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George Jackson’s “Blood in my eye:” A critical appraisal

Feb 1, 2022

This article accompanies our Liberation School study guide for George L. Jackson’s Blood in my Eye.

Originally from Chicago, Ill, George L. Jackson grew up in California. In 1961, a young Jackson convicted of armed robbery for allegedly stealing $70 from a gas station. Outrageously, Jackson was sentenced to one year to life, despite assurances from his attorney of a favorable deal if he plead guilty.

Jackson would experience the racist injustice of the U.S. system at the height of the global liberation movements of the era, which couldn’t help but bleed into the rapidly expanding U.S. prison system. Jackson’s political radicalization and activism did not occur until he was imprisoned, which was not uncommon. In A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn comments that, “there had always been political prisoners—people sent to jail for belonging to radical movements, for opposing war. But now a new kind of political prisoner appeared, the person convicted of an ordinary crime, who, in prison, became awakened politically” [1].

Some of the factors that contributed to the economic and political crisis in the Black community in the 1960s and 70s include: the fact that the non-violent Civil Rights movement was unable to deliver on its promises of freedom despite overturning Plessy in the Brown decision and winning the Civil Rights Act of 1965; the growing U.S. war machine taking more and more desperately needed resources away from the most historically-oppressed communities; major developments in labor-saving automation displacing the last-to-be-hired and first-to-be-fired Black and brown workers; and the subsequent rise in the grotesquely racially-biased system of mass incarceration [2].

By joining the people’s struggle at the height of this crisis, Jackson was introduced to the global pan-African movement [3]. Reflecting on this global context in what would be his last book, Dr. King noted that, “all over the world like a fever, freedom is spreading in the widest liberation movement in history. The great masses of people are determined to end the exploitation of their races and lands” [4]. Jackson came to embody this determination, this revolutionary fervor. His ability to express and contribute to the theory and practice of this movement through the written word was a major achievement. In an introduction to Jackson’s first book, Soledad Brother, Jean Genet speaks of this craft in Jackson’s hand as “both a weapon of liberation and a love poem” [5].

Seized by the times, Jackson’s subsequent deep dive into the vast body of revolutionary writings is as legendary as the practical application toward which he would put his theory. For example, Jackson was known for coming to the defense of any inmate under attack: “if you were the victim of a racial attack inside prison, there was a good chance that he would turn up fighting for you at your side” [6]. Jackson’s practice would play a crucial role recruiting and building the movement inside prison.

He also served as a militant journalist, “typing laboriously on a plastic typewriter, George published position papers which dealt with prison life and revolutionary politics from a Marxian point of view” [7]. Being a known and active revolutionary in prison comes with a particularly high price and Jackson, like other radicals, paid for it: seven years in solitary confinement, parole continuously denied, bad food, beatings, near daily murder attempts and ultimately his life.

Jackson would join the Black Panther Party and be appointed to the People’s Revolutionary Army “with the rank of general and field marshal” [8]. Co-founder of the Black Panther Party, Dr. Huey P. Newton, recounts Jackson’s party work as including articles he wrote for The Black Panther newspaper, “which furthered our revolutionary theory and provided inspiration for all the brothers” [9]. Elaine Brown, who took over leadership responsibilities for the Panthers in 1974, referred to Jackson as “a powerfully influential prisoner-author” [10].

In 1969, Jackson was transferred to Soledad Prison where three of his comrades were killed by guards intervening in a racial confrontation likely set-up by prison authorities. Less than a year later, Jackson was also murdered in a hail of prison guard bullets just days after finishing Blood in My Eye.

In his eulogy, Newton described Jackson as his “hero” who “set a standard for prisoners, political prisoners, for people.” Newton continued reflecting on the impact Jackson’s theorizing and practice was having on the Black liberation struggle: “he showed the love, the strength, the revolutionary fervor of any soldier for the people. He inspired prisoners, whom I encountered, to put his ideas into practice and so his spirit became a living thing” [11].

Political prisoner, militant journalist and former Black Panther Party member, Mumia Abu-Jamal, situates Jackson’s death in the following context:

Like [his] spiritual grandfather, the blessed rebel Nat Turner, those who opposed Massa in this land of Unfreedom met murder by the State; George Jackson…suffered the fate of Nat Turner, of the slave daring to fight the slave master for his freedom [14].

Similarly, Walter Rodney, in an article for Maji Maji, the quarterly journal of the youth wing of the Tanganyika African National Union, commented that Jackson, “was kept incarcerated for years under the most dehumanizing conditions because he discovered that Blackness need not be a badge of servility but rather could be a banner for uncompromising revolutionary struggle. He was murdered because he was doing too much to pass this attitude on to fellow prisoners” [15]. The revolutionary crisis embraced by so many Black and Brown inmates had taken up the tactics of guerilla warfare. Jackson was in the vanguard of that struggle.

A revolutionary text in non-revolutionary times

When reading Jackson’s book as organizers, we have to keep in mind the historical tide of global revolution of which Jackson and the Panthers were part. This is partially what accounts for Jackson’s rejection of embracing reforms on the grounds that they merely placated the masses and blunted the edge of revolutionary struggle. Jackson’s call for revolution and consistent denouncement of electoral politics in Blood in My Eye now read as ultra-leftist or out of touch with the consciousness of the broadest masses of workers. With this context in mind, what is the contemporary relevance of the book for organizers?

First, Jackson’s text is an important part of the history of the Black liberation struggle. Situating the Civil Rights movement within this history since the end of the Civil War, Dr. King saw it as the second Reconstruction and was beginning to see the emergence of neoliberalism as an expected white backlash that accompanies every progressive advancement. The neoliberal era in which we still live was part of the capitalist-class counter-offensive aimed at the struggle to which Jackson dedicated his life.

One of the contributions of Blood in My Eye is its theoretical conceptualization of guerilla warfare depicting its battle ground in the U.S. as a “technological city” defended by “mechanized warfare” [16]. Jackson offers a place of departure to begin imagining what a revolutionary struggle in the U.S. might look like. It is effective at disrupting reified images of U.S. society as timeless and eternal. Jackson’s text, therefore, holds inspirational and creative potential. Mobilizing the memory of a relatively recent revolutionary movement in the U.S. reminds us that revolutionary consciousness ebbs and flows, and when it returns, Jackson’s work will have us more prepared.

Toward these ends, Jackson consistently draws attention to the need for unity amongst working and oppressed classes. Jackson’s work in building alliances with receptive white inmates made Jackson an especially hated target of prison authorities. Unity takes aim at the very heart of capitalism’s primary form of divisive social control.

Just as Jackson knew that a socialist revolution in the U.S. is not possible unless it is anti-racist, he understood that the only way to defeat the U.S.-centered global capitalist class is with anti-imperialism. Not only must all workers and oppressed people in the U.S. unite, but all workers and oppressed people of the world must unite. Consequently, for Jackson, just as building an anti-racist movement includes challenging the ideology of racism, building an anti-imperialist movement must attack imperialist ideology. As an example, Jackson took aim at the belief that criticizing the “expansionist policies of imperialism is really isolationist and injurious to both the U.S.A. and the world!!” [17]. Offering his readers a correct international orientation, Jackson’s anti-imperialism is unambiguous and instructive/practical, “we must enter the war on the side of the majority of the world’s people, even if it means fighting the U.S.A. majority” [18].

Always moving beyond the level of description, Jackson offers practical guidance to facilitate the development of the revolutionary consciousness needed to build unity. Jackson therefore includes practical guides such as how to assess people’s stages of political development and how to conduct effective outrage at political rallies.

Another important source of revolutionary knowledge is obtained from the mistakes and errors found in Blood in My Eye. For example, Jackson embraces an accelerationism that left his younger brother, Jonathan, dead at the young age of 17. Here he’s referring to Jonathan P. Jackson’s attack on the Marin County Courthouse in which he kidnapped a Superior Court Judge, prosecutor, and three jurors to demand the release of the Soledad Brothers. Explaining the logic behind his brother’s actions, Jackson comments that “he knew that as he proceeded in liberating there would be more action” [19].

It is tempting to romanticize these daring acts of bravery, but doing so will not accomplish what is needed to defeat capitalism: winning the majority of the working class over to socialism. The study guide draws attention to these aspects of the text and engages the reader in discussions of the lessons they offer organizers today.

Jackson on fascism

Blood in My Eye, in many ways, is an intervention into the debate around the class character of the United States and the larger project of racist capitalism from which it emerged. Jackson outlines the fascist roots of the system of accumulating wealth capitalistically as it was built from genocidal wars of colonial conquest and the enslavement of Indigenous and African people. Demonstrating how settler colonialism, slavery, and ongoing U.S. foreign policy and the regimes it imposes on other countries is thoroughly fascist was an important contribution to historical analysis.

Jackson extends his analysis of fascism to the emergence of the white-supremacist prison industrial complex in the 1960s. In the process, Jackson made important contributions to the theory of mass incarceration showing how it is thoroughly intertwined with the development of capitalism and imperialism. But Jackson would also argue that the U.S. government is fascist, and not rhetorically fascistic, but a concrete example of fascism due to factors stemming from the institutionalization of white supremacy coupled with the inseparability of corporate and state power.

Jackson’s position was a direct challenge to sectors of the U.S. left that took the position that since the U.S. state is not fascist it can be reformed and made to serve the needs of the poor and the oppressed. But if the left could be won over to embrace the conclusion that the U.S. is fascist, then the only conclusion is that it would have to be overthrown and replaced.

However, the state does not have to be fascist to require smashing and replacing. The U.S. Constitution was created to ensure that state power forever remain in the hands of the 1 percent operating behind a democratic façade. For example, Senators were not voted on for the first 125 years of the country through the 17th Amendment. The idea of the Senate was to create a safety valve to ensure that the ruling class’ monopoly on state power was never threatened. That is, the Senate has ultimate veto power over any law passed by the popularly elected House of Representatives. In this way, the ruling-class’ power was not only pooled, but it was also protected or safeguarded from the democratic will of the masses. Jackson himself commented that in 1787 at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia “the work of framing the new nation’s constitution proceeded with fifty-five persons and only two were not employers!!!” [20]. Although Senators are elected today, through a variety of mechanisms, including the electoral college, the capitalist ruling class has safeguards to ensure that the system will never cease to serve the interests of its class.

There is an important difference between a state with fascistic leanings and outright fascism, marked by the denial or suspension of all bourgeois democratic rights such as the freedom of political expression and assembly, the right to unionize, the right to vote, etc. Capitalists tend to prefer to rule through a democratic facade as a more effective approach of social control than ruling through naked, open violence. However, there is not always unanimous consensus amongst the political establishment. For example, the January 6, 2021 fascist coup attempt in D.C. included high ranking military officers and Republican Party officials in the conspiracy. In response, the PSL wrote, “in general, the U.S. ruling class prefers a democratic form for the stability of bourgeois rule. They oppose Trump as a destabilizer and disrupter to their system” [21]. As fascistic forces gain momentum in the U.S., effectively fighting back against them will require, at the bare minimum, a correct assessment of the enemy and its state formation.

Jackson’s intervention in Blood in My Eye was nevertheless crucial, since it was primarily a challenge to positions that viewed the U.S. state as inherently benevolent. It was Jackson who brought the Black radical tradition to the mainstream U.S. The New York Times and other leading mainstream presses ended up publishing reviews of Blood in My Eye. Even though many of the reviews dismissed Jackson and his talents, sidestepping the heart of his challenge regarding the class character and racist nature of the U.S. state, the impact of the Black liberation struggle as the vanguard of U.S.-based peoples’ movements was significant.

References

[1] Zinn, Howard. (1980/2003). A people’s history of the United States: 1492—present (New York: Perennial Classics), 515-516.
[2] See King, Martin Luther. (1968/2010). Where do we go from here? Chaos or community (New York: Beacon). Reflecting on the only time he had been booed as an indication of where the movement was heading, Dr. King comments, “The only time I have been booed was…by some young members of the Black power movement…I could not…have less than patience and understanding for those young people. For twelve years, I, and others like me, had held out radiant promises of progress. I had preached to them about my dream. I had lectured to them about the not too distant day when they would have freedom, ‘all, here and now.’ I had urged them to have faith in America…They were now booing…because they were watching the dream that they had so readily accepted turn into a frustrating nightmare” (46).
[3] Pan-Africanism had always existed since European capitalists pursued slavery and colonialism as their primary model of economic development in the sixteenth century. Due to the fascist rule in European imperialist African colonies, the production of pan-African revolutionary socialism tended to be produced in the imperialist centers by African nationals and colonial subjects from the Caribbean, for example, studying abroad. Movements built around the circulation and enactment of this knowledge were and are therefore always transcontinental phenomena, which include the diaspora (i.e. the Caribbean, the U.S., Latin America, Europe) and Africa (and solidarity with struggles in Asia).
[4] King, Where do we go from here?, 179.
[5] Genet, Jean. (1970). Introduction,” In George Jackson, Soledad brother: The prison letters of George Jackson (New York: Bantan Books), 1-8.
[6] Armstrong, Gregory. (1971/1990). “Preface,” In George L. Jackson, Blood in My eye, ix-xix (Baltimore, MD: Black Classic Press), xii.
[7] Ibid., xiv.
[8] Newton, Huey P. (1971/2002). The Huey P. Newton reader, ed. D. Hilliard and D. Weise (New York: Seven Stories), 242.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Brown, Elaine. (1992). A taste of power: A Black woman’s story (New York: Pantheon), 266.
[11] Ibid., 245.
[12] Abu-Jamal, Mumia. (2000). All things censored, ed. N. Hanrahan (New York: Seven Stories), 65.
[13] Rodney, Walter. (1971/2021). “George Jackson: Black revolutionary.” Liberation School, August 09. Available here.
[14] Abu-Jamal, All things censored, 65.
[15] Rodney, “George Jackson: Black revolutionary.”
[16] Jackson, George L. (1972/1990). Blood in my eye (Baltimore, MD: Black Classic Press), 76.
[17] Ibid., 72.
[18] Ibid., 73. (As an important side note, the clarity and effectiveness of Jackson’s journalistic prose helped set the standard for militant journalism.)
[19] Ibid., 100.
[20] Ibid., 138.
[21] The Party for Socialism and Liberation. (2021). “The paralysis ends: Trump, fascism and the capitalist state.” Liberation News, January 13. Available here.