The Organic Intellectual

If our greatest task is to liberate humanity, as Paulo Freire asserts, then it is absolutely essential that we create a culture of resistance from below that is able not only to counter, but transcend the limitations of the ruling culture imposed by above. Hopefully, The Organic Intellectual will help serve this purpose.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Questions Concerning Bolshevik Power and the Russian Revolution

    The question of inevitably depends upon ones understanding of history and how it unfolds. To assume the Bolsheviks’ win was inevitable vastly ignores the importance of human agency in the historical process. Human praxis, the action and reflection taken by real people involved in the material reality of a particular instance, plays a prodigious role in the flow of events. The Bolsheviks often provided lucid and resolute leadership in times of class struggle. As Trotsky once noted, the leadership was to the working class  as the box that channels the steam; either would be useless without the other.

    As the text notes, because of the deep roots Bolsheviks had in large urban factories, their support continued to grow after the overthrow of the Tsar and the failure of the parliamentary government to represent working class interests and stop World War I. Popular Bolshevik slogans and keen political leadership helped augment the Bolshevik Party to 200,000 members in mid-August of 1917, compared to only 80,000 of April of the same year. The Bolsheviks eventually dominated the democratically elected Soviets, with large sectors of working-class and peasant support (gained in part by the alliance with Left Social-Revolutionaries). Lenin articulated the need to overthrow the parliamentary regime and remove the tension between it and the Soviets created by the “dual-power” situation after the Tsar’s downfall. 

    Thus, it was active participation by thousands of working-class Bolsheviks and decisive political leadership that, in the end, helped the Bolsheviks win in November; nothing was predetermined. Human agency was absolutely essential in the Bolshevik revolution, and no amount of vacuous, dogmatic “Marxism” presented by Stalinist historians could prove otherwise. 

    The Russian Revolution took place in the midst of “wartime amid military defeat, economic collapse, and governmental disintegration." These were the fissures in the ruling class that that allowed for the subterranean energy of the masses to usher forward. These conditions, combined with the fact that the Russian working class and peasants had developed a sense of collective identity which gave them the confidence to fight back (especially after the overthrow of the Tsar), allowed the Bolsheviks to provide the political leadership necessary to take power and fight the White counter-revolutionaries. Despite claims from both the right and the left that Lenin was simply a political mastermind which devised the coup or revolution (the words change depending on whether the historian is a right-wing anti-soviet or bureaucratic Stalinist) and solidified power, the reality is the Bolsheviks had garnered massive popular support and “superior leadership, unity, and purpose” allowed them to overcome the foreign-funded and supplied White armies, who shared much less support among the people.

    The White army, lacking coordination, full of personal rivalries, and finding no coalescing idea to unite them, allowed for the Bolsheviks to pick apart the former ruling class of military officials, tsarist holdovers, and wealthy who composed the White leadership. However, it must also be noted that Trotsky, serving as war commissar, also reinstituted conscription and severe army discipline into the Red Army, thus taking a step backward and utilizing despotic means to preserve the society they fought for. This can be seen most lucidly, perhaps, in the brutal suppression of the 1921 Kronstadt revolt by 50,000 Red troops, where workers demanded more democratic processes and access to food.

    Still, the fact that the Bolsheviks supplied the masses with a highly centralized, yet popular framework under which they could organize the resistance, along with the miscalculations and political weaknesses of the White Army, allowed for a decisive Bolshevik win against counter-revolutionary forces, both domestic and foreign. 

    The merciless counter-revolution propagated by the White Army, along with the Allied Intervention of various capitalist nations on their side, drastically reduced the likelihood of peaceful and democratic transition within Russia. The needs required by armies and political organizations when faced with civil war “hardened and militarized” the Bolsheviks, pushed them into harsher economic policies, and greatly isolated them from the majority of the capitalist nations. Bolshevik policy, faced with possibly devastating pressure from civil war, was forced into draconian measures both internally and against foreign enemies.

     The democratic possibilities of a worker-run society were reduced to utopian dreams with the onslaught of hostile foreign armies, a white counter-revolution, a decimated working-class, and heavy losses in industry. The Cheka, an “incipient Soviet secret police,” was formed and a “Red terror” aimed at counter-revolutionaries began. At the same time, where previously workers’ committees had been told to seize factories, many industries simply were nationalized and became controlled by bureaucratic decision-makers not truly representing workers’ power. Reformist parties, such as the Mensheviks and sections of the Social-Revolutionaries, were made illegal and forced to disband. Rigid authoritarianism was reestablished in the military, and conscription was once again common. Nations, following true Leninist principles, had been granted national autonomy. However, as they became breeding grounds and entrance points for counter-revolutionary forces, Red Army troops intervened, galvanizing what would eventually became a long history of imperialist intervention (Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Afghanistan, etc.). Political dissent, even while remaining true to workers’ power and democratic principles, were crushed, as exemplified by the repression in Kronstadt.

    Thus, the intense civil war and foreign invasion rightly fostered anti-Western distrust and hostility, along with internal autocracy. Essentially, the possibilities for a truly democratic society based upon working-class power was eroded by the decrepit material conditions and isolation of post-revolutionary Russia. Without the spread of revolution, which Lenin argued must occur for Russian Socialism to succeed, since it was too economically weak to do so on its own, the Revolution had a very short life span. This would eventually allow Stalin to develop his idea of “Socialism in One Country” which would be used to cultivate nationalist subservience to a Soviet bureaucracy.

    The question for us on the left, then, is what importance does this have for us? Many socialists uphold, rightly, the significance of the Russian Revolution in the history of socialist thought and action. Likewise, many accept that the revolution was fundamentally a progressive struggle against an inhumane society that fostered, for the first time in actual praxis, the true potential for the masses to take control of their own destiny. Fundamental questions remain, however. These questions, I must admit, I do not pretend to have the answers too. I have opinions concerning some of them, and others I am simply seeking out potential answers that will allow a dialogue to flourish. I am not convinced, at this point, that the Bolsheviks were completely innocent in Stalin's rise to power. I do not, however, believe that intentions of the early Bolsheviks were anything near what resulted. Among some of these questions, that I hope you all will take up, are the following:
1 - Is the primary reason for the failure of the revolution the objective, material conditions in which the revolution took place?
2 - If those on the left and right who accuse the Bolshevik Party of being organized in a manner conducive to the seizure of power by Stalin, what does this say concerning Lenin's theory of Democratic Centralism? And, if democratic decisions are not centrally enforced, how are collective measures to be taken that combat a system that is highly organized and and able to take advantage of splits and fissures within the revolutionary movement?

3 - Do actions taken by the Bolsheviks, such as the reinstitution of draconian measures in the military, the banning of political factions and a multi-party democracy, and the repression at Kronstadt, reflect fundamental anti-democratic predilections in the Bolshevik Party structure or the severity of the material situation and the decrepit conditions of the working class after World War I and the civil war?

4 - If it was the material conditions which galvanized anti-democratic Bolshevik policies, could these have been averted without a victorious workers' revolution in Germany? If not, what does this say for the role of human agency in transforming society?

5 - It is obvious that Stalin broke radically from Lenin and many leaders of the revolution. Likewise, it is obvious that Stalin's policies were tremendously harmful to the majority of the population in Russia, both peasant and working class. However, to what extent did the structure of the Bolshevik party, and the removal of a multi-party democracy, play in allowing Stalin's rise to power? Or, as some on the left contend, was this merely a reflection of the inability of the working class to overcome hostile conditions that were not suitable for a socialist society to emerge?

6 - If it is the case that the working class could not seize power and transform society in a socialist direction, given the objective conditions (a minority working class, a significant peasant population, a society lacking the technological advancements of other capitalist nations, etc.), without outside assistance, then was the October revolution (the Bolshevik seizure of power) simply voluntarism?

7 - What does this say about the potential for revolution in a country such as the United States, where the actual, objective, material conditions would allow a socialist society of equitable distribution and democratic-decision making to flourish? Would the revolutionary organizations argue for a one-party state during a transition period such as the Bolsheviks implemented or would a multi-party democracy be allowed to exist? Or, as some contend, would democratic representation and participation be so radically different that political parties would cease to exist?
    These are just some of the questions that I hope to explore. My intentions are to provoke dialogue, dialogue I believe is far too often muted in many circles concerning serious issues in our tradition. Dogmatically accepting what the Bolsheviks did, in my opinion, only isolates us from many people. Dogmatically rejecting or demonizing them, however, does similarly. All mistakes in my reading of the Russian Revolution are my own, and I attribute them to my own misunderstanding. I would, however, encourage anyone and everyone to weigh in on the questions I hope to explore.

*** Quotes were taken from a university level textbook (as the original portion of the text was written for a class), entitled Russia and the USSR in the Twentieth Century. Despite having some useful figures and data, it is not a source I would recommend for truly engaging the Russian Revolution. 

Friday, November 13, 2009

Putting Fort Hood In Context and Combating the Newest Wave of Xenophobic Bigotry

By now, nearly everyone is familiar with the tragic shooting that occurred in Texas at Fort Hood. For the sake of brevity, I will not attempt to recount the events, the details of those involved, or the percussive, emotionally-charged accounts that most media have sufficiently covered. I also do not intend to posit any new analysis or approach to this shooting. I do, however, intend to synthesize some of the best writing and analysis that has been articulated on the topic.

First, it is imperative, in my view, that the horrendous display of violence, and it was indeed a terrible tempest of bloodshed, be viewed within a broader context. Yes, this was a tragic event, but let us remember that, as Eric Ruder and Terry Kindlinger explain:
It's important to remember that for millions of people throughout the world, there is grief at the carnage that the U.S. military causes day in and day out--the bombing of Afghan wedding parties that leave dozens dead on what should have been one of the happiest days for their families; the gunning down of whole families at checkpoints in Falluja and Baghdad and Basra.

Hasan may have pulled the trigger, but it was the U.S. military that loaded the gun--with its killing fields around the world, its callous disregard for the troops it sends into battle and its neglect of the mental health professionals who are supposed to help soldiers survive their mental scars.
Within this context, we cannot ignore the fact that much more violence, much more bloodshed, an untold amount of carnage and destruction has been unleashed against people in foreign places that far exceeds the bloodshed that occurred at Fort Hood. What happened here, as unfortunate and tragic as it was, was a single occurrence, a particular event, but one that is reproduced in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Palestine, and in other places where the institution of the U.S. military makes its presence felt. This does nothing to console the families of those involved, it does nothing to redeem the lives lost, and does not justify the actions taken by Major Nidal Malik Hasan.

It does, however, raise vital questions concerning the institution of the military in general, the purpose it serves and the function it performs around the world, the concept of it being a "volunteer force," the way it treats those who work within it, and, ultimately, the manifold ways in which xenophobia, racism, and nationalism all spout forth from the fissures of this groundbreaking tragedy.

To begin, I quote a column from a friend who, in my opinion, most eloquently expressed the gambit of fear and worry that gripped many American Muslims and, likewise, those of us who detest the dehumanization of and stand in solidarity with marginalized groups:
The minute I heard the name of the gunman my heart lurched. Of course, he was identified by his religious affiliation, unlike other non-Muslim gunmen in the past. I expected that this shooting would gain the most attention because it was a Muslim, Arab American who committed it. Likewise, I predicted the media would highlight Nidal Malik Hasan’s religion and some ever-present, bigoted and xenophobic people would exploit this detail. The immediate suspicions of terrorism upon hearing his name reflect the ongoing misconceptions about Muslims; nowadays such reactions are inevitable.
These fears and predictions were, unfortunately, all too real. Without skipping a beat the right-wing ideologues attempted to utilize this tragic event to push their fear-mongering, xenophobic denunciations of Islam in general and those within the Muslim community, here and abroad. The dehumanization was ever present as they preached these megalomaniac war-mongers pushed their doctrine of hate:
[Commenting on Hasan's Palestinian descent] This isn’t just the Palestinian way. It’s the Islamic way. And we expect Israel to make peace with guys like this? Even in the midst of the land of plenty, look at how they behave.

...think of Major Malik Nadal Hasan (and all of the other Muslim American traitorous soldiers in the U.S. military who’ve shot their fellow soldiers up and killed them or otherwise helped the enemy), whenever you hear about how Muslims serve their country in the U.S. military.

Well, actually, they do serve “their country” in the U.S. military.  And their country is Dar Al-Islam and greater Koranistan.

It’s Islamic terrorism, stupid. Wait, that’s repetitive. It’s Islam, stupid.
Say a prayer for these soldiers who were killed and injured.  G-d bless them.  They fought Islam in Iraq and Afghanistan.  And now Islam has killed them because we let it fester on our own soil.  Very sad, indeed.
Normally, to give such space to such incredulous racism, such hostile vitriol that reeks of racism, would not be appropriate. However, it has occurred to me that sometimes it is better to allow the right to speak for itself, to fully understand the depth of their bigotry.

Such fringe commentators are the extreme, of course, but the immense correlation the media continually insists upon between Hasan, Islam, and the shooting has plagued any serious analysis of the case:
Understanding that his actions are not representative of Islam should be a given and yet, we have accusations of terrorism, claims that Islam is still a “danger” to America and violent threats to mosques around the nation.
Regardless of the sentiments Hasan harbored or with whom he communicated, the coverage of this story and emphasis on Hasan’s faith has caused Islamophobia to sprout up once again. Ordinary Muslim Americans have to bear the brunt.
Qaseem Uqdah of American Muslim Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs Council, being interviewed by Amy Goodman on DemocracyNow, stated so simply what should be obvious to us all, "If this soldier was a Christian, we wouldn’t be saying that the Christian soldier or blaming Christianity." Likewise, as Ruder and Kindlinger write: 
The bigoted conclusions of the Michelle Malkins--that the "violent teachings" of Islam caused this tragedy--must be rejected. When Sgt. John Russell shot and killed five fellow soldiers at the Camp Liberty combat stress clinic in Baghdad, his religion wasn't used to explain why he went on a shooting spree. Hasan's shouldn't be used as an explanation for what happened at Fort Hood.
If religion did play a role, it had more to do with the abuse and bigotry aimed towards him than any imaginary religious zealotry aimed against America on his part:
...after the September 11 attacks, Hasan experienced racist harassment within the military and outside it that left him feeling isolated and under siege. A bumper sticker that said "Allah is love" in Arabic was torn off Hasan's car, and the vehicle was scratched with a key while it was parked at his apartment complex in Killeen, Texas, near Fort Hood, in August.

Hasan's uncle, Rafik Ismail Hamad, who lives in the West Bank town of Al Birah, said his nephew told him that fellow soldiers once handed Hasan a diaper and told him to wear it on his head. In another incident, according to a Los Angeles Times report, they drew a camel on a piece of paper and left it on his car, with a note that read, "Here's your ride."
In fact, it appears that Hasan repeatedly attempted to leave the military. According to his cousin, he even "hired a military attorney to try to have the issue resolved, pay back the government to get out of the military." This should, more than anything, bring into question the idea that our military is a "volunteer force." Many question what sort of volunteer force does not allow you to quit "volunteering" under such strenuous, psychologically enervating, and dehumanizing conditions. 

All of this ignores the intense pressure that psychiatrists and soldiers are put under within the military, regardless of religion:
The crushing caseload--there are 408 psychiatrists for 553,000 active-duty troops around the world--leads to burnout and despair among those charged with treating the mental health trauma of a generation of soldiers. "It's a pretty damn stressful place to be," said Dr. Stephen Stahl of the conditions for psychiatrists at Fort Hood. "I think it's a horrible place to practice psychiatry."
Perhaps the recommendations put forth by Iraq Veterans Against the War, which they attempted to be given to Obama in person but he refused, can shed some light on where to go from here:
1. Each soldier about to be deployed and returning from deployment be assigned a mental health provider who will reach out to them, rather than requiring them to initiate the search for help.
2. Ensure that the stigma of seeking care for mental health issues is removed for soldiers at all levels--from junior enlisted to senior enlisted and officers alike.
3. Ensure that if mental health care is not available from military facilities, soldiers can seek mental health care with civilian providers of their choice.
4. Ensure that soldiers are prevented from deploying with mental health problems and issues.
5. Stop multiple redeployments of the same troops.
6. Ensure full background checks for all mental health providers and periodic check-ups for them to decompress from the stresses they shoulder, from the soldiers they counsel to the workload they endure.
There is much more to say, and much has been said, within the alternative media and on the left about what this means and what sort of dialogue this shooting should arouse. It is imperative that we do not allow this tragic event to be hijacked by the right to promote persecution and bigotry against Muslim Americans or augment their ideological control over how we view the unjust military occupations being committed by or enforced by the U.S. military machine and the ruling elites.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Using Malcolm X to Anaylze the Role Schools Play in Society

The degradation and dehumanization Malcolm X, or Malcolm Little as he was known then, was forced to endure throughout his schooling experience is a testament both to the dominant ideology’s derogatory, overt racism and the interrelated political and economic subjugation which was a reality for blacks during the 1930’s. The barriers Malcolm faced, such as being denied the opportunity to pursue a career of his choice despite his outstanding grades, were the result of an oppressive hierarchy of racial oppression, determined in large part by a nearly impenetrable class structure. This class society, which inevitably fueled racism, was essential in perpetuating the dominant ideology and political economy which so prodigiously influenced Malcolm’s schooling experience. One will find that racism and other forms of prejudice are not only direct results, but integral functions of a capitalist society. As such, the element of racism within the dominant ideology, as well as its material manifestation in the political economy, cannot be removed without the dismantling of a class-based society; the abolition of class society, however, is not a guarantee for the abolition of racism, but rather a prerequisite. Viewed within a dialectical framework, it becomes obvious that Malcolm’s experience was not simply the result of prejudiced or misguided authority figures. Instead, it was heavily dependant upon how various social, political, and economic factors interacted in a specific historical and material period. His experience provides illuminating details that are applicable today.

The most brazen ideological component stemming from the dominant culture is the overt racism, both personal and institutionalized, so common during the 1930’s. This consisted of the belief in the natural superiority of the white race and, conversely, the natural inferiority of the black race. This racism of the dominant culture manifested itself in the action taken upon this belief; blacks were less human than whites and, accordingly, were less capable of performing at the level of whites. This was true in most areas such as intelligence, professions and occupations, sports, and a variety of other social categories. Tied into this idea was the concept that blacks were naturally lazy, more prone to crime, and less likely to be able to function in society than their white counterpart. Despite the skill shown or intelligence displayed, blacks were largely unable to achieve any social status and economic position in society that challenged this idea of racial supremacy. In other words, while blacks may compete amongst themselves and other poor whites for vocations deemed lowly by middle and upper class whites, they were generally denied the already extremely limited chance to move up the social ladder.

What one may label the white power structure held immense sway over the daily lives of ordinary people and societal institutions in which they worked and lived. Indeed, nearly all societal institutions were in some way affected by the ideological hegemony stemming from the predominately white, capitalist power structure. In the South, legal segregation remained an important aspect of society. In the North, discrimination was usually more discreet. Instead of legislation promoting segregation in housing, banks and government agencies simply redlined districts or selectively gave loans along racial lines. Confined to poor, urban neighborhoods, this translated into the schools where blacks were generally confined to low quality schools with fewer resources. The ingenious scheme to unequally fund schools through property taxes is an important continuation of this trend today. By under funding certain schools, rulings whites could easily push propaganda about the inferiority of the black child’s mind when they scored worse on tests or dropped out to pursue a life of hustling, robbing, drug dealing, or other self destructive behaviors as Malcolm outlines in his autobiography. Indeed, Northern racism, hidden behind a cloak of modern liberalism, was as prevalent as in the South.

One cannot question the link between the dominant ideology of the 1930’s and Malcolm’s experience in school. The inferiority of blacks was a built in component of society, reinforced by legislative and corporate maneuvers which further marginalized the black community. Despite the fact that Malcolm’s teacher was friendly and even liked Malcolm, he still doubted his potential because of his skin color and covered his racist ideas with a fa├žade of pragmatism. His comment, that Malcolm should consider some sort of manual labor such as construction instead of pursuing law, was not meant to malign Malcolm as an individual, but instead reflected how profoundly racism impinged upon all aspects of society. However, Mr. O, with his personal prejudice betrayed by this display of benevolent racism, should not be analyzed separately from the society in which he lives; the institutions and establishment he was part of were prodigious factors in transmuting the dominant ideology onto him and, from him, onto Malcolm.

Malcolm’s understanding of the limits society would impose on him became much more lucid after this incident. As he reflects, “It was then that I began to change – inside… Where nigger had slipped off my back before, wherever I heard it now, I stopped and looked at whoever said it” (Haley, 1964, p.37). It is important to note that Malcolm was conscious of the effect these artificially imposed limitations were having upon him. He began to see that society was not based upon individual merit but instead upon a set of societal norms enforced by the dominant ideology. This sort of ideological hegemony would undoubtedly shape his lens through which he analyzed society in various phases of his life. It must have played an immense role when, during his involvement with the Nation of Islam, when he viewed racism and racist ideology as an integral and natural aspect of white society and an inherit quality in white people more broadly. It must also have played a decisive and much more profound role when he dismissed his earlier notions of white supremacy as a natural instinct of white people and instead embraced the idea that racism was a historic phenomenon arising from a particular form of society. Because of this recognition, which he developed after traveling to Mecca and splitting with Elijah Muhammad, he also understand that racism was perpetuated by the current economic system and, born from and galvanized by certain material roots, it could also be dismantled with the abolition of the dominant economic system. Thus, at each period in Malcolm’s life, Mr. O’s comment appears to take significance in a different and unique way, dependant upon the framework Malcolm employs.

Another aspect of the dominant ideology apparent in this scenario is the implicit acceptance of an extremely hierarchal, class-based society. Malcolm’s teacher, whether or not he meant to, sent a dualistically degrading message to Malcolm. On one hand, he implied that because blacks were inferior, they should be confined to jobs consisting of manual labor. By this implication, he not only degraded Malcolm and blacks in general, but also anyone, white or black, involved in jobs where you must be “good with your hands” (Haley, p. 36). Not only was Mr. O’s comment an invective towards the very conception of black humanity, it was also an insult to a significant portion of the working class; being a manual laborer, according to Mr. O, was something that inferior humans pursued because they were mentality less capable. More importantly, the dominant ideology once again plays an immense role in this situation. Without this passive acceptance of the wage system and a capitalist economy, the ruling class could not maintain its power and privilege; this was a system Malcolm would eventually come to reject. In fact, Mr. O’s comment towards Malcolm provides an extremely important look into the political economy of the time period.

The 1930’s were a tumultuous time in American society; a depression was sweeping the nation, unemployment figures were staggering, unionization rates were surging and labor battles were being waged fiercely between exploited workers and bosses. The ruling class was shook by immense strike waves and increasing worker militancy. At times such as these it is essential that those who run society are able to use creative means to divide the working class. Racism is a vital weapon in the ruling class arsenal. In fact, it was extremely beneficial that up until this point labor unions had more or less remained segregated or at best ambivalent on the race question. By utilizing black workers (or any marginalized group) as scabs during strikes carried out by a mostly white working class, workers were able to skillfully manipulate each group so that instead of viewing their natural interests as workers in alignment they would view their own fellow workers as competition. Hostility and animosity would replace solidarity. This rancor would be further fueled by elite propaganda and the pseudo-scientific theories postulated claiming the inferiority of blacks and other marginalized groups.

This divide and conquer tactic has been, and continues to be, utilized regularly to defend corporate interests. Many white labor organizers failed to realize that racism or ambiguity concerning the rights of blacks was extremely detrimental to the working class cause. The only benefit whites gained, as W.E.B. DuBois so brilliantly explained in his work concerning Black Reconstruction, was a “psychological wage” (Taylor, 2008, 64). By maintaining a permanent underclass, bosses are able to keep wages and benefits low for all workers. Unorganized, divided workers are much less of a threat than an organized, collective force. The function of racism in a capitalist framework, then, is to destabilize the workers’ movement and paralyze it through with virulent ideological poison. So when Communist Party members, despite their many flaws, began organizing black and white sharecroppers together in the South, this provided a radical challenge to both the ruling class (North and South) and the conservative labor organizations (Pope, 2001, p. 232-266). Critically literate, radical blacks who began organizing the unorganized were threats to the economic and social stability of the capitalist political economy and the dominant ideology stemming from it.

Thus, one can begin to understand why Malcolm’s teacher pushed him to pursue something which engaged his hands and not his mind. The hegemony of the dominant ideology demanded that blacks maintain positions of inferiority in order to avoid the threat of militant black radicals and to undermine white laborers struggling for economic gains. Keeping blacks and white separated, based upon what today seems arbitrary, was a logical and rational maneuver for those who ran society. Had Malcolm followed the advice given him, he could have become an obedient black worker, marginalized and underpaid for his labor. Likewise, he may have even been used as a scab worker to help foster artificial hostility between blacks and whites, provide ideological ammunition to racist labor leaders, and undermine working class unity. It is quite interesting to consider that the radical, militant Malcolm X could have simply remained a passive, submissive construction worker named Malcolm Little. Mr. O’s gentle reminder to Malcolm of his place in society should not be viewed as an isolated instance of personal prejudice but instead an integral aspect of the dominant ideology being transmitted through an institution where the primary goal was the maintenance of the capitalist political economy. While Mr. O may not have been consciously plotting to subdue the black community, he was unconsciously helping to fulfill the desires of the dominant class, of which he was not even a part.

One cannot question the fact that societal institutions are reflections of the economic system under which they are created. Schools and the ideas transmitted by these institutions are designed to perpetuate the existing society. As reflections of the dominant class, these ideas are necessarily reflections of the interests of that class. The example Malcolm explicates upon provides a paragon for analyzing both racial and class relations in the 1930’s and how they affected schooling. The threat of militant, black radicals (especially when involved in labor organizing) to the political and economic establishment was a fear many ruling elites dared not take lightly. Similarly, marginalizing blacks and maintaining an obvious disparity allowed elites to maintain low wages for all workers and utilize them as scab workers. This helped to suppress the disruptions caused by the laboring masses who were challenging the profit-driven, free market system. These two important aspects of the political economy were backed up by an ideological hegemony which promoted the ideas that blacks were intellectually inferior and that a class society was fundamental to human existence. The artificial wedges used to divide black and white workers would be impossible to preserve without the dominant ideological components which accompanied them. Malcolm’s experience at school in Mason, Michigan was intricately bound upon in the existing order and the class structure of society. Without educational institutions which inculcated youth with the dominant ideology, the political economy would be hard pressed to maintain itself. Thus, Mr. O’s personal, singular instance of racial prejudice cannot be understood outside the context of American capitalism in the 1930’s.

Works Cited
Haley, A. (1964) The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York, NY: The Random House Publishing Group.
Pope, D., (2001) American Radicalism. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers Inc.
Taylor, K. (2008) Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880. International Socialist Review, 57, January-February. Also available from


Saturday, November 7, 2009

Black August - The Story of George Jackson

Below is a review I submitted to the Socialist Worker over a year ago concerning the film Black August, a film which received far too little reception by the dominant cultural institutions. It was understandable, of course, considering the immensely political nature of the film and the deep-rooted criticisms which it explored. For those of you who have not yet seen it, however, I highly suggest it. It is imperative, in my opinion, that we on the left appropriate mediums of expression, such as film, to a much higher degree than we do now. There are limits, of course, given the framework in which we operate, but articulating ourselves and expressing ideas in ways other than pamphlets and study groups is essential if we are going to create a true culture of resistance. Black August deserves to be one of the pieces of cultural resistance...


The George Jackson Story

BLACK AUGUST, a film about prison activist George Jackson released on DVD on February 12, presents a prodigious indictment of the U.S. judicial system.

Racism, inequality and police brutality are brought to the forefront in this heart-wrenching film, starring Gary Dourdan, who will be familiar to fans of the television show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. Black August exposes the terrible injustice perpetrated against Blacks and the extreme harshness with which opposition is met.

Jackson, at 18 years old, was sentenced one year to life for a $70 gas station robbery. The maximum sentence was intended for Jackson, especially once he began organizing for the Black Panther Party after being recruited by co-founder Huey Newton.

Jackson became an integral organizer in San Quentin prison. The film covers the last 14 months of his life, after his political transformation and during his attempts to pen his book Soledad Brother. The story focuses around his ordeals and problems inside the jail, along with his relatives and their struggles to free him outside of prison.

George's younger brother, Jonathan--played by Ezra Stanley--becomes increasingly determined in attempting to get his brother out of prison. Frustrated, in 1970, he attempts to take a judge hostage in exchange for George. Ultimately, Jonathan and those with him, including the judge, are shot down as they try to escape.

George remains locked in prison, and the guards continue their abuse of him, which ranges from simple harassment to violent beat downs. As a desperate last alternative, Jackson formulates a plot with outside help to gain his freedom.

The acting in the film ranges from below par to outstanding. Some of the characters are rather flat and unconvincing, while others, such as Angela Davis (played by Tina Marie Murray), skillfully capture the essence of their characters.

For those unfamiliar with Jackson's life, the plot will be full of twists and suspense, but those viewers aware of the events should not worry. Some surprises surrounding this Soledad Brother and his life may be revealed throughout the film.

Black August shines as an example of a heartfelt story of revolution woven into a quality film. It is no wonder this movie never made it in the theaters. For those interested in the life of George Jackson, or those who know nothing about him, this is a must-see.

Monday, November 2, 2009

On Education Part Ten: Jefferson, Mann, Dewey, Conant - A Comparative Analysis

    In any society the single most determining factor in how institutions are organized and function is the political and economic situation in which those institutions exist. Schools are a reflection of the society and how it is structured. Generally, schools can serve one of two functions; either they are designed to perpetuate the current system or they act as spawning grounds for dissent, questioning of society, and those who run it. In practice, the latter usually dominates. However, not everyone agrees on what role education and the school system should play in society. Some, like Mann and Conant, would propose that the primary goal of education is to reproduce the existing class structure and the classes required for such a society to continue its existence. Others, such as Jefferson, hoped, in an extremely exclusive way, that education help develop the minds of those citizens who had the leisure time to pursue it so that they could function in a relatively limited form of democratic society. Still others, such as Dewey, believed democracy should extend further than the political realm to all spheres of life, including school and the workplace, and the only way to prepare students for such a democratic society was to model schools in a participatory and democratic way. These key thinkers in educational philosophy and their ideal of schooling help illuminate the social, economic, and political realities at each stage of American education. Indeed, each one of their arguments is reflective of the material conditions at the time and each were attempting to respond, whether reactively or progressively, in a manner that would deal with these constantly changing conditions.

    Thomas Jefferson’s ideas of education were rather clear as he wrote frequently about the subject. He believed that in order to fulfill the role of active, aware citizen required in any sort of democratic society, men (with an emphasis on the gender-specific term, along with the exclusion of non-propertied men and men of color) should be liberally educated in order to understand the world, and how society functions, more broadly. Extremely vital in Jefferon’s conception of education is his postulation that democratic localism, or local school control by the community, represents the best method for how schools are to be organized and run. He believed that a sort of basic, three year education should be provided by the local government to all free children but insisted that education beyond that point should be privately funded. Jefferson’s style of education seemed to have very little to say in regards to vocational work, instead focusing on classical literature and traditional subjects in order to train the mental faculties. Armed with the basic necessities needed to be consciously aware of one’s own self-interest and, to a certain extent, the collective good of society, Jefferson believed his model of education would supply the “habit and long training” required for democratic participation by the citizenry (Tozer, p. 37). This would be accomplished by the free exchange of ideas through newspapers where argument and debate would manifest and educated men would rationally decide upon which argument best suited their interests. It is no question that the material conditions present in Jefferson’s particular historical framework played an immense role in shaping his understanding of how education should be organized.

    Many of Jefferson’s arguments cannot be understood without a basic understanding of reality in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  Formulated around a largely rural, agrarian based economy with little in the way of communications, it would only make sense that Jefferson articulated his idea of extreme localism and autonomy for each and every distinct school district. The industrial revolution was still decades ahead of Jefferson and social relations were largely pre-capitalist; enormous corporations, media consolidation, and globalization were not historical realities that impinged upon society with the same percussive impact they do today. Therefore, Jefferson believed that each individual white male, owning his own plot of land and having the leisure time to pursue a liberal education, would be informed of his own interests and, subsequently, how he should vote for representatives in government. Women were left out in Jefferson’s education ideal since he believed, echoing the dominant ideology at this time, they were naturally inferior beings “governed more by appetites and passions than by reason [and] were less capable of self-governance” (Tozer, p. 35). Similarly, the entire institution of slavery excluded blacks from the educational process during the Jeffersonian era. Males without property with likewise excluded from democratic life. Jefferson’s democracy then, along with his education which fostered it, was highly exclusive. Thus, the larger political economy heavily influenced, and also explains the limitations of, the Jeffersonian education ideal.   

    The locus of Horace Mann’s educational philosophy was that an “appropriate set of moral values” should be taught to all children in order to “support and sustain industrial development” (Tozer, p.68). His ideal education, a synthesis of various methods but borrowing from the authoritarian Prussian model most heavily, was an attempt to homogenize the enormous influx of immigrant workers. To do this, he believed it would be necessary to “provide [employers] with workers who were not only more productive but also docile, easily managed, and unlikely to resort to strikes or violence” (Tozer, p.76); similarly, he thought education should be used to “disarm the poor of their hostilities towards the rich” (Tozer, p.77). By instituting public education through common schools for the majority of the nation’s children, Mann believed that the inculcation of obedience and discipline, or “modern values,” into working class children should be the primary goal. Thus, his educational ideal would act as a perpetuation, indeed an expansion, of the existing order.

    During the Common Era of education, in which Mann played a significant role, industrialization and urbanization were rapidly changing the American scene; city sizes were growing, technology was making it possible for capitalists to bring together prodigious numbers of workers into one spot to labor, and immigrants from all over, but especially Ireland, were crossing the Atlantic to find work. Therefore, Jefferson’s ideal of democratic localism based upon the rural economy was largely fading from palpability. Mann, then, was trying to formulate a policy to "Americanize" the large influx of (often militant) immigrant workers who rejected to the wage slavery imposed upon them by capitalist enterprise. His ideal is a direct response to the changing political economy and he desired to force workers in a direction of obedience in order to expand the nascent industrial capitalism and subdue working class resistance to it. Therefore, his educational ideal was naturally very different than Jefferson's; it had to be state instituted and financed so that it could effectively reach the broader population and indoctrinate them into the newly emerging capitalist society. At the same time the feminization of teaching was becoming prevalent and, since females generally worked for much lower wages than men, females were being hired at a much higher rate and for much less pay. Once again, as with Jefferson, one can hear the echo of the dominant ideology’s sexism through Mann’s idea that women were biologically inclined to act as the “guide and guardian of children of a tender age” (Tozer, p. 75). However, he differs from Jefferson on one important fact; instead of excluding women from education, he pushed for it. But as Tozer et al. explains, “[t]he long term effect…was to reinforce the sexist belief that women were by nature not only fundamentally different from men but deficient in rational faculties” (Tozer, p. 75). To this day, the wages of educators pale in comparison to other professions, a legacy due in large part to the devaluation of occupations normally associated with women.

    Dewey theoretical contributions to the philosophy of education are probably the most underutilized, yet ultimately most valuable, aspects of pedagogical development. Dewey’s ideas arise in order to combat social efficiency proponents such as Charles W. Elliot who viewed students as “raw materials” which must go through “factories,” or schools, in which they are to be “shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life” (Tozer, p. 157). In contrast, Dewey’s focus relies upon furthering participatory democracy throughout all realms of society such as the workplace, school, and both the economic and political spheres. Rather than mold students into obedient workers as with traditional educational thought, his primary postulation was that schools should serve as models of participatory democracy; students and teachers alike are to function within a sort of democratic microcosm of the ideal society. Dialogue, debate, and democratic culture were vital factors in Dewey’s educational philosophy and, likewise, in his conception of a democratic society. This “developmental democracy” that he articulated would upset quite a lot of elite educational theoreticians. Dewey was a challenge to those who wished to maintain the existing, undemocratic class structure and the private tyrannies whose real nature are disingenuously hid behind free market dogma. Precisely because of this, Dewey would be largely underutilized in mainstream schooling environments.

    The Progressive Era of education is defined by this clash between social efficiency theorists and development democracy theorists. Industrialization and urbanization were rising sharply and elites understood that some sort of publicly funded, far reaching education would have to be implemented if the dominant ideology was to maintain its hegemony. Labor unions and radical workers, especially from the various southern and eastern European nations, were providing a significant challenge to the capitalist political economy. Thus, the elites found the manifestation of their educational ideal in Elliot who wanted less democracy and more obedience. On the other hand, Dewey argued for more democracy which should extend to the industrial arena (and the workplace in general) and empower workers, essentially the socialist position. Therefore, Dewey’s educational philosophy was a direct response, indeed, even a furthering, of the participatory democracy and economic control which millions of workers struggled for throughout this era.

    James Bryant Conant’s main educational assertions are that standardized testing was a “foolproof method for ascertaining academic promise,” education should function along meritocratic lines, public schools could serve as “the first bulwark of defense” against official state enemies and inculcate young minds with “greater cultural and social unity” on a seemingly nationalist basis (Tozer, p. 209-13). Conant argued that “school must first prepare talented youth for strategically necessary scientific, professional, and technological occupations” (Tozer, p. 222). Conant largely ignored the extremely varying social and economic backgrounds which may impede or further a student’s academic ability. The university, according to Conant, was an ivory tower where only the most academically successful should have a presence; education should be extremely competitive and only available for those who could make some sort of contribution to the national-security state and corporate interests. The rest of the population should be confined to purely vocational pursuits, a liberal education only hindering their limited minds from acting as docile, passive laborer, consumers, and flag-wavers. Conant’s theory of education follows the line of T.S. Elliot and, to a certain extent, Horace Mann, in developing a fundamentally undemocratic theory of education.

    Conant’s educational philosophy can only be understood within an exponentially strengthening American capitalism after World War II and the ensuing Cold War conflict with the Soviet Union. At a time when arms and technological development became a primary goal that consumed an enormous amount of resources, and while American capital was expanding rapidly and pursuing new markets, the reasoning behind Conant’s idea of an elite group of experts dictating how society should be run for the rest of the population becomes rather lucid. Instead of a society based upon Dewey’s model where participatory democracy reigns and the value of jingoism and capitalism to collective society can be challenged, Conant interjects on behalf of the current ruling elite with a meritocratic educational ideal which perpetuates the existing class structure. At a time when two world super powers were colliding for supremacy, the elite in each society hoped to infuse an extreme sense of nationalism and fear of the other within their respective populations. Thus, Conant’s educational philosophy was largely impacted by, and helped to reinforce, the flag-waving, red scare mentality among the American populace. The schools would play a vital role in this ideological transmission.

    The superficial democracy represented by philosophers such as Mann, Elliot, and Conant is not only a democracy for the few, it also manifests itself as an oppressive force for the many. Capitalism, the class society it produces, and the various oppressive formats which stem from its competitive and irrational nature, are in opposition to democracy. Democracy entails more than simply voting for a different political representative every few years whose vocation is to maintain the dominant structures of society. True democracy, participation and action involving the masses of society, cannot be realized in a society where profit dominates human motivation. Despite the empty rhetoric and glittering generalities which so profusely emanate from political pundits and multi-national corporations, the promise of democracy has yet to be fulfilled.

    A society where the premise is the collective good can only be established through a transformation of the political and economic system. It must be a change which stems from the people whom are oppressed themselves. When Dewey explains that democracy must extend beyond the shallow political sphere, he is absolutely correct; collective decision making by members of society who control their own labor, the means of production, and how those products are distributed is absolutely essential for any sort of functioning democracy. Political democracy is a hollow ideology when the so called free market ingeniously manipulates it in the manner that it does today.

    Dewey was also correct when he emphasized that schools should reflect the democratic ideal. A democratic culture inside the schools is vital to preparing students and teachers alike for their immensely important role in a democratic society. Democratic change has always, and will continue to be, a limit on the power of the wealth and the elite in society; if democracy is to be realized, it must remove the conditions in which enormous wealth and power are accumulated in the hands of the few. While Dewey’s development democracy model is a necessity, a truly democratic society and educational system must not only reflect the democratic ideal, it must actively seek to challenge oppression in any form. As Paulo Freire outlines, democracy involves transforming humans as objects who simply respond to their surroundings into humans as subjects who are intricately involved in determining their own destiny. This process undoubtedly involves the engagement of the oppressed in challenging and struggling against the system of oppression which forces itself upon them. Full human liberation, where the power and wealth of the few do not dictate the lives of the many, can only is achieved through a democratic struggle in which collective ownership and participatory decision making is the objective.

    The current political, economic, and social factors which may impede one’s ability to actualize a democratic structure in the classroom are multifaceted. Fundamentally, the overarching structure of a society based upon hierarchical control by those with wealth and the power it wields limit democratic decision making by educators and students. An extremely rigid school hierarchy, an often dense an seemingly impenetrable union bureaucracy, limited government resources and the dominant ideology as represented in the corporate controlled media and textbook publishing companies are some of the major limiting factors. The day to day life, along with the material realities of the students whom educators encounter may provide a challenging obstacle as well.

    Involving students by allowing them to help make decisions in the classroom and by engaging them with their own interests is a vital step in achieving some semblance of democracy in the classroom. Students must be tied to their educational experience directly and this is facilitated by involving them in constant dialogue and discussion. Both an understanding of their own oppression and the oppression which exists around them is necessary. Developing a democratic culture in the classroom, as Dewey suggests, can have an immense impact on the students that pass through the classroom. In fact, helping to develop that democratic culture will inevitably lead to questions of how society can be further democratized, which should be the goal of any educator in a democratic society. Students who are actively involved in struggles against oppression, and reflection upon that activity, will be more inclined to fight for radical change as they being to decode, comprehend, and articulate the world around them. Giving them the voice, and the power, to articulate their own experiences and their relations with the larger world will give them the power to help propose solutions to the challenges in their own life and the struggles society must overcome collectively.

    More importantly, teachers must take up the issue politically as well. Educators, whether they like it or not, are intricately bound up in the political and economic realities of society. Struggling to garner more resources for the schools, decreasing class sizes, fighting against standardized testing, providing equal treatment to all students, and protecting the sanctity of public education are important goals that every teacher should be involved with. To do this, a struggle against a government which favors wars, wealthy bankers, and corporate subsidies over education is essential. Likewise, a struggle to democratize unions so that they become a vehicle for fighting back against attacks on the public sector should be important as well. Educators and students should fight to play a role in shaping curriculum, challenge charter schools and privatization efforts, make the case for the removal of military recruiters from high schools and campuses, exercise their right to participate in budget decisions, combat mandated tests, and do all they can to struggle for a more humane, stimulating learning environment where students are not alienated. This will involve one-on-one battles in specific schools and particular districts; but it also involves linking these struggles with the general trends around the nation and the world. Teacher solidarity and community support are essential features to fostering a democratic learning environment.

Tozer, S., Violas, P., & Senese, G. (2009) School and Society: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. 6th ed. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill. 

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