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Self Determination: What It Is, What It Isn’t

Mass resistance against police brutality in the US resurfaced after 18-year-old Michael Brown was murdered by the police in August of 2014. The sights of tanks and militarized police forces in response to the subsequent rebellions in Ferguson and St. Louis only blew air on the flames of injustice that were ignited when Michael Brown’s killer, officer Darren Wilson, was not indicted by the US judicial system. Since then, hundreds of Black Americans have been killed at the hands of the police. All of them have received the same racist treatment from the US imperial state as Michael Brown did.

The ever-increasing numbers of Black Americans murdered and beaten by the police are symptoms of US imperialism’s white supremacist disease. The disease of white supremacy plagues US society like a virus plagues the body. White power spreads from the global reach of the capitalist class, whose material interests are served by the disease’s total impact. This explains why Black Americans are murdered daily by the police and at the same time comprise of over half of the nation’s 2.3 million prisoners. White supremacy keeps Black America and all oppressed nations within the US dispossessed of the means to meet basic human needs. It serves capitalism by not only dividing oppressed people from each other, but also by creating a population of “white” people willing to maintain the system’s rule.

During the Black Liberation Movement of the 60’s and 70’s, organizations such as the Black Panther Party drew inspiration from the international struggle against imperialism to guide their owns struggle with the forces of white supremacy and capitalism in the US. The movement relied on an analysis of self-determination forwarded most prominently by Malcolm X. In the year before his assassination, Malcolm had hoped to take the issue of Black self-determination to the United Nations. The Black liberation movement emulated Malcolm’s recognition of self-determination as the common thread linking the struggle against imperialism in nations such as Vietnam, Cuba, and Algeria to the Black struggle against the US state. The explosion of national liberation movements from the 50’s-70’s throughout Asia, Latin America, and Africa made clear that the same guns, courts, and police forces used to repress Black people were the same ones destroying nations abroad.

In this period, self-determination is a difficult concept for many in the US to grasp in the midst of the reactionary politics that dominate the political landscape. This author wrote an article in December of last year defining six concepts, self-determination included, which will play a definitive role in the development of a revolutionary movement in the US. It is now 2015, and the movement for self-determination of oppressed nations in the US stands at a critical juncture. The momentum of the Ferguson and Baltimore uprisings has quieted considerably. A hash tag campaign entitled #BlackLivesMatter has filled the political vacuum and received mainstream attention. And given the recent report by Mumia Abu-Jamal on the state of the movement and the denunciation of DeRay Mckesson’s relationship with Teach for America written by the Philadelphia Teacher’s Union social justice caucus, self-determination remains the key question not yet materialized for oppressed people in the US.

Co-founder of the Black Panther Party, Huey Newton, defined self-determination within a framework of power. He defined power as the ability to define phenomena and make it act in a desired manner. Similarly, self-determination is the ability of a nation or community of people to forge its own path of development. A revolutionary definition of self-determination must include the power of an oppressed and exploited people to independently develop its cultural, political, and economic system free from foreign domination and outside influence. Without power, and more specifically political power, self-determination cannot be realized. The power of self-determination has historically struck fear into the ruling imperialist system and guaranteed significant levels of repression for people who attempt to practice it.

Vladimir Lenin and Kwame Nkrumah are prime examples of revolutionary leaders who defined self-determination in practice. Lenin’s definition of self-determination sprouted from the context of the Bolshevik revolution. When the socialist Soviet Union came to power, Lenin understood that it’s future survival would be impossible to secure without the establishment of solidarity with the national liberation movements struggling to overthrow colonial domination. He defined self-determination as “the political separation of these nations from alien national bodies, and the formation of an independent national state.” The Soviet union would go on to support liberation forces in Cuba, Korea, Afghanistan, and much of Eastern Europe in a bold attempt to create the conditions for workers power worldwide.

The Soviet Union actively supported Ghana’s independence struggle, led by the West African nation’s first revolutionary president, Kwame Nkrumah. Ghana overthrew its colonial oppressor, British colonialism, in 1958 and immediately began to develop the productive forces for a socialist society. Nkrumah forwarded the struggle for self-determination of all African people as a necessary precondition to a truly liberated world. According to Nkrumah in his text The Class Struggle in Africa, “The core of the Black Revolution is in Africa, and until Africa is united under a socialist government, the Black man throughout the world lacks a national home. Africa is one continent, one people, and one nation.” Neo-colonial forces supported a coup of Ghana’s independent government in 1966 with the help of the CIA while Nkrumah was in China for a delegation to end the Vietnam War. Ghana has been dominated by western imperialist interests ever since. 

The Soviet Union and Ghana provide critical insight into what self-determination is and what it isn’t. Self-determination is a struggle for independent power by, and for, oppressed people. And it is such a struggle against the ruthless system of white supremacy and capitalism that is still not well understood here in the US. There are some who believe self-determination is about individual or collective choices of any kind. For example, some hold the worldview that the election of Barack Obama was an expression of self-determination. This is a crude distortion of the principle that must be corrected.

The logic of the argument stems from the high rate of Black American voter participation in Obama’s election. High Black voter turnout and a staunch collective defense of Obama are seen as Black America’s expression of self-determination. But self-determination has little to do with just any individual or collective decision on the part of a people. Self-determination is a struggle for independent development, thus the means to get there must be independently decided and acted upon by the oppressed people in question. Black America did not make or mold Barack Obama, just like the people of Palestine did not choose to be ruled by the Zionist state of Israel. These conditions were imposed by the system of imperialism and rammed down the collective throats of Black and Palestinian people. The difference is that while Black people have largely supported Obama, the settler-colonial nature of Israel has bred significant resistance from Palestinian resistance forces.

Obama’s position as an operative of Wall Street and the forces of Black oppression was well established by the time of his election in 2008. In such a case, it is imperative to question whether the will of the people or the will of the oppressor was (and still is) really at play. The principle of self-determination helps clarify the character of a particular leader and movement. On the one hand, it serves as a barometer to measure up leaders, such as DeRay Mckesson or Barack Obama, who emerged onto the scene rife with connections to corporate institutions. On the other, self-determination develops revolutionary enthusiasm and deep connections to the struggle of oppressed people. One can examine the Black is Back Coalition’s demand for Black community control of the police and the Cooperation Jackson movement led by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement as real examples of self-determination in practice today. Both elevate the struggle for Black political power the only path to Black self-determination. Neither receives attention from the corporate press nor holds promise for individual advancement. But again, self-determination is not about popularity or upward mobility. It’s about taking power by any means necessary.

When I encountered the theory and practice of self-determination, I was lucky enough to have already learned that the struggle against white supremacy was intimately connected to the struggle to overthrow capitalism. The revolutionary theories of Lenin, Nkrumah, and many others resonated deeply with my dual experience of daily racist mistreatment and debt bondage imposed on my family by the lords of finance capital. The #BlackLivesMatter development has emphasized the importance of collective self-worth as the key ingredient to a currently undefined “victory.” But the highest expression of self-worth is self-determination. Countless revolutionaries have set forth a guide to achieve it. Their work must be applied to our present situation. This cannot happen if the struggle for independent power is confused with whatever form of coercion may affect the actions and ideas of a people at any given historical moment. Such confusion leaves us vulnerable to the dictates of unsavory leaders and organizations and must be isolated immediately.

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