Review of We Are Our Own Liberators:
Select Writings by Jalil Muntaqim
by Ed Mead
We Are Our Own Liberators
Selected Prison Writings
Second edition with an extensive collective of new material.
304pp. ISBN 9780974288468
By Ed Mead
In a recent review of another book I wrote: “as a revolutionary I see little on the political horizon containing much of what I would call real political substance….” And that I am “looking for political writings that strike a chord within my understanding of dialectical and historical materialism as applied to the conditions and circumstances existing in the world today.” Well, I’ve found such writings. The book is by Jalil A. Muntaqim (Anthony Bottom) and it is the second edition of We Are Our Own Liberators.
I first worked with Jalil back in the mid-1970s when I was a prisoner at the Washington State Penitentiary at Walla Walla. He was then organizing the United Nations petition campaign in an effort to get that body to recognize the plight of political prisoners held in U.S. custody. Jalil was then and still is an imprisoned member of the Black Liberation Army. He’s been locked down for some forty years for his alleged participation in BLA “crimes.” During his imprisonment Jalil has tirelessly struggled in both word and deed to advance the cause of political and social prisoners, as well as the New Afrikan struggle for nationhood.
We Are Our Own Liberators is not an easy read. While Jalil’s book is exceptionally well written, like all books containing significant content, it requires some concentration on the part of the reader. But this effort will be a labor of love for those interested in the politics of progressive New Afrikan Nationalism. We Are Our Own Liberators is the handbook, the roadmap activists must traverse on the journey to New Afrikan and class-based revolutionary change in America. It is not, like so many books written by current or former political prisoners (including the one I am working on), a book about himself or his personal trials and tribulations. It is a book about the actual mechanics of building a revolutionary organization and class struggle.
The overall thrust and primary content of Jalil’s book is a step-by-step “how to” manual for the current and next generation of revolutionaries to use when building cadre and organizations that can reach out to and successfully engage the masses. But in the process of doing this he also addresses the weaknesses that must be overcome within the New Afrikan Community and other social segments by those seeking to implement these changes. This is accomplished through an analysis of the New Afrikan bourgeoisie and other reactionary forces and the negative impact they have within these communities. The book should be read just for this analysis, although the real substance is the well thought-out guide to building revolutionary organization in today’s America.
It is difficult, at least for me as a white ex-con, to distill the essence of Jalil’s political/organizational substance into short space of this review—the content is too rich and deep, too detailed and methodical for easy categorization. It is something New Afrikans and progressive whites must read, must study. So rather that address this broad range of content, I’ll merely nibble around the edges.
I suspect that every reviewer of a progressive political book will take that which he or she feels to be the most relevant, and then give that material special attention. For me it was Jalil’s criticism of the leftist formations in this country—a subject I too feel strongly about. He says:
“Only a few of these radicals/militants, either in the past or recently, ever took seriously the fact that Marx and Lenin were both developing their theories in a systematic reflection upon specific historical reality, a totally different historical reality from what exists in the United States today. Marx was writing at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in Europe 100 years ago and Lenin in backwards Russia over fifty years ago, in periods when rapid developments in the production forces were the urgent concerns…. “
Jalil points out that the United States is not old-time Europe or Russia, and that today’s radicals need to do more than replace the revolutionary role of workers with those in the so called third world who are in revolt, or casting domestic social movements into the role Marx and Lenin gave to the working class. He notes that some of these social movements (e.g., the prisoners’ movement) “have begun to substitute themselves for New Afrikan workers….” Jalil goes on to argue that instead of merely “reacting to rebellions and to each other in sectarian and opportunist ways…. The revolutionary cadre organization must make its own serious analysis of the unique historical development of the United States and the material development in their area and nationally.”
Addressing the subject of armed struggle Jalil notes that:
“Many ‘leftists’ in the class and national liberation struggle have labeled individuals or groups who advocated revolutionary armed struggle ‘ultra-leftist’…. These erroneous postulations have ill effects on the entire revolutionary movement. They tend to strip the revolutionary movement of its militancy and prevent certain measures of defense from developing with a greater participation from the oppressed masses…. Thus, those who partake in armed actions are not only fighting monopoly-capitalist enemies, but also isolated and abandoned by those claiming to be progressive political activists and revolutionaries.” Most of “those who condemn revolutionary armed struggle are either in cahoots with U.S. imperialism, seeking to subvert and defuse the revolutionary development of the mass and popular movement, or lack understanding of the necessity of the revolutionary armed struggle and thus speak in unprincipled ways on issues they know little about. They fear the repression of the State in defense of its continued existence.”
We Are Our Own Liberators is not a book that advocates for or is about armed struggle. The dialectical relationship between mass struggle and armed struggle is mentioned to provide lessons to be learned from past experience. I emphasize the subject here because of the way in which the mass movement of the 1970s actively aided the state in their effort to distance themselves from the armed front and the possibility of repression. I also want to highlight the issue because of the way in which today’s above-ground left eschews any kind of militancy. They have taken a movement that put hundreds of thousands of Americans into the streets to protest the invasion of Iraq, and through their passivity, their obsequiousness to bourgeois legality, have managed to reduce that movement to occasional marches numbering less than a hundred people. They refuse to admit their mistakes or to examine the failure of their practice, even in times such as these, when the future is so pregnant with the possibility of change. They forget that revolution is against the law—that revolution is an act by witch one class violently overthrows another.
In addition to the organizational red meat (vegetarians and vegans forgive me) of this book, it is also interspersed with Jalil’s outstanding poetry (one reviewer called his poems “strong and multi-layered”), as well as brief commentaries on subjects such as Obama, a tribute to Nuh Washington, and others. These chapters provide relief from the heavy reading on matters such as organizational and cadre development. One of my favorites was a chapter called The Criminalization of Poverty in Capitalist America. Jalil cites statistics on the ever growing gap between the rich and poor, and the government policies that work to generate greater levels of poverty. He points out the relationship between poverty and crime, adding that “…the real criminals are those who create the socio-economic conditions that perpetuate impoverishment … and deflect culpability of their criminal behavior.”
If I were to isolate one weakness in Jalil’s book it would be his failure to update material in this second edition. Some areas of the book were written a number of years ago. I would like to have seen those parts updated with more recent statistics. That said, for New Afrikan and progressive whites serious about building a revolutionary movement, and who of us isn’t, We Are Our Own Liberators is a must read book—the central thrust of which we should all be working to implement in our day-to-day political practice.