Review: Bad: the autobiography of James Carr

Review: Bad: the autobiography of James Carr

A review of James Carr's autobiography. Carr was a gang-member and jail-bird in 1960's California, became deeply politicized while inside but also developed a powerful critique of the nature of prisoners' struggles

"I've been struggling all my life to get beyond the choice of living on my knees or dying on my feet. It's time we lived on our feet."

An Afterword that appeared in the Pelagian Press edition of Bad can be read here;


Bad: The Autobiography of James Carr

Pelagian Press, BCM Signpost, London WC1N 3XX

This book tells the story of the development of James Carr from an apolitical gang member, to a black nationalist associated with the Black Panther Party, and finally to a Korsch/Lukacs/Situationist-influenced position critical of the vanguardism of the Panthers. The book was first published in 1975. This new edition comes with an useful Afterword, written by BM Blob and News from Everywhere. Carr died young, and most of the book is taken up with the gang life and particularly the prison experiences preceding his eventual politicization. The Afterword puts his life in context (the then dominance of varieties of New Leftism, conflicts within the Black Panthers, and the crisis in the US prison system in the 1960s). It also points to the important differences between this book and other autobiographies of politicized prisoners: “it avoids portraying the prisoner as a passive victim of social injustice - and also refuses the martyr role that liberals and leftists try to impose on convicts for their own fantasies and careers” (p. 200).

James Carr survived prison through strength, intelligence and ruthlessness, qualities which he applied not just to the screws and governors but also to his fellow inmates. Like other cons, Carr was involved in a war of all-against-all on two levels: first the interpersonal competition and bullying, and second the “race” war between blacks, whites and Mexicans. In the book, graphic examples of inter-ethnic violence among prisoners illustrate how this relationship of divide-and-rule served the prison system. But the significance of Carr's experience and perspective is that he was in some of the biggest and most violent Californian prisons in the mid 1960s when a more politicized and united movement of prisoners began to develop. The movement emerged through a turn to black nationalism, which, Carr suggests, at least offered the possibility of enabling cons to see their connections with others in struggles outside the prison. The nationalist movement later developed into a movement against the prison structure itself, and attracted all the ethnic groups.

Carr has some acute comments to make on the limits of the movement. Though the conscious anti-racism was a great advance, the form of the movement remained guerrilla. In a memorable phrase, Carr says that “[g]uerrilla ideology reduces all revolutionary questions to quantitative problems of military force” (p. 169). The disastrous effects of this reduction included the death of his friend and influential militant activist George Jackson, as well as increasingly violent attacks by the authorities on organized prisoner revolts: a “fight to the finish” was what the reactionary prison authorities wanted, says Carr.

The repressive response of the authorities to the movement only confirmed the opposition between the prison system and the cons as a whole. But Carr argues that “even when the cons realized that they were all opposed to the system, they were prevented from locating themselves realistically within it: rather than recognize that they were on the margins of society and study strategically the development of society as a whole, they saw themselves as a class apart from the proletariat, or as its vanguard, and adopted an ideology of class war by whichthe only battleground was the prison itself. They mistook the system's arm for its heart” (pp. 168-9).

In this ideology, because modern capitalism relies on coercion, then its coercive institutions are its essense or highest expression. It is true that, along with torture and the death penalty in many places, prison is typically the capitalist state's “ultimate” sanction. But Carr is surely correct in suggesting that the prison is not a representative microcosm of modern class society. In fact, the reverse would seem to be the case: the prison is more an echo of feudalism, with its irrational petty rules, its separation of amount of work undertaken from means of subsistence, its social immobility, and its entrenched sets of interests in the form of the prison guards' organizations.

Carr also links this vanguardism with what he sees as leftism's romantic fetishization of crime. During the time of the political movement among prisoners, those on the outside promoted figures like George Jackson into rebel heroes; but, as Carr says, they were always tragic figures because their value to the movement was as martyrs. Leftists and anarchists rightly point out that there is a relation between capital and criminality; but the problem is how to grasp this relation without seeing the con, on the one hand, as necessarily a rebel hero or, on the other, as necessarily an anti-social element. Carr's analysis of what he calls the criminal mentality (“born to lose”) shows how criminality in the form of robberies etc. is based on an antipathy to capital without necessarily being revolutionary. We steal because we don't want to work, says Carr - we want to have control over our lives. But if we have to keep on pulling bigger and bigger robberies to live and meet our developing needs, then we just perpetuate ourselves as robbers and ultimately as cons. As robbers and particularly as cons we might go beyond ourselves, as Carr and others did: by co-ordinating with others to resist the state, we fight capital rather than exist within its interstices. The experience of prison - the other side of the coin of the liberal-democratic ideology of rights and freedoms - has been shown on many occasions to have a politicizing effect on prisoners: cons commonly come to hate and resist the viciousness of the state machine. On the other hand, however, without potential support for such a project, the experience of state power and antagonism easily leads to individual survivalism or even to suicide.

Carr is scathing of prison reform, quoting Marx's argument that basing a revolutionary movement on it is like basing abolitionism on demands for better food for slaves. He criticizes his own actions for merely reacting to the initiative of the enemy - for fighting on their terrain. It is certainly true that all the time that the struggle remains within capital's procedures and concepts it remains a struggle within capital (for more fairness, rights etc.) rather than against it. However, Carr is perhaps being rather harsh on himself since, quoting Marx again, “Men [sic] make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past” (1934/1852, p. 13) As Carr's own story shows, rather than existing fully formed prior to the struggle, tendencies to push beyond given limits typically emerge from initial demands and conflicts which are more limited. If the present form of the capital relation - the current class composition - is a result of struggle between capital and proletariat, then neither of these forces are always pure; anti-capitalism is mediated by existing capitalism, particularly the latter's progressive tendencies.

More pessimistically, perhaps, just as moderate demands can go beyond themselves in the struggle itself, so militant struggles can feed back into a reassertion of the legitimacy of the prisons ystem on a new basis. Prison history is the history of violent prison struggles and with them various kinds of liberal reforms and reactionary backlashes. Strangeways, 1990, for example, progressed from an initial plan among prisoners for a limited protest, to a practical critique of the prison in the struggle itself (with cons taking over and trashing the building); the riot then fed into a set of liberal reforms (the ending of slopping out); and finally it served as the justification for legislation for harsher punishments for future rebels (the offence of prison mutiny). This is not of course an argument against resistence or demands for better conditions among prisoners, since any victories by militant prisoners are to be welcomed, and all support (in the form of letters etc.) for individual militants is to be encouraged, particularly if there are links with struggles on the outside.

This book is an autobiography rather than a book of theory, and James Carr led a pretty incredible life by anyone's standards. Of all the incredible things in the book, including the massacres, killings and maimings Carr took part in, it is perhaps his weight-lifting feats that are most hard to believe. The prison lifestyle was often one of privation and drug-taking, yet at one stage Carr apparently trained for five hours a day (exhausting even for today's steriod-fuelled bodybuilders) and bench-pressed 520lb! Not only this, but despite the fact that he was a heavyweight, his waist measurement was only 27 inches.


1 The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonapart. Moscow: Co-operative Publishing Society. (Originally published 1852.)


Aug 4 2014 21:50

Haven't read it in years but the two things that come to mind are his epiphany on his final release that contrary to the Panther rhetoric inside, there was no revolution taking place on any level and also his very candid account of homosexuality in prison, including, if memory serves, a rape he took part in perpetrating. I think I found it disturbing and at the same time oddly dull and have never recommended it to anyone.

Aug 5 2014 08:34

I haven't read it in years either but Carr recounts taking parts in lots of rapes.

Sep 5 2014 02:09

We'll idk if any of u have been to the pen or not but I know a lot of the things carr was talking about is all real I did over 11 yrs in there and we had to study his and George Jackson's works and the bpp. As for his X stuff I don't care for it but the rest of the book is very good

admin: homophobic word removed, please don't use any discriminatory language

Red Marriott
May 22 2016 16:07

At around the same time as Carr’s book ‘Bad’ was published there was an LP released of a few of the tapes of him being interviewed that the book was put together from. It’s available here as a download for less than $5;

May 23 2016 03:15

The book has been re-released this year by a NY based publisher (Three Rooms Press). Carr's widow and daughter will be speaking at the Bay Area launch of the book on June 14.

May 23 2016 05:18

I've got a bad feeling about this new edition:

BAD: The Autobiography of James Carr, is the harrowingly brutal and unapologetic story of the notorious African-American career criminal who went straight out of Compton to a reformatory after burning down his school at the age of 9. Originally released in 1972, BAD remains a harsh indictment of the American penal system and a primer for the seeds of institutionalized racism in this country. BAD goes where no other book has ever gone before and so did James Carr. After years in and out of prison (mostly in) Carr befriended George Jackson (Soledad Brother) in Folsom Prison where they fought their way to a position of strength along the radical stream of the 1960s. As Carr notes, “I’ve been struggling all my life to get beyond the choice of living on my knees or dying on my feet. It’s time we lived on our feet.” A book that strips the system bare, BAD is revealing as a telling document in the battle for criminal justice reform that continues to this day. Includes a new introduction by his daughter, Gea Carr, and an afterword by his widow, Betsy Carr.

And it looks like his widow and daughter who are speaking at the launch are both professional activists.

Jun 15 2016 06:11

I went to the book talk and despite some reformist liberal references to voting, it was a deeply moving experience. I wrote a longer review, but due to stupidity I didn't save my post and it was lost.

Here's a brief rewrite of that review:

The first speaker was a California State Senator, Jim Beall from San Jose who is a longtime friends of the Carrs. He is at the extreme liberal end of the political spectrum, which means he has faith that his reforms in the state legislature can affect lasting change. Despite his sincerity, he was a typical windbag politician.

Next Gea, Jimmy Carr's daughter spoke. She read her entire Introduction to the book. Although she's now a realtor and board member of middle-of-the-road non-profits, she learned the lessons of her father's life well and was passionate about his vision of transforming society. I was deeply moved by what she had to say, so much so that like almost everyone there I was nearly in tears as she finished -- and was in tears herself.

After she spoke, longtime movement lawyer Paul Harris spoke and gave an excellent, and concise, overview of prison policy in California, from the "indeterminate sentencing" that put someone like Black Panther George Jackson into prison from 1 year to life, to the present use of punitive solidarity confinement, and changes in the 1970s that rejected any attempt at rehabilitation for prisons emphasizing solely the punitive purpose confinement instead. It was a short, but lucid critique.

Lastly, Betsy was very emotional and spoke of being present when Jimmy was assassinated. She mentioned how once out of prison, he worked as a union field organizer and often talked with rank-and-filers about "class society." Yet his death is something she thinks about "every day" of her life, it having left permanent scars where the "pain is forever," and she can never shake the "pain, shock and sadness" of his assassination. She's an activist in her community, which is San Jose where she grew up, but she's not a "professional." Yet like Gea, kept mentioning gun control, especially as they both also mentioned the Orlando, Florida massacre which happened a couple days ago. The worst part was when they advocated voting for "good" politicians, like Jim Beall, the implication being that they'll pass tough gun-control laws.

Betsy finished by reading a long passage from the afterward to Bad (which she'd written in 1974, two years after Jimmy's death), closing with a section on how once Jimmy was finally out of prison, "every moment together was based on growth, and we can't stop now." Sadly, the bullets of two assassin's did end that dream. It was extremely sad, but there was a beauty to Jimmy Carr's transformative anti-capitalist vision just the same. As the event was wrapping up, I approached Betsy and thanked her. I asked about Jimmy's intellectual development, especially as he spent nearly his entire adult life in prison. She lit up, and replied "Jimmy was so fucking smart" and went on to tell me that when Gea was an infant they'd take care of her and read Marx out loud to each other. Gea jokingly butted in and said she didn't remember any of it. We also talked about his appreciation of Nietzsche's critique of morality.

Betsy and I finished with some pleasant small talk, where she asked about me and my experiences. I briefly mentioned "discovering" the Situationists in the 1980s and how fellow pro-Situs steered me to Bad and how inspiring I found the book. One final gem was when I asked about what part of Los Angeles Jimmy had grown up in, Betsy said Boyle Heights and South Central but admitted not knowing the area well. But she did mention that Jimmy's mom lived a life of suffering due to poverty and drug addiction, but to her credit was arrested while rioting in the Watts Uprising in 1965.

It was really a beautifully moving experience meeting Betsy and Gea Carr and I'm so glad I went. Thanks to Sike for for posting the link to the book talk. I'll finish by suggesting that everyone read BAD: The Autobiography of James Carr.

Jun 15 2016 17:34

Hey thanks for posting that, really appreciate it, shame about losing the longer post!

(Because of possible Wi-Fi/web connection problems etc if anyone is writing a long post we recommend typing it out in Word or notepad first, then copying and pasting it)

Jun 16 2016 02:42
Hieronymous wrote:
Thanks to Sike for for posting the link to the book talk.[/i].

You’re welcome. Any recording of the talk?

Jun 16 2016 02:54
Sike wrote:
Hieronymous wrote:
Thanks to Sike for for posting the link to the book talk.[/i].

You’re welcome. Any recording of the talk?

The publisher video recorded it. I'll check and if I find it I'll post a link.

Jun 19 2016 05:17

Thanks for the report back H. Apologies for my earlier harshness.