The U.S. was “a great ecological and social catastrophe”

A review of Intimate Direct Democracy by Dr. Modibo Kadalie and a short biographical sketch

A year ago, I found myself wanting to read something new. Not just something I hadn’t had a chance to pick up yet; no, I wanted something I had never even heard of before. I’ve followed Black anarchist writers for the better part of two decades, and since the George Floyd Rebellion, it’s been clear that Black anarchism has been having a moment. So I decided to trace some of the new terrain, starting with the growing popularity of Social Ecology and related ideas among people like Kali Akuno of Cooperation Jackson and Black Socialists in America. I was curious about what Black writers were saying about the philosophy originally penned by the white Jewish writer Murray Bookchin who had made a name for himself in the latter 20th century anarchist movement, and has had a lasting impact on movements around the globe since long after his death in 2006.  

I found a listing for a provocative title, Pan-African Social Ecology by an author that was completely new to me. I put in an order at the Hartford Public Library and kept an eye on the catalog until it arrived six months later. What I read was more than what I was prepared for. Modibo Kadalie’s speeches, interviews and academic writings in that one thin volume opened the door to an area of late 20th century Black revolutionary politics I had never come across before.  

Among leftists it’s normal enough to have heard about the League of Revolutionary Black Workers (“the League”) in Detroit, Michigan, the African Liberation Support Committee, the Atlanta bat patrols, C. L. R. James, and even the Gullah-Geechee peoples. But to stumble upon an anarchist scholar whose life in the struggle was touched directly by all those figures seemed momentous. 

My reaction had something to do with the fact that around the same time, I was reading a lot about Detroit’s social movements in the late 60s/early 70s. Detroit I do Mind Dying and The Detroit Printing Co-op: The Politics of the Joy of Printing both painted a thrilling backdrop, where Black Power mixed with militant workers’ struggles, bohemian counterculture and deeply unorthodox anti-capitalist politics. Onto this scene appeared a young Modibo from Riceboro, Georgia by way of Canada, recently having completed his studies after fleeing the military draft. As a community college instructor, he found himself in the middle of a student strike to create a Black Studies program, which cost him his job, but ultimately landed him on the Central Staff of the League.  
Modibo’s experiences in the League have some striking similarities to Black Panther political prisoners, such as Ashanti Alston, Kuwasi Balagoon and Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin who came to anarchist conclusions while incarcerated. Modibo and other League members were mentored by Afro-Trinidadian Marxist C. L. R. James, a famous figure in the Pan-African movement going back to the 1930s and a prolific critic of the party-building left. Together they pushed to overcome the authoritarian leadership of the League and bring the focus back to the autonomous struggle of working class Detroiters. Although the reform effort ultimately failed, together they cultivated a small following organized around a pamphlet titled Organization & Spontaneity by Kimathi Mohammad, and a conference by the same name where they sought to resolve the questions that confronted the Black Power movement regarding leadership, internal democracy and social revolution. 

From there, Modibo Kadalie wove together a life in the struggle for liberation through the next several decades, planted firmly in his ancestral home of Riceboro, an African-American community with deep roots in the sustainable agricultural traditions of West Africa. Modibo drew a connection between this rebellious, radically democratic enclave of rice cultivators and fishers, and Bookchin’s theory on Social Ecology: the simple notion that environmental destruction walks hand-in-hand with political tyranny, and by that same token, humanity achieving harmony with nature requires human freedom. ‘Freedom’ here should not be understood to mean someone being entitled to harm the natural world or other people at-will. For anarchists like Modibo, freedom means Direct Democracy and self-determination.  

His new book Intimate Direct Democracy: Fort Mose, the Great Dismal Swamp, and the Human Quest for Freedom is Dr. Kadalie’s third published work since 2000, and breaks new ground by discussing the political importance of regular people participating in their own historical and archaeological research. The book, recently released by On Our Own Authority! Publishing, delves into the historical questions of Black and indigenous solidarity, the creation of whiteness, maroon settlements, ancient practices of ecological sustainability, and white supremacist encroachment on the North American continent.

C. L. R. James wrote about ancient Greek Direct Democracy in Every Cook Can Govern in the hopes of fostering a stronger democratic culture and practice in the League that would give rank-and-file members greater control of the organization, which at the time was heavily influenced by the authoritarian ideas of figures like Mao Tse-Tung, Ho Chi Minh and Fidel Castro. Though James held a lot of sway among members of the League by virtue of his reputation as a major revolutionary writer, ancient Greece was not of much interest to young Black Detroiters. Modibo, on the other hand, seems to hope to turn the gaze of today’s revolutionaries to a more relatable example of the radical democratic tradition.  

Dr. Kadalie’s writing weaves together original historical research, critical anthropology and sharp political analysis. He underlines key concepts undercutting America’s democratic mythology and its war on indigenous democratic traditions. His words bear the mark of New Left polemics, tempered by a lifetime of intimate community endeavors for liberation. Intimate Direct Democracy explores the colonial and antebellum periods of North America through the eyes of indigenous, Black and disaffected poor white people.

The names are mostly new to me but the stories are quite familiar. Desperate peoples across a painful period of history maneuvered between competing powers, leveraging what freedom and dignity they could from the British, Americans, Spanish, Tuscarora and Yamasee. There are few heroes with entirely clean hands in these histories, with war and enslavement brought by Europeans prompting even indigenous powers to adapt in their own self-interest. Kadalie’s research shows us inclusive protagonists of all colors resisting genocide while practicing environmental stewardship without top-down rulers, as well as stories of shrewd betrayals of solidarity that allowed the nascent white power structure to divide-and-conquer.

Dr. Kadalie also discusses, with collaborator and interviewer Andrew Zonneveld, the process of critical historiography, developing our understanding of history and how it is (and could be) written, highlighting participatory community efforts of excavation in contemporary Florida where old free Black settlements have been unearthed. Rather than leaving it strictly to academics, for example, the modern-day Black residents of Bradenton, Florida have taken a lead role in seeking a deeper understanding of their forebears in the settlement that was known as Angola. A Black self-directed grassroots effort to collectively write the history of a community that self-governed in defiance of white supremacy is probably not what comes to mind when most people think of anarchism, but to anarchists there is very little that comes closer to embodying our values.

There is word of another book by Dr. Kadalie on the way, his third to be released by On Our Own Authority! Publishing, but when I reached out to them for a blurb they told me it’s “still a secret technically.” Stay tuned…

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