Communism and Abolition: Where the Conversation With Angela Davis Came Up Short

Angela Davis is one of the most prominent communist activists and academics in the history of the United States. In her April 15 talk at Amherst, however, Davis shied away from some of the more adversarial ideological stances that make up the core of her public political identity, including her support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS), opposition to American imperialism and her belief in the necessity of violent revolution

The majority of the talk was devoted to discussing abolitionist organizing tactics, the role of academia in social movements, why calls to prosecute killer cops fall short and what brings her hope for the future. While her advice on organizing, especially on college campuses, and her elaboration on academia’s role in building a radical future were helpful, her failure to make the case for why she identifies not simply as a prison and police abolitionist, but also as a communist, was a missed opportunity on a campus which largely practices liberal idealism. 

College is supposed to be a place both to expose yourself to new ideas and to start improving the world we live in, but because Amherst rarely brings speakers with the radical pedigree of Davis to campus, messaging is consistently liberal and reformist. Given Davis’ track record of speaking truth to power, I hoped she would have been more explicit in discussing her own ideological frameworks as she encouraged students to develop their own, which in my opinion would have made a lasting positive impact on movement-building at Amherst. 

One important issue Davis touched on was the necessity of ideological struggle. As former Black Panther Party member and current exile Assata Shakur noted in her autobiography, the left in the U.S. is highly divided between a more blue-collar, worker-driven movement and an intellectual one centered in academia. While much of the modern discourse among the left is directed at the out-of-touch nature of the intellectual sphere, societal anti-intellectualism is also a significant issue, which Davis argued against in her statement that “intellectual struggle matters.” In decrying anti-intellectualism on the left, Davis discussed the abandonment of ideology for cynicism and the pursuit of instant gratification rather than protracted effort towards a future goal, alluding to Mark Fisher’s writings on what he terms “capitalist realism.” 

Rather than simply acknowledging that capitalism is bad while cynically continuing to push for change within the liberal frameworks we are given by politicians, mass media and the education system, we must build on the rich work of those who have come before us, many of whom influenced Davis herself, to guide an ideologically-driven struggle. 

Ideological Consistency and Materialism

The necessity of ideological and intellectual struggle that Davis emphasized is commonly understood by socialist abolitionist organizers, who know that to abolish prisons and policing, you must first abolish their root cause, i.e. racial capitalism, or risk private capital replicating the state’s institutions. Davis avoided commenting on this aspect of abolition. This issue of the state’s contempt for everyday people became especially visible during the Summer 2020 uprisings, as well as the state’s response to Covid-19, as police departments repeatedly prioritized the protection of private property over protecting human life — including a February incident in Portland where officers guarded perishable items discarded in a dumpster outside a Fred Meyer from those struggling with food insecurity. 

While some seem to think that continuing to present the state with evidence that policing is harmful and antithetical to public safety will convince the ruling class on the merits of defunding and abolition, the reality is that the capitalist state doesn’t care. The ruling class knows that the purpose of policing is not to protect and serve, but instead to maintain the state and ensure the sanctity of private property. Appeals to bourgeois politicians to “do the right thing” fall on deaf ears. The overwhelmingly militarized response to anti-police protests from Portland to Kenosha demonstrates the lengths to which the state will go to maintain its institutions of control, even in the face of ostensibly common-sense demands to redirect police funding to social programs. As long as there remains a ruling class of capitalist owners of the means of production, they will never give up their security force in the police; to abolish the police would be to abolish the capitalist state as we know it. 

The importance of ideology, then, is to chart a path forward not based on idealism, in which one analyzes an issue separately from its systemic causes, but based on a materialist understanding of the relationship between policing, the state and capitalism. 

Just as we understand policing and mass incarceration to be unreformable institutions that have common origins in the vile institution of slavery, so too must we understand the United States, which finds its own origins deeply intertwined with slavery and indigenous genocide. While some may roll their eyes at the oft-repeated axioms of the founding fathers being racist or the genocidal foundations of the U.S., these historical facts matter in terms of how we approach solving the national and global crises, such as the prevalence of anti-Black police violence, which so heavily weigh on the mental and physical health of Black youth and students at Amherst and around the country. 

In believing the origin myths of the United States, which claim the country was founded on the ideals of liberty, freedom and democracy rather than a response by landed elites to conditions which threatened their profits, we create a “framework for social change in America where the redemptive promise of the American nation-state is the ideal goal set for future reform projects.” Thus, if one identifies as a police or prison abolitionist, one must also by extension understand the necessity of abolishing the United States to remain ideologically consistent and to follow a correct path towards achieving their goals. The alternative is to continue asking the state to perform the role that many believe it to be designed to do — make life better for people — rather than working to destroy it because we understand that its true purpose is to enforce class hierarchy with violence. 

What Davis Missed

In shying from discussing the topics of the above paragraphs, as well as the global communist movement with which Davis was so heavily involved throughout the 20th century, the conversation left out a crucial aspect of abolitionist logic that would have been useful for Amherst students to hear, especially given the absence of an organized left on campus despite overwhelming support for abolishing the Amherst College Police Department (ACPD). 

Despite the ease with which people are starting to correctly point to systems rather than individuals as causes of many of society’s issues, many of them balk at actually naming the systems –– capitalism and settler-colonialism –– and pursuing a vision of overthrowing them. 

The decision by Davis to leave out explicit discussion of the importance of socialist and communist movements, both past and present, commits this exact error. This is especially notable because the limits to our imagination in creating a world without police and prisons, which Davis talked about in the latter half of the conversation, are largely imposed by a framework of societally embedded anti-communism which needs to be destroyed before progress can be achieved. 

The United States’ crusade against communism throughout the world, notably since the Second World War but stretching as far back as 1918, is a rational mission carried out with a variety of tools including but not limited to mass murder, coups, war, assassination, genocidal economic sanctions, COINTELPRO and a propaganda campaign that persists today. While blatant anti-communism in media is often identifiable, other misinformation is spread unwittingly, such as the New York Times’ recent reporting on dubious claims of election fraud in Bolivia made by the Organization of American States (OAS) that provided cover for a bloody right-wing coup backed by the United States, showing the impacts capitalist-controlled media has on liberation movements around the world. Additionally, beyond active misinformation campaigns, socialist organizations and countries are either erased completely or misrepresented in mass media when it comes to their successes. Instead of arguing that capitalism is great, American media often acknowledges that the system is deeply flawed while positioning alternatives as significantly worse in order to maintain the status quo. 

The resignation of the American populace to reforming capitalism rather than eliminating it has allowed for the development of the neoliberal ruling ideology we see today, under which the Black median wealth in the U.S. decreased from $6,800 in 1983 to just $1,700 in 2013, compared to a 33 percent increase for white families in the same time frame. Just as we understand class, race, gender and other markers of identity to be intersectional, so too must we understand the struggles against oppressive structures to be intersectional. The abandonment of class struggle, in no small part due to federal infiltration of movements, created negative impacts across all social justice, political and environmental movements, and its absence at Amherst does the same.

Deconstructing the web of stigma and propaganda surrounding socialist and communist movements both past and present is a task that must occur in order to build public support for the idea that things can and should be radically different, and is therefore a keystone of the abolitionist movement. This destruction of stigma is something that Davis could have actually accomplished during her talk given her respected stature as an intellectual, permanently impacting student perspectives on methods to achieving their goals. 

Davis correctly argued that one of the first steps towards organizing involves feeding our own imagination and curiosity. Along those lines, I also wish Davis would have gone into more detail about the contemporary authors she recommended, especially the work of Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, a socialist activist, academic, and author of “From Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation.” Furthermore, Davis’ decision to avoid recommending works which she described in her autobiography as fundamental to her own radicalization, such as those of Vladimir Lenin and Ho Chi Minh, was especially perplexing, especially given the continued relevance of their writings today. Surely everyone seeking avenues to build power and influence social change would benefit from reading the foundational texts that Davis and many other prominent activists from her era engaged with?

Amherst Activism and Class Struggle

Davis’ assertion early in the talk that we should join an “organization, become connected, and read books,” brings to mind the lack of participation in spaces on campus in which revolutionary-minded abolitionist students can come together, read and organize on the Amherst campus and beyond. While various organizations occupy this space on campus, including the abolitionist Direct Action Coordinating Committee and the more environmentally-focused Amherst College Sunrise Movement chapter, the radical activist culture present on the campuses of the 60s, 70s and 80s, marked by disruptive direct action, widespread political education, and engagement with a broader radical politic is largely absent from the Amherst College community as a whole. 

Recently, this responsibility has fallen on the backs of Black students who have constantly agitated against the college to create change such as with the Occupy and Reclaim Amherst movements and more recently the #BlackMindsMatter protest. 

At Amherst, most of the communists I know developed their ideology through direct experiences with systemic oppression, and don’t have the time or resources to be involved in organizing full time, while prominent activist spaces on campus are led by comparatively well-off liberals who pursue reform through institutional channels. While theory without practice is useless, as Davis contended in her warning against acquiring knowledge for knowledge’s sake, so too is practice without theory. Organizing can only go so far disconnected from foundational radical political theory or the history of prior movements, yet at Amherst that seems to largely be the case, heightening the missed opportunity of Davis’ talk. 

It is long past time for white students to organize direct action campaigns, advocate loudly for our peers’ mental and physical well-being and act in legitimate solidarity with communities targeted by U.S. imperialism around the world. Posting social media infographics and redistributing wealth via GoFundMes or mutual aid organizations are relatively easy tasks that don’t challenge any sort of power in the way Davis argued is necessary, and instead diffuse the will to do so. Rather than having the (often unpaid) work fall to students of color affected most by the policies of the college and the country at large, white students must instead be willing to sacrifice to build radical momentum and power both within and external to the institution. 

Especially in an era of social media activism in which students are constantly bombarded with tips about organizing and arguments for abolition, what we needed from the Angela Davis talk was not more surface-level conversations about the definition of abolition, but a call to center class struggle in social movements on campus and beyond. Davis has long argued that Marx’s contributions of dialectical and historical materialism are crucial to movement-building in the U.S., and I wish that she would have imparted the importance of such materialism in the pursuit of abolition, prompting interested students to engage further with revolutionary texts and organizational practice. 

In place of Davis, I would challenge liberal abolitionists to question their anti-communism as they envision how they plan on actually achieving the abolition of police other than marching and asking the ruling class to act against its interests. The same tactics used to garner concessions from the college’s administration will not be effective against the military might of the police state.