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Rebecca Solnit has an awful piece on Tomgram today lacerating leftists who refuse to be cowed into voting for Obama by the ceaseless tales of Republican hordes at our gates that are the stock in trade of the liberal punditocracy during election season.  Her primary rhetorical strategy centers around the idle psychologizing that is the stock in trade of liberal pundits (see also  Melissa Harris-Perry).  People disgusted with Obama’s enthusiasm for kidnapping undocumented immigrants, his support for Israeli colonialism, his love for the security state, etc are, for Solnit, locked in a mindset of “fury” and “self-admiration.”  She quotes Michael Eric Dyson’s accusation that such people are engaged in “rhetorical narcissism and ideological self-preoccupation.”  They are doing nothing more than “demonstrating [their] own purity and superiority”  The problem on the left is “not an analysis, a strategy, or a cosmology, but an attitude.”

As is usually the case in these kinds of vulgar ventures into political psychology, the more interesting results come when the analyst becomes the analysand.  In this light, Solnit’s portrait of self-righteous leftists seems to contain a good amount of projection.  Is there anything more smugly superior and narcissistic, for example, than the sentiment found in the activist she quotes to bolster her case: “Oh my God, go be sanctimonious in California and don’t vote or whatever, but those bitching radicals are basically suppressing the vote in states where it matters.”    Her entire argumentative strategy is, in fact, a displacement of politics.  The problem with the left is its mood.  If we can replace the mood of despair with the mood of hope, “we could be heroes.”  What this narrative elides is precisely the questions of strategy that are absolutely central for the left right now, replacing them with a quasi-new age therapeutic program.

What really roused me to respond to Solnit’s piece, however, was her traducing of the civil rights movement in service of this program.  “Can you imagine,” she asks us, “how far the Civil Rights Movement would have gotten, had it been run entirely by complainers for whom nothing was ever good enough?”  Solnit reveals here a touching ignorance about the American civil rights movement, which was, in fact, run by complainers for whom nothing was ever good enough.  This is why it won.

Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail is directed precisely against liberal clergy who were asking for a compromise.  The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party refused the tawdry compromise deal they were offered precisely because it was not good enough.  And of course, John Lewis of SNCC famously wrote in the original text of his speech at the March on Washington that “In good conscience, we cannot support wholeheartedly the administration’s civil rights bill, for it is too little and too late.”  Though he was persuaded to remove the line in deference to the sensibilities of A. Philip Randolph, there is little doubt as to the “mood” under which Lewis was operating.  Being dissatisfied with the scraps thrown his way by official politics didn’t prevent John Lewis from becoming a hero.

The best argument for that kind of dissatisfaction comes from the culture the civil rights movement developed as it grew.  Dorothy Love Coates wrote this song in the midst of the movement, and it gives voice to precisely the feeling of anger and impatience that the left needs if it’s going to have any hope at all.

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Trayvon Martin’s murder has provoked a response unlike anything I’ve seen in my decade or so of anti-racist activism.  Though cases like the Jena 6 drew a nationwide response, Trayvon’s case, undoubtedly aided by social media, has served as a galvanizing force that has not remained a lone instance of racism, but has worked to push the cases of the thousands of African Americans slain by cops, judges, and vigilantes into the foreground.  Because of Trayvon, we now know about Ramarley, Rekia, and Bo too.  This is an extremely exciting development, and while it is still too early to tell, I’m hopeful that this represents the beginning of a new movement against white supremacy in the US, dedicated to tearing down the new Jim Crow.

As always, the rise of a new movement has highlighted important theoretical differences among those fighting racism.  The disagreements and arguments that follow from these differences are an important aspect of a democratic movement culture, and are to be welcomed.  They give all of us a chance to learn from each other, to figure out what we really think, and to try and craft a strategic orientation for our movement.

In the case of this movement, the debate that has surfaced most prominently concerns the question of white privilege.  It was raised primarily by a youtube video, in which a white activist chastised other white activists for wearing ‘I am Trayvon Martin’ shirts.  Doing so, she argued, obscures the white privilege of these activists, and makes it seem as if Trayvon’s murder were merely an arbitrary injustice, and not part of a system of white supremacy that relentless oppresses African Americans.  Generally, white activists need to recognize their privilege and the fact that they are closer to George Zimmerman than Trayvon.  Only by doing so will they be able to overcome the racism with which they’ve been socialized.

The video set off a debate.  Sherry Wolf responded with a piece criticizing the notion of white privilege, and arguing that white workers do not, in fact, benefit from racism.  Divided as a class by racism, they suffer the exploitation and oppression visited upon them by the capitalist class even more intensely, since they are unable to unite as a class to combat it.  Sherry’s post prompted a thoughtful rejoinder from Alex Fields, which has helped to clarify some of the main issues and stakes involved in the debate.  Alex and I had a short back and forth on facebook, which I’ve posted below, before agreeing to go public.  In what follows, I will respond to the points Alex raised in both his post and on facebook, and try to lay out what I think the most important critiques of white privilege theory are, and why I think the basic position Sherry defends is a robust prescription for anti-racist politics.

To begin with, I thought it might be helpful to lay out what I perceive as the points of agreement between myself and Alex.  If I am mistaken about any of these, please feel free to correct me.  Alex and I both have caveats or different emphases on these points, but I take this to be the general ground of agreement.

1.) White supremacy is central to contemporary American society.  African Americans and other people of color are oppressed in manifold ways, from mass incarceration to being treated as unreasonably angry when they try to bring up racist oppression.  This is a system that must be destroyed, and collective political action is necessary for this to be accomplished.

2.) The existence of white supremacy means that white Americans have untold advantages over African Americans in many aspects of life.  While the degree to which whites can take advantage of these varies tremendously with class, they nonetheless constitute the material basis of racism among white Americans.  If whites were not actually in better funded schools, able to escape the worst ravages of mass incarceration etc, racism would simply not be an effective ideology.  In a number of crucial ways, whites have it better.

3.) Part of building an effective movement against white supremacy involves white activists understanding their privilege, and taking it into account when building solidarity with people of color.

This is a substantial area of agreement on crucial political points, especially in the context of the ideology of post-racial America.  I was glad to see Alex’s reply to Sherry written in a comradely (though still appropriately polemical) tone, since the disagreements that exist between these positions should not prevent us from seeing each other as comrades in the struggle against white supremacy.  Nonetheless, there do exist disagreements between us on questions that are central to the movement.  These center around the relationship of racism to capitalism and working class interests, and the political tendencies of white privilege theory.  In a way, this is an awkward debate, since Alex’s critique of my position and my critique of his revolve around what we take to be implied by premises the other accepts, and not as much what the other is actually arguing.  In such a debate, there are going to be lots of accusations of burning straw men, which can be frustrating.  This is, I think, unfortunately unavoidable.  I am going to try and keep such accusations to a minimum, since their proliferation can obscure the real issues in the debate.  With that absurdly long exercise in throat clearing completed, it is time to get down to business.

In her essay, Sherry argues that racism serves to divide black and white workers, making both more vulnerable to capital.  Thus, accepting racist ideas is not in white workers’ interest (note: this is different from claiming there is no material basis for the racism of white workers.  Every ideology has material basis).  Though she does not explicitly state this, she assumes (correctly, I believe) that racism is itself a product of capitalism.  Alex argues that this perspective is mistaken, and leads to bad political conclusions.  He describes two:

If by overcoming capitalism we get rid of both capitalism and the core of racism, but by getting rid of racism we only do damage to the capitalist system without ending it, it seems clearly to follow that it’s more worthwhile to struggle directly against capitalism. Second, there’s a difference in HOW we ought to struggle against racism on these competing views. Sherry pretty explicitly says that racism is a tool used by the ruling class to oppress workers, and that white workers do not materially experience privilege. If she’s right, then it follows that anti-racist struggles are just a struggle against racism in the capitalist power structure, and not struggles against racism within working class institutions, for example. This is a huge difference, and I think the former position is only a little bit different from saying that we really ought to just be struggling against capitalism, and not against racism as independent from capitalism.

I do not believe either of these actually follow from Sherry’s argument.  In fact, her argument explicitly contradicts both of these claims.  Sherry argues that white workers cannot pursue their class interests successfully (at least not very far) so long as they are divided (or divide themselves) from black workers by their racism.  It follows ineluctably from this assertion that the only way white workers can pursue their class interests successfully is if racism is destroyed or significantly weakened.  In other words, there is no struggle directly against capitalism.  It is impossible to successfully confront capitalist class power without smashing the barriers to working class unity.  If this is not done, we can forget about getting very far in expropriating the expropriators.

The second conclusion attributed to Sherry’s argument does not follow for much the same reason.  Racism in working class institutions prevents those institutions from effectively damaging capitalist class power.  Therefore, if we want those institutions to do their job and play a role in helping us stick it to the bosses, we need to purge them of racism.  Only by doing so can we forge the institutions we need to both defend our basic class interests and, hopefully, go on the offensive.

Simply put, neither of the baleful political conclusions Alex argues are entailed by Sherry’s argument actually follow.  If white workers’ class interests are damaged by racism, only by attacking it viciously wherever it reveals its head can those interests be pursued.  In Alex’s original reply, he argued that this line of argument makes little headway against privilege theory, as “White privilege analysis does not say that working class white people are better off under racist capitalist heteronormative patriarchy than they would be under an alternative system like socialism; it says rather that within our current system of racism, white people in all classes are given real privileges that people of color are not.”  But as my explanation of these points implies, this is misleading, since the comparison is not only between a socialist society and our current one.  Even reforms which would leave white supremacy and capitalism in place, such as ending the drug war and mass incarceration, would be of benefit to white workers.  They would weaken the role of war on crime rhetoric in binding white workers to the state, and free up money to be spent on redistributive programs that would weaken market dependency and thus strengthen labor’s hand.  In other words, even within our current system of racism, white workers would benefit not from racism being strengthened, but from it being damaged.

As a final point on this side of the debate, it is curious that Alex asserts these conclusions follow from Sherry’s basic argument, given the political practice of the organization she is a part of.  A quick glance at socialistworker.org reveals that the ISO devotes easily as much time to issues of racial oppression as it does to ‘direct’ struggles against capital.  If it is a logical conclusion of the theory that the ISO holds that struggles against racism are less important than struggles against capital, what are we to conclude from the fact that their political practice seems to include no recognition of this?  I have no doubt the sectarian trolls of the left have all kinds of speculations on this point, but if you accept, as I think Alex does, that comrades in the ISO are committed Marxists and sincerely dedicated to overthrowing white supremacy, this is a real question.

On the white privilege side of things, the debate centers around the political tendencies operative in privilege theory.  I argued that there is a tendency to focus on changing white behavior, and that collective political action fades to the background.  Since such action is the only way the institutions of white supremacy in the US are going to sustain much damage, this emphasis on changing behavior inhibits the struggle against racism.  Alex replied, quite correctly, that while such an emphasis may predominate in some white privilege theory, that doesn’t invalidate the theory any more than the sometimes stiff structural focus of Marxists invalidates it.  I want to argue, however, that this focus is actually dominant in white privilege theory.  To understand why, I think it is worth stepping back for a moment and contextualizing the theory.

Critics of white privilege theory often argue that it is a result of diminished expectations.  They often do so, as Sherry does, by asserting that things like the right not to be shot down while walking in a neighborhood are rights, not privileges, and it constricts our horizons to categorize them as such.  I think it’s right to categorize privilege theory as the product of diminished expectations, but that this is a fairly weak example.  Rather, I would argue that white privilege theory is a product of the defeat of the movements of the sixties and seventies, and that the emphasis on individual behavior we find there arose as an alternative to collective political action.  In the wake of those defeats, it became far easier to imagine changing the behavior of individuals than organizing a collective movement around systemic change.  Political pessimism wrote itself into political theory through a variety of ways – Roediger’s adaptation of social history to argue that racism came from below, for example, dovetailed politically with the theoretically very different arguments for a Foucauldian emphasis on the micro-politics of power.  Not all of this, of course, was detrimental.  Some of it filled in gaps left by more systemically-focused theories of racism.  But what became hegemonic was an anti-politics – a turn away from collective action towards individual rehabilitation.  Again, I’m not arguing that some of this wasn’t necessary and important.  What is problematic is the way this focus excludes political action.  It’s legible in the video Sherry is responding to.  There, whites are encouraged to ‘critique norms,’ ‘give access to discourse,’ ‘raise children without indoctrination’ – important tasks both, but there is no mention of the need for collective political action.  Some might say. as Alex has, that this is not in contradiction with such action, which is true.  But, like white privilege theorists themselves often assert, silence is itself symptomatic.

In his replies, Alex offers a more nuanced theory of changing white behavior, arguing that it is necessary for white activists to realize their privilege and work to undo it in their organizing work.  As he says “collective action and attempts at solidarity will usually fail if the white folks involved are unable to challenge the racist patterns in their own thought and behavior.”  Here, changing white behavior is not a replacement for political action, as it so often is elsewhere, but rather its precondition.  This is a much stronger argument, and I agree with much of it.  Nonetheless, I think it is overextended, and that this overextension is politically harmful.  While it is vitally important to create antiracist spaces in our movements, I don’t think it’s true that movements will usually fail if white privilege is not systematically confronted and resolved within movements.  There’s a test case here in the Freedom Summer campaign of 1964.  There, thousands of mostly white college students from across the country descended on Mississippi for a voter registration drive.  As white privilege theorists would predict, they caused a lot of trouble.  Coming from white backgrounds, they didn’t realize the danger that they were asking black folks to put themselves in just by voting.  Their privilege blinded them to the fact that they could be putting someone in danger simply by knocking on their door.  Many of them had far less developed racial awareness than the majority of white activists today, coming from liberal backgrounds in which the south was conceived as a totalitarian society in contrast to the liberal north.  Racism was seen as a regional aberration, not a systemic feature of American society.  Yet and still, Freedom Summer was a success.  It undoubtedly would have been more effective if the privilege of these students had been confronted and worked through.  But their failure to do so did not sabotage the movement.

Now, I am unequivocally not arguing that white privilege in movements is not a problem, or that it does not hamper movements, or anything like that.  Whenever it surfaces, it needs to be confronted.  But identifying white privilege as one of the most important factors in the failure of collective political action leads to a mistaken political perspective that cannot be a solid foundation on which to build a movement.  Rather than white privilege, I would argue that what explains the failure of significant movements to develop is the same thing that explains the general weakness of the left – the defeats of the last wave, the hegemony of liberal pro-democratic party politics, the legacy of Stalinism, the implosion of significant far left groups, etc.  If we think that white privilege is the most important thing holding our movements for racial justice back, we’re likely to miss a good deal of this, which makes it very difficult to address successfully.  Again, this isn’t to suggest that addressing white privilege in movements isn’t important – it’s crucial.  Assigning an improper explanatory role to it (or anything else, for that matter), however, does nothing to strengthen our movements.

I hope this does as well clarifying my position as Alex’s piece did his.  These issues are absolutely central to anyone concerned with rejuvenating Left politics in the US, and I am very heartened to see them being discussed and debated among comrades.

 

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The latest issue of Against the Current has a very interesting review by Nathaniel Mills of Barbara Foley’s new book, Wrestling with the Left: The Making of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.  An examination of the hitherto unstudied drafts of the novel, Foley’s book argues that it actually began its life as a novel of the Black Left.  Through a process of careful revision, however, Ellison excised the novel’s radical mooring points (which included various sympathetic Black leftist characters), and transformed its picture of ‘the Brotherhood’ (the radical organization the Invisible Man joins only to discover it is as manipulative as any other institution) from a flawed but well-meaning and decent organization into the totalitarian nightmare it is in the published version.  Foley argues, and most readers have agreed, that the Brotherhood is a stand-in for the US Communist Party, with which Ellison was closely associated in the 1930s and early 1940s.  As such, the text has become something of an anticommunist classic, using a sophisticated array of rhetorical strategies to link radical politics with white racism and ultimately promote an ideology of American exceptionalism.

While appreciative of Foley’s archival scholarship in interpreting the drafts of the novel, Mills takes issue with her reading of the finished product.  His criticisms are, I think, worth thinking about, as they raise a number of issue about form and politics that are at the center of Marxist literary criticism.  They run along two main lines.  First, he argues that Foley is mistaken in reading the novel’s portrait of the Brotherhood as a mimetic stand-in for the CP, and that the institutions and figures Ellison creates at various points in the novel are, in fact, non-representational generic archetypes.  Mills argues that this non-referentiality is politically progressive, as it allows Ellison’s critique to have a greater reach.  Second, he argues that Ellison’s insistence on the formlessness and chaos of life is not an evasion of the reality of oppression and domination, as Foley contends, but rather an insight of theoretical value for the Left.

Before considering the specifics of Mills’ first argument, I think it’s worth pointing out that it is a rather strange one for a Marxist to make.  Fredric Jameson, after all, declared ‘Always Historicize!’ to be ‘the one absolute and we may even say “transhistorical” imperative of all dialectical thought,’ and while Jameson’s word is not law, it is a sentiment Marxist critics have tended to affirm.  Mills’ argument for the progressive potential of de-historicization would read more convincingly if he at least acknowledged that he was, in fact, going against the grain of most Marxist criticism.

More substantively, there seem to me to be good reasons to read the novel as mimetically as Foley has.  Mills’ argument is ‘that Ellison doesn’t document a certain historical period, certain historical events, or certain historical institutions like the Communist Party.’  Mills offers little in this essay to sustain this argument, drawing instead on the work of John Callahan, who has written insistently on the need to distance Ellison’s representations from any immediate history.  Ellison, Callahan argues, ‘puts as much distance as possible between events of history and the imagined situations of his novel.’

Mills and Callahans’ arguments here  are buttressed by the authority of Ellison himself, who frequently castigated critics for trying to link his representations to concrete historical referents such as the Tuskegee Institute or the Communist Party.  Yet there are good reasons to believe that Ellison was, to put it simply, lying (a possibility critics of Callahan’s persuasion have curiously overlooked, given their reading of Ellison as trickster).  Take, for example, Ellison’s picture of black college the Invisible Man attends in the first part of the novel, which readers have generally associated with Tuskegee.  Ellison describes

the bronze statue of the college Founder, the cold Father symbol, his hands outstretched in the breathtaking gesture of lifting a veil that flutters in hard, metallic folds above the face of a kneeling slave.

Here is a picture of the statue of Booker T. Washington at the Tuskegee Institute:

a revelation or a more efficient blinding?

As much distance as possible between events of history and the imagined situations of his novel?  Hardly.

The picture of the Brotherhood is similarly laden with referentiality.  Mills cites Callahan’s argument that ‘the Brotherhood derives a measure of significance from its similarity in some respects to the relation between American Blacks and the Democratic and Republican parties.’  This is, if anything, even less convincing than the case of Tuskegee.  For example, the Brotherhood’s leadership in the book, Jack, is written as a foreigner who poses as an American, whose duplicity is revealed when he is angered and begins babbling in a foreign tongue the invisible man sarcastically describes as ‘the language of the future.’  A few lines later, he refers to Jack as ‘a dialectical deacon,’ a phrase that both symbolically links Jack with the manipulative Black churchmen who were in charge of the college and unmistakably associates him with Marxism, an ideology that, to my knowledge, has not played a large role in either the Democratic or Republican parties.  This linkage becomes even less tenable in the epilogue, when after dreaming that Brother Jack leads a lynch mob to castrate him, the invisible man remarks that ‘Jack and the boys are waiting with their knives, looking for the slightest excuse to…well, to “ball the jack,” and I do not refer to the old dance step, although what they’re doing is making the old eagle rock dangerously.’  Here, Jack the foreigner is positioned as a threat to the nation, an operation that renders the invisible man’s position in his dream as metonym for the nation.  If the Brotherhood is an archetypal representative of American political parties, these clusters of imagery make no sense – is it Ellison’s contention that political parties in general are gangs of foreigners waiting for the slightest opportunity to castrate Uncle Sam?  If the Brotherhood is read as the CP, however, the portrait fits perfectly (to the point that Ellison’s representation can be read as one species of the hysterical anticommunism portrayed in Dr. Strangelove, where the General Buck Turgidson’s reason for starting the war is precisely the threat the communists pose to his virility).

Mills argues that while we shouldn’t read the Brotherhood as a direct reference to the CP, the portrait nonetheless is of value for the Left ‘as a warning against potential tendencies (toward political dogmatism and vanguard elitism, institutional self-preservation at the cost of revolutionary creativity, etc.) that any leftist organization should avoid.’  This is unconvincing.  For one thing, Ellison shows no sign in the novel of any sympathy for revolutionary anything, so it makes little sense to assert that his portrait of the Brotherhood is a warning against stifling revolutionary creativity.  More to the point, however, is the fact that Ellison’s portrait of the Brotherhood in the published novel is unremittingly hostile – it is totalitarian, racist organization symbolically linked with white racists.  In this context, it seems perverse to read his representation as some sort of friendly criticism.  Arthur Schlesinger, Richard Pipes, and Bernard Henri Levy make many of the same criticisms of dogmatism and elitism in revolutionary groups.  Does this mean their writings should be taken as valuable advice as well?

Mills’ second primary line of argument concerns Ellison’s insistence ‘that American society is more complicated and unpredictable than most established epistemological and political paradigms allow.’  For Mills, this point is an important one for leftists.  First, he suggests it evinces an affinity between Ellison’s picture of the United States and ‘theories of social form and process articulated by European Marxists like Louis Althusser and Antonio Gramsci. Both Althusser and Gramsci revised classical notions of economic determinism in order to identify the complexly overdetermined realms of the social and cultural as potential sites for revolutionary politics.’  This is not particularly convincing.  Recent scholarship on Gramsci (I am thinking particularly of Peter Thomas and Timothy Brennan) has shown that Gramsci’s thought was far more a product of Third International debates and discourses than his critical reception has allowed.  This work has rendered suspect the cliched image of Gramsci as complicator of a previously simplistic Marxism.  One could say more about Althusser’s case, including the fact that his concept of relative autonomy was formulated, in part, to explain the unavoidable fact of Stalinist barbarism while retaining the idea that the Soviet economy was a socialist one, but it suffices here to remark that the two conceptions of cultural struggle I can detect in his work are both deeply unsatisfactory.  First, Althusser’s notion of theoretical practice rewrites Marxist philosophy as part of the class struggle.  Regis Debray provided the immortal verdict on this theory with his quip ‘all we had to do to become good theoreticians was to be lazy bastards.’  The second concept, that of struggle in the ideological state apparatuses, is even more troublesome, given its provenance as a theoretical justification for the bureaucratic madness of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, as well its subsequent use in the hands of Gauche Proletarienne  as a reason for regarding reformist trade unions as repressive manifestations of the capitalist state.  In short, the analogy fails with Gramsci and leads nowhere good with Althusser.

More important than this Marxological esoterica, however, is the fact that in Ellison’s novel, the fluidity and complication he emphasizes  are linked to an ideology of American exceptionalism.  We have already seen how the invisible man stands a metonym for the United States in his vulnerability to the castrating fanatics of the Brotherhood.  Ellison goes much further than this, however, in his deployment of tropes of American exceptionalism.  In his reflection on his grandfather’s words, the invisible man declares that his grandfather, who he concludes was right after all, ‘must have meant the principle, that we were to affirm the principle on which the country was built and not the men, or at least not the men who did the violence.’  For the invisible man, the lesson of his experiences is that ‘we had to “say yes” to the principle, lest they [Brother Jack and the others who have manipulated the invisible man] turn upon us and destroy both it and us.’  Ellison’s affirmation of American exceptionalism in these pages is directly linked to his conception of America as chaotic and complex.  As he remarks, “America is woven of many strands; I would recognize them and let it remain so.”  This affirmation of American diversity is expressly linked to a repudiation of Jack and his ilk: ‘Let man keep his many parts and you’ll have no tyrant states.’

Finally, it’s worth noting that Mills proposes Ellison’s picture of complexity as a remedy for what is effectively a straw man.  He argues that ‘One must recognize the struggles of these oppressed as both literally contained by power and exceeding the grasp of power. Invisibility is both delimiting and freeing, just as oppression also contains within it (dialectically, or what Ellison might call “chaotically”) the potential for freedom.’  The idea that the oppressed are not completely defined by our oppression is one that, as far as I can tell, is universally accepted on the Left today.  Indeed, it seems to be axiomatic to any conception of Left politics that oppression is never total and complete, and people will always resist.  If this weren’t true, there would be little point in doing anything besides working for Goldmann Sachs.  In his argument for Ellison’s utility on this front, Mills ultimately assents to the caricature of the Left that informs Ellison’s novel.

In conclusion, I think it is worth considering the importance of Mills’ arguments in the broader context of revolutionary criticism.  Though as the preceding paragraphs indicate, I am quite unsympathetic to the substance of his claims, I think Mills raises crucial issues about the political valences of texts and the ways revolutionaries can relate to them.  To my mind, Ian Birchall put this point most succinctly in his review of Terry Eagleton’s work in the 1980s.  Eagleton, he said, insists on the subversive  moments lurking in all texts, which Marxist critics have been too eager to write off in favor of blanket denunciations of reaction.  Birchall noted while Eagleton was right that all texts are contradictory, this did not imply that all texts were politically equal.  The French censors recognized as much when they banned Sartre’s work but not Camus’.  This seems to me to be correct.  Invisible Man is obviously a great novel, and there are numerous moments within it that pose questions Leftists have to answer.  But we will most assuredly get the answers wrong if we imagine they are posed in an innocent way.  Recognizing the dominant political ideology of a novel is a necessary step in attempting to seize any insights hidden within.

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The Black Popular Front (specifically the story of Hugh Mulzac), told through the medium of Krumpface minstrelsy.

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…and the bigots

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News coverage of Barack Obama’s presidential victory in 2008 was dominated by one word: historic. As if newsrooms around the country had suddenly been seized by a bout of Hegelianism, headlines trumpeted the ‘unfolding’ of history before our eyes. Obama’s victory, it seemed, was the next step of the Absolute Spirit. Yet as overwrought as such rhetoric appears now, after two years of unremarkable managerial liberalism, it hints at a deeper truth about Obama’s campaign. Both Obama’s supporters and his detractors, after all, grounded their vision of the candidate in prominent narratives of American history. One thinks, for example, of the shirts prominently displayed by Harlem street vendors that read “Rosa sat so Martin could walk so Obama could run.” For his supporters, Obama embodied the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement. For those opposing him from the right, however, Obama was the product of a different historical saga: the perfidy of the American Left. For these critics, Obama was the protégé of Black Communist Frank Marshall Davis1, the parishioner of Black Liberation Theologian Jeremiah Wright, the friend of Bill Ayers. If for his supporters Obama’s election was the dénoument of that most American of stories, for his opponents his victory represented the penetration of anti-American radicalism into the highest office in the land.

This double vision, seeing both radicalism and civil rights in the same person, speaks suggestively to recent scholarship on the Black freedom struggle in the middle decades of the twentieth century. One major focus of this historiography has been the relationship between radicalisms of various sorts (both class-based socialisms and race-based nationalisms) and the movement represented in popular memory by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks (which some scholars have taken to calling the ‘classical phase’ of the movement). In re-examining this relationship, many historians have concluded that civil rights and radicalism are not as opposed as the competing representations of Obama’s candidacy would lead us to believe. This essay will examine this scholarship through the lens of Jacqueline Dowd Hall’s formulation of a “Long Civil Rights Movement,” consider objections to the concept, and suggest ways it may be extended.

Hall announced her conceptualization of the long movement in her presidential address to the Organization of American Historians in 2004. Entitled “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past,” the address was a combative response to conservative appropriations of the image of civil rights. Hall sought to reconceptualize this history in such a way that it would be both a “more robust, more progressive, and truer story” and “[h]arder to celebrate as a natural progression of American values. Harder to cast as a satisfying morality tale.” To accomplish these dual objectives, Hall crafted a narrative of civil rights which began not with the Montgomery Bus Boycott, or even Brown v. Board of Education, but the struggles of liberals and radicals against racial oppression in the 1930s. These struggles, such as the Communist Party led campaign to free the Scottsboro Boys, or the struggle of Blacks in the CIO for a “civil rights unionism,”2 signaled a capacious understanding of the fight for racial justice, which included confronting class and gender oppression as well. In these campaigns, Hall argues, lie the origins of the civil rights movement.3

United Tobacco Workers protest R.J. Reynolds, 1946

Hall suggests that understanding the nature of the civil rights movement’s classical phase requires coming to terms with how this earlier movement was defeated. As a radical challenge to what Hall describes as “racial capitalism,” it should come as no surprise that this first wave of civil rights should have met with fierce opposition from the business class, defenders of white supremacy, and the US state. The anticommunist crusade, aided by liberal figures inside civil rights organizations such as the NAACP, broke the back of organizations which had been at the heart of radical challenges to Black oppression. Leftist figures like Paul Robeson were denounced in the the press, and groups like the anticolonialist Council on African Affairs were prosecuted by the government for being agents of a foreign power. The disorganization this repression visited on the Left led Hall to pronounce civil rights a “casualty” of the Cold War.4

Anticommunist repression thus decisively changed the character of civil rights struggle, marginalizing those with a more expansive vision of emancipation and encouraging groups like the NAACP to pursue a more narrowly legalistic strategy than they had in the mid-1940s. Even as it disorganized the left, however, Cold War repression did not succeed in completely isolating radical activists. As a great deal of research on the classical phase of the civil rights movement is now showing, figures like Bayard Rustin and Ella Baker, who were absolutely central to the movement, had substantial Old Left backgrounds and training which carried over into their work with the movement’s most recognizable leaders and institutions. Moreover, activists at the local level, who have increasingly displaced telegenic leaders like Dr. King as the focus of recent research, often brought to civil rights work their experience in the radical campaigns of the 1940s.5

Hall’s reconceptualization of civil rights thus extends the movement backwards in time, effectively positing two distinct, though intimately related, waves. The first, based in the radical challenges to racism of the thirties and forties, was closely linked with working class movements and supported by activists who often held a vision of total social transformation for the United States. After this movement was crushed by government repression, the classical phase of the movement emerged. This wave advanced more restricted goals than the earlier wave, but was still supported by a significant group of activists with ties to earlier radical organizing.

This vision of a long civil rights movement obviously has tremendous synthetic power. Yet the concept has also provoked criticism. Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua and Clarence Lang have recently argued that, in its amalgamation of 1930s and 1960s struggles, the long movement concept resembles a vampire, in that “it exists outside of time and history, beyond the processes of life and death, and change and development.” According to this critique, “the continuous 1930s-1970s timeline theorized by Long Movement scholars ignores or minimizes the ruptures and fractures” wrought by government repression. Eric Arnesen advances a similar criticism, in addition to a more broadly political point that historians of the long movement tend to gloss over the Communist Left’s defects and ignoring its critics.6

As the above gloss on Hall’s presentation of the long movement concept makes clear, the critique of overly inclusive periodization largely fails to engage with long movement scholarship. Hall’s contention that civil rights were a “casualty” of the Cold War can hardly be described as downplaying or ignoring the effects of government repression. Indeed, documenting the rupture between the character of activism in the earlier era and the classical phase of the movement has been one of the hallmarks of long movement scholarship. Penny Von Eschen, for example, provides a detailed account of the ways that the racial discourse of groups like the NAACP shifted during the Cold War. Where they had once condemned the exploitation and oppression that white supremacy entailed, by the 1950s their descriptions of racism evoked Myrdalian moral dilemmas or organic metaphors of “the virus of prejudice,” both of which took race out of history. Similarly, Martha Biondi has described how anticommunism in New York City led the NAACP to move away from popular forms of protest such as picketing, which officials feared was too open to Leftist infiltration. Finally, Glenda Gilmore’s Defying Dixie, which presents an impressively researched account of the long movement to an audience beyond the academy, argues that “virulent southern anti-Communism…eviscerated postwar social justice movements and truncated the civil rights movement that emerged in the 1950s.” In the face of this body of work, Cha-Jua and Long’s contention that “Long Movement scholars generally fail to engage these issues of postwar anticommunist repression” is simply unsustainable.7

Eric Arnesen’s criticism of long movement periodization is similarly misdirected. In an attempted reductio ad absurdum, Arnesen asks why scholars stop at World War I, and don’t include Reconstruction-era struggles or uprisings on slave ships as part of the long movement. The point of long movement scholarship, however, is not simply that African Americans fought against racism before the classic civil rights movement. Indeed, this point is taken for granted by virtually everyone who currently studies Black history. Rather, long movement scholars emphasize that, in the decades prior to the classic movement, activists challenged white supremacy in such a fashion that their struggle shaped the next wave in two key ways: first, the earlier wave of civil rights activism won a number of important victories that changed the shape of later struggle, and second, the earlier wave produced institutions and trained activists that would go on to play an absolutely central role in the later wave. These relations, not the abstract fact of struggle, are what lends support to long movement scholarship’s linking of the 1940s with the 1960s.

Arnesen’s political critique attempts to rehabilitate the perspective of anticommunist Black activists such as A. Philip Randolph, who he contends have been marginalized by long movement scholars overly enamored with groups and individuals linked to the Communist Party. These figures, he argues, were not merely dupes of J. Edgar Hoover, but important Black progressives who had a deep critique of communist cynicism towards Black rights and complicity with Stalinist repression abroad. For Arnesen, the question must be asked: “So where do Randolph and his non-communist allies fit into the new narrative of the long civil rights movement? The quick answer: awkwardly, when they fit at all.” As with the Cha-Jua and Long’s critique of periodization, this is simply a misrepresentation of long movement scholarship. Thomas Sugrue’s recent Sweet Land of Liberty, for example, which presents the civil rights struggle in the North to a popular audience, explicitly takes its cue from Hall’s long movement framework. Far from Randolph being marginalized in that text, he is discussed at length, receiving easily as much attention as the Communist Party. Nor is Randolph absent from other long movement scholarship. Indeed, it is telling that Arnesen never directly names any works that overlook Randolph’s contributions.8

A. Philip Randolph

On the political level, Arnesen’s promotion of Randolph runs into other problems. As Arnesen makes clear, Randolph’s critique of the Communist Party was not primarily based on the party’s backing off from militant civil rights struggle during World War II, but rather its support for the Nazi-Soviet Pact in 1939. Neither of these actions by the party, however, appear to have damaged its ability to recruit and appeal to African Americans. As Bert Cochran has noted, the war years actually saw an increase in the percentage of Blacks among new recruits to the party, so that by 1944 they constituted fully thirty-seven percent of new members. While Randolph’s outrage over the party’s shifting lines with regard to race and war may have been justifiable, it does not appear to have prevailed among broad layers of the Black working class. Arnesen may well be correct that revisionist scholarship on the CP has not fully reckoned with the party’s failings regarding civil rights, but it is clear that Randolph’s perspective provides little help in understanding these failings.9

Existing critiques of long movement scholarship thus largely fail to engage with the key claims of the historiography. However, the long movement concept, especially as theorized by Hall, does possess a notable weakness: its relation to space.10 Aside from extending the movement’s periodization and reconsidering its relationship to the Left, a major theme of long movement scholarship has been the ways African American activists related to spaces outside the United States.11 Yet Hall spends barely a paragraph on the global imaginaries of Black activists. As a consequence, the concept of a long movement expands the location occupied by civil rights in time, but does little to push the spatial boundaries of the movement beyond those theorized by earlier waves of scholarship, even as long movement scholarship has clearly called for just such a reconceptualization.

Paul Gilroy’s theorization of a “Black Atlantic” is suggestive in its ability to propose an alternative, “outer-national” space of Black struggle. Gilroy argues that the diasporic space of the Atlantic as a whole has framed Black experience in a way that simply cannot be captured through national heuristics. The international experiences and engagements of Black activists from Frederick Douglass to Richard Wright show that even when Black struggle is directed against profoundly national institutions such as American chattel slavery or the construction of Black ghettos, the contours of Black struggle cannot be explained without reference to the broader stage of the Black Atlantic. The histories of long movement activists like Paul Robeson, George Padmore, and Lorraine Hansberry confirm the importance of this “outer-national” framework.12

As helpful as Gilroy’s Black Atlantic is for moving the long movement outside the borders of the United States, it is ultimately insufficient for the task. Black internationalism, especially during the years long movement scholarship covers, ultimately went far beyond the framing of the Atlantic. Martin Luther King’s embrace of Gandhian satyagraha is only the most obvious way in which civil rights activists looked beyond the Atlantic for resources in their struggle. Gerald Horne has recently shown that King was far from alone among civil rights activists in his engagement with the Indian anticolonial struggle. Bill V. Mullen has gone so far as to propose a discourse of “Afro-Orientalism” as a sort of Eastern version of the Black Atlantic, to capture the ways in which Black activists engaged with India and China. In particular, his portrait of a “Bandung Detroit,” awash in the politics of decolonization, seems especially important for long movement scholars to take note of. If these works gesture towards the need to go beyond the Black Atlantic, none of them, in the end, provide formulations of sufficient rigor and breath to replace it.13

W.E.B. Du Bois meets the Chairman

The lack of attention that historians have paid to the formulations of literary critics like Mullen and, to a lesser extent, social theorists like Gilroy is also indicative of the ways in which the concept of the long civil rights movement can be extended. This essay will thus conclude with a comparison of Richard Wright’s Native Son and James Baldwin’s Another Country, works which could stand as representative cultural productions of the two waves of the movement. Additionally, I will consider the problems that arise from current periodizations of Black literature, and suggest how the concept of the long movement could contribute to solving these.

Native Son is easily the most famous work to come out of the Leftist milieu long movement scholars have described. Wright’s role in the Chicago John Reed Club, his relocation to Harlem and his ultimate disillusionment with the CP are all well known. Because of Wright’s prominence in the CP and the success of Native Son, the novel has come to stand in for the literary productions of the what Michael Denning has called “the cultural front” as a whole. Literary critics looking back on this movement have often seen didacticism and antimodernism as hallmarks of this literature, qualities they have often found in no short supply in Native Son. Yet such a reading does violence both to Wright’s novel and the broader movement. As Barbara Foley has argued, Native Son in fact has a much more complex formal structure than its common description as “naturalist” would imply. Though most of the novel is narrated from the limited perspective of Bigger’s consciousness, Wright also included the Communist lawyer Max’s lengthy closing argument, which presents an account of Bigger’s life that is not identical to the one to which readers have access through Bigger. Additionally, in every edition after the first, Wright included his essay “How Bigger Was Born,” which, unlike either Bigger’s story or Max’s summation, compares the book’s protagonist with the alienated and dispossessed youth of all races. As Foley notes, “[a]ll three perspectives upon Bigger’s experience coexist in the novel, vying for the reader’s consideration and judgment.”14

This multi-layered rhetorical structure places Native Son alongside works like John Dos Passos’ USA, the standard bearer for Leftist modernism. Like Dos Passos’ trilogy, Wright’s use of multiple perspectives allows his work to represent what Marxist critics have called the “totality,” or the whole complex of social processes and contradictions that compose a social formation. This aspiration to totality is replicated on the level of plot, as Bigger’s fear, flight, and fate take him from the segregated South Side of Chicago to the mansion of his white employers, and into a confrontation with the state in the courtroom climax. This plot structure allows Wright to draw a picture for the reader of the interactions of different classes and institutions in Bigger’s life, making clear the connection between the ‘philanthropic’ real estate baron and the crushing poverty in which Bigger’s family lives. Form and content thus interact in Native Son to present a total critique of American society, merging opposition to racial oppression and class exploitation in just the way that long movement activists sought to.15

James Baldwin’s Another Country is a very different sort of book. Well before it was published (1962), Baldwin had signaled his intention to create a different aesthetic from Wright. His essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel” pilloried the older writer mercilessly, comparing Native Son to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The essay was published in Partisan Review (the first piece by an openly Black author in that venue), former journal of the New York John Reed Club which had, by the time of Baldwin’s piece, become solidly anticommunist. In fact, Partisan Review would go on to play an important role in articulating an American aesthetic meant to replace the literature of the Thirties. Valuing irony and ambiguity over social commitment or mimesis, the Partisan Review aesthetic dovetailed nicely with the reactionary agrarian philosophy of the New Criticism. Together, these critical currents marginalized the literary values which had inspired much of the cultural front. In effect, Partisan Review was a major part of the aesthetic wing of the ‘long backlash’ identified by Hall.16

Another Country fulfills a great deal of these critical expectations. On the most surface level, the book is dedicated to Mary S. Painter, a close friend of Baldwin’s who worked for the Office of Strategic Services, precursor to the CIA. On a more substantial level, the novel’s plot concerns a group of friends, acquaintances, and lovers coming to terms with race, sex, and love in the aftermath of a friend’s suicide. The novel’s tight focus on this group of characters, who all seem to be Greenwich Village bohemians of one sort or another, is the opposite of Native Son’s expansive vision, running as it does from the ghetto to the mansion. While the novel focuses closely on the ways that race distorts human relationships, it is, in contrast to Native Son, almost silent on the class question. As Paul Goodman noted in a review at the time, “It is puzzling how most of Baldwin’s people make a living.” Other critics with radical affiliations were similarly disappointed. Langston Hughes, while conceding the novel’s emotional power, thought it a “curiously juvenile” book that focused too much on sex. Most famously, Eldridge Cleaver pronounced the novel “void of a political, economic, or even a social reference.”17

Yet just as long movement scholarship emphasizes the rupture that anticommunist repression created in the struggle against white supremacy, it also emphasizes the continuities that remained between the earlier wave and the classic phase. Such continuities exist in Baldwin’s work as well. Baldwin himself had something of a background in the Left, having joined the Trotskyist Young People’s Socialist League as a youth. While his tenure in the organized Left was brief, Baldwin would go on to be an important voice in the journal Freedomways, the theoretical journal of the classic phase of the movement. Edited by Esther Cooper Jackson, a veteran of the Southern Negro Youth Congress and wife of CP member James Jackson, Freedomways was the site of some of the strongest links between the civil rights unionism of the 1940s and the movement of the 1960s..18

James Baldwin, Joan Baez, and James Farmer, 1965

In light of such links to political radicalism, it is unsurprising that Another Country’s politics, like Native Son’s aesthetics, are more complicated than they at first appear. For one thing, class is not so absent from the novel as Goodman and Cleaver argue. While it’s true that Baldwin’s characters seem to have access to more money than their life styles would indicate, the legacy of Black poverty and exploitation appears in the novel through its suffusion with the voices of women blues singers. Throughout the novel, lyrical fragments from blues singers like Bessie Smith appear interspersed with the dialogue of the characters. As the characters sit in a club, Bessie sings “I wouldn’t mind being in jail but I’ve got to stay there so long,” testifying to the incarceration of Blacks outside the clubs. Later, a white character awakes to his Black girlfriend (a waitress, who is, significantly, the only main character in the novel who works for wages) singing “ If you can’t give me a dollar/Give me a lousy dime-/Just want to feed/This hungry man of mine,” a song that comments both on the poverty of Black households and Black women’s consequent entry into the labor market well before their white counterparts.19

Another Country also has moments of anger that seethe as much as Bigger Thomas ever did. When the father of the Rufus, the Black jazz musician who committed suicide, is presented with his son’s body, his wife asks him to pray. He shouts in response “Pray? Who, pray? I bet you, if I ever get anywhere near that white devil you call God, I’ll tear my son and my father [who was beaten to death with a hammer by a white railroad guard] out of his white hide!” Baldwin here foregrounds the violence of white supremacy, as well as the poverty of Black men (the father’s death strongly suggests he was a hobo). Baldwin’s characters can also be every bit as didactic as Wright’s, describing their lives in such a way that no white reader could miss the message. In a moment of interracial honesty, for example, Ida, the waitress, tells her white friend Cass her true feelings about white folks:

Shit. They keep you here because you’re black, the filthy white cock suckers, while they go around jerking themselves off with all that jazz about the land of the free and the home of the brave. And they want you to jerk yourself off with that same music, too, only keep your distance. Some days, honey, I wish I could turn myself into one big fist and grind this miserable country to powder. Some days, I don’t believe it has a right to exist.

As this passage indicates, Baldwin’s emphasis on the importance of sex, which so disturbed Cleaver and Hughes, could be harnessed to an anger at American racism as intense as their own.

The ruptures and continuities between Baldwin and Wrights’ works line up suggestively with those foregrounded by the concept of a long civil rights movement. They also point to a way of periodizing African American literature that is more coherent than current efforts. The current edition of the Norton Anthology of African American Literature, a text that largely sets the terms for such periodization, lists both Wright and Baldwin under the same period, which the editors (Nellie Y. McKay and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.) label “Realism, Naturalism, Modernism, 1940-1960.” As they themselves readily acknowledge, such a melange of genres is essentially arbitrary. Encompassing a range of aesthetics which are largely opposed to one another, the label mixes together writers such as Baldwin, Ellison, and Wright, whose primary relations to one another were often gestures of disaffiliation. Furthermore, by using form as the primary means of dividing writers, it encourages the mis-reading of books like Native Son, whose obvious naturalist tendencies should not cause us to overlook its modernist features.20

A periodization which bases itself on long movement scholarship might look at the years surrounding mid-century differently. Recognizing the importance of the labor left to the first wave of civil rights struggle, as well as the connection of virtually every major Black cultural figure to the movement during this period, such a periodization would see a decisive break in the late 1940s. The thorough disorganization of the movement during these years, combined with the CP’s success in alienating its most talented Black authors (Wright and Ellison), could mark a transition point, when the radical Black aesthetics of the thirties and forties were displaced by the rise of a liberal Black modernism. Heartily encouraged by the institutions of the cultural Cold War, this new aesthetic would repudiate the social commitment of earlier writers in favor of protagonists who are largely equivocal about the society in which they live.21

Just as Baldwin (who had done as much as anyone to marginalize Wright and the socially committed work of the Black Popular Front) would retain important radical moments in his work, however, Black literature as a whole was not utterly purged of its radicalism by the McCarthy years. Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, for example, was partially a product of Hansberry’s involvement with the Freedom group, comprised of mostly Black writers centered around Paul Robeson. By using the long movement framework as a guide to periodizing Black literature, scholars could avoid the admitted artificiality of current efforts, and account for the continuities and discontinuities in cultural production at mid-century.

The concept of a long civil rights movement thus has a great deal to offer scholarship on Black politics and culture during the twentieth century. Its ability to reshape discussions of Black cultural production has yet to be appreciated, though it clearly has a great deal to contribute in this area once literary scholars take note of what historians have been up to. Though an adequate theorization of space within the concept has yet to appear, this lacuna has not prevented long movement scholars from definitively pushing the boundaries of civil rights outside the United States. The need for such a reconceptualization is not merely academic. As the controversy surrounding Barack Obama’s birth certificate has shown, those who support America’s racial status quo have a healthy interest in questions of space as well. If long movement scholarship is to succeed in its aim of destabilizing the racial narrative that supports such controversies, it will ultimately have to grapple with the same questions of culture and space that the heirs of the backlash do.

1Ironically, Obama’s friendship with Davis was brought to the attention of the right wing partially by radical historian Gerald Horne, who described it in his talk at the 2007 reception of the Communist Party-USA archives at New York University’s Tamiment Library. See Horne, “Rethinking the History and Future of the Communist Party,” http://www.politicalaffairs.net/article/articleview/5047/1/32/

2The struggle of the Communist Party and its allies against racism was introduced into the historical discussion primarily by Mark Naison, Communists in Harlem During the Great Depression and Robing D.G. Kelley Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression. Randi Storch brings the Midwest into the story in Red Chicago: American Communism at its Grassroots, 1928-1935.

3Jacqueline Dowd Hall, “The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past.” Journal of American History. 91.4 (2005) pg 1235. Though most of the scholarship Hall discusses under the long movement rubric was published in the mid-nineties or after, there were important anticipations of the concept as early as the mid-1980s. See Manning Marable, Race, Reform, and Rebellion: The Second Reconstruction in Black America, 1945-1990; and Robert Korstad and Alex Lichtenstein, “Opportunities Found and Lost: Labor, Radicals, and the Early Civil Rights Movement.” Journal of American History 75.3 (December 1988), pp 786-811 (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1984)

4Hall, 1249. For accounts of civil rights casualties of the Cold War, see Risa L. Goluboff, The Lost Promise of Civil Rights, Penny Von Eschen, Race Against Colonialism, Ch. 7, and especially Martha Biondi, To Stand and Fight, Chs. 7-8.

5On Baker and Rustin, see respectively Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement and John D’Emilio, Lost Prophet. For local struggles, see Charles Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom and Michael K. Honey, Black Workers Remember: An Oral History of Segregation, Unionism, and the Freedom Struggle.

6Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua and Clarence Lang, “The ‘Long Movement’ as Vampire: Temporal and Spatial Fallacies in Recent Black Freedom Studies.” Journal of African-American History 92.2 2007, 271. See also, Eric Arnesen “Reconsidering the ‘Long Civil Rights Movement’” Historically Speaking 10.2 2009. pgs 31-34; and “No ‘Graver Danger’: Black Anticommunism, the Communist Party, and the Race Question” and “The Red and the Black: Reflections on the Responses to ‘No Graver Danger,’” Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas 3, No. 4 (Winter 2006). Ironically, Kevin Boyle makes the exact opposite criticism of long movement scholarship, arguing that it exaggerates the differences between the character of struggle in the 1940s and the 1960s. See Kevin Boyle, “Labour, the left, and the long civil rights movement.” Social History 30, No. 3 (August 2005), 366-372.

7Von Eschen, 145-159. Biondi, 189. Gilmore, 8. Cha-Jua and Long, 272. Cha-Jua and Long attempt to make their case by examining Jeanne Theoharis and Komozi Woodward’s collections Freedom North and Groundwork. Cha-Jua and Long note that only three articles in these two collections cover the period between 1947 and 1955. Yet as the above summary makes clear, such a lacuna is hardly characteristic of long movement scholarship.

8Arnesen, “Reconsidering,” 33. In his introduction, Sugrue announces that he has been “inspired by the work of a new generation of civil rights historians, most of them focusing on the South, who have challenged the tired chronologies of that region’s battle over Jim Crow.” He also cites Hall specifically for her theorization of the long movement. Sugrue, Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Civil Rights Struggle in the North (New York: Random House, 2008). pg xix.

9For CP membership data during the war, see Bert Cochran, Labor and Communism: The Conflict that Shaped American Unions (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1977), pg 228.

10Cha-Jua and Long critique long movement scholarship on a spatial basis for its alleged elision of differences between the conditions of civil rights struggle in the North and in the South. Hall, however, is quite clear on the differences in race and class structure in different regions, noting that the “plantation metaphor” of oppression failed to describe conditions in areas where migrants from the South arrived. See Cha-Jua and Long, pg 281-283; and Hall, 1240.

11See, for example, Von Eschen, Race Against Empire and Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2004); Brenda Gayle Plummer, Rising Wind: Black Americans and US Foreign Affairs, 1935-1960; Glenda Gilmore, Defying Dixie; Kevin K. Gaines, American Africans in Ghana: Black Expatriates During the Civil Rights Era. Interestingly, Matthew Frye Jacobson’s Roots, Too: White Ethnic Revival in Post-Civil Rights America suggests that whiteness in this period had a similarly international character, as white ethnics claimed their linkages with European homelands as a way of distancing themselves from whiteness. Thus, the ‘long backlash’ Hall describes has an international component that goes well beyond the Cold War pressures she identifies.

12Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993). Additionally, Gilroy’s theorization of the Black Atlantic is meant to destabilize nationalist discourses of race in a way that is strikingly congruent with Hall’s project of making civil rights “harder.”

13See Gerald Horne, The End of Empires: African Americans and India. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008); Bill V. Mullen, Afro-Orientalism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), esp. Ch. 3. Vijay Prashad provides a broader view of Black engagements with Asia in his Everybody Was Kung-Fu Fighting: Afro-Asian Connections and the Myth of Cultural Purity. (Boston: Beacon Press, 2002). Kate Baldwin has extended Gilroy’s framework to include the Soviet Union in her Beyond the Color Line and the Iron Curtain. (Durham: Duke UP, 2002), but her inattention to the actual politics of her subjects mars the attempt. Robin Kelley notes that Black history has always had a global perspective in Kelly, “But a Local Phase of a World Problem: Black History’s Global Vision, 1883-1950” Journal of American History 86.3 (December 1993), pgs 1045-1077. Gerald Horne outlines possible avenues of study for future global research in Afro-American history in Horne, “Towards a Transnational Research Agenda for African American History in the 21st Century’ Journal of African American History 91.3 (2006), pgs 288-304.

14Barbara Foley, Radical Representations: Politics and Form in U.S. Proletarian Fiction, 1929-1941. (Durham: Duke UP, 1993) pgs 209-212. Foley also demonstrates conclusively that there was no generalized antipathy to modernism among writers associated with the CP. For an excellent account of the the relation of modernist poetry and radicalism, see Alan Filreis, Counter-Revolution of the Word: The Conservative Attack on Modern Poetry, 1945-1960. (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2008), Ch. 1. Michael Denning’s incredible The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century. (New York: Verso, 1998) remains the best book yet written on“culture in “the age of the CIO.”

15The classic work on the Marxist theory of totality in literature is Georg Lukács, The Historical Novel. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983). Lukács’ description of the way writers of the historical novel like Scott were able to create a picture of social totality through the interaction of their protagonists with multiple social layers is suggestively similar to Wright’s practice in Native Son, though Wright almost certainly never read Lukács. See Lukács, Ch. 1 Sec. 2.

16For more on the critical consensus of the Cold War, see Thomas Hill Schaub, American Fiction in the Cold War. (Madison: University of Madison Press, 1991); Lawrence Schwartz, Creating Faulkner’s Reputation: The Politics of Modern Literary Criticism. (Nashville: University of Tennessee Press, 1990); and Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996 [2nd Ed.]), pg 43.

17On Baldwin’s relationship to Painter, see Carol Polsgrove, Divided Minds: Intellectuals and the Civil Rights Movement. (New York: Norton, 2001), pg 93. Paul Goodman review, “Not Enough of a World to Grow in,” appeared in the New York Times on June 24th, 1962. For Hughes’ assessment, see Herb Boyd, Baldwin’s Harlem: A Biography of James Baldwin. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008) pgs. 40-41. Cleaver’s attack on Baldwin, “Notes on a Native Son,” was published as part of his Soul on Ice.

18On Freedomways and the Left, see James Smethurst, SNYC, Freedomways, and the Influence of the Popular Front in the South on the Black Arts Movement.” Reconstruction 8.1 (2008). <http://reconstruction.eserver.org/081/smethurst.shtml> Smethurst’s authoritative The Black Arts Movement: Literary Nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2005) maps in detail the linkages between Old Left artistic practices and persons and the militant art of the Black Power era.

19On the class politics of women’s blues, see Angela Y. Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrue “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday. (New York: Vintage, 1999).

20Nellie Y. McKay and Henry Lous Gates, Jr. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, 2nd Ed. (New York, Norton, 2003) pgs 1355-1368.

21Barbara Foley’s forthcoming Wrestling with Prometheus: Ralph Ellison, the Left, and the Making of “Invisible Man” promises to provide an in-depth picture of the move from the aesthetics of the Black Left to those promoted by the New Criticism by one of the most important writers of this period.

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The spectre of Cannonism?

Being a Trotskyist in the academy is something of an uncomfortable position. In the humanities, one has always to contend with the hegemony of cultural studies, which weighs on anyone interested in old fashioned matters like social structures or causality. The dominance of this approach has also led to a climate of generalized anti-Marxism, as historical materialism has become the dead horse cult studs (as Thomas Frank called them) flog in order to assure us of their novelty. For all the praise these writers have for openness, multiplicitly, and ambivalence, Marxism, it seems, is a book which must be definitively close before these virtues can be celebrated.

Even if one is lucky enough to find an academic circle in which this nonsense does not receive a free pass, Trotskyism presents special problems. It is, after all, is still a species of ‘vanguardism’ in the eyes of the soft academic left, and thus bears some responsibility for the sullying of socialism in the twentieth century. The political engagement central to Trotskyism is similarly irksome. Even if one is lucky enough (as I have been) to find an advisor who is a politically engaged Marxist, it’s as likely as not that they will come from a Stalinist tradition.

The question of Trotskyism is similarly uncomfortable historiographically. Though the study of American radicalism has progressed immensely over the last twenty years, its focus on a recovery of the CPUSA’s legacy from Cold War slanders has served to marginalize discussion of Trotskyist groups. Thus while we are finally reaching the point where histories of the Left are required reading for those hoping to write on civil rights or women’s activism, groups outside the CP still receive little attention. This lacuna is magnified by the disproportionate role Trotskyists have played in American history. Though their numbers have never been impressive, Trots of various stripes played a key role in events from the Minneapolis General Strike of 1934 to the Berkeley Free Speech Movement. On an individual level, Trotskyists from C.L.R. James to Harry Braverman to Hal Draper have produced works of a level which ranks with the best the CPGB Historian’s Group ever produced. Yet the political context in which these activists and writers developed has never been properly understood.

Bryan Palmer’s new biography of James P. Cannon, founder of American Trotskyism, forcefully raises these questions and more. Though Palmer’s book ends in 1928, before Trotskyism was a coherent tradition anywhere but in the minds of Stalinist apparatchiks, it confronts historians of American radicalism with a number of questions which promise to significantly change the shape of future discussion.

In a wonderfully pugnacious Introduction, Palmer argues that the historiography of American communism has betrayed a certain reticence to confront the early years of the Communist Party. Historians have, understandably, focused much more heavily on the romantic years of the Depression, when Communists fought the Klan in Alabama and helped beat General Motors in Flint. Yet this focus has distorted the subject in a number of ways, as it has relieved historians of the burden of tracing the development of the party. As such, it has led to a great deal of sloppiness over the key question of Moscow influence, which has always been the dividing line between the New Left influenced ‘revisionists’ and conservative ‘traditionalists.’ While the traditionalists follow Theodore Draper in portraying the American party as an appendage of Moscow, the revisionists emphasize the grassroots initiative which characterized local campaigns. Both sides, Palmer argues, fail to appreciate the transformation which took place during the mid-1920s, when a party which began as a domestic response to war and revolution slowly became utterly subordinated to Moscow. Examining this period of American radicalism thus exposes the limitations of revisionism and traditionalism, both of which fail to consider how the party changed, and why.

Palmer’s argument here is cogent and incisive, but I think it could be pushed further. Part of the reason revisionist scholars insisted on the grassroots nature of American socialism stems from their own evaluations of the reasons for the demise of the New Left. As SDS tore itself apart in chants of “Mao, Mao, Mao Tse-Tung” vs. “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh,” many of its activists who would go on to the academy concluded that the reason for this ignoble end came down to the devotion of both sides to foreign ideologies. In response, they sought to unearth the native traditions of radicalism, which could provide a better usable past for those seeking resources for rebuilding the American left. In seeking to rehabilitate the CP, these authors thus portrayed the party as a site of struggle between authentic American radicalism and bureaucratic deformation. James Barrett’s biography of CP leader William Z. Foster, for example, sets itself the goal of explaining how product of a indigenous American radical could fall under the spell of foreign domination.For the New Left scholars, the study of communism was partially a way of coming to terms with their own past.

Though Palmer doesn’t extend his critique of the historiography this far, his presentation of the early years of American Communism effectively makes the case that, in the pre-Stalinized Comintern at least, foreign directives could have a positive impact. Palmer makes this case by looking at the years of American Communism when two parties laying claim to the name, the Communist Labor Party (CLP) and the Communist Party of America (CPA), contended for the position of Comintern party in the US. Both parties had their origins in the disintegration of the Socialist Party in 1919, when the party’s Right and Center wings expelled the Left. One group of Lefts, consisting of native born radicals like John Reed and focused on fighting around the labor question, became the CLP. The CPA’s foundations, on the other hand, were in the large immigrant federations, who took an ultraleft position arguing for a strictly underground party and calling for the immediate formation of American soviets and the dictatorship of the proletariat.

James Cannon became a key member of the CLP, and, as Palmer shows, was instrumental in the negotiations which would bring the two parties together to form the Worker’s Party. Although the two organizations were merged on paper, however, the immigrant federations still pursued an ultraleft course, and sought to decisively subordinate aboveground work to the imperatives of the underground. Arguing that such a course promised to isolate the WP from layers of workers who would otherwise be sympathetic to its message, Cannon and his allies took the question to the Fourth Congress of the Comintern in 1922. There, they won the support of Trotksy and Zinoviev, who ordered the ultralefts to cease their continued factional maneuvers. Supposedly Lenin himself looked at the question from his sickbed. When shown a copy of the underground’s newspaper, he reportedly scrawled in its margins “Stop this nonsense.” The Comintern’s decision thus paved the way for the unification of the party around an aboveground apparatus, which could openly participate in the kind of united fronts that the Comintern was then calling for. While the foreign language federations had the numerical minority inside the American party, their course would have kept the CP marginalized and prevented it from establishing the foundations which allowed it to have such an impact during the Depression.

Although Palmer doesn’t pay close attention to it, the Fourth Congress also featured another decision which positively affected the American party. This concerned the Negro Question, as it was then called. Though the Worker’s Party had inherited the best perspectives on racism from the Left Wing of the SP, by 1922 it had given no signs of considering the race problem in America worthy of any special attention. This changed at the Fourth Congress. Claude McKay, who had joined the American party but was dissatisfied with its approach to the race question, traveled to Moscow to present his views before the court of world communism. There, he was received as a celebrity, an authentic American revolutionary Negro. In a speech before the assembled delegates, he condemned his party’s line on race, arguing that their refusal to take seriously the fight of Negroes against their own oppression betrayed a hidden racism within the party. Without including the struggles of American Blacks, McKay argued, the American revolution would be stillborn.

The Comintern eagerly adopted McKay’s perspective, commissioning him to expand it into a book length study. It also established a Negro Commission, tasked with developing a specific Comintern line on the subject. The resulting theses (available here) recognized the importance of Black struggle against racism, and urged Communists all over the world to support those struggles. In the United States, the Comintern/McKay perspective was first expressed in a series of articles Robert Minor would publish in the Liberator. These articles, which I’ve scanned and attached as an appendix to this review, are extraordinary pieces, which seek to construct a narrative of Black history centered around the consistent struggle of Blacks against their oppression. Minor digs deep into the history of slavery, unearthing slave revolts that even today students of Black history rarely read about. He also revealed a deep respect for the writings of Black historians like W.E.B. Du Bois, Carter G. Woodson, and James Weldon Johnson. Though the history of the pre-Communist Left’s treatment of the race question is not quite the economistic wasteland it is commonly portrayed as, Minor’s articles nonetheless represented a breakthrough in their appreciation for the importance of Black struggle. Though gesturing towards McKay’s importance, Palmer largely ignores this story in the biography, as Minor developed into a vicious factional opponent of Cannon’s (although Palmer has written insightfully on the subject elsewhere. See his excellent review of my advisor’s last book here.)

Palmer’s close focus on Cannon, even as it obscures some important developments, pays off however, in persuasiveness of its central argument: that James P. Cannon was one of the two or three most important figures in the first decade of American Communism. Rooted in a decade of experience with the Industrial Workers of the World (who had already by 1920 entered the folklore of American radicalism), Palmer was a respected figure in the early CP. As mentioned above, he was instrumental bringing together the warring parties of the early years, laying the groundwork for an aboveground party which could effectively intervene in various struggles. Similarly, Cannon was a key opponent of John Pepper, a Hungarian revolutionist who, after various hijincks in the Comintern, was dumped into the American party where, it was hoped, his capacity for damage would be limited (Pepper was dislodged from his place of prominence in Hungarian Communism by the political arguments of one Georg Lukács). Unfortunately, he proved quite up to the task of disorganizing the CPUSA, carrying it through a number of united front operations in which the party managed to alienate the few sympathizers it then had on the American Left. Cannon was intensely critical of this line of march, arguing in one context that “If we flood the conference with Workers Party delegates, we simply lay the conference open to such a successful attack and thereby defeat ourselves by defeating the conference.” Unfortunately, Pepper and his allies ignored Cannon’s warning, and pursued the kind of rule or ruin strategy that somehow always ends up as the latter.

Cannon was much more successful in his work to establish the International Labor Defense, which Palmer argues was basically a creation of Cannon and his wife as well as the most successful initiative of the CP during the 1920s. Drawing on his experience with the Wobblies, who were famous for their free speech fights, Cannon proposed a united front around defending class war prisoners. Such a strategy would help link the Party with sympathetic layers, establish its credibility as a force on the Left, and expose the repression inherent in capitalist democracy. Under Cannon’s leadership, the ILD helped support prisoner’s families, raised awareness about their cases, and rallied workers to fight against repression. In particular, the ILD’s leadership in the struggle against Sacco and Vanzetti’s execution, though hobbled by Cannon’s factional opponents, established it as a leading force on the American Left. Given the ILD’s importance during the Depression (for example during the Scottsboro case), Cannon’s role in its founding should shake up our conceptions of who accomplished what during the 1930s.

Though Palmer’s tone on occasion approaches hagiographic, he does not shy away from criticisms of Cannon. For example, he notes that Cannon largely went along with the Comintern’s campaign against Trotsky until 1928, when he received a copy of Trotsky’s criticisms of the Comintern Draft Program. Similarly, Palmer is clear that Cannon was not always fair to his family, as his work with the party basically broke up his first marriage and frequently strained his second. In particular, Palmer is careful to note the masculinist culture of early American radicalism, where women were frequently viewed as a temptation which would distract the eternal male revolutionary. Though Palmer is clear that he thinks Cannon was clearly the outstanding leader of early American Communism, his subject never acquires the kind of otherworldliness which communist leaders often have in the hands of their followers.

With this biography, Palmer has thus opened a space for a far more inclusive discussion of American Communism. Future historians will, hopefully, have to come to terms with the early years of the Party as well as those currents which would continue on outside of it. Though this review has focused on the book’s import within an academic context, I am sure that Palmer would rather its greatest impact be in the field of American radicalism itself. Here, the book undoubtedly constitutes a tremendous resource to radicals seeking a usable past. Although struggles today are undoubtedly at a lower ebb than when Jim Cannon was struggling to hold a nascent party together, his history nonetheless contains much of value for those seeking to build a new current of American radicalism today.

Appendix

As promised, here are Robert Minor’s extraordinary articles on racism from the Liberator.  To appreciate how groundbreaking they are, you have to have some acquaintance with the paucity of white Leftist discussions of race at the time.  Though hardly relevant to the piece at hand, they’re a big part of what I’ve been working on all semester.  So there.

Robert Minor – The Black Ten Millions I

Robert Minor – The Black Ten Millions II

Robert Minor – The Negro Finds His Place – and a Sword

Robert Minor – The Handkerchief on Garvey’s Head

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