The Communist Insurgents of 1970s Detroit, and Their Reading List

In stark contrast to the example set by revolutionaries in the ’60s and ’70s, radicals today focus far too much time and energy on studying old classical texts, instead of seeking out and engaging with more modern and contemporary analysis. 

In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Detroit was a hotbed of unrest, with a vibrant armed underground lead by Black communists associated with the Black Panther Party and the National Committees to Combat Fascism (an umbrella group started by the Black Panthers to create a coalition space for anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist organizing).  In response to the growing brutality and effectiveness of state repression against dissident groups, the insurgents organized themselves into relatively independent and autonomous cells; their activities typically consisted of ambushing police patrols and expropriating money from heroin dealers (a la Omar Little of the TV series The Wire)–money that would be an important source of funding to the Detroit Black Panther’s local above-ground programs such as free health clinics and breakfast programs (Williams and Lazerow 2009: 193-94, 208).

Detroit_Panthers

The Detroit underground had what they called “The Seven Canons of Armed Struggle”, which was a list of seven texts that laid the ideological foundations for their politics and strategies, and provided a constant source of inspiration and direction.  The Seven Canons are as follows (Williams and Lazerow 2009: 198-208):

  1. The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965) by Malcolm X and Alex Haley
  2. The Wretched of the Earth (1961) by Frantz Fanon
  3. Negroes With Guns (1962) by Robert F. Williams
  4. The Revolutionary Catechism (1869) by Sergey Nechayev and Mikhail Bakunin
  5. Guerrilla Warfare (1961) by Che Guevara
  6. The Spook Who Sat By the Door (1969) by Sam Greenlee
  7. The Mini-Manual of the Urban Guerrilla (1969) by Carlos Marighella

I’d like to draw attention to one key observation which, the more I think about it, the more astounding it is to me: the fact that all except one of the Seven Canons was written in the ’60s, well within ten years of the beginning of the insurgency.  And even the one work that was produced in ages past, the anarchist text by Nechayev and Bakunin, is just a short manifesto.  Clearly, the Detroit underground was heavily guided by analysis and strategy grounded in their local and contemporary context.

The reason I am astounded by this is because it is in such stark contrast to the reading lists and recommend works that I tend to see thrown around the North American radical left today.  Too many of the reading groups I come across focus themselves on old European texts written in the 1800s and early 1900s–typically works by Marx, Engels, Kropotkin, Lenin, and Trotsky.  This obsession with these distant historical figures never made much sense to me.  While these individuals were of course crucial in laying the groundwork for revolutionary theory and practice as we know it, the world has changed in drastic and momentous ways since their era, and much of what they wrote doesn’t apply very well, or only applies in a highly abstract and academic fashion.  So sure, their work is important and all, but I think it is a pretty big problem people are spending their time and energy mostly on these types of old texts, at the expense of engaging with more recent and relevant works that typically build off the theories of the classical revolutionaries anyway.

Part of this problem could be explained by how the radical left (especially Marxists) in North America have retreated into academia since the ’70s and are no longer connected to normal people struggling against State and Capital, and how an overly academic and theoretical mindset has been reproduced even in non-academic circles.  This mindset means that there is a lot of inclination toward abstract philosophizing and obsessing over the details of “the true meaning” of 19th-century texts that sometimes has a bizarre religious tinge to it (“What did Marx really mean when he said X?”), or content to engage only in critiques of capitalism and liberal ideology; and all of this is at the expense of investigation into local issues, local struggles, and the concrete details of how to engage in revolutionary struggle today so that we can actually solve the issues we are criticizing.

In addition, the standard focus on European texts and European movements far removed from our current time and place is probably due largely to the Eurocentric ideology that dominates historiography (and political thought in general) in North America.  Eurocentric thinking has a huge effect on whether one is reading contemporary works or not, given that most of the development that there has been around radical theory and practice after the early 20th century took place not in Europe, but in the Third World and in the context of anti-colonial revolutionary movements (with the notable exception of Italian communists and the development of Autonomist Marxism in the ’60s; a version of which was also developed in parallel in Latin America during the ’80s and ’90s).  But if people are not aware of non-European development of communist praxis, then of course the default orientation would be toward classical European radicals.  And breaking Eurocentric thinking should be recognized as easier said than done; even I, somebody who grew up in a household that centered South Asian history and culture and in a North American town dominated by immigrant communities, did not really destroy or even recognize the way Eurocentrism shaped my thinking until just a few years ago, when I read Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction (2001), a book that does a phenomenal job of bringing Third World history, theory, and practice into the center of one’s understanding of global history and politics.

fidelmalcolm

Thus far, I’ve made it seem like the key problem is just in the way radicals tend to select the texts they want to focus on and how certain ideologies and ways of thinking influences us to drift toward old 19th-century European theory.  But we should recognize factors that are outside of our control: namely, the fact that unlike the ‘60s, we are currently only just leaving a historical low point for the radical left and popular struggle, and as such have yet to either create powerful mass movements that produce and spread the kind of influential contemporary texts as seen in the Seven Canons, or to create the connections between different movements that allow for the exchange of ideas, strategies, and insights across different regions, countries, and continents.

It wasn’t as if the Seven Canons were produced in a vacuum, and then spread by the power of their ideas alone; books, and ideas in general, spread because of their concrete connection to struggle and the way that revolutionary networks are maintained and spread.  Malcolm X’s autobiography was popularized because of his consistent contributions to the Black freedom struggles of the ‘50s and ‘60s, and how he started his own organizations like the Malcolm X Organization for Afro-American Unity (of which the armed wing, the Revolutionary Action Movement, was a key player in the Detroit underground).  Frantz Fanon produced The Wretched of the Earth in the context of the Algerian Revolution, and its popularity with American insurgents in the late ‘60s cannot be understood without also recognizing the fact that the Black Panthers established an embassy in Algeria.  The same goes for Che Guevara’s Guerrilla Warfare, and the fact that Cuba was a key international ally of the Panthers.

Today, there is a much lower level of mass movement than existed in the late ‘60s; and revolutionary networks leave much to be desired (at least, between North America and the radical struggles happening elsewhere).  Nonetheless, we are beginning to see this change; the EZLN’s Little Schools, which saw and continue to see radicals from across the world come to study autonomy, has resulted in the spread of the EZLN’s own textbooks on revolutionary politics into North American circles.  And with international brigades being formed in Rojava to help the struggle against the Islamic State, one might start seeing texts forged by the fire of real practice start to be translated in different languages and spread across the globe.  So perhaps, as global revolutionary struggle continues to expand and as we in North America continue to claw our way out of an historical low-point, we’ll see the attention of radicals shift away from dense academic-oriented texts from 19th-century Europe and toward texts immediately relevant to us and our historical positions and material conditions.

Nonetheless, this shift is by no means a passive process; those of us who are dissatisfied with the tendency for certain circles to read tired, overly-theoretical texts should get more fussy, point out Eurocentrism when it appears, and question decisions to slog through yet another book that was formed out of an historical and material context far removed from our own.  And a good place to ground this fussiness in is—to return to what inspired this essay—the nature of the Detroit underground’s Seven Canons, and the fact that though most of them are some fifty years old, the context in which they were developed is still much closer and more relevant to our current context than older and more popular books.

Un-linked Citations

Williams, Yohuru.  Lazerow, Jama.  “Liberated Territories: Untold Local Perspectives on the Black Panther Party.”  Duke University Press.  2009.

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