Book Review: Kevin “Rashid” Johnson’s “Defying the Tomb”

Product Details
price: $20.00
386 pages
published by Kersplebedeb in 2010
ISBN 978-1-894946-39-1

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Kevin ‘Rashid’ Johnson’s Defying the Tomb is an excellent example about the prescient and thought-provoking analysis that is being produced by a new generation of organic intellectuals that are being bred in the nascent ‘schools of liberation’ that are the American prison-industrial complex. The first section of the book largely consists of biographies of Rashid and Outlaw; the second section, and the largest section of the books, is a series of letters that cover a wide gambit of issues that plague New Afrikans and the revolutionary movement alike. The issues covered are dizzying, the array of source materials that Rashid and Outlaw rely on is both broad and deep especially considering the conditions under which they are read and commented upon, and the synthesis of theory and praxis that they have produced together is refreshing. And finally in the third section we see key essays penned by Rashid that serve as the cornerstone of the theoretical edifice of the New Afrikan Black Panther Party-Prison Chapter, and demonstrate a different and more mature Comrade Rashid. The book is replete with images and drawings by the author himself and they often serve as pictorial essays. They seek to not only represent the conditions of national oppression that the New Afrikan peoples experience in the contemporary USA, but also identify a revolutionary subject that is attempting to break free.

Comrade Rashid is the Minister of Defense of the NABPP-PC and this book is a rare document as it documents the intellectual and political development of two revolutionaries, not one, inside the ‘razor wire plantations’. Indeed, this book serves as a useful demonstration of Chairman Mao’s ‘mass line’ in which through a process of ‘unity-struggle-transformation’, we see the transformation of both Outlaw and Rashid. Even though Outlaw is the younger comrade in this exchange of letters, Rashid does not simply didactically preach but rather he learns as well. Rashid takes Outlaw’s ideas in their raw form and gives them back in a more concrete sense, whilst changing his own ideas because of new insights and interventions by the very capable Outlaw. Outlaw and Rashid are both teacher and student alike, and demonstrate a passion, care and ingenuity that can do nothing but gladden the heart of a now cynical Left and serve as an inspiration. This is most powerfully borne out by the fact that at the end of this book we see the rise of the NABPP-PC. This openness to new ideas and arguments is demonstrated in the very opening pages of the book when in the thoughtful Forward, Comrade Russell “Maroon” Shoats openly states his disagreements with Comrade Rashid’s emphasis on a more conventional form of democratic centralism. Such honesty and humility is something that is all too rare in our contemporary Left.

There are numerous theoretical quibbles that one can have with the theoretical propositions that Comrade Rashid enunciates; I definitely have many, especially the adoption of a revolutionary humanism and the replacement of ‘pantherism’ with Marxism-Leninism-Maoism. However, to enunciate them now seems to be simply characteristic of an academic exercise and this book definitely is not intended to be such an exercise. Rather, the book serves as a revolutionary primer for anyone organizing in the ghettoes, ‘razor wire plantations’, schools, and workplaces in North America to build a revolutionary movement and a revolutionary party. An interesting aspect of Comrade Rashid’s theory is his revival of the role of the urban guerrilla in his work and, like many other comrades around the world, emphasizes the need for the an armed section of the movement that can in fact protect the mass movement. Unfortunately, and as this is not an academic quibble but rather a tactical difference between us, Comrade Rashid does not theoretically develop the role of the armed movement in the capture of State power besides the limited self-defense role that was adopted by the BPP. Nevertheless, this book is an amazing example of a jailhouse philosopher trying to not only interpret the world, but from solitary confinement to actually change it. Furthermore, this book serves as a continuation to a dialogue that seems to have largely stopped, although some circles and communities remain, with the collapse of the underground revolutionary left in the 1980’s, and the paralysis, as Rashid points out, of those comrades who were part of that initial wave of the revolutionary movement. Thus, it synthesizes the lessons of the Black Panther Party and the BLA, especially through a critical re-evaluation of the works of Comrade George Jackson (in fact after reading Defying the Tomb I immediately contacted a close comrade and suggested that we re-read Blood in my Eye) and Comrade Huey P. Newton’s theory of intercommunalism, with Marxism-Leninism-Maoism to produce an original new revolutionary course for the US revolutionary movement which he has termed, “pantherism”. A project that many have taken up, but never have completed. Defying the Tomb serves as a useful step in that right direction, especially as it actively engages with other political and religious tendencies that currently exist in the revolutionary movement.

Defying the Tomb is a valuable addition to the subterranean, yet active, tradition of New Afrikan communist theory, which includes the works of James Yaki Sayles, J. Sakai, Butch Lee, and Bottomfish Blues. I am sure that all of these differnet authors would have theoretical differences with one another, but this is why this is such a dynamic and interesting movement. And one hopes that other books by Comrade Rashid and other members of the NABPP-PC are indeed forthcoming in the coming years as Comrade Tom Big Warrior suggests. Also, it is incumbent on all of us that call ourselves the Left to read these books. For far too long the Left has occupied itself by bemoaning the lack of contemporary organic intellectuals when such a tradition already exists under our very noses! It serves as a powerful reminder to those of who have the privilege to not be incarcerated of our responsibilities to those comrades that continue to struggle under those conditions and to the people who we seek to serve.


8 thoughts on “Book Review: Kevin “Rashid” Johnson’s “Defying the Tomb”

  1. Great review of a very enjoyable book. There is definitely a sense of a “living theory” in this book, especially since you can see political ideas develop organically between the dialogue of two political prisoners. One of its strengths is that, despite the weightiness of some of its material, it is a quicker read than a dry academic text because: a) it is not boring; b) there is the story of Rashid and Outlaw we’re following; c) Rashid really does feel like, as you indicated, “an organic intellectual.”

  2. Rashid’s book is definitely an interesting one. My main gripe with it though, as you and I have spoken about in the past on Facebook, is that Rashid at times only has partial grip on the lines of various other organizations.

    In particular he misunderstands the line of an organization I am involved in, the Uhuru Movement. In one of his letters with Outlaw he summarizes the Uhuru Movement’s line as being that the Uhuru Movement wants all African people to return to Africa. This is a pretty simplistic, to put it mildly, summation of the line that has been developed and put out by of Uhuru Movement since the 1970s. I got the distinct impression that Rashid got his thought on the Uhuru Movement’s line not from reading Omali Yeshitela’s own work (like “Omali Yeshitela Speaks,” “Social Justice and Economic Development for the African Community,” “The Dialectics of Black Revolution” or “Stolen Black Labor: The Political Economy of Domestic Colonialism”) but from the (in my opinion) quite weak polemics directed at the Uhuru Movement’s line that originated with Chokwe Lumumba, Chairman of New Afrikan People’s Organization.

    There are also some other strange instances in the book where Rashid or Outlaw said things that just me go like “WTF?” For example, they a number of discussions on the radical hip-hop group Dead Prez. Beyond saying that Dead Prez uses 5%er (Nation of Gods and Earths) ideology somewhat, which I found quite odd, they say that they can’t figure out Dead Prez’s program for revolution. It’s kinda weird, because Dead Prez is quite clear about their line and their ideology…it’s the Uhuru Movement’s. Mutulu Olugbala (M-1 of DP) was the founder of one of the chapters of the International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement, the mass movement component of the Uhuru Movement. They also have several excerpts of speeches from Chairman Omali.

    Anyway, that was just something I found odd.

    However, I think it’s reasonable though, given his situation. Being in solitary 23 hours a day for years on end must make it pretty hard to get a hold of materials, and thus get a fuller picture.

  3. Dear Comrade JMP and Enaemaehkiw Túpac Keshena,
    Thank you for both of your comments. I agree with both of them completely. I think there are numerous points with which one can disagree with Comrade Rashid, and some of these are indeed borne out of his own particular situation, however, I do think that some of them are truly different political differences that are reflective of a larger set of questions that trouble the Maoist movement more generally. I think that the debate has become more muddled with the general adoption of Maoism by a whole host of parties/organizations/collectives/individuals when in fact the line they advocate is closer to those proponents of Mao Zedong Thought. Indeed, I believe that Comrade Rashid, like many, reflects a tendency in the Maoist movement which sees Mao as an addition to Marxism-Leninism, rather than a more thorough transformation of Marxism-Leninism. At some pt. I think I am going to write more about the different positions. Also, perhaps we could have you (Comrade Enaemaehkiw) give us a presentation/study session on the line of the Uhuru movement at some pt.

  4. I’d be happy to do something on the Uhuru Movement’s line.

    In the meantime, a good place to start is the Uhuru Movement’s rejection of what I call the New Afrikan Nation Hypothesis. Their rejection of the notion of a New Afrikan Nation with a national territory in the Black Belt South is a defining feature of their line.

    A good place to begin looking at it is actually the most recent (5th) Congress of the African People’s Socialist Party (the original org of the Uhuru Movement, and currently it’s U.S.-section). At the Congress, which was last August, there was a panel on the topic of “Achieving State Power & The Question of Land,” which was a flowery way of saying it was a panel on the New Afrikan Nation Hypothesis.

    On the panel the Uhuru Movement was repped by Oronde Takuma, leader of the African People’s Socialist Party NYC, though there was a small intervention by Chairman Omali Yeshitela to clarify some points. Also present on the panel was Chokwe Lumumba, Chairman of New Afrikan People’s Organization and member of the Provisional Government of the Republic of New Afrika and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, Malik Zulu Shabazz, Chairman of New Black Panther Party, and Saladin Muhammad, representing Black Workers for Justice.

    By far the strongest case made for the New Afrikan Nation Hypothesis on the panel is Chokwe Lumumba, but he fails (or so I think) in really responding to one of the Uhuru Movement’s main critiques of the New Afrikan position.

    Anyway, the whole panel can be found here

    In the process I’m trying to get some older, out of print documents from the Uhuru Movement on their position on the New Afrikan Nation. In particular there is an outprint book that contains the polemics between Chokwe and Omali (and I don’t think it is likely to be reprinted, because Chokwe and Omali are trying to united despite their differences). The New Afrikan question is also covered in the book One Africa! One Nation! by Omali as well as in the political report of some of the past congresses.

    When I have more materials in hand I’d be more than happy to put something together.

  5. Responding to one aspect of this review of Rashid’s book, the armed struggle, one need not think of guns and seizing state power. Think only of the 1919 Palmer raids when thousands of U.S. progressives were locked up or deported. Think Nazi Germany when the left was caught unprepared and communists were shipped off to concentration camps. Revolution is illegal. It is an act by which one class forcibly overthrows another. Folks might want to start talking about the possibility of building a hidden infrastructure.
    Prattling on about how this fails to account for the seizure of state power is merely another form of avoidance. We on the U.S. left are a joke in the eyes of the world’s progressive forces, and correctly so. Right opportunism is a deadly infection that has paralyzed us.
    People like Rashid understand class relationships better than those of us who endlessly debate how many Marxists can dance on the point of a needle. He feels the state’s boot on his neck day in and day out. This is not a subjective thing; it is an objective reality that fuels his revolutionary commitment. Refinement of line is not class struggle. Neither is endlessly marching in circles carrying a sign, as we watch our numbers continue to grow fewer and fewer.
    I bought a box of these books and have been sending them in to prisoners. I urge others to do the same. Yes, Rashid’s Maoism is a bit much, but he’s young.

    1. Hi Ed,
      First of all, thank you for posting on my blog; secondly, I have an immense amount of respect for you and your work (I really enjoyed your pamphlet on the historical experience in the Seattle area); and third I completely agree that people should buy the book and I hope that my review reflected that, and I really like your suggestion.

      Regarding your more critical comments regarding my review, which I really did appreciate, I am not trying to have an endless debate about the number of Marxists that can dance on the point of a needly, but rather, reflects a theoretical division which is present in the Maoist movement today between those who believe that the road to revolution in North America is through a Bolshevik-style insurrection OR a redeveloped notion of urban armed struggle (I particularly have in mind the RCP-Canada which is the only revolutionary party in Canada today), and that the strategy debate like your discussion about the possibility of hidden infrastructure are vital components of any serious revolutionary movement in the future. Thus, I take Radhid’s Maoism seriously and him as a revolutionary even more seriously.

      Finally, having not grown up in North America, but having been exposed to it in my college years and currently I must agree that Americans and Canadians (although the RCP-C has emerged as a much more serious force in Canada at least) are a joke in the eyes of the international Left. And I agree that we must be engaged in the class struggle, and not simply in theoretical or protest activities, but the development of revolutionary infratstructure that allow for the possibility of the capture of state power.

  6. A few thoughts:
    1:I am happy to enthusiastically disseminate this book for much the same reasons Ed Mead emphasizes above:MThe fact that Rashid provides a bit of a reality check on what class struggle actually means, (in the context of a week and marginalized pro-revolutionary scene which tends to view it through a throughly mythological and scholastic lens,its class composition doesn’t help).
    2:In terms of revolutionary politico-military strategy I don’t think that either the comintern fantasy of the “October Road” (fantasy because it ignored the years of more or less continual guerrilla war before October and because in accord with Stalinist mythology it portrays the insurrection as an act of a single monolithic party apparatus, not a coalition of revolutionary forces which faced opposition from strong opportunist/reformist elements in the Bolshevik party) or the universal application of Maoist PPW theory is sufficient for the reality of an urbanized, globalized society (especially because one has to question the value of seizing state power on the national level and finding oneself on the defensive within the imperialist context), I do think
    the theories of Abraham Guillén and Amílcar Cabral are very much worth looking at in this regard.
    Its also interesting to look at the experiences of the Italian “area of autonomy”, the German civil war (1918-1923), the Latin American urban guerrilla, the radical left in West Germany and Irish Republicanism for examples of protracted conflict with the state much closer to 21st century North America then Tsarist Russia or semi-colonial China.
    3: My big problem with Rashid’s book is his basically Stalinist conception of the party as a “Bolshevised” machine and his failure to engage critically with the actual class content of “socialist construction” in terms of the production relations it developed.
    But thats of course an old left-communist vs Leninist bone of contention…

    1. It is interesting to look at the whole history of class struggle, but our conditions for making revolution are unprecidented. We must seek the answers in the objective conditions through doing revolutionary agitation, education and organization among the oppressed masses.

      The United Panther Movement led by NABPP-PC has a very basic strategy at this stage of transforming the slave pens of oppression into schools of liberation and the oppressed communities into base areas of cultural, social and political revolution in the context of building the worldwide united front against capitalist imperialism.

      When we’ve advanced down this road awhile it will be possible to hold a founding congress and create a more structured party with a fuller programme.

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