Intellectual imperialism: On the export of peculiarly American notions of race, culture, and class

The following, from Croatian comrade Juraj Katalenac, appeared late last week and has so far received overwhelmingly positive responses. I’m even told that it has been shared with two of my personal heroes, Loren Goldner and Russell Jacoby, who appreciated both its irreverent style as well as the substance of its message. Juraj has interviewed Moshé Machover, Mike Macnair, and Peter Hudis in the past. His blog, ADIDAS Marxism, is linked below.

A note, regarding Kill All Normies by the Irish author Angela Nagle: One of the sublime ironies surrounding this book’s release is that, in decrying internet pile-ons, Nagle has been subjected to something of an internet pile-on herself. Richard Seymour and Noah Berlatsky on Patreon, and some Maoist dumbass named “Combat Liberalism” on Medium, have written scathing reviews of the book, insinuating that Nagle was blaming hysterical left-liberal Tumblr for the rise of the truly insidious alt-Right. Even if that were her thesis, it’s not that implausible that overreach on one side might’ve fueled reaction on the other. Nagle was not positing a direct causal relationship between the two; if anything, she was arguing that there was a formal similarity in terms of the results. The only legitimate insight of “horseshoe” theories of polarization is that either extreme has anime profile pictures, as everyone knows.

Seymour’s review is perhaps written in good faith, but he capitulated to identity politics and “intersectionality” long ago. Oliver Traldi makes an interesting point, though, about Nagle’s failure to mention a personality who almost perfectly embodies her argument: Justine Tunney, the tech utopian transwoman who helped launch #Occupy in 2011 before declaring “feminist” solidarity with Marine Le Pen of France in 2014 on her way to becoming a Silicon Valley fascist. But the most hilarious review of Kill All Normies came from Jordy Cummings, who called Judith Butler’s notoriously-impenetrable Gender Trouble “important but accessible.” The best line has to be: “If it were up to Nagle, the Left would be led by able-bodied workers.” Winning any workers over to Marxist politics would be a huge step forward (not an ableist metaphor, I hope) for the contemporary Left. Cummings’ review reminds me of that Onion spoof a few months back, “Trump voter feels betrayed by president after reading 800 pages of queer feminist theory,” where a steelworker breathlessly reads some lines from Butler

Gender ought not to be conceived merely as the cultural inscription of meaning on a pregiven sex (a juridical conception); gender must also designate the very apparatus of production whereby the sexes themselves are established. As a result, gender is not to culture as sex is to nature; gender is also the discursive/cultural means by which “sexed nature” or “a natural sex” is produced and established as “prediscursive,” prior to culture, a politically neutral surface on which culture acts.

My only real reservation about Nagle’s book is that she doesn’t really go into the right-wing libertarian episode of the development of the alt-Right. There is nothing in her book about the Ron Paul phenomenon. Kill All Normies is a great intro to the online culture wars, however. For a more serious discussion of the ideological origins of the alt-Right, check out Matthew Lyons’ outstanding essay “Ctrl+Alt+Delete.” Otherwise, complaints about the “anti-woke Left” fall flat. Adolph Reed is an easy target, I would contend, not because of his astute criticisms of identitarian politics on the Left, but because he’s a centrist social democrat who predictably, if begrudgingly, ends up backing Democratic Party candidates like Hillary Clinton every four years. For my part, I’d rather be a braindead workerist than every shade of woke. Luckily, we don’t have to settle for such lukewarm alternatives. Katalenac’s searing critique points beyond some of the impasses that the American Left has exported, often at ideological gunpoint, to communists overseas. (I’ve made only cosmetic edits, here and there, for the sake of readability).

“American thought”
From theoretical barbarism
to intellectual decadence

Juraj Katalenac
ADIDAS Marxism
August 22, 2017
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America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between.

— Oscar Wilde

Have you noticed how, for example, being rude towards fat people has suddenly become a question of left-wing politics instead of proper upbringing and being a decent human being? Have you noticed suddenly embracing your own mental illnesses, instead of treating them in a proper way, and encouraging others to act the same, has become an act of political “emancipation” and “empowerment” of the individual? Have you noticed how toxic Western political correctness has become the mandatory language of the left-wing politics with its aim being the enforcement of a certain way of discussion without examining the content? Have you noticed how being working class has suddenly become just one of the identities, how suddenly you can become working class just by association, instead of needing to work for a wage or being dependent on somebody that does, and how the working class has lost its role as the “wheel of social change” to become “oppressed peoplex”? Have you noticed how the problem of racism is suddenly “challenged” by enforcing particular ethnic identities?

In short: have you noticed how left-wing politics has completely abandoned its content in the pursuit for useless forms and/or smokescreens and how it has stopped being an idea aiming at the creation of a mass movement of the working class with the aim of change and the creation of a better society and has become a subcultural scene for a socially maladjusted people?

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Class, segmentation, racialization: Reading notes

Théorie Communiste
Lucha No Feik Club
(October 26, 2016)
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Editorial note

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Ori­gin­ally pub­lished by Théorie Com­mun­iste as «Classe/seg­men­ta­tion/raci­sa­tion. Notes». Trans­lated from the French by LNFC, with sub­stan­tial re­vi­sions by Ross Wolfe. I can’t take cred­it for the ma­jor­ity of this trans­la­tion, as I worked from the one pos­ted by the Lucha No Feik Club. Nev­er­the­less, I found this trans­la­tion al­most un­read­able, and so de­cided to go over it again with my (ad­mit­tedly quite poor) French and make some modi­fic­a­tions. Right now it’s prob­ably still un­read­able, but hope­fully a little less so. Just to point out some of my own ed­its, and give a sense of my reas­ons for mak­ing them, a few words might be ad­ded here. For ex­ample, I changed cho­si­fiée from “thingi­fied” to “re­ified.” Un­doubtedly the former is used from time to time, but it comes across here as clunky and in­el­eg­ant. Also, I rendered face à face as “faceoff,” rather than the dread­fully lit­er­al “face-to-face.” Vari­ous oth­er minor cor­rec­tions were made, some of them slight over­sights. Part of the prob­lem is in the ori­gin­al text, however, as there are a couple places where there are word-for-word re­pe­ti­tions of en­tire sen­tences. These were no doubt un­in­ten­tion­al, and have been ex­cised from the present ver­sion.

As re­gards the con­tent, I am quite in­ter­ested in see­ing how Théorie Com­mun­iste relates the phe­nomen­on of “ra­cial­iz­a­tion” [raci­sa­tion] to the struc­tur­al lo­gic of cap­it­al and its his­tor­ic un­fold­ing. Clearly, the art­icle takes race to be a more ar­bit­rary con­struc­tion than gender. Gender is rooted in the sexu­al di­vi­sion of labor with­in the oikos, wherein the fam­ily is the fun­da­ment­al eco­nom­ic unit. There are more bio­lo­gic­al de­term­in­ants for gender, at least ini­tially. Some of this is sketched out in an­oth­er short art­icle pub­lished by Théorie Com­mun­iste, “Uter­us vs. Melan­in,” which as yet re­mains un­trans­lated. However, while race is more re­cent and based on ac­ci­dent­al fea­tures, it is no less real than gender. Théorie Com­mun­iste loc­ates ra­cial­iz­a­tion with­in the seg­ment­a­tion of the work­force, where su­per­fi­cial dis­tinc­tions such as skin col­or and dif­fi­culties of com­mu­nic­a­tion (mul­tiple lan­guages, etc.) be­come mark­ers of dif­fer­ence. Deni­al of these dif­fer­ences, in the name of some norm­at­ive ideal of what class should be, is sharply cri­ti­cized for ig­nor­ing the seg­men­ted real­ity of so­cial­ized labor. Loren Gold­ner put this quite nicely a while back, when he wrote that “the ‘col­orblind’ Marx­ism of many left com­mun­ist cur­rents — a pro­let­ari­an is a pro­let­ari­an is a pro­let­ari­an — is simply… blind Marx­ism.”

Of course, race does not op­er­ate every­where uni­formly. It doesn’t al­ways fall along a col­or spec­trum run­ning from “white” to “black.” To be sure, the leg­acy of ra­cial­ized slavery in the United States over­shad­ows most oth­er his­tor­ic­al de­term­in­a­tions of race. But xeno­pho­bia to­ward vari­ous poor im­mig­rant groups — the Ir­ish in the 1850s, the Chinese in the early 1900s, Itali­ans in the 1920s-1930s, Lati­nos today — also plays a ma­jor role. Para­noia about Is­lam also in­forms a great deal of the hate­ful rhet­or­ic we’ve seen spouted against refugees since 2001. An­ti­semit­ism is less pro­nounced in the United States than in con­tin­ent­al Europe, cer­tainly, but it’s not al­to­geth­er un­known. Ra­cial dy­nam­ics work them­selves out a bit dif­fer­ently in France, with its his­tory of co­lo­ni­al­ism. However, I’m heartened to read that Théorie Com­mun­iste has no pa­tience for the re­ac­tion­ary polit­ics of race peddled by groups like the Parti des indigènes de la République and its lead­er, Houria Bouteldja. Roughly two years ago I cri­ti­cized the cul­tur­al re­lativ­ism of this par­tic­u­lar group, which per­vades de­co­lo­ni­al dis­course in gen­er­al, its “tac­tic­al ho­mo­pho­bia” and “lat­ent an­ti­semit­ism” (as the fol­low­ing art­icle puts it). Later I re­pos­ted an ex­cel­lent piece writ­ten by Ma­lika Amaouche, Yas­mine Kateb, and Léa Nic­olas-Te­boul.. «Classe/seg­men­ta­tion/raci­sa­tion» lam­bastes the PIR, who Théorie Com­mun­iste calls the “en­tre­pren­eurs of ra­cial­iz­a­tion.” I don’t blame Bouteldja et al. for pur­su­ing this en­ter­prise, though; someone had to tap the mar­ket left un­touched by Bloc Iden­titaire.

There has al­ways been seg­ment­a­tion with­in labor power. We must take it, then, as an ob­ject­ive de­term­in­a­tion of labor power un­der cap­it­al that nat­ur­ally leads to a di­vi­sion of labor. Here we have noth­ing more than a di­vide between a ho­mo­gen­eous ma­ter­i­al and a simple quant­it­at­ive grad­a­tion of the value of labor power. (Both simple and com­plex work un­der­go a kind of os­mos­is with­in the cap­it­al­ist mode of pro­duc­tion, from the gen­er­al­ized con­straint of sur­plus labor to spe­cial­ized labor un­der co­oper­at­ive man­age­ment, etc.). However, this seg­ment­a­tion would not be so if it were not but a qual­it­at­ive di­vide with­in an oth­er­wise ho­mo­gen­eous ma­ter­i­al. Two pro­cesses in­ter­vene as they weave to­geth­er: On the one hand the cap­it­al­ist mode of pro­duc­tion is glob­al, cap­able of ap­pro­pri­at­ing and des­troy­ing all oth­er modes of pro­duc­tion while con­serving for it­self the char­ac­ter­ist­ics of those it has re­defined. On the oth­er hand the value of labor power rep­res­ents a mor­al, cul­tur­al, and his­tor­ic­al com­pon­ent. Since cap­it­al­ist ex­ploit­a­tion is uni­ver­sal — i.e., be­cause cap­it­al can take over oth­er modes of pro­duc­tion or make them co­ex­ist along­side it, ex­ploit labor power to­geth­er with those oth­er modes or de­tach them from their former ex­ist­en­tial con­di­tions — cap­it­al­ism is thus an his­tor­ic­al con­struc­tion that brings about the co­ex­ist­ence of all the dif­fer­ent strata of his­tory in a single mo­ment. Seg­ment­a­tion is not merely “ma­nip­u­la­tion.” It ex­ists as the vol­un­tary activ­ity of the cap­it­al­ist class and its pro­fes­sion­al ideo­logues, which forms and an­im­ates an ob­ject­ive pro­cess, a struc­tur­al de­term­in­a­tion of the mode of pro­duc­tion.

If the work­ing class has al­ways been seg­men­ted, it is still ne­ces­sary to con­tex­tu­al­ize this seg­ment­a­tion. That is to say, it must be situ­ated in the gen­er­al form of the con­tra­dic­tion between pro­let­ari­at and cap­it­al with­in a giv­en cycle of struggles. Without this, the op­pos­i­tion to iden­tit­ies — iden­tit­ies wrongly as­so­ci­ated with com­munit­ies — would be solely norm­at­ive. Even if we were to con­fer great cir­cum­stan­tial im­port­ance on this seg­ment­a­tion, its be­ing lies else­where, with­in a pur­ity that is either ac­cess­ible or not. We do not es­cape the mutually ex­clus­ive op­pos­i­tion to iden­tit­ies simply by pit­ting what is against what should be.

Re­gard­ing the re­la­tion between seg­ment­a­tion and ra­cial­iz­a­tion [raci­sa­tion], there ex­ist two uni­lat­er­al stances fa­cing one an­oth­er. Ac­cord­ing to the first, ma­ter­i­al­ism boils down to re­du­cing iden­tity to its found­a­tion — without tak­ing its ef­fect­ive­ness or its lo­gic in­to ac­count. The second, equally ma­ter­i­al­ist stance but­tresses it­self on a re­fus­al to con­sider the facts. It says that if ra­cial­ identity is reduced in toto to its found­a­tion, it’s noth­ing but an arbitrary [volon­taire] and det­ri­ment­al con­struct. Hence, those who turn it in­to an ob­ject merely di­vide the class and pro­mote bar­bar­ism. (I’m hardly dis­tort­ing their po­s­i­tion). What always es­capes both of these stances is the ques­tion of ideo­logy, which is not a re­flec­tion [of the base] but an en­semble of prac­tic­al and be­liev­able re­sponses. Beneath these operate cer­tain prac­tices. Iden­tity comes in­to be­ing wherever there is a sep­ar­a­tion and auto­nom­iz­a­tion of a proper sphere of activ­ity. Each identity or ideo­logy — in the sense of the term em­ployed here — has its own his­tory and mod­us op­erandi, which can be ascertained with reference to the prac­tices op­er­at­ing be­neath the ideo­logy in ques­tion. Iden­tity is therefore an es­sen­tial­iz­a­tion which defines an in­di­vidu­al as a sub­ject.

A norm­at­ive deni­al of ra­cial­ized seg­ment­a­tion does not seek con­tra­dic­tions with­in that which ex­ists, but is rather content to po­s­ition it­self in con­tra­dic­tion to that which ex­ists: class against its seg­ment­a­tion, without con­sid­er­ing that class only ex­ists with­in this seg­ment­a­tion (i.e., with­in the con­tra­dic­tion of pro­let­ari­at and cap­it­al that provides for its re­pro­duc­tion). Norm­at­ive op­pos­i­tion to the real seg­ment­a­tion of the pro­let­ari­at leads to an ideo­lo­gic­al ec­lipse of this real­ity — something the Parti des indigènes de la République [PIR] does in­versely, in its own way. Continue reading

Parti des Indigènes de la République: “Zionists to the GULag!”

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The left-wing political scientist  Thomas Guénolé  recently (18th March) rowed with the spokesperson of the Parti des Indigènes de la République, Houria Bouteldja on the French television (France 2) program, “Ce soir (ou jamais !)” sur France 2 (Atlantico). He took out a photo of her posing with the slogan, “Zionists to the Gulag” [« Sionistes au goulag »]. A note which then adds: “Peace, but gulag even so” [« Peace, mais goulag quand même »].

Some other choice quotations he pulled from Bouteldja are also worth noting. Regarding rapes that take place in the banlieue: “If a black women is raped by a black man, it’s right that she does not go to the police in order to protect the black community” [« si une femme noire se fait violer par un homme noire, il est légitime qu’elle ne porte pas plainte pour protéger la communauté noire »]. On gays:  “Everybody knows that a poof is not completely a man, since the Arab who loses his potency is no longer a man” [« comme chacun sait, la tarlouze n’est pas tout à fait un homme. l’arabe qui perd sa puissance virile n’est plus un homme »].

Bouteldja’s reply was to state that she couldn’t give a toss what Guénolé thought, and that his basic accusation against her was that she was not white.

Now it is time to return to a critical examination of the ideas of this person and her group.

Houria Bouteldja, or rather “the excellent  Houria Bouteldja” (as Richard Seymour calls her here), is the spokesperson for the Parti des Indigènes de la République [PIR]. She is known to the American left from the reprinting of their statements by the International Socialist Organization,  and a star article with Malik Tahar Chaouch translated as  “The Unity Trap” in the oddly-named journal Jacobin, which claims to be “reason in revolt.”

The PIR, which opposes “race-mixing” and attacks the supposed “philo-Semitism” of the French state, among many other criticisms of “Jews” and  “Zionists” has also received a respectful audience in Britain, including a blog and  billing at meetings of the Islamic Human Right Commission. Verso has published a translation criticizing French secularism by one of the Indigènes’ prominent “white” supporters, the former leftist and self-styled feminist Christine Delphy.

Rumors that an English version of Les Blancs, les Juifs, et nous  is in preparation at Verso, with an introduction by Ian Donovan, have been strongly denied. A review of the book in French has already appeared written by the Tiqqun-affiliated author Ivan Segré, «Une indigène au visage pâle: Houria Bouteldja, Les Blancs, les Juifs et nous: Vers une politique de l’amour révolutionnaire». This is not a translation of Segré’s tonic review of Bouteldja but a discussion of some key points. The article begins with a summary of the authoress’ views which will perhaps explain that the prospect of a full account of the text — after all a honest attempt to make intelligible a picture of the world that bears comparison with such landmark thinkers as David Icke — would be hard to accomplish. But we salute comrade Sergé for having waded through this singular oeuvre. This is just to make known to an English speaking audience some of his main points

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Afrofuturism, Aaron Douglas, and W.E.B. Du Bois (1920s-1930s)

artstor_103_41822000904639Study for %22Aspects of Negro Life- An Idyll of the Deep South%22 (1934), tempera on paper, by Aaron DouglasAaron Douglas, Aspects of Negro Life- From Slavery to the Reconstruction, 1934. Harlem Renaissancepicture49-142E3580479301EA0AA

Lanre Bakare writes in The Guardian that “[a] new generation of artists [is] exploring afrofuturism. OutKast and Janelle Monáe take the philosophy to the mainstream, while Flying Lotus and Shabazz Palaces push jazz and hip-hop to their extremes.” He traces its musical lineage as follows:

The ’50s and ’60s were dominated by the free jazz and avant-garde work of Sun Ra and his Arkestra, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Don Cherry, and Alice Coltrane, with some psychedelic input from Jimi Hendrix and Love. The ’70s and ’80s were when George Clinton’s Parliament Funkadelic and Prince sent funk to outer space and dub innovators such as King Tubby and Lee “Scratch” Perry beamed out cosmic signals from Jamaica. The ’90s saw a renaissance and reimagining of Afrofuturism in hip-hop (OutKast, Kool Keith’s Dr Octagon alias, and RZA), neo-soul (Erykah Badu) and techno (specifically Detroit producers such as Drexciya), with all embracing the philosophy and giving it their own distinctive edge.

If Bakare’s right, things must be looking up. Though I’m by no means an afrofuturist connoisseur, I love Miles Davis, Prince, and Jimi Hendrix. Plus, Flying Lotus’ 2010 record Cosmogramma was great. As far as cinematic afrofuturism is concerned, I’m a longtime fan of John Sayles’ Brother from another Planet (1979).

Bakare devotes most of his article to an examination of music and film, so we may forgive him for neglecting to mention the great afrofuturist art that was made in the first half of the twentieth century. This post might go some way in correcting his omission.

Of all the great figures from that period, the Harlem Renaissance painter Aaron Douglas stands apart. Raymond E. Jackson and select others deserve some recognition, but no one approaches Douglas. I’d almost describe it as deco-futurism with a heavy emphasis on African symbolism and history, at least as he understood it. Douglas first began to be noticed for his illustrated covers to W.E.B. Du Bois’ “chronicle of the darker races,” The Crisis. At that time in the mid-’20s, the journal had a discernibly Marxist political bent (in keeping with Du Bois’ own views).

He also did some work for Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life. Later he was commissioned to do murals at a number of clubs and universities in Chicago and New York. These are truly stunning; they use a whole range of colors to achieve a deeply atmosphere effect. In this post you can see some of his work, or read more about his life via Wikipedia.

index (5) 9Aspiration Aaron Douglas Harriet Tubman Mural at Bennett College, Greensboro, North Carolina 1 Continue reading

Response to Peter Frase on identity politics

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Jacobin
has published a short reflection by Peter Frase on identity politics, with the humorous title
“Stay Classy.” Unfortunately, the title is probably the best thing about it. The rest of it is a bit slapdash, haphazardly whipped together. Especially the bit on “racecraft,” which seems both tacked on and untrue to  Barbara and Karen Fields’ argument in their book of the same name. Generally I think Frase is the brains of the bunch over at Jacobin, and still recommend his “Four Futures” essay to anyone interested in the journal. But this piece — as well as his earlier article on the 2011 protests in Wisconsin, “An Imagined Community,” in which he claimed “all politics are identity politics” — I find far weaker.

Anyway, I read this article when it appeared on  Frase’s blog. Here’s what I wrote there, with a few slight alterations:

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The emphasis on “identity” is misleading.

Marx stressed the significance of the proletariat as the “universal class” of bourgeois society because of its decisive position within the capitalist mode of production. Not because workers are the most downtrodden or marginalized members of society, but because they are uniquely placed to overturn the present social order. Immiseration notwithstanding, lumpenproletarians (the so-called “lazy lazzaroni” of  the “classes dangereuses“), the unemployable reserve army of labor, and those still involved in peasant labor have it far worse than those who manage to find waged or salaried jobs under capitalism. So if oppression doesn’t index political potential, what does? What makes the working class so special?

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Once again, it’s not that the working class is inherently radical or progressive. History has shown again and again that workers are susceptible to the influence of reactionary ideologies, and quite often act in ways that seem to go against their best interest. Proletarian parties and political movements have repeatedly erred in assuming that the laboring masses would eventually come around to socialism, only to see their expectations dashed at the final moment. All the same, the proletariat remains the sole hope that capitalism might someday be overcome. If workers aren’t natural-born revolutionaries, though — if they don’t automatically organize around socialist principles — what could possibly justify this continued belief?

Though it risks sounding redundant, we would do well to remind ourselves that the fundamental structuring principle of the capitalist social formation is capital. Capital is a social relationship in which a given magnitude of value, itself comprised of finished products embodying dead labor, must augment itself through the process of production, by coming into contact with living labor that valorizes it further. It is thus necessarily mediated at every level by wage-labor, on which its fructification relies. For this reason, it is dependent on a class of laborers — a social group determined by its relation to the means of production. Continue reading

To remember a future long silenced by history

Greg Gabrellas
Platypus Review 27
September 2010
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Book review:

Renewing Black Intellectual History
Adolph Reed Jr. & Kenneth W. Warren, eds.
(Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2010)

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In a 2005 commencement address, Howard Zinn urged the graduates of Spelman College to look beyond conventional success and follow the tradition set by courageous rebels: “W.E.B. Dubois and Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and Marian Wright Edelman, and James Baldwin and Josephine Baker.”[1] At first, Zinn’s lineage feels like an omnium-gatherum. Compare Malcolm X’s “by any means necessary” militarism to Marian Edelman’s milquetoast non-profit advocacy — “by any grant-writing or lobbying necessary” — and the incoherence stands out. But there is logic to Zinn’s cherry picking: namely, the flattening out of history to instill pride in one’s own identity. Du Bois and King may have belonged to radically divergent political tendencies, but what matters is their usefulness as role models, heroes in a continuous tradition of black resistance.

Zinn’s historical reasoning has a history of its own. Beginning in the early moments of decolonization, insurgent black nationalists attempted to rewrite history in the service of race pride. Think of Cheikh Anta Diop’s demonstration that the ancient Egyptians were really black Africans. Though such appeals proved too essentialist for the post-structuralist historiography of the 1970s and 1980s, historians who still hoped to preserve the therapeutic value of history continued to assert the cultural legacy of the black diaspora. This legacy was forged over hundreds, perhaps even thousands of years of oppression. And black resistance, it was claimed, dates to about the same period. In the absence of any actual politics, historical research became a substitute satisfaction. By revealing the racism implicit in, say, Orson Welles’s 1935 “Voodoo Macbeth,” the historian seems to win a political victory against racism.

In their edited collection, Renewing Black Intellectual History: The Ideological and Material Foundations of African American Thought, Adolph Reed Jr. and Kenneth W. Warren mount a challenge to the political pretensions of black studies. Now, bemoaning the excesses of identity politics is not new; in fact, it has paid for many a conservative’s third swimming pool. But Reed and Warren’s critique is meant to come from the Left, to show how the unexamined assumptions of black history mystify the present and block the development of critical politics.

One major assumption is that racism poses a persistent and persisting problem in American history. To make the point, historians, literary critics, and pundits often use W.E.B Du Bois’s adage that the problem of the 20th century would be the problem of the color line. In a recent article, for example, Linda Darling-Hammond details racial disparities in education, and asks whether America will be ready to “roll up its sleeves to at last solve the problem of the color line.”[2] Reed’s capstone essay “The ‘Color Line’ Then and Now” shows how such contemporary appropriations not only misunderstand the context of Du Bois’s remark, but also obscure the recognition of real social problems.

“Treat ‘Em Rough,” a political cartoon originally from the George Matthew Adams Newspaper Syndicate Service, August 16, 1919.

“Treat ‘Em Rough,” a political cartoon from George Matthew
Adams Newspaper Syndicate Service. (August 16, 1919).

Du Bois’s formulation was not exactly a clarion call for the black revolution; in fact, as Reed demonstrates, it came at the most conservative moment in his career. When Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk in 1903, he was not alone in prophesying the primacy of race in current affairs: In the academy, scientific racism had reached its zenith, and in popular political discourse, the imagination of a racial “Struggle for Existence” shaped foreign and domestic policy. Balking at the notion of innate inferiority, Du Bois had a softer view of racial inheritance than most, but he shared the race-centric view of his moment. An admirer of Bismark, he advocated for social reforms to squelch racial and class tensions, and divert blacks from more radical politics. Du Bois would reevaluate his perspective, of course, over his long lifetime. A member of the Communist Party in the years before his death in 1963, he later questioned his own formulation of the “color line” as the problem of his century.[3] Continue reading