Amiri Baraka – Counterpoetics and Oppositional Action – continues

Amiri Baraka, 1988 – photo: Allen Ginsberg, courtesy Stanford University Libraries / Allen Ginsberg Estate

We’ve been featuring this week transcription from a 1992 panel held at Naropa on “Counterpoetics and Oppositional Action”,  featuring Amiri Baraka, Allen Ginsberg, Peter Lamborn Wilson, and others.

We continue with the conversation from a still-early part of the panel.  Discussion is opened up. Amiri still has a good deal more to say

AB: I just wanted to say. I think that the discussion about the Left.. I’d just like to say the problem with the Left, (and even the leadership of the black liberation movements in the ‘60’s), was that they were the middle-class, which is the problem – that those movements, many of them were spontaneous, eclectic, based in the middle-class. They left no institutions, they were here today and gone tomorrow. And I think those are the things that we have to accept. On the other hand, we have to accept the attack by the State, you know, the fact that Martin Luther King and Malcolm X are not on sabbatical, nor Fred Hampton, nor Bobby Hutton – they’re all dead. And some of us, who’ve spent a lot of time in the joint, know that it is a very serious thing.  So the question remains – the need for a party (political party). And while I can understand people voting for Clinton (in 1992 – sic)  – and I have told Allen about Ron Daniels, (who ‘s a black guy who’s running  to try to initiate some discussion of a third party), I’m saying, finally, that that is the most important thing that we can try to do, is to create that political institution, that political institution, a party, to begin to work independent, independent of the two wings of that same bat (sic) . Because what seems evil now about (George Bush), in a heartbeat will seem evil about Clinton because he’s just coming to replace Bush, you know, and, next week he will be Bush.

PLW: Absolutely. Yeah, I wanted to say something about this question of political parties too. If you can’t bring yourself to vote for somebody who doesn’t inhale (sic) and for a party which has dragged us into every major war in this century (and ,of course, you can’t vote for the other assholes),  and if you can’t bring yourself to vote for a third party, which, all good intentions. aside, has never been a viable option in this country to this date. (I mean, I personally would be interested in seeing a third party that could do something but so far there hasn’t been one). And I would just remind you that there is the anarchist option of not voting at all. And the old anarchist quote “No one asks the sheep to vote for who’s going to slaughter them” still holds true today. And there’s only about twenty percent, twenty-thirty percent, of the eligible electorate who does actually vote anymore. Everyone else is apathetic (that is to say, insensate with rage!). And if we could get that number down to, like, five percent, it’s a possibility that the whole kit-and-kaboodle would just implode.  I mean, it happened in Eastern Europe. We could still hold out some hope for “Ameristroika” (sic) here. So, there is that option too. And I respect the other options, you know. I do.

AB: Well the only thing that perestroika has brought us is national war, is the slaughter of thirty thousand  Muslims, destruction of half of Eastern Europe. I mean all that was is the restoration of Capitalism. But I think what finally you’re saying, anarchism (in the sense that you’re using it), I would call it “lamb-chop elitism”, because if you say that the lamb doesn’t question who slaughters him, as a lamb-chop there’s not much where he can, you know what I mean?

PL: That’s right

AB: The point is how can we transform society, not..  (and this is said without rancor, I hopeyou understand that) –  how can we transform society. Now, it is.. it takes effort. It is difficult, you know. It is difficult to get up and write a poem, you know. It’s difficult, it takes effort. But that is why it’s not been done. If it was easy it would have been done. It would have been theoretical, We would have dismissed it. But it’s not easy, it’s difficult – the fact that there’s no party. Why? –  because opportunism. We settle for short-term comforts, short-term resolutions, of problems that take long, long struggle, with great effort. And that’s the problem, that’s what’s destroyed the Soviet Union and China, is opportunism – and in this country, that’s why we’ve never had a party, because opportunism – people always opt out for what’s easiest.

AG : Well agreed, I was giving a kind of Zen answer saying  “Pay attention to minute particulars” and pay attention to what’s immediately in front of you, in terms of hard work, like gardening..or..political gardening, local specific actions andI like that. But I’m also wondering in terms of the theoretical basis – what would.. what politics do you think would be interesting, probable.. or workable in Eastern Europe? (The big break was some sort of liberty of speech or communication, or the end of the government monopoly which was somewhat fascist in Eastern Europe. And that led to the chaos of nationalism and mass murder and slaughter). But how would you… had you been Gorbachev, what would your policy.. (or somebody).. what would your policy have been there?

PLW: Me?

AG: Yeah.. Yeah?

PLW:  I mean, Amiri is right. It’s just the rebirth of Capitalism that we’re witnessing, but it could have been something else, and, if Communism is mortal, then so is Capitalism.

AG: See the thing is, once they allowed everybody to say what they want they all began yelping know.. different nationalisms!

AB: Well let me say this. The problem in Eastern Europe, like the Soviet Union, and like China to a certain extent, although we shouldn’t focus just on them – (that’s been one of our problems, that even Socialists in this country want to practice their Socialism according to the book, I mean according to the lives of the prophets, you know, according to life in the Soviet Union, which, even as a revolutionary state never reached the level of productive forces that this Capitalist state did – and China, which is the problem – You’re trying to bring a Socialism to the United States where you had a more advanced capitalism in terms of the productive forces and you can’t do that, because the Socialism in the United States has to begin at that level, the productive forces, as a highly advanced post-Industrial society. But in the Eastern Europe what happened is that they actually developed classes (in the same way that they were told not to by people like Lenin and Mao Zedong), they actually developed classes, they developed a new bureaucracy, a new set of people that control those factories, that control those collective farms, and they had a bureaucracy just as vicious as this one. And then they spent all of their wealth, (ninety percent of their wealth), arming themselves, fighting a Cold War, which meant the whole collapse of that system.  So, since 1957, Mao was saying that they had restored Capitalism and that.. that what existed in Russia was a Social Fascism – Socialism in words and Fascism in deeds – which is exactly why they fell. The problem is that those people will never allow the infrastructure – that actually they did get the free education, the free.. health care…

AG:  Health care

AB: ..the low..low rental – that, once they find out that these things are threatened, they resist, and there’s going to be a real explosion.

But the question of.. of the common control of commonly-developed wealth is the oldest economic system on the planet. It’s just that it has to come back around to deal with the developments of society of a high level of productive forces. I mean Communism went out because it could no longer serve the needs of the people and so then it changed to Slavery and then Feudalism and then Capitalism. But the collective ownership of wealth by the people is the oldest form of economy on the planet. It has to come back, at a higher level..

AG: And how would that be worked out in a highly technological society, which tends towards concentration at the center.. of broadcasting?  You know, this centralization of power because of the very network of technology? That seems to be one of the major problems anywhere.

AB: Allen, what is really lacking here, first of all, is common education (that’s the key, that’s why we talk about cultural revolution, because as long as people are at the level of chair development (sic), somebody can sit on them – understand? – The only reason you can sit in that chair is because it’s less conscious than you. And you can keep sitting in it until the chair becomes as conscious as you. Then when you try to stick your behind in it, then you’re gonna get a problem!  So the fundamental question of cultural revolution is the question of education, of mass education. That’s why every revolutionary movement, the first thing they do is to try to educate the people so that the people educated (like y’all (at Naropa) are more educated than the most people) you can then fend for yourself better. You know what I mean?  You can struggle with this inequable system a little more fairly because you know more what’s happening in it, you know. So that has to be… The whole question of universal education is at the bottom of any kind of social transformation.

And then you’re talking about, here in this country, you’re talking about direct democracy, you know. You’re talking about where people can vote, in their schools, directly from their schools, or vote in their factories. You’re talking about direct democracy, you’re talking about the elimination of the electoral system, the elimination of, say, the Senate  (the Senate is… we inherited that from England, the House of Lords, the House of Lords votes because they inherit those positions, the House of Lords is not an elective office, you inherit that because you own property). So that if you have two Senators from New York and two Senators from Utah, that’s not “one person one vote”. You have to eliminate the whole kind of bureaucratic structure of Capitalist rule. How much money is spent running the Senate with two Senators from each state? and how big are their staffs?  And how much money in their budgets?  Rather, have a larger Congress representing all the people with direct democracy, direct democracy.

And then the whole kind of.. the Constitution itself – that document – You have to have a Constitutional Convention.  You have to go over that document, step-by-step. It has to be changed. There are loopholes and stuff like the 13th Amendment  – “Slavery is abolished, except” – “Slavery is abolished, comma”  – “except as a punishment for crime” –  “except as a punishment for crime” (and then you see how one in every four black men are in jail). The 14thAmendment  where (it) allows the corporations, the privately-held corporations.. (and I’m not saying you can do away with Capitalism immediately, you have to have a mixed economy just like you’re going to have in most of Eastern Europe now, you have..  But even the Founding Fathers did not want private corporations to dominate the public sector. The private corporations can serve the public sector but they cannot dominate the public sector, they cannot control the public sector, they cannot have all the representatives replace the public sector, they cannot take over the running of the jails, the running of the post offices, (which they want now), the private sector can exist, god knows, as long as it has to exist, but it cannot control the public sector. So that’s what we mean about a Constitutional Convention.

For instance, the Supreme Court, (and I’ll stop in a second). The Supreme Court is a tri-partate system, (two thirds of it are elected, one third is appointed, forever) So that the Supreme Court has to be elected every four years, just like everything else. You can’t have the Supreme Court sitting in there for ever and ever and ever and ever!  Suppose there was a guy who had drunk some formula, who was a hold-over from, you know, John Adams, or something like that, who’s still, like Dorian Gray, still sitting in the Court? You know what I mean?. It’s bizarre but it’s true. You have to have limits on that Court so that it revolves like everything else. I’m saying that the real work that we have to do begins with focusing on the instruments that we take for granted as part of our opportunism, that these things have to be subjected to real scrutiny, you understand?, and that we have to have an instrument, a party. And I know it has to be a United Front because there are all kinds of people – Here’s an Anarchist in it, here’s a Buddhist in it, here’s a Vegetarian in it, here’s Black Nationalists in it, here’s a Communist in it, here’s Feminists in it – but we can unite against something, you understand?  We might not like each other’s stuff all the way but we like it enough to sit still long enough to argue about how to do this other thing in. And that’s what we have to get. We have to develop enough sophistication, you understand?, just like all these other ogres developing a sophistication – They’ll argue for hours and hours and hours and disagree with each other and yet, at the end, come to a conclusion where they agree on how to kill us – (which is what they do, you know).

Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at approximately fifty-eight  minutes in and continuing till approximately seventy-one-and-a-half minutes in

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