Liberation: Beyond Revenge and Hatred of Relatively Privileged

[From Kasama Project]

Touched and moved by the murder of Trayvon Martin -- sorrow, anger, outrage, determination, solidarity. The demand for justice and an end (finally) to the killing of Black youth.

by Mike Ely

I appreciate Red Fly’s thoughtful comments on this question of anger among the oppressed. And have a few things to add.

I had written:

“Some people are willing to join movements that project a permanent state of anger, but few people would want to be governed by people defined by such anger. Militancy, yes. Relentless partisan opposition to oppression, yes. Indignant passion when people are mistreated, yes. But who wants a movement, a gang, a party, an army run by the Sonny Corleones of this world? Who thinks that this contains a sensibility that can encourage justice?”

Red Fly writes:

“We don’t have to be Sonny Corleones in order to represent and embody the righteous anger that oppressed people feel. The anger represented by the capitalist mafia in their relentless pursuit of profit is not at all the same as the anger of the oppressed rising to confront the criminals that run this world.”

Well, yes. In fact that is my point. Our movement should have an “indignant passion when people are mistreated.” But we should not some off like Sonny Corleone (in the Godfather) — someone driven by constant out-of-control desires for revenge.

I’m not arguing against anger. I’m arguing against being “defined” (as a movement) by the appearance of a “permanent state of anger” — in other words, that seems mainly motivated by revenge and payback, not a vision of a new world.

There is a difference between passionate and angry demands for justice — and a movement that seems to have revenge as its goal.

Our goal needs to be liberation and an end to oppression, not a historical period of “payback” against those complicit in the old order. We should not seem prepared to target the broad relatively-privileged strata of this society — we should mainly treat them as potential allies not as likely enemies.

We need to be, and appear, lofty. And we need to help train the oppressed to aim far higher than payback — and give encouragement to their higher aspirations. Which means winning people to a communist view: Not just end their direct oppression, but to carry through the fight against all oppression.

Obviously, we have in front of us the horrible example of Trayvon Martin — first his death, then the refusal of the authorities to arrest his murderer — and we experience (each in our hearts) real anguish, outrage, and yes anger over such injustice.

This is a discussion of how a movement presents itself. And the question is what (basically) defines us.

If it is the appearance of revenge – we will be misunderstood. If it is a lofty determination to end injustice through liberation — we will be succeeding in defining ourselves (publicly) in a way that conveys our goals and our view of solutions and our view toward people generally.

There is, in the liberation process, a need for anger and a need for visible punishment of major oppressors (an element of payback for major crimes). But our movement can’t be defined in the public eye as a movement of revenge seeming to want a protracted period of payback focused at whole sections of the people.

The appeal of Scarface: What can we do with that?

Red Fly writes:

“But I think might hits on an important question: why do so many oppressed people (and people in general in this society) identify with the Sonny Corleones and Tony Montanas of the world?…. At bottom, movies like the Godfather and Scarface are myths centered around the capitalist fantasy of upward mobility.

“But within this overall arc there are all kinds of themes that, appropriated properly, can be quite inspiring even to revolutionaries: the idea of intense group loyalty and extended family, the creation and implementation of certain timeless rituals and symbols of belonging, the carrying out of plans and work in a disciplined way, bold and inspiring leadership, etc.”

Later, Red Fly adds:

” Obviously (OBVIOUSLY!) this is not to say that we should pattern our behavior here on the mafia. But if we’re going to understand (truly understand) the revolutionary subject we can’t fail to take notice of certain things that aren’t always so refined and “comfortable” with respect to proletarian consciousness.”

Why do oppressed youth love Scarface -- with its glorification of ruthlessness, gang loyalty, betrayal, money and dope?
"Say hello to my little friend!"
And is this mainly a problem, or something to appropriate?

Scareface has an intense popularity among youth in oppressed communities. And there is a sense of “clawing your way to the top” with utter ruthlessness.

It is (as RF writes) a “fantasy of upward mobility.”

It is a celebration of truly grisly “dog eat dog” — as Tony Montana butchers and dominates anyone who stands in his way. Even at the expense of his own heart (his soul or his humanity, however you want to put it). He is victorious for a time, but increasingly hollow and alone, to the point where he almost seems to welcome death.

I think there is (in gang culture) symbolism, ritual, “belonging,” and elaborate social organizations. It is an example of what humans create in every enterprise and undertaking — for that undertaking to grip people deeply and bind them.

I would be wary of seeking to “appropriate” the particular symbols, rituals and belonging of other projects. (I.e. from churches, the army, gangs, corporate life, sports teams). They all have such features. And we can learn from that.

And we can even, perhaps, discover elements in various places we can adapt. Butmainly we face a creative process (together with the advanced among the people) of forging such things for our movement, for our very distinctive goals.

Two examples:

First, gangs have hazings. they often “beat in” new members. Fraternities have hazings too. The army has the deliberately intense and brutal hazing of boot camps. All of these things are designed to build “esprit de corps.” Once you are “in” you feel like you have passed through a difficult gate, into an exclusive “brotherhood.” But (as i’m sure Red Fly agrees) we revolutionaries would have to be careful about adopting or adapting such a hazing mechanism — which is designed to create an elitist feeling toward insiders and an us vs them feeling toward outsiders.

Second, much of the previous hard-left movement — that made it through the 1980s and 1990s — had (inevitably) their own symbols, rituals and belonging. The various dwindling post-60s groups often developed distinctive group language. and a strong sense of identity (including a familiar hostility toward everyone else, including left groups who startlingly similar). But these were symbols, rituals and belonging that ultimately served the survival of a small political group/sect, and often were not an embodiment of a movement that represented a process of fusion of sophisticated revolutionary ideas with networks among the people.

Aiming our spears at the middle class radicals and intellectuals?

Red fly writes:

“Another thing that Mike mentioned a while back that resonated with me: the violence of proletarian life. There are some sincere revolutionary-minded people out there who, due often to their class position as petty bourgeois intellectuals and/or soft-minded peaceniks, have a strange notion that proletarians hate anything having anything to do with violence. And as Mike was saying, this shows a true cluelessness when it comes to the working class.”

It is true, as Red Fly says, that working people are not nearly as put-off by justified anger and violence, as some political forces.

But it is never (in my argument) an attack on “petty bourgeois intellectuals and soft-minded peacenicks.”

That is a language and hostility that I don’t share. On the contrary, I think we should welcome and respect trained intellectuals — both inside and outside our movement. We should work with them and learn from them. And we should welcome the trained intellectuals who come over to our movement — we need them. And as Lenin says, we should not treat people of middle class origin in our movement as  permanently suspect or second class comrades, in the workerist way that the CP did in the 1930s.

We should not treat “petty bourgeois” as a kind dunce cap label we cram onto people’s heads.

Also finally, I think “peaceniks” are generally-and-overall fine — and their opposition to wars shows some clear thinking that others should learn from. I even think we should have a strategic and patient approach to liberals and social democrats among the people — seeking both unity and struggle — all while energetically working to expose the establishment liberals of the ruling class and opening the fundamental cleavages within the Democratic Party as wide and as fast as possible.

So attacking middle class forces was not my argument in my piece on “Violence & Street Fighting: Who Says It Alienates the People?

The point is that movements among the people are told not to threaten or alienate ruling class forces — and to adopt methods and respectability that implies a non-threat towards this system (and its normal functioning). The problem within the left is not “petty bourgeois” this or that — the problem is that some forces consciously want to constrain the popular movements to what is acceptable to the ruling class — they want to play by its rules (which means ultimately accepting its continued rule!).

Red Fly writes:

“What it also shows is the projection of their own petty bourgeois (essentially) liberal ideals onto the working class.”

In general, I don’t like argument by loose class characterization — where “proletarian” somehow means us, and anything we believe. And “petty bourgeois” becomes a loose label attached to anyone who disagrees with us. What’s the point of that.

The highly privileged composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein (shown here with Black Panther Donald Cox) risked his career and his life to raise funds for the Black Panther Party. He became the target of ferocious attacks by the rightwing for (supposedly) representing a wooly-headed, trendy "Radical Chic."

It isn’t a particularly materialist or communist method.

The middle classes are (in fact) very complex, stratified and diverse (both economically and politically). I don’t think they are characterized by any single ideals. And (frankly) there are political left movements with middle class features that are quite willing to adopt violence. I think of Weatherman as a leftist example. Or come to any suburban gun range for a non-leftist example of middle class attitudes toward violence. Or visit a suburban women’s shelter to see how violence lives in the middle classes. Or come to West Point and Annapolis (for a more “serve the empire” example).

And further: I think that ideas and class are relatively autonomous of each other — so that we should discuss ideas without pretending to trace each wrong idea back to some imagined class root.

For example, there is quite a sensitivity toward violence among the oppressed. Some people (largely women) in the housing projects are just numb with the killings. Many people can’t stand to go to another funeral of another Black teenager. (Can you blame them?) And so people get involved in “keep the peace” and even have a tendency to support police-enforced gun laws, etc. What class origin and what class experience are those ideas coming from? Isn’t that a complicated answer?

The idea that they are just “petty bourgeois ideas” would imply a view of ideas in which they are mechanically imported (or imprinted) in people’s heads from without. Reality is more complex and dynamic. The ideas arise (from reality) and they are also shaped from without. (I.e. there are police campaigns and NGOs funded to win sections of the oppressed to “stop the violence” efforts that generally end up strengthening the authorities and targeting the youth.)

Red Fly writes:

“The petty bourgeois radical will never, ever understand the beauty something like this. The petty bourgeois radical can only react with a combination of horror and absurd literal-mindedness to the militancy expressed here by the great and legendary Tupac Amaru Shakur, son of a street hustler and a Panther.”

In a friendly, comradely way, I have to say there is nothing that I agree with here.

First of all, is there such a creature as “the petty bourgeois radical”? Who is this? Where is this archetype found?

Second, is it true that radicals from the middle classes don’t appreciate Tupac? Obviously not. His main audience was white, suburban and middle class — demographically (and this was true about gangster rap generally with all the contradictions that implies).

It is as if we are supposed to mock and denounced this imagined abstraction “‘the petty bourgeois radical” but not connect it to actual radicals emerging among the middle classes.

Don’t we mainly welcome the emergence of radical left forces in the middle classes? Don’t we choose to love and nurture them?

The pessimism of saying never

Third, the idea that someone will “never, ever understand” something is wrong.

How do you know? Is class such a determinant thing that there are whole clusters of ideas that people of certain class origin will “never ever understand”? I don’t believe it.

“The petty bourgeois radical can only react with a combination of horror and absurd literal-mindedness to the militancy expressed here.”

Really? I don’t believe it.

The quintessential "petty bourgeois intellectual" J.P. Sartre challenging DeGaulle's government and risking arrest by openly selling the banned Maoist paper "Cause de Peuple" on the streets of Paris.

Again: Who is this monolithic figure of “the petty bourgeois radical”? Why are they such a fixed entity that they are incapable of understanding Tupac Shakur?

This way of speaking about people (with broad brush and hostile dismissiveness and pessimistic claims of permanent nature) is just not helpful to our work — and it is deeply contrary to reality.

It embodies two errors:

First is an assumption that people don’t change.

Second is the view that class nature has a rigid, iron-like grip on ideas and potential. This kind of pessimism and determinist view of relative privilege is “in the air” these days — and it is rather destructive.

Let me put it sharply: A dismissive hatred of the relatively privilege and the conviction that they can never, ever, oppose oppression is very different from a communist class analysis and from communist strategic thinking.

Such verdicts are endemic today within many activist circles — but these assumptions are mistakenly pessimistic — imagining fixed backwardness where there are in fact cracks and openings, and imagining present backwardness is permanent.

People are, in fact, open to transformation (through experience and creative political persuasion). And we should be generous and patient with people who don’t agree with us — including in the middle classes.

In the essay “Radiating: How revolutionary movements represent” I wrote:

“We should act as if people can listen and transform, and as if we too have things to learn (certainly from the each other, and from the oppressed, but even from opponents, or those who are wrong on many things). This should be like breathing for us.”

A dismissiveness toward “petty bourgeois radicals” and the assumption that there are things they can “never ever” understand is an example of what i’m arguing against in that essay.

I had other things in mind too: Some older people in the Black community also have a bitter and hostile attitude toward “the youth” in a sweeping way. I hear people talk about a “hopeless” or “lost” generation. But I am against any idea that people can’t learn and transform (that they are, as a whole, “lost” somehow). And I believe that in regard to the oppressed youth, but also about people awakening in the middle classes.

Strategic thinking: Helping the revolution’s advanced speak broadly to others

Red Fly writes:

“Tupac was the THE poet of an entire generation of the oppressed, embodying all the messy contradictions — the love and anger, hope and despair, progressivity and backwardness — of, not just black proletarians in the ghettos of L.A. and New York, but also Native and white proletarians (the people I grew up and hung with) in a far-flung corner of the Mountain West, the banlieues of Paris, and the favelas of Rio. … If you can’t feel the beauty of the equally intense anger and love expressed in this music, the beauty of all the contradictions embodied here, you might as well stick to tofu, organic wheat grass, Toyota Priuses and the likes of Elizabeth Warren.”

I understand the impact of Tupac (and of his death). And it is important when the poor and oppressed step on the stage and find their own voice… and he did that with powerful poetry. And yes, it tingled the spine of those he was speaking for.

But: I think that it would be wrong to think this impact was (somehow) only felt among the most poor. As I said above, Tupac was widely popular among sections of white suburban youth too. And that is mainly a hopeful sign — and something we communists should understand.

There are hopes and possibilities that conscious and articulate proletarians concentrate that can reach and awaken people very broadly. When Panthers stepped onto elite campuses or into the living room of Leonard Bernstein and asked for support it was often electrifying there too (notjust in the ghettos and prisons where they were mainly based).  If the 1992 LA rebellion had developed an articulate and conscious political face — it could have spoken to tens of millions in a historic way (certainly to the poor around the world, but also more broadly than that to middle strata.)

Second, I don’t share or promote the kind of dismissive insulting of the “enlightened middle classes.” Why mock tofu? Is there something wrong with eating tofu that we communists should expose? Or are there issues of diet and sustainability emerging among some middle class forces that we can “divide into two” — and help apply more widely (for both heath and ecological reasons)?

“The anger of the oppressed is a wonderful thing. And I would I even say that the hatred that the oppressed feel towards their oppressors is a wonderful thing. The key is channeling it properly.”

At the end, i understand what Red Fly is saying here.

From the Industrial Workers of the World in the early 1900s. Revolutionary movements need prominent themes of solidarity and belonging.

Personally, I would not state things that way — and would attempt to view these things as contradictions.

The “anger of the oppressed” is not some wonderful thing that simply has to be channeled. There is anger among the oppressed that is wrong (anger towards self, anger toward family partners, anger toward competitors in life, anger towards immigrants) — and there is anger that has the potential to target oppression and oppressors. There are capitalist ideas (and anger arising from internalizing capitalist dynamics), and there are liberating ideas (and the spontaneous ideas and emotions that lean that way).

Let me say something else that I think Red Fly is missing:

The problem with presenting a movement defined by anger is not what the ruling classes (or the middle classes) think about it. I understand that the ruling class is for keeping the oppressed passive. (And in some ways, they are quite willing to let the poor “hate and kill each other” in a Tony Montana way.)

My thought is about “the intermediate.”

The advanced forces are animated (and even identified) by deep indignation toward oppression, and by their working on ways to end it.

But the intermediate (who we need to function, survive and win) are not going to embrace a cause that looks like it will initiate an endless process of payback and revenge.

If we forge the advanced into a movement that tails their spontaneous sentiments (and revenge is among those sentiments!) — it will tend to be a protest movement, not a movement for power.

The problem with a movement of revenge is rightism and a general tailing of spontaneity (not of being “too extreme”).

Richard Wright on the visual language of the Comintern

Richard Wright

The very radical African American novelist Richard Wright wrote an essay of his experiences in the CPUSA in the 1930s. It is included in the fascinating anthology of ex-commmunists called “The God that Failed” — a book promoted by anti-communists, but with sophisticated accounts that we can learn from.

In it he describes showing his mother (an elderly somewhat religious Black woman) the literature of the CP, which portrayed the faces of furious people in crowds shouting, with their fists shaking in anger. “Is that how they see us?” she asked. Or “Is that how they want us to be?” And Wright responded (something to the effect of) “I don’t think they know how to express what they want very well.”

Richard Wright’s point is my point here. It is not a matter of whether we embrace the righteous anger of the oppressed — of course we do. It is a matter of how we choose to present our movement (and through such portrayal, choose to express our goals).

yes around the murder of Trayvon Martin there is great justified anger. What a horrible thing it would be if there was not! Yes we share that anger.

But if a revolutionary movement is seen to be defined by anger, if we tail and concentrate the spontaneous impulses toward revenge (and a generalized hatred of the middle classes, or the backward, or the passive) — we will be making important right errors. And we will never succeed in being seen as a liberating solution. And we will fail.

2 thoughts on “Liberation: Beyond Revenge and Hatred of Relatively Privileged

  1. It’s not “oppressed youth” who love Scarface, it’s beloved by MEN. Young girls aren’t putting up posters of Tony Montana. Which is part of the issue that Mike’s thoughtful meditation doesn’t get into, but would only be strengthened by.

    Where people have an “entitlement” to power OVER other people, among the oppressed — we can reduce that to a capitalist mentality, but exactly the way young women don’t see “making it” as dominating others is where the reactionary ideology of gangsterism shows it’s ass.

    1. True, there’s a gendered aspect as well but Scarface is not beloved by men as a whole. It’s primarily young men from oppressed communities.

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