A critical assessment, from Socialist Alternative Black Caucus in honor of Black August.
On August 21, 1971, the Black freedom and prisoners’ rights movement lost one of its “organic intellectuals,” to use a term made famous by 20th century Italian Marxist and political prisoner Antonio Gramsci. The revolutionary commitment that raged inside of George Jackson was born in the belly of American capitalism’s institution of social control, the prison system.
He would be gunned down a month shy of his thirtieth birthday, by San Quentin prison guards during an alleged prison break. Many people believe the Attica prison rebellion of September 1971 was partially inspired by the death of George Jackson the month before.
To commemorate Jackson’s death, we provide a critical assessment of his book, Blood in My Eye. As a new generation of activists and organizers advance the demands to abolish prisons and police, they will seek to learn the lessons from one of the most important prison theorists and revolutionaries of the 20th century, George Jackson.
Blood in My Eye
Jackson’s Soledad Brother was published in the fall of 1970. His book Blood in My Eye was published posthumously in the fall of 1971. These two works stand as his political manifesto—an unbounded dedication to freedom for the most oppressed people in the world.
George Jackson stands alongside Malcolm X and countless others who became politically and socially aware of racism and capitalism’s underdevelopment of Black America while locked down behind the walls of prison. In a few short years he developed into an activist and revolutionary theorist committed to revolutionary change.
Blood in My Eye is Jackson’s political testament. It touches on themes of imperialism, internal colonialism, Marxist economics, labor history, political consciousness, state violence, and armed struggle. Jackson would specifically highlight the revolutionary events in Chile, Mao’s influence on his political ideas, the Black Panther Party, and Fascism.
Jackson examined Salvador Allende’s Chile with a critical eye: “There is simply no way to compare this society or its historical experience with that of a tiny colonial country like Chile: Allende is not seizing property; his government is ‘buying property.’ Until the Chilean ruling capitalist class is suppressed, the Chilean revolution is as meaningless as the Swedish experiment. Socialist governments which attempt to coexist with capitalist economics completely forget the economic motive of human social history” (George Jackson, Blood in My Eye, p. 77-78).
What Jackson could not see from behind prison walls was the political development and power of the Chilean working class through factory and community committees taking the Allende electoral victory in 1970 as a starting point from which to construct a socialist society. The Chilean revolution was very meaningful to working people worldwide. That is why world capitalism went on the offensive to destroy it, and Jackson was correct to identify the impossibility of any form of collaboration between Allende and capitalist forces. Global capitalist reaction, plus political mistakes by Allende, his government, socialist, and communist parties, led to the revolutionary process eventually being drowned in blood. The struggle culminated in Augusto Pinochet’s CIA-sponsored military coup on September 11, 1973.
The influence of Maoism was profound during the time of Black Power and the New Left of the 1960s and ’70s. The Black Panther Party (BPP) sold copies of Mao Zedong’s “Little Red Book” on college campuses as a fundraising tool to establish the party and purchase firearms. The Chinese revolution of 1949 that overthrew the capitalist nationalism of Chiang Kai-shek was viewed by many Black Power activists and organizers as a powerful moment for the anti-colonial struggle. The solidarity messages and visits from Black radicals such as W.E.B Dubois, Shirley Graham Dubois, Paul Robeson, Robert F. Williams, and Huey P. Newton would cement the links between Mao’s victorious Chinese revolution and the struggle of Black workers and youth in the U.S.
George Jackson’s affinity to Mao’s politics flowed from the guerilla tactics and character of the peasant army Mao led that dismantled capitalism in China. Jackson was engrossed in the study of the dynamics of a “ poor-peoples” army and the effectiveness of urban guerilla warfare. As George would state in Blood in My Eye, “ Guerilla warfare by its very nature is invulnerable. Advanced scientific guerrilla strategy, worked out over the first three-quarters of this century, is not, contrary to popular image, merely a “ hit-and-run” haphazard affair. In spite of the need for improvisation and mobility and in spite of its poverty and daring, it is scientific” (p.52). For radicalized youth and workers around the world, the revolutions in China, Cuba, and Algeria rooted in the tactics of guerilla warfare, peasantry, urban poor, and a clandestine army had a tremendous effect on their consciousness. George Jackson would be no different.
On August 8, 1963, Mao expressed his solidarity with Black workers and outh and the struggle for civil rights: “An American Negro leader now taking refuge in Cuba—Mr. Robert Williams, the former President of the Monroe, North Carolina, Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People—has twice asked me for a statement in support of the American Negroes’ struggle against racial discrimination. On behalf of the Chinese people, I wish to take this opportunity to express our resolute support for the American Negroes in their struggle against racial discrimination and for freedom and equal rights.”
Maoism’s appeal in the U.S. stemmed from a rejection of Stalinism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and third world solidarity among people of color. What the BPP, George Jackson, and the Black radical left often ignored was the political character of Mao: “He was, by his own admission, a ‘Stalinist,’ and constructed not a democratic workers’ state along the lines of Russia in 1917–23, but a regime similar to that existing in Stalinist Russia. Landlordism and capitalism were gradually eliminated, and the beginnings of a planned economy were put into place, although this was presided over by a one-party, totalitarian regime, with power in the hands of a privileged bureaucracy in the party, the state, the army and the economy.” (International Socialist Alternative, 7/20/2005.)
Jackson, and the BPP, would also be inspired by the Cuban revolution that put an end to the Batista dictatorship’s landlordism and gangster capitalism. What the Chinese and Cuban revolutions had in common was the negation of the social power and democratic control of society by the working class in the construction of socialism. There was greater emphasis placed on the needs of the peasant population and tactics of guerilla warfare that genuine Marxists would critically support. However, we would point out that the peasantry cannot play the central role in overthrowing capitalism because of their role in capitalist production and its contradictory consciousness.
The Black Panther Party
The development of the Black Panther Party (BPP) born in Oakland, California, October 1966 founded by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, inspired by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating (SNCC) campaign to form an independent Black political party in segregated Lowndes County, Alabama in 1965 represented a new phase in the radical elements of the Black freedom movement. George Jackson was emerging as the leading prison organizer and theorist leading political study groups in the San Quentin yard with multi-racial prisoners reading the works of Lenin, Trotsky, Fanon, Mao and raising socialist ideas.
Jackson’s links to the BPP would begin in 1967-8 with the arrest and imprisonment of BPP co-founder Huey Newton on a manslaughter charge due to the shooting of law enforcement officer John Fey serving 33 months in prison. Newton and Jackson would not meet in person but Jackson’s work and politics would be known throughout the California prison system, among prisoners, BPP members who served time in prison, and wider activist circles. Many BPP members like Huey Newton and Emory Douglass were victims as youth of the notorious California Youth Authority that criminalized a whole generation of the Black and brown youth in the “Golden State.”
Jackson wanted to join the BPP and was given the rank of field marshal organizing in the prisons, he would write for the BPP newspaper, and the party would secure him a new lawyer, Fay Stender. The politics of BPP and Jackson would mesh perfectly with Third world politics, revolutionary nationalism, and urban guerilla warfare.
In the early years of the BPP growth they circulated its pamphlet, “What We Want,” as well as the ten-point program for full employment; decent housing; and free food, clothing, and medical care inspired by the Nation of Islam’s program. All the ideas and programmatic demands of the BPP are socialist in character, but as independent Marxist and labor organizer James Boggs boldly states: “…the Black Panther Party has resorted to social service programs, such as the Free Breakfast and Free Health programs. Instead of mobilizing the black community to compel the city, state, or federal government to provide such services under community control, the party has taken over the responsibility for their funding and administration” (James Boggs, Racism and the Class Struggle: Further Pages from a Black Worker’s Notebook, 1970).
The BPP’s orientation of recruiting urban youth, the unemployed, working poor, and the prison population demonstrated the revolutionary potential of this layer of the Black community. Their great weakness was the inability to make vital links with the Black working class, trade union movement, and the militant white working class.
The BPP was not grounded in genuine Marxism that centered the potential power of the international working class, but their influence on revolutionaries cannot be denied. The BPP commitment to freedom, self-determination, socialism, and the rejection of reformist politics has inspired youth and workers around the world.
“ The historic function of fascism is to smash the working class,
destroy its organizations, and stifle political liberties when the
capitalists find themselves unable to govern and dominate with
the help of democratic machinery.”
—Leon Trotsky, Whither France? 1934
George Jackson’s writings on fascism and class struggle demonstrate his deep understanding of history and Marxism. He carefully examines the rise of the counter-revolutionary phenomenon of fascism in Mussolini’s Italy in 1922 and Hitler’s Germany in 1933. He draws a parallel to the U.S. government’s violent response to the militant and revolutionary character of the Black freedom movement, the anti-war movement, the American Indian Movement, the Young Lords movement for Puerto Rican nationalism, and New Left activism generally. Activists in social struggle began to use the term fascist to describe the violent tactics of Hoover’s FBI and other U.S. government agencies that sought the annihilation of these movements for freedom and economic justice.
It is crucial to understand the important differences between the events in Italy and Germany in the 1920s and ’30s, on the one hand, and those in the United States in the 1960s and ’70s, on the other. This history must be placed in the proper political context.
Leon Trotsky was the co-leader of the Bolshevik-led Russian Revolution of 1917 and a great international revolutionary socialist. One of his theoretical contributions to Marxism and to the international workers movement was his program to combat the rise of fascism in Europe. He described the process he saw taking place in Europe in terms of fascists’ manipulation of the people, made desperate by poverty: “At the moment that the ‘normal’ police and military resources of the bourgeois dictatorship, together with their parliamentary screens, no longer suffice to hold society in a state of equilibrium, the turn of the fascist regime arrives. Through the fascist agency, capitalism sets in motion the masses of the crazed petty bourgeoisie and the bands of declassed and demoralized Lumpenproletariat —all the countless human beings who finance capital itself has brought to desperation and frenzy…. After fascism is victorious, finance capital directly and immediately gathers into its hands, as in a vise of steel, all the organs and institutions of sovereignty…” (Leon Trotsky, What Next? Vital Questions for the German Proletariat, 1932).
The rise of fascism in Italy, Germany, and later in Spain was rooted in the deep economic crisis of European capitalism following World War I. The social power of the working class and development of socialist and communist ideas was rising throughout Europe. Memories of the Russian Revolution were still fresh in the 1920s and ’30s. That example of the tremendous potential of revolutionary power was in the background as workers were taking over factories and whole industries, fermenting the revolutionary process to establish a socialist society. The failure of social democratic parties and Stalinism to lead the working class to take political, economic, and social power would help usher in the dark days and nights of fascism under Hitler and Mussolini. Equating the fascism of the ’30s and the ’40s with the American fascism of the revolutionary ’60s and ’70s was an overreach.
The U.S. experienced a tremendous economic upswing after World War II. For many years after the war the U.S. was the preeminent economic, political, and military superpower in the world. Through social struggle by the working class and trade union movement, transformative gains and benefits were achieved under U.S. capitalism and bourgeois democracy. But not everyone benefited from the post-war upswing.
The Black working class had to contend with the apartheid system that existed in the South. There were even vestiges of Jim & Jane Crow in northern cities such as Chicago and New York. The civil rights movement began to break the back of racial and class oppression, and eventually led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The militant Black Power movement challenged the institutions of capitalism and state-sponsored violence. Black Power posed the question of self-determination for Black Americans, and eventually led not just to a national perspective but to a broader view that included the ideas of anti-imperialism and internationalism.
The presidential election victory of Richard Nixon in 1968 introduced a law-and-order doctrine, gaining much support from the white working class and the middle classes, particularly in the South. The traditional divide-and-conquer was adapted for the times to become Nixon’s “southern strategy,” which eventually developed into a basic strategy of the Republican Party still in use right up to the present day. In the 1960s, this counter-revolutionary strategy was part of a clear and decisive response by big business to stomp out all dissent in the streets, on campus, and in penitentiaries across the country. It dovetailed with imperialism’s bloodthirst to end the communist threat in southeast Asia.
The U.S. ruling elite did not need to employ European-style fascism, with its reliance on street thugs and stormtroopers to terrorize the population and working-class organizations. Instead, that elite focused on the U.S. labor movement and targeted socialist and communist trade unionists, ultimately expelling almost all of them from the leadership ranks of most unions. A bureaucratic, conservative, and pro-imperialist leadership came to power in the labor movement. These new leaders kept the militancy of organized labor dormant, in the main.
The tactics were not so subtle in the attempts to crush the militant Black freedom movement of the ’60s and ’70s. Black Power faced police state tactics and violence by the “armed bodies of men” that daily violated civil and human rights of militant Black activists and organizations.
Jackson’s writings, revolutionary fervor and vociferous study of US and world history was rooted in reality of US capitalism’s response to the righteous struggle against oppression and exploitation. His over exaggeration of US style fascism was disarming and mis-educating to a new generation of radicalized workers and youth who wanted to fully understand the state of US capitalism, police state tactics and overall nature of the class struggle. For this new generation of activists and organizers it is crucial to draw out the correct lessons of the period we are living through with the rise of Trumpism, right-wing populism and hard right organizing highlighted by the siege at the capitol on January 6th and how to effectively fightback with multi-racial working class organizing and social struggle in communities, workplaces and universities.
Blood in My Eye Matters
Despite our political and theoretical differences with George Jackson in Blood in My Eye, it is an important political statement from a revolutionary born in the throes of a hellish prison system that is meant to break the human spirit and uphold a criminal system: capitalism. Every day this system continues its deadly assault on working people, the poor, youth, and people of color. Another George Jackson is being born every day. George Jackson lived, struggled, and died to create a better world for the most oppressed people. Only through the revolutionary commitment to international socialism and workers’ power can we find peace, freedom, and justice we so desperately need.