The People's Revolution Does Not Seek to Lead Nations
Curtis Muhammad and the International School for Bottom-up Organizing
January, 2011

We are in a process of trying to uncover the theory and practice of the movement that achieved the destruction of chattel slavery throughout the Americas, a movement that we could say won its first major victory with the Haitian revolution at the turn of the 19th century, picked up steam throughout the Americas in the following decades, knocking down slavery in the Spanish colonies beginning in the 1820s, the British empire (1830s), the US (1860s) and finally in Brazil (1880s).

The reason we are trying to uncover the buried knowledge of that movement is because we think it contains profound lessons for the future struggle of humanity to free itself from oppression once and for all.

The former slave masters and their political descendants buried the history for obvious reasons. The revolutionary movement that started in Europe in the 1840s and which Marxism developed out of was not a descendant of the anti-slavery movement, and completely overlooked any lessons it could have taken from it. The reason for this was the overwhelming culture of racism that existed in Europe when it came into being. The result of both these factors is the demolition and near- erasure of people's struggles to liberate themselves, and the lessons of those struggles.

We therefore are basing ourselves on the hypothesis that it is best to question the conclusions of Marxism and not hold them sacrosanct. This presents some difficulties - not only from those who feel that this is akin to blasphemy, but also because the language of Marxism-Leninism gives definitions to the words we are using to express new ideas. We are finding that some readers assume the Marxist definitions and then misunderstand us. We need to use language differently to make ourselves clear.

Secondly, the ideas we are expressing are coming from two sources. One is our research and knowledge about the movements and communities led by black people in the Americas during the anti-slavery struggle and afterward. As we pointed out in the previous document, the anti-slavery movement, Underground Railroad, and resulting free black communities were sophisticated organizationally, technologically, and philosophically, and were led by slaves and free blacks. The other source is our ongoing organizing practice in several communities of poor, African-descended people in the Americas, in the attempt to develop egalitarian organizations and eventually communities. Unfortunately, we have been remiss in sharing this practice with our readers.

So, for example, when we say "egalitarianism now," it is not an abstract slogan. It comes both from the egalitarian practices we are uncovering through our research, and from the egalitarian organizing we are doing - successfully, though as yet on a small scale - in the present.

What is a nation? What is a state?

Historically, nations came into being with capitalism. Capitalists found it useful to create relatively large territories (let's use France as an example) out of diverse populations (in the area that is now France, people once spoke 200 different languages), and create a single government to rule them, a single language, and a new "national" identity. As imperialism developed, the European capitalists captured and annexed territories in other parts of the world, ignoring previous boundaries and methods of rule. Lenin, Stalin, and other Marxists later defined "nation" in a somewhat different way - as a set of people who shared land, language and culture, even if that set of people did not have a government specific to it. This was a step in trying to understand and fight imperialism - which, for example, made Guadalupe in the Caribbean a part of France, and put Algeria under French rule. The Marxists said that Guadalupe or Algeria (which had not previously considered themselves national units) were separate nations and as such had a right to "self-determination."

Whereas nationalism had been strictly an ideology of the capitalists, now it was also adopted by the Marxists. Marxist-influenced radicals and revolutionaries began to fight for the self-determination of non- existent, abstract "nations," such as black people inside the United States. Nationalism was adopted as a revolutionary strategy by revolutionaries throughout the colonized world, who, rather than fighting for the people to rule themselves, ended up fighting for the imperialist-defined Algeria, for example, to become a nation of its own, separate from France.

[Note: When we use the word "nationalism," we refer to a political strategy that focuses on the control and management of nations. This was first a strategy of the capitalist class, and then a strategy of the Marxist-Leninist revolutionaries. Some people use the word "nationalism" to describe the sense of belonging to a certain set of people and loyalty to that set of people as separate from (and usually better than) other people. We suggest a different word is needed for that meaning - perhaps tribalism or racialism. In any case, it is NOT the meaning we intend when we use the word.]

One way to see this adoption of a nationalist strategy is that European Marxists said to dark-skinned revolutionaries in the colonies: you have a right to self-determination; you run your revolutions and we'll run ours. It is important to note that neither the European nor colonized side spoke to the people on the "bottom."

[Another interruption here: When we talk about the "bottom:" imagine sitting down in some country in the world - take your pick: Jamaica, Colombia, India, China, Iraq - and looking for the relationships between the haves and have-nots. In the setting of the have-nots, denote the relationships between all of us and the least of us. If we all do that without allowing ourselves to use previous preconceptions and categories of people (for instance, "working class," "informal economy," etc.) we would not need to say: "Now you know they are going to be the darkest, nastiest, poorest, angriest and hardest to get along with folk in the world." White AND black revolutionaries have had a problem respecting that group of people, but it is precisely the group that made up the movement for liberation from slavery and racism. The closest similar analysis within the communist movement was the way the Chinese CP crafted its strategy for dealing with the "peasantry" before they seized power - they categorized people as rich, middle, poor, and landless peasants, and set themselves the task of recruiting the poorest of the poor and landless peasants.]

To be clear on definitions: the Marxist definition of "state" is the apparatus used by the class in power to rule over the people it oppresses: that is, the government and all its departments (army, police, courts, jails, schools, etc.). The Marxist, anti-colonial revolutionaries who successfully fought for the independence of Algeria or Vietnam instituted new states (theoretically revolutionary ones) in those new nations. People who are not familiar with the Marxist definition of the state often use it as an alternative word for nation - meaning a nation that is independent and has its own government. We sometimes also use the words interchangeably, because not everyone we are writing for is familiar with Marxism, and we are trying to use language in ways non-politically trained people can understand.

Nationalism is anti-revolutionary, anti-people

So: the idea we are trying to raise is that any and all forms of nationalism only serve oppressors. This is true whether we are talking about existing nations ruled by states (from Algeria to Russia to China to France to the United States) OR about non-existent, abstract "nations" of the sort imagined by anti-imperialists, such as black people in the United States, the Bretons in France, or indigenous people in various parts of the world OR about past or future nations ruled by revolutionaries seeking an egalitarian world.

Our research and our experience have shown us that the idea of nation- state is not a useful one for oppressed people seeking liberation. For example, the communities set up by escaped slaves usually met the definition of nation-state, even though they clearly weren't on the scale usually thought of as a nation. They were made up of people who shared language and culture, who controlled a specifically defined territory, who had methods of self-government, and who often had armed forces to defend themselves. This was true not only of Maroon communities during slavery, but also of, for example, black communities in the Deep South during Reconstruction and later Jim Crow. If we use this definition of nation, we can end up with millions of micro-nations. This is obviously counter-productive. In our organizing practice, we confront the results of this type of thinking every day in trying to build unity between communities that are only half a mile apart, but which consider themselves separate entities and to which people harbor passionate loyalties and hatreds.

Secondly, the experience of the last hundred years has demonstrated than even when revolutionary, egalitarian-thinking, well-meaning people who have risked their lives to overthrow oppression take power over a nation (create a state) - that is, the power changes hands from "them" to "us" - within the blink of an eye, "us" becomes "them" again. The same people who led the revolution turn into enemies of the people. If you look closely at the history of communist-led Russia and China, you will see that some of their leadership saw this happening and made attempts to stop the process. Stalin, just before World War Two, proposed that members of the Communist Party not be allowed in government because he saw that many Party leaders had become entrenched power-holders with vested interest in not moving forward toward egalitarianism. He said communists ought to be organizers and political educators, helping people understand and move toward egalitarianism, and that meanwhile, the grass-roots organizations in the communities should be the governmental decision-makers. Mao instigated and organized the Cultural Revolution to "bombard the headquarters" and take down "capitalist- roaders" in the Party in China. In this case, masses of people on the ground took part in changing things in an egalitarian direction. But both efforts proved half-hearted and were abandoned and/or defeated, with the result that the billions of people in those nations are now thoroughly under the thumbs of capitalist oppressors again. (And in neither country did the leadership reject nationalism, but instead called for "defending the motherland/fatherland.")

White supremacy, Marxism and nationalism

The contention that we are raising is that the white supremacy inherent in Marxism due to its European beginnings caused the vivid, heroic and determined worldwide communist movement to unknowingly get off on the wrong track from the beginning. This is because it overlooked the mass, egalitarian, anti-racist movement that preceded it - the anti-slavery movement in the Americas. Instead of learning egalitarian lessons from that movement, it adopted the capitalist idea of nationalism and made the practice of nation-states part of the revolutionary movement. This happened in two ways: one was the anti-imperialist nationalism of the colonies fighting the imperialists; the other was in the actions of the communists themselves as builders and managers of nation-states. The communist movement ended up focused on destroying the capitalist state and replacing it with one led by communists; it did not focus on building egalitarian organizations, communities and structures, even though it believed in the concept of a future egalitarian society.

Although communist theory is internationalist, and calls for the unity of all the workers of the world, its practice has been nationalist. Looking at the world from within a Marxist perspective, it is impossible to think of another way to approach revolution than that of seizing state power from the capitalists within an existing nation. So you end up with two-step theories based on an assumption that the people are not "ready" for egalitarianism and internationalism.

The first two-step theory of so-called revolutionary nationalism was that the colonial peoples had to first overthrow the imperialists and set up their own (capitalist) nations before they would be "ready" to work on building a communist revolution.

The second two-step theory is that by having a communist party in power, you will be able to pass through the socialist phase to the communist phase. The slogan for how a socialist economy was to be organized was "from each according to their ability, to each according to their work." The slogan for a communist economy, which was expected to gradually develop out of the socialist economy, was "from each according to their ability, to each according to their need." In this theory, the oppressed people are not "ready" for egalitarianism, so a capitalist-minded economic policy of unequal wages based on amount or type of work has to be instituted under communist leadership while the leadership prepares the masses for equality. In practice, the leadership reaped the benefits of the unequal wages, became entrenched, and now had a material incentive NOT to prepare the masses for equality.

The third two-step theory is that when a communist party takes power and creates its own state, this is a step toward internationalism, which the people aren't "ready" for until communists have taken state power in nations throughout the world and then uniting. In practice, this third two-step theory resulted only in the communists becoming nationalists and capitalists.

In rejecting all of these stages, we are trying to think completely "outside the box." It is our contention that people are ready for egalitarianism now and don't have to be led through a set of steps by a group of people who think they know better than the oppressed people themselves. We get this idea from the history of the black-led movement of slaves, their allies, and their descendants in the Americas, because the unifying theory and practice of that movement was that all human beings are equal and deserve to be treated equally. Equality is what all of us want for the future of humanity, and the essence of what communist theory is after. In addition, this idea is reinforced by our practice on the ground, not only today, but throughout our lifetimes in the anti-racist, black-led movement, including the U.S. civil rights movement. It is our experience that the people who feel the brunt of the inequality of capitalism rebel against inequality. They are passionate about fighting for freedom from being treated as unequal and less than. They love the idea of "from each according to ability, to each according to need." They already have the idea that fairness is defined by "share and share alike." This is most particularly true of women, who have throughout history maintained the role of nurturers of humanity. Capitalism and racism have been more successful in cutting men off from their historic role of nurturers, and have therefore made them more vulnerable to individualist, self-seeking, self-promoting and inhumane ideas and actions. But even many men among the dark-skinned poor are acutely aware that they are unfairly being treated as less-than, and have a desire for equality burning in their hearts. Many if not most of them are open to accepting leadership from women, who in essence are already the organizers of the family and community.

This is why we call for revolutionaries to focus their energies on developing the leadership of the darkest-skinned poor people, and among them, especially the women. We think this desire for creating a new world based on equality is strongest among that section of oppressed people, and that their leadership is key to freedom for all oppressed people. So, we believe the movement must be international and multiracial, but that the most diligent egalitarian leadership will come from amongst those who have been treated the most unequally and unfairly. While our experience is specific to the Americas, we know that racism against dark skin is international, and that in most if not all parts of the globe racism has created a situation where those who are darkest in skin color are to be found at the bottom of the society and the economy everywhere. This is true in most of Asia, especially South and Southeast Asia, in the Pacific Islands, in Australia, in Africa, and in Europe. Our working principle is: go to the bottom and develop leadership from there.

We are convinced that women everywhere in the world are better equipped by their experience to provide egalitarian leadership than men, and should therefore be developed preferentially as leading organizers at this moment in history.

The reasons for this focus are based on the need for equality, and the specific historical conditions we live in now. If we develop the leadership of the most discriminated against, we will be able to develop a truly egalitarian, international and multi-racial movement. This does NOT mean that we think ONLY dark-skinned people or ONLY women will be part of leadership. That is not, in fact, the case in the organizing we are currently doing.

What does our practice look like right now?

ISBO is currently organizing on the ground mainly in Jamaica and Colombia, although it has members and friends from Venezuela to Cuba to Argentina, to Canada, the US and the UK. On the ground, we are organizing community groups around an explicitly egalitarian principle. That means that the community group is conscious of itself as a place of equality that is working to forge an egalitarian community. Our meetings create equal voice for everyone who attends. Our decisions are made by consensus. If something is controversial, we continue to discuss it until we have agreement. If members of the group do something self- serving, dishonest or unequal, this is brought before the group and either the people change or get out of the group. Inside the group is an organizing class made up of volunteers who want to commit to becoming egalitarian organizers. They are conscious of the need for black leadership. They struggle against their own internalized racism, which they can see is holding them and most oppressed people back from recognizing and using their own genius. This education about internalized racism is given top priority in developing new organizers. All leadership, all committees, and all work require the presence of males and females as equals. The group is committed to defending women and girls from being abused or hurt by sexist males in the community. It has discussed but not yet implemented confronting such inhumane males, using any means called for by the situation. Meetings of organizers-in- training are safe spaces where people share their most difficult and painful experiences and give support to one another. They are open to anyone who wants to put in the extra time to learn about the world, the movement and its history, and to take responsibility for becoming the organizers of their community.

ISBO is made up of people who are black, white, Latin and Asian. Two of our organizing projects are in communities in which people have black skin. A third is in a community of African-descended people who would be called mestizo.

We hope this brief description helps you understand what we mean when we say "egalitarianism now." We are calling for people who consider themselves revolutionaries to have confidence in the ability of the people to lead themselves. We are convinced that this is the only way forward. We think the people who have been hurt the most by the present system have the genius to lead all of us toward the creation of an egalitarian new world.


The ideas taken on by Marxists about stages and steps that revolutionary parties need to lead the people through to get to liberation, we feel are wrong. They are understandable attempts at shortcuts. They hope to create vanguards that represent the most advanced, egalitarian thinking and bring the rest of humanity along behind. This is essentially elitist, and the shortcuts turn the revolution into its opposite.

We don't think there are any shortcuts or stages on the road to egalitarianism. We think the way forward is a long, hard, often tedious path to helping oppressed people on the ground organize themselves to create an egalitarian world. We are calling for the revolutionary movement to "slow the bus down:" that is, don't take the most advanced thinkers and run off with them as a separate group, but observe, listen to, and work from the directives of poor dark-hued women and children and their community in the now.

We must also be reminded that the other existing strategies for change are bankrupt: they are those which demand the people's needs from the existing nation-states and/or replace the present government leadership through the electoral process. We are proposing constructing a new world and ask revolutionaries to join the "peoples revolution" by uncovering a movement and harvesting its genius for the benefit of all oppressed people. We think that doing so will cause a ripple effect of bringing wider and wider groups of people into the egalitarian movement. As that movement develops, we don't think it should recognize colors or borders or the idea of nations or states.

We think we are on the right track from what we know so far, but we recognize that there is a whole lot to learn, and we've only scratched the surface. How will this movement look? We don't know. How will it defend itself against, and take the offensive against, the violent state power of the current ruling classes? We don't know; but we do know that it will have to. How will we convey to and convince less-discriminated- against oppressed people to overcome their racism, join with, and accept leadership from their darker sisters and brothers? We have yet to discover how that process will unfold, but we have confidence that it will.

So, readers, please know that when we throw our ideas out there as we did recently with our brief paper about nationalism, we are begging for your input. If we sound incomprehensible, awkward or too sure of ourselves, we don't mean to. Like any honest scientists, we are in need of and open to input from others - even if it contradicts the conclusions we have reached so far.

Every time we have gotten responses from readers on documents we are working on, we learn and change. Please continue to be a part of this process, and by all means, help us see where we are communicating unclearly, as several of you have done this time. It would be wonderful if we could sit in a circle and speak our minds in turn, learning from each other. Maybe discussing things via e-mail can be a partial substitute.


Below is the original document. Please note especially the egalitarian-minded quotations from the Provisional Constitution of the Harper's Ferry raiders.

Nationalism is the Enemy of the People's Revolution

We, citizens of the United States, and the oppressed people who, by a recent decision of the Supreme Court, are declared to have no rights which the white man is bound to respect, together with all other people degraded by the laws thereof, do, for the time being, ordain and establish for ourselves the following Provisional Constitution. (1858, Chatham, Ontario, from the Preamble to the Provisional Constitution meant to govern the army of liberation and the liberated zones anti-slavery fighters planned to established in the mountains of the South)

What do we want? Freedom! When do we want it? Now! (1960s, slogan of the U.S. Civil Rights movement)

* * *

Equality was the rallying cry of enslaved people. Equality is the rallying cry of the descendants of slaves, for they are still at the bottom of society's heap. The hunger for equality is the rallying impulse of the darkest, most oppressed, violated and despised of humanity everywhere in the world.

The fight for equality is the centerpiece of revolution. Humanity yearns for an egalitarian world. If you consider yourself a revolutionary, if you love humanity, your duty is to help organize the most oppressed to lead the struggle for equality against all opposition, and to keep organizing and fighting until it is won, no matter the cost.

On the other hand, the focus of the revolutionary movement that took center stage in the world for the last one hundred and fifty years was to build parties to seize power from the oppressors and manage the nations they took from them. Although such revolutionaries succeeded in seizing power in many countries, the nations they ended up managing returned to being oppressive.

All nationalism belongs to our enemy, the rich and powerful two percent that run the world. It is impossible to control a nation and be egalitarian.

Oppressed people throughout the world are one people. If we are loyal to "our country" or "our race," we end up with the slaughter we see around us: Israel imprisoning and murdering Palestinians (after their parents and grandparents were, in their turn, imprisoned and murdered by the German Nazis), murder and genocide between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda, the U.S. invading Iraq, Afghanistan and now maybe Iran, whites fighting blacks fighting Latin Americans fighting Asians, and on and on and on. Disunity everywhere among the oppressed, when our greatest need is unity. All of us need egalitarianism, no matter which "nation" or "race" our oppressors want us to believe we are members of. To achieve egalitarianism, we need the leadership of those who hold the rallying cry of "equality!" closest to their hearts, and they are the poorest, darkest of us.

A revolutionary cannot call himself or herself an egalitarian fighter if egalitarianism is their long-range, future goal, and managing a nation is their immediate goal. Anyone who wants to manage a nation is a nationalist, and a nationalist will always be an enemy of the people.

The past revolutionary movement, the nationalist one - (though its name is communist: a tragic distortion of a word that means equality!) - is blind to its own nationalism. Racism blinds it to its own reality. By thinking that industrial workers were the class of people in the best position to attack the enemy, it built a strategy around the leadership of white people (because until recently, most industrial workers were white). Equality of all humanity was never the demand closest to the hearts of white workers. In truth, oppressed white people will only defeat their own oppression when they learn to follow the leadership of black people, because the poorest people, the most oppressed people, and the people with the deepest yearning for equality in their hearts, are the darkest-skinned of the poor, everywhere in the world.

The nationalist communist movement (the phrase is a contradiction, but the truth) hypocritically, blindly, calls black nationalists racist. In truth, black nationalists are nationalists, and nationalism is the enemy of equality. But it is the (mostly white or white-led) nationalists/communists who are the more damaging. If you have more power and influence, you have more potential to do serious damage.

We remember that, as Africa organized itself for revolution fifty years ago, it was white revolutionaries who were training them. We remember that there were and are black folk who believed that the so-called "talented" blacks, the educated ones, that is, the ones who could be more easily accepted by white folk, should lead the mass of "ugly, dirty, ignorant, poor black folk." And unfortunately those ideas had their parallel in the old revolutionary movement, which believed in leadership by the smart (and mainly white) few who really understand about revolutionary ideas, and in the elevation of industrial workers (also often mainly white) over the poor, scrabbling-for-a-living dark- skinned folk. How does any of that make sense for an egalitarian movement? Especially when we know the movement that came before this was the one that abolished slavery in span of eighty years, led by black slaves and free blacks - and was built around the central theme of the equality of all human beings? That movement organized internationally, set up a network of secret societies, used the most advanced communication technology of the day (telegraph) to communicate by secret codes, trained and placed thousands of organizers, sent organizers traveling internationally into the most dangerous areas, connected communities of escaped slaves who were sustaining themselves across borders, in impenetrable swamps, organized massive, active support from white and Native American people, and created armed struggle to defend their movement and attack slavery. This earlier movement had more advanced ideas, was more anti-racist, and more egalitarian, than the later revolutionaries, who ignored their black predecessors and declared themselves the most advanced, most communist, most egalitarian. (But they became the nation-builders and nation-seekers that call black folk who, like them, want to build a nation, racists.)

Equality has always been the essence of what we need, and must be the central principle of all our organizing.

Oppressed people don't want to manage nations. Revolutionaries should not be fighting for the power to manage nations. Oppressed people don't need the "talented tenth" to lead them (revolutionary or not!). Revolutionaries are servants of the people who help the people organize themselves to create an egalitarian world. Revolution can only succeed when egalitarianism is in the hearts of those at the core of the movement. (And you cannot convince us that industrial workers in a place like the U.S. have egalitarianism in the number one position in their hearts.)

The long-range vision of communism has always been egalitarianism. This is a big mistake. All of our immediate organizing must be done around a principle of egalitarianism. In every organization we help to create, in every community in which are organizing, at every job site, in every struggle, the principle is EGALITARIANISM NOW.

The experience of the last hundred and fifty years has taught us that the themes of that earlier movement led by the darkest of the poor should once again be the themes of our current struggle, on a new and deeper level. We appeal to revolutionaries who are still attached to the nationalist focus of seizing and managing nations to re-evaluate their strategy, and to step back and let the people organize themselves into egalitarian collectives and communities. Better yet, we ask them to join the still-small ranks of organizers who are committed to the process of building such egalitarian prototypes.

It may not seem as dramatic and exciting as taking over a government, but block by block, farm by farm, workplace by workplace, community by community, the people themselves will create an egalitarian world, and crush all of the inevitable opposition under the mighty steamroller of international humankind, united in equality.

* * *

All persons connected in any way with this organization, and who may be entitled to full protection under it, shall be held as under obligation to labor in some way for the general good; and persons refusing or neglecting so to do, shall, on conviction, receive a suitable and appropriate punishment. (Provisional Constitution, 1858)

All persons known to be of good character and of sound mind and suitable age, who are connected with this organization, whether male or female, shall be encouraged to carry arms openly. (Provisional Constitution, 1858)

Copyright © 2011, Curtis Muhammad & ISBO


Copyright © 2011
Copyright to this web page, as a web page, belongs to this web site. Copyright to the article above belongs to the author.

(Labor donated)