There is a terrific documentary that was released two years ago called “The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975”, which goes into a detailed account of the rise and eventual stagnation of the Black Power movement, as well as major groups within it such as the Black Panther Party. The Black Panthers were a group of revolutionary African-American, who while struggling for freedom and liberation for people of their race and identity within the US, also fought an equal struggle against capitalism, which they perceived as the basis of inequality and social injustice in America, not only against poor blacks but poor whites as well. While initially starting as a black nationalist movement dedicated to separatism, similarly advocated by other black nationalist such as Louis Farrakhan and Malcolm X (though he renounced it later in his life), eventually the ideology of the party had evolved to the point where they began to reject black nationalism and became more a “revolutionary internationalist movement”. As stated by historian of the Black Power movement, Curtis Austin:
(The Party) dropped its wholesale attacks against whites and began to emphasize more of a class analysis of society. Its emphasis on Marxist-Leninist doctrine and its repeated espousal of Maoist statements signaled the group’s transition from a revolutionary nationalist to a revolutionary internationalist movement. Every Party member had to study Mao Tse-tung’s “Little Red Book” to advance his or her knowledge of peoples’ struggle and the revolutionary process.
Maoist notions of class struggle and working-class unity became central into the Black Panther Party. Liberation was not just a few more African-Americans given the same position of extreme power, wealth, and status as few white Americans in the US, but instead liberation was to erase a base and superstructure which the Black Panthers viewed as inherently oppressive, not only to their own identity but towards the most working class people. And by eliminating this factor, racial division (and the socio-economic divisions of it) within the US could be much more better combated. Just as to many black abolitionist during antebellum times, having more African-Americans become slave owner would not been seen as something emancipatory of black people, the Black Panthers viewed any attempt of assimilation into a social structure that was to them inherently injustice to much of the same sense. But gradually, as the sixties faded into the seventies, the Black Panthers faded as well. Not because of a division over ideology, but a division over action. Whether the party should pursue more reformist methods such as participating in local government and social services, or more revolutionary methods such as armed confrontation with the police and building dual power. By the mid-70s, the party was merely a shadow of it’s former self. The documentary captures all of this as it develops, and as it finishes off into 1975, one of the commentators Robin Kelley states this:
I see the Black Power movement as something of three different legacies, the most evident is this idea of building black institutions, buying black, supporting black businesses, but not necessarily revolutionizing or transforming society. Now in days its manifested in slogans like “the color of Black Power is green”, its about making money and supporting our businesses. It’s not a revolutionary ideology. Another extreme in that is a type of cultural nationalism, in that it goes in ebbs and flows. When Spike Lee’s film “Malcolm X” came out it was the height of a kind of cultural nationalist, sort of resurrection. And then finally, the other element is the black radical tradition. And how does it exist today? It certainly exists in certain forms of Hip-Hop.
The major disappointments and failures of Black Power groups trying to change the basic structure of society fueled desire for a less structurally radical and a more identity empowering, racially emphasized solution for representing the African-American community. This was a conscious shift in the belief that the only way to truly succeed for ones identity is to use the same capital-based organization the perceived rival identity uses. To use all of the powerful structural tools in society (no matter how unjust and harsh they may seem) to advance ones identity by any means. The same logic has been applied to second-generation feminism as well as the LGBT rights movement (primarily since the 1980s).
When we talk about identity politics, many Marxists may initially view it as divisive and reactionary, something that hinders political and economical liberation for the general population and does not address the concepts of contradictions within a capitalist society. But most of those that advocate identity politics view it the only pragmatic and empowering solution to their situation of being an downtrodden people. I find problems with both notions. First of all, Orthodox Marxism has had a difficulty trying to address the complexities of shared identities, primarily because Marxism externalizes all history in class relations, with elites taking their position on the basis of claiming ownership to the means of production. While this is true and I agree with it, we shouldn’t ignore the influence the conception of identities based on social structure (whether they be religious, racial, or etc) have had on history, creating illusions not only to the average people but even to the ruling elites (such as nationalistic fervor, which can be expressed by all social strata of a given nation). Marxism can definitely address identities when the theory of Marxism is hybridized with other theories such as structuralism and post-structuralism, but by itself, Marxism is a theory on economics and historical class relations, and I may even hesitate as to consider it a theory of politics as well. Not to mention that many so-called “Marxist regimes” have often times suppressed different identities their leaders felt threatened the stability of the state, such as with the repression of homosexuality in virtually every Communist country, as well as outbursts of nationalistic chauvinism, as with the Soviet Union (Russian nationalism), China, and Hoxhaist Albania. Though to be fair, many Western countries also had the same problem for a long while, with regards to issues such as national, racial, and sexual identities, and many still strongly do.
But we should also recognize that identities are often times competing and fighting against one another, mainly for the position of importance among its fellow adherence, who also have different identities as well. For example, if there is a black gay man, which identity should he associate himself with the most? Should it be his racial one or his sexual one? Which one weighs more importance? And what if he faces some hostility from the majority of people of both identities? There is still unfortunately a lot of homophobia prevalent within the African-American community, enlarged to some degree by homophobic lyrics in the rap sub-culture. Equally, there is a great amount of alienation in the LGBT community for people of color, mainly because a lot of the imagery associated with gay culture shows primarily upper-middle class white gays. Plus many of the “gay neighborhoods”, places where LGBT people can feel some sense of liberty for their identity, such as Castro Street and West Hollywood are very racially gentrified. This is just one minor example of the complexion of identities and the fact identities in of themselves are not bound to become permanent. They are constantly being shifted, molded, reformed, destroyed, and created entirely new. But what they are bound to is the physical materialism that has created them.
If we wish to see a more permanent change, something that can be experienced mutually by all people, than we have to see that change coming from a structural and class based sense. People of the same socio-economic class, whether they know it or not, share much more with each other than people of the same skin color, nationality, religion, or sexual orientation. And in our increasingly globalized world, where those of the capital based ruling class have far more interconnectivity with people of the same class position but from other countries, also share far more in common with one another. Today a billionaire in New York shares more in common with a billionaire in Saudi Arabia, or one in India, or China, than he does with an Average Joe stiff in his home town of NYC. And if a billionaire from America shares more in common with a billionaire in India, then why shouldn’t a working class person from America share more in common with a working class person in India? I do not see the prospects of a Communist world revolution seriously, I see any possibilities of a change from capitalism to a more egalitarian form of socialism as something that might happen due to a gradual and technological change in human production. Eventually rendering the capitalist class more obsolete. But we should nevertheless, we should try to build a matured concept of a globalized “human” identity, one based on the principle of economic and class solidarity. We cannot rid ourselves of nationalities, racial differences, sexual orientations, religions, etc, but we can supplant on top of those identities an all encompassing human identity, one that includes all of us, and that also coincides with class struggle. For a human identity, an identity that includes you and me is an identity that is truly worth fighting for.