Marxism through the back door: An interview with Cedric Johnson
Platypus Review #79 | September 2015
Gregor Baszak of the Platypus Affiliated Society conducted an interview with Cedric Johnson, author of From Revolutionaries to Race Leaders: Black Power and the Making of African American Politics (2007). What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Stokely Carmichael lecturing on Pan-Africanism in the 1960s.
Gregor Baszak: Most on the Left claim that the recent cases of police violence suffered by Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and others are racially motivated. Some even say that it has an aspect of ethnic cleansing. Do you agree?
Cedric Johnson: The truth is that cops intensively patrol and surveil particular neighborhoods within America’s cities. Blacks and Latinos bear the brunt of this form of policing, which was set in motion by the so-called “War on Drugs.” This has gone on for decades now. Arguments that it amounts to ethnic cleansing or that it is directed against black people have a certain emotive and rhetorical force. However, ultimately they misdiagnose the problem. According to a Justice Department report on arrest-related deaths between 2003 and 2009, including cases where people were killed in car accidents during police pursuits and those who committed suicide during an arrest, blacks are overrepresented (as are Latinos), but they are not in the majority. (( Andrea M. Burch, “Arrest-Related Deaths, 2003-2009 – Statistical Tables,” Bureau of Justice Statistics, November 2011, http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/ard0309st.pdf. )) When I present such information to my liberal anti-racist friends and students, they have little to offer in response other than “Yes, of course, whites are the majority of the population, so you would expect their numbers to be higher.” But why don’t those deaths figure into the conversation? Isn’t it possible to condemn police violence against blacks while simultaneously demanding justice for all victims? What do these victims—black, white, Latino, male and female—have in common? Why do so many Americans view the current crisis strictly in terms of anti-black racism, when we have evidence that suggests we are facing a more complex and more daunting problem, one that cannot be addressed with yesteryear’s analysis and slogans? We need a more dialectical appreciation of historical progress: How have the defeats and victories of earlier anti-racist struggles produced new social contradictions, altering the conditions we now confront? Additionally, when we look at those who carried out the killing of Freddie Gray, three of the six police officers involved were black. In the case of Eric Garner, a Latino officer choked him to death. So, the fact of integrated police forces needs to be considered. These individuals are not motivated by racial animus. Rather, their behavior reflects a mode of policing that targets the working class, the unemployed, and those who live in areas where the informal economy is dominant. On the national level, even in rural areas, small towns, and places where blacks do not live in large numbers, the same dynamics are at play with whites and Latinos. This is the dominant means for managing social inequality in an era of obsolescence and pervasive economic insecurity.
GB: For Michelle Alexander and her many followers on the anti-racist left, these are instances of a “New Jim Crow.” How do you respond?
CJ: The same. If you look at the prison population, blacks are not the majority. African Americans are certainly overrepresented, and in certain states they constitute a majority of those incarcerated or under court supervision. Therefore, we are not looking at something motivated exclusively or even primarily by racism. I’m not suggesting that the system is not racialized, or that racist policing is not a part of the equation. It is. But there is much more that we need to get a handle on, especially if we want to build a movement powerful enough to change the current state of affairs.
The heart of the problem, as I see it, dates back to the process of deindustrialization and its consequences for working people. When you look at the years from 1960 to 1990, most of the job loss within the US is due to technological change. From the 80s onwards, outsourcing and globalization caused further job loss. What happens to those persons residing in cities during this period of labor force contraction and technology-induced unemployment, not to mention the impact of the neoliberal rollback of the social safety net? This population which previously was absorbed into the Fordist economy is now left to fend for itself. The same thing happens in rural areas, where we find the same sort of revolutionary changes in the forces of production, namely, the mechanization of agriculture beginning in the middle of the 20th century, as well as its corporate consolidation. Thus, there is a lot of disruption within the economy. People are being thrown out of work without real viable solutions being debated. Certainly none are advanced by the New Right, which demonizes the unemployed, blaming them for their plight. But the New Democrats offer no real alternative either. They are content to follow the same strategies of supply-side stimulus and neoliberalization that create dispossession and precarity. The back-end solution supported by both capitalist parties is to build up the prison state. This is what we face: Instead of investing in individuals and communities up front, we’ve resorted to incarceration as a means of warehousing the poor in order to soothe middle class angst about property crime and urban violence. Many people evoke the issue of unemployment in conversations taking place after the Baltimore rebellion, but they do so as a way of pivoting back toward the same old solutions. They concede that there is high unemployment in Baltimore, particularly among African American men, but their solutions are to create entrepreneurial incubators and recruit more volunteers to clean up the city or to mentor “underprivileged” young people. They fail to directly address structural unemployment.
GB: Does this criticism also apply to the Left?
CJ: It’s primarily the Democrats but there is culpability on the Left. Some of us can’t seem to discern the actual dynamics at play, much less what an effective solution might look like. For instance, many fetishize grassroots activism, but some of that activity, if it is incapable of contesting the powerful, will end up merely creating an audience for non-profit and neoliberal solutions. In the case of Baltimore, since the rebellion there has been a rapid mobilization among the black professional and managerial stratum. They have been quick to frame issues in a way that opens the door toward further integration of the city’s public administration and a renewed legitimization of those who are already in power. State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby stepped forward and brought an indictment, exciting people who have seen too many police killings end without one or with a trial that ends in acquittal. Even if the trials are a wash or the officers get minimal sentences, she will have a political future based on that one act. But the indictment had the effect of taking the wind out of the sails of street protest. We have seen this before. The more reformist elements are concerned about a conviction. They will even say that their struggle is not about other issues, but simply about justice for Mike Brown, or for Eric Garner, etc.
On the other hand, there are tendencies calling for something more substantial, such as the #BlackLivesMatter (BLM) campaign. Their initial statements demand demilitarization of police forces and reductions in the amount of spending on policing. They do not now have the power to bring about such changes, because that would mean compelling city councils, state legislatures, and even Congress to act in a progressive manner. At this point it is just a moral appeal. I agree with Adolph Reed, Jr. when he says that #BlackLivesMatter is not a movement, but simply the latest campaign within a long series of struggles, in some ways disconnected and episodic, which have sought to reform the prison system, combat police brutality, and deal with questions of urban violence. In the past few decades waves of these struggles have coalesced around high profile police killings. But just as quickly as they coalesce, they disperse whenever an indictment is handed down or whenever, as happened in Baltimore, a fairly powerful and well-organized black political elite is able to reframe the issue in line with their priorities. Even before Mosby stepped to the podium to deliver the indictments, various non-profits were harnessing the momentum generated by the marches, demonstrations, and rioting.
GB: One likely outcome arguably would be that we are faced post-BLM with the further legitimization of the Democratic Party. Is it possible to work effectively through the Democrats?
CJ: They are part of the problem! They use these tragedies to their electoral advantage without making commitments to social policies that might change things. Even Hilary Clinton talked about mass incarceration on the campaign stump during the Baltimore events. That takes some gumption given that she was a part of two presidential administrations that helped to ramp up the prison problem in this country. Not only did Bill Clinton support an omnibus crime bill that upheld the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, he championed welfare-to-work reform and the razing of public housing, social policy experiments that have generated tremendous disruption. So, I guess hindsight really is 20/20! The Democrats appropriate whatever talking points might be helpful on the campaign trail. Politicians in Baltimore and beyond have already learned to embrace elements of the “New Jim Crow” argument. It provides them a way to connect with their electoral constituency without dealing with the underlying class contradictions or their culpability in reproducing the current inequities. We are going to see much more of that. Since the Mother Emanuel Church massacre in South Carolina, Democratic presidential hopefuls have called for the Confederate battle flag to be removed from state houses and other public places. This is band-wagon opportunism.
Obama’s response to Baltimore, like all his other speeches on questions of urban inequality, acknowledged unemployment and other structural factors only to pivot towards calling for more support of groups like Big Brothers Big Sisters, his “My Brother's Keeper” initiative, and other mentoring projects. He engages in the same underclass mythology purveyed by generations of Cold War liberals, Reagan Republicans, and New Democrats before him. But because of the claims he can make to racial authenticity and his skill at emoting with black audiences, he’s more effective. Obama’s solution is certainly not large-scale redistribution of society’s resources and extensive reinvestment in blighted and abandoned urban communities. His solution is more parental responsibility, the valorization of the heteronormative, patriarchial family form—the black father as antidote to poverty, violence, unemployment, the achievement gap, and many other problems. This is a shibboleth of black public discourse stretching back through the 1995 Million Man March and The Cosby Show all the way to the debates surrounding Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. It is a form of politics predicated on victim-blaming that mystifies the power of class in American society.
What is most troubling about all this is that the New Democrats have consistently relied on this same dog-eared playbook since the late 1980s. They have constantly presented us with empty moralizing when it comes to the poor. Yet they are careful to distinguish that problem from the neoliberal “reforms” that they have forced upon the nation. The New Democrats' mode of operating is to tip their hats toward symbolic elements of the New Deal coalition, extend token concessions to women, blacks, labor, etc., and then make decisions indistinguishable in substance from those of the New Right. If anything, the New Democrats are more effective at advancing the agenda of privatization than the neoconservatives because they are able to cajole and defuse potential opposition.
GB: Historically, one prominent left advocate of working through the Democrats was Bayard Rustin, whose 1965 essay “From Protest to Politics” you describe as “[signaling] his own departure from radical protest toward a more conservative politics of insider negotiation. . . . His partisan view of pursuing racial justice via institutional politics was recognized and promoted by the state apparatus as an antidote to the mass disruptions of the civil rights movement.” (( Cedric Johnson, Revolutionaries to Race Leaders. Black Power and the Making of African American Politics (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2007), 36, 38. )) To that strategy you oppose a “movement politics as the most effective means available to marginalized, poor, and working-class people to realize their historical will.” (( Ibid., xxix. )) But couldn't we also understand his strategy as an attempt to transform the Democrats toward a coalition between labor and the Civil Rights Movement, particularly in the historic absence of a socialist mass party in the United States? Are you saying pursuing the aim of forming a national party inevitably resulted in demobilization of the Left in the wake of civil rights? Or is your critique primarily directed at the Democratic Party-oriented strategy Rustin advocated? Should the Left today advocate a party-oriented politics or do you still promote extra-parliamentary approaches, albeit perhaps under different auspices than the BLM?
CJ: There are a number of problems with Rustin’s essay. I criticize his turn to a politics of elite brokerage as part of a broader discussion of Harold Cruse, who also dismissed protest and advocated elite-driven politics, but from a different set of motivations and assumptions than Rustin. Although these men could easily be counterposed in an “integrationist versus nationalist” frame, what I was trying to illustrate was how different political tendencies within black public life in the middle 60s were converging in their commitment to institutional politics. They did so in a manner that obscured what politics was about or should be about. Rustin’s formulation of protest as a transitional stage whose time had passed was troubling. It parallels shifts within the labor movement that found their most grotesque representation in George Meany’s leadership of the AFL-CIO, as well as in black power militants who abhorred interracialism in terms of leadership, but were comfortable with a fiscal interracialism. They simply aspired to control the economic and political institutions that organized black urban life. Rustin’s desire to further social democracy in the US at that moment is admirable, but what he seems to forget is that the advances of the interwar period within the labor movement and those of the Civil Rights Movement after the Second World War were derived from an array of political actions, such as legal campaigns, popular protests, organizing support at the grassroots and among wealthy benefactors and sympathetic politicians. He forgets about this winding path of social change, and with it, any sense that politics—which is, in its broadest sense, the exercise of power—entails force as well as persuasion.
Rustin is a tragic figure during the 60s. I suspect his embrace of conservative politics at that moment stems in large part from how he had been marginalized within movement circles. Here we have someone who was a member of the Young Communist League and the War Resisters League, someone who had a genuinely rich experience of political activism. He was also a gay black man. His communist past and his sexuality were easy targets for those who wanted to discredit the movement. The clergy and other movement leaders respected his work, expertise, and acumen as an organizer. Still, he was relegated to toiling behind the curtains while others took center stage. This changed during the early 60s, but what happens when Rustin is no longer closeted by movement leaders? As he and others gained access to the halls of power, appointments at the White House, and so on, he grows more conservative, if only in terms of strategy. Even before the 1965 Commentary essay was published, he’d already demonstrated a willingness to stifle dissent within the movement. The two most famous incidences were his muzzling of John Lewis at the 1963 March on Washington and his work brokering the compromise with the Mississippi Freedom Democrats at the 1964 Democratic National Convention.
I doubt Rustin’s wisdom at that historical moment. His belief that participation sans protest could steer the Democratic Party during the middle 60s towards more extensive commitments to social democracy seems even more foolhardy in hindsight. He had reason to be optimistic about the prospects given the Johnson administration’s civil rights reforms and the War on Poverty, but there were very real reactionary tendencies within the Democratic Party at that time. The party included Vietnam hawks, Southern segregationists, and legions of voters who were firmly committed to the middle class consumer society. Rustin cedes too much ground to them. And, again, his fatal flaw is that he no longer seems to appreciate the role of movement pressure.
With respect to our own times, my views on these matters may be more complicated now than when I wrote those passages. For the most part, I still see popular movements and political disruption as some of the most important levers of social change within American society. But when I wrote that book, I was responding in part to the decades of demobilization and political decomposition within black public life. The book began as a dissertation during the 1990s. My questions and preoccupations were prompted by the lack of any sustained and viable black protest movements. Black radicalism at that moment was dominated by Afrocentric and culturalist politics. Black elite politics as I experienced it within the Washington Beltway was veering towards extensive commitments to Clinton New Democratic politics, an amalgam of multicultural social liberalism and neoliberalization. Of course, since the Clinton years, we’ve witnessed the emergence of strong, visible social protests beginning with anti-globalization struggles at the close of the nineties, continuing through the anti-war campaigns that followed September 11, Occupy and, now, the anti-police brutality and criminal justice reform actions represented by Black Lives Matter, the Black Youth Project, and other organizations. Their emergence has changed some of my thinking, or at least refined some of my views, forcing me to ask different questions.
So, we need both. Elections matter, but they shouldn’t be seen as way of building a movement. They are moments to shape the political arena, but the work of organizing a political alternative shouldn’t be bound to the election cycle. The emergence of the Labor Party, the success of the Greens and other minor parties at the state and local level, and the election of some progressive Democrats now and again, should all give us some hope. Still we know that the American party system is stacked in favor of the wealthy and, at the national level, the election of Congressional representation is biased against cities, where most Americans live.
GB: In his 1970 essay “The Failure of Black Separatism,” Rustin implies that black separatism is right-wing. (( Bayard Rustin, “ The Failure of Black Separatism, ” Harper's Magazine, January 1970, 25. )) You agree that black nationalism had “conservative political dynamics.” (( Johnson, Revolutionaries to Race Leaders, xxiii. )) In the same period, C. L. R. James argued that the black political struggle as an independent struggle could nevertheless be directed toward socialism. (( C. L. R. James, “Black Power,” in The C. L. R. James Reader, ed. Anna Grimshaw (Oxford, UK/ Cambridge, USA: Blackwell, 1992) 362-74. )) Harold Cruse, finally, believed that Afro-Americans were subject to domestic colonialism but that therein lay their revolutionary character. (( Harold Cruse, “Revolutionary Nationalism and the Afro-American,” in Rebellion or Revolution (Minneapolis/London: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2009), 74-96. )) These are in many ways drastically varying interpretations. Can we say that the potential direction of black nationalist politics was still up for grabs in the late 60s? What made and makes it so difficult to locate black nationalism politically?
CJ: In each of these different statements, what we have are intellectuals trying to make sense of the movements unfolding around them and attempting to shape the course of events. This is something that we all as intellectuals hope to do. They are also speaking to very different contexts. For instance, Cruse’s 1962 essay “Revolutionary Nationalism and the Afro-American” where he lays out the argument that blacks are the “American problem of underdevelopment” was written from the critical vantage point of what some referred to at the time as the “new nationalism” or “new Afro-American nationalism.” This tendency was represented by Malcolm X in the Nation of Islam, the Revolutionary Action Movement, but also by intellectuals like Cruse and others who wrote for magazines like Liberator and Soulbook. Some were refugees from the American Communist Party. Others had been devotees of Marcus Garvey responding to post-war historical conditions. They were united in their skepticism towards liberal integration and the philosophy of non-violent resistance, as well as by their sense of solidarity with anti-colonial struggles in Africa and other parts of the Third World. This intellectual movement anticipated the black power militancy of the late sixties.
C. L. R. James was by then writing about the US from a distance. His comments reflect the optimism that many felt at that moment, when it seemed like—given the emergence of organizations like the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, and the massive riots in American cities—the country was entering a revolutionary epoch. Rustin is literally writing after the smoke has cleared. He had witnessed waves of urban revolt, police repression of black militancy, and the emergence of Nixon’s version of black power as black capitalism. Surely, he saw all these derivations of black power as a retreat from the politics he felt might steer the country in a social-democratic direction. I should also add, that he was attacked mercilessly by some cultural nationalist elements. When I was conducting research on my dissertation years ago, I remember stumbling upon Amiri Baraka’s “Open Letter to Bayard Rustin” where Baraka denounced him as “paid pervert of the racist unions.”
I agree with the characterization offered by Wilson J. Moses, and more recently by Dean Robinson, that black nationalism tends to take the shape of its historical container. It is not disconnected from broader “white” public discourses, but intimately constituted by them. This is how we end up with Marcus Garvey and other UNIA members donning British naval regalia and parading through Harlem emulating imperial power, or Stokely Carmichael, Cruse and others drawing on fairly conservative ethnic pluralist accounts of American politics to develop their theories of black power.
GB: You critique Harold Cruse for ultimately “[rehabilitating] the racial uplift politics of the Jim Crow era where black elites serve as the role models and legitimate voice of the masses,” i.e. for promoting an elite-driven ethnic politics as opposed to one rooted in the working class. (( Cedric Johnson, foreword to Rebellion or Revolution by Harold Cruse (Minneapolis/London: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2009), 6. )) However, you acknowledge that Cruse's work served as an inspiration early on during your graduate student days. (( Ibid., 1. )) How did Cruse's writings figure in your development as a Marxist? What other intellectual influences led you to critique his approach?
CJ: As an undergraduate, Cruse’s work resonated with much of what I had read and observed as a teenager. His work was also contradictory in both conscious and unintended ways. Even as he advocated for a form of black ethnic politics, Cruse outlined in painstaking detail the array of ideologies and positions that coursed through black political life over the twentieth century, facts that made the prospects of black unity unlikely and any talk of a singular black political will difficult to abide. My criticism of the ethnic paradigm, and of identity politics more generally, is in many respects autocritique.
I came of age in the waning years of the Cold War, at a moment when left politics was in disarray and retreat, and I grew up in a region of the country where black liberal commitments to protecting the gains of the Civil Rights Movement and nationalist ideas about economic and political independence were dominant. Opelousas, Louisiana is my home town. At that time St. Landry Parish was the poorest county of its size in the United States. The experience of growing up in a majority black city, and living in places like Baton Rouge and the Baltimore-Washington region as a student, further complicated for me inherited notions of black ethnic politics. Although I was socialized into the same modes of essentialist thinking and bourgeois aspiration as everyone else, my formative sense of the complexity of black political life was gained through living in different black communities, and experiencing the internal class dynamics from various perspectives, as the child of public school teachers, a lay church member, janitor, groundskeeper, restaurant cook, collegiate student-athlete, sergeant-at-arms at the Louisiana State Senate, substitute teacher, an adjunct lecturer and ultimately tenure-track professor.
Throughout childhood and adolescence, I belonged to many majority black institutions. I grew up in Holy Ghost Catholic Church, which was at that time the largest black Catholic congregation in the United States with some 10,000 parishioners. That church was pastored by Reverend Albert J. McKnight, the father of the “southern cooperative movement.” The congregation was a hub of political and social activism throughout the 80s and early 90s, hosting the Black Youth Congress which drew hundreds of teenagers from Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi, and Camp Manhood Development for Black Boys; constructing an assisted living housing complex; and creating the annual Southwest Louisiana Zydeco Music festival. We discussed adolescent issues, read and discussed books like Carter G. Woodson’s The Miseducation of the Negro (1933), participated in dramatic and choral performances, and debated the problems facing African Americans during the Reagan-Bush era. For a short time, the church launched a cooperative supermarket, Heritage Square, and the congregation’s activism was crucial in electing the first black mayor, city councilors, and chief of police in a town that was still dominated until the early 80s, despite having a black electoral majority, by the white merchant-landlord class. During my junior year of high school, Holy Ghost was a driving force behind protests against a pending school consolidation plan which would close various community schools throughout the parish, many of them located in majority black farming communities. The protests escalated over the course of a year with a student-walkout, sit-ins, mass arrests, and, eventually, a march to the state capitol. The new schools were eventually built, but the activism altered the terms of public debate and the site selection decisions, empowering blacks throughout the Parish. Even though I try to avoid being too nostalgic about it, that period was profoundly transformative for me personally. After leaving my hometown, I attended Southern University-Baton Rouge, which was then the largest historically black college with around 10,000 students. When I finally got around to reading Cruse’s The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, it provoked a sense of déjà vu. His ideas about black political self-assertion and the need for institution-building, the responsibility of the black intellectual, the problem of white cultural appropriation and, relatedly, the lack of black economic ownership, were all very familiar to me. I was enamored by the kind of intellectual he represented, one that possessed a broad historical consciousness unconstrained by disciplinary expectations. He was more motivated by race advancement than career advancement. I don’t agree with some of his interpretations and prescriptions, but many of the questions he raised were the right ones, and many remain unanswered. They are likely to remain unanswered as intellectual life within academe drifts ever farther away from bread-and-butter concerns that preoccupy the vast majority of people in our society.
Protesters on the street following the Rodney King verdict in 1992.
GB: So, is it fair to say that you came to Marxism out of frustration with even the most thoughtful strains within black nationalism? How would you describe the process of coming to Marxism at a time when it was clearly on the retreat both as a global politics and as an intellectual current? While the disadvantages of coming to Marxism at such a time are manifest, what, if any, are the insights this experience allowed you?
CJ: I entered Southern University as a freshman in the summer of 1989, and that period, the so-called “end of history” for Francis Fukuyama and his ilk, was a tough time to openly embrace socialism. That said, when I first read The Communist Manifesto as a freshman, it made sense to me. Marx and Engels' text resonated with my understanding of the world. To express any interest in communism at that moment, however, was to condemn oneself to the margins of any political discussion within black public life, and the US more generally. I had grown up in underdeveloped South Louisiana where struggles over environmental pollution, incarceration, poverty and racism were all too real, so I was enamored by their approach to thinking about history, and their critique of capitalism. I also came into Marxism through the “back door” so to speak. Marx’s writings were off limits in an era where Afrocentrism and neo-black nationalist ideas were dominant, but there was room to engage Caribbean and African leftist writers. Despite the anti-communism of black cultural nationalists and the black bourgeoisie, it wasn’t uncommon to find copies of The Black Jacobins (1938), Eric Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery (1944), Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1972), the writings of Chinweizu and Nkrumah, the speeches of Maurice Bishop and Thomas Sankara, the works of white British historian Basil Davidson, and so forth, nestled on the shelves of many black bookstores and stacked neatly on the book tables at various African American street festivals and bazaars across the country. Much of that literary culture and the infrastructure of independent black booksellers sadly has vanished in many cities. Many black nationalists saw these figures as acceptable because they viewed them as Pan-Africanist, first and foremost, who just happened to be Marxist. I embraced them because of their visions of national industrial development, and critiques of neocolonialism. There were also specific mentors who steered me from a basic moral opposition to capitalism towards a more mature analysis of the process of accumulation. Roderick Sias, one of my homeboys who also grew up in Holy Ghost Church, took me under his wing at Southern University. He got me involved in protests against the Persian Gulf War and capital punishment in Louisiana. Years later, he introduced me to the work of Henri Lefebvre while he was completing a graduate degree in architecture and planning, and for me he still represents the highest level of intellectual engagement and political integrity. Gary Clark, one of my political science professors at Southern University really challenged my thinking, especially with respect to international politics, and his example inspired me to become a university professor. In my first quarter as a graduate student in the Ohio State University’s Black Studies department, Ike Okafor Newsum introduced me to the writings of Gramsci, Terry Eagleton, Raymond Williams, works by various queer and feminist theorists especially Adrienne Rich, and the Black Arts Movement canon, e.g. Larry Neal, Baraka, Ishmael Reed, etc. And the person who really sharpened my understanding and cemented my commitment to Marxist analysis was the late Linda Faye Williams of the University of Maryland, College Park. I spent a semester with her reading intensively on African American politics and it probably saved my graduate school career. Our conversations rambled on for hours, and she shared some amazing stories of black political life during the 70s, her connection with Walter Rodney and the Working People’s Alliance, and experiences in Guyana during the reign of Forbes Burnham. I took an intimate graduate seminar with her in the wake of the 1994 Republican Revolution and on-going efforts to dismantle welfare and public housing.
GB: We’ve been talking about the series of movements that have emerged since the late 1990s from anti-globalization to #BlackLivesMatter. In many ways these have coincided with a movement to the right in politics overall. What does Marxism specifically have to offer by way of reversing what seems an ongoing downward spiral? After all, giving political expression to Marxism would seem to involve simply joining one of the many sectarian disjecta membra of an American socialism that never quite was.
CJ: As long as capitalism exploits and degrades living labor and the environment, Marx will remain relevant. Over time, I’ve gained many insights about politics, the history of capitalist development, dynamics of globalization and international trade, technological development and the labor process, and the consumer society from studying the writings of Marx, Adolph Reed, Judith Stein, Nick Dyer-Witheford, David Harvey, Neil Smith, Mike Davis, Christopher Gunn, and so many others who have worked within the interpretive tradition of historical materialism. This is a diverse and rich body of knowledge. Many of the problems in our society that are often treated as distinctive and disconnected, are in fact rooted in the process of capital accumulation. This is not to say that every problem can be explained through materialist critique, but I’m convinced that we cannot fully understand poverty, policing, climatic change, gun violence, the limitations of bourgeois democracy, how cities have developed in the US over the past century, gender and racial inequality, and so forth without thinking critically about the power of capital, the demands it places on living labor and its pernicious effects.
When we look at the current brouhaha between Black Lives Matter activists, so-called “black twitter,” and the Bernie Sanders campaign, it reveals just how bad things have become, as well as the downside of new technologies for developing progressive or even revolutionary left politics in this country. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people champion the virtues of new communication technologies and their radical potential. But after living with cellphones, social media, etc. for some time now, I can’t say that we’re better off. The opposition to the Sanders campaign reveals a shallow understanding of class by some of his detractors who seem to view race and class as equivalents, and who appear to be unaware that their racial militancy is itself a form of class politics. There is a crass opportunism at work here that we’ve seen before. Bruce Dixon’s recent essay (( Bruce Dixon, “NetRoots Nation Confrontation Wasn't About #BlackLivesMatter At All,” Black Agenda Report, last modified July 23, 2015, http://www.blackagendareport.com/netroots-nation-confrontation. )) is really perceptive in identifying the problem. In reasserting the primacy of “race” for understanding contemporary inequality, the activists who interrupted the Netroots Nation event were attempting to stake out a claim as brokers for some black constituency, if not for all blacks writ large. Herein lies one of the many limitations of politics in the wireless age, and that is, that anyone with a cellphone or a Twitter handle can lay claim to representing this or that constituency without the accountability and hard work that comes with some other more honest form of political representation. The same media also allow for an undisciplined style of intellectual and political engagement, one that too often mirrors the sensationalism, Babbitry, philistinism, and short attention span of corporate news media.
So, we can’t reverse the problems of left disarray that you note here through social media or elections. We have to start elsewhere. We need to go back to basics.
Those of us on the Left who are already engaged in local campaigns, neighborhood organizations, tenants groups, unions, left political organizations etc., need to broaden our efforts to include the uninitiated, the despondent, and even those who may hold reactionary views now. Powerful social movements engage people across social layers, create unlikely allies and change perceptions of what is possible. This won’t happen solely through social media, which reproduces market niches and social cliques, and allows people to lambaste and troll others without fear of reprisal and without the civility and responsibility that typically disciplines face-to-face conversations, and actual relationships. Social media is an effective means for publicizing and organizing certain kinds of events, connecting people across geographic expanses, and rapidly circulating information, but it cannot develop the kinds of deep bonds and relations of trust that are necessary for political activity predicated on risk-taking and protracted commitment. This is difficult work, but I don’t see any way around it. How else will we be able to develop broad, powerful political opposition to the investor class in this country, and begin to build the world that we want? |P
Transribed by Katarzyna Piotrowska.