[Marxism] Let the Dreamer Awake: Talking with Robin D. G. Kelley

Charles Brown cbrown at michiganlegal.org
Mon Feb 9 15:15:55 MST 2004


Let the Dreamer Awake: Talking with Robin D. G. Kelley

By Political Affairs  	Author/activst Robin D. G. Kelley teaches at
Columbia University in New York City. He is the author of Hammer and Hoe and
Freedom Dreams. He is currently working on a book on musician Thelonius

 	PA: How has your politics informed your study of history, and your
study of history shaped your politics? 

RK: I came to history because of politics. I chose this discipline when I
was in college. I was reading in those days, in addition to C.L.R. James and
Du Bois, Chancellor Williams, George M. Janestone [of the Marcus Garvey
Institute of Ancient Research], and I was also interested in ancient
research and proving people of African [descent] have a long and noble
history. In doing that, I began to realize these issues were informed by
politics. What I was interested in was not resurrecting a romantic past, but
charting a new future. So I began to read more of the history of 20th
century social movements and became interested in the Communist Party, and I
discovered Marx, Lenin, Rosa Luxembourg and Antonio Gramsci. At the same
time, I became interested in being active. I went from the Black Student
Union to being in the Communist Workers Party, reading more Marxism-Leninism
and trying to figure out historically how had people of color, particularly
Black people and Africans, understood Marxism and its promise. 

The core of the question was for me "what does self-determination look
like?" Not so much what does the nation look like - I wasn't so much trying
to prove the Black-belt existed - but what happened when people tried to
make it a reality. In the process I learned a whole lot from meeting people
like Hosea Hudson and Lemon Johnson, who totally turned my head around. I
went there trying to find their reading of Marxism, and found something much
deeper. They brought an understanding of their particular history and
legacy, the church, grassroots organizations, the legacy of Reconstruction:
this was the lens through which they read. 

I began to try to figure out what is the history of people you can't see.
What of the people who struggle every day, who sometimes join movements, and
most of the time don't - because most are convinced it won't do anything.
How do we write their history and understand it in the context of class
struggle? I wrote Race Rebels to do that. 

Yo' Mama's Dysfunktional! was really an attempt at intervention in public
policy. My main concern in regard to its relationship to Marxism was what do
the current labor-based urban movements look like? We were living in an era
when everyone is saying "if you only had the movement of the 1960s," "if you
only could go back to the 1930s." Everyone was talking about the past, but
meanwhile all this stuff was popping up here and there: women of color
organizing in cities and labor organizing emerging with people of color at
the forefront. 

The second question I was trying to get at goes back to this idea of
cultural hegemony. How does the ideology of the dominant culture convince us
that the ghettos of America are full of criminals, lazy Black youth, welfare
mothers? What damage does that do, not to the self-esteem of those residents
but to organizers, to struggles, to public policy, to voters? 

Freedom Dreams came out of giving a series of lectures on social movements.
Depending on how you read it, some might see it as a kind of retreat from
Marxism. I actually disagree with that. I think it is very much a Marxist
text, but it is a Marxist text in that I try to recover the early Marx, the
romantic Marx, the Marx who was really shaped by the 1838 revolution, as
opposed to the political economy Marx. Not that they are disconnected, but
later in life he was really trying to [do] Capital. In trying to resurrect
that [early Marx], I am also trying to resurrect the spirit of the romantic
socialists in England in the 19th century, the people whom Engels called the
utopians. There is something going on there that it is really interesting. 

I came to surrealism in the last chapter [of Freedom Dreams] by way of
Marxism, because the surrealists joined the French Communist Party around
1927. They were committed Communists for a while and then they broke off.
Some didn't - Louis Aragon and people like that. I am interested in what
surrealism has to offer that Marxism could not, not because it is incapable
but because that wasn't the focus. 

I think Marxism is not something that just sticks to the body of the text.
You need to experience the struggle in relationship to what we know and
read. Even though I get jibed about the surrealism chapter, it really is an
attempt to figure out how we think about the unconscious and understand
that, to understand culture, religion and spirituality, not as false
consciousness but as part of people's desires. 

PA: It seems the challenge of developing and applying Marx creatively has
gone unfulfilled. What's the problem? 

RK: This is not inherent to Marxism, but many Marxists and Communist
organizations coming out of the factory-concentration movement in the 1970s
and 1980s, with the collapse of the Soviet Union kind of lost their way and
the organic connection between working-class creativity, imagination and new
ways of moving forward. That became harder to see, because they were bound
by the texts, bound by the history. When I was in the CWP, we wasted a lot
of time reading over and over about Mao's Long March, Stalin's crimes, the
problem of state and revolution. These were important issues in 1948 or in
1956, but where do we go now? Who is writing the analysis for the future?
The CWP did something I thought was a mistake, which was why I left. They
decided to concentrate their efforts on the petite bourgeoisie and people
with technical skills. They saw the future as an emerging technocratic
society and decided to take Communist out of the title. 

I would have disagreed if they had said, "We just need to go back and do
more factory concentration." You need to come up with something different.
One thing that is different is you have this whole population of urban youth
who are just ripe for organization. None of the organizations I knew were
really doing a lot of work with youth in a way that is on their terms. We
need to have new theory. 

I wouldn't say that Marxism failed, as much as the Marxist-Leninist left was
kind of wavering at that moment, and you needed to move to something else:
something else that is not liberalism, or has not given up that dream.
Because one thing I can never imagine is giving up the dream of socialism.
Socialism is utopian; it has to be. Otherwise, it is just another form of
state capitalism where people can just can get things they need. We need to
dream much further and do the thing science fiction does so well: produce a
vision of society where people can actually be happy. 

PA: There was a moment when there was more organic relationship to the
working class and popular culture. It seems the left has difficulty finding
its way back. Is that the problem? Or has the Communist movement never
developed working-class intellectuals? 

RK: I actually think the Communist Party developed organic intellectuals who
did play critical roles in the 1930s and 1940s. In fact, you can attribute
to the left the opening of forms of public education like City College,
which allowed working-class communities to have access to higher education. 

Regarding the first part of your question there was an organic relationship
between popular culture and working-class communities, both as producers of
that culture and consumers. After the Cold War popular culture changed and
become more corporate. Every single thing working-class communities invent
is picked up, marketed and sold back to them before they have a chance to
claim it. Think about community theater, the Federal Writers' Project,
popular film. As you move into the 1980s and 1990s, with the formation of
hip-hop culture the working class had all kinds of possibilities. As it
became a marketable commodity, it was picked up. Break-dancing was on all
major television programs; people made money teaching it. 

The other problem - and this is just speculation - what was identified as
the radical politics of the 1960s was so generation-bound, whereas the
radical politics of the 1930s was cross-generational. Unfortunately, the
counterculture movement became the heart of radicalism in the 1960s, when
what should have been radicalism in the 1960s, I think, was the
cross-generational character of Black radicalism. 

PA: What lessons can be learned from the uses and abuses of culture? 

RK: Every left movement has tried to produce a popular culture, tried to
create a culture organically out of what movement leaders, activists and
theorists thought of as the needs and desires of working people. They have
always tried to do something, whether it's Joe Hill's songs of labor or the
civil rights movement, which I think is part of that left thrust, although
not entirely. Also, movements have influenced the larger corporate popular
culture. There was a time in the late 1960s and early 1970s where you had to
have a movement song, or you had to have a song critical of the ghetto -
Curtis Mayfield, the Ojays, everyone had a hit. Even corporate forces said
"you know, this sells!" And why does it sell? It doesn't sell because
suddenly people are waking up. It sells because there are social movements
providing it for people, making them desire this kind of music as a
reflection of their situation. 

One of the things I think leftists have a history of is suppressing aspects
of the culture they think are not revolutionary enough. There are specific
examples, but you can point to them generally. Sometimes there are
self-proclaimed arbiters who see themselves as culture critics and the
culture police. The late 1930s is a good example. There was a big debate in
Masses & Mainstream where you had really progressive Black radicals saying
"this be-bop music is retrograde; Charlie Parker is the worst thing that has
ever happened; what we need are more Paul Robesons." Meanwhile, Paul Robeson
started listening to Charlie Parker. He loved Charlie Parker. It becomes a
debate where they are sort of deciding what is authentic working-class
culture and what's derivative and oppressive. Sometimes these things merge,
and I think as activists we have to be really good listeners. If there is a
sudden flurry of music or literature about urban violence, and it seems like
it is romanticizing it, there may be something else going on we have to pay
attention to. We should listen and figure out what they are trying to say.
What are people afraid of? What is the ultimate lesson in some of this

The second thing is why do we always listen to or read things in a very
literal sense? Sometimes these could be amazing metaphors showing off the
literary skills of a particular artist, even if the metaphors are violent
and retrograde. The history of African American culture has had that stream
too - the bad-man story, that can have a didactic element to it, and that
didacticism always centers on "this could happen to you. I think you need a
more complicated reading. 

PA: You pay a lot of attention to women's struggles and even say we once had
the view that socialism would solve the problems of women's oppression, but
maybe it is the case that the struggle for women's liberation will help make
socialism possible. 

RK: These are things I learned reading Barbara Smith and from all the women
I talk about in the Combahee River Collective. Those Black women radical
theorists considered the whole of life. To them it wasn't just the public
fight in the streets; it wasn't just the public fight for representation;
nor was it just socialism defined as providing resources in a very public
way - decent jobs, collective labor. 

It was about the way Black women's labor was commodified and sold as
domestics. There was household labor. As much as you don't want to believe
there is patriarchy in Black households, there is. 

One of the biggest barriers to radical democracy is this investment in


The analysis they came up with is one that made connections between
production, reproduction, household labor, the exploitation of children, the
sexual violence and physical abuse that women deal with, which never end up
getting placed on the agenda of a lot of Black nationalist organizations or
some socialist ones. I think for that reason Black feminist analysis ends up
being a lot deeper. 

PA: Dr. Du Bois was one of the great dreamers, perhaps the greatest dreamer
of the 20th century. In an article entitled "100 Years of Negro Freedom" he
sharply criticizes the nation thesis, and puts forward the idea of a radical
democratic America where Black and white labor create a new society founded
on a rigorous affirmative action program. How does that legacy hold up? In
your book you do a fascinating study of the Black liberation movements in
the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, but there is a section that you do not address:
the section that grew out of the civil rights movement, that was in SCLC and
SNCC and the NAACP. It was a different kind of freedom dream. 

RK: I agree with Du Bois' vision. I think that Du Bois' vision of radical
democracy is really the only thing that could move us some place that would
be mass participatory. But I think there are two problems: one is the
perennial problem that Du Bois identified in Black Reconstruction. One of
the biggest barriers to radical democracy is this investment in whiteness.
Not by all white people - there has been a willingness by many to commit
their lives to the anti-racist struggle, but most don't. I think even with
the current response to the Supreme Court decision on affirmative action,
there is so much anger among whites, who somehow still don't understand it.
The mere fact they think that, the mere fact that you even have plaintiffs
who are making a whole case around Black people who allegedly took their
spot at the university, when most people who took their spot were white, who
had lower test scores, who were legacies means we have a lot of work to do. 

And yet all those moments, and this is a thing that is often forgotten, were
moments of promise. We actually did have interracial cooperation and
struggle. People were transformed by the prospect. The promise was always

Reconstruction didn't fail because whites refused to come out, it failed
because they did come out and then retreated. They came out in the 1930s and
ended up retreating. In the 1950s and 1960s, they came out and then
retreated again. 

When we get to the second problem: what happened with the NAACP, SCLC, CORE
- these are the organizations that had, for the most part, a radical
democratic vision. I think they ended up losing that vision through
institutionalization. By the mid-to late-1960s, a lot of the leadership of
these organizations, with the exception of King and others, really fell
back. We did achieve the end of Jim Crow, but they forgot what they were
there for in the first place. 

But one of my regrets, is that I didn't do a whole thing on SNCC, the Poor
People's Movement and Ella Baker. And the reason was very simple: there was
so much scholarship on them. But the more I thought about it I could have
still talked about them in the context of RAM and other organizations. They
were the heart of the movement to democratize America. 

PA: You critique the concept of white privilege. On the one side there's the
appearance of a benefit, and on the other side there is downward pressure on
wages because of racism. Objectively, is it in the interest of whites if in
fact there is downward pressure? How do you deal with that? 

RK: My take on this is that racism simply is not in the interests of the
working class. No matter how much privilege is gotten, it's not as great as
the privilege of a society where everyone is paid fairly and gets the
benefits and fruits of their labor. This is the bottom line. And this is one
of my problems with some of the whiteness literature, that nowadays makes it
seem as though white working-class privilege drives society, that somehow to
dismantle racism would mean the white working class giving up a lot of
privilege. I don't think they would have to give up that much privilege. I
mean they would actually get more in the end. Therefore it is really
important to always press for a return to this question - that there
literally is no benefit for anyone except for big capital from racism, and
that white privilege is a reality but it's like peanuts. Du Bois solved the
problem for me, because he talks about the wages of whiteness in terms of
the psychological wage. The psychological wage was significant because it
allowed white workers to feel like they had a chance to move up in the
world. As long as you had that dream, then you continue to let yourself be
exploited. As long as you make 10 cents more than the colored people do,
then it's okay. 

There are two ways to win people. One is to say, if we were able to
eliminate capitalism all together, this is what life could be like. But the
second thing, and this is one of things that I am trying to grapple with, is
that you have to be able to make the case without always putting the
emphasis on self-interest. In other words, there is a moral case for it
politically, and that is that we do not want to live in a world where there
are oppressed and exploited people. Why is that in anyone's interests?

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