Book & Music Reviews
Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of
the Black Panther Party
By Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin Jr.
University of California Press, 2013, 560 pp.
Review by Jeremy Kuzmarov
In the summer of 1970, the North Vietnamese invited Black Panther Party leader Eldridge Cleaver to speak to black GIs from a radio station in Hanoi. Cleaver was the author of the best-selling memoir, Soul on Ice, which provided insights into the psychological effects of racial oppression in America and a sharp critique of the Vietnam War. He told the GIs that: “What they’re doing is programming this thing so that you cats are getting phased out on the battlefield. They’re sticking you out front so that you’ll get offed. And that way…they solve the problem of keeping a large number of troops in Vietnam; and they solve the problem of keeping young warriors off the streets of Babylon. And that’s a dirty, vicious game that’s being run on you. And I don’t see how you can go for it.”
In Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party, Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin Jr. use Cleaver’s speech to show the internationalism of the Black Panther Party and its anti-imperialism. The Panthers considered African Americans as a colonized people within the United States, subjected to social and economic discrimination and the policing of their neighborhoods by racist police officers whom they likened to an occupying army. They promoted the writings of Frantz Fanon, the Algerian psychologist who analyzed how colonized peoples internalized their own oppression and rejected their cultural heritage. Freedom could only be achieved through revolutionary upheaval.
The Black Panther Party originated in Oakland, California in 1966, following the assassination of Malcolm X. Huey P. Newton, the party’s co-founder with Bobby Seale, studied law at Merritt College and uncovered that it was legal to carry a loaded firearm in California in public. The Panthers began patrolling the streets of Oakland to defend their communities and recruited ghetto youth who might otherwise have joined street gangs. The Panthers built their ties with the community, first in Oakland and then in cities around the country, by providing breakfasts to underprivileged youth, medical care and after-school programs. The breakfast program fed hundreds of kids per day and thousands per week, with local businesses often donating food (though sometimes they were extorted). Through its brash rhetoric, street swagger and commitment to action, the Black Panthers captured the imagination of the white student left and sympathetic liberals who hosted fundraising events. The group spawned numerous offshoots, including the Young Lords. Their critique of the racist power structure and Vietnam War was highly resonant at the time. The organization played an influential role in spearheading campus demonstrations that led to the development of black studies programs and a revamping of academic curriculum.
The Panthers were targeted by police, and often got into shoot-outs with authorities. Many of their members were incarcerated and killed. In Oakland, the notoriously racist police repeatedly shot at Panther headquarters, developed bounties for killing Panther leaders, and assassinated 17-year-old Bobby Hutton after he was taken into police custody. In October 1967, Huey Newton was pulled over and got into a gun battle with Oakland police officer John Frey, who was killed in the melee. Newton was wounded and arrested for manslaughter, and later freed after his case had become a global cause célèbre. While shackled to the gurney in the hospital, he had been taunted and spit at by police, without censure by hospital staff.
Around this time, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover designated the Panthers as the greatest threat to internal security in the United States. In an effort to destroy the organization, FBI agents spread disinformation, penetrated the party apparatus, planted provocateurs, and sowed dissension within leadership ranks. In Los Angeles, FBI informants likely murdered John Huggins and Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter, a leader of the black student union at the University of California at Los Angeles. In Chicago, 21-year-old Party leader Fred Hampton and comrade Mark Clark were drugged and then assassinated by local police in collusion with the FBI. The two had forged a truce between rival street gangs whom they had begun recruiting into the party.
With time, the Black Panther Party could not sustain itself, as most of its leaders were incarcerated, killed, or exiled. The romanticization of violence and promotion of guerrilla warfare alienated people in society who were otherwise sympathetic to the plight of blacks and opposed to the Vietnam War. The Panthers’ inability to forge larger coalitions with liberal leftists was epitomized when Panther leader David Hilliard was booed off the stage at an antiwar rally in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco that had included speeches by Senators George McGovern and Eugene McCarthy. Hilliard went too far in calling Richard Nixon a “motherfucker” who should be assassinated. “We will kill Richard Nixon and any motherfucker that stands in the way of freedom.” The Panthers reputation plummeted further after Huey Newton began exhibiting megalomaniacal behavior following his release from prison in 1970. Newton moved into a posh residence and began associating with elements of the Oakland underworld. After experiencing a mental breakdown, he was later accused of murdering a 17-year-old prostitute and died in 1989 in an apparent botched crack deal.
By the mid-1970s, the Panthers ceased to exist as an organized political force, synonymous with the decline of the radical student movements of the 1960s. The end of the Vietnam War and Nixon’s opening to China and détente policy, coupled with the Philadelphia Plan promoting affirmative action, helped to quell support for the radical, anti-imperialist rhetoric of the Panthers, even though many of the structural inequalities and police brutality they had spoken out against persisted. The party’s newspaper began to deemphasize armed violence and guerrilla warfare, focusing more on providing a structural critique of U.S. capitalism and imperialism. Offshoots such as the Black Liberation Army (BLA) robbed banks and bombed government buildings on behalf of the revolutionary cause, though other Panthers tried their hand at electoral politics. In 1972, Bobby Seale ran for mayor of Oakland on a social democratic platform and forced a run-off with his Republican competitor, though he ended up losing. Elaine Brown, a one-time partner of Huey Newton, helped to organize blacks in support of Governor Jerry Brown and was able to use her leverage with him to procure funding for community development projects. The conservative shift in political life, however, limited Brown’s influence over the long-term and the last Panther chapter closed its doors for good in 1982.
Black Against Empire breaks new scholarly ground in providing the first comprehensive history of the Black Panther Party. One of the authors’ main goals is to move beyond the demonization of the Panther Party by neoconservative authors like David Horowitz, who portray the Panthers as akin to a criminal gang. Horowitz and his ilk fail to properly consider the social environment in which the Panthers emerged and the lived experience of black people in that time. They minimize the degree of state repression in contributing to the party’s implosion and deemphasize the positive elements of the party’s history, including the breakfast programs, the party’s ability to politicize ghetto youth and turn them away from gang violence, its raising public consciousness about the inhumanity of imperialism, its sparking opposition to the wars in Indochina, and its stimulating blacks and other oppressed people to stand up for their rights, both in the United States and abroad. Black Against Empire represents a significant contribution in restoring the integrity of Black Panther Party activists who fought for social justice and shows how the history of racism in America sparked mental anguish and torment among black peoples, who resisted in the best ways they knew how. The mistakes made by the Party and its leaders need to be acknowledged, but those mistakes were largely rooted in the American experience and the violent, oppressive communities from which most of the Panthers came.
Jeremy Kuzmarov is J.P. Walker assistant professor of history at the University of Tulsa and author of The Myth of the Addicted Army: Vietnam and the Modern War on Drugs and Modernizing Repression: Police Training and Nation Building in the American Century.
After Capitalism: Economic Democracy in Action
By Dada Maheshvarananda
Innerworld Publications, 2012, 392 pp.
Review by Andy Douglas
Balance is a word you would be hard-pressed to use to describe today’s global economy. Wealth inequality and exploitation, market manipulation, and the financialization of investment have created a situation which can only be described as extremely unbalanced, with a lot of suffering in its wake. Many argue that capitalism as it exists is unsustainable, that it cannot, and, more importantly, should not, survive.
After Capitalism: Economic Democracy in Action presents a look at a socio-economic theory which might bring things back into balance. Wide in scope, the book begins with a perceptive critique of the policies that led to the 2008 global crash and earlier crashes and then moves on to hopeful alternatives.
The author, Dada Maheshvarananda, has been a monk and activist for the past 40 years. He brings to his work a focus on spiritual values, a perspective on the economic sphere that respects human rights and the integrity of the land, and an appreciation of the interconnectedness of life and the existential value of each creature. Implicit in this critique is recognition of the need for a metric for social welfare based on how society’s poorest members are faring.
A presenter at the 2012 Economic Democracy Conference in Madison, Wisconsin, Maheshvarananda directs a think tank in Caracas, the Prout Research Institute of Venezuela. His ideas stem from a platform originating in India called the Progressive Utilization Theory (Prout). This theory, put forward by the Bengali philosopher P. R. Sarkar in the 1950s, offers a blueprint for structuring economies in a way that both incentivizes work (which communism never did) and restricts excess accumulation of capital (which capitalism will not do).
Maheshvarananda argues that capitalism is designed to benefit the rich; by its nature it excludes many more people than it benefits. On top of this, it’s systematically destroying the planet. He cites four fatal flaws: (1) concentration of wealth, (2) the majority of investments are speculative, not productive, (3) the encouragement of debt and (4) turning a blind eye to the environmental impact of its own policies.
There are thought-provoking ideas here about what might replace capitalism (and the critique also recognizes the many failures of communism). Such an economy would focus on smaller-scale entrepreneurship (limited capitalism), a robust cooperative sector, and publicly-owned key industries.
This structure, the author argues, could become decentralized through the formation of economically self-reliant regions based on common economic and social conditions, common geographic potentialities, cultural legacy and language. Decentralized planning would allow each region to utilize its own resources and opportunities for its own benefit. In such a context it would be important, he notes, to encourage a sense of universal humanity, avoiding parochial separatism.
Cooperatives receive special attention in the book, including a history of their development and a focus on the most famous cooperative network, Spain’s Mondragon. The Prout Research Institute of Venezuela was hired by the Venezuelan government to assess the strength of the cooperative movement in that country. PRI researchers have written extensively about the factors necessary for cooperatives to work, which include a supportive social environment, sound advance planning, skilled management, innovation and adaptation, and education.
Maheshvarananda paints a portrait of projects where some of these ideas are being implemented, from a cooperative health care clinic in Kenya to a sustainable farming community in Brazil. He lauds the Occupy movement in the U.S. and describes other people’s movements, such as one in the Philippines that is encouraging youth to fight against materialistic “pseudo-culture” and embrace their own traditions. As daunting as the task of creating true economic democracy seems, he suggests that cultural movements have a large role to play, empowering people at the grassroots level.
The author also compares Prout to other models such as “participatory economics” or Parecon. The two theories seem to have a lot in common—an emphasis on decentralized economy and on cooperatives, for starters. Parecon, however, lacks a spiritual perspective, according to the author. And the two differ on the question of incentives. Prout, writes Maheshvarananda, believes higher income should be given in recognition of people’s merits and accomplishments in order to motivate creativity and self-development, while Parecon insists that skilled professions should not receive a higher salary than other jobs.
The book also has garnered praise from a number of activists. Bill McKibben writes, “The search is on for new ways to inhabit a strained earth…plenty of interesting leads in these pages.” Noam Chomsky notes, “You can’t have meaningful political democracy without functioning economic democracy.” The last chapter of the book is devoted to a wide-ranging conversation between Maheshvarananda and Chomsky, in which the latter, among other things, blasts the failure of the U.S. to develop a high-speed rail system, and praises the changes taking place in Latin America, with indigenous movements coming to power, and few U.S. military bases left in the hemisphere.
The book features a number of short “guest essays” by economists and activists, and these sections contribute to the richness of the book’s argument.
Of course, there are weak points. In one section the author puts forward the land value tax, in which resource use, land use, and pollution are taxed: “taxing the unearned billions of dollars of income that a few capitalists reap from the gifts of Nature…”
Yet one of the guest essayists, a Duke University economist, contradicts this idea. Land value taxes, he writes, are useful in a capitalist economy, but would be less so in a Proutist economy. “If land value taxes were imposed, co-ops will be required to reduce output and increase price in order to earn sufficient income to pay their taxes…”
The exchange seems typical of a debate unfolding within the pages of the book, though, and presumably within the culture of Prout activists. Prout’s founder apparently offered broad strokes in his theory. Practical applications are now being hammered out in localities around the globe. In an appendix, the author presents an exercise designed to bring Proutist analysis to bear on an imaginary country’s economic problems. (In fact, Maheshvarananda notes, Proutists have been called in to offer real-world perspectives on balancing the economic potentials of several regions around the world). In this exercise, an underperforming agricultural sector is addressed through various means, increasing the yield of land, for example, through crop rotation and other progressive methods, reducing costs of production, and diversification, irrigation, and increased fish production.
The benefits of a balanced economy would spill over into other aspects of life, from the environment to education to criminal justice. Everything’s connected, after all, a point the author drives home. It’s this comprehensive spirit in Prout theory that holds great appeal, the work of justice and the work of the individual going hand in hand.
Maheshvarananda has led meditation workshops at rallies and demonstrations around the world such as the World Social Forum, emphasizing the importance of a centered, calm spirit in activist work. Accessing the well of joy within, he implies, enables one to be part of the solution, motivating and supporting in making a positive difference in the world.
He urges the restoration of balance to our ecology and economy, and to our own lives, before it’s too late.
The Contradictions of “Real Socialism”: The Conductor
and the Conducted
By Michael A. Lebowitz
Monthly Review Press, 2012, 192 pp.
Review by Seth Sandronsky
Michael A. Lebowitz explores what did (not) happen in the former Soviet Union and central and eastern European nations during the three decades ended in the 1980s. Why write this book?
In the 21st century, such recent history matters. Proof of that is the instability, ecologically and economically, that global humanity faces after the fall of Soviet-style communism. To this end, the author focuses on the daily realities and underlying structures of Real Socialism (RS). We read about what people did at the workplace—and away from it—to create themselves and the world around them. How does his method operate for RS? Lebowitz unpacks the “concrete phenomena of these societies…to grasp the underlying structure that generates them.” This analytic dynamic runs a red line throughout the book. By questioning the past, he seeks to advance a “new vision for socialism in the 21st century.”
In chapter one, “The Shortage Economy,” Lebowitz considers how such a system reproduced itself in part by critically examining the writing of Janos Kornai, who “assumed away…the logic of capital” in his study of RS. This is a major flaw, according to Lebowitz. He follows Marx’s analysis of the capitalist system in holding that it, like RS, produced a class of workers that “by education, habit and tradition looks upon the requirements of that mode of production as self-evident natural laws.” Critical questions of regulation and reproduction emerge from this framework.
One is who were the enterprise managers under RS? Lebowitz pulls back the curtain on that and the managers’ role as active participants in the system. For instance, how did enterprise managers interact with RS planners? The answers involve workers’ job rights, which they did not win, thus were unable to retain. This worker disempowerment speaks volumes about RS. We read more on this aspect of the social contract, which Lebowitz terms “the vanguard relation of production” (VROP) that dispels myths and realities.
VROP is a top-down system. The author draws out its many moving parts in chapter three. They range from the vanguard party to working class, state and state ownership, growth and bureaucracy. The sum of such parts is a logic that reproduces “the conductor and the conducted,” a vanguard that knows what is best for the laboring many.
In chapter four, Lebowitz turns to the laws of the vanguard and laws of capital. They interact and, in the author’s view, reveal the fissures between managers, the vanguard and working class under RS. The economists under RS, a little like their capitalist-friendly brethren, wear class blinders, according to Lebowitz. He suggests the blind spot of RS economists is the active role of the labor force. Crucially, this blindness ignored the system’s fatal flaw between “thinking and doing.” That factual bedrock of VROP is the antithesis of human development, Lebowitz writes, and why capital overthrew RS. A vanguard party requires a particular state form. The strengths and weaknesses of vanguard conductors standing over and above a conducted working class concerns the author in his sixth chapter.
Lebowitz draws out the “germs of socialism” from the wreckage of RS in his penultimate chapter. His generation of intriguing questions closes with a trio of “self-evident requirements for human development.” The author wraps up with a call to transcend vanguard marxism via a return to the old German’s “philosophy of praxis and freedom.” In this way, this century’s socialism can assemble associated conductors of cooperative relations in and out of the workplace.
The bibliography and notes are helpful for readers, from students to teachers and beyond, who seek further understanding of capitalism and socialism. I recommend this book for its insights.
Seth Sandronsky lives and writes in Sacramento (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Bryan Ferry’s The Jazz Age:
Review by John Zavesky
Bryan Ferry is much like Billy Pilgrim, the Kurt Vonnegut character of Slaughterhouse Five, a man not necessarily of and about his own time. When Roxy Music first appeared on the scene in 1972, visually Ferry appeared out of touch with the other members of the group. Ferry dressed like a lounge singer while Brian Eno and the others looked like they had arrived from another planet. Although Ferry was the driving musical force behind Roxy Music, from the onset of that band he also maintained a solo career separate from Roxy Music. When Ferry recorded his first solo album, These Foolish Things, it was a record of covers that included “Piece of My Heart,” “It’s My Party” and “I Love How You Love Me,” all songs sung only by females up to that point. The album also included the title track, “These Foolish Things,” a 1940s standard. Outside of Harry Nilsson’s wonderful A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, no rock or pop act was doing standards back in 1973, except Ferry.
Ferry has taken that concept of a time-traveling minstrel to its most extreme with his latest release, The Jazz Age, and what a delight it is. Ferry, with the help of arranger Colin Good, has decided to reinterpret Roxy Music’s songs as if performed by Duke Ellington’s Jungle Band or Louie Armstrong’s Hot Seven. Not only is Ferry’s take on these songs unique, but the fact that the entire focus is on his own material as opposed to covers is somewhat of an anomaly.
Jazz Age puts its focus squarely on Ferry, but with a musical twist. Whereas Roxy Music’s material was very much of the glam scene from which they emerged, Ferry reinvents himself and his material here. This album envisions Ferry as a latter day Cab Calloway leading his orchestra at the Cotton Club. Gone are the song’s lyrics. Many are scaled down and more of a musical response to the source material. For example, “The Bogus Man” is reduced from its original ten minutes down to just over two minutes.
No doubt many Roxy Music fans will scratch their heads over this CD. Jazz Age is definitely a love it or hate it project. For those who are willing to embrace Ferry’s latest career move, they are in for a treat. Many of the songs take more than four or five measures before they are recognizable. “Do the Strand” loses the loud guitar and blaring sax and is transformed into a light frolicking affair with horns and reeds. “Love is a Drug” loses its disco driven rhythm and is transformed into a hot jazz number and “Slave to Love” is transformed from the slow moodiness of the source material into a peppy dance number. “Virginia Plain” goes from a catchy glam rock song to a jumping number for Lindy hoppers. “Avalon” comes off as a song you might hear a local band playing in a New Orleans drinking spot.
It is a bold move and a perverse indulgence to attempt a focus of one’s own work that is the antithesis of the source material. Ray Davies and a few other aging rock stars have the ability to do so, but none with Ferry’ panache on The Jazz Age. The only complaint is that Ferry’s unique, pained, and beautiful vocals are conspicuously absent from the material. Thank goodness Ferry has players like cornet and trumpeter Enrico Tomasso, trombonist Malcolm Earle Smith, and reedmen Richard White, Robert Fowler, and Alan Barnes to provide the musical interpretations of those absent vocals.
For 40 years, Bryan Ferry has taken his own musical path. In many ways The Jazz Age is very typical of Ferry. The man has always zigged when all indications would suggest a zag. He has constantly reinterpreted material—be it Dylan, Brian Wilson, or Cole Porter—so what should be so alarming about a project that reinvents his own songs? On the other hand, Ferry’s choice to drop his vocals, pare down the songs and then reinvent them as a Roaring Twenties Top Ten session is certainly his most radical move yet. The Jazz Age shimmies, shakes, bounces, and rolls like a speakeasy party. Don’t miss out on the fun.
John Zavesky’s articles have been published in Counterpunch, Palestinian Chronicle, Dissident Voice, the Los Angeles Times, and other publications.