From Freedom Press (13/01/2021), a review of two recently published essays: Anarchism and the Black Revolution, by Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin (Pluto Press) and The Nation on No Map: Black Anarchism and Abolition, by William Anderson (AK Press).
In Summer 2017, as white nationalists prepared to march on Charlottesville, Virginia, the FBI announced its intention to tackle a new and growing menace to public order: a domestic terror movement with an explicitly racial ideology and avowed antipathy towards police. The threat was not the fascist resurgence that would soon leave anti-racist Heather Heyer bleeding to death under the wheels of a Dodge Challenger; or 11 gunned down at the Pittsburgh Tree of Life Synagogue in 2018; or 23 murdered at the El Paso Walmart shooting in 2019. It was the more amorphous and ill-defined threat of ‘Black Identity Extremists’. It is difficult to say with any real certainty who these extremists were. Certainly not the black political establishment who, since the Civil Rights era, had capitalised on moral outrage to cement positions of power and privilege within white supremacist society; nor the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement that, in the years since the 2014 police killing of eighteen-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri had been calling rallies, fighting for accountability within the law, and demanding reforms; nor even the mass of people who turned to the streets in outrage, each time another black person had died as a result of police contact. Black Identity Extremism did not name an organisation, real or potential, so much as a fear – perhaps the fear – constitutive of white American society: the fear of black resistance.
In 2020 the spectre of resistance again took centre stage, again in response to the public execution of a black man at the hands of the police. George Floyd had been accused of passing a forged banknote at a shop in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The shopkeepers called the police, one of whom – Derek Chauvin – kneeled on Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds, while others held Floyd down or prevented members of the public from intervening. The protests that followed, while far from unique in the recent history of black struggle in the United States, were particularly combative. Night after night protesters returned to the streets demanding justice, refusing to submit to the police occupation of their neighbourhoods. For the first time since the start of the Coronavirus pandemic, another story led the evening news. Representatives of the Democrat and liberal establishment fell over themselves trying to latch onto the political revitalisation of their black base, using expressions of outrage to hijack a media cycle in thrall to the coming presidential election; for their part, the Republican and conservative right were equally mercenary, denouncing protesters as everything from bleeding-heart liberals to rioters or traitors – again in service of a presidential campaign. The gears of government, at both a Federal and state level, wound up, offering this movement and its leadership a distinctly American confection of superficial patronage and targeted repression: lawmakers took a knee in Kente cloth while law enforcement arrested over 14,000 protesters in a few months.
Faced with an all-too-familiar choice between anaemic co-option by the liberal state and absolute rejection by its violent institutions, activists and outriders of the BLM movement had to ask themselves the question of who and what their movement was for, what forms of action it should take, what demands it should have, and how it should be organised to further these ends. The responses were as varied and complex as the movement itself: there were those who built specific interventions at the local level; some sought elected office and ever-closer collaboration with the state; others envisaged the movement’s NGOisation on a national scale; others still pursued personal advantage or celebrity. There were also those who believed in building a movement for the base, by the base, a movement capable not only of winning concessions or ameliorating conditions, but of transforming society as a whole.
These problems, and the answers they elicit, are the subject of both Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin’s Anarchism and the Black Revolution and William C. Anderson’s The Nation on No Map, two works whose dates of first publication are separated by over forty years. Which is to say that while vital, these problems are anything but new: they are the contours that define any genuine struggle under capitalist representative democracy, and the black struggle in the United States more than most. There is plenty of precedent for this debate within the history of black struggle, but none looms larger than that of the Black Panther Party (BPP). Its history is too complex to give sufficient space to here; however, a brief account of its dramatic rise and fall is necessary for understanding the emergence and theorisation of these problems today. Formed in Oakland, California, in 1966 by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, the Party initiated a project of armed police monitoring and community protection that in the following two years spread nationally, along with their ‘Serving the People’ programme for community survival and Ten-Point Programme for revolution. The response of the state was resolutely repressive. In 1967 the FBI formed its COINTELPRO programme charged – in an echo of 2017’s ‘Black Identity Extremists’ – with ‘neutralizing […] black nationalist hate groups’, targeting the party in a series of frame-ups, infiltrations, violent attacks, and assassinations. While the BPP staggered on until 1982, its political efficacy had been neutered by the mid-1970s.
One BPP member who fell victim to this state repression was Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin. Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1947, from a young age Ervin had intimate familiarity with Jim Crow and white supremacy: in 1952 the surrounding white community attempted to burn down his family home. At the age of 12 he joined a National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) youth group and participated in sit-ins to force the end of segregation locally. Conscripted into the Army to serve in the Vietnam War, by 1967 he had returned home and joined first the Student Nonviolent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC), then the BPP. During the rebellions after Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, Ervin was accused of gun running and threatening to bomb a Ku Klux Klan affiliated judge: to escape, he hijacked an aeroplane and fled to Cuba, then Czechoslovakia and the German Democratic Republic, before being arrested and flown back to New York for imprisonment. It was while in prison, after an encounter with jailhouse lawyer Martin Sostre, that Ervin began reflecting on his experiences in the Civil Rights movement, in the BPP, and in state socialist countries. This period of reflection was what led him to first write Anarchism and the Black Revolution, versions of which have been in circulation since 1979, and which Pluto Press have now published in an expanded form along with a new introduction and an interview with William C. Anderson.
To understand black anarchism as a subcategory of the wider anarchist movement would be a mistake. Almost all the key figures in the first wave of black anarchist thought – Ashanti Alston, Kuwasi Balagoon, Ojore Lutalo, and Martin Sostre, as well as Ervin – were members or associates of the BPP (Sostre is the exception, having previously participated in the Nation of Islam), and all spent time in prison on fabricated or trumped-up charges. Scholar of social movements Dana M. Williams is therefore correct when he argues that black anarchism emerged as an immanent critique of the Black Power movement and its authoritarian tendencies (whether Marxist-Leninist, Maoist, Bourgeois or Nationalist). But black anarchism was not only an internal movement critique: it also offered a new framework for understanding and struggling against what Cedric J. Robinson termed ‘racial capitalism’ (a touchstone for both Ervin and Anderson). Black anarchism was thus, from its beginnings, a double critique: of a black movement and a white society. This double critique structures the whole of Ervin’s book. On the one hand he is implacable in his denunciation of capitalism and racism (the title of Chapter 2); on the other he offers sustained, fraternal criticism of the failings of the BPP and its variety of Marxism-Leninism, as well as several other tendencies in African American politics. It is from this critique of BPP ‘commandism’ that Ervin begins to sketch his own organisational programme: one he terms ‘Black Autonomy’. For Ervin Black Autonomy names ‘an autonomous movement of Anarchists of colour’ (not African Americans alone), an independent tendency working from the understanding that:
“We are a class of super-oppressed people of colour historically downtrodden equally because of our racial oppression under this system, not just our social class as workers. […] So racism is a class doctrine, used by the state for social control of workers of colour. In fact, racism is the actual class relationship in North American society.”
Ervin is clear that liberation cannot come from a black bourgeoisie, but nor can it come from self-appointed leaders in the predominantly white Anarchist, Socialist and Communist organisations. It is the idea that liberation can be a gift from a power elite, rather than the collective, collaborative project of the struggling black masses, that Ervin pushes against. Black Autonomy is a combination of these insights, and a call for the self-determination of the black working class.
Such a call has long proved unpopular in the wider anarchist movement. The idea that black anarchism carries a more than homeopathic trace of nationalism has been a source of discomfort or even outright hostility since its emergence as a tendency in the 1970s. And yet to ignore the positive and revolutionary force of black nationalism is to cover your eyes to the history of black resistance to oppression both in the United States, and the world over. Ashanti Alston explained this complicated relationship in his essay ‘Beyond Nationalism, But Not Without It’:
“For me, even the nationalism of a Louis Farrakhan is about saving my people, though it is also thoroughly sexist, capitalist, homophobic and potentially fascist. Yet, it has played an important part in keeping a certain black pride and resistance going.”
Ervin likewise is no proponent of black nationalism, describing it as ‘a defensive doctrine for the protection of the Black middle class […] an interest group politics which can battle for equal political power for Black businesspeople or the professional class under this system’. But he is also adamant that it was through his experiences in the black nationalist struggle, and recognition of its failures, that the theoretical and strategic considerations of Black Autonomy first gained meaning for him and others: ‘without seeing state power and prison first-hand, I may never have known the mortal dangers of nation-statism’, which at best sees ‘flag independence […] replace the white master for the Black master’.
Separated by forty-two years from Ervin’s original polemic, William C. Anderson’s The Nation on No Map nonetheless shares its concern with how to theorise a new, autonomous black struggle out of the shattered remains of nationalist and authoritarian Marxist movements. While a sensitive critic of reactionary and protofascist tendencies within black nationalism (including: Marcus Garvey’s claim to be the inspiration for Italian fascism; the Nation of Islam’s 1960s rapprochement with the Klan and American Nazi Party; the controversy around the designation African Descendant of Slavery (ADOS); the ‘childish fantasies’ of an Afrocentrism centred on fabled kingship as opposed to real struggle), Anderson nonetheless tries to think Black Autonomy both through and beyond the figure of the nation. The source of Anderson’s title, Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “The Blackstone Rangers”, prompts him to ‘envision a nation that doesn’t need to be a nation and that doesn’t need to be on a map, because it knows borders, states, and boundaries cannot accommodate the complexity of our struggles’. While reticent to explicitly picture the beyond of the ‘revolutionary event’, Ervin is nonetheless clear that the strategy of such a (non-)nation requires ‘fighting from where we are’, acknowledging the paradox that ‘the only place to run is nowhere’.
Indeed, for Anderson this anti-state disposition constitutes black America as such: ‘Blackness is the antistate just as the state is anti-Black’. While this is far from a claim that ‘Black people are inherently radical’, it is a claim that black liberation is the abolition of the system of racial capitalism and the American state, ‘because we exist directly in contradiction to the system’. Drawing on theorist Saidiya Hartman’s idea of the ‘non-event of emancipation’, Anderson suggests persuasively that blackness is inimical to citizenship because citizenship, within a nation state, defines itself precisely through its relation to who or what it excludes: in the case of America and Europe, the black person or person of colour. The well-attested fact that the development of a system of state and federal policing in the United States in the eighteenth century was a strategy for curbing slave resistance, confirms for Anderson the need for black anarchism within black liberation, the need for a political strategy that prioritises an undoing of the state, its violence, and its categories of citizen and non-citizen.
Ervin, for his part, substantiates this view in his description of the continuities of black struggle from the slave trade to the present day: ‘we had to fight, whether on the slave ship, in the penitentiary, or in the racist society, to prevent our lynching in the past or our murder by the police today’. These locations (the slave ship and the prison), these events (lynching and police murder), and their transposition one onto another, offer a reminder of why the voice of black anarchism needs to be heard: from their first arrival in America black people have found themselves bound to societies organised around their coercion, control, and confinement according to the dictates of ‘super-exploitation’. Black thought and culture has therefore had to organise itself more vigorously than any other around the problem of freedom, both in terms of its meaning and its possibility. The slave understood the master and his world better than the master ever could; likewise, the black proletarian struggle constitutes for Ervin a vanguard, ‘a class capable of radicalising society with its struggle against racism and capitalism’, a class that knows the intertwining of capitalist exploitation and state oppression all too well.
The concept of freedom takes us to the other major ongoing concern in the black liberation movement in the United States: that of the police, prisons and their abolition. From a certain perspective, the problem of blackness in the United States is the problem of prison. Black incarceration rates are five times those of white people, making black men not only relatively more incarcerated, but the absolute plurality of prisoners in 2018. Nearly a third of black men in the United States can expect to go to prison at some time in their life; and for every prisoner inside there are the family, friends, lovers and community outside, all subject to fracture and loss. But it would be nonetheless wrong to understand prison as limited to a particular location, however bloated by fifty years of investment and expansion following Nixon’s declared ‘War on Drugs’. Malcolm X once said that black people ‘have only suffered from America’s hypocrisy […] If you go to jail, so what? If you’re black you were born in jail.’ For Malcolm, as for the black abolitionists since him, prison is not so much the name for a building or an institution, as it is for the racist organisation of society and the ever-present threat of violence that polices black life. San Francisco poet Tongo Eisen-Martin puts this as incisively as anyone when he explains: ‘My dear, if it is not a city, it is a prison. If it has a prison, it is a prison. Not a city.’
Though openly pointing to prison as the point at which he began to develop an anti-state, anti-authoritarian critique of society, Ervin has strangely little to say about the abolitionist movement. While unsurprisingly insistent about the need to support political prisoners from the Black Power movement – asserting that ‘there should be political prisoner support collectives all over the country’, arguing in the more recently written introduction that Anarchist Black Cross’s distinction between political and social prisoners is not only anachronistic but also ideologically unhelpful – little more appears on this subject in Anarchism and the Black Revolution.
In contrast, the question of abolition is one of the central problems driving The Nation on No Map. Anderson is critical of naïve, authoritarian, and Third-Worldist leftists who imagine the capture of the state as an adequate political transformation, thinking that repression through ‘prisons, police, or militaries’ is justifiable if ‘overseen by leaders they admire’. His proposal, instead, is palpably negative: ‘a call to dissolve and abolish these ideas within ourselves and around us. This can take us much further than trying to reshape horrible institutions for our own purposes.’ While commendable, this call is frustratingly unspecific: the ‘ruination’ that Anderson proposes is only ever clarified through an explanation of what it is not. A little later he tells us that ‘abolition is not the revolution itself’.
The question inevitably then arises: what is the revolution? Anderson’s answer is, at best, underdeveloped. The closest he gets to explaining his idea of revolutionary strategy is in conversation with George Jackson’s theorisation of ‘the commune’, Huey Newton’s ‘revolutionary intercommunalism’, and Ervin’s interpretation of these two concepts. In Blood in My Eye Jackson elaborated the commune as the ‘central city-wide revolutionary culture’ providing a ‘political, social, and economic infrastructure’ that could push ‘the occupying forces of the enemy culture from our midst’. For Anderson this means presenting ‘masses of people with revolutionary options that can actually meet day-to-day needs like food, housing, and health care’. It is the infrastructure of revolution. As for Newton’s revolutionary intercommunalism, Anderson describes it as ‘a useful model of our current world that delegitimizes states and imagines borderless affinities among oppressed peoples’, tracing ‘a process of internal critique, growth, and understanding’.
Both concepts are developed in greater detail by Ervin as part of his engagement with the theory of ‘dual power’, and Anderson leans heavily on this legacy. Ervin understands the ‘mass commune’ as a dual power structure that can be built ‘under conditions which exist now’, providing space to forge a new black revolutionary culture under the noses of ‘white political power structures’, and ungluing black life from the bonds of racial capitalism and the state. Ervin argues that this would lead to a metastasis of dual power institutions across the United States, galvanising a new revolutionary movement founded on a first local and regional, then national and even international intercommunalism. Dual power would allow black ungovernability to flower, making it impossible for police to patrol our neighbourhood, […] for politicians to assume control on the local level’ and allowing revolutionaries to ‘begin to take over the schools and other government resources and use them for the people’.
Ultimately, neither of these books seek to provide a complete programme of revolutionary action; nor should they. Instead, with their forty-two-year separation, they offer a precise roadmap for understanding the development of the theory of Black Autonomy and its continued importance as an intervention into both the anarchist and black liberation movements. They are a reminder, as Anderson puts it, that ‘“Anarchism” is just a name’. The real movement is so much richer, so much stronger than any dogma or ideology, however rich and strong it may undoubtedly be. But to build this real movement requires ‘the willingness to first hold the truth of where we are and where we have been’; it is through holding these truths, acting on these truths, that we take a step towards the freedom of all.