There is too much to say. At the same time, there is a marked simplicity to convey. Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition is both a sprawling investigation and also hums a singular refrain. To convey these rhythms, this brief piece will attempt to both entice readers to indulge in the immensity of the work, while also distilling the core of Robinson’s hope to one single note.
How to begin? Our reading of this text in the Past & Present Reading Group commenced by coinciding with a series of suspected lynchings across the United States (June 2020). Ensuing days produced: protests, riots, police suppression, media furore, think pieces, political dogwhistles, community organisation, celebrity concern, etc; white activists on social media perked up and began lamenting “everything that’s going on,” while black activists etched “YOU HAVE STOLEN MORE THAN WE COULD EVER LOOT” on brick canvas. We are here confronted with disjunction and conjunction. The disjunction speaks to the sense that this “everything that’s going on” is not an aberration, despite the aforementioned white consciousness sensing it as such. The conjunction centripetally pulls toward the message on the brick wall: this is not simply an historical moment, and it cannot be ignored.
What Robinson articulates in Black Marxism is what we might call a synthetic disjunction, one that might help us understand disjunction and conjunction. That is, Black Marxism opens an aperture by which history might be reconceived, even reconstructed, beyond the dialectical unity of the Western imaginary:
In Western societies for the better part of the past two centuries, the active and intellectual opposition of the Left to class rule has been vitalised by the vision of a socialist order: an arrangement of human relations grounded on the shared responsibility and authority over the means of social production and reproduction (p. 2).
However, this vision of order has “mistaken for universal verities the structures and social dynamics retrieved from their own distant and more immediate pasts” (p. 2). This is the critical project of Black Marxism. The analytical rigor of the socialist order has been constructed as its own Western imaginary; an imaginary that places itself in the world, orienting itself in and to the world with a celebratory universalist gusto meant to supply all revolutionary impetus with 1) the justification for its emergence and 2) with tools meant to build out-from this justificatory foundation. It is the fanciful (unconscious?) Western foundationalism that is the target of Robinson’s critique . It is a foundationalism that sets the arche and then maps the possibilities by determining the limits of revolutionary potency in both thought and action.
But there is also and, perhaps, more importantly, a constructive project in Black Marxism. Even to divide the project in terms of critique and construction is perhaps already to cede too much ground to a particular methodology. It might be better to speak of the flowering of germinal potencies, that, when nourished, produce a synthetic disjunction between an established order and a source that is always-already rooted within that order but that sprouts in directions that the cultivators of Western ideological landscapes are ill-equipped to arrange. This is why Robinson declares, “This work is about our people’s struggle, the historical Black struggle” (p. xxxv).
This quote opens up what was the source of some debate during our meetings concerning who this book was written for. I am less convinced that there is any ambiguity. Robinson is doing what all revolutionary writers have historically done. He is crafting an account of the conditions of emancipation. But this account, while valuable for everyone as an expression of what we might call a concrete universal, is intended to attune the attention of a particular subject group to those historical conditions that ground and justify their revolutionary consciousness. Synthetic disjunction. For, the revolutionary consciousness is not a monolithic translucidity of a class becoming “for-itself” in a singular way. In the Foreword, Robin D.G. Kelley refers to Robinson’s project as exposing “the myth of a ‘universal’ proletariat” (p. xiii). In its place, what Robinson elaborates is a genealogical account of a form of rationality that cannot be explained by the mode of rationality that reflects the mode of capitalist production, as framed by the Western radical tradition (p. 240). The Black Radical Tradition is a tradition that attests to an excess beyond the false universalism of Western Marxism.
This does not simply prioritise an abstract notion of “race,” as some have supposed. It is more fundamental than a positing: it is a challenge to and re-construction of how we understand our world. Rather than prioritising the mode of production as technical base, with race being a superstructural (epi)phenomenon, the process (emphasis placed on this being a process) of racialisation has insisted (rather than ex-isted) as an integral constitutive component of historical development. We might even say that racialism precedes capitalism historically and ontologically. That is, while capitalism can’t be understood apart from being racial capitalism, we can speak of the process of racialisation as insisting within other historical (technical, even) paradigms. This is not to simply “essentialise” race (an all-too-easy handwaving dismissive term). Rather, it is to make a suggestion that often Western Marxists have missed: that in order to understand the quality of revolutionary consciousness, we cannot merely attune ourselves to the putative sufficiency of the labor/value relation. There must be an accounting for the excessive revolutionary impulse identified in situations irreducible to the revolutionary consciousness sparked by bourgeois industrial conditions, even if these conditions cannot be understood apart from racialism. In other words, capitalism is racial capitalism, but revolution tout court is not reliant upon the upsurgent consciousness of the industrial proletariat. As Robinson boldly exclaims: “Nowhere, not even in Russia, where a rebellious urban proletariat was a fraction of the mobilised working classes, had a bourgeois social order formed a precondition for revolutionary struggle” (p. 240).
So, what is Black Marxism (as concept)? Whereas “socialist critiques of society were attempts to further the bourgeois revolutions against feudalism“ (p. 46), the revolutionary consciousness bespoken by the Black Radical Tradition provides a theory of emancipation that is not reducible to the conceptual observations derived from nineteenth-century industrial life. It means that the observations of Marx and Engels et al., of the industrial working class that set the priors by which we were meant to understand the expanding global system called “the capitalist mode of production”, were limited observations. It means that the Western imaginary that sets the frame by which the world itself is understood is limited. But not just limited in an accidental sense, as though we could simply adjust our subsequent attention elsewhere to bring more or better information into our purview to build out the observational framework. No. It is a more radical claim about the constitution of a world made in the image of an orientation in and to the world in the first instance. Namely, the experiential exploitation of the industrial working class, while crucial to reckon with, is not only insufficient as an empirical descriptor of both the system and of identifying the revolutionary impetus, but that it is insufficient in a formal sense. This formal insufficiency opens the Western orientation up to the correction that Robinson’s Black Marxism presents: the global social order must be understood as 1) always having been global (i.e. imperial and colonial) and 2) as revealing various forms of revolutionary consciousness. The Black Radical Tradition is, therefore, unique in its excessive capacity for resistance to the global order precisely because its orientation in and to the world is unique.
This is not bourgeois idealism. For the moment, let us suspend the easy categorisations that set idealism versus materialism. Instead, let us tarry with the offer that Robinson extends. That is, that even the categories we view as adequate, those that produce the very binary of idealism/materialism, have been constructed under a specific methodological (and mythical) paradigm. And it is the stranglehold of that paradigm itself that is in question. To simply accuse Robinson of bourgeois idealism is to retroject the formal categories of the very paradigm that itself is under investigation. In other words, Robinson provides an alternative account of the constitution of the world and of the origins of capitalism that does not rely on the conceptual apparatus developed through Western (radical) observation and analysis. Instead, he claims that there is more to the story; there is something constitutively valuable about the particularity of Black revolutionary consciousness. This is something he learned from W.E.B. Du Bois, C.L.R. James, and Richard Wright et al., whose own journeys brought them into conflict with both the Western order and a “something more.”
To give substance to this “something more,” we can first look to Kelley, who calls this excess “a shared epistemology” (p. xii). Robinson explains this excess further:
Marx had not realised fully that the cargoes of labourers also contained African cultures, critical mixes and admixtures of language and thought, of cosmology and metaphysics, of habits, beliefs, and morality. These were the actual terms of their humanity… African labour brought the past with it, a past that had produced it and settled on it the first elements of consciousness and comprehension (pp. 121-2).
It is this past, not as ethereal psychological image, but past as synthesis of history, cultural practice, community beliefs, spirituality, modes of exchange, etc. We must recognise this past as a synthetic past; it is a past that is cumulative, not just at the level of imaginative ideals brought and wielded as anti-real linguistic fabrications. It is a lived past. Lived in the sense of dialectical rationality, where the division between thought and action is problematised in a cross-pollination. Thus, the past that was brought with them was constituted by and constitutive of conditions not of their own choosing, while the persistence of particularly African cultural values attest to the source of heart in a heartless world in ways that Western Marxists have only been able to reduce to their own paradigmatic thinking,
Taking this further, while the dialectic of colonialism and plantocratic slavery are indispensable in crafting the narrative of the black condition, it alone does not define Black Being. The development of the “Negro,” as categorial abstraction, was part of the construction of a racial capitalist order. But as much as “Negroes” were constructed, such a construction was never a sufficient enclosure of the vitality of Black Being. “Slavery altered the conditions of their being, but it could not negate their being” (p. 125). Continuing this line: “After all it had been as an emergent African people and not as slaves that Black men and women had opposed enslavement” (p. 170-1). And further, Robinson speaks of the spark of “life itself” (p. 184) that heralds “the magnificence of the human spirit: the inextinguishable resolve to refashion society according to some powerful but imperfect moral vision” (p. xxvii).
While Robinson may display tinges of Romanticism, we need not rush to castigate this as mystificatory idealism. Instead, his is an effort to unconceal the unique quality of the Black revolutionary consciousness that defines the something more of the Black Radical Tradition. Synthetic disjunction. The Western order, even in its radical iterations, has presumed itself to have a privileged beat on how to face the world. It boasts of a unique vantage, of the right vantage. But Black Marxism teaches us that this vantage is not granted exclusive access to the Real (either the real of history or the real of methodological orientation).
This does not mean that Black Marxism is a complete work. As Carole Boyce Davies et al., have noted: “While Robinson offers the critique that race and gender have been erased in Marxism, he repeats the same error [through a notable neglect of] the black gendered subject.” However, following the prompting of Robinson’s former student H.L.T Quan, Davies sees “Robinson’s work as open-ended, providing the space in which a range of other intellectual projects could evolve.” It is this latter opening that articulates the immensity that we noted at the outset of this missive.
And as for the single tune that we can hum, with the hope that the force of its simplicity can lodge itself in our own practices of thought and action: “It is not the province of one people to be the solution or the problem. But a civilisation maddened by its own perverse assumptions and contradictions is loose in the world. A Black radical tradition formed in opposition to that civilisation and conscious of itself is one part of the solution. Whether the other oppositions generated from within Western society and without will mature remains problematical. But for now we must be as one” (p. 318).
The set image reproduces W.E.B. Du Bois, City and Rural Population, 1890.