Survival, Pending Revolution

Serve the People, Don’t Patronize Them

“The Breakfast for Children program was set up first. Other programs – clothing distribution centres, liberations schools, housing, prison projects, and medical centres – soon followed. We called them ‘survival programs pending revolution’, since we needed long-term programs and a disciplined organisation to carry them out. They were designed to help the people survive until their consciousness is raised, which is only the first step in the revolution to produce a new America. I frequently use the metaphor of the fact to describe the survival programs. A raft put into service during a disaster is not meant to change conditions but to help one get through a difficult time. During a flood the raft is a life-saving device, but it is only a means of getting to higher and safer ground.”
~ Huey P. Newton

The struggle for survival is the basis of life itself. In today’s society, dominated by the interests of the corporations, the military industrial complex, and elite politicians, survival has become a mantra to mean: pull yourself up by your bootstraps or languish. This narrative, echoed by all corners of mainstream U.S. society, flips the question of survival from the collective to the individual. For the masses of poor, working-class, and oppressed people, we cannot survive as individuals because our oppression is not individual – we are oppressed as a group, a collective of identities, classes, genders, and so on. Our survival depends on one another.

In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, upon being released from prison, Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party, helped launch an initiative to “serve the people.” Inspired by the Chinese Revolution, Huey and the Panthers saw the need to serve the oppressed people’s basic needs as a way to build towards fundamental social transformation in the U.S. The militant rhetoric of the early years of the Black Panther Party was electrifying but it was not enough. The capitalist system structurally left many Black and Latino communities out of the so-called “Great Society” New Deal plans designed for the poor and the working-class. What kind of “Great Society” leaves out millions of people that have historically built the wealth of this nation and continue to do so today?

The concept of “Serve the People” was initiated by a revolutionary group. It is important to recognize this in the context of the service/patronage industrial complex or the non-profit industrial complex. When the Panthers launched the Serve the People programs the slogan was “Survival…pending revolution.” With the rising right-wing opposition during the radical 60s and 70s, and the economic crisis of 1973, the Panthers anticipated the reaction that would ultimately spell their doom as an operational organization. However, with programs that support their basic needs, the masses would, according to the Panthers, be better equipped to wage a militant and united struggle against the corporations that exploit the poor and the working class.

Today, non-profits, NGOs, “public-private” partnerships, and other neoliberal designs keep the radical energy of the masses confined within the notion of “there is no alternative” or TINA for short. Essentially, Ronald Regan and Margaret Thatcher coined this term due to their capitalist triumphalism when global socialism was collapsing, leaving many to speculate on whether an alternative could be built. The rise of the service industry, the low wage sectors, the odd working hours with little to no job protection nor benefits has put the squeeze on working families. Non-profits step in to fill the gaps left by past social welfare programs, and while they claim to be apolitical, revolutionaries know that life under capitalism is all about imposed scarcity and their subsequent struggle for survival. This is decidedly political because a political class of people who own the wealth and the means of production and distribution, have set up a vastly unequal society. The non-profit industrial complex, which does provide valuable work and resources, ultimately serves to just patronize the people and keep them in a place of political limbo by not directly challenging the capitalist system of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.

Programs like Revolutionary Fitness (RevFit) can fill the gaps that non-profits cannot. These programs can combine revolutionary politics with grassroots initiatives to serve the people by building their first line of defense: their body and collective health. We cannot create revolution if we are not able to exist and we cannot be transfixed on survival and not think critically about why we have to survive amidst so much wealth. Capitalist society encapsulates the following quote by Bob Marley: “in the abundance of water, the fool is thirsty.” This is why we need many more programs like Revolutionary Fitness. We are not just meant to survive but to thrive, and to do so we cannot dispense with revolutionary thinking and praxis. We aim to not patronize the people by giving them things, but to create revolutionary subjectivities – the people – who will be “fit” and able to fundamentally transform society and but an end to the struggle for survival.