Art by Yousef Amairi

Art by Yousef Amairi
the struggle continues

March 22, 2018

Thinking Clearly about the White Working Class by Michael D. Yates (Mar 01, 2018)

Thinking Clearly about the White Working Class

Michael D. Yates is the associate editor of MR and the author of Can the Working Class Change the World?, forthcoming from Monthly Review Press.
David Gilbert, Looking at the U.S. White Working Class Historically (Montreal: Kersplebedeb, 2017), 97 pages, $10.00, paperback.
David Gilbert is a worthy heir to Antonio Gramsci. Like the Sardinian radical, he has kept abreast, from a prison cell, of world events and written about them with considerable clarity. He has been an activist among his fellow prisoners and has maintained a lively correspondence with militants beyond the walls. In this timely book, a new edition of his 1984 volume Looking at the White Working Class Historically, Gilbert addresses a subject that could not be more relevant—the white working class in the United States. Conventional wisdom has it that white workers propelled Donald Trump into the Oval Office, and liberals and even some leftists seem to think that the only hope for a resurrection of progressive politics is to bring white workers back into the fold of the Democratic Party. What has been missing from these accounts is a historical perspective, one that looks at things from the standpoint of material reality.
Gilbert sets the stage for his analysis in the preface to the 1984 edition, reprinted in the new volume. Obviously, the phrase “white working class” indicates that the workers in question are part of the working class, and, as such, of a much larger class worldwide, a mass of potential agents for the overthrow of the capitalism that oppresses them. However, they are also “white,” and, given the racist history of the United States, part of an oppressor nation that has subjugated, tortured, and murdered black, indigenous, and other nonwhite people for centuries. Gilbert states forcefully that “Historically, we must admit that the identity with the oppressor nation has been primary” (1). There have been exceptions, mainly in interracial efforts to improve wages and conditions in the workplace. Unfortunately, some scholars, such as Adolph Reed Jr., in an effort to deny that race remains a factor that cannot be subsumed by class, sometimes overstate the class solidarity of black and white workers.1 We could go back to the eighteenth century and note, as have historians Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh, that there were numerous multiracial uprisings in North America, the Caribbean, and the United Kingdom (particularly London).2 However, the Irish and other ethnic groups who allied themselves with free blacks and slaves, soon enough became “white” as they were assimilated into the dominant white culture, and were often satisfied with the small blandishments given them by merchants and capitalists.
Gilbert goes on to delineate the responses of white leftists to this reality. Some have simply failed to address white racism. (Once, I met some members of a left-wing party who had taken employment in a Pennsylvania coal mine, presumably to help radicalize the miners. Given the blatant racism in the area, I asked them if they had ever confronted, in a comradely manner, any racist remark made by a fellow miner. They said, oh no, we could not do that—and had no response when I wondered how racism could ever be combated if no one made an issue of it, even in a union setting.)
Other white radicals have recognized the leading role played by black radicals in the labor and national liberation movements and stood in solidarity with these, but, by the same token, they have too often “fallen into an elitist or perhaps defeatist view that dismisses the possibility of organizing significant numbers of white people, particularly working-class whites” (2).
From these initial remarks, further developed in the book’s introduction, Gilbert launches into his own analysis of the white working class. He begins with a brief examination of the remarkable rise of Donald Trump to president of the United States. Here too, history is his focus. Besides noting that most voters with annual income below $30,000, a group that is disproportionately nonwhite, cast ballots against Trump, while poorer whites voted for Trump, he points to the racist, sexist, and imperialist history of the United States as deciding underlying factors in the rise of Trump. All of this is true, though he misses the votes of the petit and rich bourgeoisie as key to Trump’s victory. Class was important, too.
Here and throughout the book, Gilbert stresses the power and interrelation of imperialism, racism, and patriarchy in shaping both history and consciousness, pointing to the effects of systemic crisis in determining historical events: “A stable imperialism prefers to rule by keeping the population passive, with large sectors at home placated by relative prosperity. But when the system is in crisis, those running the economy often resort to diverting anger by scapegoating the racial ‘other.’ The sectors of the population who buy into that get the ‘satisfaction’ of stomping on their ‘inferiors,’ which is a lot easier than confronting the mega-powerful ruling class” (11).
Gilbert’s analysis deepens in the next chapter, in which he interrogates three significant texts on the racial history of the United States: Theodore Allen’s “White Supremacy,” W. E. B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction, and J. Sakai’s Settlers: The Mythology of the White Proletariat. He offers interesting commentary on each work. The authors all demonstrate that the “white working class” as a collective identity was constructed by ruling elites to divide workers and make “whiteness” a felt “reality,” shaping and limiting their consciousness and actions.
Gilbert concludes that white workers have benefited from their whiteness, economically and socially. I think this is true. There have been coherent arguments to the contrary, including by Allen and Du Bois, trying to show that black-white worker unity would have helped all workers. These are, however, like all counterfactuals, impossible to prove, whereas the facts show clearly the many advantages white workers have enjoyed compared to black workers. Consider the work of John Smith in his recent book, Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century, which shows that workers in the global South are super-exploited, paid wages less than that necessary for subsistence. The super profits that arise from this are then used in part to subsidize both the workers and the states of the global North.3 How big a leap is it from this to surmise that the super-exploitation of black labor, which is reflected in any social statistic we care to name—income, wealth, education, health—redounds to the benefit of white labor?4
My two criticisms of Gilbert’s glosses on these authors are, first, that his discussion of the Allen essay would have benefited from a reading of the rest of Allen’s writing, which is deeper and more extensive than the “White Supremacy” pamphlet. Allen did not ignore the theft of the native peoples’ lands or the genocidal wars waged against them, as Gilbert asserts. A perusal of his two-volume masterwork, The Invention of the White Race, makes this clear.
Second, his reading of the Sakai book is too generous. Sakai argues (both in Settlers and in his comments in the appendix to Gilbert’s book) that there has never been a white working class in the United States, in the sense of a class that sees its interests as diametrically opposed to capital and is intent on its overthrow. Sakai claims that white workers have historically defined themselves as allies of capital and full participants in its exploitation of people of color. For him, all the gains made by white laborers have come at the expense of the super-exploited underclasses, both here and abroad. Even during the 1930s, when industrial workers organized their unions and faced down the largest capitals in the world, and even though whites and blacks were sometimes allies, white workers proved themselves subservient to capital. They remained loyal foot soldiers of U.S. imperialism, in effect becoming fully “white” in the process. The organization of black workers in the unions of the Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO) was, in Sakai’s view, purely tactical: the unions needed those black workers who were critical to the operation of the factories.
Sakai, and Gilbert too, in his overall agreement with him, overstate their case. Sakai believes that most whites are not real workers at all but bourgeois, middle-class, and a labor aristocracy. They live in suburbs, with nice cars and large houses. They are not exploited, but instead the recipients of part of the surplus value extracted from the labor of people of color around the world. This is preposterous on its face, as any clear look at the data would indicate: a large and growing minority of white workers are poor, and all face stagnant or declining wages and diminishing life prospects. Besides, if white workers generated no profits from their labor, they would all be unemployed. Such a view is an insult to those whites who have suffered the grossest exploitation and still do. When my grandmother was unloading dynamite at the face of the coal mine in her mining village, trying to support two children while living in a shack shingled with tarpaper, she was exploited beyond any doubt. Gilbert himself downplays the motives of at least some CIO organizers, especially in industries like meatpacking, where radical white organizers and white workers too not only helped to build a multiracial union, but with their black brothers and sisters forcibly integrated neighborhoods and businesses in working-class neighborhoods.5
It is also worth noting that while black and other nonwhite workers have more often than whites been radical opponents of capitalism, they are not yet, at least in the United States, a revolutionary force. Minority workers are not immune to the forces that habituate us to capitalism and make us the workers capitalism needs. And within the white working class, there were and are “organic” intellectuals, well aware of capital’s depredations and keen on building a multiracial working-class movement. They agree that people of color and women must be leading voices in such struggles.6
The fact that not all whites are allied with capital shows that “whiteness” can be deconstructed, irrespective of Sakai’s assertions to the contrary. Indeed, the remainder of Gilbert’s book is devoted to this deconstruction. It consists of two essays: “Some Lessons from the Sixties” and “After the Sixties: Reaction and Restructuring.” In the first, he reflects on his experiences as a 1960s radical and the lessons he has taken take from those years. Several things struck me as I read this piece. First, while the period’s anticapitalist and anti-imperialist rebellions began among middle- and upper-middle-class college students, they eventually encompassed many working-class students and workers, including those who were white. The New Left became increasingly radical and developed plans “for the extension of what had started as a primarily elite student base to a broader, particularly working-class, youth base by doing more work around the draft, with G.I.s, in community colleges, and among youth in working-class neighborhoods.” Second, the discovery of black culture—including its music, emotional power, and sense of community—by large numbers of whites, helped at least some of them to confront the damage done by white supremacy.
Third, the war in Vietnam and the rise of the Black Panthers helped to forge an alliance among black militants; black and white youth subjected to the draft; and soldiers, including whites as well as black, Latino, and Native American active duty service members and veterans, all of whom began questioning the war and organizing resistance against it. The Panthers argued that the treatment of black people in the United States shared much with the murder and torture of Vietnamese by the U.S. military. By tying these together, they were able to secure allies among draft-age whites and those appalled by the slaughter in Vietnam. Fourth, the war helped whites, including working-class whites, to sympathize with national liberation movements throughout the world, a first step toward developing an anti-imperialist consciousness. Fifth, when consciousness is awakened in terms of one set of oppressions, people will begin to become aware of others, and see the need to struggle against them. Of equal importance is the women’s movement, which burgeoned during the 1960s and 1970s. Sexual liberation was a goal of most ’60s radicals. But it became clear that this would not be possible without the full emancipation of women, in all spheres of life. In addition, the spirit of the ’60s lived on, reflected in militant efforts to combat and de-stigmatize AIDS, to counter homophobia, build what is now called the LGBTQ movement, and prevent the destruction of human life we now face because of multiple ecological catastrophes.
The 1960s radical movement ultimately imploded, Gilbert argues, because it was not prepared to confront the repressive power of the state, which began an all-out war against black liberation. One segment of the New Left retreated into an ideology of a revolutionary white working class, while others went underground and tried to ally with revolutionary black groups, believing themselves to be “special whites,” revolutionary as others were not. The result was the collapse of the movement, which, in any event, was dealt a serious blow by the winding down of the war in Vietnam.
Gilbert’s view on the implosion of the radical ’60s is a bit misleading and contradicts his own arguments earlier in the book. Why would the growing consciousness of at least some working-class whites suddenly fall prey to an ideology of a revolutionary white working class? In addition, many whites within the New Left had participated in the Civil Rights Movement and the programs associated with the Freedom Summer, and were not at all smitten by such an ideology. The same can be said about many who were active in the antiwar protests and actions. Not only that: as Gilbert elsewhere points out, alliances had been built between the antiwar forces and the Black Panthers. There would seem to have been opportunities for deepening and broadening an already existing multiracial radical coalition.
The Panthers and the earlier Freedom Summer had begun a process of engaging in what we might call collective self-help measures, which brought important services such as education and health care to impoverished communities of color.7 This is where radical progress might have been made, had these efforts been fully embraced by white radicals and developed some roots in the white working class, which would have benefited from such measures in their own communities.
Instead, the second segment of the ’60s movement went underground. But was there a compelling reason to do so? The notion that members of the Weather Underground were “special whites” was surely delusional, as was the notion that clandestine bombing campaigns, much as the targeted buildings deserved to be destroyed, were the best hope for bringing revolution to the United States. I wonder what might have happened if this second segment had continued to push the movement to the left and begun to try to mobilize the communities of white workers in the same ways that the Panthers and even the Nation of Islam had mobilized black communities. Given the power of the state, maybe everything would still have fallen apart. But maybe not.
The second essay in this section continues the story from the 1960s into the ’70s. The details of this evolution will be known to many Monthly Review readers, from the collapse of national liberation movements, to the end of the economic “golden age” in the United States, to capital’s assault on the working class that came to be known as neoliberalism, to the rise of a racist carceral state, to the growing attacks on immigrants and the strengthening of the ideology of white supremacy, to the endless war on terror.
Since the political upheavals of the 1960s failed to coalesce into more permanent radical organizations and structures, these developments, which, according to Gilbert, were themselves in large part a consequence of the weakening of U.S. imperial power, proved to be incubators of a renewed white supremacy, culminating in the rise and election of a neofascist, misogynist, and racist demagogue to the presidency. The more stable imperialism of the two or three decades after the Second World War gave way to an unstable imperialism, with potentially disastrous results for all humanity.
Still, Gilbert sees signs of renewed struggle:
We live in a very dangerous time, but fortunately we have had a resurgence of activism in the U.S. over the past ten years, beginning with the massive mobilization for immigrants’ rights in 2006. Occupy Wall Street helped define the real problem as the rule by the 1%. The LGBTQ movement has made impressive advances. Black Lives Matter and the Movement for Black Lives are confronting core injustices, and a growing number of anti-racist whites have been joining SURJ [Showing Up for Racial Justice] and other groups. The Native American encampment at Standing Rock to try to stop an oil pipeline that endangers the water supply is a powerful example of how Indigenous sovereignty can lead the struggles for environmental protection. These and other sparkling streams of struggle can be fed by a new torrent of anti-Trump protests to become a mighty and life-nurturing river. (76)
How, then, to deepen these efforts, and especially to engage as much of the white working class as possible in them? Gilbert offers some suggestions. First, all radicals must maintain a principled and steadfast resistance to imperialism, racism, and patriarchy. These are the heart and soul of the capitalist system, and they must be overcome simultaneously. It is the duty of all radicals to do what they can to confront this unholy triumvirate. And it will be necessary above all to realize that the leaders of such attacks will and should be people of color, women, and immigrants.
Second, however, we must not fall into sectarianism, believing that there is only one correct way to overthrow capitalism. Gilbert advises that we should participate in all efforts to resist imperialism, patriarchy, and racism, without worrying unduly about the initial class composition of these efforts, but rather working to bring class into the discussions and actions of the group, and to reach out to the white working class whenever possible. In addition, we should look for situations in which the interests of racial minorities intersect with those of white workers. Perhaps the war on terror, which has wreaked havoc on white and black soldiers and their families is one such intersection. Another might be the opioid epidemic. Others could be police repression, given that poor white working-class people are hardly immune from police brutality; modern debt peonage; environmental pollution and the overall destruction of nature; the assault on publicly subsidized medical care, social security, and disability relief. We should encourage labor unions to engage in cross-border organizing and solidarity, such as that done by the United Electrical Workers and a few others. And the white radicals who are teachers can make sure that there is an education component in every organization in which they are involved. For example, we might be able to make inroads into the discourse about immigrants, given that nearly all white U.S. workers are themselves descended from immigrants.
There are many possibilities to do good work, and we must not abandon the white working class as a hopeless case. The future will surely sharpen the contradictions inherent in capitalism, whether in the workplace or in what Nancy Fraser, following Marx, calls the “hidden abodes” of the system, aspects of capitalism that expropriate rather than directly exploit, such as the environment, the reproductive labor of women, or the continuing thefts of land and labor from vulnerable people everywhere.8
While insights abound in this short, readable book, important elements are missing. Gilbert might have spent more time discussing the U.S. labor movement, including new forms of organizing such as workers’ centers, and efforts by reformers to rid themselves of the class collaborators and corrupt officers who now run so many unions. Black workers and immigrants have been at the forefront of the former, but there is no reason to believe that white workers can’t be convinced to participate in and support them. Indeed, some already do.
He might also have provided some details on the kind of society we envision in our dreams of a better world. What political slogans do we need?9 How important is horizontal decision-making, à la Occupy? Is electoral politics worth our time? What about worker cooperatives?10The book would have profited, for example, from an examination of the remarkable attempt to build an ecosocialist, cooperative society in Jackson, Mississippi. There, radical organizations have acquired land and begun to produce goods and services on it, begun education programs promoting bottom-up democracy, put such democracy into practice, and made plans to use advanced technology to support eco-friendly and sustainable manufacturing and agriculture. The project is called Jackson Rising, and its accomplishments and future goals, strategies, and tactics deserve our attention and support.11
Nevertheless, this is a useful book for study and discussion by all interested in building a movement ultimately able to lead us beyond a system that day by day grows more barbaric.


  1. See, for example, Reed’s otherwise useful discussion of the tearing down of the Confederate monuments in his hometown, New Orleans. Here he claims more than will withstand historical investigation of the 1892 general strike in New Orleans. While black and white workers showed solidarity, this was surely an exception to the white supremacy of most white workers. Adolph Reed Jr., “Monumental Rubbish: With the Statues Torn Down, What Next for New Orleans?” Common Dreams, June 25, 2017,
  2. Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh, “The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, and the Atlantic Working Class in The Eighteenth Century,” Journal of Historical Sociology 3, no. 3 (1990): 225–52.
  3. John Smith, Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century: Globalization, Super-Exploitation, and Capitalism’s Final Crisis (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2016).
  4. See Michael D. Yates, “It’s Still Slavery by Another Name,” in The Great Inequality (New York: Routledge, 2016), 103–18.
  5. See Roger Horowitz, Negro and White, Unite and Fight! A Social History of Industrial Unionism in Meatpacking, 1930–90 (Champaign-Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997).
  6. The works of Gregg Shotwell, Jerry Tucker, and others come to mind. See Shotwell, Autoworkers Under the Gun: A Shop-Floor View of the End of the American Dream (Chicago: Haymarket, 2012).
  7. Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin, Jr., Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012).
  8. Nancy Fraser, “Behind Marx’s Hidden Abode,” New Left Review 86 (2014): 55–72.
  9. See Michael D. Yates, “OWS and the Importance of Political Slogans,” Cheap Motels and a Hotplate blog, February 28, 2013, http://
  10. See Bernard Marszalek, “Stronger Together?” Monthly Review 69, No. 5 (October 2017).
  11. Kali Akuno and Ajamu Nangwaya, Jackson Rising: The Struggle for Economic Democracy and Black Self-Determination in Jackson, Mississippi (Montreal: Daraja, 2017).

Are White Males Entitled to Be Angry? Posted on October 10, 2016 by John Rapley

To begin with, the males who got the privileges kept them, retiring to lives of comfort while shifting the burden of social justice onto the next generation. As Hillary herself acknowledged, many of the folk who show up at Trump rallies feel let down by government. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why.
In the quarter century after World War II, the economies of the West were growing at annual rates of 4-6%. That meant that every dozen or so years, you were more or less assured a doubling, at least, in your standard of living. All those baby boomers born in that golden age grew up with the expectation that this would continue forever, and the first baby-boomer president, Bill Clinton, finished his presidency saying that the US was growing so fast it would soon be free of debt.
A few years and $14 trillion of debt later, we’re seeing what a pipe dream that was. Unfortunately, too many of us refuse to give up on it. To cling to it, we have to air-brush reality out of the picture. Because ever since the late 1960s, the underlying economic growth rate has been slowing steadily, since labour productivity has been slowing. And labour productivity has been slowing because our earnings during the golden age ended up growing faster than our output. In a word, we in the West had got too rich. Workers in Third-World countries could do what we were doing at a fraction the cost.
But those baby-boom voters were reluctant to adjust their expectations downwards. They’d made themselves promises of jobs, earnings and pensions that presumed annual growth rates of 3-4%. Now that it was closer to the one percent we’ve known over the last decade or so, they were going to need some deft sleight of hand to pull it off. So they used an old accounting trick. You can still hit the one percent target if, say, you give half the population, those who vote for you, 3% a year, and maintain the average by dinging everyone else with nothing or even negative gains.
That’s pretty much what has happened over the last two generations. We globalised the manufacturing sector, where the politically-expendable white working class was concentrated, while keeping the managerial and high-end jobs performed by the middle class free from any kind of competition. As working-class wages were driven down by competition from China and Mexico, resulting both in cheap goods and higher profits, the rest of the population was sheltered from the fallout.
Think of the post-war Keynesian compact, in which everyone seemed to be on the prosperity train, as a series of widening concentric circles, with the elites in the middle and the rest of society in the rings. Well, the circles were narrowed, excluding some and hoarding the gains among the remainder, as if you’re withdrawing to your bastions (which, electorally, you are). The best analogy I can come up was apartheid in South Africa. By excluding the black majority from the circles, the white minority was able to deliver itself First-World standards of living in a Third-World country.
It’s been all too easy to dismiss the anger of a population that’s bearing the brunt of economic adjustment. We do this by delegitimising everything to do with working-class culture, latching onto any signs of homophobia, racism or sexism to throw the whole baby out with the bathwater. One of my own guilty pleasures is the comedy show Little Britain. I say guilty because I once counted the number of times in one episode that they made fun of benefits recipients or working-class people, and realised I’d be appalled if the same sort of jibes had been directed at ethnic minorities or homosexuals. We choose who to offend, and I don’t doubt that Donald Trump’s crowds devour the way he’s turning the tables on us with his crass vulgarity.
This will only work for so long. South Africa should have taught us that trying to maintain living standards through exclusion and upward distribution is doomed to failure, once the majority are outside the system. We may not have reached the level of exclusion apartheid maintained at its peak, when four-fifths of the population were legally excluded. But with populist politicians like Trump drawing a rising share of the vote, the angry ones are getting into our face.
It’s going to get harder for us to just airbrush them out of the picture with smug dismissals. In truth, those of us still feeling good times have been pretty deplorable ourselves.

March 07, 2018

Etienne Balibar interview: “A period of intense debate on Marxist philosophy” by Jérôme Skalsk i- Translated Friday 27 March 2015, by Gene Zbikowski

 French Marxist philosopher Étienne Balibar in 2011

ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Étienne Balibar : « Une période d’intense débat autour de la philosophie marxiste »
by Jérôme Skalski
Etienne Balibar: “A period of intense debate on Marxist philosophy”
Translated Friday 27 March 2015, by Gene Zbikowski

  • The philosopher Etienne Balibar reflects on Louis Althusser, who with the publication of For Marx was one of the main participants in the conceptual and intellectual debate within Marxism in the 1960s and 1970s. Etienne Balibar was Louis Althusser’s student and disciple and is the author of the study “On the fundamental concepts of historical materialism” which was published in Reading Capital in 1965.

Fifty years ago, Althusser’s For Marx was published, and under his editorship, Reading Capital. What was the context of the debate at the time?

Etienne Balibar: To put things very quickly, I’ll say that your question has both an intellectual and even academic aspect; and an ideological and political aspect. I belong to a generation that entered the Ecole normale supérieure [grande école for training secondary school teachers] in 1960. From a historical point of view, this isn’t unimportant. In our group, which formed around Althusser little by little, there were students of course, but also disciples. People who were a little older, like Pierre Macherey, and people who were a little younger, who arrived just afterwards, the future Maoists, like Dominique Lecourt. That stretched out over five or six years.
So, on the one hand, 1960 was two years before the end of the Algerian war, and it was the year, give or take a few months, when Jean-Paul Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason was published.
We’d been politicized by the Algerian war. We were all activists in the National Union of Students of France, which was the first French union to undertake meeting the Algerian unions that were linked to the National Liberation Front, to try and coordinate anti-war activity. This context wasn’t only one of intense politicization and mobilization, but also one of very lively internal conflict. The basis of our politicization was rather that of anti-colonial mobilization, and consequently was anti-imperialist. The social dimension existed, but it came a little bit on top of the rest.
On the other hand, it was a period of intense debate on Marxist philosophy in which an undeniable role was not only played by the Communist Party’s Marxist philosophers, but also by important Marxist philosophers who either were no longer members of the Communist Party, like Henri Lefebvre, or belonged to non-communist Marxist tendencies. And then there was Jean-Paul Sartre, who described himself as a fellow traveler and who had just published this big work in which he undertook the refoundation of Marxism, and in which there figured, in the introduction, the famous phrase that is often quoted incorrectly: “Marxism remains the philosophy of our time. We cannot go beyond it.”

I don’t say that all the philosophical work in France was on Marx. That would be completely false. But let’s say that the debate on Marxism was really and simultaneously very visible, very intense, very passionate, and very interesting.
This was also the period when the Communist Party decided to organize a center of studies in Marxist research, with reviews like La Pensée [Thought] and La Nouvelle Critique [New Critique]. It decided to organize the Weeks of Marxist Thought.
To give you an idea of the period, I’ll talk about 1961, the year that followed the publication of Sartre’s book. The main event was the Week of Marxist Thought for 1961. It featured a debate between Sartre and our own director of the Ecole normale supérieure, Jean Hippolyte, the famous Hegelian specialist, on the one hand; and Roger Garaudy, representing the official philosophical line of the French Communist Party, and Jean-Pierre Vigier, a former member of the Resistance, physician and philosopher, and member of the Central Committee, on the other hand.
This debate was held in the great hall of the Maison de la Mutualité in Paris, which was packed full. It was an enormous event. Althusser was an agrégé teacher of philosophy, and was the coach or tutor charged with preparing us for the agrégation exam. Obviously, his courses weren’t on Marxism, but on all sorts of other subjects. However, he had begun publishing in La Pensée in 1961, an initial article was followed by several others, and they immediately aroused a lively debate inside and outside the Communist Party. This immediately attracted our interest. We went to meet him and we proposed creating a working group, which progressively became a little team. Of course, it didn’t last long. Even before 1968, it didn’t stand up to the rather intense internal tension, but for several years we worked together systematically on both Marxism and the French philosophy of the period, where the big event to us was the birth of structuralism. We organized a public seminar that went on all year. It was immediately published. At that time, Althusser’s influence was at its height in a certain section of the Marxist-influenced or Marxist leftist intelligentsia in France.

What was the orientation of Louis Althusser’s thought?

Etienne Balibar: I don’t know if I can do a good job of summing things up. First off, even though Althusser did a self-criticism later on to say that, in a certain way, he had forgotten politics, I think that, right from his first articles, there were two dimensions to Althusser’s undertaking, political and philosophical. Obviously, for many young Marxists and even young philosophers more generally, one of the most attractive aspects (and justly so) of Althusser’s undertaking was that he didn’t want to sacrifice either of the two aspects to the benefit of the other.
On the one hand, he wanted to make Marxism a great philosophy, and on the other hand, he had a very political conception of philosophy in which Marxism was – as Marx’s 11th thesis on Feuerbach says – not only a means of interpreting the world, but also of changing it.
All this may seem a bit distant today, but his contribution was organized around structuring two aspects of Marxism, which Stalin had defined in a famous brochure [Dialectical and Historical Materialism, 1938], which of course dogmatized things, but which I think had a great influence on Althusser’s mind. On the one hand, dialectical materialism, the philosophical aspect of Marxism, and on the other hand, historical materialism, that is to say, the theory of history, and consequently the theory of politics and of social change.

Wasn’t Spinoza a thinker of radical democracy, too? Philosophically, is Althusser’s Marxism a return to Spinoza?

Etienne Balibar: Althusser admired the Spinoza of the Theologico-Political Treatise. But that wasn’t the aspect that interested him the most. You’re perfectly right to say that Spinoza’s thought was radically democratic. This is an aspect that came to the fore quite a while ago, and which has been taken up by very different philosophers, some of whom indeed come from Marxism. However, this wasn’t the aspect that interested Althusser. Not because he was hostile to it, but he basically thought that radical democracy was a transition, an intermediary stage towards the dictatorship of the proletariat. He was a very orthodox Marxist on this score.
The aspect of Spinoza that he emphasized concerned the theory of ideology. With Spinoza, we get the first great materialist critique of ideology. Althusser defended a paradoxical thesis. I can understand that it deeply shocked many Marxists of the time but, on the other hand, it was also very attractive to some of us. The idea was that the concept of ideology was a fundamental aspect of Marx’s theoretical revolution. Not just the critique of bourgeois ideology, but the critique of ideology in general. That seemed to him to be a very important point in the debates within communism at the time, which he characterized as dominated by the ideological complex that he termed economism and humanism. He thought that the Marxist tradition on ideology was weak and that Marx, although he’d had the genius to invent the concept of ideology, had a very poor analysis of ideology.
So, in Spinoza he found the elements of a materialist critique of ideology which was neither Feuerbachian nor Hegelian nor attached to a philosophy of history, nor to the concept of the alienation of Man and of human essence. All that was quite compatible with what was called Althusser’s scientism, as he expressed it in the idea of an epistemological break, and it led him to the neighborhood of structuralism. Althusser very quickly condemned these positions in his Elements of Self-criticism (1974).

What remains today of Althusser’s philosophical contribution and of the debates of the time?

Etienne Balibar: My point of view, obviously, is that we need a critique of capitalism that is up to the demands of the present. The demands of the present is globalization, the inextricably mixed nature of the economic problem and the ecological problem. It’s the emergence of new forms of governance, as they say, which are partly and simultaneously infra-nation-state and supra-nation-state or post-nation-state. It’s a generalized re-working. We need a new critique of political economy and of politics.
Not only is Marx not superfluous to this undertaking, but he’s absolutely indispensable. He himself will come out of this undertaking changed. Althusser, in one of the last texts that he undertook to write, designated Marxism as a finite theory. Obviously, it was a formidable play on words at the time. Everybody was talking about the end of Marxism. Althusser said: this isn’t the end of Marxism, but he emphasized the need for Marxism to define its own internal limits, its own historical limits. It can be said that he became more historicist than he had initially been, in a certain way.
We’ve already entered a new phase in the interpretation of Marxism which, inevitably, is perhaps also such a radical phase of transformation of Marxism that it will certainly come out completely unrecognizable. From this point of view, what happened in the mid-1960s is very interesting, and not only because of theoretical suggestions that were made at the time and which have not all been explored. In some ways, Althusser’s self-criticism had negative effects. But above all because of the fact that Althusser wasn’t the only protagonist in this debate on the refoundation of Marxism. In a certain way, it was the great common enterprise of Marxists in different countries in the middle of those years.
For me, Althusser has a kind of biographical privilege, but there isn’t any absolute privilege. What he was able to contribute can’t be measured and discussed if you don’t broaden the angle of vision.
In the 1960s, there was, in the framework of German Marxist criticism, a new reading of Capital which owes a lot to the Frankfurt School and which was particularly centered on the phenomena of social alienation linked to the generalization of the commodity form. That was something that Althusser didn’t know well or which he rejected.
There were the different currents of Italian workerism, whose grand figure is Mario Tronti, and who was writing, at exactly the same time as Althusser and his group, a book of re-reading of Capitalwhich, on some points overlaps Althusser and which on other points diverges radically.
But you could broaden the perspective more with the currents of critical Marxism in Latin America, and then with the tradition of Marxist history illustrated in the English-speaking world by Eric Hobsbawm, Maurice Dobb, Christopher Hill and Perry Anderson.
If you go back to 1965, you see a Marxism in full effervescence, in full contradiction with itself. On the one hand, the dead weight of the crisis of state communism, and on the other hand, the revolutionary hopes. In the middle of all that, a capacity to renew the links between Marxist philosophy and living philosophy. We can’t begin anew in exactly the same way. But that certainly contains a positive notion for today.

Ecrits pour Althusser.

Etienne Balibar is professor emeritus at Paris-Ouest Nanterre-la Défense University and is a professor of English, French and comparative literature, affiliated with the anthropology department at the University of California-Irvine in the United States. He’s the author of Ecrits pour Althusser, published by La Découverte in 1991. Among his latest works is Equaliberty: Political Essays published by Duke University Press in 2014. 

March 04, 2018

WHAT THE LEFT TODAY CAN LEARN FROM PAUL ROBESON - an interview with Gerald Horne, 2.27.2017


Gerald Horne is one of the leading and most influential historians in the nation. The author of more than 30 books, Horne is currently the John J. and Rebecca Moores Chair of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston. His research explores racism in a variety of contexts, involving labor, politics, civil rights, international relations, and war. In this interview, section editor Keisha N. Blain interviews Horne about his recent bookPaul Robeson: The Artist as Revolutionary. In this short and compelling biography, Horne charts the life of the famed singer and civil rights activist from his early years in Princeton, New Jersey, until his passing in Philadelphia in 1976. The book takes the reader on a transnational journey through Robeson’s eyes, exploring his varied political commitments and his efforts to advance civil and human rights from various locales including London and Moscow. Robeson’s remarkable life deepens our understanding of the global black freedom struggle in the 20th century, and offers valuable insights on contemporary movements for social justice.

Keisha N. Blain (KNB): What motivated you to write a biography of Paul Robeson?

Gerald Horne (GH): I have multiple research agendas with which the Robeson biography was aligned. One agenda is telling a continuing story of how Africans have sought to ally with global forces—in Robeson’s case, with the socialist camp and a rising Africa and India—to erode our oppression. Another is writing a broad history of the Black Radical Left. Yet another is writing about Hollywood and the entertainment industry generally. Writing about Robeson met all these criteria.
However, the Robeson biography is particularly germane, I think, given the present conjuncture. That is, just as France and Germany over the decades often surrendered to the rightward leanings of “allies” in London and Washington—and have now been repaid with “Brexit” and Trump and the possibility of an offshore alliance headed by the United Kingdom and the United States targeting the European Union—centrist and “liberal” forces surrendered in often joining in the crusade against Robeson and the radicalism he represented—and have now been repaid with a right-wing populism dominating Washington, as the routing of radicalism created favorable conditions for the rise of this trend. It is too early to ascertain how this current trend will eventuate, but it is apparent that the intentions of the perpetrators are not benign.
As I note in the concluding paragraphs of this biography, it is routine in the United States to announce that the real and imagined flaws of the socialist bloc have invalidated the very idea of socialism for all time. Yet despite the intimate tie between the enslavement of our ancestors and the rise of capitalism, there are few—even in our community—who have the gumption to announce that this horrendous tragedy invalidates the very idea of capitalism for all time.
The blame is not all on one side, I’m afraid. Admittedly, the consensus among many socialists, which has overdetermined the supposed progressiveness of the rise of capitalism in terms of advancing the productive forces of humankind, has—quite scandalously—downplayed the victimization of enslaved Africans and dispossessed indigenes in this process. I hope to correct this tendency in my forthcoming book on the rise of settler colonialism in North America in the 17th century, with a special focus on slavery and dispossession, which should be published within the year.
Painting in broad strokes, too many “socialists,” particularly the acknowledged dwindling and besieged force in North America, have shown more sympathy to those European settlers who found “freedom” in the Americas and less sympathy to those victimized in the process. One of the early textual footnotes in my book on 1776 addresses this issue.
Simultaneously, it would be fatuous for me to point the finger of accusation at Robeson and his generation—fighting an often-lonely battle against Jim Crow and malignant anticommunism—and blame them for not being more rigorous in unmasking the grimy origins of US imperialism. This earlier generation was often barred from archives precisely because of Jim Crow. But what is the excuse for today’s generation, with fuller access to archives and records?

KNB: You argue that we cannot fully understand United States history—and how Jim Crow came to an end—without a careful consideration of Paul Robeson’s life. Can you elaborate on this point?

GH: Robeson was an immense sacrificial lamb. He was pulverized and, in return, our community received anti–Jim Crow concessions (though admittedly, all in our community did not follow the NAACP line in this regard). That is, the Robeson story is yet another chapter in the story of how the tallest trees in our forest—including W. E. B. Du Bois, Shirley Graham Du Bois, Ferdinand Smith, William and Louise Thompson Patterson, Ben Davis, Claudia Jones, and others—were chopped down in order to facilitate not only said concessions, but a Cold War that, ultimately, placed China in the passing lane and did not convert Russia into an ally. These overlaid trends will be shaping US history for decades to come.
In some ways, the Robeson biography is a sequel to my book on 1776, which argued that the founding of the United States, far from being a step forward for humanity, was—at most—a step forward for certain Europeans. Imagine if the consensus view was that apartheid being proclaimed in 1948—which, inter alia, was designed to uplift poorer Europeans (especially Afrikaners), as my forthcoming book on US–South African relations will detail—could somehow be spun as a step forward for all South Africans, including Africans, thus vitiating the heroism of Nelson Mandela and his African National Congress comrades (I need not note, I am sure, the Communist ties of the Nobel Laureate, which likely included party membership at one time).
Thus, rather than being a great triumph for “democracy,” the Cold War involved the routing of our most ideologically advanced leaders and intellectuals, setting back our community ideologically—and the North American landmass as a whole. Yet, even with that decisive development, it required the co-opting of China some four odd decades ago to attain this catastrophic “success,” which, again, has accomplished little more than placing China in the passing lane. This makes the Cold War akin to London at the turn of the 20th century, appointing Tokyo as its watchdog in Asia, a decision which backfired spectacularly on December 8, 1941 (see my book Race War); or Spain supporting the rebels in 1776, then being rewarded by the resultant United States winding up with territory once ruled by Madrid, including three of the four largest US states: Florida, Texas, and California.

KNB: In the book you offer a compelling sketch of Robeson’s early life, showing how his upbringing in New Jersey and his time at Rutgers all helped to shape his ideas on race, politics, and internationalism. Is there a particular story about Robeson’s early years that stood out to you or surprised you in some way?

GH: Not only in his early years, but throughout his long life, Robeson was a learner. I continue to be amazed by his dedicated study of various languages and the technicalities of music. Robeson is a role model for today. Without sounding like a disappointed geezer, I continue to be disappointed by the fact that too many of today’s intellectuals do not follow global trends, which—historically—was the province of those like Robeson. It has been as if the anti–Jim Crow concessions, wrung from the US ruling elite at the expense of Robeson and his comrades, “worked”; but the trade-off was getting our intellectuals to back off assessing and taking advantage of the global correlation of forces. At best, our intellectuals tactically tinker with domestic arrangements, which ineluctably lead our community to the brink of disaster, like a latter-day soap opera.

KNB: One of the fascinating aspects of your book is how it centers Robeson’s political ideas and activism, rather than focusing solely on his career as an entertainer. Can you tell us more about his commitment to “radical internationalism”?

GH: Robeson was not only a friend of Moscow—he spoke Russian fluently—but was quite close to leaders such as Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, and Jawaharlal Nehru of India. Our leaders historically have come to recognize, even if not fully articulate, that the founding of the United States in 1776 was not a leap forward for humanity; though it was certainly a great leap backwards for Africans, who found themselves falling victim to a new nation that began to oust London from the leadership of the slave trade. Though this small planet is now undergoing a wrenching transformation that will be catalyzed by the ascension of President Trump—who will prove to be the Gorbachev of the United States, elected to rescue a system, though he will accelerate its incipient decline—I see few signs that many in our community have learned the lessons displayed by Robeson’s “radical internationalism,” which today would involve, for example, outreach to the United Nations and Caricom and the African Union and the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa). I see little evidence of reaching across the border to ally with Mexico, now desperately seeking allies; or even the European Union, which, in the wake of “Brexit,” finds itself being repaid by a possible offshore antagonist in London, aided by Washington, after decades of surrendering to the worst impulses of the “Anglo-American” alliance.

KNB: As you point out in the book, Eslanda Robeson—Paul Robeson’s wife, and activist in her own right—played a key role in his career. How would you summarize her influence on his political ideas and praxis?

GH: Ms. Robeson was at one time his manager. She was the one who facilitated his rise as a globally recognized entertainer. Without her, it is possible that he would not have risen as high—or as rapidly—as he did. As he indicated, he may have become a simple philologist. Fortunately, both the Robesons and other left-wing luminaries preserved their papers, now decently archived, a move that I highly recommend to others. I would have preferred if both had written extensive autobiographies, but here is one area where contemporary intellectuals can excel and surpass the Robesons. I look forward to living long enough to read the memoirs and autobiographies of my peers and counterparts.

KNB: Could you tell us more about what you describe as Robeson’s “love affair” with Britain? How does this compare with his interest in Russia?

GH: In his admiration for London, Robeson was reviving an antebellum tradition that I wrote about in my book Negro Comrades of the Crown: African Americans and the British Empire Fight the U.S. before Emancipation. I also wrote about this in the “prequel” to this work, The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America. In other words, from 1776 to 1865 our community was aligned with London, not unlike how Africans in what was then Rhodesia were opposed to a settlers’ revolt against London. Because of the unremitting hostility we have absorbed in North America, we have been forced to lengthen the battlefield and ally variously with Madrid, London, Port au Prince, Mexico City, Tokyo, Moscow, New Delhi, et cetera, not to mention a rising Africa and Caribbean. Robeson traveled to London in the early 1920s and lived there through most of that decade and the next. That is where he was influenced to study Marxism, for example. That is where some of his most significant artistic achievements were attained, e.g., his performance in Othello. That is where he traveled in the late 1950s once the US returned his passport, yielding to pressure from the international community, particularly from London.

KNB: What insights does Paul Robeson’s story offer on contemporary movements for social justice? What lessons can we all learn from Robeson?

GH: Of course, there is the internationalism, there is the intense study (particularly of languages), there is the affiliation with organizations—the Council on African Affairs and the Civil Rights Congress, in particular. There are the comradely relations with individuals like Ben Davis and William Patterson and W. E. B. Du Bois in particular, not to mention John Howard Lawson, “Dean of the Hollywood Ten.” We would all do well to emulate Robeson in all these spheres, recognizing the value of collective endeavor while—dialectically—recognizing the value simultaneously of often-lonely study. This is even more necessary than ordinarily, since the global correlation of forces are at an inflection point, and it is precisely this factor that has shaped our community, for better and worse. As will be noted in my forthcoming book, “Facing the Rising Sun”—which concerns, inter alia, pro-Tokyo Negroes—Black Nationalists were devastated during the course of the Pacific War, with many being tried and jailed, including Elijah Muhammad. Following that conflict there was the Cold War, when those like Robeson, who had soared during the 1941–45 era, were harassed and persecuted. Today, the current US administration contends that the post-1945 dispensation, which includes NATO and the European Union and a batch of global alliances, no longer suits the interests of US imperialism. Disappointingly, though perhaps inexorably, I detect little evidence that our intellectuals and leaders are aware—except in the dimmest sense—what this may portend. To employ the current trite phrasing, if Robeson were alive today, he would be sorely disappointed.

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