George Jackson - CLR James

George Jackson

[This short article, appraising George Jackson and establishing the links between his generation and that of people such as Du Bois and James himself, was written for Radical America and appeared in the November-December issue of 1971, a few weeks after the murder of Jackson at San Quentin prison] - From The Future in the Present

Submitted by UseValueNotExc… on April 7, 2023

It would be quite stupid, if not ridiculous, to attempt to give some sort of brief or concentrated account of black struggles in the United States. To do that properly would require a book or a series of lectures. Instead I shall continue, in fact intensify, the method that I have been raising so far. The most important name in the history of black struggles in the world at large or in the United States is Dr W. E. B. Du Bois. All thinking about black struggles today and some years past originates from him. Here, however, I have to take one single quotation from his work. In Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1888, Dr Du Bois sums up his future of black struggles in the world at large. He concludes with a picture of the frustration suffered by blacks in the United States. He writes on Page 703:

“Such mental frustration cannot indefinitely continue. Some day it may burst in fire and blood. Who will be to blame? And where the greater cost? Black folk, after all, have little to lose, but civilisation has all. This the American black man knows: his fight here is a fight to the finish. Either he dies or he wins. If he wins it will be by no subterfuge or evasion of amalgamation. He will enter modern civilisation here in America as a black man on terms of perfect and unlimited equality with any white man, or he will enter not at all. Either extermination root and branch, or absolute equality. There can be no compromise. This is the last great battle of the West."

That is where in 1971 we have to begin. In 1938 I visited the United States, and by 1948, speaking on the platform of the Socialist Workers’ Party (trotskyism, which I left three years afterwards), I introduced a resolution on the Negro question. In the course of it I said as follows:

“We can compare what we have to say that is new by comparing it to previous positions on the Negro question in the socialist movement. The proletariat, as we know, must lead the struggles of all the oppressed and all those who are persecuted by capitalism. But this has been interpreted in the past — and by some very good socialists too — in the following sense: the independent struggles of the Negro people have not got much more than an episodic value, and as a matter of fact, can constitute a great danger not only to the Negroes themselves, but to the organised labour movement. The real leadership of the Negro struggle must rest in the hands of organised labour and of the marxist party. Without that the Negro struggle is not only weak, but is likely to cause difliculties for the Negroes and dangers to organised labour. This, as I say, has been the position held by many socialists in the past. Some great socialists in the United States have been associated with this attitude.

We on the other hand say something entirely different. We say, number one, that the Negro struggle, the independent Negro struggle, has a vitality and a validity of its own: that it has deep historic roots in the past of America and in present struggles; it has an organic political perspective, along which it is travelling, to one degree or another, and everything shows that at the present time it is travelling with great speed and vigour. We say, number two, that this independent Negro movement is able to intervene with terrific force upon the general social and political life of the nation, despite the fact that it is waged under the banner of democratic rights, and is not led necessarily either by the organised labour movement or the marxist party. We say, number three, and this is the most important, that it is able to exercise a powerful influence upon the revolutionary proletariat, that it has got a great contribution to make to the development of the proletariat in the United States, and that is in itself a constituent part of the struggle for socialism.”

The reader will have to note* that not only was the black question given an independent role, with its own role and its own leadership, he must note also the great step forward that was
made in point three. Previous to 1948 the whole marxist movement, including myself, had always thought that on the whole and also in particular it was the proletariat, the marxist party which had to educate all the elements of society on the fundamental reality of political struggle for socialism. A careful reading of point number three will show that a sharp break was made with this traditional policy. There it was made quite clear that the black struggles in the United States would be the education of the whole society in the realities of contemporary politics. That is precisely what is happening today and the best proof I can give of it are two quotations from the letters of a young man, George Jackson, published under the title Soledad Brother. Jackson was in prison at the age of eighteen and was shot and killed in prison at the age of twenty-eight. Of the ten years that he spent in prison, seven were spent in solitary confinement. The letters are in my Opinion the most remarkable political documents that have appeared inside or outside the United States since the death of Lenin. Here is the first quotation:

“There is an element of cowardice, great ignorance, and perhaps even treachery in blacks of his general type. And I agree with Eldridge and Malcolm, we are not protecting unity when we refrain from attacking them. Actually it's the reverse that’s true. We can never have unity as long as we have these idiots among us to confuse and frighten the people. It's not possible for anyone to still think that Western mechanised warfare is absolute, not after the experiences of the Third World since World War II. The French had tanks in Algeria, the US had them in Cuba.
Everything, I mean every trick and gadget in the manual of Western arms has been thrown at the VC, and they have thrown them back, twisted and ruined; and they have written books and
pamphlets telling us how we could do the same. It's obvious that fighting ultimately depends on men, not gadgets. So I must conclude that those who stand between us and the pigs, who protect the marketplace, are either cowards or traitors. Probably both.”

The second quotation explains and historically places the first. Jackson claims that all the prisoners in his prison who are specially confined and specially punished think exactly as he does. He says that words like “honkey”, a word that is commonplace for abuse of white people by black revolutionaries, these young men never used. Here is what Jackson says of them:

"All of these are beautiful brothers, ones who have stepped across the line into the position from which there can be no retreat. All are fully committed. They are the most desperate and dauntless of our kind. I love them. They are men and they do not fight with their mouths. They've brought them here from prisons all over the state to be warehoused or murdered, whichever is more expedient. That Brother Edwards who was murdered in that week in January told his lawyer that he would never get out of prison alive. He was at the time of that statement on Maximum Row, Death Row, Soledad, California. He was twenty-one years old. We have made it a point to never exchange words with these people. But they never relent. Angela, there are some people who will never learn new responses. They will carry what they incorporated into their characters at early youth to the grave. Some can never be educated. As a historian, you know how long and how fervently we’ve appealed to these people to take some of the murder out of their system, their economics, their propaganda; and as an intelligent observer you must see how our appeals were received. We’ve wasted many generations and oceans of blood trying to civiljse the elements over here. It cannot be done in the manner in which we have attempted it in the past. Dialectics, understanding, love, passive resistance — they won’t work on an atavistic, maniacal, gory pig. It’s going to grow much worse for the black male than it already is — much much worse. We are going to have to be the vanguard, catalyst, in any meaningful change."

It is quite obvious that where Du Bois and myself were observing a situation, taking part, organisationally in our various ways, but guided by theoretical, that is to say intellectual development, the generation to which Jackson belonged has arrived at the profound conclusion that the only way of life possible to them is the complete intellectual, physical, moral commitment to the revolutionary struggle against capitalism. They are a stage beyond all historical and theoretical writing, and I add here an opinion that in my travels about the United States I have met or been aware of many thousands of young black people who could not express themselves in this manner, for Jackson is a born writer. But that is how they think, those are the principles on which they act, and as blacks they are not alone. It would take too much to show that their attitude is not confined to blackness, but that for the time being is enough. The reader of this must now go and for himself read all about Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Angela Davis, Huey Newton, the Black Panther Party, and the whole list of other names and persons who fill the political life of the United States today. But unless he has some clear grasp of the historical development which I have outlined he will not only be wasting his time but corrupting his understanding of what is taking place in the United States today.


*The document referred to is “The Revolutionary Answer to the Negro Problem in the USA."