Book Review: Defying the Tomb
Defying the Tomb: Selected Prison Writings and Art of Kevin "Rashid" Johnson, Featuring Exchanges with an Outlaw
by Kevin "Rashid" Johnson, Minister of Defense, New Afrikan Black Panther Party- Prison Chapter
CP 63560, CCCP Van Horne
also available from:
674-A 23rd Street
Oakland, CA 94612
This book centers around the political dialogue between two revolutionary New Afrikan prisoners. The content is very familiar to MIM(Prisons) and will be to our readers. It is well-written, concise and mostly correct. Therefore it is well worth studying.
Rashid's book is also worth studying alongside this review to better distinguish the revisionist line of the New Afrikan Black Panther Party - Prison Chapter (NABPP-PC) with the MIM line. While claiming to represent a dialectal materialist assessment of the world we live in, the camp that includes the NABPP-PC, and Tom Big Warrior's (TBW) Red Heart Warrior Society have dogmatically stuck to positions on the oppression and exploitation of Amerikans that have no basis in reality. We will take some space to address this question at the end, as it has not been thoroughly addressed in public to our knowledge.
Both Rashid and Outlaw preface their letters with their own autobiographies. Rashid's in particular is an impressive, almost idealized story of lumpen turned proletarian revolutionary. The simple principle that guides him through prison life is standing up to the pigs every time they violate a prisoner. At times he has inspired those around him to the point that the pigs can't get away with anything. The problem, he later points out, is the others are inspired by him as an individual. So when he was moved, or sent to a control unit, their unity crumbled.
At first, control units seemed an effective tool to control his resistance. But it is then that he found revolutionary theory. Rather than stay focused on combating minor behavior issues of the COs, he began to learn about societies that didn't have cops and prisons, and societies where the people rose up to transform the whole economic system. It is through ideology that you can build lasting unity that can't be destroyed by transfers and censorship.
Both Rashid and Outlaw conclude their autobiographies saying they have nothing to lose. They are two examples of the extreme repression felt by the lumpen of the oppressed nations. As a result, state terrorism no longer works to intimidate them, leaving them free to serve the people.
Democratically Centralized Organizing
In the foreword, Russell "Maroon" Shoats says his reason for not joining the NABPP-PC was that it claimed to operate under democratic centralism, which he believes is impossible for prisoners. We agree with his assessment, which is why we do not invite prisoners to join MIM(Prisons) even when their work and ideological development would otherwise warrant it. The benefits of having a tight cadre organization are lost when its inner workings are wide open to the pigs. Maroon points out that certain leaders will end up with absolute power (with the pigs determining who leads, we might add), and much resources are wasted just trying to maintain the group.
For the most part, there is nothing a comrade could do within prison as a member of MIM(Prisons) that they can't do as a member of USW. There is much work to be done to develop this mass organization, and we need experienced and ideologically trained comrades to lead it. When the situation develops to the point of having local cadre level organizations within a prison, then we would promote the cell structure, where democratic centralism can occur at a local level, just as we do on the outside.
In the last essay of the book, Rashid finally answers Maroon by saying that the NABPP-PC is a pre-party that will become real (along with its democratic centralism) outside of prisons.
The Original Black Panther Party
The main criticism of the original Black Panther Party (BPP) in Rashid's essay on organizational structure is their failure to distinguish between the vanguard party and the mass organization. Connected to this was a failure to practice democratic centralism. How could they when they were signing up members fresh off the street? These new recruits shouldn't have the same say as Huey Newton, but neither should Huey Newton alone dictate what the party does. We agree with Rashid that the weakness of the BPP came from these internal contradictions, which allowed the FBI to destroy it so quickly.(p. 353)
It's not clear how this assessment relates to an earlier section where he implies that an armed mass base and better counterintelligence would have protected the BPP. Rashid criticizes MIM's line, as he sees it, that a Black revolutionary party cannot operate above ground in the United $tates today.(p. 133) Inexplicably, 15 pages later he seems to agree with MIM by stating that Farrakhan would have to go underground or be killed the next day if he opposed capitalism and promoted real New Afrikan independence.
He also criticizes MIM on armed struggle and their assessment of George Jackson's foco theory. Mao applied Sun Tzu's Art of War to the imperialist countries to say that revolutionaries should not engage in armed struggle until their governments are truly helpless. Rashid says that he agrees with MIM's criticism of the Cuban model that lacked a mass base for revolution. But he supports George Jackson's "variant of urban-based focos, emphasiz[ing] that a principal purpose of revolutionary armed struggle is to not only destroy the enemy's forces, but to protect the political work and workers…"(p.134) He goes on to criticize MIM for a "let's wait" line that ends up promoting a bloodless revolution in his view.
He complains that the U.$. military was already overextended (in 2004) and MIM was "still just talking." But Mao defined the point to switch strategies as when "the bourgeoisie becomes really helpless, [and] the majority of the proletariat are determined to rise in arms and fight…" MIM(Prisons) agrees with Mao's military strategy, and one would have to be in a dream world to imply that either of these conditions have been reached, despite the level of U.$. military involvement abroad. Rashid is saying that we need armed struggle regardless of conditions to defend our political wing. Despite his successes with using force to defend the masses in prison, we do not think this translates to conditions in general society. Guerrilla theory that tells us to only fight battles we know we can win also says not to take up defensive positions around targets that we can't defend.
Another criticism made by Rashid is that the BPP didn't enforce a policy of members committing class suicide, and he seems to criticize their self-identification as a "lumpen" party in 1970 and 1971. Interestingly, he foresees a "working-class-conscious petty bourgeois" leading the New Afrikan liberation struggle.(p.232) He comes down left of the current New Afrikan Maoist Party (NAMP) line by condemning the call for independent Black capitalism as unrealistic, and requiring the petty bourgeoisie to commit class suicide as well.(p.177) Whether the vanguard is more petty bourgeois or lumpen in origin is a minor point, but we mention all this to ask why all the class suicide if all Amerikans are so exploited and oppressed as he claims elsewhere (see below)?
Tom Big Warrior
In contrast to Rashid, except for some superficial mentions of Maoist terminology, we don't have much agreement with Tom Big Warrior (TBW) in his introduction or his afterword to this book. In both, he states that the principal contradiction in the world is internal to the U.$. empire, and it is between its need to consolidate hegemony and the chaos it creates. This implies a theory where imperialism is collapsing internally, and will be taken down by chaos rather than the conscious rising of the oppressed nations as MIM(Prisons) believes. He speaks favorably of intercommunalism, as has Rashid who once wrote that "the old definitions of nationalism no longer apply." We see intercommunalism as an ultra-left line that undermines the approach of national liberation struggles.
Speaking for the NABPP-PC on page 380, TBW states that they want a Comintern to direct revolutionaries around the world. We oppose a new Comintern, following in the footsteps of MIM, Mao and Stalin. In the past, TBW has taken up other erroneous lines of the rcp=u$a such as accusing Third World nations of "Muslim fascism." He also talks out of both sides of his mouth like Bob Avakian about Amerikan workers benefiting from imperialism, but also being victims of it. He has openly attacked the MIM line as being "crazy," while admitting to have never studied it. This is the definition of idealism, when one condemns theories based on what one desires to be the truth.
Wait, Are Whites Revolutionary?
After reading this book, you might ask yourself that question. Comrades have already asked this question of NABPP-PC and TBW in the past and received a clear answer of "yes." This debate is old. The former Maoist Internationalist Movement (MIM) had it with the so-called "Revolutionary Communist Party (USA)" (rcp=u$a), among others, for decades before denouncing them as a CIA front. Interestingly, Rashid and TBW both like to quote Bob Avakian but fail to provide an assessment or criticism of the rcp=u$a line in this 386 page volume.
Most of these writings predate the formation of the NABPP-PC, but are presented in a book with the NABPP-PC's name on it, so we will take it as representative of their line. The history of struggle with the MIM camp dates back to the original writing of much of the material presented in this book. Comrades in the MIM camp, including United Struggle from Within, the emerging NAMP, and a comrade who went on to help found MIM(Prisons) engaged in debates with all of the leading members of the party, as well as TBW, shortly after their formation.
The point is that not only had at least two of the NABPP-PC's leaders studied MIM line prior to forming their own, but they openly opposed this line following their formation. While not addressed directly, it seems that the only line dividing the NABPP-PC from joining the rcp=u$a is its belief in the need for a separate vanguard for the New Afrikan nation.
Contradictory Class Analyses: Economics
On pages 205-6 Outlaw asks Rashid:
"But from your analysis of these classes who do you consider to be the most revolutionary, considering the majority of workers in empire are complacent to some degree or another, due to the international class relationships of empire to the Third World nations, and the conveniences proletarians, and even lumpen-proletarians, are afforded as a result of that international situation and relationship?"
Rashid responds on pages 208-9 by stating that our class analysis is "mandatory for waging any successful resistance" but that he is only able to give a general analysis due to his lack of access to information. He does say:
"[T]he US is neither a majority peasant nor proletarian society. It is principally petty bourgeoisie. It has an over 80% service-based economy… So the US proletarian class is small and growing increasingly so, while the world proletariat is growing and becoming increasingly multi-ethnic."
On page 122 he also upholds this line that all non-productive workers are petty bourgeois, and not exploited proletarians. On page 232 he expands this analysis to explain the relationship between the imperialist nations, who are predominantly petty bourgeois, and the Third World that is mostly exploited. But in a footnote he takes it all back saying, "modern technological advances have broadened the scope of the working class" and clearly states, "[t]he predominantly service sector US working class is in actuality part of the proletarian class." He justifies this by saying that the income of these service workers is no different than the industrial proletariat. Yet he takes an obviously chauvinist approach of only comparing incomes of Amerikans. The real industrial proletariat is in the Third World and makes a small fraction of what Amerikan so-called "workers" do.
We agree that it is dogmatic to say this persyn is proletariat because she makes the tools and this persyn is not because she cleans the factory. But this is a minor point. The real issue is that whole countries, such as the United $tates, are not self-sustainable, but are living on the labor and resources of other nations. A country that is made up of mostly service workers cannot continue to pay all its people without exploiting wealth from somewhere else, since only the productive labor creates value.
A less disputed line put forth by Rashid and TBW is that U.$. prisoners are exploited. We have put forth our thesis debunking the exploitation myth, and exposing the prison system as an example of the parasitic "service" economy built on the sweat and blood of the Third World.(see ULK 8) More outrageously, in an article on the 13th Amendment, Rashid says that over 1/2 of Amerikans are currently "enslaved" by capitalism. This article contains some unrealistic claims, such as that no one could possibly enjoy working in the imperialist countries, and that these workers do not have freedom of mobility. Over half of Amerikans own homes. Not only are these alleged "slaves" landowners, but in the modern imperialist economy real estate has become more closely related to finance capital in a way that super-profits are gained by owning real estate in the First World. (see ULK 17)
Both Rashid and Outlaw demonstrate an understanding of the relationship between imperialist countries and the Third World, with Rashid going so far to say that reparations to New Afrika outside of a war against imperialism would mean more exploitation of the proletariat. While contradictory, Rashid's economic analysis in the original letters is more correct than not. In his treatment of history we will see more confusion, and perhaps some reasons why he ended up finding the "multi-national working class" to be the necessary vehicle for revolution in the United $tates despite his focus on single-nation organizing.
Contradictory Class Analyses: History
While repeatedly recalling the history of poor whites becoming slave catchers, marking the first consolidation of the white nation, Rashid lists "join[ing] their struggle up with the Israeli working class" as one of the strategies that would have led to greater success for Hamas.(p.50) This schizophrenic approach to the settler nations is present throughout the book. He echoes J. Sakai on Bacon's Rebellion, but then discards the overall lessons of Sakai's book Settlers: The Mythology of the White Proletariat. While Sakai argued that these poor, former indentured servants had joined the oppressor nation in 1676, Rashid argues that modern-day Israelis and Amerikans, most of whom are in the top 10% income bracket globally, are exploited proletarians and allies in the struggle for a communist future.
Later in the book he goes so far as to say that white "right-wing militias, survivalists and military hobbyists" are "potential allies" who "have a serious beef with imperialist monopoly capitalism." This issue came to the forefront with the "anti-globalization" movement in the later 1990s. Both MIM and J. Sakai(1) led the struggle to criticize the anti-imperialist anarchists for following the lead of the white nationalist organizations calling for Amerikan protectionism. These groups are the making of a fascist movement in the United $tates which is why the distinction between exploited and exploiter nations is so important.
In the discussion of the Republic of New Afrika (RNA) we gain some insight into Rashid's contradictory lines on who our friends and enemies are. Here he correctly explains that European countries bought off their domestic populations with wealth from the Third World, to turn those working classes against the Third World workers and peasants. But his turn from the MIM line takes place in attempting to address the strategy of the RNA. He sees a strong danger of neo-colonialism in the RNA struggle for national liberation, as happened in the numerous liberation struggles in Africa itself. So he talks about how ultimately we want a world without nations, so let's put class first to solve this problem (and he assumes most white Amerikans are proletariat). This is an ultraleft error of getting ahead of conditions. He goes on to say that the imperialists would easily turn the white population against a minority New Afrikan liberation movement trying to seize the Black Belt South. Here you have a rightist justification for pragmatism.
This is not to dismiss either of those concerns, which are very real. But his solution in both cases is based in a faulty class analysis. This book paraphrases Mao to point out that your class analysis is your starting point, and that your political line determines your success. Liquidating a New Afrikan revolutionary movement into a white class struggle over superprofits will not succeed in achieving his stated goals of a world without oppression. While the original Black Panthers themselves put forth different class analyses of Amerika at various points, they proved in practice that developing strong Black nationalism will bring out those sectors of the white population who are sympathetic. We must not cater to the majority of white people, but to the world's majority of people.
Dangers of Revisionism
The danger of revisionism is that it works to lead good potential recruits away from the revolutionary cause, both setting back the movement and discouraging others. The fact that Rashid sounds like MIM half the time in this book makes it more likely he will attract those with more scientific outlooks. We think those familiar with MIM Theory, or who have at least read this review could find this book both useful and interesting. However, the NABPP-PC and TBW are actively promoting a number of incorrect lines under the Panther banner, to the very people who need the Panthers' correct example of Maoism the most. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure and it is far beyond time that we bring these criticisms into the open to advance the ideological understanding of the whole movement.
- MIM(Prisons) on U.S. Prison Economy
- Building United Front, Surrounded by Enemies: Case Study of the U.$. Housing Market Decline
- Malcolm X had a vision we have yet to attain