Assata: Revolutionary Relatability


"Examining the theory, practice, and rhetorical strategies of Assata Shakur's powerful autobiography, ASSATA, this essay from a Kasama supporter reflects on Assata's text as an exemplary work of revolutionary pedagogy, a work that relates radical and revolutionary ideas to concrete experiences, and represents the revolutionary project in ways that are both bold and yet relatable to wide sectors of the people. This story of how revolutionaries who are also educators can provoke discussion using accessible and inspiring radical texts helps contextualize the process of developing revolutionary consciousness.A version of this article appears at Red Wedge. Part one can be viewed on Kasama here. 

- – – – – – – – – – – – – – – -

“I was a puppet, and I didn’t even know who was pulling the strings.”

 Assata’s long line of social self-criticism starts in the living room, with a discussion of Television, and how watching it as a child led her to internalize dominant images of beauty, domesticity, and (white) middle class normativity, so pervasive and insidious in 1950s America. Shakur harshly recounts her unsympathetic and judgmental attitude towards her own mother for “failing” to recreate the middle-class consumer ideal as depicted on TV. “Why didn’t my mother have freshly baked cookies ready when i came home from school?” she writes, “Why didn’t we live in a house with a backyard and a front yard instead of an ole apartment? I remember looking at my mother as she cleaned the house in her old raggedy housecoat with her hair in curlers. ‘How disgusting,’ i would think. Why didn’t she clean the house in high heels and shirtwaist dresses like they did on television” (37). She shows her younger self to be an ingrate and a complainer, an unfair judge of her working-class, single mother. “I was a puppet,” Shakur reflects later, “and i didn’t even know who was pulling the strings” (38).

At the same time, Shakur frames this embarrassing self-critique as a social commentary on the cultural apparatus that enabled and encouraged her anti-social and deluded ideology. It was not something she came to “on her own”; she is both an object and a subject in this process. In framing matters so, Assata not only offers a model of humility and self-critique, she targets particular – and pervasive — social institutions and ideologies in such a way as to welcome readers to interrogate (and perhaps confront and transcend) the influence of these same institutions and ideologies in their own lives. The influence of mass media commodification and consumer ideology, of course, is as pervasive today as ever, making her discussions all the more relevant to contemporary readers.

A particularly memorable self-critical exposure comes soon after this, with Shakur’s account of how, as a child, she publicly denigrated her close friend—and would-be boyfriend — Joe, a boy she honestly likes. She tells off Joe, stating that he is “too black and ugly” to ever date. The young Joanne does this to avoid the scorn of peers, who make fun of Joe at school as looking like a “black frog.” “I will never forget the look on his face,” Shakur writes, reflecting on her own opportunistic complicity. “He looked at me with such cold hatred that I was stunned. I felt so ugly and dirty and depraved. I was shaken to the bone. For weeks, maybe months afterward, I was haunted by what happened that day, the snakes that had crawled out of my mouth. There was nothing I could do but change myself. Not for him, but for me” (72). Across the board, students were moved by this moment, as well as by Assata’s later historical and theoretical reflections on how such internalization of racism and black-on-black dehumanization can be traced all the way back to habits and rituals forcibly imposed on Black people in the context of plantation slavery. Again, Assata’s (self-)critical reflection on a particular bad practice is tied to an argument that foregrounds the larger structural and institutional forces at work through these practices. In the process, the text offers us living proof of how important a grasp of history and of social power relations can be for a critical navigation of everyday life, even as it also lays the basis for imagining an inclusive and welcoming political collectivity, one that will include not just those subjects who have somehow (allegedly) come through racist-imperialist, patriarchal capitalism unscathed, but also, crucially, those who have been in various ways damaged by this process, even to the point of victimizing others. Shakur presents herself as having been ensnared in the very contradictory net that traps so many others, and that she is working to escape, and to shred for good.[1] By connecting, contextualizing and politicizing the “personal” wounds that the system has inflicted on herself and on others (including those wounds that she has helped to inflict on others!), Assata challenges readers to refuse the divide and conquer strategies — both ideological and repressive — that serve ruling class-ends, by turning people with so much in common against one another, and against themselves. Shakur’s narrative shows us how humble yet bold reflection can transform what turns us against one another into what unites us, laying the basis for building a common, revolutionary strength.

Notably, in this early episode with young Joe, Shakur describes her participation in this black-on-black “colorism”without herself believing in it; her only drive is to “desperately be one of the pack” (71). In pursuing this goal, Joanne harms not only Joe, but herself, insofar as she and her family both have grown fond of Joe’s innocent flirtations and affections. Thus, in a manner that once again welcomes readers into parallel self-interrogations,Assata’s self-critique extends from the phenomenon of internalized racism (in particular, racism within the oppressed community) to the broader practice of succumbing to peer pressure, cynically going along with the dominant fashion, even when at some level one knows better.

As Shakur puts it later, provocatively, if in a different context: “Everything is a lie in amerika…the thing that keeps it going is that so many people believe the lie” (158). Shakur’s account of denigrating young Joe shows us that it is not necessary for people — be they kids or adults — to actually believe the “lie” in order keep to that lie going; all that is necessary is to act as if one believes. Objective belief — and the reproduction of ideology — does not require subjective sincerity, but only a cynical going through the motions, a willingness to stifle one’s own true(r) feelings and thoughts for the sake of keeping up appearances, and avoiding conflict with other “believers.” Adding to the tragic irony here, but also laying further basis for revolutionary rupture, is the distinct possibility that those “believers” whom one fears offending are themselves not sincere subjects of the bad ideology (racism, colorism, etc), but are equally cynical — which is also to say cowardly — participants in the performance of a ritual that they don’t “really believe” in either. The revolutionary hope here lies in the potential implied by this shallow shell of cynical conformity; once one of these tight-packed eggs cracks…others may quickly do the same.[2]

Later, in a more overtly political vein, Shakur discloses how she was spurred toward rethinking her views of “America” and its foreign policy, in 1964, before the anti-war movement really blew up, not first by her own studies, but by being publicly embarrassed, confronted with her own ignorance — and her cynical parroting of half-baked ideology. Fancying herself “an intellectual” coming out of high school, she spouts off patriotically to a group of African students regarding the Vietnam War, saying that both the war and the broader American struggle of “Democracy” against “Communism” are “all right.” The African students leap to refute her. After hearing all the historical and political knowledge they bring to bear regarding French and US colonialism, corporate interests, and more, Shakur recalls that “my mind was blown.” Yet,” she adds:

I continued saying the first thing that came into my head: that the u.s. was fighting communists because they wanted to take over everything. When someone asked me what communism was, i opened my mouth to answer, then i realized i didn’t have the faintest idea. My image of a communist came from a cartoon.… The Africans rolled with laughter. I felt like a bona fide clown. (151)

Again, Shakur follows up this account with a more general reflection on her particular embarrassment, one that welcomes readers to apply her general insight to the texts of their own lives: “I never forgot that day,” she writes,

We’re taught at such an early age to be against the communists, yet most of us don’t have the faintest idea of what communism is. Only a fool lets somebody else tell him who his enemy is.… I never thought i could be so easily tricked into being against something that i didn’t understand. It’s got to be one of the most basic principles of living: always decide who your enemies are for yourself, and never let your enemies choose your enemies for you.

“After that,” she adds, “I began to read about what was happening in Vietnam” (152).

assata-shakurObviously, as a wanted “terrorist” who continues to be subject to character assassination (and perhaps to actual assassination attempts) by the US government, Shakur’s warning about believing in “bogeymen,” and especially in “bogeymen” constructed by one’s enemies, resonates not only in relation to the issue of communism — though students were still sparked by this aspect — but also in relationship to her particular case, and, by extension, to the entire contemporary US discourse around “terrorism.” She implicitly asks readers to reflect critically on the extent to which the US government continues to do our thinking for us, deciding who is an “enemy” and who is not. She prompts readers to admit how they too, like the young Joanne, may at times have found themselves mouthing official ideologies that they don’t even understand — and how these very moments of cynical, quasi-robotic conformity may, if brought to consciousness, mark out fault-lines of potentially radical self-shattering. Being able to admit such embarrassing, complicit moments is key to Assata’s process of transformation, and to the effective radical pedagogy of her text. She models the humility and the courage of self-critical practice.

At a typographical level, Assata’s revolutionary humility is symbolized by her refusing the convention of capitalizing the first person singular, “i” throughout her book.[3] In this way, Shakur sets off her narrative from more self-congratulatory accounts by self-proclaimed political “leaders,” including various “cults of personality” that afflicted so much of the New Left, and even the BPP itself. With this move, she refuses the mantle of individual heroism, suggesting that her “self” is but a moment in an evolving and collective process of constant, self-reflexive struggle and transformation. The “self” she has become was not something she was born into, or something that she herself determined through sheer will or wisdom, but a product of collective struggle.[4] In bringing out the necessarily contradictory nature, and the transformative potential of both her own subjectivity and that of others — and of their mutual dependence — Assata provides us with an account of becoming revolutionary that is as relatable as it is radical, as humble as it is hopeful. It is, I believe, an exemplary mode of revolutionary self-representation for dark, cynical times like ours.

Assata’s Political Lessons

What makes Assata an outright revolutionary text, and not just a radical one, is that Shakur does not confine critical thinking to her own private or personal experiences, but applies it also to her self-consciously political, collective, outward-oriented activities, as an organizer in the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, a member of the Black Panther Party, and a cadre in the Black Liberation Army. Her story of “personal” transformation is one that includes extended discussion of revolutionary theory and practice, strategy and tactics. Her rhetorical and pedagogical strategies, as detailed above, are of interest in themselves, for the humble-hopeful method they enact, but also because they function as effective means for stimulating broad and sustained engagement with radical and revolutionary “contents.”

A full discussion of the strictly political content of Assata’s autobiography falls beyond the scope of this essay. But her key insights include the following:

*We must be clear about what we mean by “revolution.” For Shakur this means “the revolutionary struggle of Black people had to be against racism, capitalism, imperialism and sexism and for real freedom under a socialist government” (197).

*We must define the enemy in a sharp yet open way. “One of the most important things the [Black Panther] Party did was to make it clear who the enemy was, not the white people, but the capitalist and imperialistic oppressors. They took the Black liberation movement out of a nationalist context and put it in an international context” (203).

*Colonialism is not just about race, but about class. Blacks can become oppressors and exploiters just as whites have (191).

*Being for racial equality or black liberation in the USA requires being anti-capitalist, for as long as there is a class hierarchy race will be used to justify and reproduce the exploitation at the bottom of it.

* Those who speak of “climbing the ladder of success” are accepting class inequality, a system with a “top” and a “bottom,” where some stand over others. Such “ladder” schemes are to be rejected (190).

*Multi-racial unity among and across oppressed and exploited groups is necessary for a revolutionary alliance that can win, but must be built upon the basis of independent strength within the Black revolutionary movement itself (and in the other oppressed groups as well), not by ceding leadership to others outside that community (192).

*Black (or any) nationalism that is not fundamentally internationalist is reactionary.

*There can be no revolutionary theory divorced from practice (180).

*Listening is primary, often more important than speaking. Many of the best “teachers” are to be found on the street, in prison, and in other unexpected places.

*Revolutionaries need to build and maintain close ties to the masses of people; the isolation of revolutionaries from the people is a great danger, and is one of the enemy’s primary goals (181).

*Revolutionaries cannot depend on dominant institutions (such as the existing educational structures) to do our work for us; new and independent institutions must be constructed, even as struggle is carried on within and around the existing ones.

*The movement for community control over schools and local resources quickly and necessarily raises the question of who controls economic and military power; serious mobilization for reform soon brings up the question of state power and of revolution, and of the need for something like a People’s Liberation Army (182-83).

*Such a People’s Liberation Army needs to be thought of as primarily political, secondarily military. “No people’s war can be won without the support of the masses of people. Armed struggle can never be successful by itself; it must be part of an overall strategy for winning, and the strategy must be political as well as military” (242).

*It is not enough to want to “rebel,” one must want to actually “win.” And to win, one must study so as to develop ascientific approach to making revolution possible. (242).

*Humility and Respect for the People is key, and must be a matter of daily practice; Leftist “revolutionary” arrogance is a major obstacle (218). “I hate arrogance whether it’s white or purple or Black,” Shakur writes, reflecting on a rude and foolish Panther cadre she encounters, “Some people let power go to their heads. They think that just because they have some kind of title in front of their name you’re supposed to bend over and kiss them on the ass.” As she elaborates: “The only great people I have met have been modest and humble. You can’t claim that you love people when you don’t respect them, and you can’t call for political unity unless you practice it in your relationships. And that doesn’t happen out of nowhere. That’s something that has got to be put into practice every day” (218).

*Effective revolutionary education means transforming “students” into teachers and “teachers” into students (189). Teacher-student hierarchies may become another form of oppression; restructuring pedagogical approaches can unlock hitherto untapped potential of what appear to be “bad” or resistant students.

*The process of creative, collective struggle itself can function as “medicine” for the people, as they emerge from the existing society with all their wounds and worries: “The more active I became the more I liked it. It was like medicine, making me well, making me whole” (189).

*Political education should meet people where they are at, through dialogue, and by speaking to questions that are on people’s minds, not through the imposition of dogmatic principles and phraseology, and should teach them their own history, not only the history of radical movements elsewhere. An awareness of history is crucial to breaking people from their old (bad) habits of slavish identification with their oppressors.

*The Black Panthers’ audacity captured the imagination of the masses, and drew many cadre to them, but this bold and provocative approach could turn into ahindrance when working among the people. As Shakur reports, “I preferred the polite and respectful manner in which civil rights workers and Black Muslims talked to the people rather than the arrogant, fuck-you style that used to be popular in New York. I said they cursed too much and turned off a lot of people who would otherwise be responsive to what the Party was saying” (204).

*Despite various problematic tendencies, many people in the BPP were sympathetic and responsive to such sharp internal criticisms; such an ability to absorb and encourage criticism and self-criticism must be a key feature of any healthy revolutionary organization.

*The cult of macho personality and martyrdom needs to be rejected, as does the macho approach that encourages non-strategic and non-viable direct confrontation with the state. As Assata paraphrases Mao’s writings on guerrilla warfare: “Retreat when the enemy is strong and attack when the enemy is weak” (227).

* Both the fear and the actuality of state infiltration, disruption, and repression pose real threats to maintaining the culture of revolutionary creativity, openness, and trust that is necessary to any healthy growing organization (231).

* Revolutionaries must work collectively and in a spirit of love to overcome inevitable and often acute differences and misunderstandings. A sectarian failure to reconnect and regroup on the basis of fundamental unities played a key role in the fragmentation and stagnation of the BPP.

*Criticism and Love are not mutually exclusive categories; criticism of other revolutionaries and of one’s own revolutionary organization should come from a place of seeking a new and better unity, which is not at all to say that such criticism should not be sharp, honest, and direct (232).

Assata Shakur

Assata’s political lessons take the form of criticism (and self-criticism) of tendencies within the radical movement in which she herself participated. She offers a number of criticisms of the BPP, its leadership, culture, and methods of work, while making clear her love for the organization, foregrounding her gratefulness for the way it “really opened my horizons a helluva lot,” and reminding readers of the important barriers to Party work created by COINTELPRO disruption and repression (221). But while recognizing the impact of massive state repression, Assata also reflects on practices that were within the BPP’s power to control. For instance, she asserts that the group — and the radical movement generally — tended to under-emphasize, in both theory and practice, the necessity of serious and mass political education. Further, she argues that even when it did happen, much of the educational work of the Black Panthers and other revolutionary groups was too dogmatic and too focused on conditions, texts, and experiences from elsewhere (such as in revolutionary Russia or China). As she puts it, “They were reading the Red Book, but didn’t know who Harriet Tubman, Marcus Garvey, or Nat Turner were. They talked about intercommunalism but still really believed that the Civil War had been fought to free the slaves. A whole lot of them knew barely any kind of history, Black, African or otherwise” (221). She also laments that political education tended not to focus enough on spreading the tools of organizing beyond the main cadre. While giving a moving account of her participation in Panther breakfast programs and freedom schools, Shakur still laments how the BPP became isolated from the people, not only because of the vicious state attacks it faced, but because it failed to forge new roots with masses beyond the ranks of radical and progressive allies.

She criticizes the arrogance, egotism, and machismo of particular radical leaders, black and white alike, even as she offers a persuasive argument that interracial alignments are essential to any united front strategy. Pointedly, she laments the ways in which sectarianism and dogmatism afflict the movement, as different wings and regions of the BPP itself are not able to resolve their differences internally, and the revolutionary movement fails to maintain unity amidst the strife exacerbated by state repression.

More generally, Shakur criticizes herself and others for having acted primarily as “romantic” and “emotional,” rather than “scientific” revolutionaries, overestimating the revolutionary force of spontaneous mass anger and rebellion. As she writes of her political attitudes in Cuba: “I was no longer the wide-eyed, romantic young revolutionary who believed the revolution was just around the corner…. I had long ago become convinced that revolution was a science. Generalities were no longer enough for me.” She elaborates: “I believed that a higher level of political sophistication was necessary and that unity in the Black community had to become a priority. We could never afford to forget the lessons we had learned from COINTELPRO…. I couldn’t see how we could seriously struggle without having a strong sense of collectivity, without being responsible for each other and to each other” (266-67).

At the same time, Shakur does not disown the idealistic thrust of her own narrative. She gives us a vivid account of both the revolutionary optimism and the rage of the late 60s, particularly in a long italicized section describing her immediate reaction to the news of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968. “I don’t want to rebel, I want to win” she writes (195). Reflecting on the brutal police suppression of the urban uprisings that follow, she adds, “I am tired of watching us lose. They kill our leaders, then they kill us for protesting. Protest. Protest. Revolution. If it exists, I want to find it. Bulletins. More bulletins. I’m tired of bulletins. I want bullets” (196). She embraces this revolutionary passion and anger even as she reflects on the need to give it more disciplined and strategic form.

In the end, although Shakur writes the closing lines of her autobiography from the hopeful shores of socialist Cuba, citing the ten million revolutionary people who have “stood up” there as proof that “The cowboys and bandits didn’t own the world” (274), Assata offers no facile optimism, and no easy formulas. Despite her expressed faith in the tradition of struggle, she continues to pose the question of revolution precisely as a question, not as a set doctrine, nor a dogmatic catechism. She certainly offers lessons and warnings for radical-minded readers today — but principally she invites us to think and to discuss for ourselves how to answer this question theoretically and practically (with both passion and a scientific critical consciousness) for our own time. Her book sets the table for a conversation that is very much needed, and does so in such a way as to welcome new participants to that table.


  1. Remarkably, at one point, Shakur goes so far as to offer humanizing reflections on how the African American youth who attempt to gang rape her have come to the point of “hating her” so much. Ready to fight these would-be rapists to the death — she is able to drive them off — Assata still concerns herself afterwards with thinking about their dastardly actions not just in moral terms, but in terms of the social and historical forces that are at work through such wretched, violent, sexist ambitions. This astonishing act of understanding reminds me of Marx’s favorite proverb: “Nothing human is alien to me.”
  2. The allegory of the “Emperor’s New Clothes” is useful here. What shatters the naked, deluded Emperor’s hegemony over his subjects is not the imparting of any particular new knowledge to the populace, but ratherthe shifting status of already existing knowledge, prompted by the naïve actions of a child, who says aloud and publicly what everyone else is only thinking silently and privately: “The Emperor has no clothes!” It is in a sense not just the Emperor who is exposed in this moment, but the cynical, cowardly people themselves, who now, stripped of cover by the spontaneous blurting of a child, can (must!) see one another for what they really are. Once this occurs, turning against an Emperor is all but inevitable. See my discussion in “Revolutionary Underground: Critical Reflections on the Prospect for Renewing Occupation,” Socialism and Democracy, vol. 26 No. 3, November 2012; also my discussion of Occupy, written as this event unfolded, in the introduction toCultural Logic’s special issue, Culture and
  3. She also refuses to capitalize the names of her enemies, and enemy institutions, from the u.s.a. to the names of various judges, police, US presidents, and district attorneys she discusses. The refusal to capitalize in these cases, while it represents a similar refusal of Authority, has a more provocative and antagonistic quality. Shakur does capitalize the names of her friends and allies (and allied organizations).
  4. Indeed, Assata’s adopted Yoruban name means literally “Woman in Struggle” or “She who struggles.”

India: The Right to the City

Dr. Parthosarathy Ray gives a lecture entitled, "India: An Urban Battleground," on urban struggles and the right to the city in India.

Bennett D Carpenter: One review of The Tailor of Ulm

  In his extremely critical review of Jodi Dean's The Communist Horizon, Jeffrey Isaac opens with a gesture towards The Tailor of Ulm, Lucio Magri's memoir-cum-history of the Italian Communist Party. In contrast to Dean's "dismissive and disparaging polemic," Isaac praises Magri's "profound reckoning with historical experience" as a "model of honest recollection and reflection." In effect, he seems to be playing a Left-liberal version of good cop/bad cop: "good" communists are mournful and apologetic, "bad" communists polemical and unrepentant. This dichotomy is born out in his tone: his fretful-sounding Magri "worries" and "bemoans"; meanwhile Dean "challenges," "endorses" and "insists." Readers, like myself, more sympathetic to Dean's unabashed communism might conclude that Magri's book is just one more in a line of public recantations from remorseful ex-communists, with little or nothing to offer to the contemporary Left.

This would be unfortunate, because The Tailor of Ulm is one of the most engaging, insightful and unrepentant histories of communism that I have ever read.

As others have noted, the English translation of Magri's subtitle is misleading: it is not, as Verso would have it, the story of "Communism in the Twentieth Century." The original Italian (Una possibile storia del PCI) does better, for this is indeed a "possible history" of the Italian Communist Party, from its inception to its precipitous demise. In fairness to Verso, Magri does provide a succinct (and, in my opinion, excellent) evaluation of the global communist movement, and a reader unfamiliar with the shifting policies of the Kremlin, the details of the Sino-Soviet split, or the configuration of Tito's Yugoslavia could learn a great deal from these pages. But Magri's main focus is on the triumphs and the trials of the PCI.

The Italian Communist Party has been burdened with an unfortunate reputation—viewed by many liberals as irredeemably "Stalinist," by Stalinists as irredeemably "reformist," and by the autonomists as both.1 Indeed, it is to the last that we owe our stock stereotype of the PCI as hopelessly outdated and simultaneously opportunistic—a vision which, admittedly, bears some resemblance to the PCI's policy of "historic compromise" in the 1970s, although one might retort that a party is never static and though one wishes the autonomists could match their ruthless critique of actually-existing communism with an even roughly comparable degree of self-criticism. (The "historic compromise" was, it seems to me, based on an overly pessimistic reading of the situation; autonomist "politics"—such as these were—on an overly optimistic one.) While it seems unwise to leave history to the victors, a dearth of English-language materials has thus far left the story of the PCI in the hands of Negri and friends;2 Magri's memoir thus serves as a welcome corrective.

And it is a bracing one: at once nuanced and wide-ranging, avowedly partisan yet admirably judicious, unsparing in both criticism and praise, mournful yet optimistic. This last might seem a strange assertion, considering the undeniable demise (or self-implosion) of the PCI, but Magri is careful to evaluate every historical misstep with an eye to paths not taken—suggesting how, with the slightest of twists, defeat might have been transformed into resounding victory. Not only do we have no comparable taking-stock among historians of the Anglophone Left, we have no one who so clearly indicates the "possible" paths forward.

The history of the PCI was not, however, merely one of regrettable errors; from their mass base at the end of the Second World War they wrought a lasting coalition of some two million members, receiving their highest proportion of the vote in 1976 (34%) and their second-highest in 1984—at a point when most other communist parties were in disarray, if not active retreat. Along the way they managed to draft Europe's most progressive constitution, carve out an enduring place in Italian politics, and (at first hesitantly, then more confidently after the invasion of Prague) to distance themself from the abuses of the Soviet Union while remaining firmly committed to the achievement of communism.

Magri takes us through each stage in this complicated saga, offering not just a summary of events but also a critical analysis and, at times, a first-hand perspective. (Magri joined the Party in the early '50s, was expelled in '69, and rejoined in 1984.) Occasionally he breaks with historical sequence to assert his own contemporaneity, at times quite viscerally: "I confess that at this point, a profound doubt paralyzed my work on the book for weeks and months." Far from disrupting the narrative, such passages convey the tremendous difficulty of coming to grips with the past in its dialectical relation to the present. I was reminded of Walter Benjamin's insistence that sequence becomes history only posthumously, and that "the historian who proceeds from this consideration ceases to tell the sequence of events like beads on a rosary. He grasps the constellation into which his own era has entered, along with a very specific earlier one."

How does that earlier era measure up from the vantage of the present? In this complex balance sheet, Togliatti (who led the party from 1927 to his death in 1964) comes off reasonably well. With both courage and flexibility—and partly thanks to the legacy of Gramsci's Prison Notebooks—he managed to transform a small vanguard into a genuine "people's party," to steer it through the Stalin era and the shock of de-Stalinization, and in his last years to foresee (but alas, not to prevent) the devastating consequences of the Sino-Soviet split as well as the vital importance of the new youth movements.

Unsurprisingly, Luigi Longo (party secretary from 1964 to 1972) comes in for greater criticism, and the Berlinguer of the 1970s for much stronger critique. What is surprising is that Magri identifies a "second Berlinguer" of the 1980s, one who took a quite radical turn towards class struggle and the wholesale critique of the existing political system. Unfortunately, Berlinguer's death in 1984 led to a period of internal division from which the Right of the PCI emerged triumphant, only to seal their Pyric victory by dissolving the PCI into a new "Democratic Party of the Left"—which, through several name changes and while hemorrhaging members, ultimately merged into an anodyne "Democratic Party" stripped of all vestiges of its communist heritage.

The death or suicide of the Italian Communist Party was by no means pre-ordained; in 1991 it still counted 1.5 million active members and some 28% of the vote, and had sufficiently distanced itself from the Soviet Union to survive the latter's collapse. Only one year later, Italy was engulfed in corruption scandals (posthumously confirming Berlinguer's critique) which destroyed the entirety of the existing political spectrum. The PCI, virtually the only major party to have avoided implication in the scandal, would have stood a good chance of emerging as the victor from these ruins, had not the leadership just concluded, with tremendous historical irony, that the conditions for the existence of a communist party were no longer fortuitous.

This conclusion had been bitterly contested by a substantial minority of the leadership, primarily organized around Ingrao. The so-called "No Front" commissioned Magri to draft a platform defending the continued relevance and vitality of the communist tradition, and to address the challenges and promises facing the party in the post-Cold War period. After the No Front went down to defeat, Magri put this document away in a drawer, only to exhume it as the final, unaltered chapter of his "possible" history. "It must have been a good drawer," he writes, "because twenty years later, to my eyes at least, it doesn't seem to have aged so much."

This is an understatement. Magri's platform, addressing everything from the ecological crisis to the women's and social movements to the transition to post-Fordism, presents a compelling case not just for the relevance but the indispensability of a renewed Communist Party. With incredible prescience, he predicts the increase of unwaged and precarious labor, the irreversible decline of the first-world industrial sector, the rise of financialization, and the corresponding reduction in the role of the nation-state (which remains vital, but in a largely reflexive, managerial capacity—what Margi calls the "impotent sovereign"). Perhaps his most poignant contribution is to note that such developments, far from revealing the redundancy of "traditional" Marxism, in fact confirm Marx's essential hypothesis: that "the exploitation of living labor will become a paltry basis for the general development of wealth," which "should mean that the discourse of communism, in its original, emancipatory meaning, has come of age for the first time in history."

Magri is not naïve about the obstacles, nor about the need to fundamentally rethink the role and nature of the party in the post-industrial era. In a manner which prefigures Dean's conception of "the people," Magri calls for the party as "the stimulus and synthesis of a whole system of autonomous political movements, through which a multiplicity of social subjects together weld a new historic block." Unlike Dean, he believes such a synthesis must mobilize beneath the banner of democracy, not despite but because of the self-evident vacuity of bourgeois democratic forms; with Lenin he insists that genuine democracy is achievable only through socialism, but adds that socialism is inconceivable without democracy. His conception of an innovative party which compensates for capitalism's "democratic deficit" with the construction of a collective political subject should be read alongside Dean's proposal, not (pace Isaac) as its antithesis, but as its comradely counterpoint.

And who is the Tailor of Ulm? Magri refers to the poem of Brecht in which an enterprising tailor constructs a flying machine and summons the bishop of Ulm to watch him take flight—only to plummet precipitously back to earth. And yet, Magri concludes, hundreds of years later humans did learn how to fly; how many tries will it take before communism, too, lifts off the ground?

Forget the twentieth century, anyone interested in the "possible history" of communism in the twenty-first century should—no, must—pick up this book.

1 On page 9 of his Precarious Rhapsody, Franco ("Bifo") Berardi writes: "The heirs of Leninism[...] are no longer capable of interpreting the signs that come from the new social reality, and oscillate between a 'reformist' position of subordination to liberal hyper-capitalism and a 'resistant' position that re-proposes old ideologies." In his subsequent analysis of the Italian "long '68" this oscillation collapses into a single (contradictory) condemnation: the PCI is simultaneously faulted for being too reformist and too Stalinist. Thus he speaks of "the political agenda of the Stalinist-reformist party" (p. 22) and "this special blend of reformist Stalinism that the PCI embodied" (p. 23).


2 One (slightly dated) exception is Donald Sassoon's Strategy of the Italian Communist Party (New York: St Martin's, 1981), now unfortunately out of print.



The Heavy Radicals: A history of the early RCP

This new book may be of interest to our readers. Posting here is not an endorsement of its analysis.


From the website of Aaron Leonard:

The Heavy Radicals: The Revolutionary Union/Revolutionary Communist Party 1968-1980
Book to be published in early 2014

[The RU's] Bill Biggin and the Free Press are even more dangerous than the Panthers
Philadelphia Police Commissioner, Frank Rizzo, 1970.

The Revolutionary Union / Revolutionary Communist Party was the largest Maoist organization to arise in the United States in the tumultuous period of the late 1960s early 1970s. This is acknowledged not only by other Left political trends, but also by the Federal Government, which had it as subject of no less than four Congressional Hearings in its key years. Oddly though it largely stands outside established histories of the period; it is not taught in the academy, appears hardly at all in academic papers, and is passed over in the more popular books of SDS and sixties radicalism.

Avakian-Free Huey

The reasons for this are manifold. The organization is victim of its own discipline that had little interest in promoting its history beyond whatever campaign or controversy it was involved in at the moment. Further those leaving the organization were circumspect in talking about their time there — either out of standing respect for the group’s discipline, a desire to move on with their lives, or the belief that a return to "the mainstream" necessarily involved disassociating themselves from their sixties revolutionary past, or some combination of each. 

There was also a penchant for the established media and other institutions to promote more sensational trends. Groups such as the Weathermen — while more marginal, were ideologically more amenable as emblematic of the ‘madness’ of extremes or despair of fighting for lost causes. It is also the case that the dominant culture in the United States has no interest promoting the concept of domestic revolutionaries embracing Maoism and undertaking the long term work of preparing for insurrection in a highly developed capitalist country.

Yet the fact remains that a significant Maoist formation did come about. In contrast to many who became radicalized quickly and nearly as quickly were in decline by the early 1970s, the RU/ RCP was ascendant in the same period. Indeed it attempted, not entirely unsuccessfully, to penetrate layers of the mainstream of U.S. society, including sections of the working class, and imbue it with a new radicalism. This stands as a counter-narrative to the dominant one of the sixties; that of activists rushing pell-mell back to accommodation with that mainstream as soon as the Vietnam war was over.

Philadelphia 1976

The death of Mao Zedong in 1976 and the corresponding turn in China from a socialist to a market economy would bring all that to an end. From 1977 on the group would undergo first a major political schism, then a period of prolonged - but never final - disintegration. The reasons being not just the tectonic shifts in the global terrain, but the too often blind adherence to questionable (and worse) principles and methods the communist movement had brought forward historically.

Regardless, for a time this group cohered some of the most radical elements of the day. Indeed, to attempt to understand the upsurge of that period without understanding the role of the RU/RCP is to miss something important. For all its faults the RU / RCP was the most influential component of the New Communist Movement. Further, contained in the RU/RCP's story are hard garnered lessons and crucial experience essential to those who today dare to envision a radically better world. Whether one is curious, sympathetic, or detractor; this book will serve as a primer and surprising window into a heretofore overlooked critical player in a wild and insurrectionary time.

The Maoist Revolution in Tibet

Tibet is one place where “common knowledge” clashes sharply with reality.

Pre-revolutionary Tibetan society is wildly romanticized, so that many people have very little sense of the brutality and horrific backwardness enforced by a theocracy of monks. Based on such a myth, the arrival of revolutionary forces can be portrayed as a foreign invasion. And, thanks to the propaganda of exiled monks, the following decades of socialism are portrayed as a genocide.

The facts are very different as you will see in the following pages.

Map of Tibet

This book has gone through a number of printings in several countries, since it was originally published as a 1998 series in the Revolutionary Worker newspaper. Since then new scholarship and thinking sheds light on these historical events. However I believe that the analysis and descriptions here still stand up well.

I welcome comments and critiques.

1: When the Dalai Lamas Ruled: Hell on Earth

Discusses how old Tibetan society was an extremely oppressive place: the vast majority of people were enslaved, brutalized and exploited by a tiny ruling class of aristocrats and top lamas (Buddhist priests).

2: Storming Heaven and 3: Red Guards & People’s Communes

How Maoists organized the oppressed class of Tibet to liberate themselves — seizing the land from old exploiters, abolishing centuries-old feudal privileges, challenging the stranglehold of superstition, and developing collective new forms of ownership and power.

4: Oppression Returns — After the Coup in China

In 1976, an anti-Maoist coup within the Communist Party brought profound changes to China, and to Tibet. This restoration of capitalism reversed Mao’s policies in every area: As a result, rich and poor have re-emerged in Tibet’s countryside, “Han chauvinist” policies threaten the culture and rights of minority peoples like the Tibetans, and the state’s military power is directed against the people themselves.

5: Life Under the Dalai Lama in Exile

On the class nature of the Dalai Lama’s forces in exile–describing how the exiled Tibetan ruling class helped create a contra army backed by the CIA and how they organized an oppressive class society in the camps of Tibean exiles.

6: The Earthly Dreams of the Dalai Lama

A beginning analysis of the current politics of the Dalai Lama’s class nature — his proposals for autonomy within a capitalist China, and why they have nothing to do with the liberation of Tibet’s people.

Available online at
Send comments: kasamasite (at) yahoo (dot) com
Published: December 2007
Feel free to reprint, distribute or quote this with attribution.
This website and all its contents are licensed under
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.

Untold Stories of Quecreek’s Flood


CCoal miners after workoal Miners, Water and Heartless Capitalism

“Those are my brothers down there.”

Miner at the Quecreek rescue operations

“The scary part was watching the water rise and knowing that you don’t have a way out.”

Coalminer Dennis Hall after rescue

August 11, 2002 — Eight miners and a foreman went to work June 24. They left the afternoon daylight and entered the portal of Quecreek mine–traveling together through the darkness a mile-and-a-half horizontally, underground, to the working face of “1st Left Section.” And they divided up to their various jobs–grinding up the coal, securing the rock ceiling of the tunnels, and running the coal transport buggies to the conveyor belt.

Quecreek mine is only a year old. It is a small operation in southwestern Pennsylvania, employing 65 workers. The miners are still “driving” the basic tunnels forward, putting the belts and airways in place, so that the coal on this property can be systematically and completely removed over a decade. There is no union at Quecreek.

As the world now knows, these nine men were pushing forward to the boundary line–to the edge of the coal leased by Black Wolf Coal Company. They were heading straight for the old works of the Saxman Mine that had been dug and then abandoned in the 1950s.

The coal seam dips and climbs underground, and the miners were working at an uphill grade as they dug forward toward Saxman’s lease line. On the other side of a disappearing buffer of coal were 50 million gallons of water, accumulated over 50 years as the creek water above filled old tunnels and workings.

Mark Popernack was running the “continuous miner”–20 tons of thick steel plate, electrical motors and revolving drums of rippers–digging huge bites from the coal face. And at 9 p.m., a flood of raging water burst through, as his machine cut into the wall in front of him.

“It was an instant flood–two seconds, one second, an instant flood,” he later said.

Everything disappeared. The roar of the flood drowned out all other sound. His helper was simply washed down the tunnel and grouped up with the rest of the crew. Mark was cut off.

Stunned, terrified, the men went into action. Dennis Hall grabbed the phone to warn the mine’s second crew, who were working halfway to the mine portal, in the lowest part of the mine. The call saved their lives, as the wall of soot-black water rushed downhill toward them at 60 miles an hour.

Anyone who has worked underground knows this moment–far too many have experienced the flash of explosion, or flood, or massive roof-fall and all of us have had nightmares about being trapped miles from the sun, with air and escape cut off by rock, or water or fire.

Mark seemed unreachable. “They couldn’t hear me over the water,” he said. “I shook my head, shook my lamp–no, I couldn’t make it.” The rest of the crew headed out, going with the flow, racing to make it through the lowest point of entry tunnel before the water there reached the ceiling. They hung close together, feeling their way in the darkness for almost an hour, hunched over in the four-foot-high passageway, with the water rising rapidly on their bodies, first waist deep, then neck deep, with their heads pressed against the roof and their helmet lights dancing across the surly underground river.

Exhausted, choked by water, weighted down by heavy clothes and boots, they could suddenly see ahead, the passageway was simply full to the roof. The exit was flooded. They had to go back, uphill, against that torrent, to the workface they had just left.

“1st Left Section” itself was the highest point underground, and there they decided to barricade themselves in. “We tried to outrun it, but it was too fast,” Blaine Mayhugh later said.

They risked their lives to bridge the flood and rescue Popernack. The crew was together, pooling their thoughts and their fading strength, sharing water, soda and a single sandwich. The miners decided that from then on, they were “either going to live or die as a group.”

Together, they worked to build cinderblock and canvas walls. As the mine filled, the cold water broke through the barricades and rose within their small 3×12 chamber. The air grew stifling as the oxygen started to deplete. Soaked, using only one or two lamps at a time, they wrote notes to their loved ones, and tied themselves together, so that their bodies would not drift apart in death.

With remarkable skill, rescuers outside dropped a six-inch hole, through 250 feet of rock, finding the tiny pocket where the miners were trapped. That hole brought life–fresh, heated air that kept the trapped men from smothering. They huddled together to keep warm, waiting in utter darkness to conserve their remaining lamp batteries, listening for the drilling noises of rescue.

When the word spreads that coal miners are trapped underground, that the ambulances have pulled up, that families have gathered to wait–the hearts of people everywhere go out to them in concern and support. Working people have a sense of what it means to go deep into the earth, to work bent over following the seams of rock and coal. People respect the deep solidarity that miners forge in their difficult struggles, and workers everywhere admire the militancy that miners bring with them into the struggles of our class.

For three days, millions of people watched as rescuers on the surface drilled toward the trapped men. Early on July 28, 77 hours after the mine flooded, a three-foot-wide rescue hole was finally completed and all nine miners were lifted to the surface.

For Official America and its corporate media, these events were played as a Phase 2 of the World Trade Center recovery–with the difference that this timethey found someone alive. The media mood-makers, eager for an “upbeat story,” transformed the events of Quecreek into a triumphant patriotic parable about “God, Family and Technology.”

But in the process, much of the truth here went untold. The underground disaster of Quecreek was man-made–inseparable from the heartless decisions of capital and from the last decades of corporate rampage.

There are questions that demand to be answered: Why, after all, did this happen? Is there no way for workers to protect themselves from such floods? And why exactly are there hundreds of empty mines filled with underground water honeycombing the eastern coalfields?

Water, Mining and Capitalism

Once, years ago, when I was 20 and brand new to the mines, I was sitting wide- eyed in the section dinner hole when one brother decided to confront Steve K., a hateful, old-school, slavedriver of a foreman.

“Steve,” he said, “I swear, you would risk our lives for one more car of coal.” K. looked over, with his cold fish-eyed stare, and slowly said, “Not for one car, but I will for two.”

If you dig tunnels underground, below creeks and rivers, they will fill with water. That’s a fact of life. Modern mining (and modern industry generally) was impossible before the 1770s, when the first steam-driven engine was created to pump water from the deep seams of Britain’s coalfields.

But there is nothing natural or necessary about the existence of dangerous abandoned works. If mining were carried out systematically, in a planned way, there would be no unclaimed coal or abandoned tunnels left at the end. As the coal seam is removed one bite at a time, as the mountain “sets down,” the rock seams come together.

While the mine is being worked, pumps keep the work areas dry. But if the mine is closed prematurely, the pumps are withdrawn. Below the water table, water builds in the tunnels. Above the water table, the old works often fill with explosive methane or suffocating, oxygen-depleted air.

There are abandoned mines everywhere because, over and over, capitalists have opened and closed mines, large and small, in keeping with the whims of their profit.

After World War 2, the U.S. imperialists came in control of the Persian Gulf and oil was cheap. Domestic transportation was shifted from coal-fired trains to diesel-fueled trucks, and hundreds of mines closed. Two-thirds of the coal miners were driven into unemployment and into northern cities. Those who remained were pressed, endlessly, to boost production, take risks, and mine coal more and more cheaply so their employers could compete with oil.

It was during that historic downturn that the Saxman mine was closed–sealed and left to fill with water.

In recent years, another new twist of capitalism has left hundreds more tunnels abandoned: in the 1980s, the ruling class opened vast surface mines, stripping the coal, and systematically weakened the power of the organized miners.

Suddenly it became possible to open non-union deep mines–even in coalfields that had been strongholds of working class struggle. A large corporation could close their unionized mine, and lease the same coal to a non-union coal company–small operations where the workers would not have inspections by elected union safety committees, where the miners could be pressured to work overtime or take that extra risk. Of course that switch, from large unionized mines to small non-union “dog holes,” requires closing down the old works and opening new tunnels into the same seam.

Today, under this assault, the miners union has shrunk to half its size a generation ago–100,000 members, with only 26,000 actually working as coal miners. The rest are laid off, retired or disabled. Only a third of working miners are now unionized–the lowest percentage in almost a century.

Southwestern Pennsylvania, where Quecreek is, was once a union stronghold. Twenty years ago, it was unthinkable that there would be non-union mines there. Now fewer than 2,000 workers there are organized, out of the 9,000 employed miners. Non-union operations like Quecreek are moving through the same seam once worked by abandoned unionized operations like Saxman.

Black Wolf’s Calculation

Black Wolf Coal’s operation at Quecreek is kept strictly non-union. And the control of that production is a typical corporate shell game–Black Wolf contracts for the stripmine company PBS Coals Inc., which in turn produces coal for who-knows-which-huge-energy-corporation.

State officials have been saying this flood was probably caused by “inaccurate maps”– blaming everything on 50-year-old errors made by long-dead mine foremen.

This covers up for the capitalist crimes: The reason such old maps are inaccurate is that mine capitalists traditionally slashed and grabbed for extra coal underground. At the boundary lines, they would order the crews to keep digging, to gouge out a little extra coal leaving tunnels that went unrecorded.

Regardless of what those old maps showed–the simple fact is that the current management of Quecreek knew there was massive water ahead of “1st Left Section.”

People ask: Isn’t there some way to prevent such a flood?

Of course there is. The media chatters about needing new underground sonar, blah, blah, blah. But the real-world solution is low-tech and well known.

In the years I worked underground, we often cut toward and even into old works. To prevent a flood, you stay hundreds of feet away from the boundary lines. When approaching a flooded mine, you stop production every hour, and you drill ahead horizontally with a thin augur, usually 20 or 30 feet, to make sure there isn’t a hidden tunnel just ahead. When that augur hits water, pipes can be put in to pump it out, before mining resumes.

This is simple, and it is considered routine. But augur drilling stops production for 10 or 15 minutes and cuts that flow of profitable coal about 25 percent a day.

It has come out that Black Wolf had a special permit that allowed them to get as close as 95 feet to the abandoned Saxman works. Meanwhile, in Quecreek’s “1st Left Section,” the miners apparently were not allowed to drill test holes in front of themselves. Instead the miners were ordered to push ahead, uphill, into 50 million gallons of water, backed up 45 feet deep.

It was a cold, calculated management gamble, that almost cost the lives of two workcrews.

All kinds of official investigations will now unfold at Quecreek, as the company owners press to return their operation to production. Some facts may come out, others may be carefully covered up (as usually happens in these cases).

But the untold story here is that capitalism riddles the coal seams with half-worked tunnels and abandoned mines, and then sends new generations back into danger when profitability returns. It is irrational, wasteful, and potentially deadly.

Leaving No Man Behind?

The media played the Quecreek rescue like a remake of Black Hawk Down – as if coal operators and workers are “all in this together,” and as if the whole country now operates according to Hollywood war slogans like “Leave no man behind.”

Listening to that crap, I have to say, it left my stomach in knots.

The coalfields of the U.S. are full of people “left behind”–although this, too, is an untold story, made invisible by the media blindspots.

In southern West Virginia, where I worked, the rich seams of high-quality coking coal were simply shut down in the 1980s as the layoffs hit the steel industry. The workers there had started to dream that maybe life for them might turn out less hard than for their parents. And then, suddenly, without warning, it all shut down.

MacDowell County, for example, was a deserted shell by the mid-1980s, with 90 percent unemployment. Huge mine portals that once employed many hundreds were closed and covered over as meadows. The surrounding coal camps became ghost towns.

The energy and steel corporations were merciless. People were simply abandoned, discarded. They had to leave, or scrape a living any way they could.

Then, when they chose, these same coal companies sometimes opened and closed and reopened dozens of small operations at each location, with isolated crews, gouging around underground in the seams. Or else they switched to stripping the tops off the mountains with earthmovers, recklessly filling the hollers with refuse.

Similar stories are repeated across the coalfields from Alabama to Illinois to southwestern Pennsylvania.

Several major struggles to defend the union ended in defeats–at A.T. Massey in 1985, and Pittston in 1989-90–as coal operators mobilized both police and private armies of hired gun thugs.

One result of all this can be measured in the casualty figures: While the number of miners is dropping, the number of underground deaths has gone up steadily for three years, from 29 deaths in 1998 to 42 last year. The death rate for miners is seven times that of workers generally in the U.S. Meanwhile coal production per worker-hour doubled from 1986 to 1997, from three tons to six.

Not content with that, Bush appointee David Laurisky, head of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), called for a “change of culture” among federal mine inspectors–to make them more sympathetic to “business concerns.”

In short, while the media praises high-tech “rescue capsules,” the de-unionization and doghole-ization of mining has produced mounting danger.

Meanwhile, the capitalists have left behind the thousands of retired and disabled miners, using a simple financial trick: closing more and more of their union operations. After a quick change of paper ownership, the “new” operators claim it is “un-fair” to expect them to uphold the obligations of “previous” operators. In February 2002, the Supreme Court agreed, 6- 3–saying coal companies should be exempt from paying benefits to miners who retired from operations that were later absorbed in corporate mergers.

The lives of hundreds of thousands of widows, retired miners and disabled workers were casually tossed into turmoil. The average age of a union coal miner today is 50, a whole generation is facing retirement. Meanwhile, the capitalists are coldly tucking the promised pension money into their own pockets.

So: No, we are not “in this together.”


During those long hours when those brothers were trapped below, I slept restlessly, sometimes waking up suddenly in the darkness, thinking of them sealed in by black waters, breathing that stifling air.

This same week, over 110 miners died in a methane explosion at Chengzihe mine in China’s northeast coalfields. In the Ukraine 34 miners barely survived, and many didn’t, when a fire swept their mine half a mile below the surface.

So when those nine men were hoisted into fresh air in Quecreek, my heart rose with them. Far too many have died over the years. It is wonderful to see them escape.

But the celebratory hugs of state officials and coal company owners were impossible to watch.

The dangers and sufferings of this dangerous industry are caused by a heartless system. And those dangers and suffering can be ended only when that system is overthrown and replaced.

Restless capital risked those lives in Pennsylvania. And tomorrow, ten million miners on the planet earth will again descend into coal mines–where capitalists will make outrageous new calculations about “acceptable risk” and “acceptable loss.”
Available online at Send comments to: m1keely (at) yahoo (dot) com

Published: December 2007. Feel free to reprint, distribute or quote this with attribution. This website’s contents are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 U.S. License.

Puerto Rico’s Fight for Independence



Part 1 of our series is “Puerto Rico’s Fight for Independence.”

Part 2 is “The State Persecution of Puerto Rico’s Independentistas.”

Part 3 is “American Tortures in the Lexington Women’s Unit 1986-88.”

This work is presented by the Kasama project.

The Early Years — 1898-1954

by Mike Ely

July 25, 1898–thousands of U.S. troops invaded Puerto Rico’s southern coast from the sea–landing at the small port of Guánica and then in the larger town of Ponce. A force of 16,000 moved onto the island, commanded by U.S. General Nelson A. Miles. In Puerto Rico, African slaves, Native peoples and Spanish immigrants had already forged a unique people and rich culture during 400 years of Spanish colonial rule. A million people lived on the island, mainly scattered in small villages, fishing and farming to gather the food they needed. These Puerto Rican people had long fought their oppressors.

The Taino Indian people had fought from the beginning–in the face of genocidal policies that drove them into the highlands and left few of them alive. The captive Africans had risen up in repeated uprisings against their enslavement. And, in 1868, the independent Republic of Puerto Rico was first proclaimed in the famous armed uprising against Spain — El Grito de Lares, the Cry of Lares.

The U.S. high command had chosen to land their troops on the island’s southern coast because the people were known for their resistance to the central colonial authorities. When the U.S. troops landed, many Puerto Rican people welcomed them. Everyone knew that the U.S. had also once been a colony. And they believed that its armed forces had come to end Spanish oppression. In towns like Ciales, Adjuntas, Yauco, and Mayaguez, Puerto Rican guerillero bands took up arms against the Spanish. But when a treaty was finally signed on December 10, 1898 in Paris, passing the Spanish colonies of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines to U.S. control, the people of those countries were not consulted or involved. Their local governing bodies were ignored.

When the Spanish flag was lowered at San Juan’s La Fortaleza palace, it was the Yankee Stars and Stripes that took its place. There was some armed resistance to the new U.S. domination. It was four years before it was finally silenced. As Maoist revolutionaries say: While the tiger was driven out the front door, the wolf had slipped in the back.

A Prize of War

“Cuba and Puerto Rico are natural appendages of the United States.”

John Quincy Adams, 1823, then Secretary of State to President Monroe

“We have not come to make war upon the people of a country that for centuries has been oppressed, but, on the contrary, to bring you protection, not only to yourselves but to your property, to promote your prosperity, and to bestow upon you the immunities and blessings of the liberal institutions of our government.”

Proclamation by General Nelson A. Miles to the people of Puerto Rico, 1898

“English spoken here”

Sign posted by U.S. troops in Ponce 1898

“An island or a small group of islands acquired for naval purposes does not differ greatly from a war vessel or fleet at anchor. It would be as improper to transfer the administration of such an island or island group from the Navy to another department as to turn over war vessels to any other than the Navy Department.”

Major General Frank McIntyre, head of U.S. War Department’s Bureau of Insular Affairs during World War 1

Puerto RicoThe U.S. ruling class had coveted Puerto Rico from the early days of the North American republic. And despite its claims to oppose colonialism, its troops came as new conquerors. Even before the July 25th invasion, the decision had already been made to take Puerto Rico as “Spanish war indemnity.” Senator Perkins described the island as a U.S. “prize of war.” The new U.S. rulers insisted that the Puerto Rican people needed “protection” and “tutoring.”

In crude racist language, Puerto Ricans were described as a “mongrel people” who needed to be taught “civilization.” Someday (it was implied), the islanders would be “ready” to govern themselves. This was classic colonialist self-justification. In 1900 this colonial rule was formalized. The U.S. Congress passed the Foraker Act–which decreed that Puerto Ricans would be ruled by a governor appointed by the U.S. president. A century has now passed since the U.S. invasion–and Puerto Rico is still not free. And the official life of this island continues to be dominated by the decisions made in this foreign and distant U.S. Congress. In 1917–as World War 1 was raging–the U.S. decided to tighten its legal annexation of Puerto Rico. U.S. citizenship was imposed on the Puerto Rican people by the Jones Act–without their consent and over the unanimous objection of the island’s House of Delegates.

In other countries, like Cuba and Panama, the U.S. was refining a system of neo-colonialrule, where they controlled countries through phony “independent” governments. But in Puerto Rico, they chose to impose colonial rule–a sign that they intended to directly rule the Puerto Rican people forever. This same Jones Act created a new toothless legislature for Puerto Rico. This body asked the U.S. Congress five times to take up the question of Puerto Rico’s status–Washington didn’t even answer the letters.

The real control of the island was handed over to the Navy and the U.S. War Department who ruled it until 1934. The Puerto Rican independence leader Pedro Albizu Campos used to say in the 1930s that these invaders were “interested in the cage, not the bird.” The U.S. strategic planners intended to hold Puerto Rico’s territory and make it a key military base for dominating the surrounding region.

Satisfying the Empire’s Sweet Tooth

“There is today more widespread misery and destitution and far more unemployment in Puerto Rico than at any previous time in its history.”

Harold Ickes, Secretary of the Interior for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1935

U.S. capitalists quickly followed their troops into Puerto Rico, eyeing their new possession for ways to make money. Step by step, U.S. corporations snatched up the best land. The homegrown owning classes of Puerto Rico were bought out and shoved aside. Many working people lost their small farms and growing numbers were forced to work on huge Yankee-owned plantations as wage workers or sharecroppers. They often made as little as $1 a day, and lived with bitter poverty and hunger.

Meanwhile, the U.S. colonialists sent missionaries and enforcers to undermine the language and culture of the people. Puerto Rican teachers were ordered to teach children in English. The economy of the island was twisted to serve U.S. interests in the world market. And the rich land no longer produced the food that people ate. Production went for export, and the people were forced to buy U.S. products for their basic needs. Then in 1929 the Great Depression brought a sharp decline in the sugar economy–and the people were left with almost nothing. The suffering was intense. Oppression gave rise to resistance.

A radical new Puerto Rican independence movement was born. Pedro Albizu Campos rose to the leadership of the island’s Puerto Rican Nationalist Party (PNP) in 1930. Inspired by the anti-British struggle of Ireland, he led his followers onto a daring path of militant and uncompromising resistance.

The Nationalists were a revolutionary movement most firmly rooted among the middle classes of Puerto Rico. It did not have a clear perspective of how to win independence from the Yankees, and did not have a clear sense of the kind of society it would build after independence was won.

But the PNP did make several far-sighted and path-breaking contributions to the politics of the Puerto Rican people. The Nationalist Party promoted the principle of retraimiento–rejection of official politics and colonial elections. They boldly proclaimed that U.S. domination of Puerto Rico was illegal and illegitimate–and refused to recognize the colonial authorities, their courts or laws. They pointedly accused the U.S. of causing the ruin and poverty of Puerto Rico’s people. And they sought international recognition for Puerto Rico’s right to independence. Most daring of all, they taught that Puerto Rican people had a right to wage armed struggle against the U.S. invaders.

Albizu Campos declared he was working to form a revolutionary army to drive out the North Americans. Knowing that they were challenging a ruthless and powerful military power, the movement trained its members in an intense sense of moral righteousness and fearless self-sacrifice. The poet-revolutionary Juan Antonio Corretjer talks of the movement’s “mixture of nationalism, mysticism and revolutionary fervor.”

The Revolt of the Jíbaros

Jibaro homestead early in the twentieth centuryIn 1934 a major turning point arrived. In early January, thousands of jíbaros, the landless peasants of the island, walked out of the sugar cane fields of the Armstrong-owned plantation in Fajard. Their furious wildcat strike spread.

The farmworkers were disgusted with their sellout leadership–and they sought out the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, asking Albizu Campos to lead them. The Nationalists wholeheartedly threw themselves into the strike–and the combined movement shook the island. The colonial rulers were terrified at the specter of a mass revolutionary movement.

Agents of U.S. corporations formed the “Citizens Committee of One Thousand for the Preservation of Peace and Order” who cabled the U.S. President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, to report, “A state of actual anarchy exists. Towns in state of siege, police impotent, businesses paralyzed.” General Blanton Winship was appointed governor to suppress the people. His top aide, the soon-notorious Colonel Francis Riggs, became the island’s police chief. The authorities moved to calm the movement with a series of concessions, while they prepared to break up its most organized forces using brutal means. The island’s police were quickly militarized.

Teams of FBI agents secretly arrived on the island to target the independence movement. Wherever the new independence movement raised its head, these forces responded with harassment and killings. Several attempts were made on Albizu Campos’s life. After repeated police murders of Nationalists, Albizu Campos announced that his movement would respond by targeting representatives of the U.S. imperialists. Machete and jibaroIn October 1935, three Nationalists were killed by police bullets outside the island’s main university. On February 23, 1936, Colonel Frances Riggs–head of this counterrevolutionary campaign–was shot dead. The two young Nationalists who killed him, Elias Beauchamp and Hiram Rosado, were then murdered in the police headquarters shortly after their capture.

On March 5, 1936, the Nationalist leadership was charged with seditious conspiracy–conspiring to overthrow the federal government in Puerto Rico. The first trial (in the English-only federal courts) ended when the seven Puerto Ricans on the jury of 12 refused to convict. In a crude act of railroading, the authorities then handpicked a new jury with 10 Anglo-Americans and condemned Albizu Campos to federal prison in late 1936.

The Ponce Massacre

“Viva la República. Down with the assassins.”

Written on a wall by a dying Puerto Rican fighter, Ponce, 1937

The authorities moved to suppress the remaining movement by force. The Nationalist Party called for a march to commemorate the abolition of slavery on the island. It was planned for Palm Sunday, March 21, 1937, in the southern city of Ponce. The local authorities first granted a permit and then, on orders from General/ Governor Winship, the permits were withdrawn.

Hundreds of police were rushed to Ponce to carry out a planned ambush. On the appointed day, PNP’s youth group defied the ban on the march and lined up in ranks along Marina Street. About 80 young men stood proud, dressed as Cadets in black shirts and white pants. Then came a bold contingent of young women dressed all in white. Following them was a five-piece band playing La Borinqueña, the island’s anthem. The crowd cheered. Suddenly, police lines moved into place, both in front and in back.

The cops were heavily armed–including a special squad of nine men with Thompson submachine guns. The unarmed youth stood their ground bravely, without panic. The police simply opened fire on the march, and kept shooting. Marchers, supporters, bystanders, even small children went down before the police bullets. Then the cops rushed the survivors, shooting some at point blank range, and clubbing others.

Twenty-two were killed and over 100 wounded. Defying the threat of new police attacks, more than 15,000 attended the funerals at Ponce, and more than 5,000 in Mayaguez. The victims of the massacre were tried for conspiracy to commit murder. Permits were denied to future Nationalist marches.

More police killings followed. President Roosevelt refused to recall Winship. On July 25, 1938, Winship organized a military parade though Ponce to celebrate the U.S. invasion of 1898. It was intended as a show of force.

Rejecting the Blood Tax

Under intense attacks, and with much of their leadership in prison, the remaining Nationalists continued to struggle. World War 2 soon broke out, and thousands of Puerto Rican men were ordered into the military. On President Franklin Roosevelt’s orders, steps were taken to create the world’s largest naval base on the eastern side of the island.

The Nationalists denounced the military draft as a colonial “blood tax” on their people. They organized the island’s youth to resist the draft. This consistent anti-imperialism was considered shocking–even by many leftists of the time–and the Nationalists were even accused of being “pro-fascist” for refusing to join the U.S. imperialist military. Scores of young Puerto Rican draft resisters were actually condemned to federal prisons. Many suffered extreme punishments. Some were even killed. Their stand inspired future generations–and helped give birth to the powerful movement of draft resistance that grew up in Puerto Rico during the Vietnam War.

Defying the “American Century”

World War 2 brought intense changes to the world–and to colonial countries like Puerto Rico. The U.S. emerged as the world’s biggest imperialist power and wanted to establish neo-colonial domination of many countries throughout the world. It was going to be, the U.S. imperialists said, the start of an “American Century.” As they pursued these plans, the U.S. imperialists found their open colonial rule in Puerto Rico to be an embarrassment. So they wanted to work out a new political arrangement with the appearance of local self government–while maintaining the reality of rule from Washington.

Meanwhile the plantation economy of Puerto Rico had forced many people off the land into growing slums like La Perla (the Pearl) and El Fangito (Little Mud). The imperialists were determined to better exploit these propertyless Puerto Ricans. The government launched a major campaign to create sweatshop factories–called “Operation Bootstrap.” In Puerto Rico itself, many people had a radically different idea of change. The whole world was rumbling with major anti-colonial struggles. In 1949 the Chinese revolution led by Mao Tsetung achieved victory over the forces of imperialism. And many thousands of Puerto Rican soldiers came back from war to a country without jobs–after eye-opening experiences with U.S.-style racism. A new movement for liberation stirred.

In 1947, an unrepentant Pedro Albizu Campos returned to the island from federal prison. He immediately crisscrossed the island speaking passionately against the reorganization plans of the imperialists and against the suffering of the Puerto Rican people. The authorities permitted moderate political forces on the island to discuss various neo-colonial visions of “independence.” But they were determined to keep control of Puerto Rico forever. They responded to Albizu Campos’s activities with intense repression. In 1948, the authorities passed the Ley de la Mordaza, the gag law. La Mordaza made it illegal to advocate the overthrow of the U.S. government in Puerto Rico. It was also known as “the Little Smith Act” because it was patterned after a similar fascist law passed for the mainland. In practice, such things as pro-independence speeches and poetry and even raising the Puerto Rican flag were treated as illegal.

The imperialists simply criminalized the politics of Puerto Rican liberation. And La Mordaza was immediately used to attack the PNP and eliminate its leadership. Albizu Campos was placed under intense police pressure. Police patrols followed him openly, occasionally in jeeps with mounted machine guns. Every person he talked to, even clerks in stores, would be visited by police and harassed. In 1948, Nationalists called on the Puerto Rican people to boycott the elections of a colonial governor. Almost half of the people stayed away from the polls. The U.S. ruling class was finalizing their plans to impose a new colonial arrangement on Puerto Rico. They wanted no militant, organized campaign against this new setup. And so, in April 1950, President Truman ordered his agents to destroy the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party. The fascistic campaign that followed foreshadowed in many ways the murderous cointelpro operations unleashed against the Black Panther Party almost 20 years later.

The U.S. Secretary of War, Louis Jiohnson, went to Puerto Rico and met with U.S. military leaders for three days in April. Like Mafia godfathers, they met with the governor, Muñoz Marin, and gave him the order: either break up the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party or kill their leader, Albizu Campos. The Nationalists learned about this plot from their informants within the government. And they worked to alert the people of the danger. However, newspapers refused to carry the information–and would not even accept a paid advertisement. So the PNP organized a campaign of public meetings starting in Manati on June 11, 1950.

The Nationalists were determined to resist by any means necessary–and to take arms if they were denied peaceful avenues of resistance. On October 27, 1950, the police stopped a Nationalist car caravan near Panuelas. Four Nationalists and two police died in the resulting firefight. Albizu Campos called on the people to take up arms.

Taking Up Arms

On October 30, 1950, Puerto Rican fighters attacked police headquarters in Jayuya. They set fire to the building and destroyed the government offices in town. They proclaimed the Second Republic of Puerto Rico and raised their revolutionary flag.

The U.S. air forces bombed from the air, as National Guard troops advanced to take back the village. Blanca Canales, a woman who helped lead the Jayuya revolt, described how the U.S. forces massacred those who surrendered during the nearby uprising in Utuado. Similar armed revolts broke out in Arecibo, Mayaguez, and Naranjito. In San Juan, independence fighters attacked the governor’s palace–La Fortaleza, a symbol of colonial domination.

This was a time when the U.S. imperialists were perhaps at the most powerful and arrogant moment in their history. And in the face of such power, the independence forces of Puerto Rico dared to rise up in a powerful armed manifesto–a Grito de Jayuya. Altogether it was the most powerful uprising in Puerto Rican history, and the largest armed revolt on U.S.-claimed territory since the last wars of the Native Peoples in the 1890s. troops in JayuyaAt the same time, it was a difficult moment to actually carry a revolutionary struggle through to victory–to the seizure of nationwide power. The armed fighting proved impossible to sustain. The various centers of revolt were put down one by one, as columns of National Guard troops moved across the island. The colonial police besieged Pedro Albizu Campos in his house for two days before the Nationalist fighters there laid down their arms and surrendered. Even then, the fighting was not over. November 1, 1950, the world was stunned to hear that the independentistas had taken the armed struggle to the U.S. mainland. Two Nationalists, Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola, attacked the temporary residence of President Truman in Washington’s Blair House. Torresola was killed at the scene and Collazo was wounded. Though the imperialist media had worked to suppress news of the uprisings on Puerto Rico itself, they could not ignore this armed act in their capital. At least 21independentistas gave their lives in the uprising. And the whole world was made aware of the independence struggle of Puerto Rico. The U.S. imperialists unleashed an intense reign of terror on the people of Puerto Rico. Three thousand people were arrested–including virtually all known members of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, and even many members of the reformist Puerto Rican Independence Party, which had always rejected armed struggle. Police were issued blank arrest warrants to seize anyone they chose. An internationalist Anglo-American, Ruth Reynolds, was seized by the authorities after the historic uprising of Jayuya.

Trials lasted for three years. The hundreds of people on trial were almost all convicted and condemned to prison. In some cases, people were reportedly imprisoned simply because some government spy testified that they had shouted “Viva Puerto Rico Libre!”

One example: The independentista Carlos Feliciano and twelve other people were convicted of killing four cops in Arecibo. Feliciano was sentenced to 465 years in prison. (He later joked, “They thought I was Methuselah.”) A state witness later testified that Feliciano had been in his home town, Mayagüez, when the cops died. And the conviction had to be overthrown. The government refused to release him, but instead set up new charges of “advocating the overthrow of the government” and sentenced him to prison for his views. Membership in the PNP was itself a felony.

The colonialist police, working with the FBI, developed a huge blacklist of independence supporters who were pursued over the coming years.Independentistas, their families and employers were harassed. In 1988, when this blacklist was challenged in court, it contained more than 100,000 files.

The Lie Did Not Go Unopposed

“The Popular Democratic Party desires to have a banana republic with United States air conditioning.”

J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI

The colonial Popular Democratic Party rose to power in the new elections and on July 25, 1952 (again the anniversary of the notorious U.S. invasion!), they and the U.S. proclaimed the so-called Estado Libre Asociado (ELA) or Commonwealth.

This put in place the political arrangement the U.S. has used to exploit and dominate the Puerto Rican people for the last 46 years. Historian Afredo López describes it as “a sophisticated colonial enterprise where everything–laws, administrative organization, even popularly accepted ideology–works toward the efficient exploitation of the land’s natural resources and labor.” This new arrangement set up a phony political system in Puerto Rico that was modeled on electoral politics within the U.S. And based on this set-up, the U.S. pushed through a UN resolution in 1954 that removed Puerto Rico from the official list of “non-self-governing territories.” In other words, the U.S. (and the United Nations) were trying to claim that Puerto Rico was no longer a colony. Puerto Rico independence fighters again took up arms to answer this lie. On March 1, 1954, four Nationalists–Lolita Lebrón, Rafael Cancel Miranda, Irving Flores and Andrés Figueroa Cordero–walked into the gallery of the U.S. Congress and opened fire on the congressmen below. They were in the middle of a debate about immigration, and one politicians had just referred to Mexicans as “wetbacks.” Five congressmen were wounded.

The four independentistas were captured. The attack marked a third proclamation of the free and sovereign Republic of Puerto Rico. Pedro Albizu CamposIn prison, Albizu Campos faced intense mistreatment. He accused the authorities of bombarding him with radiation–causing painful illness. Afraid to have him die in prison, the authorities released him, a few months before his death in April 1965. The movement he had built suffered heavily from the ruthless repression of U.S. imperialism. But just as he died, the 1960s were heating up. And a whole new generation all around the world was rising in struggle against U.S. imperialism.

Deeply inspired by Albizu Campos and his fighters, many people, both on the island and on the U.S. mainland, stepped forward to advance the cause of Puerto Rican liberation.


  • Doña Licha’s Island–Modern Colonialism in Puerto Rico, Alfredo López, South End Press, 1987
  • Prisoners of Colonialism-the Struggle for Justice in Puerto Rico, Ronald Fernandez, Common Courage Press, 1994
  • Puerto Rican Nationalism: A Reader, edited by Jose E. Lopez, Puerto Rican Cultural Center, Chicago, 1977
  • Puerto Rico–A Political and Cultural History, Arturo Morales Carrión, Norton, 1983

An early version of this piece appeared in the Revolutionary Worker newspaper in 1998 Published online: December 2007
Available online at 
Send comments to: kasamasite (at) yahoo (dot) com
Feel free to reprint, distribute or quote with attribution to Mike Ely and a link.
This website and all contents are licensed under
a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.

Spielberg’s Lincoln and agency of oppressed people

Slave revolt breaks out on a Southern plantation. Unearthing records of the events, clash over African American role in their own emancipation.

Intro by Mike Ely

What is the role of previously-powerless oppressed people in their own emancipation?

This is a fundamental question of life, politics and revolutionary theory. And very different answers to that question have produced very different perspectives on strategy, alliance and the political forms of liberation.

The American Civil War has long been a major arena for this debate. And it is not surprising: First, this war was a major event of emancipation in the first centuries of European colonization of North America. All other wars conducted by the United States were shamelessly about expansion, Manifest Destiny and empire.

But in this, the most bloody of U.S. wars, the central issue was African slavery. For the Confederate states, it was threats to slavery that triggered their secession. And for the states of the North and the federal government, the war started as a defense of the integrity of their national Union — but became a war for the abolition of slavery.

Entwined with the whole emergence and resolution of the Civil War was the struggle of the African people in the U.S. for their freedom — a struggle that started on the slave ships themselves, and on the slave plantations, in dozens of maroon communities, in hundreds of mass mutinies, and uncounted thousands of escapes. In the war itself, they fought in every imaginable way, as informants for the Union armies, as scouts, as insurgents behind Confederate lines, as organizers of countless work stoppages and escapes, and increasingly as uniformed fighters within the Union army itself. And, meanwhile, politically, the African American people and their most radical white coworkers waged a difficult struggle to ensure that the victory in this Civil War would lead to lasting emancipation — first by demanding the formal abolition of slavery and the arming of Black men, but then also seeking to establish the political power needed to overpower the plantation owning class in the struggle over post-war society.

As history shows, this became an experience involving both great victory over slavery and bitter historic defeat with the overthrow of Radical Reconstruction which imposed a semi-feudal form of serfdom, through sharecropping and the Jim Crow system . The question of alliance and “common cause” unraveled as the Northern capitalist leadership of the anti-slavery alliance pursued its class interests and in the 1880s reforged a new national governing coalition with the once-defeated plantation-owning class of the South. There are alliances, of course, in politics — but there emerges the burning question of maintaining independence and initiative among the oppressed, i.e. the question of who leads those alliances, and how betrayal in one moment emerges from the leadership of a previous moment.

At one extreme end of this debate is the paternal racist tradition — that for a hundred years adopted the slaveowners’ own view of African American people, as docile, passive bystanders in their own fate. In the hands of Confederates, that view propped up the argument that Africans were childlike inferiors that needed slavery for civilizing. In the hands of Jim Crow-era historians, those assumptions often continued, and African American slaves were depicted as numb and suffering victims who received their emancipation at the hands of the Northern ruling elite. (And you can see how that historical mythology played into particular liberal strategies during the civil rights struggle…)

Tremendous struggle and work took place in the realms of research and education to get a different narrative onstage. The actual struggle, contributions and fiery activity of slaves and African freemen were documented. WEB Dubois, Herbert Aptheker, and many other writers (often associated with the Communist movement) exposed both the hidden history of Black insurgency and also the extreme complexity of the alliances that ended slavery. The figures of Nat Turner, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman have since come to exemplify the heroic, tireless, and often violent actions of the oppressed in their own emancipation. That change in understanding was itself a result of popular struggle — particularly that engine of reconception unleashed by the fiery Black liberation upsurge of the late 1960s. The ghetto uprisings destroyed the mythology of Black passivity and nonviolence in that political present — and millions of minds were actively looking to destroy that mythology within dominant versions of history.

Controversy continued (and continues, obviously). Malcolm declared that if you put milk in your coffee it becomes weaker, becomes “integrated.” Black nationalist currents in the 1960s declared that “Black Liberation will come from a Black thing.” It declared a militant and impatient end to the whole framework of liberal reformism — the proclaiming of a central progressive role for America’s liberal establishment, the nauseating paternalism of liberal self-congratulation and (especially) the demand for a go-slow respecting of American capitalism, its central institutions and the political limits they prescribed..

At the same time, this Black nationalism came with built in strategic conflicts: How does one go alone as a minority nationality in a much larger and multinational society? What does the future look like? If liberal integration and assimilation are a demand for self-negation, is independence possible as an alternative strategy? And if not, is there a third path possible — of liberation within a revolutionized new multinational society in North America?

And, along side the Black nationalist arguments, there arose views that explored whether in a multinational U.S., political strategy could incorporate the fact that the oppressed classes too were multinational — i.e. that liberation (including the victory of Black liberation) was likely to come from a multinational thing — from some future, complex alliance involving many oppressed nationalities (Native Americans, Chicano people, immigrant people, African Americans, Puerto Rican people) and also (potentially) from significant radicalized and antiracist sections among the white people (including among poor and working people who are Euro-American).

Both views have a sense of the “agency of the oppressed.” The Black nationalist view often assumed that at a very basic level that no other sections of the people could be expected to understand or reliably support the struggle against oppression they themselves didn’t experience. (And here too the experience of the Civil War, and the reversal of Reconstruction, provides a painful legacy of the betrayal or flagging effort by those who were allies and co-fighters and leaders).

The more internationalist view assumed that many diverse kinds of people could develop a common struggle against all forms of oppression — and that a movement needed to be forged with exactly that kind of universality and broadness of mind.

I am currently working, with Nat Winn, on an assessment of the Maoist form of communism. And we hope to address what our new movement can learn (for  future strategic decisions) from the existing Maoist concepts around mass line and internationalism — which address precisely these core issues of agency and broad alliance.

For now, I’d like to share the following critique of Spielberg’s new film Lincoln — which seeks to situate this art in the context of actual history and America’s long debate over the agency and role of African American people.  I have not seen the film yet. I look forward to experiencing it with an open-mind (despite the fact that we have all watched Spielberg approach so many topics — from suburbia to the Holocaust — from the perspective that has its feet planted firmly among the relatively privileged.)

* * * * * * * * * *

Kate Masur is an associate professor of history at Northwestern. She is the author of “An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle Over Equality in Washington, D.C.” This piece first appeared in the New York Times November 12.

In Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln,’ Passive Black Characters


Evanston, Ill.

THE latest film by Steven Spielberg, “Lincoln,” which opens nationwide on Friday, has the makings of an Oscar shoo-in, particularly for Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance in the title role. The first scene is arresting: Two black soldiers speak with the president about their experiences in combat. One, a corporal, raises the problem of unequal promotions and pay in the Union Army. Two white soldiers join them, and the scene concludes as the corporal walks away, movingly reciting the final lines of the Gettysburg Address.

Unfortunately it is all downhill from there, at least as far as black characters are concerned. As a historian who watched the film on Saturday night in Chicago, I was not surprised to find that Mr. Spielberg took liberties with the historical record. As in “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan,” his purpose is more to entertain and inspire than to educate.

But it’s disappointing that in a movie devoted to explaining the abolition of slavery in the United States, African-American characters do almost nothing but passively wait for white men to liberate them. For some 30 years, historians have been demonstrating that slaves were crucial agents in their emancipation; however imperfectly, Ken Burns’s 1990 documentary “The Civil War” brought aspects of that interpretation to the American public. Yet Mr. Spielberg’s “Lincoln” gives us only faithful servants, patiently waiting for the day of Jubilee.

This is not mere nit-picking. Mr. Spielberg’s “Lincoln” helps perpetuate the notion that African Americans have offered little of substance to their own liberation. While the film largely avoids the noxious stereotypes of subservient African-Americans for which movies like “Gone With the Wind” have become notorious, it reinforces, even if inadvertently, the outdated assumption that white men are the primary movers of history and the main sources of social progress.

The nation’s capital was transformed by the migration of fugitive slaves from the South during the war, but you’d never know it from this film. By 1865 — Mr. Spielberg’s film takes place from January to April — these fugitives had transformed Washington’s streets, markets and neighborhoods. Had the filmmakers cared to portray African-Americans as meaningful actors in the drama of emancipation, they might have shown Lincoln interacting with black passers-by in the District of Columbia.

Black oral tradition held that Lincoln visited at least one of the capital’s government-run “contraband camps,” where many of the fugitives lived, and was moved by the singing and prayer he witnessed there. One of the president’s assistants, William O. Stoddard, remembered Lincoln stopping to shake hands with a black woman he encountered on the street near the White House.

In fact, the capital was also home to an organized and highly politicized community of free African-Americans, in which the White House servants Elizabeth Keckley and William Slade were leaders. Keckley, who published a memoir in 1868, organized other black women to raise money and donations of clothing and food for the fugitives who’d sought refuge in Washington. Slade was a leader in the Social, Civil and Statistical Association, a black organization that tried to advance arguments for freedom and civil rights by collecting data on black economic and social successes.

The film conveys none of this, opting instead for generic, archetypal characters. Keckley (played by Gloria Reuben) is frequently seen sitting with the first lady, Mary Todd Lincoln (played by Sally Field), in the balcony of the House of Representatives, silently serving as a moral beacon for any legislator who looks her way. Arguably her most significant scene is an awkward dialogue with Lincoln in which he says bluntly, “I don’t know you,” meaning not just her but all black people. Keckley replies, as a representative of her race, that she has no idea what her people will do once freed. As if one archetype were not enough, she adds that her son has died for the Union cause, making her grief the grief of all bereaved mothers.

Meanwhile, Slade (Stephen Henderson) is portrayed as an avuncular butler, a black servant out of central casting, who watches in prescient sorrow as his beloved boss departs for the theater on a fateful April evening.

It would not have been much of a stretch — particularly given other liberties taken by the filmmakers — to do things differently. Keckley and Slade might have been shown leaving the White House to attend their own meetings, for example. Keckley could have discussed with Mrs. Lincoln the relief work that, in reality, she organized and the first lady contributed to. Slade could have talked with Lincoln about the 13th Amendment. Indeed, his daughter later recalled that Lincoln had confided in Slade, particularly on the nights when he suffered from insomnia.

Even more unsettling is the brief cameo of Lydia Smith (played by S. Epatha Merkerson), housekeeper and supposed lover of the Pennsylvania congressman and Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens, played by Tommy Lee Jones. Stevens’s relationship with his “mulatto” housekeeper is the subject of notoriously racist scenes in D. W. Griffith’s 1915 film “Birth of a Nation.” Though Mr. Spielberg’s film looks upon the pair with far more sympathy, the sudden revelation of their relationship — Stevens literally hands the official copy of the 13th Amendment to Smith, before the two head into bed together — reveals, once again, the film’s determination to see emancipation as a gift from white people to black people, not as a social transformation in which African-Americans themselves played a role.

The screenplay, written by Tony Kushner, is attentive to the language of the period and features verbal jousting among white men who take pleasure in jabs and insults. By contrast, the black characters — earnest and dignified — are given few interesting or humorous lines, even though verbal sparring and one-upmanship is a recognized aspect of black vernacular culture that has long shaped the American mainstream. Meanwhile, perhaps the greatest rhetorician of the 19th century, Frederick Douglass, who in fact attended the White House reception after Lincoln’s second inauguration in March 1865, is nowhere to be seen or heard.

It is a well-known pastime of historians to quibble with Hollywood over details. Here, however, the issue is not factual accuracy but interpretive choice. A stronger African-American presence, even at the margins of Mr. Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” would have suggested that another dynamic of emancipation was occurring just outside the frame — a world of black political debate, of civic engagement and of monumental effort for the liberation of body and spirit.

That, too, is the history of abolition; “Lincoln” is an opportunity squandered.

Mao’s biographer Han Suyin: One divides into two

Han Suyin in 1972 — a voice of China’s revolution and the GPCR in the West

We are sharing below an obituary of Han Suyin written by the blog M-L-M Mayhem.

Intro by Mike Ely

Many people leave behind a very mixed legacy. Writer Han Suyin,  a supporter of the Chinese revolution who never considered herself a Marxist, was such a person.

When people ask me for a good beginning history of China’s Maoist revolution I have long suggested that they read Han Suyin’s two volume workMorning Deluge and Wind in the Tower. I still feel that way — it is a fine, detailed, partisan, readable overview of that great communist revolution, and of the work of Mao Zedong at its helm.

People make their contributions, and these two books were certainly a contribution of Han Suyin.

Whatever her own views were (then or later), these books represent a communist summation of these events — written for audiences outside China. They had a powerful impact when they were published — and they could have an impact now if we choose to use them.

That other legacy

When I wrote my booklet on Maoist revolution in Tibet in the 1990s, I naturally read as part of my research every communist work I could find on the subject, including Han Suyin’s tale of her visit to Lhasa.

I have to say I was shocked by the undisguised disdain Han Suyin heaped on Tibetan people. I quickly decided to distrust any of her observations and verdicts on Tibetan matters. I thought many times, page after page, “What an elitist hack!” If anything, my own essays on Tibet could have benefited from more exposure of Han chauvinism of this kind than was eventually included. (The Han people are the largest ethnic group in China — and are generally referred to as “Chinese.”)

A certain kind of virtual racism toward Tibetan people and culture was a significant contending outlook within the Chinese Communist Party, based among those focused most narrowly on “modernizing” China. Han Suyin’s book channels that view — and arises from that larger framework of modernization and disdain for those considered culturally backward. Her book on Tivet was written in 1977, just after China’s capitalist-roaders had struck their death blow against the revolution. Her views on Tibet are in line with her subsequent political course in the coming years when China’s political power was wielded  by the forces around Deng Xiaoping. It was capitalist restoration justified  in the name of “Four Modernizations” — and it was a view that you can see emerging in Han Suyin’s own work.

I also found Han Suyin’s biography of  Chinese communist leader Zhou Enlai revealing (Eldest Son: Zhou Enlai and the Making of Modern China 1994) — without agreeing with its politics.

You got a further, nuanced sense from that book about why supposed supporters of Maoist revolution (like Han Suyin) suddenly emerged as open defenders of the Deng Xiaoping coup  after Mao’s death. What were they thinking?  What were they wanting? How were they actually aligned within the struggles leading up to the restoration of capitalism?

Han Suyin (like Bill Hinton, the author of the towering revolutionary work Fanshen) was personally appreciative of Zhou Enlai technocratic moderation — in ways that may be revolutionary in some early contexts, but was never truly  communist. And this comes out, not mainly over her discussion of the many early stages of the Chinese revolution, but over her whole orientation toward the difficult conflicts that ultimately led to counterrevolution and the restoration of capitalism in the late 1970s.

In Bill Hinton’s case, he went through years of terrible confusion following the 1976 coup in China, but then redeemed himself by coming out strongly in a powerful series of work exposing the restoration of capitalism. Han Suyin took a different path.

In her 1994 work on Zhou Enlai, she takes great pains to show how (after 1971) Zhou worked to reempower the party forces who had been knocked down for their conservatism — including Deng Xiaoping himself. Han Suyin is making an argument to China’s new rulers that they should credit Zhou with their survival and ultimate victory — and (from my own point of view) I found her argument compelling. It is a work of someone ultimately extolling the terrible conservative course of post-Mao China, and seeking to claim Zhou Enlai as one of its forefathers. And for anyone interested in understanding how capitalism can emerge from such a sweeping and powerful socialist revolution — her work is as revealing as it is reactionary.

I have not read all of Han Suyin’s work — and am not qualified to comment on her fiction at all. But I do want to mark her passing, and use the occasion to remind readers that her two volumes on Mao Zedong (written in the early 1970s, during socialist China’s last great revolutionary struggle) are a great place to start.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Obituary: Han Suyin

from the blog M-L-M Mayhem

Several days ago, on November 2nd, Han Suyin died.  Aside from the obligatory obituaries in official newspapers, her death was met with little attention: she died in obscurity, like so many revolutionary women, almost forgotten by a world that was once forced to pay attention to her literature.  If she is still remembered in popular culture––if she has affected the memory of those who will ask who? at the mention of her name––then it is probably because of the 1955 movie adaptation of her novel A Many Splendored Thing that also inspired a pop song and subsequent cliche.  But when people speak the banal colloquialism that “love is a many splendored thing” it is doubtful that they know anything of Han Suyin or what she represented.  And she represented so more than a terrible movie adaptation of a novel she wrote when she was young, let alone its even more terrible pop song and trite saying.

At one point Han Suyin was an apologist for the Chinese Revolution.  Born Elizabeth Rosalie Chou, a “Eurasian” woman who came of age in China on the eve of the revolution led by Mao, Han would eventually become one of the Revolution’s literary representatives to the western world.  She was a medical doctor and a novelist who, after she was slowly and surely politicized by the revolution, would write social biographies of Mao Zedong and the Chinese Revolution––defending its necessity, from its beginning to the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, to the english-speaking world.  And though, at the end of the 1970s, like so many communists she made the mistake of believing that the China under Deng Xiaoping would continue the revolution––that China was not going down a capitalist road––she would soon become jaded by China’s path to state capitalism and retire, living in near anonymity, in exile in Europe.  In the mid-1990s she would write a biography about Chou Enlai and in this biography, against the grain of both western and Chinese scholarship, uphold the Cultural Revolution, but by that time her anonymity was almost sealed and that book was largely ignored.  And after that book silence… Now she is dead.

More important than her novels and historical biographies, however, was her five volume memoir that placed her political development within China’s unfolding revolution.  A series of books where the personal was political and the political was personal, these memoirs not only used her subjective experience to document and justify the revolution led by Mao all the way up to the end of the Cultural Revolution, but also served as a protracted literary self-criticism.  They charted her journey to communism where the older Han Suyin would critique the young and petty-bourgeois Elizabeth Chow while, at the same time, throwing the shadow of world historical events over her tiny and limited experience.

Although these memoirs were, by the publication of the third instalment (Birdless Summer), described as “a masterpiece in progress” by The Observer, by the 1990s they were largely out of print.  And by the 21st Century publishers, in a resurgence of anti-communist furor and the so-called capitalist “end of history”, would never consider touching a literary memoir that defended Mao and the Chinese Revolution––instead these publishers were glutting book stands with poorly written and reactionary memoirs such as Jung Chang’s Wild Swans.  Han Suyin’s memoir counter-point to this backwards “wound literature” was considered anathema; no publisher was interested in a series of books, regardless of their literary value, where the author would the Cultural Revolution even when she herself was attacked for being petty-bourgeois.  No publisher would seriously consider putting back into print someone who would start one of her memoirs by writing:

“Standing on the Canebiere of Marseilles in 1967, I re-enter that unsympathetic selfish twenty-year-old girl of deadly ignorance, Rosalie Chou, who stood on this very same spot in 1938, the tears upon her face buffeted by a gritty mistral. Phantom sob, ghostly wind, of a yesterday that chose today, when again the famishing need for a reality beyond the benevolent mummery of success reasserts its raucousness. On the threshold of yet another war, of far larger dimensions, an even more stringent choosing. Today the East is Red, the future has entered our present, has transformed it long before its own advent. The world continues what began in China yesterday. The mistral sings its name is Revolution, World Revolution.” (Birdless Summer, 9)

Despite the fact that in 1968 The Daily Telegraph would claim that Han’s multi-volume memoirs would be “re-read two generations hence as one of the key documents of the twentieth century” these books are largely forgotten.  Now the Jung Changs of the world have replaced the Han Suyins and we are meant to believe that the memoirs of the former are somehow more legitimate than the memoirs of the latter.  Han retires, forgotten, in Switzerland after Deng’s coup; Jung Chang and her ilk continue to publish their reactionary memoirs that confirm everything westerners want to believe about revolutionary China.

When I first encountered Han Suyin’s memoirs, after picking up the second volume (which I still think is the best although I cannot be sure if this is simply because it was the first one I read) at a second-hand bookstore, I was shocked by how contemporary they seemed.  Indeed, at a conference in Winnipeg several years ago, I presented a paper arguing that Han should be reclaimed by radical history because, far ahead of her time, her memoirs demonstrated all the concerns of post-colonial theory while still demonstrating fidelity to the supposedly “totalizing” narrative of communism: she understood and attempted to theorize orientalism, she discussed the feminization of the East by westerners and the rape narrative inherent in this feminization, she ruminated over the problem of cultural hybridity (being half-Chinese, so-called “half-caste”, and what this meant in terms of identity), she performed a five volume articulation of auto-ethnography.  And in all of these, in these books that deserve republication, she upheld the world historical revolution in China under Mao.

Indeed, her second historical biography on Mao, Wind In The Tower, has been described by at least one of my friends (somewhat disparagingly) as a “hagiography” of Mao––but I would ask, in this anti-communist and anti-Maoist climate, is this necessarily a bad thing?  And isn’t knowledge a class struggle where there are biographies and histories produced from below or from above, and since to imagine something “properly academic” or “properly neutral” is impossible, it is better to clearly take a side––better to be, in the moment of revolutionary upheaval, a conscious propagandist?  And, most importantly, in light of her more personal and critical memoirs where she discusses being attacked by Red Guards at certain points for her political failures, isn’t it significant that she would produce books upholding both Mao and the GPCR?  But all of these books are now out-of-print and Han Suyin is dead.

Unfortunately, due to the fact that the majority of her books are out of print, Han will mainly be remembered for A Many Splendored Thing––that semi-autobiographical novel that was written before she was a communist.  Even worse, she will probably be remembered for the movie adaptation where a white woman wearing eye make-up played her fictionalized self (since non-white women were not allowed to act as main characters in Hollywood at the time) and a complex novel about interracial love affairs in racial contexts was turned into another Hollywood romance.  But those of us who are communists need to remember Han as an apologist for a world historical revolution––someone who spent decades attempting to make the Chinese Revolution palatable to even her bourgeois readers in the west––and find a way to reclaim her histories and memoirs.  For on November 2nd, on the eve of the re-election of the prime representative of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie that some self-proclaimed communists seem to care about, a significant propagandist of historical communism died.

For those interested in reading Han Suyin here are the books I would suggest: A Mortal Flower [second volume of her memoirs]; Wind In The Tower [second volume in her biographical history of Mao and the Chinese Revolution]; The Enchantress [a novel about the demystification of the European world].  All of these books are out of print but can be found on online used books sites, as I found them, for very cheap.

Fred Ho: Seth Rosenfeld's FBI files on Richard Aoki

FBI documents purported to relate to Richard Aoki, veteran of the Black Panther Party

Kasama has hosted investigation into the charges made against Black Panther veteran Richard Aoki.

The author Seth Rosenfeld, who claimed to have uncovered that Aoki was a police informant, recently released alleged FBI documents in his possession.

Kasama received the following contribution from veteran revolutionary and jazz musician Fred Ho, who also authored a previous essay on this subject.

Seth Rosenfeld's FBI files on Richard Aoki


by Fred Ho

I read each page of the mostly redacted 221 pages of the files that the FBI released to Seth Rosenfeld on the subject of Richard Aoki (and many multiple names with varying versions of first, middle and surnames, including the supposed code name Richard Ford).

The only thing that I believe can be confirmed by these heavily redacted files is that the FBI believed it had an informant. The files begin in the early 1960s and go to the fall of 1977. No files seem to exist after 1977, so any allegation or intimation of on-going contact with the FBI is non-existent.

Let’s for the sake of argument assume that the FBI “had their man” (as Rosenfeld concludes) in one Richard Aoki. In their vetting of Aoki they do a background check including the possibility that Aoki might even be a “plant” (the FBI word for an infiltrator into the FBI!). There is no conclusion or methodology revealed as to how they vetted that question of Aoki possibly being such a “plant.” We read on as get page after page of repetitive bureaucratic corroboration that Aoki is indeed a quality informant.

Of course, due to the redactions, nothing is revealed as how valuable was his information and service to “the Bureau.” I just want to spice up this narrative with quotes/citations from the documents:

[November 18, 1966]

“In view of the informant’s wide sphere of activity and notoriety, you are authorized pursuant to your recommendation in referenced letter to contact him in intervals of thirty days…and attempt to locate a discreet rendezvous point away from his area of activity…You are reminded that you are to make no personal contacts with the informant on the university campus.”

In many areas, the heading of “Information furnished of Unusual Value” are all blanks, most of the time not very large in size (couple of lines, sometimes a paragraph in size).

Constantly, high marks are given:

“Informant is eager to maintain his relationship with the Bureau and to be of any service possible.”

More juice: [4/12/67]

“This informant’s principal value lies [blank].”

“There is no other source who can presently duplicate the information furnished currently by [blank]. As a student and member of the University community, however, this informant is able to recognize and report on the [blank]. If he were discontinued he could not be replaced without a similar [blank].”

AH! Now we get juicier: reading the below, one might surmise that there was some doubt about “the informant’s” usefulness.

In a memo dated 6/30/79 (Aoki-page 189), a handwritten note is found:

“Immediately submit 4 month evaluation letter re: captioned informant. Letter was due 11-1-67 [note: probably January 11, 1967]. Continued delays of this nature will result in discontinuance of informant.” [Initialed RLR]

Whoa! What’s this? Either “the informant” or his/her handler in the FBI was not doing a very good job, so much so that a higher up (initialed RLR) had to write a strongly-worded admonition.

We repeatedly get “Steps taken to advance informant” with [blanks].

The period of 1969 seems the most valuable to the FBI as we pick up from the salivations on their memoranda:


“[blank] is a student at the University of California at Berkeley (UCB). He provides exclusive coverage of the [blank]. Informant is cognizant of the Bureau’s interest in activities on campus being limited to those individuals and organizations whose activities are directed against the interests of the U.S.”

Clearly, the FBI wants to know about “those individuals and organizations” who are “against the interests of the U.S.”, which at the time, was many! Quite a big job for one guy.

Now here’s more very meaty stuff:

[6/30/70 Aoki-page 218]

“[blank] has just obtained a Master’s degree in sociology at the University of California, Berkeley (UCB). He has been active in the formation of a new department of Asian Studies at UCB and expects to obtain employment by the University as an Assistant Program Coordinator for the new department and as a lecturer. Due to the demands of his academic pursuit, the informant furnished little information subsequent to April 15, 1970, and consequently has been [blank]. It is considered necessary and desireable [sic] to maintain regular contact with the informant and to retain Bureau authority to reimburse him for services and expenses. He will continue to be valuable as a source of information [blank] whether or not his academic activities enable him to become a [blank].”

It seems like the FBI didn’t learn much from the informant about the “activities directed against the interests of the U.S.” in Asian American studies. Perhaps FBI agents should have enrolled and taken classes. They’d have at least learned something about Asian American oppression and struggle!

What’s the value of “the informant” to the FBI at this time? In memo date 9/30/70 [Aoki-221] we get the statement:

“The informant has the ability to relate to all races and crosses the barriers between the ethnic movements with ease.”

The FBI seems clueless that this “ability” is being used to organize and catalyze a nation-wide movement to transform the entire curricula of American higher education: viz., ethnic, women’s, GLBT, and other “area” studies.

Here’s a little peppery report: [7/10/75 Aoki-264]

“Note: [blank] informant is not a member of any organization or group. He provided information concerning the whereabouts [blank].”

If we knew the nature of that information and to whom or what the “whereabouts” referred to, we could have possibly evaluated if the “informant” had contributed anything of value to the state.

Likewise for this: [9/26/76 Aoki-272]

“During September, 1976, source has furnished information indicating [blank] is actively recruiting members and seeking to become influential within [blank] in the San Francisco Bay Area. Source is in position to obtain and furnish information concerning [blank].”

Subsequent memos indicate no resolution of this seemingly high-value target, so we have no idea if “source” proved to be useful in any way.

Finally, the informant is “let go” serving no more use:

[10/13/77 Aoki-276]

“When contacted 9/30/77, source advised that he desired to discontinue seeking information for the FBI because he believed that this was inconsistent with his present career and objectives as a student counselor and instructor at a junior college in Oakland, CA. … Neither the Bureau nor the Department of Justice has indicated any current interest in utilizing this informant as a witness. Informant does not intend to write a book or engage in any public disclosure of his relationship with the Bureau. He seeks to keep that relationship confidential for his own reasons as well as out of consideration for the best interests of the U.S. government.”

And there you have it. As the Black Panther Party had capitulated to reformism, and the U.S. Marxist-Leninist movement was on the rise (former Sixties radicals becoming harder-core revolutionaries), and as the informant was making a career, the FBI concludes that the informant can be trusted to be “let go,” even without the perfunctory retirement Rolex.

Here is where the timid scholars who’ve responded to Rosenfeld can’t engage: the political realm. I have argued before that should that informant be Richard Aoki, then his contributions to social change (elevating the ideological engagement of radicals, both then and to the end of his life; the leadership in establishing ethnic studies; his return to activism in the 1990s to fire a new generation of radicals; etc.) should be the primary evaluation to challenge and disavow these allegations. Richard Aoki did not service the U.S. Empire. He did not foment division, dissent, disruption and debilitation, but the opposite: he provided revolutionary leadership, inspiration, discipline, training and was exemplary.

To impugn the legacy of Richard Aoki is precisely to play into the hands of the Enemy. Aoki did no harm (not one shred of credible evidence can be put forward). Rather, his legacy remains unassailable. Richard Aoki was a great revolutionary, whose brilliance, dedication, commitment and discipline inspired and directly contribute to the development of so many, including myself. I can’t credit the FBI for this!

And here’s something folks need to really understand, and best way to express it is by sarcasm: FBI DOCUMENTS ARE STERLING EXAMPLES OF TRUTH, ACCURACY AND WELL-MEANING INTENTIONS! Indeed, we just need to look at the examples from Cointelpro to Waco! To rely upon them to discredit someone as Richard Aoki can only be done by providing the amplification of huge press attention given to documents that tell nothing incriminating whatsoever.
If these FBI documents are Rosenfeld’s proof unassailable, then why not cite them in any of the footnotes in his book? Why are they ONLY NOW coming to public light? If one wants to entertain motives, were these documents fed to Rosenfeld only recently with the blow back he’s faced?

Through these FBI memos, the informant is painted as someone in a state of impecuniosity. Trying to get enough money to get a car, to make his tuition, to just get by. If the supposition that Rosenfeld puts forward that Aoki was paid the then-going rate of a FBI informant, about $2900 a month in today’s equivalency, for 16 years, that’d amount to quite a bit of bread (more than half a million dollars in today’s value). Clearly, we can see by all accounts, Aoki never lived large, never really had any dough. And assuming Richard was that “informant”, how did that money pay back the FBI and the U.S. Empire?

We’ve answered the tired and stupid inference that Aoki’s initial arming of the Black Panthers may have contributed to the escalation of armed confrontations, but seriously, anyone of serious expertise has pointed out two incontrovertible points: possession of firearms were legal in California at that time (hence the Panthers clever use of firearms in their police patrols and storming the state capitol); and that not only the Panthers, but all radical groups of that era, were well on a trajectory built upon the momentum of Malcolm X, Robert F. Williams, the Deacons of Defense, Geronimo, Crazy Horse, Tecumseh…a long history of military resistance to the European invasion of this continent and the expansion of U.S. Empire.

Richard Aoki has been used as a sensationalized hook to sell Rosenfeld’s book. The recently released FBI documents still don’t pass the burden of proof and only fuel more speculation as to Rosenfeld’s motives. If you’ve had them, why release them after the criticisms and challenges to your book have erupted? The FBI’s sordid snitch-baiting (probably the most murderous example was the fomenting of conflict between the Los Angeles chapter of the Black Panther Party with the US—United Slaves—organization of Maulana Ron Karenga, which resulted in deaths) can’t be denied or even dismissed as Rosenfeld seems to do.

The transparency of the allegations towards Richard Aoki (deceased since 2009) the day before Farrar Straus Giroux publish Rosenfeld’s book is equally odious and suspicious.

Furthermore, I raise the political challenge to these allegations, even if true, that they only serve to fuel “doubt on so many levels to building radical politics, sowing dissension between Black nationalists and Asian American radicals, distrust of our revolutionary leaders of past and present, fear for the police-state and its power to extend itself into the core leadership of revolutionary movements,” and as witnessed by the liberal-capitulation to the reformist politics of non-violence, to elevate non-violence and discredit and cast anti-revolutionary and pro-electoralist-reformist aspersions against Black Liberationists.


“this is simply the tip of an iceberg building to stave off the growth of radicalism generated by the Occupy, eco-socialist and anti-globalization movements both in the U.S. and across the planet.”

And lastly, let me playfully assert a hypothetical argument, something that Rosenfeld can’t seem to have the revolutionary imagination to grasp: that the FBI suspicion that Aoki was a “plant” might actually be the case! That for sixteen years, the genius and trickster Aoki continued to lead-on the FBI. That Richard Aoki was handling THEM! All of us who knew and respected Richard believe that he was more than capable of engaging in this type of “snake-eating” (counter-counter insurgency). The legacy and contributions of Richard Aoki are uncontestable, unassailable, eminently verifiable and profoundly multiplicative.