The Works of Philip Kaveny
The American Civil Rights Movement
Marxism and the American Civil Rights Movement
In order discuss the relation ship between Marxism and the American Civil rights movement it is important that we first historically ground the concept of Marxism for this study. German born and culturally Jewish Karl Marx (1818 -1883), after failing as a poet and novelist, he completed his doctorate in the early 1840’s. Marx fled Germany with the revolutions which swept much of Europe in the late 1840’s, first to Paris, and then to London in 1849. Supported by his editor Frederick Engel’s (1820-1895) who was heir to a large British industrial firm, Karl Marx spent the rest of his life in London working in the British Museum trying to articulate in a coherent form his theories of historical materialism and economic determinism. Presently the full English translation of Karl Marx’s complete works is incomplete and is expected to number well over fifty volumes. In 2005, a British Broadcasting poll named Karl Marx the greatest philosopher of all time as he earned a vote total that surpassed the combined votes of the next three runners up.
Marxist thought and its European cultural underpinnings is a vast and very daunting historical topic, and yet it’s great power and appeal lies in what I would call its contemporary trans-national historical reducibility. This quality has made it attractive to generations of intellectuals, revolutionaries, and, in some instances, even workers. For clarity, I thought it best to draw from The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism for a summary of key points in Marx’s thought.
Marx and Engels’s joint work published in the 1840’s includes The Holy Family (1845) and The German Ideology (not published until 1932). In these texts, and in Marx’s polemical pamphlet The Poverty of Philosophy (1847), they sought to prove that economic and social forces shape human consciousness. This materialism was meant to displace the idealistic view that human consciousness shapes social forces. They based their interpretation of reality on dialectical materialism, believing that all change results from the constant conflict arising from the oppositions inherent in all ideas, movements and events. They further argued that the internal contradictions would inevitably lead to its demise. (761)
And yet for all the later vastness of its body of philosophical and economic speculation Marxism was a conspiratorial, pragmatic, and yet at the same time a progressive and even positivistic philosophy of action, in which many hands may spin the wheel of what is represented as historical progress which in the end leads to a dictatorship of the proletariat and finally a withering away of the state.
Marx and Engels’s most significant publication of the decade (for our purpose the most significant period) appeared in London in 1848…The Communist Manifesto…In this intense pamphlet Marx…describes the triumphs of capitalism; the creation of a world market…the misery capitalism imposes on the masses; class struggle between the exploiters (owners) and the exploited workers; the connection between workers via cash and the inevitability of revolution, and the dawn of a class free society. Though specifically commissioned to state the principles of The Communist league (a secret organization composed of German émigrés) it quickly became the statement of militant working class movements everywhere. (761)
II DuBois, Marxism and materialism in 1930s
Though W.E.B. Dubois (1868-1963) was forced out of the United States by the United States government towards the end of his long life, and mostly on the basis of trumped up changes because of his international peace activates, I feel that his is more linked with emergent trends in black thought and culture, in the second half of the 20th Century. I will address this formulation towards the end of the paper. But it is clear W.E.B Dubois, in a sense as a literary figure, and as a holder of a doctorate in sociology from Harvard (1895) is a critical link to many aspects of the African American struggle to restore those civil rights briefly won but expropriated from them. Some would say as they were sacrificed in the decades after “the tragic failure of reconstruction to in fact reconstruct after The Civil war” (Dr. Leon Liwack U.W Madison 1963 lecture). I feel with his editorship of The Crisis and of course his role in the founding of NAACP in 1909 to his role in the emergence of African identity in the 1960’s W.E.B Dubois’ life was remarkable
III Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and The God That Failed
During the period between Karl Marx’s death in 1883 and the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, Marxist thought spread, evolved, and mutated throughout the world in much the same way that Protestant religious doctrine did after Luther posted his 95 Theses in 1517. This is not really the place to explore why this happened in the past, saying that Marxism did require of the believer a very strong degree of faith, and with the revolutionary movements both the failures in Germany, and Hungry, and the success in with the survival of the 1917 Bolshevik in Russia it was clear that revolutionary Marxism was a doctrine that millions seemed willing to and did die and kill for.
Of course, Soviet Marxist Leninism was not the only path that Marxist thought took.
There were other evolutions of Marxist doctrine which took the form of European Democratic Socialism, and sometimes even the Social or Christian Democratic parties which gradually evolved and were perhaps best exemplified in the United States Afro- American civil rights leader Bayard Rustin (1912-1988). He was both a Christian (Quaker) socialist and became a major figure in both the first march on Washington in 1940 and the second in 1963 and a major figure in gay rights towards the end of his life. One must note that the city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin now awarded the titled of the most segregated city in the United States according to a recent Yale University study, had a Social Democratic mayor during the heyday of the Wisconsin progressive movement.
Yet for all its beauty, humanity, and integrity, sadly, democratic socialism lacked the promise of the brutal inevitability of revolutionary Marxist and even Stalinism as it had evolved essentially as an instrument of Soviet Russian foreign policy by the time of the stock market crash of 1929. The stock market crash, of course, swept into the worldwide depression of the 1930’s which impacted upon African Americans to a greater degree than any other American ethnic group. To understand the role of this type of Marxism, I turned to the 2003 edition of The God That Failed which was first published in 1948 as a kind of anti-communist polemic. In fact, it turns out it was funded by the Central Intelligence Agency and originally edited by British Member of Parliament Richard Crossman (1907-1974). The new contextualizing forward written by David C. Engerman indicates that the book was at least partially funded by the United States Central Intelligence Agency. However, given the high intellectual level of its content I have the suspicion that it may have well been funded, but never carefully read by members of that agency, even though it sold hundreds of thousands of copies. I am not going to mention the other five other contributors but only the contribution of African American writer Richard Wright (1908-1960), probably most famous for his brutal 1940 novel Native Son and his creation of the character Bigger Thomas. The question remains open whether the novel is an exemplar of proletarian realism, or simply a costly misrepresentation of the male African American character. However, the fact remains as one reads Richards Wright’ s account of his treatment by the American Communist Party in the mid 1930’s, he is full of sensitivity and that his characters are not autobiographical
It is mentioned that Richard Wright’s contribution to the God That Failed was almost not included because he was the only worker and self-taught intellectual included in the collection. I am very glad he was because his piece speaks to a general problem of African Americans being viewed as expendable by left wing political movements. In Richard Wright’s own words
I wondered dimly if the outcasts could become united in action through thought and feeling. Now I knew it was being done in one sixth of the world already… (He is referring to the Soviet Union in the mid 1930’s) …The revolutionary words jumped from the page and struck me with tremendous force. It was not the economics of Communism, nor the great power of the trade unions, nor the excitement of underground politics that claimed me; my attentions was caught by the similarity of experience of workers in other lands, by the possibility of uniting a scattered but kindred people into a whole. It seemed to me at least in the realm of revolutionary expression a home, a functioning value, and the Negro could find a home. (pp118)
Yet Richard Wright did not find a home with the American Communist Party though intellectually, as he moves to Paris 1946, he always remained a Marxist.
As I noted in a D2L posting, while researching the Gale Contemporary Author’s database for background information on African American post- WII French expatriate Author Richard Wright (1908-1960), I came upon what may be the first appearance of the term black power in print. Black Power (Richard Wright): A Record of Reactions in a Land of Pathos, Harper Collins 1954. What is fascinating to me is that this book was written during Richard Wright’s fourteen-year exile when he came to live in Paris after being invited to do so by the French Government. In Paris, Wright fell in with leftist existential philosopher Jean Paul Sartre. But from my standpoint to try to understand Richard Wright’s work though the lens of French Existentialism is an exercise for English professors. Rather it is better to think of his early work as very roughly hewn and largely drawn.
I could get lost in Richard Wright’s work but I will not. In the process of this study, by using the above-mentioned database, I determined that Richard Wright had a profound influence on African American writer Ralph Ellison (1914-1994), Ellison (whose hand I shook at Printers Row. Printer’s Row, the largest outdoor Book Fair in the world, took place in Dearborn Station in Chicago in 1992). Ralph Ellison did many brilliant things in his award-winning 1954 existential novel Invisible Man. A summary is not really in order here past saying it is the story of a brilliant you Southern African American who wishes to do they right thing yet everywhere he turns he is used up and cast aside. In Chapter 24, the protagonist is used by a rich, bored, northern white woman and a communist who wants Wrights’ protagonist, now know as Jack the Bear, to order her to drop her drawers and roughly sexually use her before she passes out. While she is passed out, Jack the Bear writes this phrase on her naked stomach, instead of having sex with her.
“SYBIL, YOU WERE RAPED
BY SANTA CLAUS
SURPRISE.” (p. 395)
Harlem is in flames because the police have murdered a black man, Todd Clifton and The Brotherhood, which is Ellison’s literary stand-in for the Communist party, is about to make the most of it. I think, after reading Richard Wright’s section in The God That Failed, that Ralph Ellison was giving those experiences a literary voice.
Time and space will not allow me to write much more about Richard Wright but his voice rang out to me in two places: one where he spoke about mopping floors all day and getting a chest cold as he wrote all night. And lastly for this phase he uttered as nobody would find a place for place for him to stay at a Communist writer’s conference in 1935.
“I wanted to make a defense of the John Reed clubs. But the problem of the clubs did not seem important. What seemed important to me: was could a Negro ever live halfway like a human being in this Goddamm country?” p.139, The God That Failed.
International Communism as was pretty much discredited for the Civil Rights Movement with the cold war and most academic Marxism tended to submerge race issues in class issues on a theoretical level. And even my own school of academic, theoretical Marxism, referred to as The Frankfurt School of Social Criticism, had an absolute contempt for working-class and particularly African-American cultural products like jazz. That’s because they liked to sit around and talk about the failures of the false consciousness as they sipped their fine brandy and listened to Brahms. But the picture is not as bleak as one might think. As an aside, they still do it. I recently told an unnamed professor of critical theory that I saw a good episode of the network television show ‘Law & Order” that contested several racial stereotypes in a very effective way. All he could say was this.
“I don’t own a Television, and if I did I would not watch anything on the Networks.”
IV: Organic Intellectuals, Non-Eurocentric Marxism, and Black Power.
One the most interesting aspects of Marxist thought is that it is always being historically revised. One of the greatest and dirtiest secrets about Marxist thought, at least in most of its European forms, is that it tends to despise and blame what Marx referred to as the lumpy (Or was that lumpen) Proletariat); Anybody who got dirty and worked for a living. But Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) did not. Antonio Gramsci was elected to the Italian Parliament in 1924 and thrown into prison by Mussolini in 1928 after an extended period of police surveillance. He was only let out to die in 1937. However, in his time in prison he put together hundreds of notebooks and developed ideas which were later, I think, attractive to the Black Panthers. Many of them were attracted to Gramsi’s concept of organic working class intellectuals, and perhaps most important, on a personal and political level, they understood cultural terrorism and hegemony. This is Gramsci’s most empowering formulation. To put it simply, Gramsci argues that the state does not have enough cops to control everybody. Therefore, it rules by inferiority complex, by making certain cultural forms seem insignificant. For example, they might privilege something like (Brahms and brandy) over watching Law & Order. Or for matter going out in the street and making a cop do his or her job in a constructive manner, like the Panthers did in Oakland in the 1960’s.
V: The Post Colonial period 1965-2006 Marxism and the American Civil Rights movement. The Black Panthers and afterward
I mentioned that I thought W.E.B DuBois belongs as much in the conclusion of this paper as in the introduction because of his hard-political realism and his day-to-day concern for the lives of African-Americans, which in turn was supported by a large amount of theoretical work which did not simply lump race in with all other variables.
As I read Amiri Baraka’s The Autobiography of Leroi Jones as background material, I found myself the resistant reader and I must admit that I personally disliked him when he described the evolution of his interactions with white people and his own personal involvement with the Newark riots. Nor did I much like the way that he made a profession of being invited to liberal universities to soothe white guilt. But I did love the way he wrote about Black Art and Black Music and what that has meant for America, and I did like the way he nuanced the complex issue of shade of skin color for African-Americans. It was somewhere along there that I realized that if I was in fact reading a writer who was relating to me his experience and explaining to me that he felt he was a person of color living under a colonial power. Then I could relate to him, since my Irish ancestors of course lived under the occupying English and we have family memories of the experience. Leroi Jones’ Marxism, as he wrote about it in the early 1980’s, was not of a classical bent nor was it that of the Panthers twenty years before. I think it was more like dream-visionary and Utopian Marxism and it had and does have a human face to it.
I want to close with the Chang book Can’t Won’t Stop because it has crispness and, to an extent, a kind of optimistic cast to it. Where he can quote someone one as saying that N.Y.P.D is the biggest gang in the city, in his conclusion, he links what were for me the best parts of radical activity of the 20th Century to the 21st, though cultural productions, just like we did in our class sessions with the multi -media and power point presentations
Baraka, Amiri. The Autobiography of Leroi Jones. NY: Freundlich Books, 1984.
The Black Panthers Speak. Foner, Philip S. Ed. Da Capo Press, 1970, 1995.
Branch, Taylor. Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963. NY: Simon
and Schuster, 1988.
Butterfield, Fox. All God’s Children: The Bosket family and the Tradition of Violence.
NY; Avon Books, 1995.
Chang, Jeff. Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. NY: St.
Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. NY: Random House. 1947, 1952.
The God the Failed. Richard H. Crossman, ed. NY: Columbia U. Press, 2001 (1949).
Groundwork: Local Black Freedom Movements in America. Theoharis, Jeanne and
Komozi Woodard, ed. NY: New York U. Press, 2005.
Marx, Karl. Capital. Engels, Frederich, ed. Chicago: William Benton, 1954.
Marx, Karl and Frederich Engels. Manifesto of the Communist Part. Chicago, William
Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, Leitch, Vincent B. ed. NY. W.W. Norton
Williams, Raymond. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, rev. ed. NY:
Oxford U. Press, 1976, 1983.