Lost in the American Wasteland

by Shemon Salam

It has been two years since George Floyd’s and Breonna Taylor’s murder and two years since the uprising of 2020. I think about the summer of 2020 everyday. Could I have done more? More risks. More travel. More courage. That moment demanded everything. I am still alive and perhaps I held back. I was transformed, many of us were. But instead of finding others, I find myself alone in a wasteland.1 Why? Let me explain.

As we get further away from the uprising, distance allows for a different set of reflections. It is the task of revolutionaries to take riots, strikes, occupations, and blockades as an opportunity to make deeper assaults on capital, the state, and racism. No one knows what is possible until the impossible is fought for. When one enters the boxing ring, punches are not held back, all effort is given. Only after the fight is over is the tape reviewed and a sober assessment drawn up. The George Floyd Uprising is clearly over, it is time to review the tape. It has taken two years to write this, not because I didn’t have these thoughts earlier, but because I was afraid of them.

This is not just about politics divorced from my person. The science of communism can’t shy away from self-reflection. An immigrant from India, without Malcolm and the Black Struggle I arguably would have become another white-assimilated Asian American. I have always looked to the Black Radical Tradition as the compass in how to fight and ultimately defeat capitalism. Whether it remains such a compass is a shattering question to even ponder. The end of such traditions implies not just the end of an era, but carries with it the psychological, ethical, and physical defeat of individuals. It is where depression, suicide, and alcoholism all lurk. But the wasteland is also a place to challenge our illusions, where we are forced to encounter the real.

The Real

What is clear is that whatever is left of value in the Black Radical Tradition is found in the streets. The academy, NGOs, and Black left formations—regardless of their claim to the tradition—are the enemy of the Black proletariat.2 This is not new. The Second International found itself in the same position. Those who knew better such as Rosa warned as many as they could and eventually left. But today there is no ‘evil’ International to split from. How do you break from something as nebulous as atomized professors, disconnected NGOs, and tiny sects?

After the uprising there was no great split from the NGOs, from the academy, or from the dead anarchist, socialist and communist groups which stalk the country. There has been no great intellectual transformation or break from previous modes of thinking. Instead, everyone continued as they had before. Imagine if Rosa ignored the Revolution of 1905, ignored the betrayals of Bernstein and Kautsky in World War 1, and continued with the Second International. This is what it feels like today with the George Floyd Uprising.

We often assume that mass insurrectionary movements will transform people and ultimately create a new generation of revolutionaries. We must re-evaluate either this assumption or the assumption that the George Floyd Uprising constituted an insurrection. How could something so radical produce nothing? In either case, a major rethinking is in order.

We can begin with the Black Radical Tradition in the academy. This tradition is not the enemy in the way Republicans are, but in the way the 2nd International was to revolutions in the early 20th century, or Stalinism by the 1920s and 30s. Everyone has good intentions. So too did Black Revolutionaries. They entered the academy in the 1960s strategizing they could use it to overthrow racism and the state. That entire approach has now failed and instead produced something else.

Even the most radical professors do not produce revolutionaries, but instead the most radical counter-revolutionaries. Rosa captures the situation even though the actors are different: “In all previous revolutions, the combatants faced each other directly: class against class, program against program. In the present revolution, the troops protecting the old order do not intervene under the insignia of the ruling class, but under the flag of a ‘social-democratic party.’ If the central question of revolution had been posed openly and honestly: capitalism or socialism? the great mass of the proletariat would have no doubts or hesitations”.3 I miss her dearly.

In the uprising, the counter insurgency did not come primarily in the form of the police or the white man, but in the form and content of the Black Radical Tradition itself. Panthers shut down struggle, Black Marxists proposed wonkish ‘defund’ reforms, and none could make sense of the riots. This is what the Black and other proletarians in the uprising had to overcome.

Alongside the Black Radical Tradition, Black Marxism has also succumbed to capitalism. It is no longer hostile to capitalism as a totality, just this or that policy. Once antagonism is channeled into reform proposals, then what you have is not a revolutionary theory and practice, but polite proceedings of lawyers, politicians, and NGOs. Like the rest of the American left, Black Marxism has been reduced to policy advisors for the bourgeoisie and its Democratic Party (increasingly the exclusive party of the high bourgeoisie). The struggles of proletarians are not a path towards anything other than Congress, the Senate, the Supreme Court, and the White House. Reform does not lead to revolution. Reform does not even lead to reform.

Black Marxism hitched itself to Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Cabral,4 all insufficient to the tasks of revolution in 2020. In siding with revolutionaries who “won”, Black Marxism also internalized all their weaknesses, unable to see the fundamental limits not only of these thinkers, but also the revolutions they led. Black Marxism has forgotten what it means to be a revolutionary. The false messiah of victory and state power poisoned its heart, its brain, and its courage. A long time ago Rosa said, “...revolution is the only form of ‘war’ — and this is another peculiar law of history — in which the ultimate victory can be prepared only by a series of ‘defeats’”.5

The counter-revolution today is not only the far right and the centrists drifting in their direction, it is also Maduro in Venezuela, Morales in Bolivia, and Cori Bush, AOC, Bernie, and Ilhan Omar in the US. Their victory is our defeat. The revolution has a different path and destination. Those who are demoralized that the George Floyd Uprising did not produce any reforms or legislative victories (that ‘defund’ just meant austerity), fail to see that class struggle is not measured in such ways, but in the street, workplaces, and neighborhoods. Is the proletariat more united? More experienced? More informed? More prepared for its confrontation with the bourgeoisie?

There is nothing more terrifying than being a revolutionary. You cannot rely on the past. Everyday you must wake up and observe the world, because capital is a restless monster that continuously re-creates the world in its image. We have nowhere to hide. Our only compass is the class struggle. We have no Bible and no Jesus, no Torah and no Moses, no Quran and no Muhammad. Our guide is only the merciless logic of capital and the ever-changing but never-ceasing battle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie.

Black Marxism, in an effort to vindicate the past, has become little more than a romance novel of Black heroes and heroines. The past will not save us. Fanon wrote, “It is not because the Indo-Chinese has discovered a culture of his own that he is in revolt. It is because ‘quite simply’ it was, in more than one way, becoming impossible for him to breathe”.6 Black Marxism has become a museum of the dead instead of a fighting weapon to be used by the proletariat. Perhaps I was the fool for carrying Black Jacobins around in the summer of 2020. What did I think it would do? Stop bullets? Spew fire? I thought it was my water in the desert; it turned out to be my stone.

Nor has Black Anarchism been able to fill the shoes of either the Black Radical Tradition or Black Marxism. Black Anarchism’s greatest problem is that the broader Black movement, while critical of the American state, has not been anti-state. In fact, the Black movement has fought for inclusion into the state and for the expansion of the state: Black social democracy.

There are two inescapable reasons for this. First and most important, nowhere in the world is it better to be a Black person than in the United States. At the risk of glorifying this country, we have to recognize that it is home to most of the world’s Black bourgeoisie and Black middle class people. Even Black proletarians here sometimes earn enough income to send their children to college, buy a home, and plan for retirement. Overthrowing this arrangement is very risky. No-one wants the alternative, just off the coast of Florida, of the nightmare suffering of Haiti. Better to be Black inside the Empire than Black outside of the Empire. In this sense, there are no greater patriots than Black people. If whites have had wages of whiteness, Black people have slowly accumulated the wages of loyalty. After all, the American Empire still stands due in part to their sacrifices.

Second, due to white proletarian anti-Blackness, the Federal Government often presents itself as the savior of Black people, or at least as the lesser evil. The Black movement has been in alliance with the Northern white bourgeoisie more than any other group. For two centuries, it is either the Federal Government or the philanthropy of rich whites that Black movements have mostly appealed to. When you appeal to a greater power, you are not trying to destroy it, you are trying to get their attention, their patronage, even their love.

Black anarchism has proven insufficient in dealing with either of these phenomena. Black anarchism has been the politics of heroic and brave individuals, but not the masses of Black people. Anarchism in the US has found its home in two places: alternative white subcultures (punks) and the libertarian right. The latter represents a perverse anti-statism when it comes to all things social reproduction, but a leviathan for war and police powers. In one sense, Black movements have been the opposite of libertarian: less war and police powers and more social reproduction and redistribution.

The much celebrated and necessary Black feminism also failed when the time came to strike down the carceral apparatus. Black feminism is the collateral damage of white women’s racism. White women turned out to be active participants in slavery, Jim Crow and mass incarceration. Solidarity between Black and white women would never recover. But Black women would painfully confront the fact that ‘their men’ had plenty of conservative ideas when it came to gender. By the time Black feminists built radical organizations in the 1970s, they were tiny, unable to change the trajectory of anything. Black feminism was too weak to fight the man. The largest organization of proletarian Black women, the National Welfare Rights Organization, was explicitly against revolution.7

Today Black feminism is sheltered in the academy where Black women are glorified, while nothing is done to free Black women from prisons, from their bosses, and other miseries. Black feminism has no theory of insurrection or revolution because that is not the soil upon which it has lived. Just like the Black Radical Tradition, Black feminism has become the politics of upward mobility. In a materialist sense, this is why Black feminism, Black Marxism, and the Black Radical Tradition have become popular today. They are the politics of upwardly mobile intellectuals. No one will lose their job, be jailed, murdered, or exiled for these ideas anymore. They have become safe positions with which to navigate a precarious middle class existence.

A real practice of abolition appeared in the riots. Americans attacked and burnt police stations. Abolitionist intellectuals had prepared us for this. There are two reasons today that abolition marks out the revolutionary horizon of American struggles. First, Black revolutionaries have historically used the struggle against slavery and Jim Crow as a jumping pad to more radical ends. Mass incarceration is now part of that strategy. And in this sense, the American road to communism certainly has a relationship to abolition. But while the end of slavery split the country and the defeat of Jim Crow took riots and mass disruption, neither jumping pad landed on revolution. American capitalism was able to survive, indeed prosper, despite both defeats. Whether the struggle against police violence or the carceral apparatus will finally allow us to touch the heavens is not clear, but it is the only jumping pad we currently have.

The second reason is that the American proletariat has been divided by white supremacy, which meant that Black proletarians could not always wait for whites. CLR James argued that “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”.8 The Black proletariat took the leap upon seeing George Floyd’s murder, and whites and other proletarians joined. If it was only Black proletarians, they would have been defeated quicker, and the uprising would have been smaller, but the key is that others saw their fate tied to George Floyd. This reflects a deep change not only in American capitalism, but also in the subjective constitution of (young) Americans.

But the strangest thing happened. The abolitionist intellectuals who could foresee all this were not, when the time came, ready to follow in the path of John Brown or Harriet Tubman i.e. ready to risk their lives and destroy the country. Instead they turned out to be meek reformists, trying to save the country. But here their attempts failed miserably. Many Democrats dipped their toe in the pool of defund, even announcing that they would disband the Minneapolis PD, but in the end they found that it was too much to bear.9

Abolition is arguably a necessary alternative when class struggle no longer points towards communism. At a global level, since the 1970s working class movements have done nothing to bring the world closer to communism, and much to make it harder to reach. This is not a matter of false consciousness. In many parts of the world it was the ‘communists’ in the 20th century who built capitalism.10 Any critique of abolition must thus also take into account the failings of communism and communists. What abolition understands is the centrality of race in the United States. Race is the grammar of American class struggle, and as such a potential compass to communism. But today abolition’s needle is spinning in circles as much as any other theory.

What about anti-state communists, autonomous marxists, the followers of ’communization’ and Tiqqun? They are all brave outcasts. If Lenin and Mao were the winners, they are the losers. Some have become scribes of the proletariat, translating their brave actions into hieroglyphics. Others fight the best they can, hoping fire and bricks will break the dialectic. Small bands of mad men, roaming the wasteland; I travel with them, until I don’t.

There used to be a time when the American bourgeoisie feared communists. They no longer need to. Like the abolitionists, most communists in the uprising showed their loyalty to stability, law and order, and ultimately to the bourgeoisie. They work hand in hand with the NGO counterinsurgency. What the right says about Biden and Harris is not too far from the truth. Communists run the White House. This is the case not because those two are radical, but that communists are so conservative.

And yet, like a fool, I call myself communist on Monday, Fanonist on Tuesday, Jamesian on Wednesday, Anarchist on Thursday and so on. The dance continues because there is no name that can bear what the world needs anymore. It is not clear if people like me are prophets or the walking dead. I am roaming the American wasteland, trying to find others. A horizon seems always approaching, but never final. Is it even real? All that is left to do is pick a direction and try to walk in a straight line.

To see this reality, the lens of romanticism has to be destroyed. This is difficult in the context of a racist society. Romanticism is a product of the constant need to defend against anti-Black history and arguments. But the uprising shattered that lens as well. George Floyd deserves the truth, not activist driven romances and nostalgia. He deserves the one thing Black liberation, Black feminism, abolition, communism, and anarchism claim but have failed to deliver: revolution.

The Real II

Any confrontation with reality is also to confront one’s own mind, life, and practice. The heart races, blood is flowing everywhere, but the truth must be pulled from the body, because it cannot be hidden. It must see the light of day. I am on the verge of collapse: physically, mentally, and emotionally.

The truth is often unpleasant, but revolutionaries cannot shy away from it. What was unique about the uprising was not how radical it was, but how conservatives it was, and yet how dangerous it was, and this is the paradox of Black struggles.

I can think of Malcolm X in the Nation of Islam. The poorest Black proletarians whose goal was to join the Black middle class. This only becomes radical in a country so devoted to oppressing Black proletarians. It is the structural position of Black proletarians and the commitment of all of society to keep Black proletarians down that makes the Black struggle so radical.

Maybe it is us, the revolutionaries who are wrong about the uprising. That it was not anything radical per se, but simply a more militant negotiation with the state. In one sense this would align with how Black Marxism and intellectuals of the Black Radical Tradition have treated the uprising: a way to adjust the workings of ‘racial capitalism’. Even the Democrats seemed to understand, holding back police at times, deploying them at others, knowing full well that the uprising would hurt Trump more than them, using the movement as the ticket to the White House. Were we all shock troops for Biden’s election? Did we get hoodwinked into thinking the streets were something other than an extra-parliamentary strategy of the parliament itself?

This is demoralizing for those seeking a way out of this world. The struggle against police murders is the only militant struggle we have in America. Apologies to Occupy Wall Street, Me Too, Palestine Solidarity, the labor movement, the ecological movement, and even Standing Rock. All these movements are constituted by performative politics, and none develop into a material confrontation with the state on a large scale.

For any revolutionary this should be a terrifying moment. The workers movement is dead. The Amazon Labor Union has already bent the knee to Biden and Harris (thank you Bernie and AOC). But more fundamentally, the workers movement rarely claimed to be anti-capitalist. In the United States today only two militant struggles exist: the fight against racist police and the growing mobilization of the far right.

Yet our greatest hope, the uprising, was not a struggle of proletarians seeking the destruction of everything they knew, but of proletarians begging their masters to stop killing them. The fact that the state has been unable to prevent such grotesque murders is what has given the Black struggle its antagonistic edge. But the the uprising’s inability to overthrow this crumbling world had nothing to do with police repression. The defeat came first inside the Black proletariat. A Black led uprising was not able to draw out the rest of the Black proletariat. Why?

If the workers movement was defeated by the 1970s, so too was the Black workers movement. Today Black workers might be more ‘progressive’ than white workers in their beliefs about unions and racial equality, but it has not meant more strikes, greater class struggle, let alone the destruction of the conditions of their suffering. Most Black workers watched the riots unfold on TV and youtube. Du Bois’s ‘General Strike’ never came. Instead of Toussaint or Malcolm to lead them, they had the Uncle Tom, Bernie supporter, and proud Black man known as Killer Mike. Wearing a t-shirt that said “Kill Your Masters”, he stood alongside the actual masters of Atlanta and told Black proletarians to obey them.11

In the end, the minority of the Black proletariat in the riots stood alone. Even as others left the field of battle. We must ask what happened to the white race traitors? In Louisville and Philadelphia in the fall of 2020, young Black proletarians faced the state on their own. They did what they could, but the forces of the state were too much for them. Those of us who were there were both inspired and saw the tragedy. Black proletarian children lined up and arrested on sidewalks. Gone were the heroic days. I remember in Rochester in the summer, seeing proletarians of all colors walk with home made fighting tools. Too poor to buy the expensive equipment professional activists carried, they made shields out of baking pans, and gas masks out of water bottles. A mass proletarian uprising. I remember the faces, the bodies, and the crowd so clearly. They were courage.

If the workers movement drove the development of capitalism, the Black movement arguably drove the development of American law. If workers, in their struggles, ultimately create their own conditions of misery at the workplace, it is Black struggles which have created their own conditions of suffering under the law. It was the general strike of the slaves that rewrote the American constitution, the federal police was initially founded to protect former slaves from former masters, and it was in large part the legislative and judicial victories of the Civil Rights Movement that shaped both mass incarceration and the movement against it (whether defund or abolition). In a sense Black Americans today live under the terror of Black law. As much as the oppressor is the cause of their suffering, it is also the oppressed which guide the oppressor in how to oppress them. This is not a relationship of hate, but one of sadistic bourgeois love. After all, the Black Lives Matter activists and even many of the rioters were angry not at the fact that we are forced to scramble for money, that there are thus laws against counterfeiting money, that shop attendants are compelled to enforce those laws, or even (for most) that police exist, but rather the manner George Floyd was murdered. Perhaps a more humane murder would have kept everyone at home. Like a lover’s quarrel, it is a disagreement about treatment, not about the presupposition of love itself.

The Wasteland

Perhaps it is to capitalism’s contradictions and crisis generating capacity which we must turn. It was the destruction of the industrial core and in turn the basis of the nuclear family which opened up the possibility of Queer and feminist movements; and it was the declining wages of whiteness which enabled whites to fight in the uprising. Perhaps more austerity in the humanities and social sciences will create unemployed professors who will rediscover the meaning of Black Radical Tradition? I am not going to hold my breath.

But it remains the case that it is not revolutionaries who organize revolutions, but capital which organizes revolutionaries. We must accept this fate. But remember that capital may be just as capable of organizing barbarism.

How to exit this wasteland? What is the path towards communism? Communization says it is a verb, the activity of the proletariat on a global level. But this high theory is constantly defeated by the lowly vulgarities of war, reform, democracy, and anti-fascism. Clever words will not defeat capital. Besides, if proletarians today are the children of 1917 their struggles are producing something rather different: instability, disorder, and crisis. The desert is not moonlit. It is dark, only the shifting winds and sands are our groundings in this wasteland.

Accusations of racism will be made. The twitterati will say I am a white lackey, an apologist for whites, and other slurs. They defend a false past, the current counter-revolution, and an empty future. Rosa was not an apologist for capitalists when she denounced the Second International. Nor was Fanon carrying water for the white man when he critiqued national liberation. James was not belittling Toussaint when he finally revealed the latter’s limits. Malcolm was no racist for calling the March on Washington the “farce on washington”. What was once revolutionary is no longer: communism, national liberation, and now the Black Radical Tradition. Separation is part of a torturous operation which can lead to new beginnings. The story is not over. It may not look like it, but every wasteland, every desert, is teeming with microscopic life.12 We cannot tell what new species of human being is waiting to be born in these wastes.

If the task of revolutionaries during World War I was to break from the Second International, what is the task of those who thought of ourselves as part of the Black Radical Tradition? Those of us who are non- Black, where do we go? With no compass, how do we act? Returning to India is not an option. I am as American as anyone else. I would be an intruder in India. For now, I just walk the American wasteland. Perhaps Rosa is out there. Perhaps Breonna and George…

  1. See Idris Robinson, “Civilizing the American Wasteland”, Endnotes 2021.
  2. This is not about Black people but about a concept, method, tradition, politics, and strategy called the Black Radical Tradition and Black Marxism. Anyone can be a follower of Black Marxism and a partisan of the Black Radical Tradition. If we are to critique that tradition seriously, as we must, the racial identity of those who claim fidelity to it is besides the point.
  3. Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (Zone Books 1994).
  4. N.b. Amilcar Cabral was assassinated before independence and never held state power.
  5. https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1919/01/14.htm
  6. Frantz Fanon, Black Skin White Masks (Pluto Books 2008), 176.
  7. Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, Poor People's Movement (Vintage Books 1971).
  8. Scott McLemee, eds, C.L.R. James on the Negro Question (University Press of Mississippi 1996), 139.
  9. Martin Kaste, “Minneapolis voters reject a measure to replace the city's police department” NPR November 3, 2021.
  10. Loren Goldner, “Amadeo Bordiga, the agrarian question and the international revolutionary movement”, Critique, 23:1 1995, 73-100. C.L.R. James, Raya Dunayevskaya & Grace Lee, State Capitalism and World Revolution (Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company 1986).
  11. See recording of "Killer Mike's Emotional Speech at Atlanta Mayor's Press Conference" Youtube, May 29, 2020.
  12. Anonymous, Desert (Little Black Cart 2011).