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The International Black Panthers – Los Angeles Review of Books

AT THIS POINT, it might seem obvious that the various uprisings of 1968 were a global affair. Recent anniversary issues of Jacobin and The Nation, for example, have emphasized the interconnection of events in the United States, Vietnam, France, and Mexico. Yet even today, many accounts of the uprising in Paris or the ascent of Black Power in the United States remain constrained by a rigidly national historical framework. Robin D. G. Kelley, for example, has criticized the extent to which black radical history in America has been confined to a domestic narrative framework, how “[e]ven black nationalism tends to be cast in terms of riots and ‘buy black’ campaigns rather than black activists’ support for anticolonial movements and Third World Solidarity.”

Meanwhile, in France, the tendency to describe ’68 as a generational revolt against French paternalism often misses the instrumental role of anti-imperialism. It’s worth recalling that student mobilization was initially focused on international opposition to the war in Vietnam and that the arrest of protestors against the war directly led to the 22 March student movement. But there is also a broader sense in which internationalism animated the ’68 years, providing not only an expression of moral solidarity but also a heightened consciousness of the very material connections between the local and the global. For example, the documentary Loin du Vietnam, released eight months before the events of May 1968, has come to appear a powerful, retroactive suggestion of the ways in which discontented youth in Paris (as well as New York and elsewhere) were highly conscious of the ways in which their interests might be bound up with those in Hanoi and beyond.

Elaine Mokhtefi’s newly published autobiographical account of her life as an engaged anti-imperialist, Algiers, Third World Capital, provides an ideal occasion to reconsider the politics of “Third Worldist” internationalism linking Black Power, European radicals, and anti-colonial militants during this period. The book focuses on the 12 years Mokhtefi (née Klein) spent living in Algiers immediately following independence in 1962, working as a journalist and translator, and in a variety of administrative roles with senior figures in the FLN (National Liberation Front). Her story shows how the internationalism pursued by Black Power activists in the United States, as well as radicals in Europe, found even more concrete expression in the Algerian and “Third World” capital. During the Algerian War, The ALN (National Liberation Army), the armed wing of the FLN, had trained and supported international liberation fighters, and after independence they did not forget their allegiances: they adopted what Mokhtefi describes as “an open-door policy of aid to the oppressed, an invitation to liberation and opposition movements and personalities from around the world,” including the ANC, the Viet Cong, student hijackers from Ethiopia, Palestinian liberation organizations, and the International Section of the Black Panther Party with whom Mokhtefi worked most closely.

The thrust of the book focuses on her work with the Black Panther Party, which began in 1969 when Eldridge Cleaver arrived in Algiers. Having gone into exile awaiting an attempted murder trial, and disappointed by his experience in Cuba, he hoped to find hospitality from the Algerian government, who at that point had no diplomatic relations with the United States. Cleaver found contact with Mokhtefi, who immediately got approval for his asylum and organized a press conference for Cleaver to announce his arrival. His words at the press conference emphasized the Panthers’ revolutionary nationalism, as distinct from the separatism of some black nationalist groups: “Oppressed people need unity based on revolutionary principles, rather than skin color. Our goal is to break the system. […] Our struggle is revolutionary.”

Cleaver’s arrival coincided with Mokhtefi’s work as part of the organization committee for the Pan-African Cultural festival, taking place from July 21 to August 1, 1969, an opportunity for the Panthers to represent themselves at an event encompassing representatives of 24 other countries, as well as performances from American stars like Archie Shepp and Nina Simone. Up until this point, the Panthers’ activities in the United States ranged from armed militancy, such as policing the police, to successful social programs, such as free breakfasts for children and free health care programs. The Cleavers’ arrival in Algiers in ’69, their encounter with representatives of anti-imperialist movements, and the arrival of more Panthers in Algiers would subsequently allow for a more internationalist focus within the movement.

Mokhtefi was in contact with the Black Panthers in Algiers on a daily basis. Her book thus provides illuminating insights into Panther politics and personalities, as well as range of fascinating anecdotes. She writes about airplane hijackers arriving in search of the Panthers and of Timothy Leary’s arrival in the Algerian capital, after escaping from a Californian prison with help from the Weather Underground and the Brotherhood of Eternal Love. Cleaver, we learn, hoped to get Leary to give up hard drugs and convert to revolutionary politics, but things did not turn out well. The Panthers “arrested” the Learys after their LSD-fueled shenanigans, and Cleaver issued a press release denouncing Leary’s mania: “[T]o all those of you who look to Dr. Leary for inspiration and leadership, we want to say to you that your god is dead, because his mind has been blown by acid.”

Mokhtefi at times speaks in admiring terms of Cleaver, noting that in his first encounters with high-level emissaries he was “cool, reflective, intelligent,” but her relation to him was also complex and conflicted. She writes of her shock when Cleaver arrived on her doorstep to casually tell her that he had just murdered a fellow Panther, Clinton Smith (Rahim), because he suspected him of having an affair with his wife, Kathleen. She also mentions that she witnessed Cleaver’s reprehensible treatment of Kathleen and several other women over the years. Yet, she writes “despite the things about him that I despised — his killer instinct, his womanizing — I admired the man.”

Her portrait of the politics of the Panthers is generally less conflicted. She was an unequivocal ally and worked tirelessly to help their cause, including briefly leaving Algiers to do a speaking tour of the United States with Kathleen Cleaver and several Panthers. But this does not prevent her from issuing one severe criticism of the Panthers; Mokhtefi explains that she was disappointed by their attitude to Algeria:

In Algiers they never ventured beyond the city. Even with their increasing knowledge of French, they didn’t read the press or listen to the local radio. Except for women friends, they knew few Algerians and never visited Algerian homes. They had no perspective on the colonial past in Algeria. […] They had no serious sense of their hosts, of their politics or their reservations, and they underestimated them.

This criticism reveals as much about Mokhtefi as it does about the Panthers. Indeed, it resonates in a surprising way with a very different moment in the book, when she discusses her childhood in the United States. She writes of her parents, socially ascendant, moving from New York through small-town America, and eventually retiring in Florida: “[T]hey had known they would remain unrooted wherever they settled […] Putting down roots was my job. I did wherever I lived, throughout my life.” At moments like this, she seems to suggest that internationalism for her has to amount to much more than gestures of solidarity, that it must entail a meaningful and consequential taking of positions, that a desire for political universalism should be borne out of immersion in the particulars of geography and history.

A key moment in her life, which defines this sense of internationalism, came shortly after her arrival in Paris as a young student in 1952. Mokhtefi’s first impressions of France during this period were of a nation struggling to deal with the recent memory of the war; she took her time to understand how “[c]ollaboration had perforated and maimed society as much as Occupation had.” She then writes of attending the May Day march that year and witnessing a life-changing scene. As the parade was breaking up, she describes seeing a group of young Algerian laborers running to catch up with the vanishing demonstration. They had been scheduled to participate in the parade but at the last minute the CGT (the General Confederation of Labour) backtracked on its agreement to include them and attempted to block the Algerian protestors. Her understanding of the incident — the betrayal of values of egalitarianism and solidarity, values ubiquitous on the level of discourse and rhetorical posturing but often crucially absent where it mattered — is, for her, a moment of “enlightenment.”

Mokhtefi’s story is unique in many respects but her “enlightenment” — witnessing colonial complicity in a society struggling to deal with the memory of the recent war — closely parallels how many leftists arrived at “Third Worldist” politics during this period: in large part as a direct response to the institutional left’s dramatic failure to live up to the values of solidarity and universalism it preached. In France, the PCF (the French Communist Party) famously supported the Mollet government’s request for emergency powers in Algeria, while others on the left showed that they simply did not understand or meaningfully support Algerians. These failures made “Third Worldist” militants and intellectuals indispensable. For the network of intellectuals and activists nourished by François Maspero’s (often censorship-defying) publications about what was really going on in Algeria, the struggle against the bourgeoisie had to begin with the struggle against colonialism. Maspero, whose father died at the Buchenwald concentration camp, whose mother survived the Ravensbrück camp, and whose brother was killed fighting as a member of the resistance, was no doubt partially motivated by the historical scars alluded to by Mokhtefi in his work to support the Algerian cause.

Aimé Césaire, who invoked the PCF’s position on Algeria in his 1956 resignation letter from the party, was particularly explicit on the relationship between the war and the continuing practice of colonialism in his Discourse on Colonialism, published in 1950. In this caustic text, he argued that Nazism was not a historical aberration but a culmination of Western civilization, comparable to the horrific treatment of non-European populations under colonialism. What really scandalized Europeans about Nazism, Césaire provocatively argued, was that this time it took place on their own territory; Nazis inflicted European populations to barbarisms normally conducted elsewhere. This argument carried particular weight in the context of Algerian anti-colonialism and the horrific events that took place at the end of World War II. On May 8, 1945, the same day that the allies declared victory over the Nazis in Europe, Algerian independence activists marched with slogans such as “À bas le fascisme et le colonialisme” — “Down with fascism and colonialism.” The French forces responded to these demonstrations by massacring tens of thousands of Algerians in Sétif, Guelma, and Kherrata.

Even more than Césaire, it was Frantz Fanon’s Third Worldist texts which would be crucial to both Mokhtefi’s and the Panthers’ sense of internationalism. (Mokhtefi actually met and befriended Fanon at a conference in Accra in 1960, after which they bonded over long discussions on anti-colonialism. She also explains — in an amusing account — that they smoked Gauloises together, contravening the FLN’s boycott of French cigarettes: “[W]e became partners in guilt, breaking the ban together”). Fanon’s texts were a key reference for Eldridge Cleaver, Huey Newton, and other Panthers, particularly on the nature of class struggle. Rather than focusing on the proletariat, Fanon located revolutionary subjectivity among the lumpenproletariat. Often given dismissive treatment by Marxists, this class is thought of as those lying outside the formal wage relation (initially associated with figures such as rag-pickers and slum-dwellers). In The Wretched of the Earth and other texts, Fanon made the case for the insurrectionary potential of the rural peasantry in contrast to the urban proletariat. Importantly for the Panthers, Fanon made the connection between colonized people in Africa and the contemporary reality of black people in the United States, alluding to the persistence of coloniality beyond formally colonized nations, and these sorts of insights informed Eldridge Cleaver’s insistence that unemployed black people in America were a legitimate revolutionary group.

Although these sorts of connections drawn by Césaire, Fanon, and the Panthers give a wider sense of the internationalism underpinning Mokhtefi’s book, the latter part of her story largely deals with the waning of an internationalist left, exemplified by the decline of the Panthers and the dissipation of any semblance of a socialist-oriented project in Algeria. Not long before the increasingly authoritarian regime forced her out of the country, she witnessed the major signs of the Panthers decline, which would reach a crisis with a bust-up between Cleaver and Panther leader Huey Newton.

During Cleaver’s time in Algiers, Newton came to the position that there was no possibility of revolution in the near future, and argued that the Panthers would have to be patient, pushing them in a more social democratic direction. Cleaver, in contrast, as head of the International Section, argued in favor of immediate insurrectionary violence. Things came to a head on the February 26, 1971, when Huey Newton appeared on the morning television show A.M. San Francisco and Cleaver connected from Algiers via an international phone-TV hook-up. The confrontation between the two descended into chaos, both men expelling each other from the Black Panther Party and Newton subsequently phoning Cleaver to repeatedly call him “a punk.” Mokhtefi writes of feeling as if Cleaver’s personality was being judged responsible for the split, whereas she clearly sees the blame lying with the increasingly dictatorial behavior of Newton. While these sorts of internal disputes were certainly not insignificant, it’s worth bearing in mind the more determining external factors behind the Panthers’ decline: the FBI’s COINTEL program entailing constant harassment and murder, and the loss of key New Left allies in the wake of major political changes, most notably Nixon’s scaling back of the draft.

The International Section of the BPP lost its sense of purpose in the early ’70s and came to a definitive end when Cleaver left Algiers for Paris on New Year’s Day, 1973. During this period, Mokhtefi was dealing with her own disappointment about the situation in Algeria. The government’s internationalist support of liberation movements did not quite reflect the domestic reality of an undemocratic state that had installed a one-party system as an instrument of military power and which showed itself increasingly incapable of tackling the persistence of coloniality in the post-independence period. Mokhtefi seemed determined to stay, but this proved impossible. In 1974, after refusing to work as a government informant on one of her close friends, she was deported. Her husband, the late Mokhtar Mokhtefi, who had formerly been a member of the ALN during the war, followed her to Paris, where they began a new life. She writes of Mokhtar leaving his life in Algiers behind and warning his friends “that Algeria was racing at top speed toward total control by forces of darkness. […] For democratic thought and process to take hold required a progressive insurrectionary movement. That was not going to happen.”

Eventually, the Mokhtefis settled in New York where, “[a]s long as our legs held out,” they attended antiwar and climate marches, Occupy Wall Street and anti-racist mobilization “never forgetting the Palestinians, our heart-of-hearts issue.” Mokhtar died in 2015 and his memoir, J’étais Français-Musulman: Itinéraire d’Un Soldat de l’ALN, was published the following year by the Algerian publisher Editions Berzakh. Shortly before passing, Mokhtefi said to his friend, the writer Amara Lakhous, “Algeria lies under our feet and in our hearts until death,” emphasizing the bonds that can never be cast off. A few days later, Elaine Mokhtefi tells us, he came across an old badge, “I am a world citizen,” which he pinned to his shirt, and wore every day until his death. There was no contradiction between these two iterations, she rightly insists.

Some readers might be suspicious of appeals to the universal or the global. The history of “Third Worldism,” which developed partially in response to the vacuity of leftist pseudo-universalism, to some extent bears out this suspicion. Even today, too often the appeal to the universal is deployed in a facile, or even ungenerous and unhistorical manner, as a moralizing reflex against the perceived failures of “identity” politics. What is powerful about Mokhtefi’s writing is that it does not fall into such a trap. Where appeals to the universal are often easy rhetorical gestures, her story is informed by the experience and sensitivity to the sort of contradictions which writers like Aimé Césaire have lucidly theorized.

In Césaire’s resignation letter from the PCF (“Letter to Maurice Thorez,” briefly mentioned above), he writes of refusing the false choices between either burying oneself in a “narrow particularism” or losing oneself in “an emaciated universalism.” Reading Mokhtefi’s reflections on her life — a life fueled by meaningful and consequential anti-racist and anti-imperialist internationalism — brings to mind Césaire’s conception of the universal. His is a universal that does not make free-floating appeals to solidarity “in metaphysics” but that finds allies and true solidarity according to the particularities of history, “a universal enriched by all that is particular […] the deepening and coexistence of all particulars.”

¤

Eugene Brennan teaches at various universities in Paris. His writing has also appeared in Theory, Culture & SocietyBlind Field: A Review of Cultural Inquiry, and the Dublin Review of Books.

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