalism
The contention that we are raising is that the white supremacy inherent in Marxism due to its European beginnings caused the vivid, heroic and determined worldwide communist movement to unknowingly get off on the wrong track from the beginning. This is because it overlooked the mass, egalitarian, anti-racist movement that preceded it - the anti-slavery movement in the Americas. Instead of learning egalitarian lessons from that movement, it adopted the capitalist idea of nationalism and made the practice of nation-states part of the revolutionary movement. This happened in two ways: one was the anti-imperialist nationalism of the colonies fighting the imperialists; the other was in the actions of the communists themselves as builders and managers of nation-states. The communist movement ended up focused on destroying the capitalist state and replacing it with one led by communists; it did not focus on building egalitarian organizations, communities and structures, even though it believed in the concept of a future egalitarian society.
Although communist theory is internationalist, and calls for the unity of all the workers of the world, its practice has been nationalist. Looking at the world from within a Marxist perspective, it is impossible to think of another way to approach revolution than that of seizing state power from the capitalists within an existing nation. So you end up with two-step theories based on an assumption that the people are not "ready" for egalitarianism and internationalism.
The first two-step theory of so-called revolutionary nationalism was that the colonial peoples had to first overthrow the imperialists and set up their own (capitalist) nations before they would be "ready" to work on building a communist revolution.
The second two-step theory is that by having a communist party in power, you will be able to pass through the socialist phase to the communist phase. The slogan for how a socialist economy was to be organized was "from each according to their ability, to each according to their work." The slogan for a communist economy, which was expected to gradually develop out of the socialist economy, was "from each according to their ability, to each according to their need." In this theory, the oppressed people are not "ready" for egalitarianism, so a capitalist-minded economic policy of unequal wages based on amount or type of work has to be instituted under communist leadership while the leadership prepares the masses for equality. In practice, the leadership reaped the benefits of the unequal wages, became entrenched, and now had a material incentive NOT to prepare the masses for equality.
The third two-step theory is that when a communist party takes power and creates its own state, this is a step toward internationalism, which the people aren't "ready" for until communists have taken state power in nations throughout the world and then uniting. In practice, this third two-step theory resulted only in the communists becoming nationalists and capitalists.
In rejecting all of these stages, we are trying to think completely "outside the box." It is our contention that people are ready for egalitarianism now and don't have to be led through a set of steps by a group of people who think they know better than the oppressed people themselves. We get this idea from the history of the black-led movement of slaves, their allies, and their descendants in the Americas, because the unifying theory and practice of that movement was that all human beings are equal and deserve to be treated equally. Equality is what all of us want for the future of humanity, and the essence of what communist theory is after. In addition, this idea is reinforced by our practice on the ground, not only today, but throughout our lifetimes in the anti-racist, black-led movement, including the U.S. civil rights movement. It is our experience that the people who feel the brunt of the inequality of capitalism rebel against inequality. They are passionate about fighting for freedom from being treated as unequal and less than. They love the idea of "from each according to ability, to each according to need." They already have the idea that fairness is defined by "share and share alike." This is most particularly true of women, who have throughout history maintained the role of nurturers of humanity. Capitalism and racism have been more successful in cutting men off from their historic role of nurturers, and have therefore made them more vulnerable to individualist, self-seeking, self-promoting and inhumane ideas and actions. But even many men among the dark-skinned poor are acutely aware that they are unfairly being treated as less-than, and have a desire for equality burning in their hearts. Many if not most of them are open to accepting leadership from women, who in essence are already the organizers of the family and community.
This is why we call for revolutionaries to focus their energies on developing the leadership of the darkest-skinned poor people, and among them, especially the women. We think this desire for creating a new world based on equality is strongest among that section of oppressed people, and that their leadership is key to freedom for all oppressed people. So, we believe the movement must be international and multiracial, but that the most diligent egalitarian leadership will come from amongst those who have been treated the most unequally and unfairly. While our experience is specific to the Americas, we know that racism against dark skin is international, and that in most if not all parts of the globe racism has created a situation where those who are darkest in skin color are to be found at the bottom of the society and the economy everywhere. This is true in most of Asia, especially South and Southeast Asia, in the Pacific Islands, in Australia, in Africa, and in Europe. Our working principle is: go to the bottom and develop leadership from there.
We are convinced that women everywhere in the world are better equipped by their experience to provide egalitarian leadership than men, and should therefore be developed preferentially as leading organizers at this moment in history.
The reasons for this focus are based on the need for equality, and the specific historical conditions we live in now. If we develop the leadership of the most discriminated against, we will be able to develop a truly egalitarian, international and multi-racial movement. This does NOT mean that we think ONLY dark-skinned people or ONLY women will be part of leadership. That is not, in fact, the case in the organizing we are currently doing.
What does our practice look like right now?
ISBO is currently organizing on the ground mainly in Jamaica and Colombia, although it has members and friends from Venezuela to Cuba to Argentina, to Canada, the US and the UK. On the ground, we are organizing community groups around an explicitly egalitarian principle. That means that the community group is conscious of itself as a place of equality that is working to forge an egalitarian community. Our meetings create equal voice for everyone who attends. Our decisions are made by consensus. If something is controversial, we continue to discuss it until we have agreement. If members of the group do something self-serving, dishonest or unequal, this is brought before the group and either the people change or get out of the group. Inside the group is an organizing class made up of volunteers who want to commit to becoming egalitarian organizers. They are conscious of the need for black leadership. They struggle against their own internalized racism, which they can see is holding them and most oppressed people back from recognizing and using their own genius. This education about internalized racism is given top priority in developing new organizers. All leadership, all committees, and all work require the presence of males and females as equals. The group is committed to defending women and girls from being abused or hurt by sexist males in the community. It has discussed but not yet implemented confronting such inhumane males, using any means called for by the situation. Meetings of organizers-in-training are safe spaces where people share their most difficult and painful experiences and give support to one another. They are open to anyone who wants to put in the extra time to learn about the world, the movement and its history, and to take responsibility for becoming the organizers of their community.
ISBO is made up of people who are black, white, Latin and Asian. Two of our organizing projects are in communities in which people have black skin. A third is in a community of African-descended people who would be called mestizo.
We hope this brief description helps you understand what we mean when we say "egalitarianism now." We are calling for people who consider themselves revolutionaries to have confidence in the ability of the people to lead themselves. We are convinced that this is the only way forward. We think the people who have been hurt the most by the present system have the genius to lead all of us toward the creation of an egalitarian new world.
The ideas taken on by Marxists about stages and steps that revolutionary parties need to lead the people through to get to liberation, we feel are wrong. They are understandable attempts at shortcuts. They hope to create vanguards that represent the most advanced, egalitarian thinking and bring the rest of humanity along behind. This is essentially elitist, and the shortcuts turn the revolution into its opposite.
We don't think there are any shortcuts or stages on the road to egalitarianism. We think the way forward is a long, hard, often tedious path to helping oppressed people on the ground organize themselves to create an egalitarian world. We are calling for the revolutionary movement to "slow the bus down:" that is, don't take the most advanced thinkers and run off with them as a separate group, but observe, listen to, and work from the directives of poor dark-hued women and children and their community in the now.
We must also be reminded that the other existing strategies for change are bankrupt: they are those which demand the people's needs from the existing nation-states and/or replace the present government leadership through the electoral process. We are proposing constructing a new world and ask revolutionaries to join the "peoples revolution" by uncovering a movement and harvesting its genius for the benefit of all oppressed people. We think that doing so will cause a ripple effect of bringing wider and wider groups of people into the egalitarian movement. As that movement develops, we don't think it should recognize colors or borders or the idea of nations or states.
We think we are on the right track from what we know so far, but we recognize that there is a whole lot to learn, and we've only scratched the surface. How will this movement look? We don't know. How will it defend itself against, and take the offensive against, the violent state power of the current ruling classes? We don't know; but we do know that it will have to. How will we convey to and convince less-discriminated-against oppressed people to overcome their racism, join with, and accept leadership from their darker sisters and brothers? We have yet to discover how that process will unfold, but we have confidence that it will.
So, readers, please know that when we throw our ideas out there as we did recently with our brief paper about nationalism, we are begging for your input. If we sound incomprehensible, awkward or too sure of ourselves, we don't mean to. Like any honest scientists, we are in need of and open to input from others - even if it contradicts the conclusions we have reached so far.
Every time we have gotten responses from readers on documents we are working on, we learn and change. Please continue to be a part of this process, and by all means, help us see where we are communicating unclearly, as several of you have done this time. It would be wonderful if we could sit in a circle and speak our minds in turn, learning from each other. Maybe discussing things via e-mail can be a partial substitute.
Below is the original document. Please note especially the egalitarian-minded quotations from the Provisional Constitution of the Harper's Ferry raiders.
Nationalism is the Enemy of the People's Revolution
We, citizens of the United States, and the oppressed people who, by a recent decision of the Supreme Court, are declared to have no rights which the white man is bound to respect, together with all other people degraded by the laws thereof, do, for the time being, ordain and establish for ourselves the following Provisional Constitution. (1858, Chatham, Ontario, from the Preamble to the Provisional Constitution meant to govern the army of liberation and the liberated zones anti-slavery fighters planned to established in the mountains of the South)
What do we want? Freedom! When do we want it? Now! (1960s, slogan of the U.S. Civil Rights movement)
* * *
Equality was the rallying cry of enslaved people. Equality is the rallying cry of the descendants of slaves, for they are still at the bottom of society's heap. The hunger for equality is the rallying impulse of the darkest, most oppressed, violated and despised of humanity everywhere in the world.
The fight for equality is the centerpiece of revolution. Humanity yearns for an egalitarian world. If you consider yourself a revolutionary, if you love humanity, your duty is to help organize the most oppressed to lead the struggle for equality against all opposition, and to keep organizing and fighting until it is won, no matter the cost.
On the other hand, the focus of the revolutionary movement that took center stage in the world for the last one hundred and fifty years was to build parties to seize power from the oppressors and manage the nations they took from them. Although such revolutionaries succeeded in seizing power in many countries, the nations they ended up managing returned to being oppressive.
All nationalism belongs to our enemy, the rich and powerful two percent that run the world. It is impossible to control a nation and be egalitarian.
Oppressed people throughout the world are one people. If we are loyal to "our country" or "our race," we end up with the slaughter we see around us: Israel imprisoning and murdering Palestinians (after their parents and grandparents were, in their turn, imprisoned and murdered by the German Nazis), murder and genocide between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda, the U.S. invading Iraq, Afghanistan and now maybe Iran, whites fighting blacks fighting Latin Americans fighting Asians, and on and on and on. Disunity everywhere among the oppressed, when our greatest need is unity. All of us need egalitarianism, no matter which "nation" or "race" our oppressors want us to believe we are members of. To achieve egalitarianism, we need the leadership of those who hold the rallying cry of "equality!" closest to their hearts, and they are the poorest, darkest of us.
A revolutionary cannot call himself or herself an egalitarian fighter if egalitarianism is their long-range, future goal, and managing a nation is their immediate goal. Anyone who wants to manage a nation is a nationalist, and a nationalist will always be an enemy of the people.
The past revolutionary movement, the nationalist one - (though its name is communist: a tragic distortion of a word that means equality!) - is blind to its own nationalism. Racism blinds it to its own reality. By thinking that industrial workers were the class of people in the best position to attack the enemy, it built a strategy around the leadership of white people (because until recently, most industrial workers were white). Equality of all humanity was never the demand closest to the hearts of white workers. In truth, oppressed white people will only defeat their own oppression when they learn to follow the leadership of black people, because the poorest people, the most oppressed people, and the people with the deepest yearning for equality in their hearts, are the darkest-skinned of the poor, everywhere in the world.
The nationalist communist movement (the phrase is a contradiction, but the truth) hypocritically, blindly, calls black nationalists racist. In truth, black nationalists are nationalists, and nationalism is the enemy of equality. But it is the (mostly white or white-led) nationalists/communists who are the more damaging. If you have more power and influence, you have more potential to do serious damage.
We remember that, as Africa organized itself for revolution fifty years ago, it was white revolutionaries who were training them. We remember that there were and are black folk who believed that the so-called "talented" blacks, the educated ones, that is, the ones who could be more easily accepted by white folk, should lead the mass of "ugly, dirty, ignorant, poor black folk." And unfortunately those ideas had their parallel in the old revolutionary movement, which believed in leadership by the smart (and mainly white) few who really understand about revolutionary ideas, and in the elevation of industrial workers (also often mainly white) over the poor, scrabbling-for-a-living dark-skinned folk. How does any of that make sense for an egalitarian movement? Especially when we know the movement that came before this was the one that abolished slavery in span of eighty years, led by black slaves and free blacks - and was built around the central theme of the equality of all human beings? That movement organized internationally, set up a network of secret societies, used the most advanced communication technology of the day (telegraph) to communicate by secret codes, trained and placed thousands of organizers, sent organizers traveling internationally into the most dangerous areas, connected communities of escaped slaves who were sustaining themselves across borders, in impenetrable swamps, organized massive, active support from white and Native American people, and created armed struggle to defend their movement and attack slavery. This earlier movement had more advanced ideas, was more anti-racist, and more egalitarian, than the later revolutionaries, who ignored their black predecessors and declared themselves the most advanced, most communist, most egalitarian. (But they became the nation-builders and nation-seekers that call black folk who, like them, want to build a nation, racists.)
Equality has always been the essence of what we need, and must be the central principle of all our organizing.
Oppressed people don't want to manage nations. Revolutionaries should not be fighting for the power to manage nations. Oppressed people don't need the "talented tenth" to lead them (revolutionary or not!). Revolutionaries are servants of the people who help the people organize themselves to create an egalitarian world. Revolution can only succeed when egalitarianism is in the hearts of those at the core of the movement. (And you cannot convince us that industrial workers in a place like the U.S. have egalitarianism in the number one position in their hearts.)
The long-range vision of communism has always been egalitarianism. This is a big mistake. All of our immediate organizing must be done around a principle of egalitarianism. In every organization we help to create, in every community in which are organizing, at every job site, in every struggle, the principle is EGALITARIANISM NOW.
The experience of the last hundred and fifty years has taught us that the themes of that earlier movement led by the darkest of the poor should once again be the themes of our current struggle, on a new and deeper level. We appeal to revolutionaries who are still attached to the nationalist focus of seizing and managing nations to re-evaluate their strategy, and to step back and let the people organize themselves into egalitarian collectives and communities. Better yet, we ask them to join the still-small ranks of organizers who are committed to the process of building such egalitarian prototypes.
It may not seem as dramatic and exciting as taking over a government, but block by block, farm by farm, workplace by workplace, community by community, the people themselves will create an egalitarian world, and crush all of the inevitable opposition under the mighty steamroller of international humankind, united in equality.
* * *
All persons connected in any way with this organization, and who may be entitled to full protection under it, shall be held as under obligation to labor in some way for the general good; and persons refusing or neglecting so to do, shall, on conviction, receive a suitable and appropriate punishment. (Provisional Constitution, 1858)
All persons known to be of good character and of sound mind and suitable age, who are connected with this organization, whether male or female, shall be encouraged to carry arms openly. (Provisional Constitution, 1858)
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The Two-Percenters or How to Build an Egalitarian World One Step at a Time
We are trying to figure out how we can create a new world. We want to have a world where people run it and take care of each other. We want equality and fairness to be the way of life, so each person can get their fair share of everything people need, and no one is getting more than their share.
Other people have tried to create this kind of world before. They had different names for it, like freedom or socialism or communism. Sometimes we call it egalitarianism, which is another way of saying everything is equal and fair.
But whenever people rose up and tried to create this new world, they only got so far. In most cases, the people who led the revolution to get rid of the old oppressors ended up turning back into the same kind of oppressors themselves, or the next generation did. This is what happened in Russia and China, for example.
So as we try to figure out how to make a revolution and create a new world, we want to figure out how to not make the same mistakes those revolutionaries did. For one thing, we know we want the people from the bottom of society to lead our struggle. We think that the people who the oppressors treat the most unfairly are the most capable to be fair; the people who have the least resources are the most capable to distribute the world's resources with equality and fairness; the people who have been the most discriminated against, left out, locked out and hated are the most capable to share and be inclusive. That is why we call ourselves "bottom-up," because we think the people at the bottom - poor, dark-skinned people and women -- will be the most capable to lead all of humanity to create a new world based on justice.
But we all know that even poor people can be selfish, greedy and uncaring. So there is more to it than just bottom-up.
When the greedy took over the world
Long, long ago, human beings lived in small groups that collected food in the bush and hunted for animals and fish. They shared the work and they shared the food and shelter and cared for each other. When someone took more than their share or treated someone wrong, they stopped that person and corrected him or her. If it got really bad, they would tell the person he or she would have to leave the group, which was the worst possible punishment because an individual could not live and take care of himself all alone.
But then, something happened that allowed the few bad-minded, selfish people to gain power over everyone else. Those people are only about two percent. We don't know how they got power, because it happened before anyone knew how to write and record history. But once they got power, everything went bad. Every type of unfair and unequal thing happened. The 2% made most people into slaves. This was thousands of years ago, and society has changed, but you still have 2% running the world and owning most everything.
Finding the 2% in our own communities
We are trying to create our new world by building what we call prototypes. A prototype is like a sample, a model. Like if Toyota has a new idea for a car, they will first build a sample that looks and runs like how they want the new car to be, and if it works pretty good, they'll go ahead and produce a lot of them. For us trying to make a whole new world, it means we start from our own community and build up a group that is dedicated to equality and fairness and begins to take care of the people's needs. We want to eventually take care of our own food, clothing, shelter, health care, child care, education, communication and transportation - all of our basic needs - by ourselves, without the government and without getting money from outside. Our motto would be "each person gives their abilities, and each person receives their needs." Share and share alike. And at the same time, we are building unity with all the oppressed people in the world, who also have the same problems and needs as we do. We are not trying to say we will only take care of "ours," and forget everyone else.
Now, what we are finding as we build an organization based on those principles is that there is a 2% inside our own community. Someone in a meeting called them "the 2%-ers." They are the people who see the group working and want to get some selfish benefit out of it. For example, when we had a fundraising event, they might eat the food without paying for it, or they might take some of the liquor. The same people might want to keep all the money from the fundraiser for their little part of the community and not share it with the whole community. They get mad and say they will refuse to work if they don't get their way.
The "2%-ers" would like the rest of us to say, "oh, okay, it was only a little food, or a little money. We'll do it the way you want us to, because we don't want you to quit." But we can see that if we do that, it will encourage them to take more money and more power the next time, until we are right back where we started. Other people will see them getting away with it, and they won't trust us any more. And the different parts of the community will fight amongst each other instead of building unity. We think maybe this is what happened in Russia and China and those places.
So, we came to the decision that we need to just continue moving forward with the people who agree with the principles. We will take time and step slowly and find the people in the community who are the most honest and most willing to stay with the principles of egalitarianism.
We also can see that a little bit of the "2%" is inside each one of us. We all were born and raised in this selfish, capitalist society. That means we were all trained to be selfish: not necessarily by our parents, who probably did the best they could to help us become good people. But the whole system is set up in a way to force each person to have to look out for him or herself. The people at the top think selfishness is normal, and all their TV shows and advertisements encourage us to be selfish. So we each have some of that selfish idea inside of us.
As a collective of revolutionary people trying to make a new world, we came to two conclusions about that. One is to struggle against our own internal selfishness, and help each other by working together. The other one is to remember that the "2%-ers" in our community might be able to change. They aren't the oppressors; they are people like us, and once they see us moving forward with an egalitarian prototype, they might decide to come join us again. We decided to keep the door open, but continue to be vigilant.
We hope that maybe in this way, we can learn how to make a new world without it going back to the same old oppression all over again. We will continue to learn as we move along.
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Women and Men and the Revolutionary Movement
If you read our writings, you will often see a phrase or a paragraph about the fact that we think the revolutionary movement needs the leadership of poor, dark-skinned women, but you will not see much explanation of why we think that. As we were preparing this book, we realized that it would be incomplete without a discussion of the oppression of women and men at the hands of the two percent and how the revolutionary movement can deal with these complex issues in a way which will move all of us into greater unity in our organizing.
When we began to write about it, we came to the conclusion that before including a piece in this book, we needed to include more egalitarian-minded folk in the discussion, as we have done with most of our significant writing. That's why this chapter will share some observations we have made within ISBO and its organizing projects, put some questions on the floor for discussion, and make a few suggestions for egalitarian organizers to use in dealing with sexism as they move forward in their organizing. We will circulate some of our own writing about the subject via e-mail and look forward to publishing it in our next book! Your input, as usual, is greatly valued as we craft our ideas.
We have written before about the division between black and white revolutionaries that occurred in the US beginning in the late 1960s and how it damaged the movement. A similar thing happened with the feminist movement that took new life in the struggles against racism in the US South in the 1960s. A stream of thinking developed that said men were the enemies and oppressors of women. This thinking came out of the genuine pain women often feel at the hands of the men in their families, communities and work places. Unfortunately, solving the oppression of women cannot happen within a women-only movement, because the oppression of women is built into racism-capitalism. The separatist feminist movement did not successfully deal with the issues dividing grass-roots men and women, and great harm has come from that neglect. We feel that the pain women suffer is intimately related to all oppression, and that for our movement to deal with it, the issue needs to be on the table for both men and women in the context of working together to overcome all oppression.
It is our belief that the only place liberation - for women or men - can occur is within the struggle for an egalitarian new world. There has been far too little balanced thinking about how to overcome the problems between men and women in the process of building the revolutionary movement. What does the word "sexism" even mean? There is no consensus about this, which almost makes the word useless.
We suspect that women have been severely oppressed and had second-class status from the very first time the greedy two percent wrested control of humanity away from the egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies in which women and men were equal. We also think that this twisted and unnatural situation resulted in divorcing men from their most significant roles as equals in nurturing children and all humankind. Men's lives have been ruined, too, by the disruption of equality between the genders.
We call for the leadership of women mostly because women, despite their severe oppression, have never been separated from their role as caretakers of humanity. In hunter-gatherer society, taking care of everyone in the community was the equal responsibility of both men and women, but once the two percent came to power, that situation ended. Men became more and more divorced from caring for humanity, but women continued. An egalitarian world is based on everyone loving and caring for one another, male and female. Because women have continued to play that role, they have a special function in the egalitarian movement. They are usually the organizers within the family, the schools and the community. They are more likely to have retained a commitment to collectivity and egalitarianism in the practice of their everyday lives. They are more likely to have the organizing skills, the responsibility, and the passion for equality our movement needs. This is why we all need female leadership.
Many men, particularly poor, dark-skinned men, also have a passion for equality. Their innermost desire is to be able to love, care for and protect the people they love: children, women and the community of oppressed people. It is often not culturally acceptable for them to express this, and many men engage in oppressive behaviors toward women. It is our experience that egalitarian organizing allows men to talk about and confront these contradictions and take their rightful place as well in significant leadership roles within the movement.
We believe in unity of women and men in the movement. When we call for female leadership, it is similar to our call for leadership from poor, dark-skinned people in general. Those who suffer the oppression are they who understand best what it will take to overcome it. This does not mean we exclude anyone from contributing leadership. All of humanity needs the leadership dark-skinned folk and especially dark-skinned women have to offer us in our united movement toward an egalitarian world.
Voices of Poor, Dark-Skinned Folk about Sexism
The following are quotes from notes taken at ISBO meetings. Many are from our four-hour session in August of 2009, which included people from Colombia, Jamaica, the US and Venezuela. Some are from our organizing class in Jamaica. The quotes come from people ranging in age from fifteen years to sixty-plus. The discussion at the international meeting was started by a woman who shared how hurt and dirty she was made to feel when some men at the ISBO session kept making "friendly" sexual jokes to her. At first, even though she felt insulted, she brushed it off (like most women do most of the time), but after a few days it became too painful, so she decided to talk to the group about it. This produced a profound conversation in which nearly everyone in the room revealed deep pain. It also made all of us feel more love and unity for each other, and led to ongoing discussions and sharing in the local organizing groups.
The first set of quotes is from women:
"I feel insulted and degraded when my male comrades call out to women on the street and offer them a ‘ride.' Is that how they think about me too?"
"When I walk on the road in my community, men reach out and grab my breasts."
"My white mother told me I looked like a whore."
"I feel like men look at me like a pussy with a brain, and they have to figure out the right words to say to get past the brain and get the pussy."
"I was worried about calling the men in this meeting on their behavior because I felt they would dislike me and then not listen to anything I had to say after that."
"One night, three men broke in my house and took me to the cliff. They had guns. I cried and told them to shoot me, and asked them didn't they have mothers and sisters? How could they do this to me? One of them heard me and stopped the others and they brought me home. I hate men."
"I was raped when I was a young girl, and whenever I'm with a man it comes back to me."
"I was raped when I was a teenager."
"I have been molested on the subways over and over again. I never feel safe when I'm moving around my home city."
"Men are usually bigger and more powerful than me. I feel vulnerable and unsafe around them."
"The boys seem like they have lots of girlfriends at the same time. But if a girl has lots of boyfriends, she is called a bad girl, or a whore."
"When I get in a taxi to come home after high school, the taxi driver touches me and asks me for my phone number."
"An old man who is a friend of my parents told me I am beautiful and he wants me to come to his house."
"A friend of mine left her boyfriend because he was beating her, but no one in the community wants to get involved. Even her parents don't want her back because they never approved of the boy. I think she is going to have to go back to him, because she doesn't have any money."
What a horror was revealed in these stories. Every woman and girl in the room had been sexually molested or abused by men.
The facilitator then suggested that each person in the circle take one minute to talk about the problem, as we usually do. The first person to speak was an eighteen-year-old youth. He passed, because a minute would only give him time to share a small part of the deep emotions and thoughts he had after listening to the women. The group agreed to let everyone take as much time as they needed.
As the men had their turns in the circle, they apologized over and over again for the behavior of men and for their own behavior. Over and over again, they said they never knew men were causing women such pain. That they didn't know that their flirting behavior on the streets was insulting to women. They asked the women to teach them. They also told their own stories.
"My father had sex with any and every woman he could. I guess it is in my genes. Adults tell girls not to talk to me because of my father. I want to be a good man, but maybe I am destined to be like him. I am afraid to have a relationship with a girl because of that."
"My father used to beat me. He left me when I was five years old."
"Everybody seems to think I'm supposed to want a whole bunch of girlfriends. When I tell them I want a relationship with one woman, they laugh at me."
"Someone molested my sister. I can't even explain how I felt. I went and dealt with him, but if it ever happens again, I don't know if I can control myself."
"My father used to beat me for nothing. He left me when I was eight and from that day to this I have never seen him. He is no good, and I try not to be like him."
"I'm confused, because I see girls loving the dance-hall artistes that sing pornographic lyrics that are degrading to women. I don't know how I'm supposed to behave around girls."
"I was raped by a female relative when I was ten."
"As an adult, I was raped by a woman at gunpoint."
"I was nearly raped by a woman. I had to fight her off with a machete. When I asked my police friend what to do about it, he told me don't go to the police station. They will laugh me out of there."
"When I was fourteen and visiting relatives, a woman chased me around the house and I had to hide from her. I was afraid to tell anyone because they would laugh at me."
"I am in love with a girl. She keeps cheating on me with other boys. Everyone laughs at me and thinks I am weak and stupid because I keep taking her back."
While they told their stories, half of the men were also shedding tears.
At the end of the conversation, everyone felt shaken. But was also clear that everyone in that room was committed to finding a way to heal these deep wounds and build love and unity inside the revolutionary struggle. They agreed that they had a collective responsibility above all to make women and girls feel safe in the community and in their homes. A young man of twenty one, who had dropped out of school to hustle money for his family when he was fourteen, suggested that everyone in the room hug every other person in the room to show their love and support for each other, which is how the session ended.
Equality between the sexes was clearly established as a principle of ISBO organizing, and it is an ongoing part of our local projects. An indication of how important this discussion is to everyone is that nobody has ever gone outside the circle and gossiped about what people revealed about themselves in those meetings.
A few interesting notes: Many of the men in the group had bad feelings about their fathers. The adult men who had children were also single parents. More than half of the men and boys had been victimized by women, several of them as adults. To our knowledge, these issues have not been a significant part of the discussion about sexism; clearly they need to be.
Prompts for Discussion
We believe that the best way to come to understand something is to discuss it collectively within egalitarian organizing. True genius about human relations will be found "at the bottom." We suggest a few prompts to help start that discussion, and we are sure more and better prompts will come out of the conversation.
- How can we achieve full and complete respect for men as men and for women as women?
- Is there anything that is only women's work or only men's work?
- What is our vision of true equality between male and female?
- Before the two-percent took over, our ancestors lived in communities of equality and respect between men and women. What can we learn from their experience?
- Is it possible for men to be just as loving, caring and nurturing as women are?
- Is equality for women good for men?
- What is the legacy of slavery - such as repeated rape of slave women by masters, the designation of some men as "studs," and the lack of legitimate family relationships for male slaves - on relations between descendants of slavery? What is the legacy of these slavery methods on the way the two-percent later treated other oppressed women, men and children who were not descendants of African slaves? How did the anti-slavery movement and trade union movement deal with these legacies?
- What is the interaction between skin color, gender and racism (for instance, men preferring light skinned women)?
- How does the system separate men from their families, what is the result and how can we change it?
- Why do so many people think black men are no-good, lazy, and criminal? How can we begin to overcome this hatred of black men and help our sons rise above it?
- Is marriage a sacred pact of love, an economic necessity or an oppressive institution?
- Should a man "own" his mate's sexuality? Should a woman "own" her mates' sexuality?
- Whether it is gifts and financial support or straight-up prostitution, why do men and women think men should pay for sex? How can we change this?
- The sex act releases hormones that make people feel warm and loving toward each other. Does that mean sex is a biological "glue" between a man and a woman so they will stay together and raise children?
- Sex among hunter-gatherers was allowed between all men and all women in the same age group. Does that mean that sex was originally a social "glue" rather than a one man-one woman "glue?"
- How can we overcome prejudice and violence against homosexuals and others who do not conform to stereotypes about how men and women are
- "supposed to" act?
- What are the aspects of women's knowledge and experience as caretakers and organizers of humanity that we need to learn from and lift up?
- What should we do about sexual abuse and violence against women and girls in our communities, and also against men and boys?
- What steps should we take now in our organizations toward our vision of male-female equality?
Suggestions for Egalitarian Organizers
In ISBO, when we are trying to understand something better, we ask a question like those you just read and let everyone in the circle talk about it. By this process, we learn much more about the truth. We printed the questions, or prompts, above in the hopes that our readers will take them through a similar process and give us feedback on what they discuss. We think the discussions will be helpful, and the feedback will help us write a more thorough document to help future organizers deal with this topic.
From our experience on the ground, we have the following suggestions to make to people who are organizing self-sustaining prototypes inside the revolutionary, egalitarian movement.
- First and foremost, our organizations adhere to an egalitarian principle. All people have equal voice, male and female.
- We educate the community to oppose, and when necessary punish, physical and sexual violence against women and girls in our communities. Violence against women and girls must be 100% absent inside our organizing: sexual violence against men and boys likewise.
- Males and females participate together in all activities we organize. We break down the gender divisions that racism-capitalism has set up. No work is "men's work" or "women's work" for us. We are all equal human beings.
- We encourage men and women to talk openly in our organizing groups about their feelings and experiences with male-female relations in order to break down divisions and take care of each other. Our meetings are safe places for women and men to share their hurt and anger and get support and help. We go out of our way to support the nurturing side of men and teach the whole community to highly respect caring, nurturing and decent men. The community is ready for this and actually wants it.
- We vigilantly oppose the racism of blaming dark-skinned men for all the ills of black communities (and the world) and casting all black men as bad and irresponsible. By creating egalitarian, self-sufficient economies in our communities, we will collectively provide productive, meaningful work for all honest people. In this way, we will be able to hold up to the light all of the many men who are working hard to do their best by family and community, and prevent young men being forced into criminality. We will enable our boys to grow into self-respecting, nurturing adult men, who can help lead the struggle to build an egalitarian world, who will love and respect women, and who will command the love and respect of women and children.
- We deliberately seek out the leadership of experienced, egalitarian women in our organizing projects and focus energy on learning from them and transferring our own knowledge and skills to them.
We believe in complete equality and liberation for all men and women. We recognize that his is only possible inside a unified struggle to build an egalitarian world. Sexism hurts and downgrades both women and men, and women are especially suited to leading our struggle to build a new world.
The revolutionary movement has been too slow to take an objective and scientific approach to understanding the damage of sexism to human relations within the racist-capitalist system. We need much more "laboratory work" about this within our organizing projects, and more discussion and learning about history to help us understand it more correctly and objectively. As best as possible, we need to try to keep the pain each and every one of us feels about this touchy subject from blinding us to the truth. We ask our readers to help us move this scientific investigation forward so we can be much more effective in liberating humanity through egalitarian revolution.
For us, this is not an abstract theoretical discussion. We are building egalitarianism NOW; we are not just discussing what it might be like sometime far in the future. We are actively working on these questions. We need the benefit of your experience and knowledge. Please send your thoughts and ideas, and then be on the lookout for future articles about this topic from us.
International School for Bottom-up Organizing
P.O. Box 7295
Port Antonio, Portland
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