By Steve Bloom
MAROON SHOATZ is not a household name. Even within the milieu of those
who are engaged in work to free the many political prisoners in the
United States there are some who have not heard about his case — though a
new political campaign that was launched in early 2013 is actively
changing that reality as these lines are written. Go to
www.freemaroon.org to find out more.
In brief: Shoatz is a political prisoner, a former Black Panther and revolutionary activist from Philadelphia. He has been behind bars continuously since 1972 — except for two brief periods in which he escaped, thus earning the nickname “Maroon.” More than 30 of his years in prison have been served in solitary confinement. That he has been able to remain so much in touch with what is happening in the world, to discourse intelligently on popular culture and political events, is testimony to an individual with an intense intellect and profound perseverance.
This book is a collection of essays, composed mostly for the education of fellow prisoners. It is written, therefore, in a popular style that’s easy to read. But it is also filled with deep and profound insights. That is a rare combination.
Most of the material — except for one essay written explicitly for the book — previously existed only in the form of scattered small pamphlets or manuscripts (in the literal sense of being hand-written) in the files of family and friends. The editors, for the sake of completeness, have included everything that was available to them.
Different essays will, therefore, have different weight or interest for different readers. But even a piece like “Respect Our Mothers, Stop Hating Women” (2010), with conclusions that might seem obvious to those who went through discussions in both activist and academic circles in the wake of the feminist rebirth during the 1970s, takes on a qualitatively different meaning if we understand the context of macho culture that predominates in a prison where men are incarcerated.
Masculinism was also a prominent feature of the Black revolutionary milieu that Maroon himself comes from. This piece thus represents a significant personal testament by a human being who successfully challenged both himself and the culture which surrounds him.
Resistance and Deep Critique
The subject matter of these essays ranges from the fraud perpetrated by the U.S. prison system, in the name of “law and order,” to the theory of revolutionary organization. It includes, in particular, a deep critique by an active participant of the Black liberation movement as it developed in the 1960s and ’70s.
Shoatz’s assessment is particularly striking in light of the wave of nostalgia which has emerged in recent years for the Black Panthers and similar formations. Maroon does not fail to salute the important advances in consciousness that were made during this period and embodied in such organizations. But he undertakes a serious critical balance sheet that considers their weaknesses and flaws as well.
He is critical, for example, of the Panthers for their top-down organizational style that restricted the possibility of initiatives at the local level. Also, while asserting that attention to the development of armed struggle was an obvious necessity during this time, he expresses the view that “Panthers ‘shooting it out’ with more heavily armed police from fixed positions was downright ludicrous! Even if they survived, it still left them in jail or hospitalized, causing everybody else to have to drop important work to bail them out or raise money for their legal defense.” He also talks about ways in which the Panthers in Oakland, under Huey Newton’s leadership, essentially became corrupt and abandoned their original vision, while the East Coast wing was too weak and inexperienced to forge a genuine alternative.
One key historical insight is contained in Maroon’s essay titled “The Real Resistance to Slavery in North America” (2005).
The focus is not on the conventional challenges to slavery that we all know about — the northern bourgeoisie whose hesitant opposition was embodied in the Republican Party, or the hard-core abolitionists who were far more resolute than the Republican Party (John Brown, the underground railroad, the abolitionist press, etc.), or even the Black slaves and ex-slaves who took more decisive action and whose contributions have come down to us as part of the established history (even if a lesser-known part of that history) such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Nat Turner.
Instead this essay focuses on an element most readers will be aware of only dimly, if at all — the maroon communities created primarily by escaped slaves but also including native peoples who refused to adapt to a white settler-colonial society, along with disaffected whites who dropped out.
Creating an independent, self-sufficient culture within the context of territories considered by others to be unsuitable for human habitation — such as the Dismal Swamp in Virginia and North Carolina — these maroon communities successfully battled for decades against all attempts to wipe them out, providing first a refuge for escaping slaves and then a fighting force that was among the decisive elements that led to a Northern victory in the Civil War.
One important distinction made in the book is between what Shoatz calls “treaty maroons,” who first won their own independence but then attempted to institutionalize what they had won in collaboration with their former oppressors — often agreeing to sell out the interests of other slaves or native peoples in the process — and those he labels “fighting maroons,” who never compromised or gave up the struggle for a genuine independence.
Based on this assessment, Shoatz offers an interesting challenge to conventional revolutionary Marxist thinking in his essay “The Dragon and the Hydra: A Historical Study of Organizational Methods” (2006).
Here, too, he focuses on the resistance of maroon communities in North America and the Caribbean, considering in particular how those who refused to subordinate themselves to any centralized authority were able to survive and continue to struggle for decades as “fighting maroons,” whereas those which attempted to establish more conventional forms of political or state structures were consistently beheaded, or co-opted, or disarmed by the imperial authorities — or else transformed into new kinds of repressive instruments as in Haiti.
Shoatz’s conclusion is that the proper organizational model for genuine revolutionary struggle should be the multi-headed “hydra,” rather than the centralized “dragon” — an idea which constitutes a particular challenge for those, such as the author of this review, who have lived our lives and consistently built organizations based on one or another version of the “Leninist” paradigm.
In grappling with this question we do have to acknowledge Shoatz’s insights. Yet there is something that he does not consider in this chapter: the fact that even if the decentralized maroon struggles were able to survive on their own terms for decades, continuing a genuine battle for independence, they were not able to stop the global advance of the imperial project which, today, threatens the destruction of our planet.
Something else needs to be factored into the equation, therefore, if we are going to actually disarm and dismantle the machinery of patriarchal white supremacy and imperial conquest. I have personally begun a correspondence with Maroon on this all-important question. From our exchange so far it becomes clear to me again (as was already obvious from the book itself) that Shoatz is an honest and creative revolutionary who will think about and consider every serious question that is raised with him, even (especially) those which challenge his own previous modes of thought. I am hopeful, therefore, that our exchange will lead to some further development of a collective synthesis. I’ll keep readers of ATC informed if I can as our conversation develops further.
The Question of “Matriarchy”
The concept of “patriarchy,” just mentioned, leads us to another theme that is central to the book. Shoatz is straightforward about the influence on his thinking that others have had over the years. One of the individuals named most prominently is Fred Ho, also an editor of this volume, whose proposal to embrace “matriarchy” as an alternative to patriarchy and “manifest destiny Marxism” Shoatz openly embraces.
It is not quite clear from the book itself just what is meant by the term “matriarchy.” But it is obvious that for both Ho and Shoatz this represents something more than “feminism,” or even “radical feminism” — which still suggests an equality of women with men in the context of our present-day industrial culture. The concept of “matriarchy” being embraced here is tied in with a vision of “ecosocialism” which would constitute a sharp break from our present-day industrial culture.
Shoatz calls directly for the development of a “subsistence economy” — a term used not in the sense that most will probably instinctively understand it, an economy which produces a bare minimum necessary for survival and nothing by way of a social surplus, but in the sense used by writers like Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva from whom Shoatz quotes extensively: an economy where local production for local use begins to replace a reliance on industrial production in general, and on globalized industrial production in particular.
Given the ecological challenges posed by 21st century technology this is an idea that at least deserves a serious conversation within the revolutionary movement today. Finally, a list of those individuals to whom Shoatz expresses his deep gratitude would not be complete without a mention of Stan Goff, another whose writings are quoted extensively in the book.
Appendices include a “Manifesto for Scientific Soul Sessions” (SSS is a group founded several years ago by Fred Ho and others), also available at www.scientificsoulsessions.com, and a statement by a relatively new organization called “Ecosocialist Horizons,” which was created initially by members of SSS but has begun to establish a fairly broad national and international network. [Fred Ho’s article on the revolutionary content of jazz music appeared in ATC 159 and is online at http://www.solidarity-us.org/site/node/3642. For more information on Ecosocialist Horizons, go to www.ecosocialisthorizons.com.]
The book also includes a foreword by rap artist Chuck D. (who characterizes Shoatz as “one of the most brilliant thinkers on the subject of Black liberation, as well as freedom, justice, and social transformation for all who want a planet free of abuse, oppression, and exploitation toward humans and Earth itself”), an introduction by Quincy Saul, one of the editors, and a “prelude” by Fred Ho.
If you are interested in a book which will challenge you in creative and intelligent ways, read this one.