Saturday, January 25, 2014

The tragedy of Amiri Baraka: A personal view

Who said Bush didn't do enough to prevent 9/11?
Who opposed busing in Boston?
Who supported Obama?
Who opposed Cuba's internationalist missions in Africa?
Who proclaimed his own birthday a High Holy Day?
Who race- and agent-baited during the 2007 Venezuela International Book Fair?
Who said Israel knew about 9/11?
Who? Who? Who?

On 9 January, in the break room at work, I saw the online announcements of Amiri Baraka's death.  In a fit of Facebook bravado, I posted this before returning to my cubicle:
"Amiri Baraka - another Democratic Party Stalinist Jew-hater bites the dust."

A comrade responded, "Brace yourself for a torrent of heart-wrenching memorials from the middle-class left."

Another comrade wrote, "Not classy.... not classy... Baraka was an amazing revolutionary artist."

Two weeks later, the poet has been buried and the obituaries have faded into the ether.  I was surprised by their breadth and scope.  The New Yorker paid attention to the Leroi Jones period.  The middle class left emphasized the career arc of beatnik-to-nationalist-to-Marxist, spending late paragraphs addressing, or failing to address, Baraka's anti-Semitic and conspiracy-mongering 2002 verse "Somebody Blew Up America."

Though I used to write a lot of poetry, and have read some, I am certainly not qualified to comment on the value of Baraka's verse.  Like that of Pablo Neruda, it does not appeal: privledging the verbal, straining after rhetorical effect, its moral overkill is - to put it mildly - unenticing to the eye and ear.  I have been reading Blues People this week, and find it useful as historical revision, but my ignorance of music is a real roadblock to appreciating the book's obvious passion.

Baraka's politics are another matter.  His career in U.S. politics was not unique.  Many radicalized by the mass proletarian civil rights movement that smashed Jim Crow, attracted by the example of the Cuban revolution, and mobilized in defense of Vietnam against Washington's invasion, moved toward communism in the period 19602-1980.  But like the 1930s radicalization, objective limits were imposed on the process: relative stability of the capitalist economy; the profound weight of Democratic Party bourgeois reformism; the misleading and corrosive effects of Stalinism, acting to thwart the development of communist leadership.

Many Black militants, awakening to political consciousness, found the counterfeit of communism, mostly in its Maoist variant.  Those like Baraka, inspired by the Cuban revolution, found themselves on a road that led to condemning Cuba as a colony of Soviet social imperialism.  Those like Baraka, inspired by worker and peasant mobilizations in the  colonial world, found themselves rejecting the revolutionary potential of the multinational U.S. working class, instead supporting the blood-drenched Democratic Party.

Over time this degeneration led to radical poses that obscured middle class reformism.  By 2002 Baraka was in the position to write a poem, "Somebody blew up America," as a hymn to ahistorical moralizing and conspiracy explanations for social reality.  In it, he could castigate George W. Bush for not preventing the 9/11 terrorist attacks, while at the same time claiming Israel knew about the attacks in advance. 

Who know why Five Israelis was filming the explosion And cracking they sides at the notion

Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers To stay home that day Why did Sharon stay away?

Who? Who? Who?

From that poem, Baraka was only six years away from embracing Barack Obama. 

But the nadir and summation of his political career may have been his interventions at the 2007 Venezuela International Book Fair in Caracas.  While there he participated in the forum "The United States: a possible revolution."

"Some twenty-two participants addressed the November 10-14 forum, almost all of whom had been involved in various social protest movements and political parties in the United States, " wrote Socialist Workers Party leader Norton Sandler about the event.  "....the majority traveled from North America to take part.  Widely diverging and often sharply counterposed views were debated in the course of what was, with one exception, a model of civil debate for the workers movement.  The exchange achieved an unusual degree of clarity on a number of central political questions.  The resolution of those questions, in the course of far-reaching class struggle, will decide whether the working class in the United States will be able to transform itself into a class with a mass political vanguard capable of successfully leading broad layers of oppressed and exploited toilers in a struggle for power." [cite]

The one exception was, alas, provided by Baraka.

Sandler goes on to detail the forum presentation of Socialist Workers Party leader Mary-Alice Waters:

....a sharpening capitalist financial and economic crisis like that opening today "will intensify the battle for the political soul of the working class" in face of efforts by employers to turn immigrants, workers who are Black and female, and others into scapegoats for mounting joblessness and worsening economic and social conditions.

Working people in the United States "face the same class enemy," Waters said, "and determined struggles on any front tend to pull workers together in face of the attempts to divide us."  More than ever before in history, she emphasized, a fighting vanguard capable of leading a successful revolutionary struggle in the United States today will bring together workers regardless of skin color, national origin, or sex.  As we fight alongside each other, "it becomes harder for the bosses to pit 'us' against 'them,'" she pointed out.  It becomes more possible to see that our class interests are not the same as those of 'our' bosses, 'our' government, or 'our' two parties.

A counterview to this perspective was expressed most sharply by panelist Amiri Baraka, a U.S. writer who has been active in Black nationalist, Maoist, and Democratic Party politics since the 1960s.  Baraka argued strongly that "white privilege" has derailed all potentially revolutionary struggles in U.S. history, including the powerful labor upsurge of the 1930s and the mass movement that brought down the institutions of Jim Crow segregation in the South by the end of the 1960s.  The failure of the "white left" to organize "whites" to fight "white privilege," he said, has spelled the doom of every movement for social change.

In this version of history, race-baiting rears its ugly head, as "white workers," with racist prejudices become the explanation for all defeats.  Missing is the responsibility borne by the Stalinist parties worldwide, from the mid-1930s on, for subordinating struggles by working people and the oppressed worldwide to Moscow's quest for peaceful coexistence with the imperialist rulers.  In the United States that meant diverting the great social movement that grew out of the battle to organize the industrial unions, channeling it toward support for the Democratic Party.  (In her remarks, Waters pointed out that as a result of such Stalinist political misleadership, "The revolutionary potential of the great radicalization in the 1930s was squandered and diverted into support for capitalism's 'New Deal' and then its inevitable successor, the 'War Deal" - the imperialist slaughter of World War II."  With the collapse of the Stalinist regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s, she said, that "enormous political obstacle at least no longer stands across the road toward independent working class political action and revolutionary socialist leadership."

Participants in the audience pointed to examples of strikes and other recent struggles in the United States to which the employers have failed to achieve their objectives with divide-and-rule strategies that had long proved effective.  In response, Baraka said he did not share the opinion expressed by others that racial divisions could be overcome through such struggles, because "white leaders" are interested above all in protecting their privileged positions.  In short, "white privilege" is more powerful than common class interests.

....On the closing day of the forum, Baraka ended his presentation by reading his verse about the events of September 11, 2001, entitled "Somebody Blew Up America."  That piece asks: "Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed / Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers / To stay home that day / Why did Sharon stay away?"

These bigoted, conspiracy-spinning allegations deny not only the facts of what happened on September 11, they conceal the plain truth of how capitalism works.  Above all, they deprive working people of the knowledge and confidence  that we are the makers of history - that our own conscious, revolutionary action, and only that, can remove the capitalist ruling families from power and prevent them from blowing up the world.

Following the initial remarks about the rich and all-powerful Jews, I took the floor to point out that Jew-hatred remains one of the most virulent anti-working class weapons of the ruling classes, as it has been for the past century and a half.  Recalling its ghastly consequences in the hands of Germany's imperialist rulers in the 1930s and '40s, I underlines the deadly threat to the workers movement of refusing to intransigently combat any and all scapegoating of Jews, Latinos, Blacks, gypsies, whites, or any other national or ethnic grouping. 

Agent-baiting was also introduced into the debate - the one departure from civil discussion noted earlier - and it was answered.  Baraka accused one fellow panelist of hiding that he was a "Trotskyite" and another of being an "agent" (of some unnamed power) whose objective was to abet the mobilization of a reactionary student movement in the streets of Venezuela to overthrow the government of Hugo Chavez.

Waters replied to Baraka.  Thanking the book fair organizers for making possible the expression of a broad range of views as part of the forum, she stressed that in order for civil debate to take place, "the poison of agent- and race-baiting" must be condemned by all.

Sandler also recounts Baraka's own political stance on U.S. politics as expressed on the panel:

....If the bourgeois-democratic revolution was incomplete, then bourgeois reform is what's on the agenda.  He laid out his program to complete that task as part of a bloc with sections of the Black bourgeoisie.  The program he spelled out was aimed not at advancing a revolutionary struggle by the working class and its allies to take power out of the hands of the capitalist rulers.  Instead, Baraka advocated rewriting the bourgeois constitution of the United States and replacing the current bicameral Congress with a unicameral parliamentary system similar to what exists in the majority of imperialist powers!

Nothing could have been in sharper contrast to Waters' opening remarks that, "Yes, revolution IS possible in the United States.  Socialist revolution.  To put it in class terms, a proletarian revolution - the broadest, most inclusive social upheaval of the oppressed and exploited imaginable, and the reorganization of society in their interests....

"What's more, a revolutionary struggle by the toilers along the path I just described is inevitable."  What is not inevitable, however, Waters emphasized, "is the outcome of these coming revolutionary struggles.... That is why what we do now, while there is time to pepare - what kind of nucleus of what kind of revolutionary organization we build today - weighs so heavily."

The panelist Baraka attacked for not identifying himself as a "Trotskyite" was ISO leader Lee Sustar.  

Militant correspondent Olympia Newton, attending the sessions where Baraka spoke, reported the event this way:

....He proposed that Blacks and Latinos, including the “progressive” Black bourgeoisie, unite around a program to abolish the electoral college; establish a unicameral parliamentary system; ban “private money” from election campaigns; make voting compulsory; and restore voting rights to felons. Such constitutional reforms, he said, would shift power towards “people’s democracy” in the United States. Revolutionary goals could then be put on the agenda.

What has derailed all previous revolutionary struggles in the United States, Baraka argued, is “white privilege.” He cited the defeat of Radical Reconstruction following the Civil War, the failure of the 1930s labor upsurge to go further, and the decline of the mass movement that brought down Jim Crow segregation as three examples. Moreover, “white privilege” and the failure of the “white left” to fight it remain the primary obstacle to struggles today.

Baraka also renewed his attack on [George] Katsiaficas, who had spoken about Asian student struggles on the panel the previous day. Baraka accused him of being an agent trying to stir up support in Venezuela for student marches against the government of Hugo Chavez.

Baraka concluded by reading his poem, “Somebody Blew Up America,” a Spanish translation of which was distributed to participants. Written after September 11, 2001, the poem presents a long list of historical atrocities, interlacing anti-imperialist and anticapitalist rhetoric with conspiracy theories of history and anti-Semitism. “Who decide Jesus get crucified,” the poem asks. “Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed / Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Tower / To stay home that day / Why did Sharon stay away?”

During the opening day of the panel, a participant from Panama had said during the discussion that Jews are the main problem facing working people in the world today because “they have all the money” and control everything. Norton Sandler, a member of the Socialist Workers Party in the United States, spoke from the floor the next day and pointed to the danger of scapegoating and Jew-hatred for the working-class movement.

After Baraka’s remarks the final day, Mary-Alice Waters took the floor to thank the organizers of the book fair “for bringing together diverse forces for such a broad variety of views for the discussion that took place here.” She stressed the importance of civil debate, noting that “the poison of agent- and race-baiting should be rejected by all.”

The paths of U.S. Stalinism lead but to the Democratic Party.  A year after the 2007 Caracas book fair, Baraka embraced the candidacy of Barack Obama.  Just as this political evolution is typical of Baraka's generation, so to is a growing reliance on race- and gender-baiting and Jew-hatred.

Jay Rothermel

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