Decentering Whiteness and Understanding Nationalism

By David Gilbert

Dear Dan,

Well, you did it once again: another lovely ONWARD. I can’t even keep my superlatives flowing at the pace you do issue after issue. Can’t give you the detailed response the issue merits, but here are some off-the-cuff thoughts.

Great that you did a piece on John Brown (“Refusing To Surrender: John Brown and White Anti-Racist Struggle” in ONWARD vol. 2 iss. 4). Definitely the most relevant historical e.g. for white radicals. I really should re-read your piece, because it was complex, but here are quick thoughts. I applaud that you started with and emphasized Kansas. All the standard history makes Harper’s Ferry the story. But Kansas is even a better e.g. because he actually led/ developed a civil war among whites around racism, although we might not be able to endorse every action. Also, it was strategically key. If Kansas had become a slave state, the slavocracy would have controlled the federal government. Then, at best, the North would have seceded from the South or, alternatively, accommodated to slavery. So, right on for your emphasis on Kansas.

The other thing I loved is that you were willing to be critical. Brown is our best e.g. (and more advanced than you or I) but nonetheless not mechanically applicable in every way to today and had some problems even for then. I remember thinking that Butch Lee’s Jailbreak Out of History was kind of ahistorical in how it criticized Brown, but don’t really remember the specifics. Also W.E.B. DuBois had a much more favorable (and probably overly generous) interpretation of JB’s strategy at Harper’s Ferry than what you present. But whatever uncertainty I have over some of the particulars, it’s more important that you were willing to criticize, and I completely agree with your main criticism that he should have done more to follow Black leadership. Also, while I don’t know the history of this well enough, undoubtedly major shortcomings re: sexism.

Your intro was a bit too self-conscious re: focusing on a leading e.g. for whites. The Malcolm X quote explains the validity and relevance of doing so very eloquently. On the other hand, you make the mistake, near the beginning of referring to the “largely pacifist” abolition movement, thus letting white abolitionists define the whole. Many Black freemen took up arms to prevent re-capture of fugitive slaves, and of course Harriet Tubman was armed. You could be less self-conscious about a focus on/for whites, but more aware that whites didn’t define abolition movement as a whole.

Overall, great job in focus on the best historical e.g. and still making useful criticisms to help draw relevant lessons. The rest of the issue was also excellent. I like your having so much on both Argentina and Palestine. All in all, ONWARD has made me more open to re-looking at anarchism. My 1960s experience with it among whites in the U.S. was as a rationalization for the ultra-individualism so deep in U.S. culture – a trend Krysti Guest criticizes so clearly in her article (“Feminism and Anarchism: Toward a Politics of Engagement” in ONWARD vol. 2 iss. 4).

A simultaneously great strength and weakness of this issue are the articles on nationalism. Your serious consideration was a big step forward from the anarchist tendency to evaluate issues solely along the axis of relationship to the state – but the two theoretical pieces were still marred by not getting much beyond that one dimension. There was some recognition but not nearly enough comprehension of the central and qualitative difference between oppressor and oppressed nations. That doesn’t make all nationalism in the latter progressive, but it makes a tremendous difference in the context and terms. In this regard, it’s great that you had Ashanti’s piece, which is powerful in giving a sense of the issue from within the oppressed Black nation. The theoretical pieces need to catch up. Hearn’s piece, in particular, failed to grasp the history and realities of imperialism. He kind of equates secession with self-determination and if anything, is even more favorable to the former because it is smaller scale. Fomenting secessionist break-ups has been perhaps imperialism’s most potent tactic against national liberation and has led to heartbreaking bloodshed and to total disaster and devastation in Third World countries and keeping the people there in a state of permanent agony. So facilely embracing secession is, in effect, a cavalier dismissal of imperialism’s horrid oppression of the Third World.

The difference between national liberation and secession is fairly complicated – so I won’t try to define that here, but will indicate two missing key components for a serious treatment of the issues. 1. The purely subjective definitions of nation are a problem. Admittedly, an “objective” definition isn’t that clear-cut. But given that imperialism was all about the plunder and consequent economic crippling of the Third World, the definition has to consider what coherent territory and organizational forms are needed to develop the productive forces on the terms of and for the benefit of the people. On that basis, one would also want to look at what it takes to achieve what Amilcar Cabral referred to as a people’s reclaiming of the ability to make their own history. These considerations are not all that goes into a more objective and historical definition, but are key aspects missing here. 2. On that basis, sorting these things out requires thorough historical study of an area – pre-imperialism, how it was shaped by imperialism, the consciousness and organization formed in the resistance to imperialism. So, while the two theoretical articles were a welcome advance in considering the issue, I still found them to be another painful e.g. of white radicals putting forth grand political schematics without much sense of the nature of imperialism and the liberation struggles against it. Including Ashanti’s piece was definitely a redeeming factor here.

Right now, Israel’s invasion of Palestinian cities and towns has been especially gruesome. In the U.S. media and political discourse, it is always the Palestinians who are the aggressors and terrorists. Two colossal facts, at the base of the whole problem, are routinely elided over: 1. It is Israel who occupies Palestine; 2. Israelis have killed many times more Palestinian civilians than vice versa. It’s very hard to see any positive ways out at this point.

I heard the April 20 demos in D.C. were strong and that support for Palestine was a central demand, so that is encouraging. All we can do is keep love for people in our hearts and keep moving forward. I’m OK. This place can really drive you crazy – but hopefully I’m not all the way there (yet, smile). I keep plugging away on my book project and continue to have a lot of good visits.


David Gilbert

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