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American Quarterly 53.2 (2001) 367-376
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New Negroes, Black Communists, and the New Pluralism
Gary E. Holcomb
Emporia State University
UNTIL THE 1990S, SCHOLARS ALMOST UNIVERSALLY ACCEPTED AN UNCOMPLICATED narrative of black Marxist history. Conventional wisdom held that the relationship between communism and black struggle was inherently corrupt. Critics of African American cultural arts frequently portrayed the affiliation between "white communists" and black intellectuals as a kind of reenactment of the colonizer-colonized encounter, where black creative workers were expected to submit to a racist agenda. But, in 1989 Cary Nelson's inclusive Repression and Recovery suggested that in modernist period literary study such an account was fraught with difficulty. 1 Looking at the 1930s, Barbara Foley's chapter on "Race, Class, and the 'Negro Question'" in her Radical Representations a few years later challenged decades of received wisdom. 2 The genealogy of the reading, which assumes that blacks were expected to adopt an inferior status in communism, is traceable to historians and critics in the 1960s and 1970s. The views of such scholars exhibited a popular [End Page 367] separatist narrative that reflected the ideology of U.S. black cultural nationalism. 3
In recent years scholars of the Black Renaissance and Great Depression, early to mid-century radicalism and Marxism, black Atlantic studies, and whiteness studies have seen the publication of several valuable recovery projects. Along with Foley, James A. Miller, in Bill Mullen and Sherry Linkon's Radical Revisions: Rereading 1930s Culture, has challenged prevailing views of black-white radical affiliation. 4 George Hutchinson's monumental accomplishment The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White, though not attentive to radical commitment, has also confronted predominant notions of the color line between the wars, contending that the portrayal of a division between blacks and whites working in the cultural arts is inconsistent with the material evidence. 5 Now two distinguished publications have arrived, one a persuasively sustained re-visioning of black and white Marxism in the U.S., the other a reprint of an invaluable study of black Marxist history and theory. William J. Maxwell's New Negro, Old Left: African-American Writing and Communism Between the Wars offers a vital reassessment of black American radicalism and proletarianism in the early decades of the twentieth century. And the University of North Carolina Press's reissue of Cedric J. Robinson's Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition finally makes accessible this early 1980s vision of the origins of Marxist activism and black liberation struggle.
Black Marxism is divided into three parts: the history of European capitalism and radicalism, the origins of black radicalism, and black radicalism's relationship to Marxism. The first section examines European socio-economic history, and its chief purpose is to analyze how "racial capitalism" developed. Now a familiar theoretical position, Robinson argues that the rise of industrial capitalism was built on a culture of racial construction. Emergent labor classes and ethnic minorities could be assembled through national identity formations--pitted against one another--to serve the dominant ideology. The Irish peasants' relocation to England during the Great Hunger of the 1840s, for example, occasioned the opportunity for "an ideological and physical drifting apart of the two 'races'": English and Irish (41). Thus "race" as a strategic mechanism for social control led to the immanence of "racialism" in Western civilization. Racialism ordered "the very values and traditions of consciousness through which the peoples of [End Page 368] these ages came to understand their worlds and their experiences" (66). Radicalism then rose in Europe as a revolt against capitalism but also as a resistance to nationalism, racialism, and racial capitalism.
Black Marxism's inquiry into the constructedness of...