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The Sixties: The Political and the Personal

On August 7th, 1970 Jonathan Jackson took out a couple guns in the Marin County Courthouse and attempted to free members of the Soledad Brothers (revolutionary prisoners falsely accused of killing a prison guard) who were on trial in the courtroom. The defendants joined Jackson in taking the judge and others hostage, commandeering a prison van. When they tried to leave the courthouse, they were gunned down in a hail of bullets. A little more than a year later, Jonathan’s older brother, author and Black Panther George Jackson was murdered by guards in the yard at San Quentin prison, not far from where his brother was killed the year before. These two events provide a vivid glimpse at the nature of the revolutionary movement in the United States at the time. The groundswell of support for the Jacksons and those accused of helping them proves the breadth of that movement.

The attempt to free George Jackson in August 1970 occurred during a six month period in the US that began with the US military invasion of Cambodia on April 30, 1970. Those six months were a time when, according to author George Katsiaficas in his book The Imagination of the New Left: A Global Analysis of 1968 was closer to revolution than at any other time in modern history. Katsiaficas’ text, recently revised and republished in 2018, is not a conventional leftist analysis of the period. Nor is it a liberal or conservative take.

Instead, Katsiaficas presents his idea of a phenomenon he calls the “eros effect.” Put succinctly, this phenomenon (and here I borrow Katsiaficas words)

“the eros effect refers to the transcendental qualities of social movements, to what occurs in moments of suddenly popular social upheavals which dramatically transform established social orders. As I will discuss, the eros effect occurs in moments when the basic assumptions of a society–patriotic nationalism and the authority of the government; hierarchy, the division of labor, and specialization–vanish overnight. During moments of the eros effect, popular movements not only imagine a new way of life and a different social reality but millions of people live according to transformed norms, values, and beliefs.”

In other words, when the existing social order is ruptured from top to bottom, allowing and forcing those in the society to reconsider and reformat their lives both socially and individually. Like Immanuel Wallerstein’s writing on anti-systemic movements, Katsiaficas remarks that these periods, best represented by the historical events of 1848, 1905 and 1968, differ from years when revolutionary movements took power (1776 in the Americas, 1789 in France and 1917 in Russia) in that, despite their political failure, such moments fundamentally changed the way humans perceived their relationship to authorities of all types. Family, religion, education, governments and culture are all turned upside down, examined, and even rejected. Unfortunately, the forces of reaction—those invested in maintaining power and as much of the previous order as possible—have usually come out on the top after these historical moments.

The year 1968 is both a reality and a metaphor in the book. In fact, as noted above, Katsiaficas considers 1970 to be the most revolutionary year in the United States. In other words, 1970 was the US’s 1968. It is when leftist social movements of all kinds came together officially and otherwise in a massive struggle against war, against racism and sexism, and in favor of national liberation, sexual liberation and cultural freedom. The social order was ruptured across numerous fault lines; a situation that provoked violent reaction for the authorities while simultaneously loosening cultural and other bonds that were previously considered part of everyday life.

Much of The Imagination of the New Left: A Global Analysis of 1968 is taken up with descriptions of protests around the world. Foremost among those descriptions are the 1968 insurrection in France and the wave of revolutionary protests in the US after the April 30th invasion of Cambodia. However, equally interesting are the summaries of protests and revolts in each world region during the period. The chapter detailing these events provides the reader with a panoramic vision of the sense of revolution that was in the air. Katsiaficas creates a fast-paced, almost cinematic history of the period from 1968-1971. In the telling, he injects an analysis that reflects his experience in the streets and meeting places. It is an analysis that dogmatists might find problematic but is consistent with the leftist syndicalist take one finds in his other works.

Where George Katsiaficas’ text is a sweeping history of the period defined by the year 1968, Elaine Mokhtefi’s memoir titled Algiers, Third World Capital: Black Panthers, Freedom Fighters, Revolutionaries, is a specific story from the period. Mokhtefi was a youth peace activist in the years following the Second World War. Her position was not nearly as popular in those years as antiwar activism would become in the 1960s. After moving to France in 1951, Mokhtefi served as a translator for liberation movements and the United Nations, among others. In 1960, she became a member of the Algerian National Liberation Front at their UN office. One of the few women in that part of the organization, she ultimately became a member of the victorious revolutionary government. Her work included writing for various journals and newspapers published by the government and continuing to serve as a translator.

The story she tells in her book is one of intrigue, political and otherwise. It is also about a revolution trying to create a government equal to its ideals in the face of very powerful enemies. Mokhtefi writes as a believer in the revolution, but does not hesitate to critique some of the twists and turns it took over the years she was part of the government. Her work and travels allowed her to meet and even get to know individuals like Simone de Beauvoir, Frantz Fanon, Jomo Kenyatta and Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver.

It was when Cleaver sought asylum in Algeria after the Oakland police killed Bobby Hutton and wounded Cleaver that Mokhtefi began working with him. Her descriptions of the Panthers, their thoughts an actions while in Algeria are told in a matter-of-fact manner. She briefly discusses Timothy Leary’s stay at the Panther compound, ultimately dismissing Leary as an aging hipster and glad to see him leave. It is her discussion of how the COINTELPRO engineered split in the Black Panther party was perceived in Algeria that is considerably more interesting. Although she acknowledges that her perception was colored by her friendship with Cleaver and her unfamiliarity with politics in the United States at the time, she seems to agree with Katsiaficas that Huey Newton perceived what was Cleaver’s attempt to maintain the revolutionary edge of the Panthers as an attempt by Cleaver to wrest command of the party from Newton. Mokhtefi and Katsiaficas, are in agreement that this perception was incorrect on Newton’s part.

Regarding Katsiaficas on the topic, he covers the split briefly, arguing that Newton’s perception that Cleaver was trying to overthrow Newton was a misreading of Cleaver’s intentions. Instead, he writes that C’leaver wanted to maintain and expand the Panthers revolutionary role, not diminish it. Katsiaficas’ description of the Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in Fall of 1970 seems to prove his point that Cleaver’s intent was also the will of most of the Panthers at the time. For reasons we may never know, Newton quashed any hope of such a program within three months of the agreements reached in Philadelphia.

As the world moves deeper into the twenty-first century, uncertain of what the future holds while fascists and capitalists both conspire and battle among themselves as to how best achieve maximum control, books like these two become ever more important. They provide analysis and memory of a period when hope was not just another empty word muttered by politicians; when the idea of a world guided by ideas of justice and community was not some kind of fairy tale or hippie fantasy. They also point out the unfortunate results of those moments when battles for power conspire accidentally and otherwise with the forces of repression, thereby forsaking the principles of a revolution.

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Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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