Dear Editors of Cultural Logic,
I just finished the article by Barbara Foley entitled 'Roads Taken and Not Taken: Post-Marxism, Antiracism, and Anti-communism', and parts of it I greatly enjoyed. The author is right both to want to reclaim the relationship between African American artists and socialist/communist/Marxist politics. Aside from the Harlem Renaissance, other great artists have been influenced by and sympathetic to or active in communist politics. Amiri Baraka is one who immediately comes to mind. This is important work, to recover that which has been lost, and rectify that which has been misrepresented. It was also nice to finally hear someone criticize Ellison's attack on communism (and it is communism he is attacking, which is why he sounds so exasperated in his introduction to later editions of his work in which he tries to explain that it was not the Communist Party per se which he was addressing) for being flat, simplistic and from the right.
I also found the discussion of class as 'position' versus class as systemic relationship, and therefore as basis of critique, very interesting. The 'pragmatist fetishization of particularity' the author identifies is quite accurate. I am currently arguing with a comrade of mine over the meaning and nature of the notion of false consciousness, as discussed in Marxism. His position is that the notion of false consciousness is more harmful than useful because someone who is a Marxist thereby claims that by being a Marxist, they have a place which is somehow beyond 'locatedness' and criteria by which to judge the absolute truth and falsity of someone else's politics or other ideological beliefs. In other words, Marxism does not excuse or alter a person from still being (in the case of the person we were talking about) white, male, and heterosexual, from a middle class background, and from a particular generation. That this person, with this 'locatedness', should then claim the ability to discuss Black Nationalist politics as false consciousness in some dismissive kind of way is insulting. After all, why can't an African American experience life as African American most consciously, seeing little in common between themselves and white working class people? Is it in fact false consciousness to draw the conclusion that white workers are no more to be trusted than white bosses? Not necessarily.
The problem I have with this argument is that it perceives the notion of false consciousness incorrectly because, in arguing about the importance of 'locatedness', it begins to lose sight of the difference between a variety of issues. Post-Marxism, in fact, functions in part through the conflation of different concepts. In my opinion, it is incorrect to say that Black Nationalism does not develop out of the actual lived experience of African Americans, as suffering from a form of oppression which places all so-called 'whites' against all African Americans, across class lines, and across gender lines. To that extent, the notion that all African Americans have some common interest is true, and that all African Americans suffer from a common oppression is true. To deny that is to deny a fundamental reality of white supremacy (what Theodore Allen describes as the fact that the lowliest white person is always socially superior to the highest Black person.) It is also true that, in so far as communists who are racialized as 'white' function as whites and not as communists, that is, as long as they function in ways which accept, encourage, or bow to whiteness, they are no more trustworthy than any other person racialized as white. As such, they appear, and act, as members not of the working class, but as members of the cross-class, class-collaborationist 'white race'.
The problem arises when the question of class is then posed, not in a static, passive, ahistorical manner, but in a processural, historical, and active manner. What does this mean? First, Marxism does give us the tools to understand the actual nature of race and racial oppression. It does not guarantee that the analysis will be made, nor does it guarantee when it will be made, when it finally is. It does guarantee that there will be a variety of ways in which the problem is taken up by other, non-proletarian forces, and will be a problematic for proletarian forces. However, none of this implies that it is impossible to theorize race accurately. Marxists had to go through a whole set of experiences to reach their current theorizations of race, which included a variety of social and political movements and revolutions, including the theorization of these events by the people making that history, who were often not Marxists. However, some of the most fruitful theorization of race in this country comes from the Marxist tradition by way of W.E.B. DuBois, C.L.R James, Richard Wright, Cyril Briggs, and Harry Haywood, among the best known. It is important for us to recover this from the lies of the postmodernists who want to claim that Marxism has simply failed to address these questions. Far from having failed, Marxism has been one of the few traditions to recognize, theorize, and act upon the question from the point of view of the emancipation of the oppressed. The success of that theorization has been uneven, ranging from brilliant to banal. The practice has been even more uneven, probably tending towards rather worse than better, though this too varies by time period and organization. But Marxism has enough experience in action and organization which flows from and also informs a particular theoretical development, that one can draw conclusions about the relative truth or falsity of other ideas, and to that extent, it is possible to speak about false consciousness (here understood as a one-sided, partial understanding of a problem). On this basis, that is to say, on the basis of history and the struggles which have preceded us which comprise that history, it is certainly possible to say that Black Nationalism is false consciousness in so far as it represents a specific political program which seeks to abolish white supremacy and/or liberate African Americans through a cross-class struggle which designates that the struggle is primarily about Black and white.
However, the issue is not settled by this. Is it false consciousness when a Black nationalist consciousness and critique of the United States begins to develop among the mass of African Americans, who are vastly more working class than the white population? False consciousness is the phrase which is used to denote the lack of a consciousness of the class-for-itself, the mere existence of the class-in-itself, and the ideas which represent the obstacles to the class becoming a class-for-itself. It is most certainly the case that whiteness is false consciousness of the first order. So how do we understand the question of race and the abolition of whiteness? In fact, I want to posit the idea that the end of race, the abolition of whiteness, is a bourgeois democratic demand and a bourgeois democratic task. I say this because white supremacy is an affront, nominally, to bourgeois norms of equality. If this is true (and it is an idea I hope to develop at greater length somewhere else), that still does not answer the question of whether or not it is a task achievable under capitalism. I do not think that it is possible (whether or not it was at the end of the Civil War in the US is a question). Therefore, is it not possible that the struggle against white supremacy, and the development of a struggle which is nationalist in the African American community, would run into the very same barriers that every nationalist revolution has run into this century? Those barriers are the very ones identified by Leon Trotsky in his work Permanent Revolution.
Having run into those barriers, it would seem that there is every possibility that the development of the Black struggle for emancipation holds within its bosom the possibility of becoming a proletarian revolution.
Only Marxist analysis, enriched theoretically by its own growth as a process of the theorization of struggles against other types of oppression (race, gender, sexuality, national, etc.), is capable of understanding this process, and intervening in it uncompromisingly on the side of the exploited and oppressed. Post-Marxism and post-modernism get hung up on their own contradictions, in this respect, because they tend to deny the possibility of knowledge itself. The entire move to 'locatedness' as making knowledge of the system, or any knowledge other than personally-experienced knowledge, impossible is a retreat which represents nothing more or less than a neo-Berkleyanism or neo-Kantianism (all knowledge is either subjective and relative to personal experience or 'locatedness' or we can only know appearances, but not the actual thing-itself which is beyond our ability to know). As such, the whole argument against the notion of false consciousness is one rooted in a neo-Kantian or neo-Berkleyan epistemology which denies the ability to rationally understand the world, but to only experientially relate to the world. The epistemology is old and worn out indeed. As such, I believe that it is quite clear that the rejection of the notion of false consciousness is fundamentally a rejection of Marxian epistemology.
Let's expand on the practical questions involved in the discussion of false consciousness. Is it not fair to say that when workers' identify their interests with those of the ruling class, that they have a false consciousness of their position within society and their class interests? Or is it more realistic to say that false consciousness is always the partial, fragmented consciousness of the different sections of the class, which the party seeks to overcome by representing the most advanced workers from every section of the class? Is not the job of the party to express the most advanced interests of the class as a whole? If this is not possible in some practical way, if it is not possible to usefully and accurately define the interests of the class as a whole, then how can we even say that it is in the interests of the working class to build a socialist society, to make a revolution, or anything else? How is it possible to speak about the layers of class consciousness in the working class? Does that mean that there is not difference between a communist worker and a backward worker (say, tied to the Klan) except their 'location'? Do we not then give up all means of judging the political differences except in some kind of solipsistic way?
This is what I am leery of. This tossing out of the theory of false consciousness because there are ways to abuse the concept seems to me to leave open the door for all kinds of relativistic, rather than dialectical, analyses. The idea of false consciousness as one-sidedness and partiality is the version I subscribe to, and I do not see what is wrong with approaching the matter in this way. After all, I do believe that Marxism offers a way to really see what is in the best interests of the class as a whole, and the means to proceed to secure those interests. I think that non-communist consciousness is full of illusions and errors, of 'false consciousness'. I do not, however, believe that theory makes up for practice or is practice in some sufficient way. Nor does good theory make up for the serious intellectual work necessary to really understand the immediate, concrete reality we live in which is shaped by a history that must be firmly grasped.
That is how good theory becomes scholasticism and sectarianism. The working out of what ideas constitute false consciousness, and the combating of those ideas is exactly one of the prime tasks of a revolutionary party, as a party whose main job it is to raise the self-confidence and self-consciousness of the class as a class, with separate interests, aims, and abilities. As an example of a relatively unambiguous case of false consciousness, there is the question of white supremacy in the working class. In what way can whiteness and the attachment of that section of the working class racialized as 'white' constitute anything other than false consciousness? False consciousness is as much about obfuscation and one-sidedness as it is about absolute falsity.
As such, it must be remembered that Marx speaks about false consciousness as it relates to bourgeois ideology.
But it is that very materialism which they made dialectical and consistent, which makes me leery of the 'politics of located-ness' currently being proffered as an advance. In that sense, false consciousness is the phrase which is used to denote the lack of a consciousness of the class-for-itself, the mere existence of the class-in-itself, and the ideas which represent the obstacles to the class becoming a class-for-itself. The challenge to this idea comes from quarters with whom I suspect and often know I have profound philosophical and theoretical differences.
Why do I digress through all of this? Because the core of Barbara Foley's discussion is in part about exactly these kinds of issues, especially in sections 10 and 11. There are questions about the know-ability of the world as a coherent system which can be critiqued as such, and which follows certain laws which are the product of social structures that exist independently of any individual, but which also shape the possible for entire groups. White supremacy is one such structure which flows out of a development which is not accidental to or separate from capitalism's development, but which is centrally implicated in its development. To quote Theodore Allen:
The essential social structure in class societies is this: First, there is the ruling class, that part of society which, having established its control of the organs of state power, and having maintained domination of the national economy through successive generations and social crises, is able to limit the options of social policy in such a way as to perpetuate its hegemony over the society as a whole. Being itself economically non-productive, it is at the optimum a small numerical proportion of the society.
Secondly, there is the intermediate buffer social control stratum, classically composed of self-employed small land-owners or leaseholders, self-employed artisans, and members of the professions, who live in relative economic security, in social subordination to the ruling class and normally in day-to-day contact with their social inferiors.
Finally, there are those devoid of productive wealth (except their ability to work), who constitute the majority of the population, and whose condition is generally one of extreme dependency and insecurity.
Racial oppression, gender oppression, and national oppression, all present basic lines of social distinction other than economic ones. Though thus inherently contradictory to class distinctions, these forms of social oppression, nevertheless, under normal conditions, serve to reinforce the ascendancy of the ruling class. Students of political science, and "world changers," need to understand both the unique nature of each of these forms as well as the ways in which they differ, and the ways in which they interrelate with each other and with class oppression. Of these categories, my present remarks will be directed to racial oppression.
The hallmark, the informing principle, of racial oppression in its colonial origins and as it has persisted in subsequent historical contexts, is the reduction of all members of the oppressed group to one undifferentiated social status, beneath that of any member of the oppressor group. ('Summary of the Argument of The Invention of the White Race', Cultural Logic, Vol. 1, No. 2, paragraphs 9, 10, 11, 13, and 14; Allen's emphasis.)
White supremacy is the product of the bourgeoisie's need to control the working class as a whole, in order to maintain the very possibility of capital accumulation and bourgeois order. In so far as this is true, to talk about the eradication of white supremacy without talking about the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism is absurd. This means that the Post-Marxist reduction of class and race to 'locations', and to equivalent status (Post-Marxist classism vs. Marxist class struggle), misses the difference between class as the set of systemic social relations which defines capitalism, and race, which develops out of and acts upon classes in their development and conflict, but which does not constitute the structural framework of society. Barbara Foley is therefore right to reassert Marxist epistemology, notions of class as systemic relationship and therefore class as central acting point for emancipation through revolution.
However, it would be a mistake to assume that heightened class struggle will automatically overcome white supremacy and create 'racial unity'. This notion, embodied in the slogan "Black and white, Unite and Fight" and the organizational politics of 'revolutionary integrationism', functions to obscure the degree to which the racialization of the 'white' working class has been interiorized, and therefore forms an alternative means not simply of understanding the world, but of acting within and upon it. As such, the rest of the working class has to protect itself from the white working class, which acts as the agent of repression in so far as it accepts and identifies itself as white. This means that the principles of self-determination must be applied as much in relation to the white working class as to the white bourgeoisie. It also means that increased class struggle by workers does not automatically translate into decreased white supremacy. Historically, the most that can be said is that increased working class struggle, which is to say, mass struggle, opens the door for anti-racist struggle. To actually break down white supremacist consciousness in the so-called 'white working class' requires a political struggle of the sort that can only be consistently made by a revolutionary party. And such a party must be ready to make a conscious and militant struggle against white supremacy/whiteness in the working class, in its own ranks, and I society as a whole. And such a party will have to recognize the right of self-determination, and all of the logical steps which flow from that position.
The implications of this contradict the logic of Barbara Foley's arguments at the end of her article. The defense of the right of nations to self-determination is an essential part of the arsenal of Marxism. It is worth recalling the debates between Lenin and Luxemburg, and Lenin's criticisms of Otto Bauer. Certainly, it is true that communists seek to unify all struggles of the oppressed, and that we wish to create a unified international state of, by and for the working class and all other oppressed peoples. And, as I have stated above, nationalism is a form of class collaboration, but we must distinguish between several different issues.
1. Theoretically, we are opposed to nationalist ideology as a bourgeois ideology, and we at no time support the subordination of the working class to any nationalist organization.
2. The biggest failure of the Left in the 20th century is not softness on nationalism (of the oppressed, which is what I believe is implied in Barbara Foley's statement, which leaves imperialist nationalism untouched), but opportunism towards nationalist parties and movements. This opportunism is composed of support for nationalist parties, the conflation of nationalist parties with Marxist parties, and cheerleading for nationalist revolutions and dubbing them socialist when they nationalize property (as if this could eradicate capitalist social relations). The roots of this opportunism are 1) a lack of confidence in the working class to make its own revolution (started in Stalinism, but it is the abiding policy of Maoism and all the other 'Marxism-ed' nationalist politics which followed from Maoism, as well as the apologetics for such politics by a wide range of Trotskyisms), 2) the rooted-ness of the Left in the labor aristocracy and the petty bourgeoisie, and 3) an opportunistic policy towards the trade unions.
3. Nationalism amongst oppressed nations and oppressed peoples within an oppressor nation can open the door to class politics. Nationalist sentiment is the political awakening of the masses in such a situation. We should encourage its development by being active in such a movement, but continuously raising class demands and pointing to the limitations of the nationalist politicians. To simply condemn nationalist movements, and a rising nationalist consciousness among the oppressed, is to engage in third-camping, which is to say the pseudo-abstentionism politics of the petty bourgeois radical. This always favors the bourgeoisie and opens the door for nationalist organizations to dominate a movement.
4. The nationalism of the oppressed and of the oppressor is two different things. The nationalism of the oppressed is a representation of the urge towards emancipation, while the nationalism of the oppressor is nothing but reactionary, and seeks class collaboration between the working class of the oppressor nation and the bourgeoisie of the oppressor nation. Also, nationalist revolutions can play a role in breaking the power of imperialism. Any movement that weakens imperialism is deserving of our defense, because it can weaken imperialism both materially and ideologically.
5. Unless the working classes constituted in the imperialist powers (and the workers racialized and gendered as superior within those working classes) defend the right of oppressed nations to self-determination, then there is no real hope of trust and comradely unity between these different workers and working classes, and in fact the workers who are members of the oppressor group will never be able to develop a revolutionary class consciousness because they are bought and sold by the class-collaborationist ideology of 'their' ruling class. This includes the right of oppressed groups within a country to their own organizations, independent of the organizations of the oppressor group.
6. Even when defending the right of self-determination, it is always the obligation of revolutionary Marxists to explain to whatever group of workers will listen that self-determination will only truly be achieved through workers' power, and that it is better if the workers of the oppressed nation or group settle scores with their own bourgeoisie as they are settling scores with the oppressor bourgeoisie. In other words, the struggle for self-determination can only be victorious if it is also a struggle for proletarian emancipation. In my opinion, that is one of the most critical lessons of the nationalist regimes over the last 50 years.
It is my sense that Barbara Foley disagrees with much of what I am saying here, and in effect throws out the Marxist baby with the Post-Marxist bathwater. For all that is valuable in her article, it would be a serious mistake if Marxism failed to grow politically out of the confrontation with nationalism and oppressed peoples' movements. It will only consign revolutionaries to another 50 years of failure. Rather, we must grow and build Marxism. Theodore Allen, Theresa Ebert and others point us in useful directions on race and gender. I have tried to build, in some of my conclusions, on the traditions of self-determination developed and applied by Lenin and the Third International in its first four congresses. We need to follow up, critique, and expand on those ideas, both in theory and in practice, not turn back to an antiquated, class-reductionist Marxism.
Pessimism of the intellect,
Optimism of the will.
Cultural Logic, ISSN 1097-3087.Page updated August 27, 1998.