Thursday, January 9, 2014

Who and What is “The Left”?

The January 1st edition of the Washington Post published an Op-Ed titled “The Resurgent Progressives.”  The writer, E.J. Dionne, claims “the emergence of a Democratic left will be one of the major stories of 2014.”  The author bemoans the rightward shift in American politics and admits the US “needs a real Left.”  But do progressive local referendums, the ascendancy of individuals like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and NYC mayor Bill De Blasio represent the “the real Left.”  Hmm, I don’t think so.  Once upon a time these figures would have been, at best, referred to as liberals even moderates by some. 

Although the terms Left and Right are regularly applied in the white corporate media, they are rarely defined.  Throughout most of the twentieth century, particularly the Cold War, “the Left” meant some form of socialism, communism, or anarchism.  We should return to this definition.  The central unifying factor of the “The Left” should be anti-capitalism.  Speaking only of income inequality just. doesn't. quite. cut it.  “The Left” must question private ownership itself and demand a complete redistribution of land and wealth including, but not limited to, the nationalization of banks, factories, and communications systems etc.

As previously stated, this was once the criteria.  For example, Howard Zinn claims that one hundred years ago in 1914 the Socialist Party USA had over 1200 office-holders in the US.  Twenty years later, during the era of the popular front, Robert Cohen in When the Old Left was Young writes that in 1936 half of all college students in this country participated in a one day strike and rally to protest fascism and war.  At the height of the anti-war movement in 1970, over 10,000 people gathered in Philadelphia for the Revolutionary People's Convention to write a new US constitution.  The keynote speaker was Black revolutionary, Huey Newton.  These are examples of a truly insurgent Left. 

None of those remarks are meant to belittle the accomplishments, impact, and possibilities of the liberal policy's that have been enacted.  A case in point, eighteen states have legalized gay marriage, Washington and Colorado legalized marijuana, and like other municipalities, Washington DC has raised its minimum wage to $11.50.  Similar to industrial unionism in the 1930s, if the SEIU and other labor unions commit hundreds, perhaps, thousands of young organizers to organize fast food, low wage workers there could be a strong multi-national labor movement in the US.  The beacons of hope for a truly resurgent Left are socialist alternative city council woman Kshama Sawant in Seattle, WA and Revolutionary Black Nationalist Chokwe Lumumba in Jackson, MS.  But what does a truly resurgent Left mean for the Black Liberation movement?

In Reluctant Reformers Robert Allen argues that US social reform movements from abolitionism to labor has been sabotaged by racism/white supremacy.  Unfortunately, due to the ongoing impact of the southern strategy perfected by Ronald Reagan AND the Democratic party, racism hurts the chances of the success of multi-racial organizations even today. Moreover, it illustrates the continued relevance of Left Nationalist formation(s) (ex: African Blood Brotherhood, Black Panthers, MXGM).  Following the strategy laid out in the Jackson Plan of participatory and economic democracy, the election of Chokwe Lumumba offers possibilities and potential lessons for "The Left" generally and the Black Left in particular. With the correct definition and strategy for "The Left" we can organize to smash capitalism and end national oppression, once and for all.

Benjamin Woods is a PhD candidate at Howard University and co-founder of Students Against Mass Incarceration. He can be contacted at, or through his website FreeTheLand.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Pan Africanism: A Two-Line Struggle

In 1961 sociologist E. Franklin Frazier wrote “We have no philosophers…who have reflected upon the fundamental problems which have always concerned philosophers such as the nature of human knowledge and the meaning of human existence.” To a large extent, this lack of engagement with philosophy, among intellectuals AND organizers, has produced several misunderstandings that has even led to fratricidal violence.  For example, the fact that many Pan Africanist do not have a grounding in philosophy has had a negative impact on ideological struggle in the movement.  This article is a corrective that will, hopefully, provide a brief history and understanding of the nature of the two-line struggle in the Pan African community.

Kwame Nkrumah stated that two worldviews have existed in human history: materialism and idealism. Another fancy, academic GRE word for this concept is ontology.  Ontology asks the question ‘what is the fundamental nature of reality’ or ‘what is real’? Idealists assert that ‘ideas’, ‘consciousness’, or ‘spirit’ are the fundamental reality.  For example, in her book Yurugu Marimba Ani declares “spirit is primary!,” similar to Hegel in The Philosophy of History who explained that a ‘universal spirit’ or 'consciousness' is primary.  Although they represent two very different set of political interests and constituency’s, when it comes to ontology, they share the philosophical viewpoint of idealism.  A few notable African idealists are Marimba Ani, Cedric Robinson, Molefi Asante, Mwalimu Baruti, Asa Hillard, and Marcus Garvey.  Western idealists include Plato, Friedrich Hegel, and Gerald Massey.

However, materialists claim that ‘matter’, ‘nature’, or the ‘physical world’ that humans perceive with their senses (taste, touch, sight, hear, smell) are real.  Ideas, in the materialist conception, are principally a reflection of ‘matter’ or the ‘physical world.’  Of course, several African materialists were scientific socialists influenced by Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels but, as Theophile Obenga in African Philosophy  and S. Radhakrishnan in Indian Philosophy Vol 1. demonstrate, philosophical materialism as a distinct school of thought existed in African and other non-western societies prior to the development of Western philosophy.  African materialist include Kwame Nkrumah, Fred Hampton, George Jackson, Huey Newton, Claudia Jones, Kwame Ture, Thomas Sankara, Amilcar Cabral, and Walter Rodney. 

Robert Alexander in his Ethiopian Manifesto (1829) was the first to articulate a form of idealism called Ethiopianism.  The doctrine originates in a biblical prophecy from Psalm 68:31 “Princes shall come out of Egypt and Ethiopia shall soon stretch forth her hands unto God.”  Ethiopianist believe that Egypt (Kmt) and Ethiopia (Kush) were great ancient African civilizations and that soon the Western world will fall and Black people will once again be leaders in world civilization.  Ethiopianism was influenced by romanticism.  Romanticism was a European reaction to the Enlightenment which asserts that each race or nation has its own unique characteristics and should follow its own model of development.  For example, Alexander Crummell was an Ethiopianist who emigrated to West Africa in the nineteenth century and a self-described Platonist.  He stated “The Negro Problem in the US is a problem of ideas...there is a present, but fleeting move to give it the respect of materialism.”

By the early twentieth century, the ideological struggle began to intensify.  In 1914, Hubert Harrison left the Socialist Party(SP) claiming that rhetorically the SP was class first but, in fact, has “insisted on Race first, and class after.”  Later, he would give Marcus Garvey one of his first platforms at a major speaking event in NYC and become co-editor of the Negro World.  Eventually, he broke with Garvey over, what was in Harrison’s view, utopian idealism.  While espousing a race first philosophy, Harrison remained committed to historical materialism. 

The UNIA, under the leadership of the Honorable Marcus Mosiah Garvey, was the largest mass movement of Africans in history, before and since. The ideology of the UNIA, African Fundamentalism, was a direct descendant of Ethiopainism urging Africans to pursue ‘racial independence’ in art, politics, and all areas of life in order that a fallen people will rise to their original greatness. At its core, the UNIA was a spiritual/political movement that attempted to engender in its adherents a mental transformation and cultural return to Africa.

In addition to Harrison, the UNIA had major disagreements with the African Blood Brotherhood (ABB).  The ABB was a scientific socialist organization whose objective was to establish an independent Black state in the US.  The debate became so hostile, that the ABB disrupted the second international convention of the UNIA.  Following the merger of the ABB with the communist party (CPUSA), there were regular street brawls between Garveyites and the CPUSA in Harlem in the 1930s. In fact, in 1930, one physical altercation led to the death of a Black communist, Alfred Levy.  Therefore, there was a historical precedent for the shootings at UCLA between the US organization and BPP in 1969.  The ideas of Garveyites and Communists influenced later generations of Black Power advocates and independence leaders.

Similar to the US, the African continent experienced the two-line ideological struggle.  The principle debate was between scientific socialist and those who advocated African socialism and Negritude such as Leopold Senghor.  Senghor, the first president of Senegal, asserted that prior to slavery and colonialism Africans practiced communalism whereby land and resources were shared, therefore, they do not need to adopt the ideas of Karl Marx but instead must return to the source.  Furthermore, according to Negritude, all people of African descent, regardless of time and space, have a spiritual/metaphysical connection which facilitates a shared cultural value system.  Negritude is influenced by surrealism.  Surrealism was an early twentieth century artistic and political movement originating in France that was critical of western rationality and instead emphasized the subconscious, imagination, and emotion as a means to human emancipation.

Ahmed Sekou Toure, was a revolutionary leader of Guinea-Conakry who in 1958 rejected membership in the French community and in 1961 expelled the Soviet ambassador.  He was critical of the Negritude ideology promoted in 1966 at the Festival of Negro Arts organized in Dakar. Toure claimed “the serious mistake of the champions of Negritude is that they underestimate the very determinant force of the environment and historical facts on man’s thought and reflexes.”  Toure argued Negritude built upon a white definition of Blackness which stated Africans are irrational and savage.  Instead, history, not skin color, should form the basis of the African personality. Therefore, in Toure’s view, Negritude is an “imperialist ideology.”

As long as Black people inside and outside the US have a common experience of global white supremacy and international capitalism, then unity on Pan African lines will continue to be a historical necessity. Because a similar experience of oppression does not always produce a general agreement among a group, it is hoped that this article will add some ideological clarity minus the traditional condescension and acrimony.

In the twenty first century, old categories such as ‘cultural nationalists vs. revolutionary nationalists’, ‘class vs. race’, and ‘culture vs. economics’ are increasingly irrelevant, if they ever really were accurate.  Those who argue that culture and white supremacy are the primary factors in the oppression of Black people are philosophical idealists.  On the other hand, philosophical materialists view culture and national identities as primarily determined by history and social environment but, still yet, a cultural revolution is required in order to ensure the long-term success of a liberation movement.

Unfortunately, this article cannot cover the totality of a century old debate that cuts across the Black world but, as a wave of radical activism sweeps the globe, it is imperative Africans in the millennial generation have a basic knowledge of the history and scope of the two line struggle.
A Luta Continua! (The struggle continues!)

“African Socialism Revisited” by Kwame Nkrumah

Conscienism by Kwame Nkrumah

Revolution, Culture & Pan Africanism by Ahmed Sekou Toure

“A Dialectical Approach to Culture” by Ahmed Sekou Toure

African Socialism or Socialist Africa by Muhammad Babu

Return to the Source by Amilcar Cabral

Marxism and African Liberation” by Walter Rodney

“Tanzanian Ujamaa and Scientific Socialism” by Walter Rodney

Walter Rodney Speaks by Walter Rodney

"Why I Changed My Ideology': Black Nationalism and Socialist Revolution," by Amiri Baraka Black World 24 (July 1975): 30-42.

Pan Africanism or Communism by George Padmore

“Materialist Philosophical Inquiry and African American Studies” by Jonathan H. McClendon

“In Defense of Materialism: A Critique of Afrocentric Ontology,”  by Christopher Williams Race & Class 47(1), 35-48.

The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey by Marcus Garvey

Race First by Tony Martin

On African Socialism by Leopold Senghor

"Ujamaa – The Basis of African Socialism" by Julius Nyerere

Pan Africanism in the Diaspora by Ronald Walters

“Marxist-Leninism and the Black Revolution” by Ronald Walters Black Bulletin Books Vol. 5, No. 3, Fall 1977

“Enemy from the White Left, White Right, & In-Between” by Haki Madhubuti Black World 23, 12, (October 74), 36-47.

“US, Kawiada, and the Black Liberation Movement in the 1960s” by Malauna Karenga in Engines of the Black Power Movement: Essays on the Influence of Civil Rights Actions, Arts, And Islam

Black Marxism by Cedric Robinson

Afrocentricity by Molefi Asante

Yurugu by Marimba Ani

Notes Toward Higher Ideals in Afrikan Intellectual Liberation by Mwalimu Baruti

Monday, January 7, 2013

A Few Thoughts on Django Unchained

Django Unchained is one of the most talked about films among Africans in the US.  Any Hollywood film in which an enslaved African kills Europeans on screen is bound to generate a favorable response in the Black community.  At the same time, Africans have developed an independent tradition of revolutionary art that stretches back to the antebellum period.  Of course, the similarities among Black art over time are not the product of a metaphysical or unconscious influence but instead primarily represent similar responses to the same social environment. 


In fact, two antebellum novels share a similar plot with Django.  In 1852, Frederick Douglass published The Heroic Slave.  A novel about an enslaved African who attempts to rescue his wife from enslavement then leads a successful revolt on a slave ship.  Although Douglass is often likened to a nineteenth century non-violent MLK, in fact, he advocated armed rebellion in his speeches, this novel, and flirted with emigration to Haiti in 1860. 


A few years later, in 1861, Martin Delany published the novel Blake or the Huts of America.  Blake is about an enslaved African who, after his wife is sold into enslavement in the Caribbean, organizes an armed Black revolution.  In the course of his travels, he organizes freedom fighters in the US South, Western Africa, and the Caribbean. Remember both of these novels were written when slavery was the law of the land. What enterprising young Black filmmaker will make a movie based on these novels written by two of our greatest abolitionists?  Only time will tell…..


If enslavement could not stop the production of revolutionary Black art neither could legal American apartheid.  In 1899, Pan Africanist author Sutton Griggs wrote the militant novel Imperium in Imperio.  Imperium is about a secret underground Black organization.  The novel climaxes when the organization decides to takeover the US navy and liberate Louisiana and Texas to form an independent Black state.  To a large extent, Griggs and his work have been forgotten but his attempt to create a national Black literature lives on. 


The Black Power movement produced a cultural renaissance in creative expression that is still revered but has some overlooked aspects.  The Lost Man (1969), Uptight (1969), The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973),  The River Niger (1976) are all feature length films which include Black radical organizations engaged in armed shootouts with the police.  For example, the entire film Final Comedown (1972) starring Billie Dee Williams, is an armed shootout with the pigs wherein the main character has flashbacks to show how society pushed him to become a revolutionary. 


The so called ‘blaxploitation’ period produced several films that could be considered revolutionary or reactionary.  The film Boss Nigger, written and produced by a Black man, features a formerly enslaved Black Bounty hunter who arbitrarily makes himself sheriff of an all white town.  The tagline of the film is “White Man’s Town, Black Man’s Law.”  Hmmm, a Black bounty hunter who kills white people on screen…sounds eerily familiar. 

The enthusiastic response that Django has provoked from Africans demonstrates the desire for art that inspires a culture of resistance. Simultaneously, it is imperative that young African intellectuals and organizers familiarize themselves with Black art that has explicitly political objectives and emphasizes collective liberation.  They are the vanguard of, not only the political, but the cultural revolution, as well. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Human Rights, Neo-liberalism, and Mass Incarceration

After billions of dollars in campaign donations and thousands of negative ads, the 2012 elections left the legislative and executive branch virtually unchanged. The Obama campaign energized a coalition of Blacks, unions, white women, and Latino’s. As a matter of fact, the day after the election, several Latino groups stated explicitly that Obama owes his second term to them and should pass comprehensive immigration reform. Unlike in 2008, Black people should not be pacified with the symbolism of a Black president but must develop a set of tactics, strategies, and objectives to improve their deteriorating condition, particularly in the arena of mass incarceration.

In 1948, the US became a signature to the United Nations Declarations of Human Rights. Similar to previous generations, this document can be used to demonstrate the gross human rights violations against US Blacks. For instance, the 13th amendment to the US constitution states “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude except for crime whereof the party has been duly convicted shall exist within the United States.” In short, enslavement did not legally end in the US but was only regulated by the government. Mass incarceration is slavery.

This runs counter to article 4 of the UN Declaration which states “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.” This means that not only is the United States Constitution in direct contradiction to the very notions of equality and freedom it claims to represent but international law as well.

Due to neoliberal economic policies over the past thirty years, prisons and other areas of social life have become increasingly privatized. For example, in 2010 two private management prison companies had a combined revenue of almost $3 billion. We should demand the immediate transfer of private prisons into public hands. In addition, a ‘New’ New Deal, that includes a guaranteed job for ALL including the formerly incarcerated. Specifically, we demand re-entry programs that provide a job and housing upon release from prison.

An organization that should be studied to achieve these objectives is the National Negro Congress. NNC was a united front composed of fraternal and religious groups, civil rights, unions, etc. under the leadership of the Black Left. In fact, the President and Executive Secretary were Communists. The primary tactics used were mass demonstrations and direct action. Their successes include the establishment of a civilian review board for District police, dealing a death blow to debt peonage, and no police murders of Blacks in DC during their high point of organizing against police brutality in 1938-39.

The inherent limitations of this strategy are obvious: ending neoliberalism does not end white supremacy or the economic system that created it and the UN is to a large extent controlled by major Western powers. But a critique of neoliberalism does provide space for a more thorough critique of capitalism and a human rights paradigm gives US Blacks a common framework and possibility for alliances with other oppressed people. In addition, this strategy allows us to publicize our case at the international level. The time of symbolism has ended and movement building has begun.


Friday, October 19, 2012

Black Internationalism and Mass Incarceration

The 2008 financial collapse that began in the United States spread almost instantly to rest of the globe. Since the financial collapse, the resistance to the imposition of austerity measures has spread as well. For example, the Arab spring inspired the Indignado movement in Spain which motivated the white Left in the US to form the Occupy movement. Black people in the US must build upon their own history of internationalism in order to abolish the prison industrial complex.
For instance, internationalism was a regular feature of theabolitionist movement. After leaving Fredrick Douglas publication, the North Star, Black abolitionist Martin Delany held several conventions in the 1850s to decide a location for Black people to emigrate from the US. Also, he spoke to the Aleke or so called chief to set up trade between US Blacks and people in contemporary Nigeria. Finally, he traveled to Britain to build international support among abolitionists in Europe.
Almost a century later, Howard alumnus and professor, Alphaeus Hunton helped to lead the Civil Rights Congress. The CRC was a Black radical organization that protected the democratic and human rights of US Blacks. In 1951 they published and delivered to the United Nations “We Charge Genocide” a detailed portrait of the gross human rights violations against US Blacks.
Arguably, Black internationalism is one of the greatest threats to the US Empire. For example, during the anti communist Red scare several Black radicals were blacklisted, called in front of senatorial hearings and questioned about their political affiliations and, like Alphaeus Hunton, imprisoned. Great Black organizations such as the CRC, National Negro Congress, Southern Negro Youth Congress, and Council on African Affairs were destroyed and, worse yet, forgotten.
Perhaps most unfortunately, Black liberal organizations such as NAACP that adopted Black internationalism abandoned it once it was marked subversive by the US government. The NAACP adopted much of the Cold War rhetoric as well. This included condemning uncompromising former allies like Alphaeus Hunton who were prosecuted for their political beliefs
It is time to resurrect the spirit of Black internationalism! Several leaders in Latin America such as Guatemala and Costa Rica have expressed thier support for ending the war on drugs through decriminalization. This region is even more important because of the Left ward shift of its governments and the literally hundreds of millions of the Black people living in Central, South America, and Caribbean.
Due to the numerous embassies in Washington DC, Black students in the area are uniquely situated to build relationships with progressive governments. In addition, Black students in the NY area have access to the United Nations headquarters. Black internationalism will allow us to publicize the condition of Black people across the globe and bring the US on charges of human rights violations and Genocide. Only a few organizations have kept the flame of Black internationalism alive but now we must bring it back to the mainstream of Black political life.
Benjamin Woods is a student organizer and PhD candidate in Political Science at Howard University. His blog is He can be reached at

Friday, September 28, 2012

The End of Political Theatre

"There is but one evil party with two names, and it will be elected despite all I can do or say."  -W..E.B. Dubois (1956)
“Places everyone, Places” we are entering the final act of political theatre.  The Presidential debates indicate the eminent conclusion of the 2012 Presidential elections.  This election season has been equally entertaining as any Broadway show.  Whether it’s the pep rally/Sunday revival that is the nominating conventions or tragic-comedy of Mitt Romney’s comment regarding the “47%.” But ultimately what makes this election theatre is the fact that the political and economic system of this society has been structured to restrict the acceptable terms of debate.  How did this happen?

For all those who remember the 2000 elections, in Florida, a controversy developed concerning which votes would be counted in one of the closest presidential elections in US history.  After the case was sent to the Supreme Court, the justices in Gore v Bush decided “The individual citizen has no federal constitutional right to vote for electors for the President of the United States”.  This judicial decision reminds US citizens that in this Republic, not democracy, the Electoral College determines the winner of the election. In short, voting is a privilege, not a right. 

At the founding of the US, when this drama was written, only property owning white males could vote.  Originally the US senate was decided by the state legislatures.  In fact, in agreement with several framers of the US Constitution, James Madison in in Federalist Papers No. 10 explicitly states the he believes the masses should not enter politics because they would want to redistribute wealth.  It wasn’t until Blacks, Women and other disenfranchised people engaged in dynamic social movements that they gained the privilege to vote.  In a capitalist society, the poor are denied a voice.

More recently, the Supreme Court facilitated the corporate sponsorship of this theatrical production per the Citizens United case.  This far sighted judicial decision allows corporations to spend unlimited amounts in election campaigns.  Although in 2008 Obama received a record amount of small donations, he received many large donations that helped him reach the record setting $745 million.  In a report titled “America for Sale” Sen. Bernie Sanders (D) states the Koch Brothers alone plan to give $400 million.

To a large extent, in 1972, following the Gary Convention, the Black movement began to shift its primary focus from militant grassroots organizing to electoral politics.  This strategy has been a major error.  The Black Movements primary focus should return to tactics such as the general strike, non-violent civil disobedience, and independent Black-led political organizations.  Then, we can end the political theatre and get on the real show called: Liberation!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Black Secular Thought and Action

Christ Jesus Lord God Jehovah,
Beat it on away from here now.

-Langston Hughes “Goodbye Christ”

Every year, the Pew Research Center publishes a survey which consistently demonstrates that Black people are the most religious group in the United States. This is not surprising considering that the Black Liberation Movement has been influenced by spirituality particularly Christianity. The historical and contemporary religiosity of Blacks leads many to incorrectly assume spiritually/religion has been at the center of the Black Movement. History tells a different story.

In every stage of the Black movement you can find atheists, agnostics, skeptics or people better known as freethinkers. For example, while a Southern missionary in the 1830s, AME minister, Daniel Payne stated enslaved Africans “scoff at religion itself…Yes, I have known them to even question [God’s] existence.”

Today, young Black people question a God who would allow the persistent violence in their communities or huge disparities in wealth between poor Black and affluent white communities. Therefore, contrary to popular opinion, atheism is not a Eurocentric or “white thing” but is an indigenous intellectual development that organically emerges out of the Black experience. Lastly, this challenges the common held assumption that faith in God was necessary to survive the horrors of slavery, sharecropping, and segregation.

Several Black political leaders and intellectuals have been critical of the Black church, some have completely rejected faith. An example is Black atheist WEB Dubois. Dubois is known as the first African to attain a PhD from Harvard and arguably the most revered Black intellectual of the 20th century. He boldly asserted “I do not believe in the existence and rulership of the one God of the Jews” and “Death is the end of Life.”

Dubois praised the Soviet Union for removing religion from public education. In his eyes the Black church defended the oppression and exploitation of Blacks and a lack of free thinking. Although Dubois is one of the most read Black thinkers in history, his atheist views have been overlooked. Other Black leaders who were also freethinkers include A. Philip Randolph, Langston Hughes, and Howard University’s own Zora Neale Hurston to name a few.

To an extent, the Black church has had better propagandists than Black freethinkers. Most know of the contributions of the church to the Civil Rights Movement but what about the obstacles it has posed? For instance, at the 1961 National Baptist Convention, the largest Black religious group in the US, progressive ministers such as M.L.K. attempted to have the organization support civil rights. The idea of supporting Black human rights was so controversial, that a physical fight ensued and one minister was killed at the convention! Lord have Mercy, chile!

In conclusion, although everyone is entitled to their own personal belief or lack thereof, the Black movement should be secular. Whether it is the independence movements in Africa such as FRELIMO (Mozambique), MPLA (Angola), or the Black Panther Party in the US, spirituality was, at best, a secondary factor. As a Black skeptic examining this information, I ask ‘Do we need spirituality or religion in order to build and sustain a mass movement?’ I doubt it.