autonomy and separatism in the Black/Marxism debate

Kenny Mostern kennym at
Sun Apr 30 12:52:25 MDT 1995

Ralph Dumain:

> >The best source for this history in particular is Harry Haywood,
> >*Black Bolshevik*,
> Haywood remained an unreconstructed Stalinist.  Can his story be
> trusted?

Depends what you want to trust him about.  Certainly he had no stake in
making up CPUSA positions that he himself was responsible for in the 1929-35
period.  And when he wrote the autobiography he was not a party member
for 20 years.  So I'm not advocating organizing the revolution with him,
just reading his book critically for what you can learn from it about the
party, which is actually a substantial amount.

> >and Mike Goldfield's terrific review essay in *Review of Radical
> >Political Economy* which appeared in 1981.
> Do you have a complete bibliographic citation?

Michael Goldfield, "The Decline of the Communist Party and the Black
Question in the U.S.:  Harry Haywood's *Black Bolshevik*", in *Review of
Radical Political Economics* 12:1 (Spring 1980).

Goldfield, by the way, disputes Haywood's account on a number of points.
I'm obviously not suggesting that Haywood, any more than any other single
autobiographer, is to be trusted as the final source.

> >the tension between the claim that Black autonomist movements
> >should be supported and the practice of organizing multiracially
> >by marxist writers of various ethnicities inclined to support
> >this theoretical position was not worked out.  Indeed, it hasn't
> >been to this day, and probably can't be.
> Then you should be interested in the work of C.L.R. James.  He did
> not see a contradiction in these two positions.  (Nor did he see a
> contradiction between being a Pan-Africanist and a Trotskyist at
> the same time in England in the 30s.)  James supported a black
> autonomous movement from 1939 within the Trotskyist movement.
> Note: this was NOT a support of separatism.  In an interview
> published in 1986, James emphasized what rubbish the idea of
> separatism was and that he never supported it.  Separate,
> independent black organization to fight for integration into
> American society: that was James's idea.
First, let me tell you what I have read of James:  *The Black Jacobins*,
*Beyond a Boundary*, the Blackwell *C.L.R. James* reader, and the
dialogues with Trotsky in Pathfinder's *Leon Trotsky on Black
Liberation*.  I've only read the last of these recently; and I've used it
in my dissertationto stress the exceedingly similar positions that
Trotsky and the CPUSA of the same period took.  You are, of course,
correct to point out that James tried to temper Trotsky's position,
arguing against separation more strongly.

Having said this, a long time ago I remarked on this list that I have
found Fanon, Wright, Du Bois, and others of more ongoing usefulness than
James, and here is an opportunity to describe what I mean.  Please keep
in mind that I am in no way claiming expertise on James and that I'd be
grateful for any help with more citations and analysis from his writings.

At the most basic level, the notion of "autonomy, not separation" is
clearly correct, and indeed I would argue that there are few Black
intellectuals who have ever taken any other position--obviously there
have been hard integrationists and racialist nationalists, but at any
level of sophistocation these two positions break down and one starts
negotiating with ideas about relative autonomy--for how long?  to what
end, precisely?  (is integration where people literally cannot say, but
we are working autonomously now?)  The difficulty is in
trying to give precise meaning to the idea, something which can only be
done in very specific circumstances.

Since the 1960s there has been what I consider to be a key shift in the
analysis of the meaning of autonomy, especially in the marxist versions
of the debate.  Prior to the 1960s it was assumed that theory itself
provided the tools for thinking through notions of autonomy, and as a
result the debate could be had between any concerned parties.  Since the
Black Power narrative became the dominant understanding of race among
Black leftists, however, the idea that any concept of autonomy required,
by definition, that it be fixed exclusively by people of a particular
identity (or racial subjectivity, more precisely):  that is, that only
Black people can decide what counts as autonomy, and thus that autonomy
itself requires a particular (and for most temporary) form of
intellectual separation.

I'm *not* arguing that this solves any ultimate problems.  That, in
general, I agree with the structure of this position does not mean that I
am naive in thinking (a) that Black people agree about it (or anything
else), (b) there is some set of ideas that Black people generate alone
that is qualitatively and ultimately different from those white people
generate, (c) or that the process by which the "autonomous" work
ultimately becomes integrated work
comes about is any more defined in this analysis than in any other.  In
the broadest sense, what I accept in this narrative is the notion that in
a white supremacist situation subjects who are Black need to go through
the process of self-creation and action without white people around, and
subjects who are white have to learn, in our bones, that no one else
needs us.  And by the way, I am always talking about myself when I say
something like that, because I had to learn this, and perhaps still, and
always, do.

This last set of ideas is what I learn from the essentially
psychoanalytical and sociological approaches of Fanon, the Du Bois of
1930-1950 (roughly, though of course *The Souls of Black Folk* originates
this analysis in the broad sense), various texts of Wright, and, I should
not leave out because it is pivotal, *The Autobiography of Malcolm X*.

None of this is, then, intended to oppose James' model--limited as my
understanding of it is--but rather to specify it at the level of
practice.  What, precisely, is it that makes autonomy necessary?  What is
the process by which autonomy without separatism can be said to occur?
Under what circumstances can a white person say to a Black person, our
group permits autonomy for you, while yours is separatist?  This last
statement is one that I am disinclined to make in general, not because it
wouldn't be true if I were saying it to, say, a member of the NOI, but
because I feel I'd have no standing to make it.  It literally could not
be understood, in the context of white supremacy in which we live, as
anything except white supremacist.  Now *you* could certainly say that;
and I'm glad that you would.  That's what I mean when I claim that the
analysis of identity is necessary to the analysis of political practice.

> But I digress.  The key issue here is to look at how James viewed
> race (and anti-colonialism, too) and class not only theoretically
> but in terms of social movements.

I would greatly appreciate your elaborating on this, and/or providing
specific citations.  This is one topic on which I definitely will read
whatever you recommend as soon as possible.

And, BTW, nice post on West/Wright/et al.  Have you noticed that Wright's
later nonfiction, which has been out of print for years, is coming back
into print?  He says a variety of interesting, complicated, and
problematic things in *Black Power* and *White Man, Listen*--I haven't
yet read *The Color Curtain*.  I worked on
Amrijit Singh's new introduction to *Black Power*, and I sense that a
number of people, including Singh (and probably not including any marxists)
are now doing projects on the later writing.


Kenny Mostern
UC-Berkeley Ethnic Studies Graduate Group

Against:  racism, sexism, homophobia, capitalism, militarism
For:  the truth--and the funk!

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