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Review: Chican@ Power and the Struggle for Aztlán

As regular readers of this blog will be aware, though I tend to be sympathetic to many of the positions expressed by some Maoist Third Worldist groups, particularly the Maoist Internationalist Movement [MIM], I identify with the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist movement that comes through the groups involved in the now-defunct RIM project, as well as the Communist Party India (Maoist) and the Communist Party of the Philippines.  Since I've outlined the reasons for this theoretical commitment elsewhere, I feel no reason to go into it here in any real detail, nor waste time expressing why I disagree with MIM's assessment and critique of the RIM experience (which, to be fair, would conversely contain a recognition of aspects of their critique of the RCP-USA).  I bring up this theoretical demarcation, therefore, not to get into it in any real detail but to highlight the fact that, despite this qualification, I still enjoyed––and indeed highly recommend due to the fact that I believe it is an extremely useful text––Chican@ Power and the Struggle for Aztlán, a book produced by a MIM(Prisons) study group.  Despite placing myself in a different Maoist trajectory, and one that the people in MIM(Prisons) disagree with, I have a general respect for any work produced within the family of Maoism.



Moreover, and regardless of my feelings of the entire MIM experience (which is neither here nor there because the original MIM no longer exists), I definitely respect its iteration in MIM(Prisons) which, from what I can tell based on a perspective from afar, is doing well-grounded prisoner solidarity work.  Indeed, Chican@ Power and the Struggle for Aztlán seems to be a testament of their work since one of the principle authors of the study group (a prisoner named Cipactli) writes, in the introduction, that MIM(Prisons) helped coordinate, assist, and arrange this book as "a result of Chican@s on both ends of California coming together in unity despite Amerikkka's efforts to divide us." (8)  Cipactli goes on to recognize the laudable "hard work" of MIM(Prisons) in providing "various means of assistance for this project when many groups have dismissed Chican@ prisoners as unworthy or incorrigible," and that the process in writing the book strengthened the "peace accords" between Chican@ prisoners. (9)  To all of this we can add that theoretical work on "Aztlán" has been one of the more interesting concerns of MIM theory for a long time, so it's about time that a book produced by the people who are considered to be part of this national question has finally manifested.  And, yes, it was well worth the wait.

First, some formal comments…

Honestly, I'm somewhat allergic to MIM syntax.  To be fair, this is largely due to the way I've been disciplined as an academic and I'm not going to try to justify it as anything more than that.  Point being, when I saw the word "Chican@" my first inclination, which almost made me (wrongly) not want to read the book, was to be annoyed by the "@" symbol as a bothersome rhetorical flourish.

Since I'm the kind of reader, due to my training, who gets annoyed when my students don't cite in a proper or useful manner (which, again unfairly, caused me to cringe at the annotations in this book that, despite being in superscript, felt the need to add brackets for some unknown reason), I tend to wonder at syntax that seems designed to be revolutionary in form for no reason aside from form.  U$ instead of US, Amerikkka instead of America.  Yes, we know that the US is capitalist/imperialist/racist but what does it matter how it is written––what does this accomplish, politically, when we've already agreed to this understanding of reality?  While it might indeed be the case that the language of power (i.e. English) is loaded with a helluva lot of metaphysical assumptions, you can't simply transcend these with a few syntactical flourishes since the remaining language form will still signal the initial problematic.  If you really want to get beyond this problem of language, use a different language altogether.  It especially becomes non-sensical when we write, for example, "New Afrika" with the same k we're using to signal white supremacy in Amerika… But then again, Sanyika Shakur wrote an interesting piece about detourning language.

Forget all this, though, when it comes to "Chican@" because the book explains this syntax in the introduction and, regardless of my worries about whether the general MIM style of spelling things might or might not devolve into language idealism, the authors make a good case for using this term: "we have chosen to use the gender neutral term Chican@ to challenge the influence that patriarchy and machismo has had in our movement." (11) Very practical.  After all, there is the Spanish language convention of a/o––and this convention, the authors point out, came with Spanish colonization––where "Chicano" is meant to signal male and "Chicana" is meant to signify female.  When speaking of a term that is not exclusionary, but is still connected to a national grouping that has emerged through colonialism, a symbol that signifies both the a and the o might be necessitated.  Hence, Chican@.


Historiography…

Any historical materialist account of nationhood must necessarily base itself on a materialist historiography, and Chican@ Power and the Struggle for Aztlán's main strength is that it begins by doing so.  That is, before it bothers to establish why and how the Chican@ nation's struggle for Aztlán is necessary––or that it even should be conceptualized as a nation––it provides a historical explanation for how the Chican@ emerged as Chican@.

Beginning with Spanish colonization, tracing migration to the northern peninsula of Spanish colonial hegemony, focusing on the American war on Mexico, and then following rebel solidarity movements up until the emergence of the Brown Beret (and other) movements that were based on the conceptualization of Chican@ and the first expressions of the Aztlán national question, the book does a very good job of grounding its argument in history.  Indeed, some of the best parts of the book (in my opinion) can be found its historiography.  While I was already familiar with th ]\]kjhvcxchj
b history, there were a lot of minor aspects I had never encountered, particularly the accounts of various individuals involved in the most rebellious currents of this historical development.

As an aside, this historical account reminded me, yet again, of the need for a proper revisionist western––something I've complained about elsewhere––particularly around the discourse of the Alamo, which we all know is a heap of colonial, white supremacist bullshit.  (It was also the first place in a long time that I've encountered any mention of the Saint Patrick's Battalion outside of that David Rovics song.)  That is, when you think about one of the essential "westerns" as being The Alamo with John Wayne, you can immediately conceptualize a revisionist western where the narrative is reversed and the psychotic Bowie and Crockett "Indian Killers" are treated as the serial killing villains they were… And this possibility is indeed promoted in the polemical manner of Chican@ Power and the Struggle for Aztlán which has nothing but disdain for the colonial narrative of the American war on Mexico.

So all-in-all, the historical basis behind the emergence of a Chican@ nation is dealt with in a systematic but accessible manner.  While I have a minor quibble about the absence of engagement with the US Civil War, and how the region in which Aztlán would be conceptualized related to this war (not part of the Confederacy, but still engaged in this process), I recognize that this might say more about what I want people to tell me than a deficiency of the text itself.


The National Question…

One of the areas in which the MIM tradition has been consistent has been the application of the theory of the national question to the US. In this sense, MIM remains a "third worldist" grouping that has not obliterated this question according to concepts of proletarian "net exploitation" but has instead maintained, despite also arguing against the valorization of a proletarian reality in first world countries, that there is revolutionary potential in the struggles of oppressed nationalities. This is a perspective that was abandoned by post-MIM groupings such as Monkey Smashes Heaven and the Leading Light Communist Organization, but a perspective that MIM-Prisons has faithfully upheld. Even better, unlike these other "third worldist" (re)conceptualizations, the authors of Chican@ Power and the Struggle for Aztlán, provide a useful rubric for their understanding of class and its intersection with the national question in the form of useful diagrams.

In any case, in opposition to theorizations of Chican@ oppression that locate the problem at a level of abstract racism that is motivated by identity, this book maintains a materialist investment in the problematic of nation. In an era where this way of looking at race and racialization has been subordinated to identitarian individualism, this book's emphasis on the national question is in fact refreshing.

At the same time, however, I tend to find MIM's articulation of the theory of the national question trapped between creative development and formulaic imitation. While the MIM tradition has articulated the national question in ways that undermine the traditional ML formulations that now contemporary tankies like to dredge up (i.e. such as MIM's polemical statement about "pan-nationalism" that is gauged by the fire of the "pan" to fry imperialism and capitalism, a bothersome claim to the tankies who take an unqualified approach to the right to national self-determination), its overreliance on Stalin's work on the national question is two steps back from Maoism. While it is indeed the case that Stalin's engagement with the national question represented an important formulation I have become increasingly convinced that this line is incomplete due to its regional specificity that lacked the understanding produced by various anti-colonial revolutions that would happen after it was formulated. While the MIM tradition is indeed correct to force us to return to the question of the nation in its analysis of Chican@ resistance and radicalism, why should we settle for Stalin's conceptualization and accept it as universal? The insights gained from concrete anti-colonial struggles should allow us to partially rupture from this traditionalist understanding of national self-determination, especially if we are Maoists. For example, Mariategui's work on colonialism and the national question that inspired the originators of modern Maoism, the PCP; the work of Frantz Fanon on settler-colonialism; Ibrahim Kaypakkaya's examination of the national question in Turkey, formulated a couple years before he was captured and executed (the anniversary of which is today), which in some ways parallels MIM's claim about the frying pan but does so by drawing a critical line between "people" and "nation", popular movements and bourgeois movements, and a whole host of distinctions that challenge the simplistic tanky approach mentioned above.

To be fair, my comments about broadening our understanding of the theory of the national question are not intended to single out the MIM approach. Rather, MIM's work in this regard simply reminded me of a long-standing problem that persists in modern first world (though well-meaning) articulations of the theory of the national question that begin with Lenin and end with Stalin, rarely looking at the ways revolutionary groupings and theorists in the third world post-Stalin have worked to develop this theory. Indeed, most of these interpretations of the national question even fail to look at the debates and decisions that occurred during the Second Congress of the Third International regarding national self-determination. To be fair to the MIM tradition, however, it has at least pushed the traditional Stalin definition of "the nation" to its most radical limits and has intervened in creative ways that others (the proverbial tanky who still thinks, for example, there is a Quebecois nation separate from Canada that has the right to national self-determination, who cannot grasp the colonial dimension of settler-colonial states, who just mechanically repeats cherry-picked passages from Stalin's book) have not.

In any case, the book's approach to the national question is significant in that it draws our attention to the existence of the Aztlán nation and does the work to force us to accept that this nation already exists as a nation. The historical work discussed above was well constructed in that it led to this forcing, allowing the reader to recognize that simple narratives of identitarian racism are inadequate to explain Chican@ reality.


Some problems…

To reiterate, I don't think it's fruitful here to decide what is "good" or "bad" with this book based on organizational tendency. As any long-time reader of this blog will be aware, I have my differences with the MIM tradition of Maoism and have made these differences clear elsewhere. Since I read a lot of books that I do not completely agree with (if you are only going to read books connected to your specific tendency, or only like books that reflect the way you think, you're going to read a very limited number of books and learn nothing), and sometimes even review them without getting into the significant differences of opinion, I feel no need to embark on theoretical diatribes in a review about a book produced by a tendency that I don't see myself in an antagonistic relationship with. And since this book is about an area of which I know very little––and that I learned a lot about by reading it––it's not as if I have a position on Aztlán that I need to defend. What concerns me, then, is whether or not this book accomplished its aims as being a definitive work on Chican@ power and the struggle for Aztlán. I think it partially did so but there was a lot that was lacking… That with some more time and editing it could have been a much stronger text.

My main problem is that the book lost its coherence as a book about halfway through. From the historiography up until the consummation of the national question it read as a unified text but pretty soon it started to lose its cohesion. Half of the book became an info dump of MIM essays and book reviews so that it felt like I was immersed in a series of appendices before I even reached the actual appendices. I felt like the authors wanted to turn a smaller work into a larger work by padding it with related and pre-existing material when the project would have been better served by taking the pre-existing material as a source and working it into the text so as to expand it as a coherent narrative.

It is in fact this padding that caused me to be annoyed, when I otherwise would have suspended judgement (as I did for the first sequences of the book), about differences of political line. For example, the MIM's long-standing beef with the RCP-USA was pushed again to the forefront when there's no reason for this. Today the RCP-USA is no longer significant, as much as they might imagine they are, to the international communist movement so the publication of old essays on the difference of political line between the MIM and the RCP-USA are somewhat unnecessary and would have been better reworked into the overall historiography. It also reveals a possible disingenuousness: while it is indeed correct to critique the RCP-USA's erroneous line on the national question (and this erroneous line is not simply limited to the question of Aztlán), it is somewhat disingenuous for this book to include an essay that claims the RCP-USA was an "after-effect" of the PLP (136) when, in point of fact, the RU/RCP-USA was at one point the principal organizational force of the New Communist Movement, something the PLP, let alone the MIM (rightly or wrongly), never was. [See, for example, the recent Heavy Radicals that discusses the significance and wide-spread development of the RU/RCP-USA during the 1970s.] This is not to say I'm interested in defending the RCP-USA from MIM critiques (I'm really not) but that these critiques feel like strange fossils dredged up from the end of the New Communist Movement that are incomprehensible to a lot of people. Moreover, these critiques might not be entirely correct.

The desire to place the RCP-USA in the position of the big baddy that actually matters (when now I think it's better to banish them to the realm of not mattering) promotes other engagements, that again come across as polemical tangents that undermine the book's coherence. For example, the assumption that the RIM was synonymous with the RCP-USA when this was far from the case. While it is correct to recognize that the RCP-USA established the original RIM, we also need to recognize that the RIM very quickly became a contested space, that it's most significant statement ("Long Live Marxism-Leninism-Maoism") was forced by the PCP (and according to some rumours against the will of the RCP-USA), and that the struggle for its control was one where the RCP-USA was pushed into a minority position. Those who wish to rebuild the RIM experience today are also those who have no love for the RCP-USA, and actually have a very different narrative about what RIM was then what MIM, who was never involved, claims… And none of this should really matter for a book about Aztlán but the reason we're forced to talk about it, when we really shouldn't, is because it becomes an issue mobilized in the old MIM essays thrown into this book willy-nilly.

Hell, the fact that I even need to review this book with an alphabet soup language means that these parts are rendered partially inaccessible, which is tragic.

These same tangental essays also attack Joma Sison and the International League of Peoples Struggle [ILPS] for an erroneous line regarding Aztlán. Now I'm not one to defend Sison and the ILPS in every single situation––and I'm quite happy to say I disagree strongly with some of the positions the ILPS has taken––but the way these tangental sections treat Sison, which really has nothing to do with the book as a whole, border on self-satire. A small group of revolutionaries in the first world ordering Sison to "learn from practice" (137) seems ludicrous. Sison remains Sison; the MIM remains the MIM. None of this is to say that Sison should not be critiqued, only that this critique (similar to the attitude of Turner's critique of Sison in Is China an Imperialist Country) is delivered with the attitude of seasoned first world revolutionaries telling a third world child to fuck off. But this attitude, though bothersome, is not the only problem: who cares what the ILPS thinks of Aztán; develop the line further, ignore the assessments of the ILPS that is only designed to generate support for the Phillipines revolution anyway… or if you must deal with the ILPS work it in to the core narrative as a foil, not as an essay thrown in at the end that just seems to be designed (along with the statements about the RCP-USA and the RIM) to make declarations of the greatness of MIM and are thus needlessly sectarian rather than rigorously demarcating.

This kind of grab-bag aspect that undermines what is an otherwise excellent book is further demonstrated by numerous redundancies where the same information is repeated multiple times. For example, one of the things I really appreciated was that the book included a useful diagram that explained MIM's theory of class structure on page 63… But why was the exact same diagram replicated on page 239?

This example of editorial messiness is not simply limited to redundancy, but some strange choices in convention that clutter up the reading (i.e. why are the endnote numbers bracketed as well as being in superscript?) and make the book look unprofessional? Now it may be the case that such a complaint, as aforementioned, is some petty-bourgeois quibble but if you are going to publish a book then it means you want people to buy the book or for your book to be in circulation amongst other books. If you are going to ignore the formal aspect of putting out a book, then just produce electronic copies… And indeed, sections of this book were already available electronically elsewhere.


But overall…

As you can see my complaints about the book are primarily formal. While, as aforementioned I have a difference in political line from the book's authors, the only time I found this difference particularly cloying was in aspects of the book that were incorporated in the book in a somewhat incohesive manner. Indeed, I probably would have had less of a problem with these political differences if they were put forward in the manner of a unified book project rather than existing as repetitions and appendix style fragmentations.

With these problems aside, Chican@ Power is an excellent introduction from a revolutionary perspective, regardless of whether or not you agree with the MIM-thought line, to the history of the Chican@ nation, the emergence of Aztlán, and the necessity of struggle in this context. Moreover, despite my complaints about the over-appendicization (for lack of a better word), there are some things in the appendices that are useful for people unfamiliar with MIM: descriptions of its constitution and understanding of class, for example, will be helpful for those who don't want to hunt down the multiple reproduced documents even if they don't really belong in this book because they don't directly relate to the topic; some discussions on the meaning of the lumpenproletariat, that the authors claim will be examined in a later project, are interesting in that they could be useful in the overall debate about the concept that is happening from various Maoist quarters either in the prisons or engaged in prison solidarity work (i.e. the Maoist Communist Group's analysis of its SPARC experience also puts out a new engagement with the concept of the lumpenproletariat). I learned a lot about Aztlán and picked up a number of other things along the way.

Comments

  1. Did you notice that the new president of the Philippines recently offered Joma Sison a seat in his government? Sison did not accept that for himself, but said that there are other able people in the CPP. Interesting development, even if the party seems to have doubts about this offer. For the moment, the war continues.

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    1. Not sure what this has to do with the book review. I've been following these statements by the CPP and Sison for a while now, and definitely have my own opinions about them, but this still has little to do with the way that the book spoke about Sison or what that had to do with the book's argument as a whole.

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