A Selection From Walter Rodney Speaks: the Making of an African Intellectual
by Walter Rodney
Walter Rodney, author of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, The Groundings with My Brothers and other works, actively involved in the global struggle for freedom, lived with and among black and progressive peoples on four continents and in several areas of the Caribbean. He worked in all these contexts as a historian, university teacher, popular lecturer, social critic and political theorist, and he was an unswerving advocate of the oppressed and exploited classes, especially those of the black world.
I have had a rare privilege of traveling around and living and working with black people in a lot of contexts. This has sensitized me to ways in which we need to understand the specificity of different situations. To talk about Pan-Africanism, to talk about international solidarity within the black world, whichever sector of the black world we live in, we have a series of responsibilities. One of the most important of our responsibilities is to define our own situation. A second responsibility is to present that definition to other parts of the black world, indeed to the whole progressive world. A Third responsibility, and I think this is in order of priority, is to help others in a different section of the black world to reflect upon their own specific experience.
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The first priority is that we address ourselves to our own people-this is how we analyze where we're at. Secondly, we can say to other participants in a Third World struggle, here is the analysis, as we see it, of how we are going. Those people will take it and they will do with it as they see fit. But if they have a certain sense of internationalism, they will treat it very seriously. They will say, this is how a people see themselves. And only thirdly then am I in a position to say, from our particular standpoint, your struggle is moving in this direction, or this is how your analysis seems to be working, or in light of our experience here or there, we might want to question this or that aspect.
I think this should be said from the outset, particularly because there is a tendency within the black community at this time to expect a certain decisiveness and completeness in answers to any questions which they raise. People are searching for answers, but to be frank, sometimes searching for them in somewhat uncreative ways, because it really isn't creative to turn around to somebody else and ask what is the answer in that very global sense of the word.
There is a tendency to believe that somebody somewhere has the key, and I don't think anybody inside of this society or any one person or group has the key, least of all dare put myself forward, coming from outside, as having the key. More than that, I'm not even coming from a revolutionary situation where we can say we have gone through this experience or we have triumphed, and on the basis of this practice we have a very important experience to summarize and to pass on to our brothers and sisters and comrades in struggle. So long as we remain locked in our own struggle, and it probably has still a very low level of organization and advance in the Caribbean, then I don't really feel free to speak with the kind of authority which people seem to expect sometimes. I say this in the hope that whatever I may comment on subsequently will be judged in light of this.
I also want to point out at this juncture how the differing patterns of development in various parts of the Third World can sometimes be confusing to people in other sections of the same Third World. If one doesn't understand it fully, one is going to fall into some serious overgeneralizations. I have in mind this same question of race and class, and the way in which debate is portrayed over here [in the U.S.], namely, race and class equal nationalism and socialism. Something of the same debate is going on throughout the Pan-African world, but not necessarily in the same form, or not arising out of the same historical conditions. Therefore, it would be unrealistic to expect the answers to be the same, or even the precise concerns to be the same in one area as in another.
The Mozambican and Angolan and Guinean revolutionaries, for instance, have a way of always insisting upon the priority of class over race, in a language that sounds rather similar to the language now being used in the United States, but the context is quite different, because they are not locked in a struggle of black against white. When they talk about race, or when they say a position should not be racist and that it should be class-oriented, more often than not what they have are certain contradictions in their own society between so-called mulattoes and the blacks. There may be some people in Angola who say that it should be for the black Angolans and that mulattoes should be excluded; it's that kind of debate which often lies lies behind the pronouncements of Agostinho Neto or Samora Machel on the race-class question. While I don't want to enter into the debate, I think we must beware of being trapped into generalizations that are supposed to be valid for the whole Pan-African world, because, inasmuch as we share a history of common exploitation and oppression, we do have many aspects of our contemporary predicament upon which, for the purpose of precise analysis, it does not help to generalize. We have to look at each specific history and the context in which certain concepts and terms originate.
More than that, there is also the problem that so long as one does not make a revolution, one tends to be continually at a disadvantage when facing up to other people who have made a revolution. It is very easy for [Amilcar] Cabral's view to be generalized because those views represent the views of a revolution, and a revolution that has succeeded, not just of a revolutionary.
Now, that being the case, one has to be very careful that what comes out of the last most successful revolution doesn't become the dictum for everybody else. This is not just within the Pan-African world. It tends to happen everywhere. The Russian Revolution becomes the dictum for the Chinese and then the Chinese Revolution becomes the dictum for the succeeding, and Cuba becomes the last word for Latin America. It can sometimes act as a constraint upon creativity. You can only break with it when you make your own revolution. The black analysis in this country will speak authoritatively on behalf of black [American] people when we really make a revolution. Before that revolution is made, in any kind of international forum, such as the Sixth Pan-African Congress, black people in this county cannot really expect to have their positions respected. These initial clarifications should be borne in mind,
To exemplify the position I am advancing, Malcolm X as an individual and the Black Panthers as a group can be used. Malcolm X came at a certain point in the black nationalist movement; it was at a very early point in the evolution of the civil rights movement, and Malcolm X was perceived by all for what he was, which was a representative of the left-wing of the nationalist movement at that time. In that current world scene he had to be respected for what he was saying. If one was simply to repeat what he was saying right now, in 1975, such repetition wouldn't have very much currency. People would say fine, but so what, where do we go from here? Malcolm X was respected as a nationalist leader, as one of the most advanced nationalists in this country, compared with everything else that was going on.
For the second group, the Black Panthers, there was in fact already beginning to arise the question of class as distinct from a racial emphasis in this country. but it was just in very nonspecific terms. They were simply saying that it should be a class emphasis as opposed to a race emphasis. Yet that had an echo. It was immediately accepted on the left. It was found to be a very reasonable position, because really that is the position that derives from the experiences of Mozambique and Angola and Third World countries But I am quite certain that the Afro-American delegation to the Sixth Pan-African Congress, including even the progressives, were not able to impose their view upon people who came with the stature of FRELIMO and the Cuban Revolution behind them. the Afro-Americans could not impose upon them any specificity of an analysis deriving from the United States. This came out in the very great reluctance that the left at the congress had in accommodating any wording that even suggested that the category of race was viable. In the final communique, there were statements to the effect that Pan-Africanism does not recognize tribe or race or things of that sort. However, the race of black people in this country is not to be just dismissed like an ethnicity that is divisive inside an African country that you're trying to move to a higher level. We are a whole people. How could a Pan-African position say we don't recognize race?
It is because, when we say race, they have a different conception in their minds. The only time that we could get this over to the international left- and I'm talking, first of all, about even the Third World international left, before we even consider the left of Britain or France or the Soviet Union- that talking about race is not some curious way of trying to bring in imperialism by the back door or something of that sort is by means of revolutionary action. the sheer weight of analysis will not itself make that position become valid. As you make your revolution, the theory on which a practice was based has to be taken seriously. In my understanding of the international left, they will remain suspicious and prejudiced and biased against any position that attempts to grapple with the race question in a very fundamental way, because there are a real set of stereotypes in their response. They want to know if you're talking about "back to Africa" or they want to think that you're talking about Pan-Africanism rather than communism, in a kind of way that George Padmore used in the title of his book [Pan-Africanism or Socialism? New York: Anchor Books, 1972].
It is very difficult. I operated in the committee of the Six Pan-African Congress, and it was very difficult even to get them to sit down and listen carefully to a presentation which said that those of us in the Pan-African world, or in the black struggle, who have no problems with the Marxist approach [or] internationalism, and have them as our objective, feel that there are very peculiar problems inside the U.S. and that the people there must deal with question of race, integrate it into their analysis and not just come up with simplism that class is fundamental and that racism with disappear in the course of the class struggle. I don't think that the position would be accepted without some positive advances at a level of practice.
My contention is that even with the Cubans, when they speak of black/white or racial questions, naturally enough the main focus of their attention is Cuban society. You generalize on the basis of your own historical experience mainly, and they would be inclined to think that race means the same thing in Cuba as it means in the U.S.
In Cuba there was no problem for the white working class to ally with the black working class, because the white working class was also a colonized working class in a peripheral area of the metropole and its system of capitalist production. Whereas in the U.S., the white working class is an imperialist working class. I don't think that anybody who has lived outside of this context fully understands exactly what that means. I personally haven't lived with it. I'm trying to understand by virtue of being here, many times talking to people who have lived here, who have been socialized within it, to understand why there is that basic difference. My response to whites and the behavior of whites in my own society are not quite the same thing as [my response to] the behavior of whites in this society. I don't think that this could be brought out for the Cubans or for any other people until we make some advances in struggle.
I don't think therefore it's just the question of analysis. Somebody like James Boggs has been talking about this sort of thing for a long time. What tends to happen is that anybody who comes up with that position, but just as a position, is just likely to be put down. They look at that person and say, well, who is this, another so-called independent Marxist? Is it another Trotskyite? Is it another Padmore tendency? there is always this feeling, not only feeling but behavior, on the part of the dominant international left, to pigeonhole and categorize any position which comes from within a given country. It is never remedied until the people in that country are on the move.
I haven't found in this society any black organization that can be called in any sense a representative black organization, with a clear perception of where it is going. This is pretty well-known right now. I don't know, however, whether that is not asking too much in the middle of the chief imperialist society at the present time. The question of lag, of course, is a conception of time, and this temporal concept is important depending on how far and over what period of time we expect changes to be realized. If, for example, your time reference is just a matter of years and you say, there was struggle up until 1969, from '69 to '75 there hasn't really been any struggle, I would say that I don't think that is a very effective time-scale. That would be tying it down to our own lifetime, to our own conception of the hours and the months passing by, and there is no way that we're going to impose our lives on history.
Our people have been engaged in a process in this society from slavery until the present. If we look at it that way, we would understand that the post-war changes in this society, like in any other part of the world, have been more rapid and more significant than any previous changes except the actual transition away from slavery itself. This is true on a world scale. Seeing it in a broad historical perspective, what we're talking about is the transition virtually from one historical era to another. We're trying to talk about trying to create a whole new society different from capitalist society. in that overall context, where legitimately one should be speaking in terms of decades, I am not in the least perturbed if there seems to be a hiatus of two or three years in a given activity.
I would say that this overall historical movement certainly takes different directions. My feeling about the direction that it is taking now is that a number of people are trying to think about serious problems. I am not at all sure whether that is a lag compared to the fact that three years ago a number of people might have been setting fire to inner-city areas. I don't know that that action was any more of a struggle or a movement than people struggling with themselves to understand where they're at, which is what I think is going on right now.
Lots of things that were being done in the civil rights movement were very spontaneous. Most of them were historically positive. Most of them helped us to advance to the position that we are now at. somethings were not positive. But all of them must be taken as part of a generalized movement that is historically necessary. The fact is that, at the present moment, people are trying to deal with the historical weakness arising from the lack of a coherent ideology. It is because the question is now raised that everybody accepts that the need is great, and thus we should also understand the historical necessity behind the present searchings. It's not a historical aberration. It's not a gap. I think it's a response to a historical necessity.
I'll only talk about what I've actually seen, because I don't want to get into the grand formulation. What I have seen is that people are trying to deal with the question of where, at the ideological lever, do we as a black people move? As far as I'm concerned, that's a more generalized debate, given that this is an imperialist center, than I know of going on presently in Britain among workers, than I know of in this country amongst white workers, than I know of in France amongst workers or even the intelligentsia. Here are a people that have come through a road of actual struggle for civil rights, not for socialism or anything else, who reached a certain cut-off point, and who, unlike the white working class, are asking fundamental questions about the reorganization of society and what does this mean at a level of theory.
This rather extensive debate which I have heard, which I have read, some parts of it in print before I came here, nonetheless has a number of limitations. I probably should concentrate on those rather than its strengths from the point of view of specific criticism. The first main criticism has to do with the way in which these questions are posed, because you resolve questions, obviously, depending on the way in which you pose the questions, how sharply you pose them, and how that ll leads to a given conclusion. In this debate the question is sometimes, not always, but sometimes, posed very crudely as nationalism or socialism, and as race or class. The Article with which many people will no doubt become more familiar, since it appeared in The New York Times, tended to say that there is this tremendous split between nationalists and socialists. That is an over-simplification of the argument and not everybody, I would say perhaps not even a majority of people in the argument, actually say it is race rather than class, or it is nationalism rather than socialism. This is one form of raising the question, should it be this or that? I say that that doesn't strike me as being a particularly viable question to try to answer, because nationalism and socialism, almost be definition, if we just looked at the terms, are not mutually exclusive.
Nationalism is a struggle for a whole people. Socialism is either an ideology or a new stage of society. Nationalism could lead to socialism or it could lead to capitalism. It could incorporate bourgeois ideology or socialist ideology. So that these things are not antithetical. It would be better if we framed it that way. The debate would be more profitably carried on if people said, black people are of necessity engaged in a national struggle because that is the form of their struggle, and that what is critical is to understand whether or not the ideology and the objective of that struggle is socialist.
A more meaningful question perhaps, which a lot of brothers and sisters do ask, is assuming that nationalism and socialism are interrelated, assuming that race and class are interrelated, where does one put the emphasis? Are we really out to emphasize socialism or should we de-emphasize it as we move on? Should we place the emphasis analytically on race or should we put it on class? Which is the derivative of the other?
Those are somewhat more pointed questions, although even those questions sometimes can become sterile, especially when people engage in proof by means of what they call history. The discussion becomes whether race came before class, or class before race. Assuming that race came before class, then racism must of necessity be the dominant factor, historically, that is. Or if it was capitalism which produced racism, then of necessity class becomes a dominant factor. I'm not so sure that I've helped very much either, because although I would argue very clearly that it was within the context of capitalism that racism developed as a system, which was to be developed systematically in turn by capitalism, I doubt whether one could proceed from that to say that therefore at the present time race must be subsidiary to class.
In fact, this doesn't even begin to define what is race and what is class in the society, because race and class are not just absolutes, they are concepts and categories that arise historically. Even if one arose historically before another, it doesn't resolve for us questions of analysis. Certainly, it does not resolve for us questions of strategy to say, since race came before class, therefore there should be no alliances with white folks. I don't see the link. These are considerations thrown in to link up processes which I don't see see to be logically linked. A worse kind of historical argument is simply to say, look at the history of white/black alliances and you will see that they always failed; therefore, the inference is that they will always fail. This is not a historical argument. This is just a circular argument. Perhaps it ought to be put in a geometry textbook: because it happened that way, it will always happen in the same manner.
Those are the aspects of the debate that I would like to see axed, so that people can move on to more essentials, though I think that there are essential differences between the so-called nationalist and the so-called socialist approach. But to focus in on those differences, we need to stop involving ourselves in trying to prove the unproveable, as it were, such as that at the present time we can or cannot enter into so-called alliances with whites or what have you.
The debate is not just taking place inside the United States. It's taking place in Africa. It's taking place in the Caribbean and in Latin America, though not in precisely the same terms, but people addressing themselves to these issues. It represents a challenge to bourgeois thought. However convoluted this main issue may appear, and I'll go on to make some criticisms about what passes for Marxism in the debate, I am not prepared to separate the debate from the movement of world history. I see it as a reflection of a generalized crisis of capitalism. Of necessity, because there is a real crisis out there, a crisis in Vietnam, a crisis in the economy, it must reflect itself in people's heads as a crisis, and force them to try and go beyond the limits of the theory within which they have been operating previously.
In this sense, I see the whole debate as definitely marking a step in the direction of the total emancipation process, one which has many facets. The consciously ideological facet was downplayed for a very long long period in the history of the struggle. Every since the 1920s, when theoretical issues were first raised there has been a tendency not to discuss ideology in any fundamental sense, that is, what is bourgeois ideology and how far are we participating in it and [to] what extent do we need to escape it? It is not sufficient simply that you state your ideology comes from calling yourself a black-power advocate, or calling yourself a nationalist. That is why people can run about talking about the ideology of black nationalism or the ideology of Pan-Africanism, as if Pan-Africanism itself is a pure ideology, or everyone who calls himself a Pan-African has the same ideology.
The fact that today people are raising the question in the particular ideological form that they are is parallel to Africans challenging "African socialism," challenging the old bourgeois myths and deciding that there is, indeed, a class struggle in Africa and that it is necessary to understand it; that if we're to make change in Africa today, or in the Caribbean for that matter, it has to come through certain challenges to the petit-bourgeois structure. The phenomenon of the debate can't be explained purely on the basis of something internal to the United States. It is a manifestation of the international and total contradictions within the capitalist system.
Although there are many criticisms that I have of the character of the current debate, one must come out very clearly at the beginning and understand that the debate itself is another facet of the liberation movement, irrespective of the arguments or however misguided some people participating in it may be. I think this must be got very clearly, because there are some people who would like not to have a debate in actual fact, because the debate is raising questions about the nature of the capitalist system, opening up all kinds of things. The system is saying right now about Vietnam, please do not say anything, in another 50 years we might be able to understand it. Let us have a moratorium. It is like an archive saying it will be 50 years before you can look at the records; until then, please do not tell us anything about Vietnam, we don't want to know. It is important that a system such as this should not have any probing, and black people have also been a part of the larger society in that respect. Something which a number of black people [have] yet to painfully accept is that, however black you may call yourself, you have also been a victim of the generalized structure of thought of white society. And one of the things that happened is that some areas of thought were just completely left out. Some things were taken for granted on the basis of certain bourgeois assumptions. so if those assumptions are being called into question today, that is part of our revolution.
In this debate, there are all kinds if college kids and people who a short time ago were wandering around in a bit of a daze. When they hear that so and so with a national reputation is in the debate, it is projected into their lives too and they begin to ask these same questions. I recognize this as a significant historical fact. This debate has been going on for 18 months at the longest, putting it back to the end of the African Liberation Support Committee days. It started with a narrow focus initially. Very few people were engaged in it at that time. Now, for the first time since the 1920s, the debate has achieved a kind of magnitude in the black community. And, of course, it is not just the 1920s being repeated either, because people are talking about different issues, not just a repetition.
What I have been doing in this country, since I've been here, is to deal not with any organized movement, but just with college campuses all over the place. If I had [had] the opportunity, I would have liked to have dealt much more with organized movements, but I didn't. I haven't been pushing any questions at people. I've gone hither and thither and people have pushed these questions at me, people with faces that would be unrecognizable out there, not names, not stars, not leaders, just people who are in the classroom, mainly students. Last year only a few of them would have asked questions about Marxian analysis and its relevance. At the present time, however, most of these students ask these kinds of questions. I'm not concerned now about whether they take a position for or against. I'm concerned with the fact that people are beginning to consider it as something that you can discuss, whereas before it was nothing that you could discuss. The furthest that people went, from my own experience, in the sixties was a radical conception of themselves as a black people. These were the terms in which they conceptualized themselves. In effect, what people are now saying is that, in the search for a solution, we will remove all barriers to discussion and debate. They may ultimately not reach as far as I hope that they would reach, but this represents qualitatively something different from what went before.
We will see in a short time whether the debate has had any importance or not. It might just fizzle out. We may be debating something that was a non-starter from the word go. But what I have perceived while I have been here, I have experienced very intensely. People are trying to grapple with new ideological parameters.
A seemingly peripheral issue, though I don't think it's all that peripheral, is the style of the debate, the manner in which it is conducted. From moving around and seeing the intensity sometimes, the near violence almost, where some people seem to line up on one side or another, I feel that the form has sometimes assumed more importance than the substance. I believe that the approach to the questions are unnecessarily antagonistic and project a number of other things that have nothing to do with the substance of the debate, such as people's historical role in the movement, if they're well known, and their ego and so on.
I can't really appeal to everybody involved in the debate and say, be cool and discuss this like friends. I would just be moralistic and it wouldn't make much sense. But one could say, to people who call themselves Marxists, one could speak to them in a different way. It seems to me that I could say to another Marxist that when one is carrying out a debate one has to approach it in a given way. One must have a certain discipline. One must understand that contradictions among the people are not the same thing as contradictions with the people. One must understand that the purpose of debate is not to alienate and intimidate. The purpose is not to force certain other people to retreat into their shells and hence to stagnate. But it is to get out there and let people understand the power of one's ideas and ts relationship to their lives and, at the same time, to be supremely confident that these ideas, if put forward in the clearest manner possible, will triumph against bourgeois ideas, assuming that the person to whom one is speaking doesn't have special class interests that will definitely tie him or her to an old set of ideas. I believe that I could say this to other black people who would consider themselves as Marxists. I don't know whether I have any right to say this to people who consider themselves nationalists, to say to them, look, you can't debate with this kind of vitriolic approach, and so on. If they want to debate it that way, really I don't have any basis of an appeal other than the purely moral one of saying that we are brothers.
But I think to another so-called Marxist it's more than a moral appeal. It's an injunction to such a person that progressive Marxists, revolutionaries, people seriously concerned with change, do not behave in a manner that is counter-productive. You don't just couch your arguments in such a way that makes people run in the other direction rather than come to listen to what you have to say.
I think that one can say to some of the people involved that the question of approach is critical and that this sort of putting a magnum to someone's head and telling them to choose socialism is actually a counter-revolutionary approach. And then, too, there is a question of humility and discipline and study, which those of us who belong to a Marxist or professedly Marxist community have to understand. The humility should come from first of all confronting our own weakness. The moment you begin by confronting your own weakness you have to have a real humility, because you understand that your weaknesses are many. Even if you do score some advances in understanding, there are probably still so many other areas that are unclear to you that you have to take a rather less antagonistic view to others whom you believe are perhaps farther behind and lacking clarification. With the humility on our own part goes the task, the self-imposed task, of more and more study, since to arrive at the position that we need to have a socialist society, we need to develop scientific socialist perspectives if we are to fully understand that approach.
Actually, my main admonition is the necessity for study and self-development, so that the profession of Marxism does not become an end in itself. Really, what does it mean to profess that one has taken up a Marxist world view? It only suggests that instead of using this tool, I prefer to use this other tool; instead of having this allegiance, I prefer to have this other allegiance; instead of serving one class, I wish to serve another class, which is the working-class interest of all communities. But having said that, one still has to go ahead, certainly as an academic, and as an intellectual, to make the analysis on the basis of utilizing Marxist methodology, and on the basis of being intellectually accountable to the working people as distinct from being intellectually accountable to the bourgeoisie.
Do you see the differential here? If you change your categories, we're not talking now about the working class as distinct from black people. There are not two sets of issues involved in being accountable to the working class on an ideological basis as distinct from (sic?) being accountable to the bourgeoisie. Many people seem to think that as you move towards socialism you move out of the black community towards the working class, which, of course, is both black and white. These people don't seem to see it as moving out of an ideological framework which was accountable to the bourgeoisie, and which is essentially why very few black people are in there, and towards an accountability to working people.
In any event, it is a task that requires study, that requires a sort of discipline that clearly could not have arisen in this society over the period of a couple months in which this debate has been raging. There are obviously a number of older black marxists who are extremely well-read and very well-disciplined, but for the most part these are not the ones who are engaged in the immediate debate. The latter are people who have just, as it were, heard about Marxism, and it does allow their critics to talk about "instant Marxists" and to cast derogatory remarks about them. Now many people of these critics are not really bothered by the fact that these people are "instant Marxists"; they're really bothered by the fact that they are Marxists, that they are presuming to challenge the security which they have in their own minds, having been raised in a given intellectual tradition. To change from your world perspective is to deal with a lot of insecurity. A lot of people, not necessarily for class interests, in the black community will not want to move in that direction; and because they don't want to move in that direction they will pick on all the weaknesses of would-be Marxists, weaknesses like their attitude, like the fact that they haven't studied carefully or they don't know what they're talking about, and so on. To avoid that kind of trap, it becomes incumbent upon this would-be Marxists, this young person who is picking up the tools for the first time, to steep himself or herself in a certain kind of study. I don't like a word like neophyte, but really this is the stage that we're still at. We at a stage of trying as neophytes to come to grips with a new world which had hitherto been closed to us very deliberately.
In the process of study, it is equally important that one should not merely study the classic Marxist texts. Marxism is not just a study of some classic texts written for some other situation. We should enter into the spirit of the analysis and be capable of applying it creatively to our own situation. Actually, here again, saying this is not particularly new. Marxist theorists, and even some of the youngsters today, will say, we want to be Marxists or we're Marxists and we will apply Marxism to our own objective conditions. The statement can be trotted out, but in practice, very few of the individuals are engaged in the kind of work that is necessary for the application of scientific theory to our own society. Very few of them have an awareness of how misleading it can be to take an understanding of someone else's theory and just imagine that it can be projected on to your [situation].
For sure, I believe that those socialists within the nationalist movement in the Third World are usually the ones who have a greater capacity to carry out nationalist objectives than the so-called nationalists. But that aside, some of the people who call themselves nationalists, the conservative sector of the nationalist movement, can make a great deal of propaganda capital, polemical capital, out of the fact that these Marxist individuals are not deeply relating to the internal situation. And because they don't relate to it, because they merely bring to it the thread of someone else's history, when they actually make a statement about what is going on in the United States or what is to be done, it can actually sound rather ludicrous. It not just fails to convince people, but it can be self-evidently absurd because it just does not address any part of the reality in the society.
I will cite one example. At a recent conference, an individual made an address on a topic about the current economic crisis in the black community. Essentially what he that person did was to give an expose of chapter One of Volume One of Marx's Capital. This was all very fine, as far as the essentially relations of capital and the alienation of labor and surplus value and so on were concerned, but he didn't say anything about black people except by inference. At the end of it all, he sort of just suggested that what he had just laid down, which was Marx's understanding of the development of capitalism in the then most highly developed capitalist state, namely Britain, and which is what Marx saw in Manchester, was what he, too, had just gone out and seen in Detroit or in New York. This is so patently absurd that if the analysis can't be transferred in some better way, it is going to reinforce the impression that it is irrelevant. And for many people, some I think because they are against it anyway, but some because they have not been exposed to anything else, they will look at such a caricature and they will say, what is going on? What is this fellow talking about? Oh, the Marxists again, here they are! Then they'll start to say, well the next thing he will tell us is we must have an alliance with white labor, we have had that before, and he's probably going to ask us to join the Communist party. We also had that before. So there is always that danger of cynicism, of deja vu, coming into play.
It's our responsibility to avoid falling into that kind of trap. But again, I don't think I could say to the nationalist, please be cool and understand that the brother is just entering into the discipline, he will get around to applying it to society, and so on. The reason is that it may not be in the class interest of the particular person who calls himself a nationalist. But when you're working amongst black people, a vast majority of whom are potentially capable of internalizing a socialist ideology, we must assume that the responsibility is ours to demonstrate its relevance. Let us be sure to let people participate in a real debate about what is going on in society. For what is is worth, I feel that is the kind of admonition which I would give to at least some of the participants in the debate. They need to be far more careful to avoid alienating people by even seeming to be, and very often actually being, the bringers of an alien analysis. Or not even an analysis, since the example I have been referring to is a non-analysis. It's really a fixed position substituting for an analysis of the society.
I hesitate to be particularly hard on anybody involved in the current debate, because I'm not sure that even if I were part of it, and living here and studying it, I could be very much better with respect to answers. Though hopefully, I could try to clarify some questions a little better.
What the uniqueness of the black situation means, to look at it programatically, is that at this moment it is extremely difficult for any progressive black leader to operate outside of the boundaries of the black community. At this particular time, for this era, I believe that our history imposes upon a black Marxist the necessity to operate almost exclusively, certainly essentially, within the black community. Now I know that will likely sound heretical to many Marxists because they will say, but surely your constituency is the working class and you should therefore transcend, rather than be a prisoner of, the racial divisions within the class, because these racial divisions are essentially divisions at the subjective level of consciousness. This is how the traditional argument will go, but I'm not at all convinced about that. They might be right but I find it rather peculiar, and I believe that a number of mistaken strategies derive from taking the racial divisions merely as subjective and therefore as something that you break down merely by speaking to the white worker and by exposing him to a superior logic. I believe that superior logic works only where there is no rooted class interest. Perhaps I should go further and say, where there is no historical privilege, because while there may not be a sharp class difference between a black worker and a white worker, there are certainly differences of historical privilege in all respects - culturally, politically, economically, and in terms of social mobility.
Our whole debate about the character of this differentiation is predicated upon the a terminology that may be inadequate even to deal with this situation. For us at this point in time, before we actually do the analysis, all things must be open-ended. This is not an attempt to be ambivalent or not to take a definite position, it is just to recognize that if you're dealing with a new situation, then very often you need a whole new terminology in order to apply the Marxist methodology to a completely new situation.
For the sake of argument, though it is not quite exact, I will give a parallel that will help to show the direction of my thought. For Marx, it was sufficient to make a distinction between the landlord and the peasant in feudal society and to talk about the peasants, the workers, and the capitalist as feudalism declined and as capitalism developed. In some of his essays and writings, Engels had cause to go a little more deeply into the peasantry, but not very deep. It became Lenin's task, concentrating on a very different society, namely Russia, and its different history, to start talking seriously about differentiations within the peasantry, so that he had to utilize terms like the rich peasantry, the middle peasantry, and the poor peasantry. Indeed, in China that differentiation became even more critical. A whole strategy in China was based upon not looking at peasants as a whole, i.e., peasants versus the landlord class or the capitalist class, but working out an understanding of the relations between rich and poor peasants. Now nobody said that the concept of the peasantry had to be thrown out out of the window. Similarly, it seems to me, without throwing out of the window the concept of the proletariat, surely the difference between the black and white proletariat is at least as significant conceptually as the difference between middle peasant and poor peasant, which very often was a small difference that nevertheless was politically important. The differences between the white working class as a whole and the black working class as a whole must surely be more politically important than that between a poor and a middle or even a rich and a middle peasant.
Yet we seem stuck. The term proletariat has a magic significance. Starting with the predilection that class is important and that therefore, somehow the use of the word proletariat is fundamental, it seems we are only prepared to make, at best, some sort of peripheral concessions on the basis of this initial assumption. Very few people seem to be willing to do the work in some ways James Boggs has attempted to do, of looking at this working class along the lines of race and the divisions inside of it historically and seeing that this embodies real differences.
At the present moment, to the extent that we want to say there are in fact, two different classes, surely we must open up our perspectives. This is one of the things that I feel is not being done sufficiently. In this sense, it's not so mush the neophytes that I'm concerned with now. some people who have been talking about Marxism for some while and who have a grasp of the theory, in my opinion, don't seem to want to break loose from previous categories. This is strange, because in the Third World currently analysts are dealing with whatever situation comes up. In Africa and Latin America, people are almost every day sometimes just coining new terms. Perhaps that goes a little bit too far, but at least that speaks to their willingness to recognize that when new phenomena appear on the scene, you must recognize them to be new and not imagine that you're simply speaking of an extension of something that was going on in the 19th century. Clearly there are a lot of new phenomena since that time. The phenomena of a race encrusted within a class in the particular way that the black working class is situated and functions is definitely not found anywhere else. I don't know whether that terminology itself is even adequate to the analysis of the present time.
It is true that the model of black people as an "internal colony" has been used for quite some time in the United States, but it has limitations. It hasn't gone in the direction of really explaining the characteristics of a working class in a colony. Are those characteristics represented in the United States among black people? I don't think that question ever really came out clearly in the use of this "internal colony" model. Indeed, it's only now that people are beginning to look more closely at the specific characteristics of the working class in the colony compared to the metropole, recognizing the differences in wage rates, organizational structure and power, access to the state, and cultural and racial perception. all these differences distinguish a capitalist worker or a worker in the capitalist metropole from a worker in the peripheral areas of the Third World. If we looked at those differences, we might want to ask ourselves whether we can perceive similar kinds of differences within the history of the black working people here inn the U.S. Blacks, in fact, have had a different degrees of access to the means of production compared with white workers. While white workers could get wage employment, black workers after slavery became quasi-free labor under the regime of the southern sharecropping system. While white workers could get jobs, black workers formed the majority of the unemployed pool. I was recently participating in a discussion where the brother, who was a serious Marxist, took a very clear anti-imperialist position, but he was saying nonetheless that the difference between white workers and black workers could be boiled down to about $100 a year. What happened to all this history? Do you mean that if I went out there and if I had the power to distribute $100 a year more to every black worker, I would have eliminated the problem? Surely it can't be reduced just to that kind of very elementary variable.
We shall need to push for more serious work to examine what may be the uniqueness of the American situation. However, I think that what really happens is this: Ordinary black people know the uniqueness that exists and if you come up with a theory that says it doesn't exist, then you're joking, because your theory is irrelevant to how they see themselves, false consciousness or no false consciousness. No people could be so falsely conscious of black people living in this society as not to know that the whole range of choices in this society is not predicated merely upon the fact that a black worker earns $100 less than a white worker.
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