Struggle, vol. 13, #3-4, Fall-Winter 1997:


New Black Writing and Other Topics

by Tim Hall


. Over the past half year or so Struggle has received a number of exciting pieces of writing by black writers, from the U. S. and the Caribbean. We are pleased to present a selection of them to open this issue.

. These poems and stories are notable for several reasons. They are filled with passionate commitment to the struggle against racism and, in some cases, they link that struggle up with the issues of poverty and class struggle. There is a sharp focus on the brutal imprisonment of black working-class men. And the struggle-history of black and indigenous peoples of the Caribbean is brought to life in a stirring way.

. Supporters of the status quo are fond of claiming that racism has disappeared in the wake of the civil rights movement. Although outright Jim Crow has been eliminated, a vast institutional structure of segregation, discrimination and police and judicial brutality still exists and the conflicts of capitalist society still spawn threatening racist movements. The prevalence of black men on death row is a good example of this racism, while the deep class basis of this persecution is evident in the working-class or poverty-stricken origins of all death row inmates, including whites.

. Racial oppression is forcefully denounced in the works printed here. Dennis Hammond's "The Last Sunset" portrays a racist police attack on a young black man, his resistance and execution in a crystal-clear, well-paced realist narrative. This story brought tears to the eyes of a young black woman who read the manuscript. Kevin Pelzer, who resides on death row himself, presents a precise and bitter protest, "Dead I Be," which comments on and reinforces Hammond's story.

. Identity politics and multiculturalism, while demanding equality, offer no viable path toward eliminating racism and the structures which impose it. The problem goes far deeper than attitudes; it goes to the roots of the rule of society by the white racist bourgeoisie and their bourgeois minority partners. In this respect the poems of Gregory Gilbert Gumbs and Paul Grams are illuminating. Gumbs provides a rising and falling griot-chant which brings to life the anti-colonial resistance traditions of black and indigenous peoples of the Caribbean. Although nearly all of these countries have achieved independence, the oppression of the working masses remains, now carried out by domestic ruling classes in alliance with foreign capital. The Cuban Revolution, a great blow to U. S. imperialism in its time, has failed to move towards socialism and has installed a bureaucratic state-capitalist regime. The old struggle traditions are ever-inspiring and Gumbs brings them to life; they should never be forgotten. But a new politics, a politics of class liberation, is needed to overthrow the wealthy bloodsuckers of all nationalities and put an end to both racial and class oppression. Gumbs does not say this but he senses that final liberation of the masses is still far off: "I dreamt a dream of the multitudes/ who will die after us/ trying to fulfill a dream/ which they will achieve one day. "

. It is Paul Grams' poetry which provides hints of an answer to this dilemma. Grams -- and Pamela Bonds, whose class-critical story "Voices" appeared in the Spring 1995 issue of Struggle -- seem to be the most attuned of these writers to the links between racial and class oppression. The sights of the devastated neighborhoods of Detroit's East Side (where I drove a cab for 10 years, throughout the '80's), and the daily speech of young Detroit blacks, are everywhere in Grams' poetry. His poetry is the speech of the black poor, but this speech is not simply transcribed; it is stretched and molded to re-create the tensions of Detroit working-class black life. It reminds me of the vivid vernacular poetry of the Jamaican poet Edward Kamau Braithwaite, whose Jamaican and Barbadian dialect poems voice anger at poverty and police oppression. Grams uses the language of the poor to express the demand to fight the rich; he begins with their voice and stretches it to begin to sense the needs of the new situation facing black people, in which neither poverty nor racism can be fought effectively on a separate basis.

Once Again on the Question of the Soviet Union and Socialism

. The need for a new politics to move ahead the mass struggles against all the evils of capitalist society is evident everywhere you turn. Above we mentioned its necessity in relation to the black liberation struggle. A letter from Al Markowitz, writer of powerful worker-oriented poems, raises issues which face every form of struggle against capitalist society. These issues are extremely relevant to progressive writers, since they involve the ideals and goals which inspire movements. Al and I have been conducting a controversy over whether the late Soviet Union (and present-day Cuba) was (and is) socialist, Al saying yes, me saying no. Let me print his letter, then comment on it.

. . . As for your thoughtful response to my letter, you make some good points, however, you still make some erroneous over-simplifications and projections. To me your "anti-revisionism" is much like idealized armchair quarterbacking or fundamentalism. The problem is that in the real world or trying to build socialism in a hostile environment inevitably everyone will be a "revisionist. " While principle is vital, compromises will have to be made in the process. I suggest you (re)read Lenin's Left Wing Communism, An Infantile Disorder and his comments on "The Unfortunate Peace" (Brest-Litovsk).
. As for whether the Soviet Union was socialist, it's not such a simple question. On a large scale you are at least partially correct in your analysis. On the smaller, municipal level you are wrong, also in the workplace where workers elected their managers and had a say in day-to-day operations. What about the collective farms -- not state-run? You are correct that the bottom up, participatory aspects which are vital to socialism were destroyed by Stalin and usurped by a corrupt bureaucratic class, however, no member of that class actually owned the means of production and could be purged. This became an incentive for some of them to sell out to the capitalists. Marx stated that every new society bears the scars of its birth. Russia was overly bureaucratic and oppressively centralized long before the revolution. We too have cultural characteristics which will have to be combated come the revolution. I think the greatest error of the Bolshevik revolution was in discarding the basic Marxist-Leninist precepts of the right of instant recall of those elected by the Soviets when necessary, and the idea that no elected official make more than the average worker. This led to careerism and corruption.
. These are the kinds of things we need to draw lessons from so that the same mistakes will not be repeated in the future. As for your accusation that I support state ownership regardless of the character of the state, I, like Lenin, agree that state ownership is a step in the right direction even under the bourgeoisie, but this is not the same as socialism. In the earliest phase of socialist transformation, the dictatorship of the proletariat, the means of production are owned by the workers' state, the actual control being held by the workers via their local or factory councils, the larger state regulating distribution, as things will be produced for use value as opposed to commodity value.
. As for what I, like you, am struggling for; my goal is not a Stalinist or Brezhnevian model. While even the worst constitution of the U. S. S. R. shows its socialist character and foundation, I would not fight for a corrupt, despotic, bureaucratic state. I like you would insist on "power to the people", a bottom up, participatory continuing process of revolution and this is the kind of class consciousness I try to promote.
. I realize that in the present situation those building socialism, (particularly Cuba and Viet Nam) are forced to make some compromises in order to survive. I will support -- and criticize these efforts. . . . I think your journal is one or the best available and deserves support -- critical support. Your last issue was great, I really enjoyed "Real Time". I am working on a journal of working-class literature as well, you are welcome to contribute. . . .
-- Sincerely, Al Markowitz

. Al's reply is filled with contradictions. While he "would not fight for a corrupt, despotic bureaucratic state," which he admits the former Soviet Union to have been, he persists in calling it socialist, citing its constitution as proof. Well, we must go by real relationships, not by paper promises. In the realm of material reality, Al admits that in the Soviet Union "the bottom up, participatory aspects which are vital to socialism were destroyed by Stalin and usurped by a corrupt bureaucratic class. " In that case, what more is there to say? That means that the state was not a workers' state. No workers' state, no socialism. The local conditions he mentions (which are also questionable at best) do not affect the over-all. To cling to the idea that the Soviet Union was socialist long after any "bottom up" power had disappeared is to hold the position shared by revisionists and trotskyists, that the nature of the state and the role of the workers in it are irrelevant so long as social ownership exists on paper.

. And indeed it was only on paper. Though Al recognizes the usurpation of proletarian power in the Soviet Union by a bureaucratic class, he claims that no individual member of that class owned the means of production and that members of that class could be purged. Hell, western capitalists purge (fire) their execs all the time! As for owning -- not on paper of course -- the dachas (country estates), fancy cars and educational privileges for their children are among the fruits of Soviet labor appropriated by these "communist" (actually: revisionist) bloodsuckers through their common ownership of the state.

.As for the question of "armchair quarterbacking" and compromises, there are questions of theory and history that are so important that they define one's path of advance as a revolutionary militant. Al's view of socialism is a prominent form of the old politics fashionable on the left that must be discarded before a vigorous, new revolutionary movement can be built. Fundamentally, what kind of a government and economy are we fighting for? One genuinely run by the working people, or a bureaucratic despotism as in the Soviet Union since the early 1920's? There can be no compromises over the basic nature of this state. Lenin, who was certainly not an arm-chair quarterback, never made any. He always looked for ways to draw the working people into the running of the revolutionary state. And he consistently described the use made of certain capitalist methods by the workers' state of his time (early 1920's) as temporary, short-term compromises. Al is confusing such compromises with the 70-year existence of a vast and bloated bureaucratic tyranny. They are very different. When Al describes all compromises as "revisionist" he mixes up the fundamental question of the very nature of the state with secondary compromises made necessary by difficult conditions. The result is that Al glosses over the difference between genuine socialism and revisionist state-capitalism, between a lofty goal and a corrupt betrayal. Pretty important, "armchair" or not!

And from the Author of Real Time

. We have another interesting letter from Alex Shishin in Japan, whose four chapters of his socialist utopian novel, Real Time, graced our last two issues.

June 6, 1997
Dear Tim,
. Congratulations on another great issue of Struggle and thanks again for publishing chapters from Real Time. I am also sorry for the helter-skelter way they have come out. I also fear they do not quite stand on their own. What's a poor old utopian novelist to do?
. I have come to the conclusion, good editor, that you know what I am doing better than I do. When I came up with the title Real Time I don't think I had the inversion you talked about (the criticism of utopianism as unrealistic) but I like your analysis plus your point that some day people will wonder about the reality of what we know as commonplace -- the brutality and degradation under capitalism.
. Like our brother, D. A. Sheldon, incarcerated in Iowa State Penitentiary, I too hope we don't have to wait till 2347 for Socialism. We could have socialism tomorrow if enough wanted it.
. A sad little side note about my involvement with the Socialist Labor Party. My old mentor, Nick Simon, whom I first met at an SLP study meeting in October, 1963, died this last May at around age 90. Nick had run for governor of Connecticut and California on the SLP ticket. He was also a fine journalist who taught me that language is most powerful when it is used simply and directly. I have little nostalgia for the SLP but there is one event involving Nick that I cherish -- when he spoke about Socialism to a group of Young Republicans. Remember how in The Iron Heel Earnest Everhard made the plutocrats roar? Well Nick said to me beforehand that simply pissing off the YR's would be too easy. "I'm going to charm them," he said. ''I'm going to at least get them to sympathize with Socialism if not agree with it. " And he did! Without compromising anything! What a performance. It may have been the first and last time in history that political conservatives were leaning forth in their seats and smiling while hearing that capitalism was doomed.
. Nick and I and most of Section Palo Alto were booted out of the SLP in 1967 because of a dispute over rules about activism (not principles). We were a very active section and wanted to teach a class at the Free University. The National Office said no. That led to an exchange of words and then charges that we were unorganizational, etc. You know the joke about how one doesn't have to have a brain to be a boss? Unfortunately that dynamic too often holds true for Socialist organizations -- which may be one reason why we don't have Socialism yet.
. But let me say a few things about Struggle, Vol. 13, Nos 1-2.
. First, I liked your Karl Marx poem. It ought to be put to music. Much of the poetry in this issue also feels as if it could be put to music. Workers putting their grievances and hopes to music was a strong tradition before the radio. It survives in blues and rap these days.
. The two satires "Dear Unemployed" by Dan Craig Owens and "Republic-Land" by Janet Abramson are interesting and fun (in the intended grim way) if not entirely successful. (Swiftian satire is hard, hard, hard!) The short stories "Glasses" by P. J. Jason and "It's Just a Game" by Ken Pell are outstanding. Do the Pushcart Prize people read Struggle?
. I read a lot of literary quarterlies --- or try to --- and most of the stuff in them is predictable and flat. The writing in Struggle is at least unpretentious and fresh -- and refreshing --- if not always Great Art. There is absolutely no drivel in Struggle.
. Keep up the good work, Tim.
. --All the best, Alex Shishin

. This raises two issues worthy of comment. One is the idea that the rich can be convinced to welcome socialism. Nick Simon must not have stressed that socialism would deprive the rich of their wealth, leaving some modest personal property, and compel them to work like everyone else. Anyone who thinks that the bosses would be charmed by a true portrait of socialism is living in a dream world, and such a dream world is dangerous to the struggle of the workers and poor because it suggests that the most strenuous struggle, the most rigorous organization, are not really needed in the revolutionary fight.

. The second point is related. Alex and others were kicked out of the SLP because they advocated, in the midst of the 1960's, activism (of all things!). Well, activism, especially in such a situation, is itself a principle. To stand on the sidelines and offer sniping criticism, as the Socialist Labor Party did, was unhelpful, to put it mildly. Though we were never in the SLP, I and my comrades in Cleveland in 1967-8 had a similar experience with the SLP when we were leading the anti-draft struggle there and beginning to study Marxism. The SLP wanted us to stop our activism and divorce our study of Marxism from the actual movement which was raging all around us. While we learned a few Marxist concepts by studying Lenin and debating against an SLP'er, we also refused to detach ourselves from activism.

.There is a tendency in Alex's letter which is common to the examples he gives of SLP history -- to think that the achievement of socialism is dependent primarily on the spread of some socialist ideas. In fact, the advent of socialism is dependent first on objective conditions bringing the working masses into fundamental conflict with the bourgeoisie; success in that struggle depends on it being led by a party guided by the most advanced revolutionary theory. Such a party can only be built and be accepted by the workers as their leader if it partakes of all the working masses' struggles against exploitation and oppression, racism and imperialist war, and draws in and trains leaders from among the struggling people. The sideline spread of socialist ideas practiced by the SLP does little to develop a real socialist movement.

. We thank Alex for his kind comments on Struggle.

Two Tendencies in Two Poems

. We are living in a time of ebb in the mass movements of the oppressed. The 1930's seem like distant history and the 1960's are rapidly joining that category. In these conditions it is difficult for a progressive writer to find inspiration for any imaginary depiction of the kind of struggle necessary to destroy the exploitative system of capitalism. This is why I greeted Doug Draime's poem, "The Dream of the Establishment," with enthusiasm when I received it. Set in the 1960's in the midst of the anti-Vietnam war protests, this poem powerfully evokes the uncrushable rebel spirit of the youth of that time; it brings into the '90's a living image of that unstoppable spirit which becomes unleashed from the working class and oppressed masses whenever the mass movements are on the rise. This is the poem's great virtue.

. But I must comment on another element in the poem, which weakens it somewhat but does not destroy its positive effect. This is its appeal to the authority of God to condemn the crimes of the war-makers. There is also an appeal to the Constitution and the legality of the bourgeois political system to halt the atrocities. But this latter appeal is effectively undercut by the vivid images Draime gives of the military authorities ignoring any legalistic appeal whatsoever and committing carnage with impunity. This effectively exposes the real nature of the bourgeois state, whose main component is the military-police structure and the bureaucracy; all rights to the masses exist primarily on paper, are limited only to situations where the power of the rich is unchallenged, and are swiftly trampled whenever the rich feel a real threat from below. The fate of the Allende regime in Chile is a good example, and Draime's poem reads almost like a description of the Chilean military's coup crushing of this government, which was elected in the name of socialism but made the fatal mistake of not destroying the military-bureaucratic structure of the capitalist state.

. However, Draime's narrator's appeal to God as a moral authority is not as effectively countered by the reality of the poem, although (taking the author's assumptions for a moment) the Great and Beneficent One seems to have remained true to His customary form of not giving a rat's ass about the slaughter of the poor. As an atheist and a Marxist, however, I would have to say that atrocities and genocide are "ignored" by "God" simply because no such being exists, and belief in one is a way of denying the power of the oppressed working class to change the world; that is, religious faith is actually diversionary and harmful to the struggle of the masses. Many religious people make great contributions to this struggle which cannot be overlooked, but in fact their contributions are not as strong as they could be were they to overcome their religious illusions. Struggle prints a wide range of progressive literature; our Marxist criterion is not a dogmatic one, rejecting anything which varies from our politics or our atheism; it is a selective criterion which attempts to weigh all aspects of a work and publish those pieces which seem to us to help urge on a liberatory upsurge in spite of secondary features with which we disagree. It is in this spirit that we welcome Doug Draime's poem, as we have many others. A similar contradiction exists in John Kaniecki's "I Will Raise My Voice,' in which his working-class fighter denounces many aspects of capitalist life but declares that he will "raise my voice until they see the light. " If this is directed at his fellow-workers it is simply a declaration of determination; but it is ambiguous and may express the hope held by many workers that someone in the capitalist government or corporate structure will hear the appeals of those below and alleviate their suffering. Like Draime's appeal to God, this too ignores the potential power of the working people to organize and force the oppressors to change some of their practices and to overthrow them completely. But again, as in Draime's poem, Kaniecki's work creates an image of determined rebellion and, I believe, inspires you. It did me.

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