The Action Faction
Here is another excerpt in the serialization of Parts One and Two of the memoir Remembering Tomorrow by Michael Albert, this time chapter 14 and 15, distributed in this 40th year since the New Left and May 68.
The Action Faction
SLF Booted Out
We are all outlaws in the eyes of
On one trip across country, after graduating from MIT, I arrived in
I remember arriving, chatting, and then going out with a member of the SLF to get some food for a meal. We went to a supermarket, him dressed in pants that were falling off—he was way ahead of his time on that score—and he promptly stuffed some steaks into his clothes (the actual reason they were so loose) and strutted out safely. Now, I have stolen, in that era in particular, but his approach felt more like bravado undertaken for show than something he needed to do to survive or improve his circumstances. He looked like a child doing something naughty in plain sight, expecting by sheer will to back down his parents.
Is that what someone else would have seen, had they been along on my chair-stealing episode in
Theft, however, wasn't just SLS posturing, but became part of the Left lifestyle for a few years in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I once took-off across the country with some friends, with only $5 in hand. I got out West and still had the $5. In those days we routinely stole our food, or scrounged it. We would go into a restaurant and eat off people's plates, sitting down for our meal in seats others had vacated, and eating the rest of the meals they had left on their plates. Alternatively, we would order and eat full meals, and then all but one of us at the table would leave the restaurant, while the one left would go to the bathroom. When that last person left the bathroom, he would leave the restaurant as well. If he was stopped, he pretended to believe his friends already paid. You could only pull off this trick safely if you had enough money on you to pay off the tab if you were stopped. Having the funds made the scam believable. Moreover, to do it morally we had to ask the waitress whether she would get stuck for the tab if we didn't pay. If she said yes, we would go somewhere else. The waitresses never ratted on us—they had no love, of course, for their employers. What was the difference between good stealing and bad stealing? A fine line.
While we are at it, there is also the opposite side of the coin: being ripped off. I lived for a time in a small apartment in
Each time my stereo was ripped off, maybe four times in six or eight years, here and at other apartments too, I would tell my father, who, in turn, reported it to his insurance company to get funds for a replacement. Each time I would go to the stereo store and let them know I was getting a new system and that it would cost whatever the insurance company felt the last one was worth, and that's how much I would have to spend on it. Each time the store would vouch for my having had a prior system that cost more than it really had. In this way, I kept upgrading my stereo. Stephen Shalom finally pointed out to me what I conveniently hadn't considered for myself. I assumed I was not only improving my listening experience but was also striking a blow against the corporate insurance business.
Steve noted that what probably happened due to thefts was that the insurance outfits raised their rates, so I was really redistributing wealth from the rate-paying public to myself. In retrospect, it is likely a bit more complex. For example, if there was less theft could the insurance companies bargain as much from the public? Would their rates drop if theft dropped? If not, if the theft didn't increase their power to extract fees, then theft really did reduce what they accumulated without raising what the public paid. If the theft did enable them to charge more by the same volume than in its absence, then Steve was right.
I should note in passing that this reasoning might well have been the origin in me of what I think is an important insight about capitalist economy. Prices move with bargaining power. Who gets what is determined by a clash and jangle of countless interactions. You can't look at only one or two to predict outcomes. You can, however, predict large-scale market biases if you pay attention to overarching power relations. Powerful actors dump pain onto weak actors and retain gains for themselves. The insurance companies have a lot of power, way more than thieves or consumers, so insurance companies are rarely victimized.
While living in
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.
In my opinion, the New Left represented an immense outpouring of solidarity, humanity, and creativity, with some rough edges, of course. The amazing and hard-to-comprehend feature of the rough edges is that by and large they weren't due to disturbed souls, ne'er-do-well personalities, moral misfits, or even just average folk. They arose from some of the most exemplary people in my generation. I am talking about people who went down self-destructive and otherwise harmful byways but who certainly were not pursuing wealth or power despite having plenty of means to do so.
For example, the organization named Weatherman, after the Dylan line "you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows," was an outgrowth of some foolish differences within the major student and youth movements of the time. The Progressive Labor Party (PLP), a Maoist spinoff from the Communist Party, started joining SDS in 1966—infiltrating so as to overcome. The PLPers pushed old-style Marxism, wore suspenders to look like workers, and had old-style mannerisms. These guys not only sounded like textbooks, they didn't even like rock and roll. SDS polarized, and finally split. At MIT, for example, PLP had its own ridiculously out-of-touch SDS chapter, alongside our hip one. The Weather people, going another step, decided that the population of the
With the exception of some more enlightened elements of the black and other minority communities, and of course also excepting the occasional white traitor to the U.S. who signed up to join Weatherman, the Weather people considered the U.S. population too bought off to see its own subjugation, much less to feel solidarity with people in Indochina and elsewhere. Weatherman thus came to the conclusion that a revolution in the
I first heard all this when the
So Robin and I went with a few Weather friends, including one who is now an organizer in LA, one who is an elected political official in
At any rate, we got to our stop and piled out. We were led into a BU dorm hosting a freshman mixer—or market, more aptly. The girls were meat. The boys were shopping. Weatherman, particularly in
This was one of a string of masterpieces of organizing acumen that the best minds of my generation, stuck in a collective project that subverted their common sense, dreamed up. For example, there was the idea for what Weatherman called jailbreaks. Reveling revolutionaries would go to a public school and hand out leaflets urging the students to escape their jail cells and break free into society by walking out. This had a semblance of (vastly exaggerated) sanity to it, save for the idea that college kids were going to, in ten minutes, organize massive breakdowns in high schools. Worse than this effort, however, was Weatherman's beachhead ploy.
Weatherman, remember, felt that there were only going to be a small number of people operating in a fifth column, pro-Third World movement creating mayhem in the U.S. Some would be white and working class, so that was one place to recruit. However, the wisest Weather wizards pointed out that white working-class guys viewed radicals as whining pansies without substance. Weatherman couldn't befriend salt-of-the-earth workers, this argument ran, until Weatherman disabused working-class kids of thinking that revolutionaries were beneath contempt due to being soft and cowardly. From wherever they got this analysis, Weatherman managed to hatch an associated strategy.
One fine summer Saturday, a troop of about twenty Weather people went to a working-class beach in the Dorchester section of
While thinking about how to relate to the invitation to join Weatherman, I consulted two people. When I asked Michael Ansara, a very knowledgeable movement friend from the time, about Weatherman—and he had quite a few friends from Harvard who were in the group (whereas, to my knowledge, no one from MIT ever joined)—he said, look, even Weatherman's seemingly most solid claims don't hold up. The Vietnamese resistance came into being over decades and employed weapons left over from World War II and/or supplied over channels that don't exist in most
Noam hates to give advice. He doesn't want people doing what he says because he says it, which is admirable, for the most part. But sometimes he thinks the way to avoid currying blind followers is not to say anything, as compared to relying on the person being addressed to weigh what he says carefully. Noam also has an aversion to addressing strategy on grounds that, since so little is known about social dynamics, and since conditions are so context specific, the only reliable arbiter is to try things. But when I asked Noam about Weatherman, he was willing to give advice. I think his worries for my future overrode his reticence to provide advice about life paths. I don't remember what he said about the relations of the
I remember going to demonstrations and on several occasions watching Weather people provoke cops into confrontations. They got good at doing that and also good at knowing when to run away to avoid getting busted or beaten, leaving others to suffer those fates. I also remember one night, around midnight, in my apartment, hearing a knock on the door. I opened and in came five or six Weather people. They were very quiet and stooped over, as if hiding from being seen. The local Weather leader asked me in hushed tones if they could stay the night. They were on the run from imperialism. In fact, they could have slept anywhere in the city, including in their own rooms, totally safely. But they were practicing for hard times to come. I let them stay and they were gone in the morning.
Others in my generation—it wasn't only Weatherman, though it was only a very small minority—routinely went off a few miles from their cities to practice rifle-shooting at tin cans, also for hard times to come. Some would cut themselves and then suture the cuts, learning minor self-surgery, again for hard times to come. Meanwhile, they would give speeches like, "country sucks, kick ass," setting themselves up for hard times to come.
I know I am being harsh, but it is all true. If piled up like this it gives a damning impression, that's because it was pretty damning. But where does the blame lie? As I look back on it, many of the best minds and hearts of my generation got caught up in spirals of anger that took them far from relevance. Revolution is not a tea party. We were very young. We had few models to consult. We had few reliable and caring elders to learn from. We were polarized into paranoia regarding everyone and everything—"paranoia runs deep, into your life it will creep." Throw in as-yet-unchallenged oppressive tendencies built into society and, via society, built into us, add macho personas and anti-intellectual leanings— and it isn't surprising we got what we got.
Weatherman's heritage, in my view, was a bunch of blown-up bathrooms, a few blown-up halls, and a few blown-up people, the latter within Weatherman itself. The ideas that fueled Weatherman, as distinguished from those fueling the broader Left, weren't worthy. It is not true that people in industrialized countries cannot create huge movements able to change their societies. It is not true that movements based elsewhere are the only hope. Blowing up bathrooms or picking fights with community people won't build movements, ever, anywhere.
To resist, and to do it well, honestly, and with real and lasting commitment— which is what Weatherman wanted to achieve—is still most certainly a goal to pursue. As but one indicator, there are 191 member states in the United Nations. There is a
Fervor is the weapon of choice for the impotent.
Memoirs entail personal revelations and this one may help convey a bit more about how good people can get caught up in odd thoughts. Robin and I entertained pursuing our own personal escapades at two different times. One plan was to go to a local war-related company—Dow or Raytheon or something of that ilk—with a large barrel of gasoline. We would sneak in and the two of us would be there, with this big barrel full of gasoline, with a short fuse attached. We would announce that unless we were given media coverage to state our case publicly, we would set it off.
The second brainstorm was to go to
First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you.
Then they fight you. Then you win.
Martin Luther King, near the end of his life, said, "For years I labored with the idea of reforming the existing institutions, a little change here, a little change there. Now I feel quite differently. I think you've got to have a reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values."
There was considerable confusion on the Left in the sixties associated with whether to fight day to day, as Rosa Luxemburg put it, for "reform or revolution," and about what each meant. I believed it was a false dichotomy. I thought you could fight for a revolution and also little changes here and little changes there. The trick was to have the little changes benefit future aims as well as current needs.
There is a different side of the same confusion. Martin Luther King might have said it earlier in his life but, instead, it was Hugo Chavez, as relayed by Tariq Ali in his book, Street Fighting Years. Chavez would not express his thoughts identically today, I believe, as he is now, at least as of this writing, unequivocally revolutionary, but here he is, talking to Ali in summer, 2004:
"I don't believe in the dogmatic postulates of Marxist revolution. I don't accept that we are living in a period of proletarian revolution. All that must be revisited. Reality is telling us that every day. Are we aiming in
Again there is a polarization: do something modest, or seek revolution. But for me the big problem with Chavez's advisory is, how does he know what the right direction is? How does he fulfill King's admonition while also delivering greater benefits now? Chavez rejecting idle dreaming is correct. I had no patience in the sixties for people who bull-sessioned nights away but never organized during the days. Idle dreaming is idle. King rejecting social democratic pragmatism is also correct. Seeking worthy but limited gains as ends in themselves will never transform deep sources of suffering. It is fatalist to think so. So how do we dream about tomorrow for benefit today? How do we act today to attain tomorrow? How do we connect the two inclinations without violating the logic of either?
I am a revolutionary, like King, and like Chavez in 2006, as I write, too. Our defining institutions need transcending and I want to help accomplish that. I can't abide capitalism, patriarchy, racism, or authoritarianism. We need innovation from top to bottom, and from skin to core and back again. In the sixties we rejected as insufficient a reformism that sought only "a little change here, a little change there," with each little change seen as an end in itself. We sought revolution, meaning systemic change of defining institutions, but I didn't believe that being revolutionary required that I reject little changes per se. Little changes could be the heart and soul of big ones.
For the reformist, the whole enchilada is tweaking the system via little changes. In the sixties, the reformist seeking to end the war saw the war's conclusion as the whole goal. You ended it and you went home. For the revolutionary, while little changes could be tasty, the full meal was revolution. In the sixties, the revolutionary seeking to end the war sought the war's end, but also sought to end imperialism, to end capitalism, and to usher in a better world.
Like reformists, I certainly believed that we should fight for little changes. In fact, I think that to denigrate fighting for little changes subverts prospects of revolutionary changes, and even of basic solidarity. How could I claim to be a revolutionary and also reject reforms? Imagine a revolutionary in the sixties rejecting as misguided work against the war, or against poverty, or against Jim Crow racism in the South. Not an appealing picture, is it? But there were some who did that on grounds that improving people's lives would diminish the likelihood they would rebel. How cynical, how crass, and how uncaring well-meaning strategy can be.
In the sixties popular slogans included "You are either part of the problem or part of the solution" and "Revolution is the only solution." I proclaimed both slogans often and loud. And I still like them, but I have learned that I have to be careful about what these slogans mean to others. I realized I could devote my life to revolutionary changes of basic underlying structures and seek surface reforms over and over too because there was nothing nonrevolutionary about surface reforms. I realized I fought for a new world, a revolution, and to end the war in
Ending a war is a reform. Winning higher wages via a strike is a reform. Affirmative action is a reform. Shutting down the IMF would be a reform. Winning instant runoff voting, partial public control over government budgets, and public oversight of corporate production processes would be winning reforms. Reforms are good unless we think the quality of people's lives doesn't matter.
The thing that wasn't revolutionary, and that King was trying to transcend, was fighting for "little changes" as ends unto themselves and particularly in ways that presupposed or even ratified existing defining conditions. What wasn't revolutionary was fighting for little changes in ways that presupposed that those little changes were all there was and in ways that solidified society's underlying logic. Reforms were band-aids on a sick system. Using a band-aid is not a bad idea to stem bleeding and, indeed, we needed to stem the bleeding of
How did we fight for worthy gains in the present without falling into the trap of presupposing that a new system was impossible and that only limited gains were ever attainable? We had an analysis and understood our efforts in context. If this couldn't be done, we would have had to choose between fighting for reforms and forgoing revolution, or fighting for revolution and forgoing reforms. Luckily, the reality was and still is that we can seek revolution and also fight for reforms—both as part of the means of attaining revolution and on their own merits as well.
Those in the sixties who argued against seeking reforms worried about a slippery slope. The May 1968
More complexly, it wasn't that anti-reformers thought fighting against a war or for higher wages, by that fact alone, precluded more comprehensive change. It was that they thought that every advocate of reforms was on a slippery slope where the skidding involved calculating the mood of centers of power, petitioning centers of power, negotiating with centers of power, dressing for and talking like functionaries of centers of power, legitimating the rules proposed by centers of power, and ultimately slipping into accepting the permanent inevitability of centers of power. What's odd is that these opponents of reform, so attuned to the very real dynamics of these particular slippery slopes, didn't fear another slippery slope, easily as evident, which they themselves typically slid down.
Deriding reforms led via a most slippery path to callous arrogance and sectarian aloofness most often expressed as dismissing or even deriding other people's short-term well-being. This engendered a slip-slide into what is called ultra leftism. One slipped out of touch with the travails and aims of people. One viewed distant liberation as if it were imminent, simultaneously ignoring immediate pain.
Did the two slippery slopes, one leading into reformism and the other into ultra leftism—both of which really did exist—mean that we couldn't seek reforms and we also couldn't seek revolution, so the only solution was private—as in going to the beach or living in a commune? Did it mean that we had to give up social change lest we become disconnected and sectarian as well as callous to pain on the one hand, or become supporters of the status quo on the other hand? I think this conundrum caused many people to give up their sixties activism. I think today, too, it is why many young people reject "being political."
The resolution was made explicit by a French revolutionary from the era of the sixties, Andre Gorz. I remember being powerfully affected by Gorz's book, Strategy for Labor. Gorz suggested that the route bypassing the Scylla of reformism and the Charybdis of ultra leftism was to seek reforms in a manner that also sought revolution. He called doing this "fighting for nonreformist reforms." It wasn't that the reforms themselves were necessarily different in the two approaches. It wasn't, most often, the demands we made that made us nonreformist. It was our process of fighting for demands. The reformist might seek higher wages or affirmative action or to end a war, and so might the nonreformist revolutionary. The same demand, therefore, could be reformist or nonreformist.
What mattered to Gorz was how we talked about our demands, how we created movements to win them, and what we sought to do in the aftermath of winning them. Gorz's idea of nonreformist reforms was to seek changes in the present that improved people's lives with rhetoric, organizations, and tactics, all of which contributed to people wanting still more gains, people being more aroused and conscious, and people being empowered and eager. The idea was to win reforms, organizational gains, and consciousness, all in a trajectory leading to sufficient power, clarity, and commitment to win new institutions.
The antidote to reformism for Gorz, which convinced me, too, was not to decry reforms (as in telling antiwar protesters they were misguided because they weren't saying revolution now), but to win reforms in ways that moved continually forward and presupposed system replacement. What some of us realized in the sixties, trying to avoid the slippery slopes of reformism and ultra leftism, was that we had to pay attention to both reforms and revolution and that the concept of nonreformist reforms was a convincing way to do it.
What about the personal tension between the reformist individual and the revolutionary individual? We saw plenty of that between sixties barricades and bookstalls. Most destructively, mutual respect was often destroyed by disdain. The sixties reformist who honestly believed that no new world was possible found the sixties revolutionary to be delusionally compromising people's realistic prospects in the pursuit of false dreams. Such a reformist, I came to realize, could be as committed as any revolutionary to justice, peace, and equity. Such a reformist could be as courageous, honest, and hardworking. But most revolutionaries had a hard time seeing those possibilities. Revolutionaries assumed reformist rejection of transformation stemmed from allegiance to one or another aspect of oppression. Assuming that motive, the revolutionary felt hostile to all reformists and often to all reforms. A degree of humility could—and when it occasionally surfaced did—do wonders for the effectiveness of both sides.
The Black Panthers
From Smack to the Little Red Book
Such are promises
All lies and jest
And disregards the rest.
In October of 1966, in
The heart of the Black Panther Party's official self-definition was their ten-point program. They wanted "freedom," "power to determine the destiny of our black community," "full employment," "decent housing," honest, critical education, an end to "police brutality," military exemption, release of blacks from prisons, trial by peers, and "land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace."
The Panthers picked up the gun to demonstrate black unwillingness to succumb to force. They provided free breakfasts to poor kids from the community to serve the people. They lacked sufficient support in their own community, and beyond, to withstand the assaults hurled at them. They were hounded, harassed, manipulated, jailed, and murdered into oblivion.
My direct interactions with the Black Panthers were relatively few. I remember a private talk with Doug Miranda, who was then the head of the
Most people in major projects for which they are taking great risks, even risking their lives, have a tendency to see what they are doing through filters that remove the flaws and highlight the gems. Doug Miranda, however, saw things more as they were. He explained to me, after our getting acclimated with one another, why the Panthers, despite their admirable commitments, nonetheless had such a horribly limited way of communicating and even comprehending reality—which was regrettably garnering them much visibility and notoriety but only modest gains in membership. He told me that many Panthers effectively went from dealing heroin to dealing Mao's Little Red Book overnight, and that the mind sets and habits of the former were only repackaged—not replaced—during the switch.
This was more than a telling revelation of what should have been obvious to everyone watching. And it also wasn't, if one was careful in thinking about what Miranda was saying, a total condemnation. Miranda was simply telling the truth. It was not meant to condemn or to propose elimination or enshrinement of the Panthers. It was meant to explain their less admirable traits and provide insight that might lead to improvements.
Social change, Miranda was implicitly noting, was not something that springs from elysian fields. It rises from the bedrock of real circumstances. Worse, the conditions of oppression imposed on people by real circumstances often lead to jaundiced behaviors, and those can be carried over, as well, into resistance. My lunch with Miranda taught me that even as one can't reject this truth about inadequacies, one must also not make believe it isn't so. One must see the truth, and act on it, working to correct problems.
My reading of Panther history is that the first generation of Panther leadership and prominent activists—such as Eldridge Cleaver, Huey Newton, and perhaps Bobby Seale, too—never fully transcended their ways of thinking from the past. They augmented them, yes, but not enough. They created a thuggish party, truth be told, not a party nourishing the seeds of a better future in the present. Perhaps Doug Miranda was different, and surely the key Panther from Chicago, Fred Hampton, who was massacred in his bed by police, was dramatically different, and one can see quite easily the trajectory between the early founders and these people. I am here praising what's special in Malcolm X's history, I think, and in Stokely Carmichael's, too.
Transcending one's past, I realized in those days, may sometimes mean transcending drug-dealing habits and mind-sets, both commercial and violent. Other times it might mean transcending elitism, prejudice, or, alternatively, feelings of subordination and inferiority. Odds are that none of the past's imprints on us can be completely undone in the lives of single individuals, much less over the course of just a few frenetic years of crisis. Personality is usually rooted deeper. Movements must patiently help people change without making people miserable. Panther history showed me that movements must adopt collective norms and structures that militate against negative features dominating outcomes, rather than opting, as the Panthers did, for practices that elevate negative traits. If your rhetoric emphasizes that "today's pig (cop) is tomorrow's bacon," you are unlikely to develop a caring, calm, sober, serious, and steadfast demeanor.
When Eldridge Cleaver went to Vietnam, he came back and announced that the Vietnamese had told him that thereafter all proposals for trips had to go through him, with him passing judgment on who should go or not. It was a lie. The Vietnamese never imbued him with such responsibility, much less power. That individuals lied and aggrandized, however, was not the biggest problem. Of course that happened. When Panther leadership engaged in horribly violent behavior inside their own organization, when they demeaned opponents as vermin, that wasn't the biggest problem, either. People in our movements, no less than in society, carry bad baggage. The biggest problem was when movements lacked means to readily discern and reject such behavior or, even worse, when they propelled and celebrated it.
There is another variant of this experience that I only read about that played a comparable role in my thinking. In the Bolshevik revolution there was a need to collect money that transcended the capacities the movement had for attracting donations. Bank and train theft was adopted as a major source of funds. In charge of this branch of operations, the Bolsheviks put a young man with well-suited personality and disposition. His name was Josef Stalin.
Assume the robberies were essential to movement success. One can predict many likely implications for the people engaging in violent and surreptitious theft. So when it was all over and the new government was being established, why of all people would one want to begin elevating the head bank robber to great authority? As a hedge against the probability that such a person adopted inclinations to put himself above all else, not to mention tendencies toward paranoia and violence, bank robbers should have been reserved for collective activities, not for activities where they might ride their self-centered identifications to problematic outcomes. The Bolsheviks, however, not only didn't hold authoritarian tendencies in ill repute, they admired them, a bit like the Panthers, and the results were horrendous.
The upshot I took from all this was that the problem of holding in abeyance or overcoming our own elitism—sexism, racism, authoritarianism, classism, or other harmful and even brutal tendencies—depended partly on seeing them and self-consciously orienting ourselves away from them, but also partly on creating circumstances of equality that raised checks against them. Possible strategies were multiple and context dependent. They could involve a person constantly reminding himself that his advantages owe to history, luck, and injustice and not to superiority, and forcing herself to behave contrary to expectations and patterns in those regards. But mitigating strategies could and should also involve changing the relations that pertain among activists and especially their standards and methods of decision making.
As RL-SDS tried to do, at least in some respects, I came to realize that a movement should change the roles of actors in ways that diminish race, gender, and class-based differentials, and that redress social differences to remove the imbalances that these nasty ideologies promoted. To demand only that people individually wage a psychological battle against the ideologies while maintaining the material conditions of their origination wasn't completely impossible, but over the long haul it was unlikely to succeed. That was the lesson of ills like those in Weatherman and the Black Panther Party. Bad conditions in the movement aggravated bad behavioral outcomes. Remember KOR in
I swear to the Lord
I still can't see
Why Democracy means
Everybody but me.
My second memorable interaction with the Panthers was at a conference in part about Huey Newton's incarceration and in part about positive developments in the Party's program. Many things happened at the conference. For example, there was a bomb threat and we all had to exit, watch the bomb squad search the place—imagine the ignominy of all these revolutionaries depending on the police—and then settle back into our agenda. One speaker gave a talk announcing a new program called intercommunalism. He was trying to identify a pattern of relations commensurate to vastly improving interracial, religious, and ethnic relations in the
Many Leninists, which the Panthers rhetorically were, had historically seen this problem as relatively simple. There ultimately needed to be unification of communities. We shouldn't have blacks, Latinos, Jews, Catholics, and so on and so forth, at each other's throats, and the easiest way to undo such conflicts was to undo such differences. Let's have one religion, nation, ethnicity, race—which is to say, let's have one culture. Over time, let's have the rest fade away, like a bad dream, leaving universality.
The Panthers, though they were Leninist in many respects—it being a simple leap from violent authoritarian drug-dealing gangs to violent authoritarian Leninist party-building—saw through this aspect of some Leninists' agendas. They realized that while having one universal culture would by definition mean an end to cultural and community hostilities, it was an impossible dream, or, more accurately, an impossible nightmare. Human conditions were too diverse, the Panthers understood, to permit only one culture. And once different cultures existed, nearly all cultures were far too serviceable and meaningful to people to be easily jettisoned. A truly domineering political project might impose on everyone a single culture, but it would be the culture of the dominant groups in the project even if it called itself something new and superior—like say "revolutionary culture," "humane culture," or "socialist culture," as opposed to more honestly calling itself "white" or "Christian" or "Russian culture"—but the subterranean reality would be that other patterns would live on and seek to revive. The imposition of a single dominant culture would be felt by most as a horribly oppressive denial and not as transcendence and liberation. This was the prior history of Leninist interaction with indigenous cultural communities, however well-motivated the choices were for many adherents, and it went far toward explaining not only the emergence of national conflict's role in the elimination of the Soviet regime, but perhaps even more the abiding hatred for Marxism Leninism among many indigenous communities. While resistance to Marxist cultural norms would often get mixed up with reactionary agendas, as in the case of the Miskito Indians' opposition to the Sandinistas in
At any rate, the Panthers, or some of them, saw through all this and were struggling to find a formulation that fought against all kinds of cultural subjugation and hierarchy while elevating cultural diversity as a primary value. They called their fledgling notions "intercommunalism" way before anyone came up with the label "multiculturalism," and I actually think intercommunalism is both a better name, and, more important, had lurking within it insights that were more serious in various regards. Later Robin Hahnel and I adopted that label, intercommunalism, for ideas we thought ought to be developed into a set of goals for cultural relations in a better world.
For all their faults, the Panthers were a heroic attempt and their destruction by a vicious state, not to mention taking the lives of so many leaders, paved the way for decades of despair and pain that black communities are still seeking in diverse ways to transcend back onto a path labeled liberation. King's mountain is still in our future.