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Review: Bad: the autobiography of James Carr

“I’ve been struggling all my life to get beyond the choice of living on my knees or dying on my feet. It’s time we lived on our feet.”

The book can be read online here. An Afterword that appeared in the Pelagian Press edition of Bad can be read here;


Bad: The Autobiography of James Carr
Pelagian Press, BCM Signpost, London WC1N 3XX

This book tells the story of the development of James Carr from an apolitical gang member, to a black nationalist associated with the Black Panther Party, and finally to a Korsch/Lukacs/Situationist-influenced position critical of the vanguardism of the Panthers. The book was first published in 1975. This new edition comes with an useful Afterword, written by BM Blob and News from Everywhere. Carr died young, and most of the book is taken up with the gang life and particularly the prison experiences preceding his eventual politicization. The Afterword puts his life in context (the then dominance of varieties of New Leftism, conflicts within the Black Panthers, and the crisis in the US prison system in the 1960s). It also points to the important differences between this book and other autobiographies of politicized prisoners: “it avoids portraying the prisoner as a passive victim of social injustice – and also refuses the martyr role that liberals and leftists try to impose on convicts for their own fantasies and careers” (p. 200).

James Carr survived prison through strength, intelligence and ruthlessness, qualities which he applied not just to the screws and governors but also to his fellow inmates. Like other cons, Carr was involved in a war of all-against-all on two levels: first the interpersonal competition and bullying, and second the “race” war between blacks, whites and Mexicans. In the book, graphic examples of inter-ethnic violence among prisoners illustrate how this relationship of divide-and-rule served the prison system. But the significance of Carr’s experience and perspective is that he was in some of the biggest and most violent Californian prisons in the mid 1960s when a more politicized and united movement of prisoners began to develop. The movement emerged through a turn to black nationalism, which, Carr suggests, at least offered the possibility of enabling cons to see their connections with others in struggles outside the prison. The nationalist movement later developed into a movement against the prison structure itself, and attracted all the ethnic groups.

Carr has some acute comments to make on the limits of the movement. Though the conscious anti-racism was a great advance, the form of the movement remained guerrilla. In a memorable phrase, Carr says that “[g]uerrilla ideology reduces all revolutionary questions to quantitative problems of military force” (p. 169). The disastrous effects of this reduction included the death of his friend and influential militant activist George Jackson, as well as increasingly violent attacks by the authorities on organized prisoner revolts: a “fight to the finish” was what the reactionary prison authorities wanted, says Carr.

The repressive response of the authorities to the movement only confirmed the opposition between the prison system and the cons as a whole. But Carr argues that “even when the cons realized that they were all opposed to the system, they were prevented from locating themselves realistically within it: rather than recognize that they were on the margins of society and study strategically the development of society as a whole, they saw themselves as a class apart from the proletariat, or as its vanguard, and adopted an ideology of class war by whichthe only battleground was the prison itself. They mistook the system’s arm for its heart” (pp. 168-9).

In this ideology, because modern capitalism relies on coercion, then its coercive institutions are its essense or highest expression. It is true that, along with torture and the death penalty in many places, prison is typically the capitalist state’s “ultimate” sanction. But Carr is surely correct in suggesting that the prison is not a representative microcosm of modern class society. In fact, the reverse would seem to be the case: the prison is more an echo of feudalism, with its irrational petty rules, its separation of amount of work undertaken from means of subsistence, its social immobility, and its entrenched sets of interests in the form of the prison guards’ organizations.

Carr also links this vanguardism with what he sees as leftism’s romantic fetishization of crime. During the time of the political movement among prisoners, those on the outside promoted figures like George Jackson into rebel heroes; but, as Carr says, they were always tragic figures because their value to the movement was as martyrs. Leftists and anarchists rightly point out that there is a relation between capital and criminality; but the problem is how to grasp this relation without seeing the con, on the one hand, as necessarily a rebel hero or, on the other, as necessarily an anti-social element. Carr’s analysis of what he calls the criminal mentality (“born to lose”) shows how criminality in the form of robberies etc. is based on an antipathy to capital without necessarily being revolutionary. We steal because we don’t want to work, says Carr – we want to have control over our lives. But if we have to keep on pulling bigger and bigger robberies to live and meet our developing needs, then we just perpetuate ourselves as robbers and ultimately as cons. As robbers and particularly as cons we might go beyond ourselves, as Carr and others did: by co-ordinating with others to resist the state, we fight capital rather than exist within its interstices. The experience of prison – the other side of the coin of the liberal-democratic ideology of rights and freedoms – has been shown on many occasions to have a politicizing effect on prisoners: cons commonly come to hate and resist the viciousness of the state machine. On the other hand, however, without potential support for such a project, the experience of state power and antagonism easily leads to individual survivalism or even to suicide.

Carr is scathing of prison reform, quoting Marx’s argument that basing a revolutionary movement on it is like basing abolitionism on demands for better food for slaves. He criticizes his own actions for merely reacting to the initiative of the enemy – for fighting on their terrain. It is certainly true that all the time that the struggle remains within capital’s procedures and concepts it remains a struggle within capital (for more fairness, rights etc.) rather than against it. However, Carr is perhaps being rather harsh on himself since, quoting Marx again, “Men [sic] make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past” (1934/1852, p. 13)1
As Carr’s own story shows, rather than existing fully formed prior to the struggle, tendencies to push beyond given limits typically emerge from initial demands and conflicts which are more limited. If the present form of the capital relation – the current class composition – is a result of struggle between capital and proletariat, then neither of these forces are always pure; anti-capitalism is mediated by existing capitalism, particularly the latter’s progressive tendencies.

More pessimistically, perhaps, just as moderate demands can go beyond themselves in the struggle itself, so militant struggles can feed back into a reassertion of the legitimacy of the prisons ystem on a new basis. Prison history is the history of violent prison struggles and with them various kinds of liberal reforms and reactionary backlashes. Strangeways, 1990, for example, progressed from an initial plan among prisoners for a limited protest, to a practical critique of the prison in the struggle itself (with cons taking over and trashing the building); the riot then fed into a set of liberal reforms (the ending of slopping out); and finally it served as the justification for legislation for harsher punishments for future rebels (the offence of prison mutiny). This is not of course an argument against resistence or demands for better conditions among prisoners, since any victories by militant prisoners are to be welcomed, and all support (in the form of letters etc.) for individual militants is to be encouraged, particularly if there are links with struggles on the outside.

This book is an autobiography rather than a book of theory, and James Carr led a pretty incredible life by anyone’s standards. Of all the incredible things in the book, including the massacres, killings and maimings Carr took part in, it is perhaps his weight-lifting feats that are most hard to believe. The prison lifestyle was often one of privation and drug-taking, yet at one stage Carr apparently trained for five hours a day (exhausting even for today’s steriod-fuelled bodybuilders) and bench-pressed 520lb! Not only this, but despite the fact that he was a heavyweight, his waist measurement was only 27 inches.

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