The contemporary debate about abolition and its relation to wider anti-capitalist and anti-racist struggles can be read as reproducing the tired opposition between reform and revolution, between gradual incrementalism and immediate disruptive action. This false dichotomy can be resolved by returning the holistic and historical analysis of abolition democracy offered by W.E.B. Du Bois' in his classic work Black Reconstruction. Du Bois offers an alternative mandate for abolitionist praxis: one which highlights the interplay of disruptive direct action and incremental change within a historically informed understanding of a particular social struggle. Understood in these terms, abolition becomes a critically important and neglected component of the revolutionary tradition: Abolition is the foil of bourgeoisie security.
IN RECENT YEARS, THE MOVEMENT FOR BLACK LLVES (M4BL) HAS helped start a larger conversation about abolition that has widened our collective political horizons. What began as protests against police violence and in defense of Black life has developed into a radical critique of the United States and a transformative vision for its future. In August 2016, a coalition of 50 organizations released A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom, and Justice. This policy statement goes far beyond mere criminal justice reform. Instead, its demand "to end the war on black people" is part of a larger divest-reinvest strategy to redirect resources for policing, prisons, war, and fossil fuel development toward universal public goods (Movement for Black Lives 2016,6). Of course, the divest-reinvest strategy of abolition is only one plank in a larger platform for economic justice and political empowerment.
For Robin D.G. Kelley (2016), M4BL's platform is "a remarkable blueprint for social transformation that ought to be read and discussed by everyone." However, Kelley (ibid.) also notes that "see[ing] how 'A Vision for Black Lives' is also a vision for the country as a whole requires imagination." In many ways, A Vision for Black Lives advances particularistic demands. Basic income, for example, is put forward as part of reparations, a Black nationalist demand instead of a socialist one for a universal public good and social right. Tendencies within the larger M4BL may even be unwilling and perhaps even incapable of defining a universal agenda for social transformation. Indeed, Afro-pessimism, a prominent theory informing the M4BL, views Blackness as an ontological condition of social death, a position of radical exclusion that undermines conventional political strategies (including radical ones) (Martinot & Sexton 2003, Wilderson 2003).
Even as Afro-pessimism leads some to reject the universalizing orientation that historically characterizes revolutionary politics, the M4BL is influencing the nascent left in the United States.The reinvigorated Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) recently endorsed abolition through a divest-reinvest strategy, a position first articulated in A Vision for Black Lives (DSA Praxis for NPC 2017). Across the country, coalitions of activists are now working to abolish cash bail, oppose jail expansion, and defend criminalized survivors of domestic violence, among many other abolitionist campaigns.This abolitionist breakthrough has even reached the mainstream. There are now members of Congress advocating abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Not everyone is so sanguine, however. Writing in Jacobin, Robert Lancaster (2017a) dismisses abolition as "promising] a heaven-on-earth that will never come to pass." For these skeptics, the contemporary Nordic states provide a reasonable approximation of the criminal legal system under socialism. In response, Berger et al. (2017) charge that Lancaster dismisses abolition with a "highly idiosyncratic and unrepresentative" straw man. Abolition is not opposed to reform and, instead, "fights for non-reformist reforms--those measures that reduce the power of an oppressive system while illuminating the system's inability to solve the crises it creates." From here, they detail many campaigns that have endeavored to "shrink the state's capacity for violence."
This response elicited a reply from Lancaster and an intervention from the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), a self-described prisoner-led section of the Industrial Workers of the World. In his rejoinder, Lancaster (2017b) reiterates his thesis that abolition is an obscure term with limited appeal. Notably, he avoids Berger et al.'s main arguments about reform. The IWOC statement attacks from the left, accusing Berger and colleagues of ignoring the insurrectionary tendencies in abolitionist movements: "the uncompromising 'fever-dream demand' to free all slaves now" (IWOC 2017). The statement insinuates that Berger et al. (2017) are defining abolition in a limiting "way that academics can comfortably adopt without risking career advancement.... they've limited abolition's tactical scope to approaches that center the work of the non-profit industrial complex and pandering politicians" (IWOC 2017). Although perhaps unnecessarily personal, these comments speak to the tensions between a seemingly more moderate abolitionism based in academia and nonprofits and the revolutionary iteration expressed in the militant direct actions of those most affected by mass incarceration, such as the nationwide prison strikes in 2016 and 2018.
Indeed, insurrectionary positions, like those expressed in Burn Down the American Plantation (Revolutionary Abolitionist Movement 2017) provide a seemingly sharp counterpoint to the nonreformist reformism of Berger and colleagues and the divest-reinvest approach to abolition. Calling for the formation of a Revolutionary Abolitionist Movement, the manifesto adopts an Afro-pessimist frame and presents the entirety of US history as revolving around an unchanging "relation of terror" between a white supremacist order and nonwhite populations (ibid., 6). (1) From this perspective,"the Civil War never ended. The struggle against chattel slavery, from neighborhoods demolished by the 'war on drugs' to the prison-industrial apparatus, and resistance to US expansion across the continent is the same war being waged today in another form" (ibid., 2). Such all-encompassing white supremacy means reform is impossible. Instead, the manifesto calls for uncompromising mobilization, organized around five principles: (1) self-defense, (2) direct democracy down to the neighborhood level, (3) conflict resolution and revolutionary justice, (4) the abolition of gender, and (5) reorganization of social property relations along cooperative lines.
Although Burn Down the American Plantation derives its interpretation of US history from Afro-pessimism, the manifesto takes its political platform to a very different place: Rojava, the western portion of Kurdistan or what appears on a political map as Northern Syria. The Syrian Civil War is a textbook example of a "revolutionary situation," a collapse of state sovereignty into competing power centers (Tilly 1978, 190-91). In this context, the Kurdish movement--inspired by the philosophy of democratic confederalism associated with the Kurdish movement in Turkey and writings of US radical Murray Bookchin--has evolved into a multiethnic and nonsectarian Democratic Self-Administration that governs approximately two million people in a manner that recalls Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War.
The manifesto's interest in the Rojava Revolution is not misplaced.These liberated areas are now home to important experiments in direct democracy, community self-defense, and conflict resolution, including: the Democratic Self-Administration or nested system of councils with mandated, recallable delegates; democratically organized self-defense forces that became the primary ground troops in the largely victorious battle to retake territory form the Islamic State; and a variety of conflict resolution bodies, including neighborhood-based restorative justice councils called Peace and Consensus Committees (Knapp et al. 2016, 36-47; Revolutionary Abolitionist Movement 2016, 17-26).
It may very well be the most developed--and important--abolitionist struggle in the world today. Certainly, there is much we can learn from the Rojava Revolution. However, the authors of Burn Down the American Plantation simply take it as a blueprint. They assume its strategies can be applied to a radically different context without any adjustment. They use the example to support their call for insurrectionary action, but they never consider the wider conditions that inform the apparent success of these remarkable antistatist experiments.
These questions of historical specificity can help us escape the constant reproduction of the false reform/revolution dichotomy. This old impasse can be resolved by returning to the holistic and historical analysis of abolition democracy offered by W.E.B. Du Bois in his classic work Black Reconstruction. Du Bois conceptualizes abolition as a tendency embedded in working-class struggles to dismantle structural violence, while also developing humane and liberated ways of living. In his analysis of the US Civil War and Reconstruction, he shows how a fleeting coalition of social forces--Black workers, both freed people and slaves, white petty-bourgeois abolitionists, and eventually white workers and Northern industrialists--created the conditions of revolutionary experiment in human freedom, what historians call Radical Reconstruction. On the level of political strategy, Du Bois shows how both revolutionary actions and reformist measures interacted and created this radical moment. In his analysis of political contention and war mobilization, however, Du Bois reveals a deeper insight: the failure of Radical Reconstruction was not one of strategy but one of power. The revolutionary opening was...