Capitalism, Marxism, and the Black Radical Tradition: An Interview with Cedric Robinson

(From Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, spring, 1999)

It is the task of the radical critic to illuminate what is repressed and excluded by the basic mechanisms of a given social order. It is the task of the politically engaged radical critic to side with the excluded and repressed: to develop insights gained in confrontation with injustice, to nourish cultures of resistance, and to help define the means with which society can be rendered adequate to the full breadth of human potentialities.

Cedric Robinson has embraced these tasks. His work explores the relationship between our social order and its negations, particularly Marxism and the Black Radical Tradition. He has examined this relationship in historical, political, and philosophical terms with an orientation that is as comprehensive as it is anti-authoritarian.

I interviewed Robinson by e-mail in January 1999.
~ Chuck Morse

See also: Cedric Robinson: Short Biography & Selected Works

– – – – –
In the conclusion of Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition you write that “the evolution of Black radicalism has occurred while it has not been conscious of itself as a tradition.” Your writings (especially Black Marxism and Black Movements in America) are attempts to introduce a level of self-consciousness to this tradition. Why is this important now and what do you hope this can offer to the development of Black radicalism and radical movements generally?

My work is in a sense notational – reinscribing historical experience – for a political objective. Present generations must know, at the very least, what has been known in order to achieve greater clarification and effectiveness. Just as Thucydides believed that historical consciousness of a people in crisis provided the possibility of more virtuous action, more informed and rational choices, so do I.

At the time I was writing Black Marxism and Black Mass Movements, I felt strongly that Black nationalism as it was beings pursued by spokespersons like Stokely Carmichael and Louis Farrakhan was a failed enterprise. As a peevish and perverse inversion of the political culture and racialism which had been used to justify the worst excesses of the exploitation and oppression of Black people, it served as a fictive radicalism, a surrogate mirage of the Black struggle. So both of these works, politically, were written to address the miscomprehensions and conceits of Black nationalism in historical terms: to examine how our ancestors responded to the seductions of this construction of the struggle and their visions of the future social order.

Black Marxism is not a chronological narrative of Black radicalism but a dialectical analysis of the development of racial capitalism, Marxism, and Black opposition. What is it about the Black Radical Tradition that requires this method of analysis?

There are several rationales for the employment of dialectical analysis to the Radical Tradition: they relate to the subject matter, to the audience, and to the method itself.

The Tradition’s first stage of development is oppositional, i.e. the negation (resistance) of the negation (slavery); the response to the attempted cultural alienation and the effected physical, geographical and social alienation of slavery.

But slavery itself must be understood in a new way by readers familiar with the melodramatic and Eurocentric narrative of slavery as the capture, impressment, and exploitation of primitive peoples. I attempted to intrude upon the familiar construction of slavery as a superior culture overtaking an inferior culture. This narrative is hegemonic and must be ruptured.

In order to present this to the readers it is important to recognize the cultural history of the enslaved, but this is not easily done. The Black Radical Tradition is not a biological reflex, but a reconstitution of historical, cultural, and moral materials, a transcendence which both transfers and edits earlier knowledges and understandings among the several African peoples enslaved.

The dialectical method is well suited to these tasks.

In Black Marxism you point to a distinctively “African consciousness” that informed the commitments, insights, and politics of Black radicals. What is this consciousness and what is its importance for Black radical politics?

I believe that the historical struggles in Africa and the New World culled some of the best virtues of their native cultures. One such virtue was democracy, the commitment to a social order in which no voice was greater than another (I wrote about some of the precedents for this regime in The Terms of Order).

This alternative to hierarchy also produced a critique of political order; and during the anti-slavery struggles, it achieved a rather sophisticated critique of the rule of law. And the core and tributaries of this moral philosophy were what Greek classicists term the transmutation of the soul. So, from the center of a world view in which the reiteration of names (an African convention in which the name of a recently deceased loved one is given to the next child born) reflected the conservatism and responsibilities of a community, the resolve to value our historical and immediate interdependence substantiates democracy.

This heritage gave Black Radicals many things. For example, it gave them an ability to retain the value of life, a fact that had many consequences, such as presenting restraints on the use of violence as a political instrument.

In analyzing the contributions made by W.E.B. DuBois, C.L.R. James, and Richard Wright to the Black Radical Tradition you highlight DuBois’s emphasis on the peasants’ revolutionary role, James’s critique of the Leninist party model, and Wright’s emphasis on the cultural dimensions of revolutionary politics. These observations have been constitutive of the anarchist tradition and, to a lesser degree, libertarian socialism. Do they create a unique common ground upon which Black radicals and anti-authoritarians from other backgrounds can meet?

What these anti-authoritarian traditions have in common is that they confront and show the necessity of avoiding certain conceits which follow from the general theory of revolution in Marxism.

One conceit is class; another is determinancy; and another is the stage-construction of history. As Amilcar Cabral argued thirty years ago, class is not a world-historical phenomena enveloping the histories of all peoples; and culture and consciousness are as powerful in determining choice and behavior as the material reproduction of a society. Finally, the discrete stages of history which Marx borrowed from the Scottish Enlightenment of the 17th century hardly corresponds with any human history, even European’s.

However, I do not believe that it is necessary for a convergence of these traditions to take place. They are all assaults on the same social and political authority. We should remember, for example, that the Russian Revolution – despite its reconstruction as a consequence of the Leninist party – was the result of many different revolutions (revolutions for which Lenin or Trotsky had no responsibility or theoretical understanding). The Tsarist regime did not collapse under the weight of a single force.

Black and other radicals originate and articulate distinct histories which converge and diverge depending on historical circumstance: this was James’s conception of the confluences of the Haitian slaves and the French peasantry, etc.; a historical correspondence which was broken by the time Frantz Fanon wrote of French colonialism, French workers, and the colonized subject. These histories of radicalism are neither determined nor dictated by the world-system, merely given local impulse.

Marx believed that a communist society could only emerge from the European working class. Black radicals and others excluded from world-historical significance by Marx confronted this claim and produced important insights into the nature of capitalist development and revolutionary agency. Are these insights developed by Black radicals distinct from those generated by similar confrontations among other peoples?

What is similar is the historical tendency to succumb to the seductions of nationalism on the premise that Marxism is essentially Eurocentric. It is as a response to the denial of historical agency within Marx that many non-western radicals have often thrown themselves into nationalist projects. (Although many recent movements, such as the Nicaraguan Sandinistas, are no longer concerned or consumed by that problem.)

But confrontations with Marx’s historical vision are also shaped by the social context in which they unfold. The Black Radical Tradition emerged in the belly of the beast, in a setting where physical and cultural problems were very immediate and the surveillance of Black radicals was omnipresent. Black radicals thus took slave society, colonial, and post-colonial society at its word and attempted to subvert in on this basis. Whereas Chinese Marxists, for example, saw capitalism and the West as an invasive force coming from without. The Chinese revolutionaries never conceded to the West its self-definition, and thus had a different relationship to Marx’s historical vision.

The relationship between the West and Africa, mediated by the development of capitalism, is central to your discussion of Black radical politics. However, at a time when capitalist firms are increasingly globalized and various non-western economies are major factors of the world economy, the ‘West’ plays a more ambiguous role as a center of capitalism. How does this change the character of Black radical politics?

Changes in capitalism have produced changes in Black Radical politics and they also provide new opportunities. For instance, racial capitalism in England and the US exposes the instability of race categories. In England, where South Asians are Black as well as Africans and West Indians, this creates an opportunity for political alliances which were never anticipated by capitalism.

However, Marx and later Marxists were enthralled with the notion that capital would organize the world into a single order and then the proletariat would inherit that ordered world. I have never conceded the notion that the West has ordered the world in a rational whole: no coherent order, no singular whole, has ever been forged under the authority of capital and the unifying language of world systems theory simply does not capture the chaos of capitalism.

For the purposes of liberation, it is not necessary for Black radicalism to shadow or reiterate the world-system. There will be no proletarian armageddon with capitalism. Centralism is anathema to revolutionary change for the courage, resolve, and intelligence necessary to defeat oppression issues from different historical and cultural sites.

I believe it is necessary for the Black Radical Tradition to remain focused upon the cultural legacies that have provided for its strengths. The Tradition is most powerful when it draws on its own historical experiences while resisting the simplifications of Black nationalism. This protocol allows for the emergence and recognition of other radical traditions, drawing their own power from alternative historical experiences.

In Black Marxism you argue that racism is integral to the development of capitalism. However, given the emergence of various Asian economies (including ‘socialist’ China), it appears that capitalism has taken on a much more multi-cultural character. Has the relationship between race and capitalism changed in fundamental ways and, if so, what does this imply for a radical, anti-racist politics?

When we inspect the expansions of capital in Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia, etc. we discover racial protocols. These are encrusted from much earlier histories (for example, a thousand years of slavery in Korea).

What is important to remember is that capital never develops according to pure market exigencies or rational calculus. Whatever the organization of capitalism may be and whoever constitutes its particular agencies, capitalism has a specific culture. As Aristotle first revealed, capital accumulation is essentially irrational. And as was the case in his time, race, ethnicity, and gender were powerful procedures for the conduct of accumulation and value appropriation.

You describe a dialectic between Black radicalism and the larger social order in which Black radicalism gradually evolves, understanding itself more deeply and articulating a more incisive, revolutionary critique. However, revolutionary, anti-capitalist commitments are far less prevalent in Black politics and theory today than a decade or two ago. What does this indicate about the evolution of the Tradition as a whole?

I do not believe that the Black Radical Tradition is at a low point. For example, there are vanguard movements in the Tradition: think of the reception of Nelson Mandela in the US after his release from prison. He became a marker for the advance of the Black Radical Tradition as a whole in the minds of many Black Americans. On the other hand, local conditions in places like the US have not produced such world historical individuals in recent times.

But the world is dynamic, constantly changing, constantly creating new possibilities (see, for instance, how far revolutionary agendas were pursued by youth gangs in Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco in the post-Civil Rights era). All over the US, Black Radicalism is manifesting itself in urban churches, in theory (i.e. doctrine) and practice (i.e. volunteerism). What will be the next phase, when the rule of law becomes transparently farcical, the Christian right achieves its fascist perfection, and the State acquires a predominantly carceral posture towards the majority of Blacks, Latinos, etc.?

The conflicted relationship between intellectuals and popular movements is an important theme in your work. Does the emergence of high-profile Black Studies departments (at Harvard, example) and the popularity of writers such as Cornell West, bell hooks, Henry Louis Gates Jr., etc. mark a new stage in the relationship between Black intellectuals and movements?

Hegemonic control of Black Studies is as important to capital as any other field of knowledge production. The selective breeding of Black intellectuals in this country is even older than the appearance of the philanthropic Black colleges of the late 19th century; and the necessity of dominating Black knowledge production finds a template in the Gunnar Myrdahl enterprise in the years of World War II.

However, Black Studies is revolutionary in its political and historical origins and intellectual impulses. To paraphrase C.L.R. James, who insisted that Black Studies was the study of Western Civilization, Black Studies is a critique of Western Civilization. This is all too apparent in one of the first articulations of radicalism by David Walker in 1829. Modern slavery, Walker demonstrated, was not like Ancient Mediterranean slavery; modern Christianity could not oblige a Just God; education had to have a revolutionary emancipation as its central virtue, etc. So at those sites of its inception, Black Studies was seen as preparatory to re-articulating justice and the Good.

The Tradition is by now well prepared to defend itself against attempts to colonize it: after all Black revolutionists were working with George Washington Carver at Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee preserve. Imagine the contradictions!

As a new and controversial development in the analysis of ethnicity, what role do you think ‘Whiteness Studies’ can play in fighting white supremacy and what are its limitations?

Whiteness Studies deconstruct and decenter whiteness, showing that it is an artifice, that it has a history and one that does not go back very far. The best of the work (like George Lipsitz’s The Possessive Investment in Whiteness) is an extension of radical Black Studies.

Although it is currently in fairly progressive hands, problems could emerge. For example, it could be used to challenge the very existence of Black Studies. It could lend itself to arguments such as: “we’ve gone too far: we’ve had Black Studies, now we have White Studies, what we need to do is prosecute a universal American identity”. Or, in the same vein: “if you can’t give us resources for White Studies then the you shouldn’t provide resources for Black Studies.” These are possibilities.

The American university integrates people into the capitalist social order and is also the primary setting in which radical social criticism is (currently) developed. How has academia helped or hindered your work as radical social critic?

The academy is indifferent if not hostile to Black Studies. Since WWII the University has become very dependent upon state support and Black Studies has remained outside the pale of this support. For example, the most well funded research on Black youth are essentially police studies. Racism simply remains a powerful break on Black Studies and research in the academy.

The hostility and indifference to Black Studies makes collaborative work very difficult. So, too often, serious work is done in the singularity of private labor. This has presented difficulties for me and many others working in the field. This obstacle frustrates not only individual efforts but also the development of Black Studies as such.

Given the distinctions you have made between Marxism and the Black Radical Tradition, how do you define your own political commitments?

What name do you give to the nature of the Universe? There are some realms in which names, nomination, is premature. My only loyalties are to the morally just world; and my happiest and most stunning opportunity for raising hell with corruption and deceit are with other Black people. I suppose that makes me a part, an expression, of Black Radicalism.

Please tell me about your forthcoming book, The Anthropology of Marxism: A Study of Western Socialism?

This work attempts to extricate the history and origins of socialism in the West from Marxism. This requires moving beyond the chronological constraints imposed by Marx (socialism can only follow capitalism, etc.) and suggesting a more open epistemology of socialism. In a sense I revisit familiar sites (Hegel, Kant, Engels, etc.) only to mark forgotten and suppressed work (e.g. Hegel’s study of British political economy) in order to proceed to the unexpected richness of the history of socialist visions and pursuits.

Please tell me about future projects you have planned.

My next project concerns the American racial imagination formed from and cast through American films. This is another attempt to get at the social imagination, particularly how it relates to the changing construction of Blackness.

As someone fascinated with culture and its potentialities, interrogating film is another means of determining how popular cultures contest with mass cultures; the latter being stories about the world and human experience which are manufactured for the masses by elites. Aristotle once wrote that the many are wiser than the few. In the best sense of this observation, the conflict between social history and popular cultures, on the one hand, and induced memories of the past on the other may be the most important site of analysis in a civilization whose technicians can now design virtual reality. Under these changed circumstances it becomes even more imperative that we can distinguish authentic (historical) radicalism from imagined radicalism.

(From Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, spring, 1999)