The individual human will can be a powerful thing. It’s good that each person’s will is so strong, for this helps each of us to persevere against the biggest odds when our lives are on the line. And it may also be a good thing whenever the willful individual doesn’t give in to any person who asserts their own will, or whenever this individual doesn’t follow every group that attempts to impose its will on them.
We frequently see this attitude of refusal and independence in little children. But as they grow up, children learn that it’s in their interests to go along with the group; as adults, they find that they can more effectively get the things they want by obeying or conforming to existing power structures than by throwing temper tantrums. This is particularly true for white people, for whom the power structures of capitalism have been built. But even as white adults conform to a system of power built by and for white people– which is the system of European imperialist capitalism– the will of the individual remains strong beneath the surface, particularly the will to defend a system which has brought us everything we have. The power of the individual will in a white “American” cannot be overestimated.
Prior to the 1960s, “Americans” collectively showed a respect for authority which often approached the level of reverence. In political offices, the military, media, schools, workplaces, churches, clubs, and families, the prevailing attitude of people in the United States toward any position of authority was one of unquestioning respect. Some of this conformity of the “American” will was a result of the strict order within a militarized society which occurred during the Second Imperialist War (“World War II”). The main source of agitation to conditions of the U.S. (supposedly) came from the outside– from Germany and Japan, so the “American” people more or less willingly imposed this strict order on themselves inside of the nation and unified internally against a common enemy or foreign aggressor. Following 1945, the ruling class of the U.S. opportunistically exploited this militarized, national(ist) mentality to further mobilize the people (and the economy) against another foreign aggressor: the USSR. Unified by the fear of invading “Communists,” the “American” people projected a facade of bland placidity during the 1950s, while the agitated internal contradictions of imperialist exploitation and white supremacist oppression boiled below the surface.
During the second half of the 1950s and in the early 1960s, Africa was already in the process of rebelling against European imperialist capitalism: in the Congo (Patrice Lumumba), Ghana (Kwame Nkrumah), and in dozens of other colonies on the African continent. There was also the revolution in Cuba. And the Vietnamese were rebelling against the French and U.S. imperialists. A global revolution was in progress as the 1960s began.
In the United States, the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling on Brown v. Board of Education had heightened the internal contradictions of white supremacist capitalism. The system of white power refused to integrate Black people into the post-War political order of the permanently militarized state, which had appeared to be so stable, and yet– at the same time– the federal government was compelled to send the National Guard into Little Rock in order to impose its will. White power’s will opposed integration, yet it also enforced it, creating a crisis of power within the system: something had to give.
Initially, colonized Africans in “America,” or the Black community, simply wanted access to the existing system of power, one that had terrorized them for so long. Their will was aligned with the will of the capitalist colonizer (their aggressor, never mind Hitler or Russia), because an attempt at conformity seemed to be the best way to gain access to the material benefits of the system. Rosa Parks simply tried to sit down on a white-owned bus in Birmingham. James Meredith simply wanted to enroll in a white-controlled university in Mississippi. Colonized Africans in the south simply wanted to register to vote as Democrats. Yet, in each instance white power resisted. The system (and white people who both support and benefit from the system) refused to allow Africans access to this system. The alternative (a separate system of power), as promoted by Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, became more and more popular among colonized Africans, still terrorized by white power, as they had been when Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) had become so popular in the 1920s, and (of course) long before.
These internal contradictions of white power’s colonial rule imposed on Africans heightened to the point where they boiled over in 1965 during the Watts Rebellion, which occurred after Malcolm X had been assassinated and as the Voting Rights Act was being signed into law. Patrice Lumumba had been assassinated, with the backing of the CIA, in 1961. The CIA would back a military coup against Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana in 1966. But the African revolution– and the world revolution against European imperialist capitalism– had now reached the U.S. settler colony, in the form of Black Power.
Inclusion by a system of power which didn’t want to include them was becoming less and less desirable to colonized Africans, and their resistance to white power’s refusal to integrate was creating a consciousness of their own power, and their own will, and this consciousness shaped a new political identity. So when Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) called for “Black Power” in 1966, colonized Africans were no longer seeking mere inclusion by a system which refused to include them; they were seeking the same thing as Africans in Africa, as Latin Americans, and as Asians: self-determination, independence, control over their own lives and destinies. The will of the people was being asserted.
This movement for Black liberation in the 1960s expressed the collective will of the people. “Black Power” was not about the individual, because white power was (and is) not about the individual. Africans were (and are) systematically oppressed. Africans are colonized by a system, a political, economic and social organization which collectively moves against their interests.
There wasn’t one revolutionary Black individual in the 1960s who acted all alone. Malcolm X was in the Nation of Islam, and then formed the Muslim Mosque, Inc. and the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU). Fannie Lou Hamer was in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) was in SNCC, along with Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin (H. Rap Brown). Robert F. Williams and Mabel Williams were in the NAACP– and, during exile, Robert F. Williams was named President of the Republic of New Afrika. The individual will of Africans colonized by the U.S. capitalist system was expressed through the collective will of these organizations, because Africans, and all oppressed peoples, collectively recognized in their communities that the power of white supremacy and capitalism grew out of its organization.
During this time, the rebellion by the Vietnamese against the ruthless imperialist power of the U.S. was grabbing the attention of the “American people”– specifically white youths. Young white people were already beginning to experience the physical and emotional rush of rebellion as they moved against the forces of “American” conformity which had kept the people in check since the Second Imperialist War (“World War II”). White youths not only rebelled against the war in Vietnam but against traditional white attitudes toward sex, drugs, “popular” culture and the roles of white women and white gays in “American” society. For inspiration, the rebelling white youth of the U.S. in the 1960s looked to the Black revolution and its organized individuals, forming their own groups which seemed to be natural allies to the Black struggle. The rule of European imperialist capitalism was being threatened on a global scale, from within and without white power’s home base in the U.S. settler colony.
Huey P. Newton recognized these historical forces and counter-forces in the fight for power over the means of production in “American” society when he formed the Black Panther Party with Bobby Seale in 1966. The Black Panthers sought to create alliances with organizations representing Latinxs, Native peoples, Asians and poor whites. Huey Newton viewed the Black liberation struggle as a fight by all oppressed peoples against imperialist capitalism. Huey Newton recognized that these oppressive conditions required a global struggle, so the Black Panther Party also reached out to the Viet Cong, to China, to Cuba, and to revolutionary organizations on the African continent. The revolution against white power was not only a collective assertion of the people’s will, it was growing into an internationalist movement of organizations aligned against this common enemy of humanity: European imperialism.
Reactionary forces were also at work in the United States during the 1960s, threatening to crush the Black revolution. These reactionary forces against Black liberation came from all branches of white power: the federal government (FBI, COINTELPRO, Johnson, Nixon), state government (then-Governor Ronald Reagan), city government (including the police, such as the Chicago Police Department, which worked with the FBI to assassinate Fred Hampton, Chairman of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party), media and other businesses, and the masses of white people. Ultimately, COINTELPRO and the ruthless power of the white ruling class was responsible for the defeat of the Black revolution in the U.S. during the 1960s, which used the contradictions within the movement against the movement. The Black revolution, as part of the larger global revolution, was crushed by white power because it became a real threat to the capitalist system’s oligarchical rule over the majority.
However, the defeat of the Black revolution by white power was also brought about by social forces which (like the political and economic forces) have consequences to this day. In essence, the emphasis on individualism, as promoted by the European imperialist system, crushed the spirit of collective power by the people. The patriotic ideal of individualism became one of white power’s biggest weapons against the people. White individuals, who had looked to the Black revolution for inspiration regarding our own rebellion against the system, felt a rush of will power, of resistance, a surge of energy borne of refusal to conform. Individual anti-authoritarian, nonconformity became the rule of the day– as opposed to collective action against the capitalist system, which was organized and, therefore, actually did rule the day. The collective will of revolutionary movement building– the work of organizers like Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Malcolm X, Kwame Ture, Huey P. Newton, Elaine Brown, and countless names mostly forgotten by history, which erroneously emphasizes individual achievement– was fractured and dispersed by reactionary forces into millions of individual wills.
The individual will felt a sense of power like never before, a will to proclaim one’s identity, one’s lifestyle, and one’s personal values and personal tastes. Since the collective will of white power crushed the Black liberation movement– as well as the global socialist revolution against systemic oppression– the legacy of resistance movements of the 1960s has become a liberal, libertarian, individualistic resistance to conformity expressed by singular attitudes, behaviors and other personalized displays of will, which was not the actual goal of the revolution.
Isolated from each other by capitalism’s will, the individual is– in reality– mostly powerless. Our only actual power comes from the material benefits brought to us by this system. Therefore, white people enjoy more power (and more wealth), because our material benefits come exclusively from the exploitation of Africans and all oppressed peoples (the majority of the world’s population).
Within the little box of our individual domain, we rule. Nobody can convince us to do this or not to do that. But the box itself is manufactured by USA, Inc., by the system of white power– and the materials and labor for it are stolen from Africans and all colonized peoples. We can smoke pot, get drunk, have any type of sex we like, watch any show we want, tweet to our heart’s (dis)content, shout, sing, cry, laugh, pout– but we are empowered to do all these things only by our access to resources, and these exist for white people only on account of the oppression of Africans and most people on the planet.
In reality, our physical positions within the system of power are more fixed than ever. Perhaps this is why our individual will is so strong: it’s all we have. Real power is in the hands of the white ruling class, which will crush us if we display the slightest amount of resistance– so we cling to whatever ability to refuse we have that is left over.
White people in particular learned the wrong lessons from the Black revolution of the 1960s. We took inspiration from a global movement, led by Africans, that was based on their life-and-death struggle for resources and power, and turned this collective resistance into an individual expression of rebelliousness. White people thought it was cool to call the police “pigs” and give the middle finger to “The Man.” Whites recognized the feeling of power that Black people were experiencing when they began to become conscious of their collective power as a political identity, and we appropriated this Blackness as an expression of customized personal style, and unique values and views, tailored to meet individual needs for self-actualization and self-assertion in a claustrophobic system of capitalist control.
In the 1960s, white people– who benefited, then as now, from the systemic oppression of Black people– also felt oppressed by this system of power, boxed in by its cookie-cutter attitudes, its dull conformity and its post-War militarized sense of order. Yet, for most white youths, this rebellion against the forces of conformity was fought on top conditions that were the result of imperialist oppression. So their rebelliousness, as a class of colonizers, was about idealism rather than physical matter– the necessities of life. The lesson white people learned from the 1960s was to enjoy the material benefits of colonial exploitation while rebelling against the idealism– or the “image”– of this conservative racial caste system.
One Black leader and writer in the 1960s who misread white people’s rebellious behavior and attitudes toward the Black revolution was Eldridge Cleaver. While the prose style of Soul on Ice is brilliant, Eldridge Cleaver actually attacks James Baldwin for criticizing Norman Mailer, defending the white Norman Mailer as someone who understood Black people more than James Baldwin did. Huey P. Newton didn’t completely fall for this nonsense when he asked Eldridge Cleaver to join the Black Panther Party, a move which turned out to be disastrous to the party. But the Black Panthers trusted the rebellious spirit of white people– particularly young white leftists– perhaps more than they should have. Fred Hampton famously said, “You don’t fight racism with racism.” But Black people can’t be racist, not against white people in the U.S. at any rate– not then, and not now. Racism is based on a system of power and the ability to control people. On account of white power, Black people don’t have that ability– they can’t be racist. But Fred Hampton’s famous line reflected the attitudes that Eldridge Cleaver and Huey P. Newton also held toward white people: we should not be excluded. This proved to be a mistake, because white people were in the process of learning the wrong lessons from the Black revolution, one of individual rebelliousness rather than organized, collective, principled rebellion against the system which white people benefit from.
Kwame Ture recognized this contradiction in the attitudes and behaviors of white people on the left and wanted to exclude whites from the Black Panther Party (as had occurred in SNCC). For this reason, the Black Panthers turned against Kwame Ture and– if Eldridge Cleaver’s people didn’t murder him, through the deceitful manipulations of COINTELPRO– the government would have found some way to eliminate Stokely (as he was called then). So Kwame Ture went to Africa (to Guinea-Conakry) in the late 1960s and studied revolutionary theory under the mentorship of Sekou Ture and Kwame Nkrumah.
COINTELPRO and white power were going to crush the Black revolution either way– whether the Black Panther Party had chosen the path which Kwame Ture advocated, or had gone (as it did) down the path chosen by Eldridge Cleaver, who was infatuated by white leftists and the individualistic ideal of the stylish rebel. And the consequences of this choice, long after the Black revolution was destroyed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, have had a devastating impact on the global movement for liberation. The image of the cool, rebellious non-conformist has become a marketable commodity which the very system that crushed the Black revolution can profit from.
Almost every so-called “American” today has a bit of that 1960s revolutionary in their persona. Whether it’s their taste in music, their use of slang, or a T-shirt they are wearing, every individual wants to be some kind of rebel. And who can stop them? Their will is too strong. It would be an oppressive act– considered immoral to the true socialist revolutionary– to coerce a person to do something they don’t want to do. And they probably wouldn’t do it anyway. Since the defeat of the African revolution in the 1960s, the will power of the individual has been built up by the system which holds the actual power (for it controls access to material resources that support the individual). In 2015, the so-called “American” individual has an impenetrable, unbending will, a brittle resolve to do whatever they want to do– all within the confines of what white power makes possible for them.
The defeat of the Black revolution in the 1960s has had the devastating consequence of fracturing the collective will of the masses into millions and millions of unbreakable, inflexible wills– each individual clinging to their coping mechanisms within the ever-increasing power of European imperialist capitalism. The energy of the people, which would be directed against the source of their oppression, is redirected into the operation of high-tech devices and their predictable framework of for-profit media. The uniformity of the medium, and of each device’s design, homogenizes the expression of free speech, and diverts the energy of resistance into these carefully controlled paths– as any display of collective will is siphoned off into various channels of specific “demographics” or “target audiences.” Everything is tailor-made to the individual, creating the illusion of control, while the real power– which profits off the people’s labor and resources– lies with the wealthy few.
While the masses focus on the individualized coping mechanisms for oppression, European capitalist imperialism consolidates its power and grows and grows, creating ever more oppression. Yet the people’s refusal is not against the system (which they may feel is simply too powerful to resist) but, instead, is against the voices of dissent coming from the oppressed, exploited masses. Activists in the Black Lives Matter movement are criticized far more harshly than the police actually committing violence are criticized. The will power of the individual– particularly if they are white– is expressed by their rigid refusal to pay attention, and instead, just to keep driving, or to keep scrolling down the page on Facebook, or to change channels. Meanwhile, the sense of freedom– “Casual Fridays” and saying “fuck”– reaffirms the white person’s post-1960s identity of the autonomous individual. The more oppressive European imperialist capitalism becomes, the more we cling to these little expressions of individualized identity.
The (concluding) question is: are volatile or unstable material conditions for revolution still a trigger for resistance against the oppressor by the oppressed masses, or has European imperialism– having defeated the Black revolution in the 1960s– simply become too skillful in its manipulation of our collective psyche for the people to see organized rebellion as anything other than a crazy, cult-like, and practically (or impractically) suicidal move?
But there’s another question: can any movement for mass political education be viewed by the masses as materially beneficial to humanity (and to themselves, as members of humanity), or is the individual will so resistant to rational, scientific persuasion, that any effort to educate them can only be seen by this refusing individual as a form of oppression?