- Category: Race & Liberation
- Created on Monday, 01 March 2010 10:43
- Written by Robin D.G. Kelley
"How black radicals came to see China as a beacon of Third World revolution and Mao Zedong thought as a guidepost is a complicated and fascinating story involving literally dozens of organizations and covering much of the world — from the ghettos of North America to the African countryside....It is our contention that China offered black radicals a 'colored' or Third World Marxist model that enabled them to challenge a white and Western vision of class struggle -- a model that they shaped and reshaped to suit their own cultural and political realities."
We are posting the piece, Black Like Mao: Red China and Black Revolution by Robin D.G. Kelley and Betsy Esch, in four parts. This piece was first published in Souls, Vol. 1, No. 4, and was re-published in the book Afro Asia: Revolutionary Political and Cultural Connections between African Americans and Asian Americans. A printable PDF is available.
Due to its length, we are presenting this as four separate posts.
Black Like Mao: Red China and Black Revolution
By Robin D.G. Kelley and Betsy Esch
This is the era of Mao Tse-Tung, the era of world revolution and the Afro-American's struggle for liberation is a part of an invincible world-wide movement. Chairman Mao was the first world leader to elevate our people's struggle to the fold of the world revolution. —ROBERT WILLIAMS, 1967
It seems as if the Chairman, at least as a symbol, has been enjoying a resurgence in popularity among youth. Mao Zedong's image and ideas consistently turn up in a myriad of cultural and political contexts. For example, The Coup, a popular Bay Area hip hop group, restored Mao to the pantheon of black radical heroes and, in so doing, placed the black freedom struggle in an international context. In a song simply called "Dig It" (1993), The Coup refers to its members as "The Wretched of the Earth"; tells listeners to read The Communist Manifesto; and conjures up revolutionary icons such as Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, Kwame Nkrumah, H. Rap Brown, Kenya's Mau Mau movement, and Geronimo Ji Jaga Pratt. In classical Maoist fashion, The Coup seizes upon Mao's most famous quote and makes it their own: "We realize that power [is] nickel plated." Even though members of The Coup were not born until after the heyday of black Maoism, "Dig It" captures the spirit of Mao in relation to the larger colonial world-a world that included African Americans. In Harlem in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it seemed as though everyone had a copy of Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, better known as the "Little Red Book." From time to time supporters of the Black Panther Party would be seen selling the Little Red Book on street corners as a fund-raiser for the party. And it wasn't unheard of to see a young black radical strolling down the street dressed like a Chinese peasant-except for the Afro and sunglasses, of course.
Like Africa, China was on the move and there was a general feeling that the Chinese supported the black freedom struggle; indeed, real-life blacks were calling for revolution in the name of Mao as well as Marx and Lenin. Countless black radicals of the era regarded China, not unlike Cuba or Ghana or even Paris, as the land where true freedom might be had. It wasn't perfect, but it was much better than living in the belly of the beast. When the Black Panther leader Elaine Brown visited Beijing in fall 1970, she was pleasantly surprised by what the Chinese revolution had achieved in terms of improving people's lives: "Old and young would spontaneously give emotional testimonies, like Baptist converts, to the glories of socialism." A year later she returned with the Panther founder Huey Newton, whose experience in China he described as a "sensation of freedom—as if a great weight had been lifted from my soul and I was able to be myself, without defense or pretense or the need for explanation. I felt absolutely free for the first time in my life-completely free among my fellow men."
More than a decade before Brown and Newton set foot on Chinese soil, W. E. B. Du Bois regarded China as the other sleeping giant poised to lead the colored races in the worldwide struggle against imperialism. He had first traveled to China in 1936—before the war and the revolution—during an extended visit to the Soviet Union. Returning in 1959, when it was illegal to travel to China, Du Bois discovered a new country. He was struck by the transformation of the Chinese, in particular what he perceived as the emancipation of women, and he left convinced that China would lead the underdeveloped nations on the road toward socialism. "China after long centuries," he told an audience of Chinese communists attending his ninety-first birthday celebration, "has arisen to her feet and leapt forward. Africa arise, and stand straight, speak and think! Act! Turn from the West and your slavery and humiliation for the last 500 years and face the rising sun."
How black radicals came to see China as a beacon of Third World revolution and Mao Zedong thought as a guidepost is a complicated and fascinating story involving literally dozens of organizations and covering much of the world—from the ghettos of North America to the African countryside. The text following thus does not pretend to be comprehensive; instead, we have set out in this essay to explore the impact that Maoist thought and, more generally, the People's Republic of China have had on black radical movements from the 1950s through at least the mid-1970s. In addition, our aim is to explore how radical black nationalism has shaped debates within Maoist or "anti-revisionist" organizations in the United States. It is our contention that China offered black radicals a "colored" or Third World Marxist model that enabled them to challenge a white and Western vision of class struggle—a model that they shaped and reshaped to suit their own cultural and political realities. Although China's role was contradictory and problematic in many respects, the fact that Chinese peasants, as opposed to the European proletariat, made a socialist revolution and carved out a position in world politics distinct from the Soviet and U.S. camps endowed black radicals with a deeper sense of revolutionary importance and power. Finally, not only did Mao prove to blacks the world over that they need not wait for "objective conditions" to make revolution, but also his elevation of cultural struggle profoundly shaped debates surrounding black arts and politics.
The Long March
Anyone familiar with Maoism knows that it was never a full-blown ideology meant to replace Marxism-Leninism. On the contrary, if anything it marked a turn against the "revisionism" of the post-Stalin Soviet model. What Mao did contribute to Marxist thought grew directly out of the Chinese revolution of 1949. Mao's insistence that the revolutionary capacity of the peasantry wasn't dependent on the urban proletariat was particularly attractive to black radicals skeptical of the idea that they must wait for the objective conditions to launch their revolution. Central to Maoism is the idea that Marxism can be (must be) reshaped to the requirements of time and place, and that practical work, ideas, and leadership stem from the masses in movement and not from a theory created in the abstract or produced out of other struggles. In practice, this meant that true revolutionaries must possess a revolutionary will to win. The notion of revolutionary will cannot be underestimated, especially for those in movements that were isolated and attacked on all sides. Armed with the proper theory, the proper ethical behavior, and the will, revolutionaries in Mao's words can "move mountains." Perhaps this is why the Chinese communist leader Lin Biao could write in the foreword to Quotations that "once Mao Tse-Tung's thought is grasped by the broad masses, it becomes an inexhaustible source of strength and a spiritual atom bomb of infinite power."
Both Mao and Lin Biao recognized that the source of this "atom bomb" could be found in the struggles of Third World nationalists. In an age when the cold war helped usher in the nonaligned movement, when leaders of the "colored" world were converging in Bandung, Indonesia, in 1955 to try to chart an independent path toward development, the Chinese hoped to lead the former colonies on the road to socialism. The Chinese (backed by Lin Biao's theory of the "new democratic revolution") not only endowed nationalist struggles with revolutionary value but also reached out specifically to Africa and people of African descent. Two years after the historic Bandung meeting of nonaligned nations—China formed the Afro-Asian People's Solidarity Organization . Mao not only invited W. E. B. Du Bois to spend his ninetieth birthday in China after he had been declared a public enemy by the U.S. state, but three weeks prior to the great March on Washington in 1963, Mao issued a statement criticizing American racism and casting the African American freedom movement as part of the worldwide struggle against imperialism. "The evil system of colonialism and imperialism," Mao stated, "arose and throve with the enslavement of Negroes and the trade in Negroes, and it will surely come to its end with the complete emancipation of the black people." A decade later, the novelist John Oliver Killens was impressed by the fact that several of his books, as well as works by other black writers, had been translated into Chinese and were widely read by students. Everywhere he went, it seemed, he met young intellectuals and workers who were "tremendously interested in the Black movement and in how the art and literature of Black folks reflected that movement."
The status of people of color served as a powerful political tool in mobilizing support from Africans and African-descended people. In 1963, for example, Chinese delegates in Moshi, Tanzania, proclaimed that the Russians had no business in Africa because of their status as white. The Chinese, on the other hand, were not only part of the colored world but also unlike Europeans they never took part in the slave trade. Of course, most of these claims served essentially to facilitate alliance building. The fact is that African slaves could be found in Guangzhou during the twelfth century, and African students in communist China occasionally complained of racism. (Indeed, after Mao's death racial clashes on college campuses occurred more frequently, notably in Shanghai in 1979, in Nanjing in 1980, and in Tianjin in 1986.) Furthermore, Chinese foreign policy toward the black world was often driven more by strategic considerations than by a commitment to Third World revolutionary movements, especially after the Sino-Soviet split. China's anti-Soviet position resulted in foreign policy decisions that ultimately undermined their standing with certain African liberation movements. In southern Africa, for example, the Chinese backed movements that also received support from the apartheid regime of South Africa.
Yet, Mao's ideas still gained an audience among black radicals. While Maoist projects in the United States never achieved the kind of following enjoyed by Soviet-identified communist parties in the 1930s, they did take root in this country. And like a hundred flowers, Mao's ideas bloomed into a confusing mosaic of radical voices all seemingly at war with each other. Not surprisingly. at the center of the debate over the character of class struggle in the United States was the "Negro Question": that is, what role would blacks play in world revolution.
The World Black Revolution
Maoism in the United States was not exported from China. If anything, for those Maoists schooled in the Old Left the source of Maoism can be found in Khrushchev's revelations at the twentieth Congress of the Communist Party Soviet Union in 1956 that prompted an anti-revisionist movement throughout the pro-Stalinist Left. Out of the debates within the Communist Party USA emerged several organizations pledging to push the communists back into the Stalinist camp, including the Provisional Organizing Committee (POC) in 1958, Hammer and Steel in 1960, and the Progressive Labor Party (PLP) in 1965.
The Progressive Labor Party. an outgrowth of the Progressive Labor movement founded three years earlier, was initially led by excommunists who believed that the Chinese had the correct position. Insisting that black workers were the "key revolutionary force" in the proletarian revolution, the PLP attracted a few outstanding black activists such as John Harris in Los Angeles and Bill Epton in Harlem. Epton had become somewhat of a cause célèbre after he was arrested for "criminal anarchy" during the 1964 rebellion in Harlem. Two years later, the PLP helped organize a student strike to establish a black studies program at San Francisco State University, and its Black Liberation Commission published a pamphlet titled Black Liberation Now! that attempted to place all of these urban rebellions within a global context. But by 1968, the PLP abandoned its support for "revolutionary" nationalism and concluded that all forms of nationalism are reactionary. As a result of its staunch anti-nationalism, the PLP opposed affirmative action and black and Latino trade union caucuses-positions that undermined the PLP’s relationship with black community activists. In fact, the PLP's connections to the New Left in general were damaged in part because of its attack on the Black Panther Party and on the black student movement. Members of the PLP were thrown out of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in 1969 with the help of several radical nationalist groups, including the Panthers, the Young Lords, and the Brown Berets.
Nevertheless, the predominantly white Marxist-Leninist-Maoist parties were not the primary vehicle for the Maoist-inspired black Left. Most black radicals of the late 1950s and early 1960s discovered China by way of anticolonial struggles in Africa and the Cuban revolution. Ghana's independence in 1957 was cause to celebrate, and the CIA-sponsored assassination of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo inspired protest from all black activist circles. The Cuban revolution and Fidel Castro's infamous residency at Harlem's Hotel Theresa during his visit to the United Nations brought black people face to face with an avowed socialist who extended a hand of solidarity to people of color the world over. Indeed, dozens of black radicals not only publicly defended the Cuban revolution but also visited Cuba through groups like the Fair Play for Cuba Committee. One of these visitors was Harold Cruse, himself an excommunist still committed to Marxism. He believed the Cuban, Chinese, and African revolutions could revitalize radical thought because they demonstrated the revolutionary potential of nationalism. In a provocative essay published in the New Leader in 1962, Cruse wrote that the new generation was looking to the former colonial world for its leaders and insights, and among its heroes was Mao: "Already they have a pantheon of modern heroes—Lumumba, Kwame Nkrumah, Sekou Toure in Africa; Fidel Castro in Latin America; Malcolm X, the Muslim leader, in New York; Robert Williams in the South; and Mao Tse-Tung in China. These men seem heroic to the Afro-Americans not because of their political philosophy, but because they were either former colonials who achieved complete independence, or because, like Malcolm X, they dared to look the white community in the face and say: 'We don't think your civilization is worth the effort of any black man to try to integrate into.' This to many Afro-Americans is an act of defiance that is truly revolutionary. "
In another essay, which appeared in Studies on the Left in 1962, Cruse was even more explicit about the global character of revolutionary nationalism. He argued that black people in the United States were living under domestic colonialism and that their struggles must be seen as part of the worldwide anticolonial movement. "The failure of American Marxists," he wrote, "to understand the bond between the Negro and the colonial peoples of the world has led to their failure to develop theories that would be of value to Negroes in the United States." In his view, the former colonies were the vanguard of the revolution, and at the forefront of this new socialist revolution were Cuba and China.
Revolutions in Cuba, Africa, and China had a similar effect on Baraka, who a decade and a half later would found the Maoist-inspired Revolutionary Communist League. Touched by his visit to Cuba and the assassination of Lumumba, Baraka began contributing essays to a new magazine called African Revolution edited by the Algerian nationalist leader Ahmed Ben Bella. As Baraka explained it: "India and China had gotten their formal independence before the coming of the 50s, and by the time the 50s had ended, there were many independent African nations (though with varying degrees of neocolonialism). Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah had hoisted the black star over the statehouse in Accra, and Nkrumah's pronouncements and word of his deeds were glowing encouragement to colored people all over the world. When the Chinese exploded their first A-bomb I wrote a poem saying, in effect, that time for the colored peoples had rebegun."
The Ghana-China matrix is perhaps best embodied in the career of Vickie Garvin, a stalwart radical who traveled in Harlem's black Left circles during the postwar period. Raised in a black working-class family in New York, Garvin spent her summers working in the garment industry to supplement her family's income. As early as high school she became active in black protest politics, supporting efforts by Adam Clayton Powell Jr. to obtain better-paying jobs for African Americans in Harlem and creating black history clubs dedicated to building library resources. After earning her B.A. in political science from Hunter College and her M.A. in economics from Smith College in Northhampton, she spent the war years working for the National War Labor Board and continued on as an organizer for the United Office and Professional Workers of America (UOPWA-CIO) and as national research director and co-chair of the Fair Employment Practices Committee. During the postwar purges of the Left in the CIO, Garvin was a strong voice of protest and a sharp critic of the CIO's failure to organize in the South. As executive secretary of the New York chapter of the National Negro Labor Council and vice president of the national organization, Garvin established close ties to Malcolm X and helped him arrange part of his tour of Africa.
Garvin joined the black intellectual exodus to Nkrumah's Ghana where she initially roomed with the poet Maya Angelou and eventually moved into a house next to Du Bois. She spent two years in Accra surrounded by several key black intellectuals and artists, including Julian Mayfield, the artist Tom Feelings, and the cartoonist Ollie Harrington. As a radical who taught conversational English to the Cuban, Algerian, and Chinese diplomatic core in Ghana, it was hard not to develop a deep internationalist outlook. Garvin's conversations with Du Bois during his last days in Ghana only reinforced her internationalism and kindled her interest in the Chinese revolution. Indeed, through Du Bois Garvin got a job as a "polisher" for the English translations of the Peking Review as well as a teaching position at the Shanghai Foreign Language Institute. She remained in China from 1964 to 1970, building bridges between the black freedom struggle, the African independence movements, and the Chinese revolution.
For Huey Newton, the future founder of the Black Panther Party, the African revolution seemed even less crucial than events in Cuba and China. As a student at Merritt College in the early 1960s he read a little existentialism, began attending meetings sponsored by the Progressive Labor Party, and supported the Cuban revolution. Not surprisingly, Newton began to read Marxist literature voraciously. Mao, in particular, left a lasting impression: "My conversion was complete when I read the four volumes of Mao Tse-Tung to learn more about the Chinese Revolution." Thus well before the founding of the Black Panther Party, Newton was steeped in Mao Zedong thought as well as in the writings of Che Guevara and Frantz Fanon. "Mao and Fanon and Guevara all saw clearly that the people had been stripped of their birthright and their dignity, not by a philosophy or mere words, but at gunpoint. They had suffered a holdup by gangsters, and rape; for them, the only way to win freedom was to meet force with force."
The Chinese and Cubans' willingness "to meet force with force" also made their revolutions attractive to black radicals in the age of nonviolent passive resistance. Of course, the era had its share of armed struggle in the South, with groups like the Deacons for Defense and Justice and Gloria Richardson's Cambridge movement defending nonviolent protesters when necessary. But the figure who best embodied black traditions of armed self-defense was Robert Williams, a hero to the new wave of black internationalists whose importance almost rivaled that of Malcolm X. As a former U.S. Marine with extensive military training, Williams earned notoriety in 1957 for forming armed self-defense groups in Monroe, North Carolina, to fight the Ku Klux Klan. Two years later, Williams's statement that black people must "meet violence with violence" as the only way to end injustice in an uncivilized South led to his suspension as president of the Monroe chapter of the NAACP.
Williams's break with the NAACP and his open advocacy of armed self defense pushed him further Left and into the orbit of the Socialist Workers Party, the Workers World Party, and among some members of the old CPUSA. However, Williams had had contact with communists since his days as a Detroit auto worker in the 1940s. He not only read the Daily Worker but also published a story in its pages called "Some Day I Am Going Back South." Williams was also somewhat of an intellectual dabbler and autodidact, having studied at West Virginia State College, North Carolina College, and Johnson C. Smith College. Nevertheless, his more recent Left associations led him to Cuba and the Fair Play for Cuba Committee. Upon returning from his first trip in 1960, he hoisted the Cuban flag in his backyard and ran a series of articles in his mimeographed publication, the Crusader, about the transformation of working peoples' lives in Cuba as a result of the revolution. In one of his editorials published in August 1960, Williams insisted that African Americans' fight for freedom "is related to the Africans,' the Cubans,' all of Latin Americans' and the Asians' struggles for self-determination." His support of the Chinese revolution was evident in the pages of the Crusader as well, emphasizing the importance of China as a beacon of strength for social justice movements the world over. Like Baraka, Williams took note of China's detonation of an atomic bomb in 1960 as a historic occasion for the oppressed. "With the bomb," he wrote. "China will be respected and will add a powerful voice to those who already plead for justice for black as well as white."
By 1961, as a result of trumped-up kidnapping charges and a federal warrant for his arrest, Williams and his family were forced to flee the country and seek political asylum in Cuba. During the next four years, Cuba became Williams's base for promoting black world revolution and elaborating an internationalist ideology that embraced black nationalism and Third World solidarity. With support from Fidel Castro, Williams hosted a radio show called Radio Free Dixie that was directed at African Americans, continued to edit the Crusader (which by now had progressed from a mimeograph to a full-blown magazine), and completed his book Negroes with Guns (1962). He did not, however, identify himself as a Marxist. At the same time, he rejected the "nationalist" label calling himself an "internationalist" instead: "That is, I'm interested in the problems of Africa, of Asia, and of Latin America. I believe that we all have the same struggle; a struggle for liberation."
Although Williams recalls having had good relations with Castro, political differences over race did lead to a rift between him and the Cuban communists. "The Party," Williams remembered, "maintained that it was strictly a class issue and that once the class problem had been solved through a socialist administration, racism would be abolished." Williams not only disagreed but had moved much closer to Che Guevara, who embodied much of what Williams had been advocating all along: Third World solidarity, the use of armed struggle, and a deep and unwavering interest in the African revolution. Indeed, Che's leanings toward China undoubtedly made an impact on Williams's decision to leave Cuba for Beijing. Given Che's break with Fidel and the solidification of Cuba's links to the Soviet Union, Williams saw no need to stay. He and his family packed up and moved to China in 1966.
As an exiled revolutionary in China during its most tumultuous era, Williams nevertheless predicted that urban rebellions in America's ghettoes would transform the country. Although one might argue that by publishing the Crusader from Cuba and then China Williams had very limited contact with the black freedom movement in the United States, his magazine reached a new generation of young black militants and promoted the vision of black world revolution articulated by critics such as Harold Cruse. The fact is, the Crusader and Williams's own example compelled a small group of black radical intellectuals and activists to form what might loosely be called the first black Maoist-influenced organization in history: the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM).
For the whole essay: a printable PDF is available.