This article was originally published at MIM-Prisons. Reposting here does not imply endorsement or agreement. – Nick
Like many of the books reviewed in Under Lock & Key, Meditations On Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth is written by someone who spent most of his adult life in a U.$. prison. That there are so many such books these days speaks to the growing plague of the mass incarceration experiment that is the U.$. injustice system. The content of many of these books speaks to the development of the consciousness of this growing class of people in the belly of the beast. While of the lumpen class, they differ from the subjects of Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth in both their incarceration and their First World status. And while great thinkers are among them, their ideas are reflected in the general prison population superficially at best. The need for the development of mass consciousness (one based in revolutionary nationalism, and an understanding of how to think, not what to think) and the project of oppressed people taking their destinies in their own hands make up the main theme of this book.
Wretched has greatly influenced many in our circles, and is itself a book highly recommended by MIM(Prisons). It is of particular interest in being perhaps the most complete and accurate discussion of the lumpen-proletariat that we’ve read to date. While not completely applicable to conditions in the United $tates, it is even more relevant to the growing numbers of displaced Third World people living in slums and refugee camps than when it was first written. For the most part, Yaki discusses Wretched as it applies to the oppressed nations of the United $tates, in particular New Afrika.
The four-part meditations on Wretched make up the bulk of the book. The introduction to this section is an attempt to break down The Wretched of the Earth for a modern young audience. In it the author stresses the importance of rereading theoretical books to fully grasp them. He also stresses that the process of studying and then understanding the original and complex form of such works (as opposed to a summary or cheat sheet) is itself transformative in developing one’s confidence and abilities. At no stage of revolutionary transformation are there shortcuts. The only way to defend the struggle from counter-revolutionaries is to thoroughly raise the consciousness of the masses as a whole. “Get away from the idea that only certain people or groups can be ‘intellectual,’ and think about everyone as ‘intellectual.'”(p.192) And as he concludes in part two of the Meditations, We often forget that our whole job here is to transform humyn beings.
The National Question
As part four of the meditations trails off into unfinished notes due to Yaki’s untimely death, he is discussing the need for national culture and history. He echoes Fanon’s assertion that national culture must be living and evolving, and not what the Panthers criticized as “pork chop nationalism.” He discusses the relevance of pre-colonial histories, as well as the struggles of oppressed nations during the early years of colonization, to counter the Euro-Amerikan story that starts with them rescuing the oppressed nation from barbarity. These histories are important, but they are history. Sitting around dressed in Egyptian clothing or speaking Nahuatl aren’t helping the nation. It is idealism to skip over more recent history of struggles for self-reliance and self-determination in defiance of imperialism.
We don’t even need to go back to ancient times to identify histories that have been lost and hidden; many of us don’t even know our recent past. Recording the little-known history of the “wretched” of the richest country in the world is the first step to understanding how we got here and how we can move forward. We are working on this with a number of comrades as an important step to developing national (and class) consciousness.(1)
Yaki agrees with the MIM line that nation is the most important contradiction today, while presenting a good understanding of the class contradictions that underlay and overlap with nation. Recently, debates in another prison-based journal, 4StruggleMag, have questioned the relevance of nationalism as the basis of revolutionary organizing; taking an essentially Trotskyist view, but justifying it via “new” conditions of globalization.(2) Really the theory of globalization is just one aspect of Lenin’s theory of imperialism. The author, critiquing nationalism, discusses that nations themselves were a modern concept that united many groups that were once separated by culture and land. This was true for the nation-states of europe that united internally and the nations of the colonial world that were united by their common oppression under european domination. It was in this colonial relationship, and specifically with the demands of imperialism, that nations solidified in dialectical relationship to each other: oppressor vs. oppressed.
Yaki disagrees with the reading of history that sees nations as a modern construct. He stresses the importance of recognizing that oppressed nations existed as people with rich cultures before europeans drew up national boundaries based on colonial land claims (ie. Egypt, China, Maya). While true, talking about “nations” that predate capitalism is similar to talking about the “imperialism” of the Roman empire. For followers of Lenin, empire does not equal imperialism. Imperialism is the highest stage of capitalism; an economic system forced by the extreme accumulation of capital that requires its export to other people (nations) to maintain profit rates, without which capitalism will not continue to produce (one of its inherent contradictions and flaws).
When we talk about nations, we are talking about imperialist class relations; the relations of production and distribution under the economic system of imperialism (which is not more than a couple hundred years old). More specifically, we are talking about a system where whole nations oppress and exploit other nations. While different classes exist within each nation, these questions are secondary to the global class analysis in the period of imperialism. To answer the anti-nationalist author in 4StruggleMag who claims nationalism never led to liberation, or to internationalism, we refer to socialist China, the most advanced movement for the liberation of people from capitalism to date in humyn history. Even within the confines of this imperialist country, the most advanced movement took nationalist form in the Black Panther Party.
Any theoretical questioning of the relevance of the nation to revolutionary anti-capitalism must address the nature of imperialism. Within the United $tates the lines between oppressor and oppressed nation have weakened, particularly on the question of exploitation. This provides a material basis for questioning the relevance of nationalism within our movements here. As Yaki wrote, “here, in the seat of empire, even the ‘slaves’ are ‘petty-bourgeois,’ and our poverty is not what it would be if We didn’t in a thousand ways also benefit from the spoils of the exploitation of peoples throughout the world. Our passivity wouldn’t be what it is if not for our thinking that We have something to lose…”(p.188) But globally, the contradictions between nations continue to heighten, and there is no basis for debate over whether nation remains the principal contradiction.
As we said, nations, like all things in the world, are dialectical in nature. That means they constantly change. There is nothing to say that nations will not expand as implied by the globalization argument, but this will not eliminate the distinction between exploiter and exploited nations.
While we won’t try to address the relevance of revolutionary nationalism within the United $tates definitively here, Yaki is very adamant about the need for an understanding of the internal class structure of the internal semi-colonies. And as different as conditions were in revolutionary Algeria, many of the concepts from Wretched apply here as Yaki demonstrates. “[D]on’t We evidence a positive negation of common sense as We, too, try to persuade ourselves that colonialism and capitalist exploitation and alienation don’t exist? Don’t We, too, grab hold of a belief in fatality (very common among young people these days)? And, what about OUR myths, spirits and magical/metaphysical superstructure? In our context, We employ conspiracy theories, the zodiac and numerology, Kente cloth and phrases from ancient languages; We invoke the power of a diet and the taboo of certain animals as food products.”
Those studying the class structure within the oppressed nations, New Afrikan or not, within the United $tates will find much value in Yaki’s writings. Even in the introduction, the editors remind us that, at the very least, revolutionary nationalism was a powerful force in our recent history. For example, in 1969 Newsweek found that 27% of northern Black youth under 30 “would like a separate Black nation.”(p.19) And in the 1960s communist teens from the Black Disciples organized comrades from various gangs to defend Black homes in other parts of Illinois from drive-by shootings by the White Citizens Council and their backers in local police departments.(p.16) In the same period, when Malcolm X was alive and pushing a no-compromise revolutionary nationalist line on its behalf, the Nation of Islam had reached over 200,000 members.(p.18) Shortly thereafter, a majority of Blacks in the United $tates felt that the Black Panther Party represented their interests. When we look around today and ask whether New Afrikan nationalism has any revolutionary basis, we cannot ignore these recent memories.
Class, then Back to Nation
In his essay, On Transforming the Colonial and “Criminal” Mentality, Yaki addresses George Jackson’s discussion of the potential in the lumpen versus their actual consciousness, which parallel’s Marx’s point about humyns consciously determining their own conditions and Lenin’s definition of the masses as the conscious minority of the larger proletariat, which as a class is a potentially revolutionary force.(3) He quotes a critique of Eldridge Cleaver’s line on the lumpen, which glorified organized crime. The critique argues that organized crime has its interests in the current system, and it is a carrot provided to the internal semi-colonies by imperialism. MIM(Prisons) looks to organized crime to find an independent national bourgeoisie (such as Larry Hoover, whose targeting by the state is mentioned in the book’s introduction), but many are compradors as well, working with the imperialists to control the oppressed for them. This is even more true where the state has more influence (i.e. prison colonies).
While Yaki’s focus on consciousness is consistent with Maoism, we have some differences with his application. Yaki, and his ideological camp, disagree with George Jackson and the MIM line that all prisoners are political. The state is a political organization, serving a certain class interest. We say all prisoners are political to break the common misperception people have that they are in prison because they did something wrong. Yaki’s point about the lumpen is that if they don’t turn around, understand the conditions that brought them there and then work to transform those conditions, then they are no use to the liberation struggle, and they are therefore not worthy of the term “political prisoner.” He argues that to allow those with bourgeois ideas to call themselves a “political prisoner” dilutes the term. His camp uses “captive colonial” to refer to the New Afrikan imprisoned by Amerika regardless of one’s ideology. That is a fine term, but by redefining the commonly used “political prisoner” from its narrow petty bourgeois definition, we push the ideological struggle forward by reclaiming popular language. In our view, “political prisoner” does not represent a group with a coherent ideology, just as “proletariat” does not.
Yaki puts a lot of weight on ideology when he defines nation as a “new unity” as well by saying, “[t]o me, being a ‘New Afrikan’ is not about the color of one’s skin, but about one’s thought and practice.”(p.275) While skin color is an unscientific way to categorize people, we would caution that there are in fact material factors that define a nation; it’s not just how we identify as individuals. Saying it is only about thought and practice leaves open the possibility of forming nations along lines of sexual preference, colors, favorite sports teams – lines that divide neighbors in the same community facing the same conditions. On the flip side, it creates space for the white-washing of national liberation movements by denying the group level oppression that the oppressor nation practices against the oppressed. To say that nations are fluid, ever-changing things is not to say that we can define them based purely on ideas in our heads and have them be meaningful.
Yaki Offers Much Knowledge
The use of the term “meditations” in the title is indicative of Yaki’s approach, which clearly promotes a deep study of the material as well as making connections that lead to applying concepts to current situations. It is not a study guide in the traditional style of review questions and summaries. It does provide a critical analysis of the race-based interpretations of Fanon, such as that in Fanon for Beginners, which make it a valuable counter-measure to such bourgeois work.
His stress on hard work to build a solid foundation leads him to an agreeable line on armed struggle in contrast to others we have studied from the same ideological camp. On the back of the book, Sanyika Shakur quotes the author as saying, “i’d rather have one cadre free than 100 ak-47’s” after Shakur was imprisoned again, related to possession of an assault rifle. Shakur writes, “t took me years to overstand & appreciate that one sentence.” Discipline is something the revolutionary lumpen must develop, and taking a serious, meditative approach to study can help do just that.
In his essay, Malcolm X: Model of Personal Transformation, Yaki concludes, “We can go through the motions of changing our lives… but the test of the truth comes when the prison doors are opened, or, when otherwise We’re confronted with situations which test our characters.” (p.118)
Yaki was a New Afrikan revolutionary and a Prisoner of War. As part of the post-Panther era, Yaki reflects realistically on security questions, pointing out that it’s too late to start instituting security measures after Martial Law has been enacted. From reading this book, everything you can gather about Yaki builds an impression of seriousness and commitment to our cause. In this way, this book is more than just a useful study guide for understanding and applying Fanon’s ideas; it is an exemplary model for revolutionaries to help develop their own practice.
-Wiawimawo of MIM(Prisons)
1. for example, Response to Time for Peaceful Revolution
2. Nationalism and Planetary Revolution, 4StruggleMag Issue 18
3. see Again on the Subject of the ‘Masses’ in the Imperialist Countries, MIM Theory 14: United Front, p.29.