Sunday, July 25, 2010

Cornel West on Race and Class

I'd like to examine the position set out by Cornel West in his essay "Marxist Theory and the Specificty of Afro-American Oppression".

West makes clear that his theoretical bearings in the essay are Marxist:
[My approach] attempts to shun the discursive reductionistic elements in the works of the ex-Marxist Foucault and side-step the textual idealist tendencies in the perennially playful performances of Derrida.
His task is to examine what he calls the "racial problematic" from within a Marxist framework:
The racial problematic... [is] the theoretical investigation into the materiality of racist discourses, the ideological production of African discourses, the ideological production of African subjects, and the concrete effects of and counterhegemonic responses to the European (and specifically white) supremacist logics operative in Western civilization.
Though West characterizes his approach as "neo-Gramscian", this short gloss on the "racial problematic" has an Althusserian feel (esp. the bit about "ideological production of subjects"). I find it puzzling that he talks about the ideological production of "African" subjects, whereas I would have thought that in the U.S. case we'd want to talk about the production of some other sort of subject, such as a devalued, white-supremacist picture of "the Negro" or something of that sort. Putting the point this way, it seems to me, enables the alternative claim to being "African" or "Black" have a subversive element to it (which it did, for many involved in the Black Power movements of the 60s). It is also more in line with the language of Black militants (e.g. Malcolm X always spoke of the "so-called Negro" and the entire language of "Blackness" arose out of Black Power). But anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself.

Though West locates his argument within the Marxist tradition of political theory and practice, he is also critical of some versions of Marxism for their tendency to understand race as a matter of "secondary" importance (presumably secondary to class). According to West, there are four basic formulations of black oppression in the Marxist tradition.

The first subsumes black oppression under the rubric of working-class exploitation. This approach entails that black people in the US are not subjected to any form of oppression distinct from the general problem of working-class exploitation. Here, West cites the socialism of Eugene Debs, who held that black oppression was solely a class problem. Needless to say, the U.S. Socialist Party had many black members and Debs himself had a record of fighting against racism. But this theoretical approach is rightly rejected by West as reductionistic. (West chalks this perspective up to the economism and determinism of Marxism of the Second International). An obvious political/strategic problem with such an approach is that it seems to foreclose any serious, independent struggle by black people against racial domination. Rather, such an approach simply says of such tactics: sit down, shut up, and wait for the revolution before you challenge white supremacy. This is not a socialist position, this is a do-nothing position vis-a-vis racial oppression. Surely the working-class politics of the Second International are not to be entirely thrown out with the bathwater, but we need to say more here before we have a political theory and practice adequate to the realities of racial oppression.

The second approach acknowledges the specificity of black oppression beyond working-class exploitation, yet defines this specificity in entirely economistic terms. This approach explains racial oppression in terms of super-exploitation. That is, certain fractions of the working class are exploited even more than the rest because of racial hierarchy. This was the position put forward by the Maoist Progressive Labor Party in the late 60s/early 70s in the US. Surely claim about super-exploitation has got to be true; the question, however, is whether this is the last word on racial oppression. It seems rather obvious that super-exploitation isn't the whole story.

This brings us to the third approach within the Marxist tradition. This approach understands black oppression in terms of colonialism, nationalism and self-determination. This was the framework adopted by the Third International (1928) by the CPUSA in its (largely commendable, though far from perfect) struggles against racism in the 30s and 40s. In effect, the position is this. Black people in the US constitute, or once constituted, an oppressed nation in the South. In the rest of US society, black people constituted an oppressed national minority. Given this analysis of the problem, the solution is simple: liberation means self-determination for black people and the formation of a black nation. Various groups have held this position, from (as mentioned earlier) the Stalinist CPUSA in the 1930s to the US Socialist Workers' Party (SWP) to Bob Avakian's Revolutionary Communist Party in the US and Amiri Baraka's US League of Revolutionary Struggle.

West argues that this position has been, by far, the most popular among black people on the Left (and on the Left generally) throughout the 20th century. The reasons for its appeal, he claims, is that it denies the reductionistic tendencies of the first two approaches and makes room for claims about cultural oppression. That is, insofar as a nation is to be understood in terms of shared culture, language and so forth, it looks as though this Black Nation approach provides an excellent means of criticizing the ways in which Black culture, language, and so on are systematically devalued and stomped out by white supremacy. West argues that the Left was forced to take the cultural dimension seriously since the Marcus Garvey movement of the early 20s. This recognition of the cultural dimension of oppression made adherents of this view "proto-Gramscians" without their knowing it.

The fourth Marxist alternative, according to West, is as follows. The struggle for Black Liberation, the line goes, is not the same as the class struggle. It is independent, yet allied with the struggle for working-class emancipation. This approach rejects the language of the "nation" or the separatist politics that have arisen at various points throughout the history of the struggle for black liberation in the U.S. (it's important to point out here, however, that separatist politics have typically been most influential at the low points of struggle when the possibilities for smashing white supremacy in the U.S. looked rather bleak).

In this picture, black oppression is not reducible to class oppression, but is entirely bound up with it insofar as black oppression arose within the context of U.S. capitalism. This is basically the position defended by Trotsky in debates with Afro-Trinidadian Marxist CLR James within the SWP in the 30s and 40s. Trotsky's position was to reject the nationalist approach staked out by the CP as mechanical and inflexible. Whether socialists should support the self-determination line is a question of whether the masses of black people are demanding it. But Trotsky wanted to walk a fine line here, he did not want to simply reject the call for self-determination out of hand. On the contrary, Trotsky sensed some latent racism amongst leftists who decried self-determination because it "distracted from class". Trotsky said of this phenomenon that "the argument that the slogan for self-determination leads away from the class point of view is an adaptation of the ideology of the white workers". "The Negro", Trotsky argued in 1939, "can be developed to the class point of view only when the white worker is educated", i.e. only when white workers are disabused of racist beliefs, when racism is smashed within the labor movement. For Trotsky, however, the black struggle against racism should not wait for white workers to be won over to anti-racism, it had to begin immediately, and the job of all socialists was to support such struggles in whatever form they took. He thus argued for a "merciless struggle against... the colossal prejudices of white workers [which] makes no concession to them whatsoever". Trotsky's politics contrast starkly with the "class first" politics of the first variant of "Marxism" above, which basically told black radicals to demobilize, and to simply wait until the racism within the white working-class disappeared (rather than challenging it head-on).

West claims that all four positions get something right, but they are all incomplete.

His first criticism is that all of these approach take their object of criticism to be "macro-structural", e.g. analysis of the basic institutions of capitalist societies, production relations, etc. His claim isn't, a la post-structuralism, that such analysis is problematic or to be avoided. On the contrary, he thinks that macro-structural analysis is essential to any serious program for liberation. Such analysis is surely an important antidote to the individualist approaches of those on the Right such as Thomas Sowell. So the problem isn't with macro-structural analysis as such, but with what it leaves out: "micropolitics".

West argues that we need to also pay attention to "local" or "microinstitutional" features of politics in addition to macro-level analysis. West's approach consists of three "moments":

1. genealogical inquiry into the discursive conditions for the possibility of hegemonic European (i.e. white) supremacist logics operative in various epochs in the West and the counter-hegemonic possibilities available.

2. a mircoinstitutional analysis of the mechanisms by which these logics inscribe themselves in the everyday lives of Africans, including the hegemonic ideological production of African subjects, the constitution of alien and degrading normative cultural life styles, aesthetic ideals, etc.

3. a macrostructural approach that accents modes of production, class exploitation and political repression of African peoples.

The aim of the first moment, according to West, is to examine modes of European domination of African peoples, the second moment to probe into the "forms of European subjugation of African peoples"; and the third to focus on types of European exploitation and repression of African peoples. West wants to understand how it is that African peoples become involved in their own continued oppression (i.e. how they become both victims of and participants in oppression).

For my part, I have a tough time understanding what West wants to get out of the first moment. He wants more than just cultural oppression, the systematic devaluation of blackness and black culture, the processes by which black culture develops (e.g. how it responds to, resists, and (at the same time) also internalizes oppression of various kinds). He wants to target the "Cartesian subject" and "Baconian" ideas of observation and evidence in methodology. I'm not sure what to make of this complaint, and I don't see its political appeal. In post-structuralism, we can make sense of these complaints insofar as post-structuralism tends to be motivated by a totalizing suspicion of the concept of truth and tends to reject all extra-linguistic referents as mere illusions. But West has already repudiated such approaches, so I'm not sure what he wants from the first "moment".

The second moment seems to me to be a serious oversight of the traditional Marxist approach. It is here that the work of so-called "Western Marxists" brings a whole additional realm of analysis that wasn't the focus of classical Marxism. This isn't to say that classical Marxism, as such, can't say anything helpful about ideology or culture; on the contrary, I want to claim that it is the best way of making sense of these matters. It's just that classical Marxists tended to focus their energies elsewhere, whereas Western Marxists tended to explore the superstructural features of capitalist societies more than previous Marxists had ever done before (I'm thinking here of Gramsci, Adorno, Marcuse, Lukacs, Korsch, Sartre, although we could also include Williams, Eagleton, and Jameson).

But here I restate my earlier criticism about "African" subjects. Why paint with so broad a brush? Surely the experience of colonialism in Kenya is different from the oppression of African-Americans in the U.S. South, though they may be linked in crucial ways. I am also suspicious of the Althusserian line about the "ideological production of subjects". I think something about this claim is right, but I've argued elsewhere that the Althusserian attack on subjectivity as such is a mistake that leaves us with an incoherent social theory, a problematic politics, and an anemic philosophical position that is basically just an inchoate version of post-structualism.

Again, I think the third moment is right on and indispensable, though it doesn't finish out the story any comprehensive account must tell.

I think that West is basically driving at the sort of position I myself would want to defend. But I don't understand his combination of Althusserian categories (e.g. "overdetermination", "interpellation") with a so-called Gramscian approach. I much prefer the dialectical approach that Gramsci defended over the positivist, behaviorist framework taken up by Althusser. Also, I'm puzzled by his claim early in the essay that his own political position is "non-reformist", which he justifies by citing his membership in the ultra-reformist Democratic Socialists of America (whose tactical platform includes working entirely within the Democratic Party machine).

Anyway- this is more or less just a survey- I'll try to weigh-in some more on this later this week.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"perennially playful performances of Derrida"

I love it.