Originally, this special issue of Socialism and Democracy had as its focus to demonstrate the continued relevance of socialism and Marxism to African American Studies (AAS). As we complete this issue, we are witnessing, from Wisconsin to California, concerted attacks on the working class which challenge the very notion that workers have the right to form unions. The assault on collective bargaining is no less than a threat to the livelihood of workers in this country. Yet working people are not silently standing by while the ruling class with its state power seeks to resolve the economic crisis of capitalism at their expense. We cannot ignore the fact that in a great number of the mass demonstrations on the part of public-sector workers, African Americans are prominently in the leadership as well as in the rank and file.
Students of African American Studies would not be surprised at observing these developments, for scholarly research unveils the formidable historical legacy of Black worker militancy. As students and scholars of Black history, we will discover Peter Clark’s crucial involvement in the Great Railway Strike of 1877, Lucy Parsons’ staunch engagement in the Haymarket Square struggle, A. Philip Randolph’s persistent organizing of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and Ferdinand Smith’s vanguard role in the National Maritime Union that forced 100 shipping companies to a non-discrimination agreement in 1944. We note that Velma Hopkins and Moranda Smith were stalwart leaders of Local 22 of the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural, and Allied Workers of the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) in its 1947 strike at the Reynolds Tobacco Company in Winston Salem, North Carolina. In addition we learn that such organizations as the Negro National Labor Council carried on labor organizing among Black workers throughout the country and valiantly struggled to end job discrimination, which was rampant in plants and factories after World War II. Among its founders were Paul Robeson and Coleman Young. Young would later become Detroit’s first Black mayor. Many of these labor activists were socialists and quite a few were specifically Marxist-Leninist in their ideological outlook. It is my contention that socialism and Marxism-Leninism are an integral part of African American history and culture. Far from being merely a European ideology foreign to Black people, they infused many of the historic struggles against racism and capitalism as well as other forms of oppression.
Of course, Black critics of Marxism during the past eighty years span a wide range, from conservatives such as journalist George Schuyler, economist Thomas Sowell and civil rights advocate Roy Wilkins to Black nationalists such as Marcus Garvey, Haki Madhubuti and Molefi Asante. Most of the adversarial scholarship to Marxism-Leninism in Black Studies has unfortunately discounted, if not dismissed, the value of a materialist dialectical philosophy of liberation, the scientific world-outlook of Marxism-Leninism, or class struggle, and the scientific socialist principle of the dictatorship of the proletariat. In contrast to this trend in African American political culture, I want to affirm the goal of founding African American Studies on firm scientific (materialist) grounds. This materialist philosophical grounding is not removed from the day-to-day lives of Black people. As Harry Targ has pointed out, “Robeson was a materialist in that he saw the socio-economic condition of people’s lives as shaping their activities and consciousness. He was an historical materialist in that he understood that the material conditions of their lives changed as the economic system in which they lived changed. And he was a dialectician in that he was sensitive to the contradictory character of human existence.”1
As the reader will find, there are a considerable number of misguided philosophical positions in AAS. I contend that idealism is the main culprit. This is why a materialist philosophical inquiry into AAS must be fueled by the critique of idealism. As an example of a materialist critique of idealism in African American Studies, Stephen Ferguson offers us in his present article a much needed and groundbreaking critique of Afrocentrism. Afrocentrism, he argues, has embarked on a quest for an authentic representation of the African self through a reconstruction of the African past with particular focus on classical African civilizations and traditional societies. As a form of petit bourgeois sentimental exoticism, Afrocentrism is grounded in an idealist philosophy of history which seeks to dismiss the class character of those societies (e.g., the Pharaohs in conjunction with the priests as an oppressive and exploitative aristocracy). Consequently, the Afrocentric quest for authenticity is in its essence atavistic and ossified. Rather than move forward and advance toward self-determination, Afrocentrism is imprisoned by the incessant need to think in terms of an abstract conception of Africanity.
In a similar vein, my own article and that of De Anna Reese and Malik Simba are concerned with offering a materialist historical inquiry into African American Studies. Reese and Simba critically interrogate Black history from the standpoint of historiography with particular emphasis on the role of Black women and lay historians. In concert with this objective, we provide an overview of how the major contending philosophical perspective to materialism, namely idealism, has influenced a number of key thinkers in African American Studies and how materialism is a productive and fruitful way of overcoming the resulting limitations. As Simba’s recent landmark investigation into the relationship between law, racism and American constitutionalism shows in greater detail,2 questions concerning the ideological superstructure are not ignored by materialist dialectics; rather, this approach explores how the material conditions of capitalist relations shape consciousness and institutions such as the state and law.
Although this volume was conceived as a presentation of leftist perspectives in Africana Studies, a number of its articles are critical of Marxism. Several of them dismiss Marxism as a viable methodological approach and philosophical perspective for Black Studies. The specific ways in which Marxism is addressed range widely in these articles, and readers will be challenged to draw from the whole discussion an approach that can meet our collective and common needs. I must, however, comment specifically on Yusuf Nuruddin’s article, since it focuses heavily on my own exposition.
Nuruddin offers what can at best be described as a convoluted, yet reactionary rebuttal to my essay on the relevance of materialist philosophical inquiry to African American Studies. Nuruddin’s ad hominem attack on my article is an attempt to synthesize a “radical leftist” perspective and “African-centered paradigms.” Like Miguel de Cervantes’ character Don Quixote, we find Nuruddin tilting at windmills in the hopes of developing “free form radicalism” as opposed to “rigid, dogmatic Marxism”! With sword in hand, he cavalierly accuses me of elitism because I have outlined the relevance of a putatively “cold, abstract and lifeless” materialist philosophical perspective for Black Studies. All of these charges at best are examples of the straw man fallacy. This is all the more amusing since Nuruddin confesses to having little knowledge of philosophy in general. On the one hand, he astutely notes that I am an “erudite” scholar. (Thanks, Yusuf!) And, on the other hand, he smacks me in the face for presenting issues “at a level of abstraction such that the theory does not resonate with the very community that it is aimed at” by ignoring “bread and butter issues.” He even bizarrely claims that a “materialist philosophy is antithetical to African American culture.” Yet, we are given no evidence for such exaggerated claims.
One wonders what makes up African American culture for Nuruddin. Does African American culture include the theoretical and political work of Paul Robeson, Alphaeus Hunton, Maude White, Esther Jackson, Eugene Holmes, Abram Harris, Oliver Cox, Walter Rodney, C.L.R. James, Claudia Jones, Angela Davis, Richard B. Moore, or Hubert Harrison? Are these individuals guilty of applying a “Eurocentric theory and methodology to the analysis of the African or African American experience”? How am I guilty of being Eurocentric? All we get from Nuruddin are wild accusations without any empirical evidence. As Mike Tyson would say, “This is ludicrous!” In each case, from Hubert Harrison to Paul Robeson to Claudia Jones, we find examples of how a materialist philosophy (Marxism-Leninism) has been used to understand the Africana experience. These materialists were not only theorists of the highest level, but also activists who gave their life efforts to the cause of African American liberation. Some of them, as in the case of Paul Robeson, fought on the cultural front. Nuruddin’s charge that materialists ignore culture is all the more disconcerting in view of my one previous article in Socialism and Democracy, which was an article on Jazz that highlighted Robeson’s contribution to the theoretical treatment of Black music.3
Nuruddin’s Black radicalism is nothing more than a cryptic form of bourgeois nationalism that shares more in common with Afrocentrism than it does with Marxism and/or socialism. Marxism is neither Black nor White (African or European)! Rather it embodies dialectical and historical materialist (scientific) analysis and critique aimed at concrete conditions that may include the evaluation of social relations, practices, and institutions that are established on racist grounds within the framework of the capitalist mode of production.
Revolutionary theory not only builds on experience but also critically examines it in order to advance theory beyond the present status quo. Dialectical and historical materialism differs from pragmatism (a form of empiricism) in that it understands that out of the contradictions of present life we can envision a future without exploitation and oppression. This vision is not just an ideal but a living reality born out of the struggle of working people of which the overwhelming majority of Black people are a vital and crucial component. I am well aware that, as Lenin stated, there can no revolutionary practice without revolutionary theory. Philosophical discussion and exchange when anchored in materialist dialectics serve as a guide to action rather than a retreat from it.
Normally it is the purpose of an editorial introduction to present the content of the articles included in an issue in an interesting way, indicating the range of views that are put forward. At another level, the purpose is to encourage readers to navigate the arguments and counter-arguments on their own. I feel it necessary here, however, to add further comments on some of the articles, as I think this will highlight the conflicting philosophies of African-American Studies and the relevance of socialism and Marxism.
In “Black Studies in the Age of Obama,” John H. Bracey, Jr. utilizes Max Weber’s analysis of bureaucracy to understand recent developments in the field of Black Studies. His brief analysis highlights two problems impacting Black Studies. On the one hand, careerism and bureaucracy are obstructing the continued growth and development of Black Studies. On the other hand, Bracey argues that Black Studies has lost its commitment to working-class people. Problematically, Bracey concludes his article with a spurious utopianism. He argues, “The Obama presidency gives us hope that things are moving again and space for us to renew our struggle.”
Rod Bush, Carter Wilson and Charles Pinderhughes offer a left-oriented perspective on African-American Studies. Utilizing a left-nationalist perspective informed by Immanuel Wallerstein, Rod Bush argues that the central task of Africana Studies is “decolonizing the nationalism of empire within the United States” and challenging the system of white world supremacy. Wilson’s article attempts to employ a neo-Marxist/Gramscian perspective for analyzing racial oppression in the United States. He concludes that the ruling class, rather than the white working class or lower class, played the major role in the construction and reproduction of exploitative and racially oppressive economic relations. Pinderhughes argues that a theory of internal (or domestic) colonialism (or semi-colonialism) best captures the current situation of historically colonized peoples in the USA, particularly that of African Americans.
Rose Brewer’s article offers important insights into Black Women’s Studies, an often-neglected topic in African-American Studies. Brewer adopts a revolutionary Black feminist framework that places capitalist exploitation at the center of Black Women’s Studies. Her theoretical framework is essentially a continuation of the work of Patricia Hill-Collins and others who argue for the intersectionality of race, class and gender.
Anthony Monteiro attempts to address the epistemic and ideological crisis in African American Studies. Monteiro seeks to articulate what he terms a Du Boisian historical phenomenology and dialectical logic that stands against the “egoistic and universalizing project of Western civilization and scientific practices.” From Monteiro’s perspective, Du Bois’s theoretical framework is an amalgamation of Husserlian phenomenology and Marx’s dialectical logic. Overall, Monteiro views Du Bois as a trailblazer among the Black left. But he ignores the dialectical development of Du Bois. Monteiro’s synchronic approach ignores a number of left critiques of Du Bois’s sociology, such as A. Philip Randolph’s critique of The Philadelphia Negro (as failing to recognize class contradictions in capitalism), Abram Harris’s critique of Black Reconstruction, and Hubert Harrison’s critique of Du Bois’s “close ranks” comments regarding World War I. Randolph astutely notes that The Philadelphia Negro is not grounded in historical materialism but instead follows the method of bourgeois sociology. Fundamentally, Monteiro’s analysis overlooks the fact that Du Bois evolved from a bourgeois democrat to a Marxist-influenced socialist. No doubt Du Bois was trailblazer with regard to fighting for bourgeois democratic rights and the development of Black Studies. Yet we should not confuse that with an approach that is Marxist in substance.
Both Carr and Rabaka offer what could putatively be called an idealist Afrocentric approach to Black Studies. Carr’s synthetic approach makes a valiant attempt to outline an intellectual genealogy, but it blurs the line of demarcation separating various ideological perspectives in African-Americans Studies. Most importantly, he groups together – in the same boat – the socialist atheist Hubert Harrison and the conservative Christian Alexander Crummell as “Defenders of the African Way,” socialist historian Gerald Horne and idealist anthropologist Marimba Ani as “Grand Theorists,” the Marxist C.L.R. James and the anti-Marxist Harold Cruse as “Progressives.” His idealist approach results in an intellectual genealogy that surveys the variety within Black intellectual culture without any sense of the determinate differences that separate the reactionary utopianism of Marimba Ani from the Marxism of historian Gerald Horne. Carr significantly fails to look at thinkers who are not either Black nationalist or Afrocentrist. There is no mention of the following, who, from a multitude of walks of life, have advocated for Marxism as an instrument to advance Black liberation: African liberation proponent W. Alphaeus Hunton Jr., Communist leader Claudia Jones, literary artist and self-trained historian Richard B. Moore, philosopher Eugene C. Holmes, and the African statesman and philosopher Kwame Nkrumah, just to name a few. And how could Carr forget the groundbreaking work of Esther and James Jackson in the development of the journal Freedomways?
Rabaka attempts to engage Frantz Fanon’s political thought and its criticism of what he terms “Eurocentric Marxist Critical Theory.” Ultimately, he attempts to dispute the relevance of Marxism for Black liberation struggles. In his effort to develop a Black critical theory, he fails to prove the supposed Eurocentric character of Marxism. At best, we can say that he travels down the same old road paved by Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism. Consequently, Rabaka is committed to being both anti-Marxism and anti-capitalism. That is to say, he wants to “stretch Marx” but not apply Marx. The idea of stretching Marx is not new. We find this revisionist trend in the works of Eduard Bernstein and Cornel West. The identification of Marx as Eurocentric effectively means that Marx is not applicable to the African American and more generally the African context. It is precisely in this particular sense (against using Marxism in African American Studies) that I claim that Rabaka is anti-Marxism. In my estimation, Rabaka would do well to read the recent work of Kevin Anderson,4 which astutely demonstrates that Marxism is far from the Eurocentricism that permeates bourgeois ideology.
In light of the kinds of philosophical and theoretical works prominent today, a number of students in African American Studies might easily conclude that idealism is the only viable option. To date there is not a single book devoted to the philosophical treatment of African American Studies from the standpoint of materialism. I hope that this special issue, in presenting to the reader and student of AAS some examples of feasible materialist alternatives, will aid in overcoming the impression that idealism is the only option in the field. The future of African American Studies is no doubt tied to past and present struggles of African Americans against capitalist material conditions of exploitation and racism as well as against bourgeois ideological domination. At the same time, this struggle for future liberation is intractably linked to the struggle over the ideas, theories, and ideologies that inform African American Studies as an area of inquiry.
1. Harry Targ, “Paul Robeson: His History and Development as an Intellectual” Conference Presentation prepared for: “Conversations of National Importance: Civil Rights, Civil Liberties” Lafayette College, Easton, Pennsylvania (April 7-9, 2005).
2. Malik Simba, Black Marxism and American Constitutionalism: An Interpretive History from the Colonial Background to the Great Depression (Kendall Hunt, 2010).
3. John H. McClendon III, “Jazz, African American Nationality, and the Myth of the Nation-State,” Socialism and Democracy, vol. 18, no. 2 (July-Dec. 2004).
4. See “Not Just Capital and Class: Marx on Non-Western Societies, Nationalism and Ethnicity” Socialism and Democracy, vol. 24, no. 3 (November 2010), and the more complete exposition in Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity and Non-Western Societies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).