Black Liberation – George Jackson and Political Violence
In 1960 when George Jackson was eighteen, he was convicted of second-degree robbery for driving the getaway car whilst his friend robbed a petrol station of 70 dollars. For his part in this offence he was sent into the state prison system with a sentence of “one year to life”. Technically, George Jackson was liable to imprisonment for life. In practice it meant that he would serve a minimum of one year and would thereafter appear annually before a parole board who would consider his “fitness to be released”.
The preface of the book Soledad Brothers — The Prison Letters of George Jackson states:
“Under this system parole is granted on the basis of the prisoner’s record within the prison, but the prisons themselves are brutal humiliating places where violent racism is commonplace; if a black prisoner resists this degradation he will be penalised and lose parole. Jackson was denied parole year after year. His friend was released in 1963.”
In January 1970 after Jackson had been in prison for ten years, seven-and-a-half of them in solitary confinement, three black prisoners who were at exercise in Soledad Prison and known to be political activists were provoked and shot dead by a prison guard. The guard was exonerated as having committed “justifiable homicide”. Shortly after this was announced, a white guard was thrown to his death from a tier of the prison where Jackson was held. He and two others who came to be known as the “Soledad Brothers” were charged with murder and faced the death penalty.
In August 1970, Jackson’s younger brother Jonathan held up a Courthouse and took a judge amongst five hostages under the demand “Free the Soledad Brothers”. In the ensuing violence, both Jonathan and the judge were shot dead. In August 1971, in circumstances which have never been made clear, George Jackson was amongst a group of persons which included prison guards, who were shot dead in prison. Subsequently his co-defendants on the murder charge were acquitted.
This record of violent events which built up over eleven years against the developing political consciousness of its victims exemplifies the crude viciousness of modern American barbarism. These events cut right through the American hypocrisy and its pretensions to be the egalitarian “land of the free”. They expose with murderous clarity a system where privilege is maintained by ignorance, hatred and brutality as a conscious instrument of social policy. The prolonged incarceration of George Jackson and his eventual destruction was rooted in the entire fabric and structure of American capitalism. It is both convenient and popular to see his imprisonment and death in isolation from the whole social and economic context, as something unrelated to the general pattern of society. In reality the privileges of the American rich and their monopoly of wealth and power are erected on the squalor of the American poor and where necessary, without hesitation, on the atrocity of a George Jackson’s death.
There are Crimes and Crimes
By any standards, George Jackson was a remarkable individual. He was brought up in the black ghettoes of Chicago and Los Angeles. His family background was not political. His father was a conscientious person, ill-educated himself, struggling hard as an unskilled worker to provide for his family in material surroundings typical of the unrelieved ugliness of those urban slums. This is an atmosphere which produces cynicism as a brittle response to the glaring inequalities of life. These areas after all are the concentration camps for those who are socially and economically rejected, patrolled and held down by armed policemen, and when necessary, the national guard.
More than most, American capitalism glamourizes the ownership of things and accords prestige to personal wealth. At the same time, the opportunities of millions of Americans are restricted by the economic and social conditions of the urban ghetto. In these circumstances, it is difficult for young men to avoid hostile encounters with the police. Like many others, George Jackson was one such young man, and at eighteen, found himself in prison for theft.
The general aim of the state prison regime in America is, through the application of physical and psychological terror, to force the inmates to passively accept their rôle in American society. The aim is to reduce the individual to a state of despair and insignificance. As Jackson himself put it:
“This is in keeping with the overall prison conspiracy, i.e. you have no will, you have no choice or control, so be wise — surrender. There’s a sign everywhere your eyes may happen to rest, begging: ‘O Lord, help me to accept those things I cannot change.’”
With a sentence of “one year to life” for petty theft, the authorities combine two savage pressures. The first is the day-to-day punishment of imprisonment combined with physical assaults and personal humiliation. The second is the blackmail in saying “this year provided you behave, you may be released on parole, or next year” or the year after that, and so on for life.
George Jackson’s crime was not that he complied in the theft of 70 dollars, but that in prison he could not accept the ignominious terms on which the authorities might have released him. For this crime he was imprisoned for eleven years, seven-and-a-half in solitary confinement, and eventually in August 1971, shot to death.
Short of Understanding
In prison, in spite of the limitations of his personal background, Jackson began to read seriously, gradually seeking an explanation for the forces, social and historical, underlying his plight. Eventually, he devoured such left-wing and Marxist literature as he could get hold of. Jackson did not become a Socialist. It is doubtful whether his views would fit neatly into any political category. He became an inspiration to the civil rights movement in America, and also to the Black Power movement. Although there is much that is perceptive in Jackson’s views as expressed in The Prison Letters of George Jackson, his understanding of economic relationships and social and political institutions, fall short of a Socialist understanding. If George Jackson was anything, he was a black nihilist.
Jackson claimed to be opposed to capitalism. “The principal enemy must be isolated and identified as capitalism.” “Our enemy at present is the capitalist system and its supporters.” However, closer analysis would show that in fact what Jackson was opposed to was American-style private enterprise. Jackson sympathized with China and the emerging African states. So he ignored the fact that capitalism is a world mode of production where the means of wealth production are monopolized and controlled either by private owners or a political bureaucratic élite. In world capitalism, although the systems of administration in different states vary, basic economic relationships are essentially the same. This applies to China and the emerging African states. Wage labour is exploited, wealth takes the form of commodities marketed with a view to making profit and capital is accumulated by a minority from the surplus wealth produced by the working class. Moreover, in China and Russia, as much as in America, the capitalist system is held down by a State machine which includes the armed forces and police and prisons.
Jackson considered that political democracy was a fraud. “Of what value is quasi-political control if the capitalists are allowed to hold on to the people’s whole mode of subsistence?” He believed in leadership and elevated violence. “The people who run this country will never let us succeed to power. Everything in history that was of any value was taken by force.”
Futile to Confront
There is no doubt that if in some time of crisis Jackson’s views on leadership and violence became practical action, this would lead to disaster. It would compound crisis with death and violence with no possible hope of getting anywhere towards Socialism. The most that might be achieved on the basis of an immediate worsening of conditions would be that the political controllers might change. Modern history is littered with examples of political power being changed through violent means. But all these examples relate to States where capitalism is undeveloped. Without exception the replacement governments have all embarked on the continued development of capitalism. In the real world where capitalism dominates as a mode of production there would be no other practical alternative. In states where capitalism is more developed, political administration is stabilized either through a state capitalist regime such as Russia, or through political democracy as in Western Europe; in either case the chance of a militant minority confronting or replacing the government through violent means is nil.
The principal facts are these, that in the complex organization of modern industrial States, no government is viable unless it rests upon at least the acquiescence if not the general support of the majority. This would apply to any militant minority attempting to wrest political power. Apart from the difficulty of defeating the existing State machine in open confrontation, they could never hold power because their writ would not run. The only practical test of whether the exercise of political power is possible or not in a developed capitalist State is the degree of acquiescence or support a government can carry.
Apart from this, any movement which is going forward on a basis other than democratic action cannot be a Socialist movement. The equality that Socialists aim for is not only the equality of all men about the means of producing wealth but equality in all the processes of social organization.
Get it Right
The crucial factor which allows the establishment of Socialism is the conscious action of a majority of Socialists. Until there exists a majority of Socialists, only capitalism is possible, regardless of the form of its administration. When that majority is achieved, then it can be assumed that the establishment of Socialism will be politically straightforward.
What Jackson ignored was the regrettable fact that capitalism in America rests upon the political support of the whole population, including the millions of negro voters. His call for violent struggle may well have been an expression of his bitter frustration, but as a useful idea in creating a better world, it was a political irrelevance. It was a mistake stemming from a faulty reading of Marxism for the Black movement to draw inspiration from Chinese state capitalism. Significantly, they are not enthusiastic about Russia, yet there was a time during the earliest phase of the state capitalist revolution when it enjoyed sympathy amongst protestors throughout the world. Just as the capitalist nature of the Russian state has become more obvious year by year, it is inevitable that the same development will take place in China.
The Black Power movement will have to learn that negro workers can only achieve their emancipation along with the emancipation of all mankind.