By the Organization of Communist Revolutionaries
Ontologically speaking, decades are not demarcated by definite decimals, but by the spirit, and, for our purposes, political struggles that marked them. “The Sixties” connotes a period in US history of growing revolt against the established order that culminated in a revolutionary movement by the decade’s end. It opened with an increasingly militant Civil Rights Movement against the oppression of Black people in the South, an oppression that was enforced by outright, legally sanctioned segregation and legal and extra-legal white supremacist violence and terror. Students were among the most militant fighters in the Civil Rights struggle, and brought the spirit of resistance back to their campuses, with the Berkeley Free Speech Movement of 1964–5 marking a growing refusal of the Sixties generation to accept the status quo. Simultaneous with the rise of the student movements was a growing revolutionary mood among Black proletarians, palpable in the widespread popularity of Malcolm X in the mid-1960s.
By the late 1960s, cities across the country were rocked by rebellions by Black proletarians and universities were shut down in student strikes against the US imperialist war of aggression in Indochina, with many ROTC (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps) buildings burned to the ground. Rebellions and protest movements generated a new generation of revolutionaries, convinced that “the system,” however they understood it, needed to be overthrown. This new generation of revolutionaries, numbering in the tens of thousands and swimming in a rebellious sea of millions, then took up the task of figuring out how to make revolution in the belly of the beast.
By the mid-1970s, the wave of militant protest and rebellion had subsided after inflicting some real blows on US imperialism, and the Sixties generation of revolutionaries was left with the difficult task of figuring out how to carry on absent a widespread revolutionary mood. In what follows, we will address what gave rise to the revolutionary decade of the Sixties, how the generation of conscious revolutionaries created in that decade sought to answer the challenges before it, and how, in the 1970s, the bourgeoisie sought to resolve the contradictions that gave rise to the Sixties. As stated in the Introduction to this document, this summation of the Sixties will be a “broad strokes” political summation; we will not be going into historical depth or analyzing each revolutionary organization and struggle in detail, but providing an overview of the decade and pulling out the essential political lessons.
What gave rise to the revolutionary storms?
As Mao Zedong taught us in his essay On Contradiction (1937), contradiction, the struggle of opposites, is present in all things and is the motive force for change. In the capitalist-imperialist system, the fundamental contradiction between private appropriation and socialized production gives rise to crises and class struggles, sometimes blunted but always eventually exploding in social conflict. While this understanding of the fundamental contradiction of capitalism is a crucial foundation for a communist understanding of history, it quickly becomes dogma if we do not investigate how that fundamental contradiction manifests and make a concrete analysis of concrete conditions.
In the Sixties, two contradictions / processes of change were the main driving forces behind the growing revolts among the people. The first concerned the consequences of the US becoming the top imperialist power after World War II. The second (not secondary) was the changing position of the oppressed Black nation in US society.
WWII was fundamentally a war among imperialist powers for re-division of the colonies,1 with the German and Japanese bourgeoisies seeking a better share in line with their economic power. Things did not go according to plan: Japan and the European imperialist powers all emerged from WWII in a weakened state, unable to hold on to their colonies in the face of the great wave of national liberation struggles in the decades after WWII. The US bourgeoisie, by contrast, was able to keep its home territory largely out of the war (Pearl Harbor being the only real exception) and opportunistically allow rival imperialists to weaken each other and the then-socialist Soviet Union to do the bulk of the fighting against Germany while the Chinese people under communist leadership did much the same against Japanese invasion. The US could wait to enter decisive battles at the war’s end from a position of strength, even using the opportunity to test nuclear weapons on populated cities. With the defeat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan and the weakening of the other European imperialist powers, the US was able to scoop up “spheres of influence” (i.e., countries it had free reign to exploit) previously under the colonial rule of other imperialists, especially in Africa and Asia. Furthermore, the US military was greatly strengthened through the war, giving it the ability to enforce US imperialist domination around the world.
As top imperialist world power, the US bourgeoisie greatly increased its share of the imperialist plunder of Africa, Asia, and Latin America after WWII. It was able to use this plunder to stabilize its rule “at home,” in effect bribing off large segments of the US population with the spoils of imperialism. Consequently, the class struggles that had raged in the red decade of the 1930s were blunted in the 1950s. Large sections of the working class were bourgeoisified—they were provided a higher standard of living and economic stability and security with the spoils of imperialism. The petty-bourgeoisie was vastly expanded, suburbs of white single-home ownership were constructed, and Eastern European immigrants were decisively consolidated into the white oppressor nation. On this material base, the bourgeoisie had a strong hand to wage a campaign of anti-communist repression, greatly weakening the communist movement that had posed a real threat to bourgeois rule in the 1930s. In summary, being the top imperialist enabled the US bourgeoisie to blunt class contradictions at home and establish significant social peace in the 1950s. The CP aided this process by aligning with what it considered the “anti-fascist” bourgeoisie during WWII, in effect laying the ground for “class peace.”
But as Mao taught us, stability is only temporary and contains within it the seeds of instability (internal contradictions). The US bourgeoisie could not fundamentally resolve its class antagonism with the proletariat, but could only displace it to the oppressed nations. And sooner or later, the chickens would come home to roost.
Being the top imperialist gave the US bourgeoisie tremendous loot through the exploitation of the oppressed nations, but it also meant the US bourgeoisie had to take on chief international responsibility for maintaining the imperialist order. And it took on this responsibility amid widespread anti-colonial revolt and with the Soviet bloc and (after 1949) especially China providing the masses of people all over the world with an inspiring socialist alternative to capitalism.
The US bourgeoisie was smart enough to understand that direct colonial rule was no longer viable or desirable. It allowed the old colonial system to collapse, but had to make sure this collapse occurred on terms favorable to imperialism, and especially that no former colonies entered the ranks of socialist countries, and, after 1956, the thereafter social-imperialist2 Soviet Union’s sphere of influence. A wide range of tactics emerged for ensuring continued imperialist dominance over former colonies, from rigged elections to CIA-engineered coups to economic “aid” and loans with strings attached. But when faced with revolutionary national liberation struggles impervious to those tactics, the US bourgeoisie was compelled to enter into all-out military conflicts to maintain its position and the imperialist system as a whole. And wars that require significant military mobilization have a way of dragging the entire population into political life. At the beginning of a war, the ruling class is usually able to direct the way in which its “home population” is drawn into political life on terms favorable to bourgeois interests. But if a war drags on, does not go according to plan, and especially if the aggressor begins to suffer losses, the military and population of the aggressor nation can be dragged into political life on terms unfavorable to the bourgeoisie, including outright revolt against it.
The US war of aggression against Korea from 1950–53 was conducted at a time in the US, following WWII and as described above, of considerable national unity, social stability, and lack of opposition owing to the success of the anti-communist “Red Scare.” Despite a massive and murderous bombing campaign, the US bourgeoisie could not prevail over the Korean forces of national liberation, who had the military and political support of the Soviet Union and China. Some in the US military, such as General MacArthur, wanted to escalate the war, even suggesting the use of nuclear weapons, but ultimately the bourgeoisie decided to accept the stalemate that resulted in the partition of the Korean peninsula and the US propping up South Korea. This stalemate enabled the US bourgeoisie to prevent the war from spinning out of its control and drawing the US population into political life on terms unfavorable to bourgeois rule.
The US war of aggression on Indochina would not go so smoothly. With great power comes great responsibility, and when the French bourgeoisie proved incapable of maintaining its colonial possessions in Indochina in the face of the Vietnamese war for national liberation, the US bourgeoisie stepped in, beginning in 1954, to quell the revolutionary struggle. The heroic Vietnamese people, under the leadership of the Vietnamese Workers Party and National Liberation Front, dealt one blow after another to US-led forces, compelling the US bourgeoisie to use its own military in increasing numbers beginning in 1964. The arrogant US imperialists, with the most powerful military in the world, soon got knocked on their ass by the Vietnamese people.
While US intervention in Vietnam started with little opposition among the US population and widespread support, or at least acquiescence, to the anti-communist narrative of “containment” used to justify it, as more and more youth were drafted into the military and as the US suffered increasing casualties, the war on Vietnam drew the entire US population into political life. Importantly, it was not just or even mainly US casualties that generated militant opposition to the US War on Vietnam, but also a growing political consciousness about the unjust, imperialist nature of the US’s role and sympathy and support for the Vietnamese national liberation struggle. The student anti-war movement increasingly sided with Vietnamese revolutionaries, Black people found more common cause with the Vietnamese people than the US bourgeoisie, and soldiers started refusing to fight an unjust war, with increasing incidents of fragging (killing) their officers and finding ways to support the Vietnamese struggle.3 The Vietnamese people deserve the lion’s share of the credit for showing, through heroic sacrifice, the true nature of US imperialism, but it is also important to emphasize the role of the persistent, conscious work of the anti-war movement within the US in escalating protest in more militant directions and in exposing the atrocities and imperialist motivations of the US war of aggression.
By the end of the 1960s, the US bourgeoisie faced powerful and determined opposition at home and a military that it could no longer count on to prosecute the war. It had picked up a rock to drop it on its feet. For dialectical materialists, what happened to US imperialism’s social peace by way of imperialist plunder is a great lesson in the law of contradiction and a reason for revolutionary optimism. The need to maintain that imperialist plunder and consequent social peace was exactly what caused social conflict by the late 1960s, with students, Black people, and soldiers in widespread revolt against a US imperialist war. While one side of the contradiction (social peace) was primary in the 1950s, over the subsequent decade the opposite end of the contradiction (social conflict and outright revolt) took over.
The Sixties was also the decade in which an ongoing process of change in the position of Black people in the US sparked intense social conflict and revolt. The post-Civil War system of white supremacy in the US South—a semi-feudal system presided over by large landowners in which Black people were sharecroppers, sometimes on the same plantations their ancestors had been slaves on—was on its way out of existence. As historian Michael Denning points out, “At the peak of southern sharecropping in 1920, half of all [B]lack Americans lived on farms; by 1984, that had dropped to 1 percent.”4 The class structure of that sharecropping system was enforced with a political and social setup that hinged on legal segregation and the terror of lynching, which affected not just sharecroppers but the Black nation as a whole. Consequently, as the US industrialized in the decades after the Civil War, Black people began to flee from the rural South, many taking factory and other proletarian jobs in the cities of the South, Northeast, Midwest, and the West Coast. Historians refer to this process, which lasted through the 1960s, as the Great Migration. It resulted in millions of Black people leaving the rural South, with the apex of out-migration occurring during the 1940s and 50s.5
There were two main consequences of the breakdown of semi-feudal relations in the South and proletarianization of large numbers of Black people. First, as often happens when a social formation begins to lose its economic foundation, the oppressed take the opportunity to resist and sweep away the old order while the oppressors dig in their heels and attempt to hold on to the old order with the most vicious brutality, hence the Civil Rights Movement facing off against the violent defenders of white supremacy in the South.6 For a number of reasons, including that Southern migrants—Black and white—had spread to cities across the country, the conflict in the South between Black people and the old white supremacist order dragged the entire US population into political life around it and compelled the US bourgeoisie to mediate a resolution to the conflict. This explains the interventions by all three branches of the federal government at various points, from the 1954 Supreme Court Brown vs. Board of Education decision to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, that led to the dismantling of legal segregation.7
Second, as suggested above, the breakdown of semi-feudal relations in the South formed a dialectical unity with the proletarianization of large numbers of Black people in cities across the country. This process of proletarianization led to a new class conflict between the US bourgeoisie and Black proletarians, combining a new form of class exploitation with the continued oppression of Black people as an oppressed nation in new conditions. As Denning summarizes, “A history of urban disinvestment, slum clearance in neighborhoods adjoining white neighborhoods, and the construction of high-density public housing to contain the [B]lack population, combined with the government subsidy of mortgages and highways to build white suburbs, created a new Black Belt Nation, not the Black Belt of the cotton South, but an archipelago of cities across the continent: this de facto apartheid became the dominant social fact of American social life in the second half of the twentieth century.”8 Confronting these new conditions while the violent conflict over the old white supremacist order in the South was raging, combined with the fact that the bourgeoisie’s resolution to the “Southern question” changed absolutely nothing for Black proletarians in the North, drew Black proletarians into political life and increasing revolt. It is no coincidence that the wave of urban rebellions that lasted until the end of the Sixties began in the mid-1960s, right after the federal government moved more decisively to end Southern segregation.9 Furthermore, the fact that many Black masses had been newly proletarianized (over three million Black people left the rural South in the 1940s and 50s) made them a more volatile section of the proletariat.
The US bourgeoisie, through its resolution of the Southern question, opened its class conflict with Black proletarians wider, and while it could resolve the Southern question on terms favorable to its interests, the bourgeoisie’s class interests—its need to keep Black proletarians on the lowest rungs of the proletariat as exploited workers and as a reserve army of labor—prevented it from resolving its class conflict with Black proletarians. We can call this a resolution/non-resolution of the Black national question in the Sixties, emphasizing that Black people remained an oppressed nation but in new conditions after the dismantling of Southern segregation. This resolution/non-resolution drew Black proletarians into revolt and towards revolutionary politics.
From revolt to revolutionaries; from sharpening objective contradictions to subjective revolutionary forces
To summarize and draw out the implications of the above analysis: the US bourgeoisie’s position as top imperialist power, which compelled it to go to war in Indochina, and its resolution/non-resolution of the Black national question drew the US population into political life on terms that became increasingly unfavorable to the bourgeoisie and brought some sections of the population into open revolt against bourgeois rule. Students, Black people, and (at the end of the Sixties) soldiers constituted the main forces of rebellion, and the social conflicts around the Vietnam War and the oppression of Black people in turn opened up revolts in relation to other social contradictions.
Here, it is worth making a brief rebuke of the notion that the contradiction between the workers and the bosses is automatically more important, for revolution, than other expressions of the fundamental contradiction of capitalism. In the US, the Black liberation struggle—the struggle of Black people, an oppressed nation, for their liberation from the rule of white supremacy, which is an expression and mode of bourgeois rule—is central to communist revolution. However, since Black people are an oppressed nation, the Black liberation struggle involves different class forces asserting different class interests. In the Sixties, the objective factor that pushed the Black liberation struggle in a revolutionary direction was the involvement of large numbers of Black proletarians, whose class interests demanded nothing short of revolution (we shall address the subjective factors below).
In the course of the 1960s, the number of college students in the US more than doubled, with women and oppressed nationalities entering college in far greater numbers than ever before.10 College students are drawn from various classes, especially the petty-bourgeoisie, but one objective dynamic at play in the Sixties was that the bourgeoisie drew wider sections of the population into post-secondary education for a variety of reasons, including to stay ahead of other imperialist powers in “research and development” and in order to meet its need for a large professional class to carry out the various functions necessary to running an empire. The other side of the contradiction is that enrolling a wider segment of the population, especially the children of the oppressed and exploited, in college and allowing them space to study, think critically, and potentially get politically organized has proven dangerous to the bourgeoisie.11 In short, students can take the intellectual training they received and greater freedom they had at college and turn it against the bourgeoisie, constituting the front line of revolt and bringing revolutionary politics to the masses.
Students, as such, are not a class, but there is a contradiction under capitalism between the stifling rule of bourgeois society and youth rebellion, which has a different character among youth of different classes. Youth rebellion usually takes shape principally on cultural terrain (think hippies, hip hop, punk, etc.) and provides fertile ground for communist political work and recruitment. In the Sixties, the growing youth revolt—the “counterculture”—amplified by the larger number of college students, came exactly as the Vietnam War and struggles over the position of Black people in society were coming to a head. Consequently, two contradictions that exposed the nature of capitalism-imperialism compelled an unprecedented number of already culturally rebellious college students into political life, which took organized expression in militant student movements, with radical student organizations such as SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) taking on a mass character.
Soldiers are likewise not a class per se, but are drawn disproportionately from the proletariat. Conscription (the draft) into an imperialist war with significant casualties opens up the contradiction between the class interests of the rank-and-file soldiers vs. the bourgeois interests behind imperialist war and the officers who give the (bourgeoisie’s) orders. In Vietnam, the revolutionary leadership and mobilization of the masses of Vietnamese people further widened this contradiction, principally by inflicting defeats on the US military and secondarily through conducting propaganda work among US soldiers, and the Black liberation movement and anti-war movement in the US pushed soldiers towards an anti-imperialist consciousness.
For communist revolutionaries, contradictions within the bourgeoisie’s military are of the utmost strategic importance. Whether revolution is victorious or not will depend significantly on the bourgeoisie being unable to count on its military to repress the revolution, and the military training soldiers receive in the bourgeoisie’s military will be of great use to the revolutionary army of the proletariat. One of the acute challenges in imperialist countries is that imperialist parasitism gives large sections of the population some material interest in maintaining the imperialist system, including by joining imperialism’s military forces. Part of the great significance of revolt among US soldiers during the Vietnam War was that many took up an internationalist, anti-imperialist stance, siding with the forces of Vietnamese national liberation against the US bourgeoisie.
The two driving contradictions of the Sixties—revolving around the Vietnam War and the position of Black people in society—and the main forces in motion around these contradictions—Black people, students, and soldiers—in turn sharpened other objective contradictions in society and drew other sections of people into political life and revolt. The Black liberation struggle inspired liberation struggles among other oppressed nationalities (Chicanos, Indigenous people, Puerto Ricans, Asians) with a similar revolutionary edge. By 1970, movements for women’s liberation and gay liberation, revolts by prisoners, struggles led by the American Indian Movement of Indigenous people in ghettos and on reservations, and a variety of social conflicts were moving in militant and even revolutionary directions.
Sharpening objective contradictions, however, do not automatically create revolutionary consciousness and organization. Moving from widespread revolt to a revolutionary movement requires subjective intervention. The greatest weakness going into the Sixties was the lack of subjective forces for revolution, most especially a communist vanguard party. This meant that there was no force that could see the coming storms, intervene within them, and consciously and systematically lead the growing revolts towards the revolutionary overthrow of the bourgeoisie.
The old CP, by then a full-blown revisionist organization, played a negative role during the Sixties, promoting reformism and seeking to divert the student and Black liberation movements away from revolution. The CP’s bankruptcy is the main reason why radicals and revolutionaries in the Sixties were often called the “New Left” to distinguish them from the old Left, especially the CP.
The various organized offshoots of the CP proved to be no better than the CP. For example, Progressive Labor Party (PLP) masqueraded as Maoist while condemning the Vietnamese national liberation struggle and the Black liberation movement as nationalist and failed to see the value of the student movement, arguing that the only thing worthwhile for students to do was to go to the working class in a rather economist conception.12 In addition to these organized revisionist forces, a variety of Trotskyites, social-democrats, and reformists sought to hold back the revolutionary tide in various ways.
So it fell to a new generation of revolutionaries, steeled in the militant movements of the time, to quickly develop the subjective forces for revolution. Malcolm X’s ideological and political intervention in the first half of the Sixties played an invaluable role for the Sixties generation. Through his great oratory skill, Malcolm X demonstrated the power of an uncompromising revolutionary stand to connect with proletarian masses and popularized the politics of Black self-determination. His polemics against reformism, especially that of the existing Civil Rights Movement leadership, cleared the lane for revolutionary politics. Malcolm X remains a great icon, inspiration, and incisive contributor to revolutionary politics; the bourgeoisie had him killed exactly because of the powerful threat his leadership posed.
Besides Malcolm, the Sixties generation had two great reservoirs to draw from internationally. The first was the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR) in then socialist China under Mao’s leadership. The GPCR was an inspiring example of what it meant to mobilize the conscious initiative of the masses to radically transform society—in this case an already socialist society. Mao and the Chinese Communist Party also made a clear delineation between genuine revolutionary communism and the revisionism of the “Communist” Party of the Soviet Union, which had brought capitalism back to power in the Soviet Union in a state-ownership form. The Chinese Communists’ polemics against Soviet revisionism were of great assistance to revolutionaries in the US in rebelling against the reformism of the CP. Foreign Languages Press in China made communist literature widely and cheaply available in quality translations, and Quotations from Chairman Mao, popularly known as the (Little) Red Book, provided a synthesis of communist principles and a “how-to” guide for being a communist. In 1968, the Red Book outsold the Bible worldwide, and for many young revolutionaries in the US at the time, it was crucial to their training. Furthermore, many revolutionaries from the US visited China during the GPCR, bringing back with them a glimpse into the future and a great schooling in communist politics.13
The second great reservoir was the wave of revolutionary national liberation struggles in colonies and countries oppressed by foreign imperialism. The example of the Vietnamese people fighting US imperialism had the most direct impact on US revolutionaries, but ongoing and successful national liberation struggles from Guinea-Bissau to Cuba also provided inspiration and political lessons. While the effect of the national liberation struggles on revolutionaries and the masses in the US was in the main positive, since these national liberation struggles were a mixed bag, ideologically and politically, of genuine communism, revolutionary nationalism, radical bourgeois-democracy, and Soviet revisionism, they could also reinforce some negative tendencies among US revolutionaries, including no small amount of eclectics.
In the Sixties, without the benefit of much in the way of an older generation of revolutionaries, revolutionary politics had to be imported, to a significant degree, from outside the US. We can thank Mao and the mass revolutionary upsurge in China that was the GPCR as well as the heroic revolutionary national liberation struggles for providing the Sixties generation with not only inspiration but also crucial political lessons for forging the path forward.
The paths the Sixties generation of revolutionaries took: an overview
In the late 1960s, the Black Panther Party (BPP) picked up the torch lit by Malcolm X and gave it organizational expression, recruiting hundreds and ultimately thousands of Black people from the proletariat and student movement and moving many others from the student movement, oppressed nationalities, and soldiers in a revolutionary direction. The BPP’s greatest contribution was to put revolution in the US on the agenda. While a number of other Black revolutionary organizations prior to and contemporary with the BPP—most notably Revolutionary Action Movement—made efforts to galvanize Black proletarians around revolutionary politics with varying degrees of success, the BPP surpassed all others in garnering a mass following and inflicting political blows on the enemy for a few key reasons.
The BPP’s founders, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, took a bold revolutionary stand not just rhetorically but practically, exploiting gun laws to intervene, with guns in hand, when the police were harassing and brutalizing Black proletarians. Since police brutality was then the chief repressive mechanism enforcing bourgeois rule over Black proletarians, the BPP’s bold tactics “lit up the sky” and demonstrated their solid revolutionary convictions at a time when the class and national contradiction between the bourgeoisie and Black proletarians was at its sharpest.
But one tactic alone, no matter how audacious, is not enough to build and sustain a revolutionary organization, and the BPP’s impressive use of the weapons of agitation and the mass line were what allowed it to gain a mass following and vie for leadership of an emerging revolutionary movement. Through the application of the mass line, the BPP was able to learn the problems of the masses and mobilize them in struggle to politically hit at class enemies, from brutal and murderous police to racist school authorities to businesses that refused to hire (or exploited) Black people. BPP leaders and members cultivated the ability to explain revolutionary politics with the right edge and connect them to the masses. The BPP’s political agitation took concentrated expression in its newspaper, The Black Panther, which offered biting exposure of the system and connected the Black liberation struggle to revolutionary struggles around the world. Often downplayed today, the BPP’s newspaper was central to its daily practice, with rank-and-file BPP members distributing it to the masses daily and, through this practice, developing their ability to connect revolutionary politics to the masses. Circulation of the BPP’s newspaper reached into the tens of thousands, and it was given a distinctive look by the revolutionary artist and early BPP member Emory Douglas whose art combined a searing mockery of the enemy with a revolutionary love for the masses of Black and other oppressed people.
BPP leader Huey Newton’s class analysis recognized the revolutionary potential of Black proletarian youth to a far greater extent than his contemporaries. Newton’s revolutionary subject has often been deemed the lumpen (including by Huey himself), though in truth Huey was looking at the lower and deeper sections of the proletariat and their overlap with the oppressed Black nation. Members of these lower and deeper sections sometimes have one foot in the underground economy or alternate between low-wage jobs and unemployment or “criminal” ways of making ends meet, and, in recent decades, owing to deindustrialization, the underground economy has become a far more substantial employer for proletarian youth. However, Huey’s class analysis should not be confused with his later embrace, in the early 1970s, of hardcore lumpen elements (such as major drug dealers, pimps, and organized crime operatives) as the BPP degenerated. Huey had elaborated the class analysis that undergirded the BPP’s identification of a social base for revolution into a theoretical treatise at that time—understandably given the rush of events at the time and the fact that, for good reasons, most comrades are not able to write theoretical treatises until they are in their thirties.14
The key lesson here is that the BPP, under Huey Newton’s leadership, correctly grasped the changed position of the Black nation within the US, the resolution/non-resolution of the Black national question described above.15 They looked at the wave of rebellions and understood that the proletarianization of the Black masses, coupled with the ghetto conditions the bourgeoisie forced them to live in, had created a lower and deeper section of Black proletarians whose volatility could be consciously organized towards revolutionary objectives. It is worth noting that Huey was never overly excited with spontaneous urban rebellions—he certainly embraced their potential, but knew that potential needed to be organized under the leadership of a revolutionary vanguard in order to go from getting some satisfaction to total satisfaction (to borrow a phrase from Mao). The BPP’s correct grasp of the changed position of Black people allowed the BPP to develop strategic thinking, a set of tactics, and a program (albeit not a fully communist or fleshed out program) that resonated with and could mobilize Black proletarians. In this respect, the BPP contrasted with trends and organizations in the Black liberation struggle whose strategies were rooted in historically outdated analysis. For example, the righteous demand to “free the land” and form an independent Black nation in the Black Belt South, raised and courageously fought for by the Republic of New Afrika, did not have the resonance and mobilizing power of the BPP’s program exactly because the Black national question was no longer an agrarian question—a land question. The Black masses had, for the most part, moved off of farmland in the rural South to cities across the country, where they were proletarianized (separated from the land).
The BPP not only conducted political work among the lower and deeper sections of Black proletarians, but also recognized the necessity to win allies (not in the postmodernist identity politics sense of the term) among other sections of the people. It consciously cultivated support from the protest movements of the time, especially through sales of its newspaper and speaking at rallies, and it built ties among artists, entertainers, and intellectuals. This united front approach would be crucial for mobilizing support—political and financial—when BPP leaders were targeted by the political police and faced prison sentences.
The BPP also showed great skill in “revolutionary public relations.” They knew how to create public spectacles, such as marching into the California Statehouse with guns in hand, and use opportunities to speak on the mainstream media to project their politics to the broadest audience possible. Eldridge Cleaver, who had worked as a writer for Ramparts magazine, an important Sixties movement publication, was largely responsible for the BPP’s ability to “work” the media. Furthermore, the BPP had a number of impressive orators, most notably Illinois BPP Chairman Fred Hampton. In addition to Hampton’s command of the mass line—a good example of which was when he held a mock-trial with the masses when he was accused of stealing an ice cream truck—he was also known for encouraging everyone from junkies to college students to devote their lives to serving the people. The bourgeoisie certainly feared the BPP’s ability to connect revolutionary politics with the masses—Fred Hampton was murdered in his sleep by Chicago police and the FBI at the age of 21.
While the BPP deserves great respect and honor for putting revolution on the agenda and for the heroic struggles and sacrifices of its members, we must also analyze the shortcomings, weaknesses, and errors that prevented it from developing into a communist vanguard party and caused it to degenerate in the 1970s. While we must be unsparing in our criticisms, we must do so with an understanding of the tremendous difficulties of trying to develop a vanguard party in the midst of intense class struggle and facing the vicious repression of the bourgeoisie’s political police, and without the benefit of much experience or direct access to the wisdom of revolutionary elders.
Ideologically, the BPP is perhaps best described as a revolutionary Black nationalist organization with a heavy dose of Maoism. It was a mixed ideological bag, drawing theory and politics from a variety of sources, some positive, some negative, and it never developed a high ideological standard for recruitment. Making the leap from revolutionary nationalism to a fully communist world outlook would have been necessary for it to become the vanguard needed for revolution in the US, and especially for the socialist transition to communism. There were significant ideological and political differences within the BPP leadership and considerable unevenness from chapter to chapter, and there was never an adequate process, based on democratic centralism, to debate out these differences and achieve unity on a correct basis.
There were substantial reformist trends within the BPP, especially after the first few years of its existence and as Huey Newton’s “survival pending revolution” concept took hold. The BPP’s various social programs—of which the Free Breakfast for Children program is the most well-known—were not necessarily reformist in their own right. They could be great weapons for exposing the bourgeoisie’s inability to meet the needs of the masses, asserting revolutionary authority, and broadening the BPP’s base of support. But where and as they became divorced from revolutionary objectives and became ends in themselves, they no longer served a strategy for revolution.
Reformism within the BPP was also reinforced when it worked with the revisionist CP, in particular through the BPP’s turn to a “united front against fascism” campaign that was started in 1969. Once again, making a special stage out of “defeating fascism” and labeling all repressive actions of bourgeois dictatorship as “fascist” proved a slippery slope for revolutionaries.16 The revisionist CP was more than happy to help the BPP slip on this slope, and dispatched its Black members, most publicly Angela Davis, to cozy up to the BPP and buttress reformism within it.
Organizationally, the BPP never had a firm democratic centralist structure with solid ideological glue. This allowed it to grow very quickly, but in the process it took in members who had not been through a solid process of ideological remolding, as well as police agents and informants. Moreover, the BPP’s operations and organizational structures were virtually all out in the open for the enemy to see. The failure to build leadership, organizational structure, and communications outside of the eyes of the enemy left the BPP exceedingly vulnerable to the actions of the political police.
The BPP was built during a time when US society was potentially headed towards a revolutionary situation (the missing ingredient was a communist vanguard party), and when the bourgeoisie’s repressive apparatus was working in high gear to prevent the emergence of a revolutionary force capable of leading the streams of revolt into a torrent of revolutionary civil war. The BPP experience brings to our attention the tremendous difficulties of trying to build a vanguard party from scratch in such an intense situation. One lesson we should draw from this is that the development of a vanguard party is not the same thing as and cannot wait for the development of a revolutionary situation. The ideological consolidation, theoretical development, program, and organizational apparatus of a vanguard party must be built consciously and systematically before the emergence of a revolutionary situation if the vanguard is to have the ability to withstand and advance through the pressure of intense events and vicious repression.
The BPP boldly asserted itself as the vanguard for revolution in the US. Doing so played an overall productive role in projecting revolutionary politics, leadership, and authority, recruiting large numbers of masses, and polarizing the broader movements of opposition. However, the BPP’s ideological, political, and organizational weaknesses clearly prevented it from fully stepping into the role of a revolutionary vanguard party. As reformist tendencies increasingly dominated the BPP and as Huey embraced a lumpen outlook and lumpen conduct in the 1970s, the productive role of the BPP asserting itself as the vanguard turned into its opposite. Huey’s authority was used to stifle criticisms that may have led to rectification, and Huey resorted to summary expulsions of members who raised criticisms. All this had a demoralizing effect on revolutionaries and the masses. We should divide one into two here and learn from the BPP the importance of rupturing with anti-vanguardism to boldly assert revolutionary politics and organization, while also recognizing the need to build a strong ideological, political, and organizational foundation for a vanguard party that can go all the way (make revolution) so that our bold assertions are standing on firm ground.
Even with all its shortcomings, the BPP provided an inspiring example and a practical model that was picked up on by other revolutionaries. The New York Young Lords had the benefit of forming after, and thus learning from, the BPP’s initial experience, and their use of agitation (spoken, written, and visual), the mass line, and political offensives aimed at striking a blow at the enemy, mobilizing the masses in class struggle, and creating public spectacles that exposed the system are well worth studying as concentrated examples of revolutionary leadership and intervention. Unfortunately, the BPP was unable to stay on the revolutionary road after the intensity of its first years of existence, with internal political differences exacerbated by the COINTELPRO tactics of the political police giving rise to organizational splits, and with the BPP degenerating into reformism (moving its entire remaining membership to Oakland and focusing on a mayoral campaign in 1972) and the lumpen outlook and conduct that Huey Newton adopted in the early 1970s (Huey effectively married electoral politics, a social service approach, and lumpen conduct into a petty-bourgeois outlook). Today, as postmodernist academics and Leftists seek to revise the revolutionary heart out of the BPP by emphasizing its reformist tendencies and narrowly focusing on its survival programs, it is crucial to uphold the revolutionary legacy of the BPP.
Owing to the BPP putting revolution in the US on the agenda, the inspiration of Maoism and the GPCR, and the revolutionary national liberation struggles in countries oppressed by foreign imperialism, by the late 1960s, tens of thousands of people were seriously debating the path towards the revolutionary overthrow of US imperialism. Students for a Democratic Society, an organization of tens of thousands by that time, split into different factions as a result of this debate. Revolutionaries of the Sixties generation took up both ideological questions concerning which theory and world outlook to base themselves on (Maoism, Soviet revisionism, Che Guevara’s focoism, revolutionary nationalism, radical bourgeois-democracy, etc.) and the strategic path forward in the US, with these two questions being intimately related. It would fall to the Revolutionary Union, the precursor of the Revolutionary Communist Party, to sort out the ideological questions on a correct, firmly communist, basis; we shall leave it to the next part of this document to delve into that history. Let us now turn to the three main strategic paths taken.
The first was that described above of the BPP and other revolutionary organizations based in specific oppressed nationalities that the BPP inspired, such as the Young Lords, the Brown Berets, and the American Indian Movement, as well as some admirable if ill-conceived efforts to organize white proletarians, such as the Young Patriots in Chicago. With the exception of the latter, these organizations based their political work in the communities of the lower and deeper sections of oppressed nationality proletarians, but also sought to influence and draw support from other sections of the people, especially the student movement. While putting armed struggle on the agenda and sometimes practicing armed self-defense, they relied principally on the weapons of agitation and audacious political struggle intended to rouse the masses and inflict political blows on the enemy, applying the mass line throughout this process. Probably the most common strategic error of these organizations was to place too much emphasis on social programs aimed at meeting the immediate needs of the masses, or, more specifically, to divorce social programs and meeting the immediate needs of the masses from the primary strategic objective of launching mass armed struggle to overthrow US imperialism. In the late 1960s and into the early 1970s, these organizations were on the leading edge of mobilizing proletarian masses in struggle, putting the bourgeoisie on the defensive, and making revolution a mass question.
The second approach was to “get it on” right away with bombings, assassinations, shoot-outs with the police, and other guerrilla actions. Such activity was far more widespread in the late 1960s and early 70s than the bourgeoisie would ever care to admit; within the broader movements of opposition and by numerous local collectives, violent acts against symbolic and practical targets were commonplace. The two organizations most associated with guerrilla actions were the Weather Underground (WU), which emerged out of the debates within SDS, and the Black Liberation Army (BLA), which came out of the BPP and the Black liberation struggle. The former focused on bombings and symbolic actions, while the latter put some pigs in their graves. While revolutionary guerrilla actions had some popular support and WU and BLA members could rely on the overall atmosphere of rebellion and counterculture to find refuge in while living underground, they grew more isolated as the high tide of revolutionary struggle ebbed in the 1970s and found it increasingly difficult to function organizationally.
Moreover, a strategy that put small-scale guerrilla military actions primary over forms of struggle that could mobilize the broad masses was doomed to isolate the revolutionaries who carried it out from the masses in a country like the US. Such a strategy has strong parallels with Che Guevera’s focoism, which emphasized small groups of revolutionaries carrying out heroic actions which were supposed to then inspire the masses to revolutionary action. A more sound basis for military actions was articulated at the time by revolutionary Black prisoner George Jackson in his book Blood In My Eye. Jackson envisioned a clandestine revolutionary military force that was subordinate to an above ground revolutionary vanguard leading a broader political movement, with the clandestine force carrying out military actions to defend the above ground vanguard against counterrevolutionary repression directed by the ruling class. When a bitter split erupted in BPP leadership between Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver, with Cleaver advocating initiating armed struggle immediately, Jackson took Huey’s side—Jackson’s military strategy was not the same as Cleaver’s and of those who went on to form the BLA. Jackson’s ideas, brilliant as they sound, have yet to be implemented in the US.
Some would condemn the WU and the BLA as adventurist and ultra-left. While that condemnation certainly describes their political errors, their righteous spirit should not be condemned but upheld. That there were hundreds, possibly thousands, of revolutionaries of the Sixties generation who took up revolutionary violence, including armed struggle, right in the belly of the beast is a beautiful thing17; may there be tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or perhaps millions to do so in the not too distant future with a sound strategy based on Mao’s insistence that we rely on the masses, not just our own heroic actions.
The third strategic approach taken by Sixties generation revolutionaries was to go to the workers—those sections of the proletariat working in basic industries (such as auto, steel, and mining)—and merge revolutionary politics with those workers’ economic struggles. A number of local collectives and more significant organizations such as the Revolutionary Union, the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, the Sojourner Truth Organization, and the October League, took up this approach to varying effects. At their best, these revolutionaries attempted to integrate with the working class by getting factory jobs, distributed revolutionary literature and newspapers they produced to the workers, joined with and sometimes led workers in strikes and union struggles, and brought some class-conscious workers into the broader struggles in society and the world (a few such workers even visited revolutionary China). The most common error in this approach was economism: tailing after the workers’ economic struggles and hiding revolutionary politics from them.
A theoretical flaw behind the “go to the workers” approach was that it was based on a class analysis of the US that was more or less accurate in the 1930s but no longer correct in the 1960s. Many of “the workers” in basic industry had, by then, been bourgeoisified with the spoils of imperialism, and thus were no longer the main social base for revolution in the US. Some were still exploited and working in harsh conditions, and oppressed nationality workers were in an overall more oppressed position and more receptive to revolutionary politics. Moreover, bourgeoisified workers should not be completely written off by communists, as they still have contradictions with the monopoly bourgeoisie. Some will need to be “peeled away” from bourgeois hegemony if we expect to lead a successful revolution, and we will need some for the socialist economy to function after the revolution. However, the principal social base for revolution in the US is among the lower and deeper sections of the proletariat, whose life conditions and employment are far more unstable and who are not concentrated in basic industries (though some do work there). Furthermore, the vast expansion of the service industry in the US was well underway by the 1960s, bringing about a significant change in the working class away from basic industries. In sum, while bringing revolutionary politics to the workers was an admirable attempt to integrate with the masses and bring forward a class-conscious section of the proletariat to lead the revolutionary struggle, it was grounded in an outdated and flawed class analysis.
These three main strategic approaches of Sixties generation revolutionaries are by no means an exhaustive description of all revolutionary political work in the late 1960s and 70s. Furthermore, these three approaches were by no means walled off from one another, and some organizations practiced a mix of these approaches or shifted from one to another. It is our intention here to give a basic sense of the different paths taken and the positive contributions and pitfalls of each, with great respect for the spirit, sacrifice, and serious efforts of the Sixties generation of revolutionaries. What we have no patience for are the sellouts, careerists, capitulationists, and opportunists from (and after) the Sixties generation who attack the very idea of trying to make revolution in the belly of the beast and try to claim that the revolutionaries who set out to do so were misguided and that the masses in the US would never come to embrace revolutionary politics. The amount of anti-revolutionary, anti-communist books summing up the Sixties has only been increasing in recent years, and we must not allow them to tarnish the legacy of the revolutionary decade of the Sixties or mislead a new generation to the false conclusion that revolution is impossible. So a big fuck you to Max Elbaum, Aaron Leonard, Mark Rudd, Tom Hayden (RIP), and others like them; you can try and justify your own capitulation all you want, but we ain’t buying it.
While this summation is necessarily focused on the subjective forces for revolution that emerged in the late 1960s, it is important to keep in mind that revolutionaries of the Sixties generation came out of and were swimming within a broader sea of political ferment, revolt, and powerful protest movements. Their journey to becoming revolutionaries usually started with righteous indignation at the injustices of US imperialism, such as the atrocities of the Vietnam War or the brutalities inflicted on Black people, which moved them to join protest movements and organizing efforts to end those injustices. Through the course of involvement in “the movement,” they stepped up their militancy in protests that violently confronted the repressive state apparatus, got beat up by police and spent time in jail, and, importantly, spent countless hours working to convince others to see, understand, and fight against the injustices of US imperialism. Along the way, they confronted the inherent limits of bourgeois-democracy: its inability to remedy the injustices that are inherent to the functioning of bourgeois rule. It was their persistence and commitment that pushed beyond these inherent limits of bourgeois-democracy towards revolutionary politics, with political theory—including but not only communist theory—studied and debated in this context. Of course, there were those who treated theory as a dogma, and there were plenty who did not become revolutionaries and chose to stay within the well-worn ruts of bourgeois-democracy. But there were tens of thousands who came out of “the movement” as serious revolutionaries steeled in mass struggle—excellent raw material for the formation of a communist vanguard party. Those revolutionaries, within a sea of rebellion, could in turn attract mass followings among Black people and oppressed nationalities, students, and soldiers. The fact that the BPP was increasingly popular with and looked to for leadership by a growing number of soldiers says much about the potential for revolution in the US.
One of the great weaknesses of the Sixties holding back the formation of a communist vanguard was that revolutionary organizations tended to form along nationality lines for the following reasons. (1) The US was quite segregated by nationality, with the legal structures that enforced this segregation only beginning to be dismantled (the US remains considerably, but not legally, segregated by nationality today), making it natural that organizations would form along the lines of nationality in many places owing to social ties and common culture. (2) National liberation, both on a world scale in relation to the oppressed nations of Africa, Asia, and Latin America and in relation to the oppressed Black nation within the US, was central to the world revolutionary struggle at the time, demanding practical resolution. For communists, it is important to keep in mind that national liberation struggles can be led with a communist world outlook, aimed at achieving but going beyond national liberation to the goal of communism on a world scale, or with a revolutionary nationalist outlook that ultimately cannot take the struggle beyond the narrow horizons of bourgeois right.18 (3) Within the Civil Rights Movement, Black radicals rebelling against the paternalistic leadership of white liberals—who always sought to hold back the struggle within acceptable limits of bourgeois politics—had been crucial to pushing the practical struggle forward and to the development of revolutionary consciousness, with all-Black organizations as a logical outgrowth to that contradiction (for example, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee transformed in that direction in the mid-1960s).
Related to the above objective conditions was a subjective factor: Sixties generation revolutionaries often analyzed the Black nation and other oppressed nationalities in the US as internal colonies. While this term made sense as a gesture of solidarity with the revolutionary national liberation struggles then raging in colonies and former colonies around the world, and there are certainly parallels between the oppressed nation(s) and nationalities in the US and imperialism’s colonies around the world of the twentieth century, it falls short as a scientific analysis of concrete conditions.
The US is a multinational state, a “prison house of nations” (to borrow a term from the Bolsheviks used to describe the Russian empire). It consists of a dominant white oppressor nation that is the majority of the US population and various oppressed nations and nationalities that make up minority populations (though the demographics are shifting today). The latter became oppressed nations and nationalities not through processes of colonization like occurred in Africa in the late-nineteenth century, where the home territory of a population and that population itself was brought under the colonial rule of a foreign imperialist power. Oppressed nations and nationalities in the US were subjugated through distinct processes with varying degrees of similarity to and difference from nineteenth-century imperialist (as distinguished from previous and settler-) colonization, from Indigenous people being subjected to genocide, expelled from their lands, and then relegated to reservations and urban ghettos; to kidnapped Africans being turned into a Black nation through enslavement, then sharecropping, and then many proletarianized while the Black nation itself was geographically dispersed but still significantly segregated from the white oppressor nation; to Chicanos, whose land was once part of Mexico until the US stole it through a war of aggression that subordinated the Chicano people to US rule and under the domination of the white oppressor nation; to various immigrants from around the world who are slotted into oppressed positions within the US (with Mexicans immigrants, who do not have the same history as Chicanos, used as a sharply exploited proletarian labor force).
To develop a revolutionary strategy and program for revolution in the US that can liberate the oppressed nation(s) and nationalities within the US from white supremacy and bourgeois rule through the construction of a socialist state, we will need concrete analysis of the histories and present-day realities of each specific and distinct oppressed nation and nationality, all of which are quite different from territories and peoples seized and subjugated by foreign imperialist powers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Labeling oppressed nations and nationalities in the US as internal colonies, while morally justified, does not provide the analytical foundation for such a strategy and program, instead suggesting separate struggles to liberate each “internal colony,” perhaps linked by solidarity and a common enemy. The “internal colony” analysis fails to grasp that there is a multinational proletariat in the US, disproportionately made up of people of oppressed nation(s) and nationalities but also including white proletarians, which brings together people of different nationalities who have a common class interest and similar but variegated experiences of exploitation and conditions of life, that is in the strategic position, as a class, to lead the revolutionary overthrow of US imperialism.
People of oppressed nation(s) and nationalities within the US certainly have every right to form their own revolutionary organizations, just as oppressed nations and nationalities in general have the right to self-determination, and that assertion of self-determination in the organizational sphere certainly had positive effects during the Sixties in terms of the development of revolutionary consciousness and a fighting spirit. But there were also negative effects to the trend of separate nationality organizations. Ideologically, it strengthened revolutionary nationalism and weakened the potential hegemony of the communist world outlook over the growing revolutionary movement. Practically, it meant that the best of the Sixties generation were in separate organizational structures rather than combining their strengths and debating out the crucial questions before the revolutionary movement within one united democratic centralist structure.
The essential lesson of the Sixties is that while the US bourgeoisie was on the ropes—getting its ass kicked militarily by the Vietnamese people, facing dissension and mutiny from its soldiers, and besieged by revolts at home by Black people, other oppressed nationalities, and a mass, radical student movement—there was no communist vanguard to seize on the situation and deliver the final death blow to US imperialism. The new generation of revolutionaries tried their best to “come from behind” and create the organizational forms, political programs, and strategies and tactics to make revolution, drawing on the GPCR, Maoism, and the revolutionary national liberation struggles for inspiration and guidance. But they were plagued by inexperience; cut off from previous generations of revolutionaries and in fact hampered by the morass of revisionism those previous generations had created after capitulating; and lacked ideological clarity, i.e., a solid grasp of communist theory and the communist world outlook. Let us not allow history to repeat in this way; let us not be “caught with our pants down” in a developing revolutionary situation without the communist vanguard party necessary to turn it into an all-out revolutionary civil war.
The bourgeoisie regains the initiative: the regime of preventive counterrevolution in the 1970s
Although the masses in the US inflicted serious blows on US imperialism in the Sixties, because the masses lacked the weapon of a communist vanguard party, the bourgeoisie managed to “regroup” in the 1970s, regain the initiative, and choke the revolutionary movement to death. They accomplished this through a variety of tactics, combining repression with co-optation, reconfiguring their regime of preventive counterrevolution in the 1970s to respond to both the revolutionary movements and changes in the economic base and international structure of capitalism-imperialism. Let us start by examining the international dimension.
With the breakdown of the old colonial order and the victory of many national liberation struggles, the international bourgeoisie needed to find new mechanisms for dominating the oppressed countries. The national liberation struggles had involved a variety of class forces in various configurations depending on the particular conditions of each country, including the national bourgeoisie and the petty-bourgeoisie. Those two classes were potentially more amenable to co-optation by imperialism. What imperialism was able to achieve from the 1970s–90s was the worldwide sellout of the national bourgeoisies of the oppressed nations by integrating them into the global imperialist economy in a subordinate position. The imperialists—both the US imperialists and the Soviet social-imperialists— did this through a combination of military and economic coercion and incentives.
The US-led imperialist bloc, which, broadly speaking, included Western Europe, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, used the coercive mechanism of foreign debt against the oppressed nations. Any former colony or semi-colony confronted a tough challenge after winning independence: imperialism had ravaged their resources and destroyed traditional modes of production while blocking the development of the productive forces in their country. Mao led liberated China to answer this challenge by building a self-reliant, socialist economy that relied fundamentally on the masses of people, their productive capacity and their conscious initiative, to develop China’s productive forces and expand its economic output. China’s economic development and rise out of bitter poverty during its socialist period from 1949–76 is the greatest economic achievement of humanity; it was the hard road that involved tremendous hard work and sacrifice from the Chinese people.
For many leaders of other national liberation struggles, who lacked the firm communist principles and farsightedness of Mao and the Chinese Communist Party, taking a short cut or the easy way out was too enticing to pass up when it was offered up on a silver platter by imperialist powers. That short cut came in the form of loans for economic development, usually through the US-imperialist-led institutions of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Ostensibly, these loans were supposed to provide the necessary capital for development projects that could lift former colonies out of poverty and provide them with an independent economic base. In reality, these loans put newly independent former colonies in the position of having to pay off debt and interest on debt, and then cutting deals for lower debt payments that came with dictates to lower barriers to “free trade” (meaning allow imperialism free reign to plunder their resources and exploit their labor). The oppressed nations were economically subjugated no longer as colonies, but as debtors. And a wave of “structural adjustment programs” dictated by the IMF further forced the oppressed nations to eliminate social welfare measures and any remaining economic barriers to imperialist penetration in order to pay off debt or receive more loans and economic “aid.” The results were disastrous for the masses, with a wave of mass impoverishment sweeping the oppressed nations.
While debt and structural adjustment programs were the new favored coercive economic measures of imperialism, measures of co-optation relied on integrating the oppressed nations into the increasingly globalized process of production. The oppressed nations began to play a much greater role in the manufacturing process, with substantial portions of their formerly majority peasant populations becoming proletarianized and viciously exploited. The national bourgeoisies and portions of the petty-bourgeoisies in the oppressed nations were co-opted to play the role of subcontractors and middlemen in the globalized production process, blunting their (national) contradiction with imperialism while more deeply exploiting the masses in the oppressed nations. The “national bourgeoisie” in Bangladesh, for example, is now responsible for incinerating garment workers by the hundreds in sweatshops that are giant fire hazards, all to supply the imperialist countries with a steady supply of designer clothes.19 A coercive “incentive” for the national bourgeoisie to capitulate to imperialism was the vicious military repression delivered to government leaders in oppressed countries who defied imperialism, such as the assassinations of Prime Minister Lumumba in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (1961), President Allende in Chile (1973), and President Thomas Sankara in Burkina Faso (1987).
The reconfiguration of the global economy had the immediate effect of blunting the national liberation struggles by virtue of co-opting the upper strata of the oppressed nations into the functioning of imperialism. In the long term, it puts the proletariat in a far stronger position to come to the leadership of national liberation struggles given the capitulation of other class forces. Countless examples have shown that national liberation that is not led by communists and followed by building socialism leads right back to subjugation under imperialism.
The short-term effect, however, was quite advantageous to US imperialism. Rivalry between US imperialism and the imperialist Soviet Union (then socialist in name, but in reality practicing a form of state capitalism-imperialism) was heating up. If the US was embroiled in military conflicts against oppressed countries or practicing old-style colonialism, it would have given Soviet imperialism further opportunities to challenge US imperialism and steal its spheres of influence under the signboard of supporting national liberation struggles, as it had during the 1960s. Furthermore, US imperialism’s righteous defeat by the forces of Vietnamese national liberation meant that US military interventions and occupations would have been unpopular with the US population and even within the US military. Indeed, US imperialism was unable to launch all-out military operations in the decade and a half after its 1975 defeat in Vietnam; it was not until after the Soviet Union collapsed that it had a free hand, which it quickly used to attack Iraq without restraint in 1991. Of course, the US military kept its ugly presence in bases around the world and intervened in smaller ways, such as invading the small island nation of Grenada in 1983 after it had been through a revolution, and the CIA continued covert operations that supported and directed violent counterrevolution around the world (with Central America as the primary example). But the new economic setup and political form of imperialism, which Nkrumah called neocolonialism,20 proved effective at subjugating the oppressed nations, and the capitulation of the leadership of the national liberation struggles in so many countries around the world, including in Vietnam, whether to US or Soviet imperialism, had a terribly demoralizing effect. The shining example of revolutionary national liberation struggles that had so deeply inspired the Sixties generation of revolutionaries was no longer a bright beacon but a dim flicker. Worst yet, a new bourgeoisie came to power in China in 1976 with a coup following Mao’s death, turning back the socialist transition to communism and, in the late 1970s under Deng Xiaoping’s leadership, even opening China back up to exploitation by foreign imperialism.
* * *
Turning now to the domestic situation: while the bourgeoisie used vicious repression against the revolutionary movement, especially Black revolutionary organizations, murdering dozens of Black Panthers and throwing many more in prison, it also sought out more subtle solutions that would be effective in the long-term. It needed to take preventive measures to ensure that the primary social forces in revolt in the Sixties—Black people and oppressed nationalities, students, and soldiers—would be pacified or unable to mount revolt in the future. Prior to the Sixties, the US bourgeoisie had taken similar measures in relation to the industrial proletariat, institutionalizing labor unions that served to keep workers from stepping beyond the acceptable limits of struggle. Of course, the bourgeoisie can only ever be partially and temporarily successful at preventive measures because its rule will continue to breed the contradictions which give rise to revolt. But beginning in the 1970s under the Nixon administration, the bourgeoisie started to reconfigure its regime of preventive counterrevolution to effectively deal with new and reconfigured contradictions. Preventive counterrevolution has always been a part of class rule, but a robust regime of preventive counterrevolution was masterfully built by the US bourgeoisie leading up to, during, and after WWII, and then transformed and strengthened after the Sixties revolts.
To curtail revolt from the Black nation, the US bourgeoisie used a variety of tactics for different classes among Black people. The resolution of the Southern question enabled the expansion of the Black petty-bourgeoisie, who now had more access to professional jobs, and facilitated its further geographical separation from Black proletarians with moves to the suburbs and other middle-class neighborhoods. This does not mean that the Black petty-bourgeoisie no longer faced discrimination and oppression, but that the character and intensity of its oppression became further removed from that facing Black proletarians.
In government on all levels, the bourgeoisie vastly expanded Black representation. Black mayors in cities across the country became important functionaries within the regime of preventive counterrevolution, entrusted to “put out fires” (Black rebellions) and create the appearance of Black political power. Like any new bourgeois institutional relationship, it took some time to smooth out the contradictions, as can be understood through a study of Black mayors from Carl Stokes in Cleveland, who, in 1968, became the first Black mayor of a major city, to Wilson Goode in Philadelphia, who presided over and justified the 1985 police bombing of a house occupied by the MOVE organization, a righteous group of Black revolutionaries, in which eleven of the house’s occupants—six adults and five children—were killed.
The expansion of the Black petty-bourgeoisie and of Black political representation was tied to the promotion of “Black capitalism” as a bourgeois form of “Black power.” The very Nixon administration that was murdering Black Panthers was an enthusiastic supporter of Black capitalism, ideologically and materially, with Black businesses receiving far more access to loans and other government assistance than ever before. The Black petty-bourgeoisie was used as an agent of gentrification in neighborhoods such as Bronzeville in Chicago and Fort Greene in Brooklyn, with this trend extended to countless other neighborhoods across the country over the last couple decades. The ideological effects of “Black capitalism” continue, to this day, to drag the Black masses down to believing in “entrepreneurship” as a viable solution to poverty, from “hustle” culture among Black proletarians to “start-up” culture among the Black petty-bourgeoisie.
For Black proletarians, the bourgeoisie launched various measures of pacification that corresponded to changes in the economic base of society. The globalization of production and move of manufacturing to the oppressed countries went hand in hand with deindustrialization in the imperialist countries. Black proletarians and the neighborhoods they lived in were hit hard by the lack of stable employment in factories that had, in decades past, been a major impetus for the Great Migration. The bourgeoisie only let Black people start becoming mayors when cities lost much of their tax base to suburban (white) flight and were falling apart, leaving Black mayors unable to remedy the masses’ problems even if they wanted to. What took the place of factory jobs was an underground economy centered on illegal drug sales, with heroin in the 1970s and crack in the 1980s. In addition to the devastating effects of addiction, the underground economy also gave rise to ever more violent gangs defending drug turf and buttressed lumpen ideology among the masses. The youth who would have joined the BPP in 1970 were, by the 1980s, increasingly recruited into drug gangs.
With a large segment of Black proletarians who had shown their capacity for rebellion in the Sixties now a more or less permanent reserve army of labor owing to deindustrialization, the bourgeoisie used prisons as a mechanism of social control on a scale unprecedented in human history. The entire justice system, from the police to prosecutors to prisons, was (and still is) used to keep the Black masses “in their place” and became a defining feature of their daily lives. The US bourgeoisie’s “carceral” logic is entirely logical from their standpoint of preventing proletarian rebellion.21
For students, the bourgeoisie worked on two main fronts. (1) They promoted, in academia, ideologies and politics that appeared “oppositional” but in reality fortified bourgeois rule and in effect steered students away from communism and other revolutionary ideas. Postmodernism was chief among these ideologies and has since become the dominant “discourse” within liberal academia. The deployment of postmodernism and other bourgeois ideologies was especially strategically important (and encountered varying degrees of resistance) within academic departments that were created or radically transformed through the struggles of the Sixties generation, such as Black Studies and Women’s Studies. Inculcating students in postmodernism has been, in effect, a way for the bourgeoisie to say “okay, go ahead and critique our society, just do so on terms that do not challenge our system and our rule.”
(2) The bourgeoisie gave students who wanted to fight against injustice a path to activism that would not threaten bourgeois rule. This came in the form of nonprofit activist organizations, which gave college graduates a career (and a careerist mentality) supposedly fighting for social justice but in reality beholden to bourgeois funding and set up to demobilize the masses and blunt class struggle. Neither postmodernism in academic discourse nor nonprofit activist organizations were bourgeois conspiracies per se, though in some cases they were consciously promoted by bourgeois operatives. More the point is that the natural functioning of bourgeois rule gives rise to mechanisms such as these in response to challenges the ruling class faces, and those that prove effective are then codified and spread.
For soldiers, the bourgeoisie’s immediate solution was to pull out of Vietnam, which was a serious and righteous defeat for them, and avoid all-out military mobilization in the years following the Vietnam War. To maintain a large military to enforce US empire without the potential social upheaval sparked by conscription, they played on the lack of educational opportunities and upward mobility for proletarians, especially those of oppressed nationalities, and created a regime of military recruitment based on the promise of getting out of the ghetto, going to college, and entering a viable career path. In effect, military recruiters preyed on the desperation of proletarian youth who have no future under this system. In addition, the US military built its capacity for military actions without large mobilizations of ground troops, as demonstrated from the aerial assault on Iraq in 1991 to the ubiquitous use of drone warfare today.
The regime of preventive counterrevolution reconfigured in the 1970s provides an important case study for revolutionaries on how the bourgeoisie works to contain the threat of revolt, as can be seen by how deliberately it focused on the primary sources of Sixties revolt: Black people, students, and soldiers. A communist vanguard party will need to analyze the bourgeoisie’s preventive measures, past and present, and anticipate its future moves so that the flames of revolt are not put out. Simply put, next time around we will have to be ahead of the game, entrenching a revolutionary force within, so that the masses can withstand, the very processes of preventive counterrevolution.
1Although the contradiction between the socialist Soviet Union and the imperialist powers also entered into WWII, as did the contradiction between the colonies and imperialism, obviously.
2“Social-imperialist” is a term communists have used to describe countries where the ruling class claims to be socialist but is in fact pursuing capitalist-imperialist logic and policies.
3The documentary Sir! No Sir! (2005) provides a compelling account of resistance within the US military.
4Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (Verso, 2010 ), 35.
5Some date the Great Migration as beginning in the 1890s, while others put its start during and after WWI. Either way, it continued through the mid-twentieth century all the way up to the 1960s. For a comprehensive account of the Great Migration, see Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (Random House, 2010).
6A concurrent example of the same dynamic at play would be how Portugal, a declining, third-rate imperialist power, attempted to hold on to its colonial possessions in Africa with the utmost brutality in the face of revolutionary national liberation struggles; the Portuguese bourgeoisie even turned to fascist rule in its home base in an attempt to cling on to its past imperial glory days.
7The US bourgeoisie only mediated a resolution because it was forced to by the heroic actions of the masses and because not uprooting the old white supremacist order would likely spark further revolt, and its resolution was not one aimed at fully stamping out the old white supremacist order. Why? In general, because it is in the interests of all ruling classes who are exploiters (i.e., all ruling classes other than the proletariat during the socialist transition to communism) to make compromises with and carry forward some aspects of the ideology and politics of the ruling classes that preceded them, for to do otherwise would risk mobilizing the exploited classes on terms unfavorable to the rising class of exploiters—this is the lesson the bourgeoisie learned from the 1789 French Revolution and from the Reconstruction period following the US Civil War. In particular, because white supremacy and the oppression of Black people is the main social glue holding the US together, reinforcing the hegemony of the bourgeoisie over large segments of the US population (in particular white people as a whole) makes old-style Southern white supremacy a useful, if secondary, tool for the bourgeoisie to keep in stock and turn up when necessary to fortify bourgeois rule.
8Denning, The Cultural Front, 36.
9Readers of kites, in particular the four-part series “The Specter That Still Haunts: Locating a Revolutionary Class within Contemporary Capitalism-Imperialism,” will also recognize the theoretical and practical significance of a newly proletarianized section of the Black masses providing the basis for revolt and being especially receptive to revolutionary politics. Proletarianization of Black Southern migrants reached its apex in the 1940s and 50s, when over three million Black people left the South, setting the stage for the rebellions and revolutionary mood of the 1960s.
10See Richard Freeland, “The World Transformed: A Golden Age for American Universities, 1945–1970,” in The History of Higher Education (Simon and Schuster, 1997) and WH Cowley and Don Williams, International and Historical Roots of American Higher Education (Garland, 1991).
11For example, in Peru in the 1960s–80s, there was high college enrollment, with many children of proletarians and Indigenous peasants attending college. The Communist Party of Peru (Shining Path) recruited many of its initial cadre from these new college students, which gave it the subjective force to launch a revolutionary people’s war in 1980.
12The damage PLP did by taking a chunk of the student movement in a Trotskyite direction demonstrates the need for revolutionaries to develop a sharp theoretical understanding and the ability to discern different political lines. PLP’s misuse of Maoism exactly when the GPCR was a deep inspiration was the main reason for its success in fooling young would-be revolutionaries. Its narrow conception of students going to the working class misled some with a genuine desire to integrate with the proletariat. Its polemics against revolutionary nationalism misled those who, owing to a dogmatic understanding of communism, did not understand the need for a process of unity-struggle-unity with genuine revolutionaries who had not yet moved from a nationalist to a communist world outlook.
13For younger revolutionaries, if you ever get the chance to talk to someone who made this trip—there’s still a few of them alive today—soak up every kernel of wisdom and experience that you can. One of these experiences has been made available in episode 35 of the excellent People’s History of Ideas podcast: an interview with the veteran communist revolutionary Monica Shay before her tragic death in 2011.
14Although it downplays the impact of Maoism, a helpful summary of Huey Newton’s political thought and class analysis is provided in Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin, Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party (University of California Press), 66–73.
15It is worth noting that Huey Newton himself was born in the South and his family moved to Oakland when Huey was a child; the experience of the Great Migration was literally part of Huey’s upbringing, as it was for many other members of the BPP.
16The problem with labeling all the vicious repressive measures of bourgeois dictatorship as fascist is that these vicious repressive measures are part of the normal functioning of bourgeois dictatorship and bourgeois-democracy; if we call them all fascist, we risk feeding into illusions, which are quite widespread, especially in the US, about the nature of bourgeois-democracy.
17Kirkpatrick Sale’s book SDS (Vintage Books, 1974 ) documents the escalation of violence by the student movement, including hundreds of bombings, from 1968 to 1970.
18A good starting point for understanding what communists mean when we talk about “getting beyond the narrow horizons of bourgeois right” is Zhang Chunqiao’s 1975 essay On Exercising All-Around Dictatorship Over the Bourgeoisie.
19You could justifiably argue that this makes them bureaucrat capitalists rather than a national bourgeoisie, but the point being made here is the transition, as a class, to being integrated into the world imperialist system in a subordinate position within the more globalized production process in which manufacturing was increasingly “offshored” to the oppressed countries.
20We tend not to use this term too much only because the way it is often used by postmodernists and Leftists in the US is frankly stupid; they have turned it into a vague generality for describing all kinds of different forms of oppression, losing the specificity that Nkrumah gave it as a mechanism of imperialist domination after the fall of colonialism.
21Yes, we intend this as a rebuke to the silly postmodernist logic of present-day self-proclaimed “abolitionists” who view the US prison system as a policy choice and a moral wrong (“carceral thinking”), failing to understand how it is made necessary by the present-day production relations of capitalism-imperialism and that it can only be abolished by overthrowing those production relations.