Theorizing Cultural Revolution in the Black Power Era
Harold Cruse was the first to proffer an explicit thesis of black cultural revolution during the Civil Rights Movement (CRM). It drew on Du Bois’s modernized black nationalism and Haywood’s Black Belt thesis, the latter recast as domestic colonialism, while excising its Marxism. Cruse castigated the myopia of American Marxists in formulating theory applicable to U.S. society, which he associated with their failure to appreciate the revolutionary role of black nationalism and to sufficiently engage the white racism of the U.S. proletariat, which they continued to insist would comprise a revolutionary vanguard. He excoriated the union of white labor and white capital in its support of racism at home and racist imperialism abroad, which made the orthodox Marxist view of the white proletariat inapplicable to American realities. Instead, blacks would have to pose novel theory to transform the ongoing CRM into a revolutionary movement. Cruse’s thesis was designed to serve that purpose.
Cruse’s thesis informed the ideology of the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), which openly advocated the study of his writings, and adopted his concept of cultural revolution. Given their common residence in Harlem at the time, and Malcolm’s affinity for Studies on the Left, which published Cruse’s works, it’s hard to believe that Cruse’s thesis would have been foreign to Malcolm (Goose, 2004, pp. 25–27); it likely informed his discourse on cultural revolution. In the event, Malcolm’s Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU) and RAM were the first major Black Power Movement (BPM) organizations to publicly advocate cultural revolution, and their advocacy encouraged Us’s promotion of the concept; all three informed the Republic of New Africa’s (RNA) and the Shrine of the Black Madonna’s endorsements of it, as well. Support for cultural revolution during the BPM gained its widest acceptance from Amiri Baraka’s Congress of African Peoples (CAP), which built, in part, on his earlier cultural institutions such as the Black Arts Repertory Theater and School in Harlem (BARTS)—where Cruse lectured on history—which is widely viewed as the seminal organization of the Black Arts Movement (BAM). Thus, Cruse’s thesis was foundational for revolutionists of the BPM and influential in BAM.
Harold Cruse, Black Cultural Revolution, and the Civil Rights Movement
Cruse was a cultural critic, World War II veteran, black nationalist, and former member of the CPUSA. During the late 1950s, after leaving the CPUSA, he sought to develop a revolutionary theory to address the “peculiar condition of Negroes” in the United States, which he thought orthodox Marxists, in particular, had failed to do, just as integrationists leading the CRM and black nationalists such as the Nation of Islam (NOI) had also. An aspiring but failed playwright, he struggled with the reality that black oppression was not only political and economic, but cultural as well. In a 1957 publication in Presence Africaine, “An Afro-American’s Cultural Views,” Cruse drew parallels between the revival of indigenous cultures as an aspect of anticolonial struggles and similar undercurrents among black Americans. He argued that “when one thinks of the liberation of oppressed peoples, one assumes a rebirth and flowering of that people’s native ‘culture’ as a corollary of the rise to independence”; thus, he conjectured that
in keeping with what is happening to colored peoples elsewhere, one might expect that in the United States the increased activity on the part of Negroes to achieve full citizenship, equality, and civil rights under the law would be accompanied by an increase in the quantity and quality of their “cultural” activities. (Cruse, 1968, p. 48)
Cruse lamented that this was not happening in the CRM.
Like Du Bois and Locke, Cruse was convinced that while the cultural roots of black America were found in Africa, “[i]t must be clearly understood that our racial and cultural experience as a group is distinctly American”—mainly as a result of the “de-Africanization process began at the point of landing of slaves on American shores” (ibid., pp. 50–51). He was not a reverse civilizationist. He asserted that in the United States “[d]uring slavery and for several decades after emancipation it was possible for one to say that Afro-Americans had a distinct culture,” albeit “of the ‘folk quality,’ ” consisting of “a distinct body of social art embodied in music, song, dance, folklore, poetry, formal literature, craftsmanship, mores, and even their own variant of Christian religious expression and experience” (ibid., p. 51). Black culture took on “more sophisticated expressions” in parallel with “our rise in social status after emancipation” (ibid.), such that “[i]t can be seen that despite our separation from the ways of Africa, Afro-Americans produced a culture that is distinctly our own and, for the most part, American in general milieu” (ibid., p. 52). Thus, like Du Bois and Locke, Cruse rejected reverse civilizationism, and like them, he was convinced that blacks were oppressed culturally as well as politically and economically, and that a focus on the cultural aspects of black oppression could ramify into the political and economic spheres.
Unlike Du Bois and Locke, Cruse was an outspoken black nationalist who viewed black Americans as a colonized nation within the United States, which he characterized as domestic colonialism. Cruse argued that the peculiar position of blacks as a colonized people in the United States made the black nationalist struggle analogous to the nationalist anticolonial struggles throughout the third world, but it also meant that black liberation would have to take place within and not apart from the colonizing power, which happened to be the most industrialized and militarily powerful country in the world. In such a context, it was necessary, Cruse argued, to target the “weakest front” in the political, economic, and social systems of the United States in order to expand the CRM in ways that would facilitate revolutionary change, and for him, this was the “cultural front.”
Cruse argued the necessity of targeting the “cultural apparatus” of the United States—both in artistic production and administrative control—and democratizing it and utilizing it to transform the CRM by promoting both the development and distribution of black aesthetic production and the institutions associated with it, which would provide, among other things, an independent source of economic resources to fund the CRM. More importantly, it would raise the contradictions between black aesthetic production and its commodification, expropriation, and control by whites to advance broader legal and economic claims. In these ways, demands originating in the cultural sphere would ramify into the economic and political domains, in a manner resonating with Locke’s framework. Cruse did not explicitly incorporate Locke’s theoretical insights into his cultural revolutionary project, yet his thesis dovetailed with important aspects of it.1 Cruse went farther and argued that the extension of political and economic democracy into the cultural sphere necessitated the democratization of the cultural apparatus of U.S. society (more below). Cruse was convinced that most theoreticians—especially Marxists—failed to appreciate the importance of culture in revolution, and black culture specifically, because they ignored progressive aspects of black nationalism. Therefore, they had little appreciation for the self-determination claims of black Americans, or their espousal of black nationalism, historically or contemporaneously, even as this thrust was transforming the CRM and giving rise to the BPM.
In 1962, Cruse published an article in Studies on the Left entitled “Revolutionary Nationalism and the Afro-American,” which would become one of the most influential essays among black power activists. The essay provided an analysis of black nationalism, black power, and, subsequently, black cultural revolution in the 1960s. He asserted the revolutionary aspects of black nationalism, while lambasting the anti–black nationalist arguments of reformists of the CRM, and especially American Marxists. Unlike the theorists of cultural revolution we’ve examined up to this point, Cruse was purposely attempting to revolutionize an ongoing national movement of black Americans that was centered on the U.S. South. For Cruse, the reformists leading the CRM were insufficiently focused on the cultural elements of black liberation, which, he argued, when properly understood, theorized, and utilized would fuse with the political objectives of the CRM and extend them into the economic domain. Such a fusion would raise such fundamental contradictions that it would transform the CRM into a social revolution. The missing element in this process, for Cruse, was a cultural revolution, which he would continue to flesh out over the decade. Cruse saw greater promise in the black nationalist arguments that were increasingly popular inside and outside of the CRM; and argued that from them would emerge a revolutionary thesis more attuned to the realities on the ground in black America. For a former Marxist to assert the greater salience of black nationalism to Marxism in the black liberation struggle in the United States was not uncommon; it evoked Du Bois’ earlier arguments, ironic now since he joined the Communist Party shortly before his death in 1963 but seemingly counterintuitive, in Cruse’s case, in an era in which so many revolutionary struggles were cast in often explicitly Marxist terms, or at least drew on Marxist rhetoric. Moreover, the success of the Cuban Revolution seemed to vindicate Marxist revolutionary theory in overthrowing a comprador regime of the United States just ninety miles off the Florida coast.
Cruse characterized the success of the Cuban Revolution as a failure of the revolutionary theory of the CPUSA. He argued that for most black activists, Marxism suffered from its insistence that white workers were the revolutionary vanguard and that the revolution of the proletariat in the industrialized West would lead to liberation in the colonies. Black Americans, more than any other group, were painfully aware of the entrenched racism of the white American working class, and generally saw their racial oppression not as epiphenomenal of their class position, but as a product of a white supremacist system that may have originated from an economic system of slavery but had assumed a life of its own in the politico-legal, social, as well as economic institutions of the broader society irrespective of its provenance; just as importantly, it was perpetuated by the efforts of whites irrespective of their class. The view that working-class whites, Marx’s proletariat, who were some of the most virulent racists in the United States, were going to be the vanguard of a social revolution in the country that would result in, among other things, overthrowing the system of white supremacism was ridiculous on its face to most black Americans. Further, the white American proletariat, which was not even organized as a labor party, or even gravitating to a revolutionary party, was typical of Western proletariats, more generally, which were not revolutionary in their own countries; yet, Marxism-Leninism taught that the proletariat in the industrialized West would provide revolutionary leadership for the colonies. Antirevolutionism was even more evident among the U.S. working class, which racially segregated its unions, for decades adamantly opposed organizing black workers, and was intent on achieving a modus vivendi with its white racist bourgeoisie rather than proffering a progressive challenge—much less a revolutionary one—to the racist status quo of the United States. As Du Bois had long before observed, white proletarians in the Western metropoles largely endorsed, deferred to, and/or cooperated with their respective national bourgeoisies in their imperialism in the colonies, fighting mainly for a larger share of the spoils from the extraction of surplus value from the exploited labor of the periphery as well as its raw materials and mineral resources. White labor forged an alliance with white capital to support national imperialism and its wars—including the two world wars—and it was these collaborators with capital to whom orthodox Marxists looked for emancipating humanity?
Cruse noted that the Cuban Revolution was less a vindication of American Marxism than a demonstration that third world revolutionists were not waiting for white proletarians of advanced industrialized states to serve as a vanguard for revolutions to liberate their homelands from Western imperialism—not even when they were only ninety miles away from the United States. What the Cuban Revolution—and many revolutions occurring throughout the third world—had demonstrated was that the oppressed in the colonies were not waiting for the Western proletariat to discover its “revolutionary mission” and overthrow imperialism. In fact, “the revolutionary initiative [had] passed to the colonial world,” while Western Marxists continued to “theorize, temporize, and debate” (1968, p. 75). It followed, Cruse argued, that it was from the underdeveloped world that “schools of theory and practice for achieving independence have emerged” (ibid.). A similar process was at work in the United States where the revolutionary initiative was passing from Marxist proletarians to African Americans, the group that Cruse observed was “the leading revolutionary force” in the United States. Yet, U.S. Marxists enjoined black Americans to submerge their ongoing mobilizing for self-determination beneath a white worker-led, class-based, racially integrated political struggle that didn’t exist in any predominantly white community in the United States. This orientation was being rejected wholesale in the ongoing CRM as well as in the incipient BPM.
Given that it had become the leading revolutionary force in the United States, Cruse maintained that “from the Negro himself must come the revolutionary social theories of an economic, cultural, and political nature that will be his guides for social action—the new philosophies of social change” (1968, p. 96). Cruse was adamant that “the Negro in the United States can no more look to American Marxist schema than the colonials and semi-dependents could conform to the Western Marxist timetable for revolutionary advances.” Further, he challenged “[t]hose on the American left who support revolutionary nationalism in Asia, Africa, and Latin America” that they “must also accept the validity of Negro nationalism in the United States.” For him, it was just as valid “for Negro nationalists to want to separate from American whites as it is for Cuban nationalists to want to separate economically and politically from the United States” (ibid., p. 94). He railed against arguments that opposed this view in the name of “pragmatic practicalities” (ibid.). In fact, Cruse (ibid., p. 74) argued that “the Negro has a relationship to the dominant culture of the United States similar to that of colonies and semi-dependents to their particular foreign overseers”—thus, domestic colonialism.
Cruse viewed black nationalism as emanating from the initiatives of blacks in response to the domestic colonialism they experienced, and the black nationalism of the 1960s was reflecting the interests of mainly working-class blacks who were less inclined to integrationism in its avowedly reformist guise in the CRM or its putatively radical form in orthodox Marxism. For Cruse, both international and domestic colonialism generated revolutionary forms of nationalism in the colonized world and in black America, respectively. Moreover, “[t]he failure of American Marxists to understand the bond between the Negro and the colonial peoples of the world has led to their failure to develop theories that would be of value to Negroes in the United States” (1968, p. 75) because they ignore the domestic colonial context in which black Americans are situated. As a result, the policies Marxism promotes are out of touch with the concrete conditions of black society, and particularly with respect to the revolutionary potential of black nationalism. In this essay, which became required reading for RAM members, Cruse historicized the emerging revolutionary black nationalism of the BPM.
Cruse viewed slavery in the United States, which coincided with the colonial expansion of European powers, as the specific form that U.S. colonialism took: domestic colonialism. That is, “Instead of the United States establishing a colonial empire in Africa, it brought the colonial system home and installed it in the Southern states” (1968, p. 76). In this argument, Cruse was expropriating much of Haywood’s (1948) thesis on black nationalism, which the CPSU had adopted in 1928 as the Black Belt thesis, and for which he had shown affinities when he was a member of the CPUSA; however, once the CPUSA abandoned it and purged Haywood in 1959, it reverted to viewing the “Negro problem” as one of racial discrimination and not national liberation. Not surprisingly, Cruse’s historical analysis up to this point mirrors Haywood’s insofar as he argues that following emancipation, the Negro was only partially free, not provided an economic basis for his/her freedom, so that “[e]xcept for a very small percentage of the Negro intelligentsia, the Negro function[ed] in a subcultural world made up, usually of necessity, of his own race only” (ibid.). Importantly, Cruse adds—and Haywood would agree—that “[t]his is much more than a problem of racial discrimination, it is a problem of political, economic, cultural, and administrative underdevelopment” (ibid.).
Cruse insists that the persistence of domestic colonialism to the present contributes to U.S. Marxists’ misunderstanding of black nationalism—or more accurately, their position in 1962 since they had abandoned Haywood’s thesis, which Cruse was largely repeating. He argued that U.S. Marxists “have never been able to understand the implications of the Negro’s position in the social structure of the United States” and, just “[a]s Western Marxism had no adequate revolutionary theory for the colonies, American Marxists have no adequate theory for the Negro” (1968, pp. 76–77). For Cruse,
The only factor which differentiates the Negro’s status from that of a pure colonial status is that his position is maintained in the “home” country in close proximity to the dominant racial group. It is not at all remarkable then that the semi-colonial status of the Negro has given rise to nationalist movements. It would be surprising if it had not. (ibid., p. 77)
Cruse asserts that “American Marxism has neither understood the nature of Negro nationalism, nor dealt with its roots in American society,” and “[w]hen the Communists first promulgated the Negro question as a ‘national question’ in 1928, they wanted a national question without nationalism” (ibid., p. 78; emphasis added).
Cruse attempts to differentiate his perspective from Haywood’s, which he clearly is drawing on, noting that Marxists “relegated” the Negro nationality to the Black Belt South although the Garvey movement was largely a northern black phenomenon stimulated in large part by the black migration from the South. Cruse delinks the Marxist conception of black nationalism in the United States in 1928 from Haywood’s (1948) more nuanced argument, which, while recognizing the Black Belt as the national homeland of black America, included blacks outside the South as members of the black nation, as well. Thus, Haywood (1948) was closer to Cruse’s view that “the national character of the Negro has little to do with what part of the country he lives in” (1968, p. 78). Nevertheless, Cruse argued that American Marxists in 1962 failed to appreciate the dimensions within black nationalism—another view that converges with Haywood’s, although, unlike Haywood, Cruse roots this failure in Marxists’ misunderstanding of the controversy between Washington and Du Bois at the turn of the century which he views as a debate “over the correct tactics for the emerging Negro bourgeoisie” (ibid., p. 82). He maintains that since Reconstruction,
the would-be Negro bourgeoisie in the United States confronted unique difficulties quite unlike those experienced by the young bourgeoisie in colonial situations. As a class, the Negro bourgeoisie wanted liberty and equality, but also money, prestige, and political power. How to achieve all this within the American framework was a difficult problem, since the whites had a monopoly on these benefits. . . . The Negro bourgeoisie was trapped and stymied by the entrenched and expanding power of American capitalism. Unlike the situation in the colonial area, the Negro could not seize the power he wanted nor oust “foreigners.” Hence he turned inward toward organizations of fraternal, religious, nationalistic, educational and political natures. There was much frustrated bickering and internal conflict within this new class over strategy and tactics. Finally the issues boiled down to that of politics vs. economics, and emerged in the Washington Du Bois controversy. (ibid.)
Their contestation resulted from the apparent incompatibility of Washington’s attempt to develop a separate black economy in the South with Du Bois’s cosmopolitan project aimed at political rights.
For Cruse, Marxists’ adoption of Du Bois’s argument and vilification of Washington’s was tantamount to “saying that the Negro bourgeoisie had no right to try to become capitalists—an idea that makes no historical sense whatever” (1968, p. 83). Cruse offered this analogy: “If a small proprietor, native to an underdeveloped country, should want to oust foreign capitalists and take over the internal markets, why should not the Negro proprietor have the same desire?” (ibid., pp. 83–84). Although a Negro bourgeoisie did not develop in any meaningful sense—only a black petite bourgeoisie emerged—Cruse asserts that this obscures the larger point that “Washington’s role in developing an economic program to counteract the Negro’s social position is central to the emergence of Negro nationalism, and accounts for much of his popularity among Negroes” (ibid., p. 84). With this view in mind, Cruse chastises Marxist historians, typified by Aptheker, for failing to appreciate the salience of Washington’s economic program for Negroes and insisting on only assessing him in political terms, and on that basis finding Washington “not ‘revolutionary’ or ‘militant’ in the fashion that befits a Negro leader”—at least not one that Marxists would commend; but in so doing, “rejects the historic-economic-class basis of Washington’s philosophy, although these are essential in analyzing social movements, personalities, or historical situations” (ibid.). Marxists, then, according to Cruse, tend to view Negroes as an undifferentiated mass that more properly should have been wedded to protest movements and trade unionism in the South, to which Cruse admonishes:
It is naïve to believe that any aspiring member of the bourgeoisie [in the nineteenth century U.S. South] would have been interested in trade-unionism and the political action of farmers. But American Marxists cannot “see” the Negro at all unless he is storming the barricades, either in the present or in history. Does it make any sense to look back into history and expect to find Negroes involved in trade unionism and political action in the most lynch-ridden decade the South has ever known? Anyone reading about the South at the turn of the century must wonder how Negroes managed to survive at all, let alone become involved in political activity when politics was dominated by the Ku Klux Klan. (ibid., p. 85)
Cruse continues that, according to Marxists such as Aptheker, “the Negroes who supported Washington were wrong”; instead,
It was the handful of Negro militants from above the Mason-Dixon line who had never known slavery, who had never known Southern poverty and illiteracy, the whip of the lynch-mad KKK, or the peasant’s agony of landlessness, who were correct in their high-sounding idealistic criticism of Washington. These were, Aptheker tells us, within a politically revolutionary tradition—a tradition which in fact had not even emerged when Washington died! (ibid.)
This controversy continued into the ideological conflict between Garvey and the NAACP, largely as a result of the former’s building on Washington’s politico-economic perspective and the latter’s building on Du Bois’s. Cruse notes that
[a]dopting what he wanted from Washington’s ideas, Garvey carried them further—advocating Negro self-sufficiency in the United States linked, this time, with the idea of regaining access to the African homeland as a basis for constructing a viable black economy. Whereas Washington had earlier chosen an accommodationist position in the South to achieve his objectives, Garvey added the racial ingredient of black nationalism to Washington’s ideas with potent effect. This development paralleled the bourgeois origins of the colonial revolutions then in their initial stages in Africa and Asia. Coming from a British colony, Garvey had the psychology of a colonial revolutionary and acted as such. (1968, pp. 85–86)
Cruse notes that
[w]ith the rise of nationalism, Du Bois and the NAACP took a strong stand against the Garvey movement and against revolutionary nationalism. The issues were much deeper than mere rivalry between different factions for the leadership of Negro politics. The rise of Garvey nationalism meant that the NAACP became the accommodationists and the nationalists became the militants. (ibid., p. 86)
In discussing Garvey, Cruse notes the split among Marxists in their view of black nationalism, citing favorably Haywood’s more perceptive views of sanguine aspects of Garvey’s black nationalism, but observing that by 1959, “the Communists withdrew the concept of ‘self-determination’ in the black belt, and sidestepped the question of the Negro’s ‘national character.’ Instead, they adopted a position essentially the same as that of the NAACP” with respect to the American Negro (ibid., p. 87).
Cruse argues that by the time of the CRM, Marxists found “it convenient from a theoretical standpoint to see Negroes in history as black proletarian ‘prototypes’ and forerunners of the ‘black workers’ who will participate in the proletarian revolution” (ibid., p. 88). Such “mythology” according to Cruse, relies on “a patronizing deification of Negro slave heroes,” which “results in abstracting them from their proper historical context and making it appear that they are relevant to modern reality” (ibid.). For Cruse,
To the extent that the myth of a uniform “Negro People” has endured, a clear understanding of the causes of Negro nationalism has been prevented. In reality, no such uniformity exists. There are class divisions among Negroes, and it is misleading to maintain that the interests of the Negro working and middle classes are identical. To be sure, a middle class NAACP leader and an illiterate farmhand in Mississippi or a porter who lives in Harlem all want civil rights. However, it would be enlightening to examine why the NAACP is not composed of Negro porters and farmhands, but only of Negroes of a certain type. (1968, pp. 88–89)
It’s doubly ironic that Cruse, the black nationalist, is charging Marxists with treating black Americans as an “undifferentiated mass”—a monolithic whole, whose intraracial stratification was either nonexistent or immaterial to their prophesied fate as an analogue to the movement toward Marxist-led interracial proletarian revolution. Even today, many of these same radical critics of Cruse and black nationalists in general make the ahistorical and wholly inaccurate charge that black nationalists view black Americans as an undifferentiated mass, seemingly oblivious to this orientation in their own ideological formulations. Moreover, Cruse was concerned with why these classes among blacks seemed to be striving toward different objectives with different degrees of intensity—toward, away from, or indifferent to integration—and embracing different ideologies, as well. For example, among the most pressing issues for Cruse was why the emerging nationalist tendency was more strongly embraced by the black working class, while “Marxists of all groups, are at this late date tail-ending organizations such as the NAACP (King, CORE, etc.), which do not have the broad support of Negro workers and farmers” (1968, p. 89).
For Cruse, it’s important to appreciate why the black bourgeoisie’s interests have been separate from those of the black working class and what this portends for the CRM and the illusion of black racial unity. Drawing from the sociologist E. Franklin Frazier, Cruse notes that the divergent interests of the Negro bourgeoisie and working class reflect the reality that the former doesn’t “control the Negro ‘market’ ” in the United States,
and since it derived its income from whatever “integrated” occupational advantages it has achieved, it has neither developed a sense of association of its status with that of the Negro working class, nor a “community” of economic, political, or cultural interests conducive to cultivating “nationalistic sentiments.” Today, except for the issue of civil rights, no unity of interests exists between the Negro middle class and the Negro working class. (1968, p. 90)
Furthermore, large segments of the modern Negro bourgeoisie have played a continually regressive “non-national” role in Negro affairs. Thriving off the crumbs of integration, these bourgeois elements have become de-racialized and decultured, leaving the Negro working class without voice or leadership, while serving the negative role of class buffer between the deprived working class and the white ruling elites. In this respect, such groups have become a social millstone around the necks of the Negro working class.
Thus, the black bourgeoisie—more of a petite bourgeoisie—has within it “large segments” that may be better characterized as a “lumpenbourgeoisie.” The duality of their position contributes to the dilemma of the black intellectual who is “[d]etached from the Negro working class,” and seeking integration but “failing to gain entry to the status quo, he resorts to talking like a revolutionary, championing revolutionary nationalism and its social dynamism in the underdeveloped world” (1968, pp. 90–91). Such a “gesture” amounts to little more than “flirting with the revolutionary nationalism of the non-West,” which “does not mask the fact that the American Negro intellectual is floating in ideological space . . . caught up in the world contradiction” (ibid., p. 91). In this context,
Forced to face up to the colonial revolution and to make shallow propaganda out of it for himself, the American Negro intellectual is unable to cement his ties with the more racial-minded segments of the Negro working class. For this would require him to take a nationalistic stand in American politics—which he is loath to do. Nevertheless, the impact of revolutionary nationalism in the non-Western world is forcing certain Negro intellectuals to take a nationalist position in regard to their American situation. (ibid.)
It is the failure of the Negro bourgeoisie to develop an “economic basis” for its position, to develop an “economic self-sufficiency,” that helps explain “the persistence of nationalist groupings in Negro life,” because the “Negro nationalist ideology regards all the social ills from which the Negroes suffer as being caused by the lack of economic control over the segregated Negro community,” which accounts for organizational attempts to “agitate for Negro ascendancy in and control of the Negro market” such as “Buy Black” programs (ibid.). He adds that since nationalists “do not envision a time when whites will voluntarily end segregation,” they find it “necessary to gain control of the economic welfare of the segregated community,” while others “such as the Black Muslims, actually believe that racial separation is in the best interests of both races” (ibid.). Thus, Cruse maintains that
[w]hen Communists and other Marxists imply that racial integration represents an all-class movement for liberation, it indicates that they have lost touch with the realities of Negro life. They fail to concern themselves with the mind of the working-class Negro in the depths of the ghetto, or the nationalistic yearnings of those hundreds of thousands of ghetto Negroes whose every aspiration has been negated by white society. (1968, p. 92)
Cruse notes that
[i]nstead, the Marxists gear their position to Negro middle-class aspirations and ideology. Such Marxists support the position of the Negro bourgeoisie in denying, condemning, or ignoring the existence of Negro nationalism in the United States—while regarding the reality of nationalism in the colonial world as something peculiar to “exotic” peoples. The measure of the lack of appeal to the working classes of the Marxist movement is indicated by the fact that Negro nationalist movements are basically working-class in character while the new Negroes attracted to the Marxist movement are of bourgeois outlook and sympathies. (ibid.)
He further castigates Marxists for not even practicing in their own organizations the “inter-racialism” they espouse in their “Negro Liberation” advocacy and programs:
Ironically, even within Marxist organizations Negroes . . . have been subordinated to the will of a white majority on all crucial matters of racial policy. What the Marxists called “Negro-white unity” within their organization was, in reality, white domination. Thus the Marxist movement took a position of favoring a racial equality that did not even exist within the organization of the movement itself. (ibid.)
In sum “The failure to deal adequately with the Negro question is the chief cause of American Marxism’s ultimate alienation from the vital stream of American life” (ibid., p. 93).
Cruse concludes that black Americans “can no more look to American Marxist schema than the colonials and semi-dependents could conform to the Western Marxist timetable for revolutionary advances” (ibid., p. 94). For Cruse,
It is up to the Negro to take the organizational, political, and economic steps necessary to raise and defend his status. The present situation . . . will inevitably force nationalist movements to make demands which should be supported by people who are not Negro nationalists. The nationalists may be forced to demand the right of political separation. This too must be upheld because it is the surest means of achieving Federal action on all Negro demands of an economic or political nature. It will be the most direct means of publicizing the fact that the American government’s policy on underdeveloped areas must be complemented by the same approach to Negro underdevelopment in the United States. (1968, pp. 94–95)
Cruse maintains that “[i]t’s pointless to argue, as many do, that Negro nationalism is an invalid ideology for Negroes to have in American life, or that the nationalist ideas of economic self-sufficiency or the ‘separate Negro economy’ are unrealistic or utopian” (ibid., p. 95). For Cruse, it is no more utopian than “the idea of the eventual acceptance of the Negro as a full-fledged American without regard to race, creed, or color.” He notes that although “[t]here is no organized force in the United States at present capable of altering the structural form of American society . . . [d]ue to his semi-dependent status in society, the American Negro is the only potentially revolutionary force in the United States today” (ibid., pp. 95–96). Therefore, he insisted that
[f]rom the Negro himself must come the revolutionary social theories of an economic, cultural, and political nature that will be his guides for social action—the new philosophies of social change. If the white working class is ever to move in the direction of demanding structural changes in society, it will be the Negro who will furnish the initial force. (ibid., pp. 96)
Auguring the onset of the BPM, Cruse was convinced that
[t]he coming coalition of Negro organizations will contain nationalist elements in roles of conspicuous leadership. It cannot and will not be subordinate to any white groups with which it is allied. There is no longer room for the revolutionary paternalism that has been the hallmark of organizations such as the Communist Party. This is what the New Left must clearly understand in its future relations with Negro movements that are indigenous to the Negro community. (1968, p. 96)
Cruse’s argument in “Revolutionary Nationalism and the Afro-American” in 1962 captured the imagination of black activists throughout the country—especially students—becoming a frame of reference for the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), which would provide a core of activists including those who would emerge at the forefront of the BPM in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Us, the Black Panther Party (BPP), the Republic of New Africa (RNA), CAP, and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers (LRBW), among others. It also affected many black and white leftists in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and Marxist organizations. It was from the latter group that critics such as Haywood would contest aspects of Cruse’s thesis.
For example, in a series of articles in Soul Book, a publication associated with RAM, Haywood and Gwendolyn Hall asserted that it reflected a bourgeois orientation toward what they admitted was a potentially revolutionary development: the rise of black nationalism in the 1960s. They noted that “Negro nationalism is not alien or new to the American scene” but “a basic and continuing theme in Negro protest” and “a steady undercurrent in the national Negro community, existing side by side with the dominant integrationist-assimilationist trend,” gaining prominence in times of “stress and crisis” (Haywood & Hall, 1965/66, p. 259). They viewed the “growth of Negro nationalist sentiment [a]s a positive development in itself” and “an essential precondition for the emergence of a national revolutionary movement” (ibid.). Nevertheless, they argued that like integrationism, nationalism had bourgeois and revolutionary elements and that Cruse’s thesis was tied too closely to the former, the “ghetto-nationalists.” While arguing that the integrationist program was “entirely unrealistic” for the masses of black Americans, they viewed “ghetto-nationalists” as “economically based on the northern urban Black community, indulg[ing] in fantasies of building up a separate Black ‘Free Enterprise’ economy as the solution,” which was similarly quixotic, reflecting the fact that the Black bourgeoisie was incapable of “leading the type of struggle necessary to win Black freedom.” For them, “The basic masses must . . . forge their own instrument and fight for a program of liberation that will not subordinate their interests to those of either sector of the black bourgeoisie” (Haywood & Hall, 1966, p. 71).
They acknowledge the “considerable influence in left circles” of Cruse’s “Revolutionary Nationalism and the Afro-American,” before caricaturing Cruse as “involv[ing] himself in the toils of the ghetto nationalists, elaborat[ing] a theory for them, and then call[ing] upon white progressives to fall in behind this ‘revolutionary’ leadership.” They make three main criticisms: (1) Cruse assumes that the black bourgeoisie is the revolutionary element in black communities and “writes off the possibility for the basic masses to fight independently and forge their own revolutionary movement” (ibid., p. 72); (2) Cruse’s critique of the Communist Party conception of black nationalism is dated and does not reflect its present views; (3) Cruse’s focus on the importance of the “ghetto market” as a site of revolutionary contention is mistaken (ibid., p. 73). Taking each in turn, a cursory review of the passages quoted above from Cruse’s article shows that he was not arguing that the bourgeoisie was the vanguard of the black revolution, nor did he fail to realize that there were valences in nationalism. He acknowledged the class differences among blacks, and that the black nationalism that was emerging at the time reflected the interests of working-class blacks more than that of the bourgeois blacks who held sway over the movement, whom Cruse characterized as “a social millstone around the necks of the Negro working class.” Cruse also acknowledged that this same working class was largely opposed or indifferent to Marxism as well. Thus, given Cruse’s argument that the revolutionary vanguard had passed from white proletarians in the metropole to third world peoples in the periphery, and that black nationalists in the United States were representative of this emerging revolutionary trend, and that black nationalism largely reflected the interests of the black working class and was largely opposed by the black bourgeoisie, then it follows that Cruse did not view the black bourgeoisie as the revolutionary vanguard nor did he propose that the black working class follow it, but quite the opposite.
Regarding the second critique, Haywood and Hall may be technically correct but they are substantively incorrect. That is, the claim that Cruse’s argument is based on Old Left conceptions of black nationalism and not those of the New Left rests on the assumption that Haywood and Hall’s theses represent the latter. In the first place, Cruse’s analysis is consistent with Haywood’s (1948) earlier claims regarding black nationalism, which, given their earlier adoption by the CPSU in 1928, seem to represent the Old Left; however, the CPUSA, the most prominent “Old Left” organization in the United States, had shied away from the Black Belt thesis during the Popular Front era in the late 1930s and ultimately rejected it wholesale by the late 1950s—and, in fact, had purged Haywood from the party for his alleged nationalist leanings. Therefore, it is difficult for Haywood and Hall to associate Haywood’s earlier formulations of the Black Belt thesis with the CPUSA position post-1959, which by the time of Cruse’s writing in 1962 the CPUSA had wholly rejected. The position of the CPUSA in 1962 and throughout the CRM and BPM was that the struggle for black civil rights was an issue of racial discrimination and not national self-determination and as such it was a distraction from the “legitimate” revolutionary struggle of organizing black and white (as well as brown, yellow, and red) workers as a racially integrated proletariat for class struggle to overthrow the bourgeoisie in the United States. It is this latter position of the CPUSA—the main organizational representation of the Old Left—which Cruse castigated. In fact, Haywood makes some of the same critiques of the CPUSA that Cruse did with respect to its McCarthy Era views of black nationalism and its rationale for rejecting his Black Belt thesis. Thus, while Haywood and Hall may take issue with Cruse’s thesis for ignoring or minimizing some aspects of Haywood’s Black Belt thesis, they are incorrect that in so doing Cruse was ignoring important aspects of the CPUSA’s contemporaneous position on black nationalism.
More telling, the third critique focuses on the assumption that the crux of Cruse’s thesis is the revolutionary tension in the struggle for the “ghetto market.” This criticism reflects the failure of orthodox U.S. Marxists, in particular, to provide a cogent thesis for black economic development prior to the prophesied revolution. Ironically, even as purists recognized the importance of Lenin’s NEP as a transitional phase between wartime communism and Stalin’s collectivist Five Year Plans, they did not envision any realistic program to alleviate the gross privations among blacks in their communities that utilized free enterprise practices, nor did they seem to appreciate the importance of developing independent black economic institutions beyond white-dominated trade unionism or what were largely imagined transracial cooperative or collectivist schemes. This was part of Cruse’s criticism of the myopia of doctrinaire Marxist arguments against Garvey in the 1920s and their failure to appreciate the significance of the Black Muslims in the 1960s, which were both viewed as bourgeois, utopic, and ultimately advocating “escapist fantasies.” While both the UNIA and the NOI articulated what may be considered “escapist” programs, reflected in their advocacy of some form of twentieth-century black emigration, their black nationalism challenged imperialism as well. For the UNIA, this was a conscious attempt to politically confront the Western imperial powers regarding their colonial oppression of Africa—a point that Haywood drew on in posing his original thesis on black nationalism in the 1920s (i.e., the Black Belt thesis); and for the NOI—although it was less oriented toward the open protest of the UNIA—it was evident in its challenge to the white supremacy of the leading imperialist power, the United States—a fact that Haywood also acknowledged. For example, he noted that
[t]he Black Muslims identify with the most-radical sections of the international struggle against colonialism. Their publication, Muhammed Speaks, has given favourable and extensive coverage to the Cuban Revolution, the successes in eliminating racism from the island. The newspaper featured the message of support from Mao TseTung to the Afroamerican struggle under the heading, “First Big Power to Assail Racist Doctrine in America.” It reports the activism of the most militant sections of the liberation movement, such as SNCC, and exposes the hypocrisy of the Federal Government. (1967, p. 137)
Although associating them with the “ghetto bourgeoisie” and decrying their “drive” for a “Black controlled economy,” Haywood noted that the NOI drew its main support from “Black workers and youth, who make up the overwhelming majority of its membership” (ibid., pp. 137–138), in no small part because the Black Muslims “articulate the bitterness and resentment of the vast majority of Black Americans, placing the onus of moral depravity where it belongs; on the white man’s culture” (ibid., p. 137). Thus, Haywood noted cogently that “[w]hile it is true that the ghetto bourgeoisie, including the Muslims, are incapable of leading a revolutionary struggle for Black Power, it would be a mistake to equate them with the top assimilationist stratum,” which, “as a stratum, has no revolutionary potential; whereas the ghetto bourgeoisie, when it sees a strong national revolutionary movement with a realistic program, is perfectly capable of throwing its weight as a stratum behind such a movement,” which “is confirmed by the experiences of the 1930’s” (ibid., p. 141). Thus, according to Haywood and Hall, the influence of at least a sector, or selected elements, of the “ghetto bourgeoisie” cannot simply be relegated to that of an aspiring bourgeoisie aimed at exploiting its “ghetto market,” much less its proletariat, and it’s on this sector that Cruse was casting whatever hope he had for black intellectuals, students, activists, specifically, to assume their obligation as social theorists and activists to provide a thematic frame for black revolution in the United States.
The development of black economic autonomy has been a handmaiden of black nationalism since its development in the late eighteenth century, and it is a concomitant of black nationalist consciousness—rather than simply a product of bourgeois tendencies—that reflects an assertion of self-determination in the economic sphere. It is commonly recognized—and was even more so in the Cold War era—as an appropriate focus by/for other colonized people pursuing their national liberation against imperialist domination, and no less importantly as an area of struggle to check neocolonial initiatives that often strike at the postindependence economic systems of newly liberated former colonies. Ironically, for all of Haywood and Hall’s admonition of Cruse that he focuses too readily on the “Old Left,” their main argument against Cruse’s alleged focus on the “ghetto market” relies on an assessment of the salience of competition over the semicolonial market made by Josef Stalin, the epitome of the “Old Left,” based on an analysis from nearly a half-century earlier.
All told, it is evident that Haywood’s claims regarding the revolutionary potential of a sector of the black bourgeoisie were little different than Cruse’s—and potentially no less insightful; however, this suggests that Haywood was guilty of the same charge that he leveled at Cruse. The difference is one of emphasis and objective: Cruse was seeking to provide a theoretical and programmatic compass to direct elements of the black petite bourgeoisie (especially intellectuals, students, artists, and activists) toward a revolutionary objective in concert with a black nationalist–oriented, largely urban, working class in a national liberation struggle for the black domestic colony and, specifically, to develop a framework to guide the CRM along a more revolutionary black nationalist trajectory, one not beholden to either integrationism or what Cruse viewed as a myopic and insufficiently theorized U.S. Marxism promoted by the CPUSA, the Trotskyist Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP), and a variety of “Old Left” formations. In contrast, Haywood’s objective was to tie his favored sector of the ghetto bourgeoisie to a Marxist revolution concentrated in the agricultural South
based upon the most disprivileged sections of the Black population, the vast majority; the workers and the depressed and land hungry agricultural population in the South, the small bourgeoisie and semi proletarian elements of the urban ghettoes: a trend reflecting the basic interests of those masses, their life needs, aspirations, their fighting determination to achieve freedom and human dignity. (p. 143)
In fact, Haywood was prescient in his view that
[a]lready the nucleus of its potential leading cadre is forming among Black industrial workers in the trade unions, the radical section of the petty-bourgeoisie intelligentsia, the youth on the campuses and in the urban ghettoes, and among the left forces in the existing bourgeoisie led organizations and the socialist-oriented left. (ibid.)
Less than a year after this statement, the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) would emerge in Detroit, consisting largely of the groups that Haywood had identified and heralding a short-lived but very influential movement among black industrial workers in the United States, which we’ll examine more fully in chapter 7. But no less prescient was Cruse’s thesis which not only captured the changing orientation toward revolutionary activism among blacks in general, but began to motivate those activists within the CRM and the emergent BPM toward a program of action reflecting those factors and processes he highlighted. As a result, it may be said that Cruse’s thesis, more than that of any single author other than Malcolm, provided the theoretical impetus for the BPM.
Although he appropriated important aspects of Haywood’s Black Belt thesis, Cruse focused less on the rural South and organization among sharecroppers and more on the urban North, and anticipated the rising BPM in the North and West. In fact, Cruse’s framework became the theoretical touchstone for groups such as RAM, which organized throughout the United States taking his thesis as their point of departure. Part of the challenge of these black nationalist initiatives was reflected in Cruse’s emphasis that “the peculiar position of Negro nationalists in the United States require[d] them to set themselves against the dominance of whites and still manage to live in the same country” (p. 95). In this way, Cruse’s assessment evoked Cyril Briggs’s, Haywood’s, and Du Bois’s assertions of the duality of blacks as both Negro and American—a nation within a nation—while it challenged black nationalists to devise social theory and practice that would facilitate their national liberation from a form of domestic colonialism that had no analogy with respect to the historic combination of its form of domination (racial), the demography of domination (imposed by a racial majority on a racial minority), the extent of domination (across the major political, economic, and social institutions of the country), and the setting of the domination (in the most industrialized, economically advanced, and militarily powerful country in the world, in which the racial minority was in diaspora). This peculiar position of African Americans called for a peculiar approach to revolutionary struggle, which Cruse addressed in a subsequent essay of 1963, “Rebellion or Revolution,” in which he put forth the first explicit thesis of black cultural revolution in the United States.
Cruse’s Thesis on Cultural Revolution
The context for Cruse’s thesis of black cultural revolution was his view that what he observed in the 1960s was a continuation of the “crisis” that first became evident in the 1920s and was ushered in by, inter alia, the transformation of the United States into a mass media society. Building on C. Wright Mills’s conception of the “power elite,” Cruse asserted that mass media in the United States was dominated by an increasingly unified and coordinated elite, which controlled it and reduced the public to media markets and U.S. citizens to individuated consumers of mass media, increasingly vulnerable to its manipulation. The development of the United States as a mass society was traceable to the advent of the mass communications media of the post–World War 1 era. For Cruse, it was not surprising that a black cultural renaissance—i.e., the Harlem Renaissance—occurred during this time. It was the development of these mass media that provided the challenges and opportunities for the black intelligentsia to lead a black cultural revolution, which they failed to comprehend, with tragic consequences, which, according to Cruse, reverberated in the CRM and BPM. This development also contributed to the uniqueness of U.S. society, which was the society which had the most extensive mass media, further undermining the relevance of Marxism to U.S. social processes.
Although critical of applications of mechanistic Marxist arguments to the black liberation struggle in the United States, at times Cruse couched his conception of black cultural revolution in a Marxist analogy:
During the 1920’s, the development in America of mass cultural communications media—radio, films, recording industry, and ultimately, television—drastically altered the classic character of capitalism as described by Karl Marx. This new feature very obviously presented new problems (as well as opportunities) for all the anti-capitalistic radicals; problems which they apparently have never appreciated. The capitalist class, according to the Marxists, have the political and economic power through class ownership of all the industrial and technological means of production, to exploit the working class and control opinions through the press. If that be so, then consider the added range and persuasiveness, the augmented class power, the enhanced political control and prerogatives of decision making that result from the new mass communications industry. What happens to the scope of popular democracy when this new technological-electronic apparatus spreads throughout the land, bombarding the collective mind with controlled images? (1967, p. 64)
It was “historically inevitable,” in his view, “that the appearance of the mass communications media would coincide with the era of the American cultural renaissance” (ibid.). He asserted that “if the growth of capitalism creates its opposite—the working class (the Marxian source of class-struggle revolution)—then it is possible to say that the growth of the mass communications media coincided with the appearance of an opposing class-force of radical creative intellectuals” (ibid.).2 Cruse notes that “the radical intellectuals of the 1920s did not complete—or better, follow through on—the revolution they instinctively started out to make: an American cultural revolution for which all the necessary conditions either existed or were coming into existence” (ibid.). Instead of building on African American political, economic, and social trajectories, black intellectuals “imported Russian politics” and Bolshevism to orient their struggle in ways that ultimately confounded both their programs and their relevance. For Cruse,
The Negro intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance could not see the implications of cultural revolution as a political demand growing out of the advent of mass communication media. Having no cultural philosophy of their own, they remained under the tutelage of irrelevant white radical ideas. Thus they failed to grasp the radical potential of their own movement. (1967, p. 65)
Similarly, “the Negro” of the BPM was “the victim of the incompetence of radical social theory and the forty year default of the Negro intelligentsia,” who could neither comprehend the salience of cultural revolution to black liberation, nor devise meaningful strategies for its execution (ibid.).
While Cruse levied a blistering challenge to black intellectuals and activists, his most scathing critique was of white radicals—including Marxists of the Old Left and the New Left—and black Marxists, as well, and of Marxism as a social theory to inform radical change in the United States, especially with its failure to consider the impact of culture on black liberation. At the heart of this dispute was Cruse’s (1967, p. 474) observation that nineteenth-century capitalism was bereft of a key element of its development in the twentieth century: “mass cultural communications,” which he viewed as “a new and unprecedented capitalistic refinement of unheard of social ramifications.” He was emphatic that
Marx never had to deal with this monster of capitalist accumulation. Mass cultural communications is a basic industry, as basic as oil, steel, and transportation, in its own way. Developing along with it, supporting it, and subservient to it, is an organized network of functions that are creative, administrative, propagandistic, educational, recreational, political, artistic, ecnomic and cultural. Taken as a whole this enterprise involves what Mills called the cultural apparatus. Only the blind cannot see that whoever controls the cultural apparatus—whatever class, power group, faction, or political combine—also controls the destiny of the United States and everything in it. (1967, p. 374)
He admonished even those among the “Black Powerites” who would subsequently—and, in this respect, following Cruse—stress the cultural front to focus on the increasingly urban African American culture and “to cease romanticizing Africa and pre-feudal tribalism” (ibid., p. 557), castigating the reverse civilizationists among them whose “readiness . . . to lean heavily on the African past and the African image” he viewed as “nothing but a convenient cover-up for an inability to come to terms with the complex demands of the American reality” (ibid., p. 554).
In “Rebellion or Revolution,” Cruse (1968, p. 101) argued that “the Negro movement at this moment is not a revolutionary movement because it has no present means or program to alter the structural forms of American institutions.” Thus, it was “pure political romanticism” to refer to the CRM as a “revolution” instead of what it was: a “rebellion” against the racial status quo in the United States. He argued that “to transform the Negro rebellion into a movement with revolutionary approaches, ideas, and appeals is an immense intellectual and organizational problem” (1968, p. 107). Revolution in the United States would not follow that which was proposed by Marx through the leadership of the white proletariat, as Cruse made clear in “Revolutionary Nationalism and the Afro-American,” but from the unique historical trajectory of the United States and especially the role of black Americans in it, specifically the experience of blacks in a context of domestic colonialism.
Cruse recognized that black domestic colonialism was not only political and economic, but cultural. While the CRM was challenging the sociopolitical framework of black oppression, namely Jim Crow, it had little direct economic thrust and largely ignored cultural aspects of black oppression. For Cruse, the progression of the CRM from rebellion to revolution required an economic program beyond integration and a cultural thrust that linked the economic program to the political one. Like Du Bois and Locke, Cruse recognized the relationship among political, economic, and cultural democracy, and he wedded them to a strategy to revolutionize the CRM through a program of cultural revolution. He observed that
when other semi-colonials of the colored world rebel against the political and economic subjugation of Western capitalism, it is for the aim of having the freedom to build up their own native industrial bases for themselves. Our American Negro rebellion derives from the fact that we exist side by side with the greatest industrial complex the world has ever seen, which we are not allowed to use democratically for ourselves. Hence, while the Negro rebellion emerges out of the same semi-colonial social conditions of others, it must have different objectives in order to be considered revolutionary. In other words, we must locate the weakest sector of the American capitalist “free enterprise” front and strike there. (1968, p. 110)
Cruse argued that the “weak front in the free-enterprise armor” was “the cultural front”:
Or better, it is that part of the American economic system that has to do with the ownership and administration of cultural communication in America, i.e., film, theater, radio and television, music, performing and publishing, popular entertainment booking, management, etc. In short, it is that part of the system devoted to the economics and aesthetic ideology involved in the cultural arts of America. (ibid., pp. 110–111)
What is critical about this sector is not only that it is a core area from which new ideas, practices, and conceptions of society are projected and distributed, but it is a site where culture and economics mesh in such a way that a focus on the former has the potential to transform the latter. This provides strategic leverage for blacks whose presence as a cultural force is potentially powerful but whose economic capacity is severely atrophied. The cultural revolution Cruse envisioned was
concerned not only with the aesthetics of the form and content of artistic creation in America but also with transforming the economic, institutional, business and administrative organizational apparatus that buys and sells, limits or permits, hires and disposes of, distributes or retains, determines or negates, and profits from the creation and distribution of cultural production in America. (ibid., p. 117)
Cruse is emphatic that “without such a revolution the Negro movement has no point of departure from which to compel the necessary social impact to effect structural changes within the American social system” (ibid.). Moreover,
[s]ince the alliance of white capital and labor obviates any challenge to the economic status quo where the production of basic commodities takes place, the Negro movement must challenge free enterprise at its weakest link in the production chain, where no tangible commodities are produced. This becomes the “economic” aspect of the Negro movement. However, it is the cultural aspect of this problem that is most important in terms of form and content in new revolutionary ideas. (1968, pp. 112–113)
Cruse was implicitly following Locke’s model in focusing on cultural democracy in such a way as to facilitate both economic and political democracy with the aim of realizing racial democracy. Not sanguine about the potential of black labor to effectuate this change—and even less toward the white Herrenvolk proletariat, he sought a cultural factor whose transformation would have immediate economic repercussions because the two were already fused. He borrowed from C. Wright Mills in describing this factor: the cultural apparatus.
In light of the forgoing, Cruse argued that black liberation required, inter alia, “that both the American national psychology and the organization of American cultural institutions be altered to fit the facts of what America really is. Culturally speaking, America is a European-African-Indian racial amalgam—an imperfect and incompletely realized amalgam,” but, “[t]he American national psychology prefers to be regarded as an all-white nation, and the American cultural arts are, therefore, cultivated to preserve and reflect this all-white ideal,” while “[a]ny other artistic expression is regarded as an exotic curiosity” (1968, p. 113). For Cruse, “the American racial problem is a problem of many aspects, but it is essentially a cultural problem of a type that is new in modern history” (ibid.). Crucially, he maintained that “[u]ntil this is intellectually admitted and sociologically practiced, chaotic and retrograde racial practices and conflicts will continue in American society” (ibid.). But, he notes that the centrality of culture in the problem of American race relations “has been overlooked, dismissed, and neglected” by most black intellectuals, who have been “beguiled to think of culture solely in terms of the white Anglo-Saxon ideal, which is the cultural image that America attempts to project to the world” (ibid.). For Cruse, this myopia with respect to the centrality of culture in “the Negro question in America” extends to “the so-called theoreticians and practitioners of sociology and political and social theory” (ibid.). He was emphatic that “[i]f the Negro rebellion is limited by a lack of original social, political and economic ideas to ‘fit the world into a theoretic frame,’ then it is only in the cultural areas of American life that such new ideas can have any social meaning” (ibid., p. 111); therefore, “the only observable way in which the Negro rebellion can become revolutionary in terms of American conditions is for the Negro movement to project the concept of Cultural Revolution in America” (ibid.). According to Cruse, cultural revolution focuses on “revolutionizing the administration, the organization, the functioning, and the social purpose of the entire American apparatus of cultural communication and placing it under public ownership” (ibid., p. 112). Cruse argued that the concept of cultural revolution would afford “the intellectual means, the conceptual framework, the theoretical link that ties together all the disparate, conflicting and contending trends within the Negro movement” and “transform the movement from a mere rebellion into a revolutionary movement” (ibid., p. 112).
For Cruse, the democratic transformations of the political and economic systems “must be preceded by” and were dependent on the democratic transformation of the cultural systems, and the key instrument of the latter was “a thorough democratization (change of ownership) of the mass media and communications systems.” He insisted that “[t]he cultural results will mark the first stages towards a complete democratization of American culture in terms of groups. As the most culturally deprived and retarded ethnic group, the Negro must be educated to raise the level of his mass politics to the point of demanding cultural revolution.” Cruse admitted, however, that there was “much more analysis and research involved in this question” (1968, p. 248). In fact, in his 1957 “An Afro-American’s Cultural Views,” Cruse had argued that “Afro-Americans have sunk to a dismal low point in creative productivity, rapport, and inspiration in every creative field but jazz music” (p. 52), but by 1968’s “Rebellion or Revolution” he expressed a more positive view of the state of black culture—though not of black intellectuals—to such an extent that, for him, black culture could serve as a fulcrum of black revolutionary change in the United States.
Cruse noted that
if we examine the cultural side of the race question in America very closely, we will find that, historically and culturally speaking, the white American Anglo-Saxon cultural ideal of artistic and aesthetic practices is false, predicated as it is on the myth of Western superiority in cultural tradition, and conceals the true facts of native American cultural development. (1968, pp. 113–114)
But this “white American Anglo-Saxon ideal” is primarily European and not American. Expanding on Du Bois’ and Locke’s theses on Aframerican culture, Cruse contends that what is American, in fact, are those prominent aspects of black culture. Cruse is unequivocal on this point, which deserves to be quoted at length:
The historical truth is that it was the Afro-American cultural ingredient in music, dance and theatrical forms (the three forms of art in which America has innovated) that has been the basis for whatever culturally new and unique that has come out of America. Take away the Afro-American tradition of folk-songs, plantation minstrel, spirituals, blues, ragtime, jazz styles, dance forms, and the first Negro theatrical pioneers in musical comedy of the 1890’s down to Sissle and Blake of the 1920’s, and there would be no jazz industry involving publishing, entertainment, recording; there would have been no Gershwins, Rodgers and Hammersteins, Cole Porters or Carmichaels or popular song tradition—which is based on the Negro blues idiom; there would have been no American musical comedy form—which is America’s only original contribution to theater; there would have been no foxtrot—which has formed the basis for American ballroom dancing. . . . In other words, the Afro-American ingredients formed the bases of all “popular culture.” . . . Moreover, since all of these popular art forms comprise those cultural commodities involved in multimillion dollar industries (which exclude or exploit Negroes as much as possible), there is an organic connection in American capitalism between race, culture, and economics. (1968, pp. 114–115)
He adds that there is an authentic American cultural expression, jazz, but since its origins are also in the black community, white America does not promote it as a classical art form because
this would also mean that the Afro-American ethnic minority which originally created the music would have to be culturally glorified and elevated socially, economically and politically. It would mean that the black composer would have to be accepted on this social, cultural, economic, and political level. But this the white American cultural ego would never permit. (ibid., p. 116)
According to Cruse, since the cultural standards and institutions are embedded in the white racist mythology of the United States, then the transformation of U.S. society would have to address these aesthetic and economic dimensions of black oppression. For Cruse (1967, p. 188), the path to “ethnic democratization” in U.S. society was “through its culture,” that is, its “cultural apparatus, which comprises the eyes, the ears and the ‘mind’ of capitalism” in its twentieth-century manifestation. “Thus to democratize the cultural apparatus is to deal fundamentally with the unsolved American question of nationality—Which group speaks for America and for the glorification of which ethnic image?” He was convinced that “[e]ither all group images speak for themselves and for the nation, or American nationality will never be determined” (ibid.). This is because “[i]n America, the materio-economic conditions relate to a societal, multi-group existence in a way never before known in world history” (ibid., pp. 188–189). In this way the condition of the American Negro was sui generis; and it called for a unique form of theorizing for social revolution in such a context. As a point of departure, “Negro intellectuals” had to challenge the “cultural imperialism practiced in all of its manifold ramifications on the Negro within American culture” because “this kind of revolution would have to be predicated on the recognition that the cultural and artistic originality of the American nation is founded, historically, on the ingredients of a black aesthetic and artistic base” (ibid., p. 189). Therefore, targeting the cultural apparatus was essential to the revolutionary change that black Americans sought. Moreover, Cruse contends that “it is precisely the economic spheres of cultural communications in America that must be revolutionized for more humanistic social use before such changes take place in commodity production, political organization or racial democratization” (ibid., p. 117). Such a “peculiar” approach is necessitated for Cruse because capitalism cultivated a new class alliance between white capital and white labor; therefore, the “old Marxian formula of the revolutionary class struggle between capital and labor is passé and obsolescent.” Du Bois (1915) suggested as much in “The African Roots of War” nearly a half-century earlier. For Cruse (1968, p. 117), it follows that “any theory of social revolution must be modernized with a new set of ideas, coming not from the whites . . . but from the colored races.”
Cruse fleshed out the relationship between culture and politics, as well as between culture and economics, the latter evident in the economic aspects of cultural exploitation. He notes that
in America the entire industry of popular music writing, publishing, and selling was established by white appropriation of the whole body of Afro-American folk music—the only original music in America with a broad human appeal. This music has been cheapened, debased and commercialized for popular appeal.
He adds that
the American music industry has been exploiting, cheating, stealing from, browbeating, excluding, plagiarizing Negro singers, jazz musicians, composers, etc., for decades and getting away with it. The cultural exploitation established by white America in the early years of the twentieth century by the white appropriation of Afro-American folk-music was the first great manifestation of the racist development in the economics of American culture. This racist cultural doctrine, once established in music, spread through the entire field of cultural expression in America. (1968, p. 119)
This led Cruse to conclude that “the Negro revolution can be economic, social, political, administrative, or racial in form, but it must be cultural in content.” He is emphatic that
if it is not cultural in content it is not revolutionary, but a mere rebellion without ideas “to fit the world in a theoretic frame.” It is only the cultural needs of the Negro that coincide with or are complementary to the main humanistic need that goes unfulfilled in America despite this country’s economic and administrative achievements—the need for a thriving, creative, humanistically progressive national culture. (ibid., p. 121)
Many critics of Cruse’s thesis—especially Marxist and neo-Marxist critics—failed to appreciate, or were out of touch with, the prospects of independent African American cultural development or the increasing salience of black culture in black liberation strategies at home. American Marxists, in particular, having eschewed the use of free enterprise processes in black liberation, misunderstood the salience of Cruse’s thesis aimed at providing blacks the economic wherewithal to finance their independent CRM initiatives and provide a supportive context for their theorizing on liberation as well as their practical attempts to achieve it.3 With respect to the latter, following Du Bois, Cruse saw it necessary to complete the bourgeois democratic revolution that had been aborted by the “counter-revolution of property” that ended Reconstruction. He thought that this should not be surprising to American Marxists, drawing from Lenin’s admonitions after the 1905 Russian Revolt in “Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution” that in colonial and semicolonial countries “the working class suffers not so much from capitalism as from the lack of capitalist development.” Cruse agreed that the Negro working class suffering under domestic colonialism in the United States “is therefore interested in the widest, freest and the speediest development of capitalism” (p. 236). Thus, “[t]he removal of all the remnants of the old order which are hampering the wide, free, and speedy development of capitalism is of absolute advantage to the working class” (ibid.). Further quoting from Lenin, he notes:
The bourgeois revolution is precisely such a revolution. . . . Therefore, the bourgeois revolution is in the highest degree advantageous to the proletariat. . . . The more complete, determined and consistent the bourgeois revolution is, the more secure will the proletarian struggle against the bourgeoisie and for socialism become. Such a conclusion may appear new, or strange, or even paradoxical only to those who are ignorant of the rudiments of scientific socialism. (ibid.)
This goes to the heart of the black freedom struggle in the United States and especially the call for black power, because “[w]hen we speak of Negro social disability under capitalism . . . we refer to the fact that he does not own anything—even what is ownable in his own community” (ibid., p. 238). Cruse adds,
Thus to fight for black liberation is to fight for the right to own. The Negro is politically compromised today because he owns nothing. He can exert little political power because he owns nothing. He has little voice in the affairs of state because he owns nothing. The fundamental reason why the Negro bourgeois-democratic revolution has been aborted is because American capitalism has prevented the development of a black class of capitalist owners of institutions and economic tools. (ibid., pp. 238–239)
Negro radicals today are severely hampered in their tasks of educating the black masses on political issues because Negroes do not own any of the necessary means of propaganda and communications. The Negro owns no printing presses, he has no stake in the networks of the means of communication. Inside his own communities he does not own the houses he lives in, the property he lives on, nor the wholesale and retail sources from which he buys his commodities. He does not own the edifices in which he enjoys culture and entertainment, or in which he socializes. In capitalist society, an individual or group that does not own anything is powerless. In capitalist society, a group that has not experienced the many sides of capitalistic development, that has not learned the techniques of business ownership, or the intricacies of profit and loss, or the responsibilities of managing even small or medium enterprise, has not been prepared in the social disciplines required to transcend the functional limitations of the capitalist order. Thus, to paraphrase Lenin, it is not that the Negro suffers so much from capitalism in America, but from a lack of capitalist development. (ibid., p. 239)
Thus, Cruse was confronting an important aspect of the lived concreteness of the black experience of economic privation, which black revolutionaries similarly had to contend with while simultaneously challenging the political and social basis of their oppression; and this required both the development of the politico-economic capabilities of black communities through extant structures and institutions of the broader society—i.e., community control or “black power”—as well as, and pursuant to, the development of black politico-economic power to overturn the broader systems of their oppression. The key linking these processes in the domestic colonial context was the cultural system, which blacks could exhibit greater influence on and leverage against their relative political and economic weakness—in terms of the broader society. In Cruse’s rendering, the attack on the cultural front entails both an aesthetic and material thrust through the development and extension of the cultural apparatus of the black community against the institutions of white culture-economic power within both black America and U.S. society more broadly. Thus, like Du Bois, Cruse cast black intellectuals and the black bourgeoisie in their “historic roles” on the cultural front—but mainly as conduits or purveyors of black mass interests in conjunction with the black proletariat in pursuit of black national development. There was no vanguardism in Cruse’s analysis privileging either black intellectuals or the black bourgeoisie, but only a recognition of the atrophy of the former with respect to their responsibility to articulate a theory of black liberation, and the failure of the latter to assume the historic role of national bourgeoisies in capitalist development.
The black bourgeoisie, for Cruse, was not a national bourgeoisie but a “lumpenbourgeoisie,” “with no political consciousness whatsoever as being a bourgeoisie” (Cobb, 2002, p. 292). By implication, the relationships between this black bourgeoisie and its proletariat—and peasantry, for that matter—do not reflect the class antagonisms that Marxism suggests because they are not classes in the Marxist sense. With respect to the black lumpenbourgeoisie, given that it’s not a class either in itself or for itself—in Marxist terms, then, sectors within it may be brought within an amalgamation with black proletarians, and even lumpenproletarians—toward revolutionary objectives. In this context, the broad black working class, including a prominent peasantry in the South, advocated and pursued black nationalist practices to confront domestic colonialism—often in alignment with sectors of the black petite bourgeoisie (e.g., some intellectuals, religious leaders, college students, leaders of voluntary organizations, and small shop owners and businesspersons),4 but this path, which was self-evident to black nationalists such as Cruse, was poorly understood or theorized by many Marxist, liberal, and integrationist analysts of the CRM and BPM.
So, while important aspects of Cruse’s thesis converged with those of Du Bois, Locke, and Haywood, it transcended them as well, and many analysts have failed to appreciate its profundity. First, Cruse’s call for democratizing the cultural apparatus should be seen in the context of his attempt to expand the CRM to include economic and cultural initiatives aimed at achieving black power. Thus, one might envision an initiative of CRM organizations such as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and/or the predominantly black National Lawyers’ Guild to support class action lawsuits undertaken by black artists—former jazz composers, blues singers, soul artists, rock and roll performers, songwriters, background vocalists, session musicians—cheated out of their cultural production by white managers, club owners, record company executives, publishing companies, and radio station managers organized with the aim of recouping the rights, royalties, residuals, earnings, and profits stolen from them through usurious contracts and unfair labor practices across decades. This initiative would be accompanied by targeted and coordinated protests of these institutions, industries and their events by movement activists, organizations and their allies. The use of a portion of the monetary awards to underwrite the budget of civil rights organizations from black funders, who would be partially beholden to them—since the latter would have provided the legal assistance to secure the funds—would have compensated for the defunding of major CRM organizations, such as SNCC and CORE, which resulted in large part from their clearing their membership rolls of whites as they were transitioning from civil rights to black power. Thus, a strategy grounded in Cruse’s thesis—which he proffered prior to the onset of the BPM in 1965 and the proclamation of “black power” by SNCC in 1966—was timely.
Second, pursuit of Cruse’s program would have imparted to the black community an independent institutional capacity to project a black aesthetic, such as espoused by BAM. One result was that such institutions might have emerged much earlier during the CRM, encouraging its cultural phase that helped usher in the more revolutionary BPM, as well as supporting incipient BPM organizations and institutions. In so doing, it would also raise the contradictions between those white liberals and radicals who previously positioned themselves as allies, and those more determined to support black liberation on its own terms. These contradictions would be unavoidable given the reality that black contribution to American popular culture was unassailable and the role of blacks in creating this cultural product self-evident, making challenges to white supremacism on this front both popular and profound, as well as immensely remunerative.
These “cultural compulsives” as Cruse framed them (borrowing from V. F. Calverton) were even more imperative given the demands of black power. Cruse (1968, p. 246) was emphatic that “without a cultural philosophy (or methodology) suitable for radical politics within the interracial context of American realities,” then “[i]t is impossible to organize the Negro masses around the political or economic reforms of black power.” Therefore, he adds,
In the same way that the Nation of Islam used religion to bind Negroes together into a social and economic movement (without politics), the secular black radical movement must use the cultural ingredient in black reality to bind Negroes into a mass movement with economics and politics. This has to be done through a cultural program that makes demands for cultural equality on American society. Without cultural equality there can be no economic and political equality. (1968, p. 247)
Given that the Anglo-Saxon Protestant group in its “aesthetics, content, and forms of cultural expression, and its ideology dominates the philosophy of its cultural institutions” and through this “sets the cultural standards for all other groups”—even while its “levels of creative originality sinks lower and lower”—then, “the deepening racial crisis in America exerts a profound stress on established value-systems involved in group cultural identity” (ibid.). In light of this, Cruse observed that “[f]rom within the black movement arises a renewed thrust toward cultural identity as expressed through the art forms.” Thus, “For the Negro, social revolution is impossible without a cultural revolution.” Cruse asserts that “a cultural revolution in America cannot come as an after-product of a political and economic revolution,” which Cruse viewed as “a foreign historical scheme of social progress” (ibid.); instead, in the United States, cultural revolution was required to “open . . . up the path to radical social change by removing certain roadblocks within the system which are barriers against political and economic transformations,” and “[t]his require[d] a special analysis of the political and economic role of mass media and communication systems within the American industrial complex” (ibid., pp. 247–248).
The failure to appreciate the salience of Cruse’s thesis was especially evident in the controversy surrounding the draft platform of the Freedom Now Party (FNP). It was not fully fleshed out and its import was largely lost on some of the leadership of the FNP. The platform included a section devoted to cultural revolution, written by Cruse, which suggested the need to inculcate a cultural program into the civil rights struggle to provide a nexus between integrationist and nationalist tendencies in the CRM. It sought to bring “cultural affairs into politics for the first time” and to include “the Negro creative artists and performer—the singer, dancer, writer, dramatist, poet, musician (jazz and classical), actor, composer” as full participants in the liberation struggle (pp. 4–5). It argued for the nationalization (i.e., “placing under public administration”) of “all major systems of cultural and mass communication in America.” It supported boycotts of cultural outlets such as theaters; and the promotion of Negro creative arts through “theater groups, writing groups, dance groups, acting groups, Negro and African historical and cultural groups, etc.” (ibid., p. 5). Even as a draft platform it anticipated BAM, which would emerge a year later, and Malcolm X’s and RAM’s advocacy of cultural revolution in 1964, the creation of Baraka’s Black Arts Repertory Theater and School (BARTS) in Harlem (which is often viewed as ushering in BAM) in 1965; and the founding of Us in Los Angeles in 1965, which was the group most closely associated with a program of cultural revolution, though one quite different from that which Cruse proposed.
Third, and on a theoretical level, Cruse’s thesis dovetailed with Du Bois’s and Locke’s insofar as it focused on how cultural democracy—democratizing the cultural apparatus of U.S. society—by making demands on the state for cultural resources would be politicized and generate economic resources from cultural production, distribution, and consumption as well. These efforts would be consonant with the specific trajectory of development of blacks in different urban areas emerging from their particular migratory traditions and embedded in the political economies of their distinctive urban contexts (Cruse, 1971abc). Just as importantly, Cruse promoted a vision of black America—and black Americans—as the central revolutionary change agent in U.S. society, rejecting Marxists’ reliance on a Herrenvolk proletariat to transcend its white supremacism and assume its “rightful place” and its “historic mission” as the vanguard of revolutionary change in the United States.
Ironically, given Cruse’s trenchant critique of Marxism, aspects of his argument that black liberation necessitated a cultural revolution in the United States dovetailed with James Boggs’s contemporaneous neoMarxist thesis of dialectical humanism. In the next section, we explore some of the contributions of Boggs’s thesis to our understanding of black cultural revolution.
Boggs’s Dialectical Humanism and Black Cultural Revolution in the CRM
James and Grace Lee Boggs made important contributions to black revolutionary theory dating back to the 1940s. James was an African American auto worker and Grace was a Chinese American philosophy PhD who were linked initially through their association with C. L. R. James to Trotskyism, but abandoned their alliance with him over many of the issues Cruse had been struggling with in his interaction with the CPUSA, namely, the implications of third world revolutions, and the black revolt in the United States in particular, for the Marxist view of the vanguard role of white workers. Like Cruse, the Boggses agreed that the white Western proletariat had abrogated its assumed alliance with revolutionary forces in the periphery, just as the white proletariat opposed black workers—and much of the CRM—in the United States. Like Cruse and Haywood, the Boggses viewed the CRM and the incipient BPM as analogous to revolts in the third world and acknowledged that these movements generated a similar recalcitrance if not outright hostility on the part of both white American workers as well as capitalists. They were concerned, however, that to the extent that the black freedom movement was the locus of political struggle in the United States, then its revolutionary potential was hamstrung by the lack of proletarian consciousness among movement leaders, as well as white workers. That is, as black workers—along with students, and even members of the black petite bourgeoisie—manned the ramparts of the black freedom movement, white workers in the United States had abrogated their class interests in favor of their racist interests and aligned with their management through their conciliatory labor unions, as well as their white bourgeoisie, to maintain the systems of white supremacism.
At the core of James Boggs’s (1963) thesis was that advanced industrial capitalism was increasingly making traditional workers in heavy industry—and its ancillary sectors—obsolete. This was occurring in a broader context in which capitalists were utilizing automation and cybernation, which allowed them to exact enormous profits through increased efficiency while depleting the ranks of workers and making them “unemployable”—and many of these were black. Boggs saw this phase of capitalist development as a “cybercultural revolution,” which by eliminating workers was removing the factory floor as a site for developing proletarian consciousness—a key to the revolutionary process that Marxists theorized. This required a rethinking of Marxism for Boggs; thus, in his 1963 essay, “The Meaning of the Black Revolt in the USA,” published in Revolution and circulated widely among young activists, Boggs introduced his dialectical humanism thesis.
Boggs, like Cruse, sought a theory and program of social change to synthesize the strains in the CRM and incipient BPM and send them on a more revolutionary trajectory. Boggs agreed that there was little hope of a multiracial proletarian revolution given the persistent and virulent racism of white workers, and he also focused on structural factors that precluded a Marxist revolution in the United States. They both argued that the unique context of the United States necessitated a novel theory of social change, and Boggs proposed his dialectical humanism as such a framework. Importantly for our analysis, Boggs’s thesis converged with aspects of Cruse’s cultural revolution thesis that they were proposing around the same time and, briefly, in the same organization, the FNP.
Boggs published his thesis in a slim volume, The American Revolution (1963), which heavily influenced RAM. He argued that automation and cybernation had so transformed the U.S. economy and altered the social relations that devolved from them that the basis of working-class solidarity had been undermined. This development outpaced any mechanical application of Marxism to the condition of U.S. workers, the U.S. bourgeoisie, and especially black Americans, placing the developing black revolt—and our understanding of social revolution in the United States—within a unique history that required a unique revolutionary strategy. Given that, at minimum, the vanguard role in socialist revolution in the United States had passed to black Americans engaged in the “Negro revolt,” then, their praxis should provide guideposts for the nascent theory—a position that converged with Cruse’s, but diverged slightly from Haywood’s. It is important to remember that Haywood viewed race as a misleading category employed to obscure the national oppression of blacks—both black workers and the black bourgeoisie—and draw attention away from its other class elements, while Boggs adopted the more prominent Marxist view at the time of blacks as “workers,” albeit objecting that “American Marxists have always thought of the working class as white and have themselves discriminated against Negroes by hesitating to recognize them as workers” (1963, p. 85). Moreover, even as he acknowledged this more “traditional” view, Boggs extracted from it a novel theoretical exposition.
In his view, “American Marxists have tended to fall into the trap of thinking of the Negroes as Negroes, i.e. in race terms, when in fact the Negroes have been and are today the most oppressed and submerged sections of the workers, on whom has fallen most sharply the burden of unemployment due to automation” (ibid., p. 85). Up to this point, Boggs’s contention was not inconsistent with that of mainstream U.S. Marxists of the time and their main point that “[t]he Negroes have more economic grievances than any other section of American society” (ibid.). From there, Boggs drew the important inference:
But in a country with the material abundance of the United States, economic grievances alone could not impart to their struggles all their revolutionary impact. The strength of the Negro cause and its power to shake up the social structure of the nation comes from the fact that in the Negro struggle all the questions of human rights and human relationships are posed. (1963, p. 85)
For Boggs, “It is the Negroes who represent the revolutionary struggle for a classless society,” one much different from “the classless society of American folklore,” which entails individuals and groups advancing socially by exploiting “newcomers at the bottom”—a process from which Negroes had been excluded (ibid., pp. 85–86). According to Boggs,
It is this exclusion which has given the Negro struggle for a classless society its distinctive revolutionary character. For when the Negroes struggle for a classless society, they struggle that all men may be equal, in production, in consumption, in the community, in the courts, in the schools, in the universities, in transportation, in social activity, in government, and indeed in every sphere of American life. (ibid., p. 86)
Boggs is emphatic that “the crisis in the United States today and the corresponding momentum of the Negro struggle are such that it is obvious that Negroes are not going to consult whites, workers or not workers, before taking action” (ibid.), and he concludes that “[t]he chief need for all Americans is to recognize these facts and to be ready to take bold action along with Negroes, recognizing that the Negroes are the growing revolutionary force in the country, and that just as capitalist production has created new methods of production and new layers of workers, it has also produced new Negroes” (ibid.; emphasis added).
Boggs saw the CRM and the incipient BPM as struggling to develop a clear strategy and a theory to guide them. Drawing on a range of methods from “non-violent resistance, violent resistance, moral suasion, economic boycotts, sit-ins, stand-ins, etc.” (1963, p. 87), activists were realizing that the “major lesson that these struggles had taught” them “was that they lacked ‘political power’ ” (ibid.). He noted that “[u]p to now it has been unnatural for the Negroes to think in terms of black political power,” but this has changed “and nobody knows this better than the whites” (ibid.). Thus, in 1963, well before the more famous articulation of “black power” by Stokely Carmichael on a road in Greenwood, Mississippi, in 1966 and the publication of Black Power a year later, James Boggs made a theoretical argument on the importance of “black political power” in the United States. He asserted that “[t]he struggle for black political power is a revolutionary struggle because, unlike the struggle for white power, it is the climax of a ceaseless struggle on the part of Negroes for human rights” (ibid.).
This analysis was only the point of departure for Boggs’s broader theoretical argument on revolutionary change in the United States, which for him needed to appreciate the unique context of the U.S. political economy and the military-industrial complex that reinforced it and through which it projected its power abroad. A key transformation in the U.S. political economy, which Boggs focused on, was the increasing obsolescence of much labor-intensive work—especially in heavy industry (e.g., automotive, steel, mining). Boggs viewed automation as “the greatest revolution that has taken place in human society since men stopped hunting and fishing and started to grow their own food” (1963, p. 38). He noted that automation was “capable of displacing as many productive workers from the work force as have been brought into the work force since the invention of the automobile at the beginning of this century” (ibid.). Boggs emphasized that although there is nothing new about the capacity of automation to replace workers, “[w]hat is new is that now, unlike most earlier periods, the displaced men have nowhere to go” (ibid., p. 36). That is, unlike “farmers displaced by mechanization of the farms in the 20’s,” who “could go to the cities and man the assembly lines,” the automation generating what would become known as the postindustrial era was occurring “when industry has already reached the point that it can supply consumer demand” (ibid.). Boggs went so far as to argue that “[w]ithin a few years, man as a productive force will be as obsolete as the mule” (ibid., p. 47).Boggs was acknowledging in 1963 what analysts such as Bluestone (1984) would later refer to as “deindustrialization,” which was part of the transformation of the U.S. political economy from an industrial to a service economy and the subsequent displacement of workers, as had occurred earlier in the transformation of the U.S. economy from a largely agricultural to a more industrial society. Labor surpluses resulted from the “creative destruction” of capitalism as workers in jobs and sectors outmoded by innovations in technology, transportation, and communication, especially, were displaced by the advances and investments—and the efficiencies and dislocations related to them—that characterized the new era. For Boggs, the issue of “what to do with the surplus people who are the expendables of automation” was increasingly critical, because “[t]hese millions have never been and never can be absorbed into this society at all” (1963, p. 36) and New Deal programs to provide employment for them through labor-intensive projects were no longer practicable (ibid., p. 50). With only a few remaining workers from the earlier era of industrial production “whom capitalism can continue to employ in production at a pace killing enough to be profitable,” the rest were tantamount to “refugees or displaced persons” for whom “there is no way for capitalism to employ them profitably” (ibid., p. 36). Instead, capitalists would be compelled to “feed them rather than be fed by them,” which would put an additional strain on the welfare state—even as the warfare state was expanding (ibid.). He saw growing hordes of unemployable workers “becoming a tremendous drain on the whole working population, and creating a growing antagonism between those who have jobs and those who do not” (ibid.). The resulting “antagonism in the population between those who have to be supported and those who have to support them is one of the inevitable antagonisms of capitalism,” which ultimately “will create one of the deepest crises for capitalism in our age” (ibid.).
For Boggs, the crisis would pit “not only the employed against the unemployed but those who propose that the unemployed be allowed to starve to death rather than continue as such a drain on the public against those who cannot stand by and see society degenerate into such barbarism,” which is not a crisis in strictly class terms (ibid., p. 37). Seen in this light, according to Boggs,
automation is that stage of production which carries the contradictions of capitalism to their furthest extreme . . . [b]ecause when you add to those who are daily being displaced from the plant the millions who have never even had a chance to work inside a plant, what you have is no longer just the unemployed and the castaways, but a revolutionary force or army of outsiders and rejects who are totally alienated from this society. (1963, pp. 38, 50)
Blacks were the most prominent of these outsiders, disproportionately among the unemployed, typically the last hired, first fired, constituting a core of the unskilled labor easily displaced by automation, lacking the relative job security of seniority even in the salaried trades soon to lose out from cybernation; in fact, they were a national racial underclass. Boggs viewed these “outsiders” as representing a “new generation” of “workless people,” who “owe no allegiance to any system but only to themselves,” and “[b]eing workless, they are also stateless. They have grown up like a colonial people who no longer feel any allegiance to the old imperial power and are each day searching for new means to overthrow it” (ibid., p. 52). The “outsiders” would need to be organized—either by themselves or by others—much as Fanon had argued for the lumpenproletariat previously, and the Black Panther Party (BPP) would three years later. Boggs added that “the revolution which is within these people will have to be a revolution of their minds and hearts, directed not toward increasing production but toward the management and distribution of things and toward the control of relations among people, tasks which up to now have been left to chance or in the hands of an elite” (ibid.). This insight provided the point of departure for Boggs’s dialectical humanism.
Dialectical humanism was a response to the necessities of the era of the “cybercultural revolution,” in which revolutionists could not rely on the further economic immiseration of workers to compel social revolution—as dialectical materialism assumed—because capitalism in the United States had progressed to a level of production and coordination of the economic sphere such that even the poor could have most of their material needs met. The welfare state had expanded and capitalists learned to both facilitate a modicum of economic progress for the broader society while coopting organized labor interests, and through the media promoting an ideologically rooted message of the obtainability of the American Dream in terms of superficial democracy and the accumulation of material goods (e.g., a job, a house, and a car). Even for blacks, the welfare state was a marked advance over previous conditions of privation—and this was before the Great Society programs of President Lyndon B. Johnson. Thus, for Boggs, the necessity of “dialectical humanism reflects the fact that in this era of capitalist development the burning question is how to create the kind of human responsibility in the distribution of material abundance that will allow everyone to enjoy and create the values of humanity” (1970, p. 18). That is, revolution in the United States would have to be political, economic, and—given the centrality of transformative values—cultural.
Grace Boggs reflected in her autobiography that by the early 1960s James Boggs had worked through the contradictions of a strict application of Marxist analyses to the issues of revolution in the United States, and he had concluded that “[i]n order to make an American revolution . . . all Americans, including workers and blacks or the most victimized” would have to “transform themselves,” since “[b]eing a victim of oppression in the United States . . . is not enough to make you revolutionary” (1998, pp. 151–152) because “the oppressed internalize the values of the oppressor”; thus, “any group that achieves power, no matter how oppressed, is not going to act differently from their oppressors as long as they have not confronted the values that they have internalized and consciously adopted different values” (ibid., p. 152). It followed that “[i]f those victimized by capitalist exploitation are not necessarily revolutionary . . . then the role of revolutionists is profoundly different from that which radicals have played.” That is, the role of revolutionists “cannot just be to rub raw the sores of discontent in order to get oppressed masses to rebel”; instead, “revolutionists have a responsibility to create strategies to transform ourselves as well as the victims of oppression into human beings who are more advanced in the qualities that distinguish human beings; creativity, consciousness, self-consciousness, and a sense of political and social responsibility” (ibid.). In language consonant with conceptions of cultural revolution, Grace Boggs continued that if
those who need to make a revolution also need to transform themselves into more socially responsible, more self critical human beings, then our role as revolutionists is to involve them in activities that are self-transforming and structure-transforming, exploring and trying to resolve in theory and practice fundamental questions of human life more complex than anything Marx could possibly have dreamed of. (1998, p. 156)
These fundamental questions include:
“What kind of an economy, what kind of technology would serve both human and economic needs? What kind of transformation do we need in our values, institutions, and behavior to reconnect us with the rhythms and processes of nature? . . . What is the difference between needs and wants? How do we meet people’s psychic hungers? What does it mean to care? What is the purpose of education? How do we create community? . . . Why is community a revolutionary idea? How do communities start?” . . . For a revolutionary organization to talk about revolution and call for revolution without grappling with these questions would be the height of irresponsibility. (ibid., p. 156)
These are issues as much of cultural transformation as political or economic transformation, however, the Boggses had difficulty articulating a thesis that projected a clear mechanism for the transformation they envisioned, nor did they seem to appreciate a developmental role for black culture in the revolution they sought. For example, contrary to Grace Lee Boggs’s assertion that the role of revolutionists “cannot just be to rub raw the sores of discontent in order to get oppressed masses to rebel,” at the end of the 1960s James Boggs’s focus was still on “organizing the struggles around the concrete grievances of the masses” (1969, p. 32) and “the constant worsening of the conditions of the masses” (ibid., p. 33). By the mid-1970s, the Boggses replaced their assertion of the need for a black vanguard party with a similar assertion of the need for an American vanguard party. Only in the 1980s would they abandon the notion that a particular group was inherently predisposed toward revolution (though they did not abandon their faith in the vanguard party, or an impending revolution), but during the BPM they restlessly sought this revolutionary vanguard.5
Along with Cruse’s thesis, dialectical humanism contributed to the theoretical orientation of the earliest organizations explicitly focused on cultural revolution in the 1960s, particularly RAM. Where Cruse targeted the cultural apparatus of United States society, the Boggses conceived a black revolution oriented more to the organization of the cities, as the factories had been decades earlier in order to seize their productive capacity and utilize their resources to project their broader revolutionary struggle. Further, where Cruse emphasized black cultural revolution, the Boggses tended to dismiss black culture as a meaningful change agent, although they were convinced of the importance of cultural values in political revolution. Without a clear theoretical compass by which to orient their thesis on black revolution, the Boggses argued that revolutionary activity itself would generate the requisite culture that would help transform black society. James Boggs asserted this functionalist approach by no later than 1967 in his “Black Power a Scientific Concept,” in which he argued that “[e]very revolution creates a new culture out of the process of revolutionary struggle against the old values and culture which an oppressing society has sought to impose upon the oppressed” (1970, p. 58). He claimed that “no past culture ever created a revolution,” and emphasized that “[t]he uniqueness of Black Power stems from the specific historical development of the United States,” which “has nothing to do with any special moral virtue in being black” nor any “special cultural virtues of the African heritage” (ibid.).
Boggs’s view of “spontaneous cultural generation” was ahistorical and it ignored the need to ground black revolutionary activity in a cultural thrust to ensure a humanistic process toward and following revolutionary victory.6 By the mid-1960s, he had replaced the “outsiders” with the “street force” as the revolutionary vanguard. Not surprisingly, by the mid-1970s, in his Manifesto for a Black Revolutionary Party, Boggs abandoned the view that the street force was “the vanguard,” arguing instead that it had “degenerated into a mob of individualists, preying on one another and on other members of the community” (1969, pp. iii–iv)—succumbing, Boggs alleges, to a “slave” or “victim mentality.” Nevertheless, Boggs didn’t abandon vanguardism, arguing, “Blacks are potentially the most revolutionary social force in the United States” (ibid., p. vii). What is surprising is not that the “street force” remained “lumpen” but that theorists such as Boggs privileged them in their analysis, especially given his proximity to Malcolm and appreciating Malcolm’s contention that without cultural transformation and disciplined training, the lumpenproletariat were not even prepared to participate in—much less lead—political struggle for black liberation. Cruse (1967) took a much less sanguine view of the street force as a transformative agent and relied less on Marxist notions of an impending, almost inevitable black revolution to guide his theorizing on the black liberation struggle, but, beholden to a Marxist teleology and a preoccupation with designating a “vanguard” for a revolution that Marxists sought with almost millenarian earnest, Boggs infused disparate elements of the black unemployed, underemployed, and lumpenproletariat with an orientation toward systemic transformation that was as detached from their actual circumstances and the progressive change taking place within black communities as the orthodox Marxism that he had recently chastised for the same.7
Beyond the historical or theoretical merits of his position on the “street force,” Boggs seemed to ignore the cultural—not simply the political or economic—context in which such a force would emerge and its “revolutionary” objectives would become formulated and pursued. Boggs provided little insight into the process by which this revolutionary culture would develop, either through reasoned supposition or historical allusion. Even as he asserted the importance of blacks in this process, he failed to appreciate the relevance of black culture to the liberation struggle he envisioned. Instead, he often appealed to stereotypical notions of black culture and viewed cultural theorists and activists as preoccupied with kings and queens of African antiquity with little relevance to an urbanized community in the most powerful country in the world (e.g., his 1967 “Culture and Black Power”), which applied at best to some marginal elements in the black liberation struggle, but certainly not to the major theorists and activists of black cultural revolution. Such a myopic view ignored more mature theses on the relevance of cultural transformation as a change agent in black communities dating back to Du Bois and Locke or as recent as Robeson’s arguments that wedded African culture to socialism, or Malcolm X’s explicit advocacy of black cultural revolution in 1964, and of course, Cruse’s, which he had been aware of since they worked together in the FNP in 1964.8 This shortcoming with respect to appreciating the salience of black culture left Boggs’s thesis largely untethered to the black community for which he was attempting to fashion a black revolution. In fact, black urban working-class (i.e., “proletarian”) culture provided the only meaningful “countercultural” logic to which a black “street force” could ground itself and project a coherent image of social transformation. The caricature of black culture in Boggs’s thesis, in light of his view of the political bankruptcy of many of the established political, economic, and social institutions in black America and the upper and middle classes that they benefited, meant that the only indigenous institutions in the black community from which the street force could cull its revolutionary culture were those of the lumpenproletariat, which is at odds with Boggs’s (1970, pp. 180–190) subsequent critique of the Black Panther Party in “The American Revolution: Putting Politics in Command.”
It is with respect to this issue of culture that Boggs’s thesis would have profited from engagement with Cruse’s because Boggs didn’t seem to realize that the source of the humanism in his dialectical humanism was largely cultural; and the only meaningful source of it was the transformative black culture that was motivating much of the radical political change unfolding around him in the CRM and BPM.
This should not be viewed as a broader dismissal of black culture on the part of the Boggses since both were friends with many activist black artists and performers throughout the CRM and BPM and for decades after, including Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, among many others, hosting them in their home on the east side of Detroit. It’s all the more surprising that they didn’t integrate black culture into their broader analyses. Its difficult to determine whether the public conflict between Boggs and Cruse on the latter’s proposed cultural revolution resolution for the FNP platform in 1964 might have been symptomatic of—or simply contributed to—the Boggses distancing themselves from black cultural theses.9 Ironically, while marginalizing just about any progressive role for black culture, Boggs lauded Chinese culture, which he saw wedded to power even as Mao’s disastrous Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was wreaking havoc in China, and the Han Chinese continued to dominate non-Han Chinese in the “people’s” republic (e.g. Uighurs, Tibetans, and Mongols). Boggs continued to praise Mao’s Cultural Revolution even as the repression and excesses of Mao’s “Red Guards” became apparent in the West. In fact, as late as their Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century, which was published in 1974 after Mao’s rapprochement with Richard Nixon, James and Grace Lee Boggs lavished praise on Mao’s regime while ignoring or rationalizing the brutal excesses of the Cultural Revolution that Mao unleashed on Chinese society from 1966 to his death in 1976. Totally incongruous with the Boggses’ conception of this period as an expression of “boldness without parallel in human history” (1974, p. 76), it was a needless bloodletting and disruption of Chinese society intended to rally support to a politically weakened Mao after his disastrous socioeconomic policies of the Great Leap Forward. It promoted a cult of personality around Mao to reestablish his governmental authority against potential opposition. Mao used children and teenagers (i.e., the Red Guards) to prosecute some of the worst crimes and excesses of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. The Cultural Revolution encouraged the same type of revolutionary utopianism, internecine violence, ideological purity, and blind allegiance to cultish leadership that the Boggses excoriated—and appropriately so—when espoused and practiced by black activists in the United States such as the BPP or white activists such as the Weather Underground. Nevertheless, they asserted the usefulness of this tragic episode in Mao’s China to inform the BPM, but somehow found little worthwhile in African American culture to project a more germane, humane, and instructive program of action, especially given the stated objective of their dialectical humanism: to create a more human human being. In fact, it is hard to imagine a worse contemporary model to draw on with respect to African American political struggle in the era.
While praising China’s cultural revolution, Boggs dismissed black culture as a source of revolutionary change, instead offering a counterthesis in his “The City Is the Black Man’s Land,” which modified Malcolm’s emphasis on land as the basis of independence by discarding the RNA’s conception of separate black statehood and rejecting Haywood’s stress on black rural communities of the black South, which Boggs viewed as arcane given black urbanization in the South, focusing instead on urban blacks in the industrial centers in the North and West. He argued that black activists focusing on the land aspect of Malcolm’s thesis should instead attempt to gain control of the major agencies of city government to utilize the resources these institutions command to promote the political, economic, and social development of black communities. Thus, Boggs suggested the importance of the development of parallel institutions to serve black urban communities in the interim as they sought to capture city and county agencies, but, unlike Cruse’s thesis, Boggs’s relied less on the role of black cultural institutions and instead on a coalition of black workers, students, youths, and political leaders jointly pursuing this strategy. Although he was an auto worker, Boggs did not take a sanguine view, initially, of black radical organization of auto workers in the plants, such as was emerging among those who would create the League of Revolutionary Black Workers (LRBW). Convinced as he was that the days of in-plant organization were gone, given the influence of automation and cybernation, he encouraged workers to organize the cities as the plants had been organized in the 1930s.
Like Boggs—and Du Bois and Locke before him—Cruse (1971b, p. 30) understood the importance of the cities in the BPM and acknowledged this in part toward a critique of theses such as Boggs’s “The City Is the Black Man’s Land,” which, he viewed, “commit one fundamental error . . . common to all Black analysts of Black city problems—they treat these different Black cities as if they were all alike simply because they are all black.” The latter point seemed to open Cruse (1967) to criticism given that his expanded thesis on cultural revolution in Crisis of the Negro Intellectual privileged Harlem but ignored black cultural development in other cities, which Harlem did not typify, especially those with more powerful industrial working classes. This critique has some merit, but less than at first appears because Cruse focused on Harlem as the black cultural capital much as someone studying the U.S. cultural capital might focus on Hollywood—not as exhaustive but as an exemplar. Further, it ignores Cruse’s (1971abc) engagement of this specific issue just four years later in three serialized essays in Negro Digest/Black World, one of which contained his critique noted above, in which he not only responded to initial critiques of his privileging of Harlem but extended his broader thesis to cities across the United States.10 He noted that “what is lacking in the contemporary approach to Black cities is a historical methodology that will reveal that each major Black city population has a different character, has its own peculiar evolutionary history, and played a special role in the overall Black migratory developments” (1967, p. 30). He viewed the different patterns of migration and urbanization that created the concentrations of blacks throughout the Mid-Atlantic, Midwest, and West as generating different socioeconomic relations that would require specific theorizing, and viewed what he articulated in The Crisis as a contribution to Harlem’s role in black American cultural production and the Renaissance and BAM, given the cultural imperatives brought about by the development of mass media, which presented particular opportunities for black intellectuals in Harlem—the Black “cultural capital”—to theorize and execute a cultural revolution. He acknowledged the potential impact of similar analyses of blacks in cities such as Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland with respect to industrial production and the labor movement, and drew from distinctions in black westward migration and urbanization to help explain conflicts between the BPP that emerged in Oakland and that which emerged in New York. Thus, he was not surprised by the initiatives of militant black labor organizing in Detroit, which he encouraged, as reflected in the specific socialization trajectory of blacks in the “Motor City,” even as he called for analysts to differentiate Detroit’s from Chicago’s role at the forefront of post-Reconstruction black politics in the North, given that it was the first to send a black congressman to Washington following the Nadir.11 Cruse was convinced that the different contexts would require specific historicizing in an inductive process of theorizing the impact of migration and urbanization, which for Cruse was the defining aspect of black socialization since Reconstruction (see Semmes, 1992).
There were broader patterns of black urbanization, which Cruse acknowledged, that were structuring the contexts of black America in ways only superficially appreciated and insufficiently theorized by BPM revolutionists—and many scholars, as well—that were constraining the prospects of both black cultural revolution and even the more evolutionary strategy of developing black parallel institutions in the cities. African Americans were in a critical position to take advantage of the transformation of the urban landscape in the United States that they had played no small role in shaping during the post–World War I era. Just as the first migration of blacks to the cities had witnessed the rise of entrepots of black urban development, black resistance to urban white racism, and the phenomenon of the “first ghetto,” the aftermath of World War II had created the conditions for the “second ghetto” as racist policies of the federal government through the GI Bill and the Federal Housing Authority, real estate firms, speculators, banks and other loan agencies, and white homeowners associations had collaborated to underwrite segregation through the promotion of white suburbanization and the urban “removal” programs that targeted black communities in what would eventually become “inner cities” (Hirsch, 1983; Sugrue, 1996). In this context, the presence of blacks in prominent positions in American cities seemed to promise “ethnic succession” that would bring them to power and facilitate the betterment of their lot in urban America. Historically, black cultural change, and American cultural change more generally, had been tied to urban development, as Du Bois and Locke and many others had recognized during and before the Harlem Renaissance (see Moses, 1990, pp. 201–222). However, the policies of the second ghetto had already begun to lay the basis for the maintenance of white control of the cities, out of proportion to their residency, and irrespective of black political control downtown (Katznelson, 1981).
The CRM in the North had been a grassroots and electoral challenge to white administrative control of the city as blacks projected out from the “central city” to assert their power beyond the second ghetto. But even as blacks challenged municipalities in order to take their turn in the ethnic succession, they came up against the “city trenches” (Katznelson, 1981) associated with the third ghetto, which ghettoized the city itself (Nightingale, 2003). The third ghetto was characterized by the accession of black municipal leadership over economically devastated cities with increasingly ineffective administrative structures. The cities’ ghettoes were less dense and more spatially dispersed, and segregated black enclaves grew in the suburbs while prisons became extensions of ghettos. During this era, cities were marked by industrial flight, attacks on labor, wage decreases, persistent poverty, large tracts of vacant land and increased inequality and dilapidated infrastructures. Thus, as blacks came to power through their emergent electoral clout, the black urban regimes were compromised by corporate interests that “employed new communications technologies, plant closings, ‘post-Fordist’ production systems, and the capacity to move capital, facilities, and assembly lines across the globe as critical assets.” They were also compromised by the black elected officials, who often acted as willing clients of corporate interests while abandoning the interests of the black masses that had been essential to their ascension to political power and the maintenance of their regimes (ibid., p. 266).
Subsequent theses of black cultural revolution would need to confront many if not most (or all) of these major developments in black urban America. Boggs, an auto worker and intellectual, integrated an appreciation of the political economy of black working classes but not their culture into his neo-Marxist conception of revolution intended to guide the peculiarly American black freedom struggle that he devoted most of his life helping to organize, guide, and build. This was consistent with his dismissive view of the revolutionary potential of black culture and his assumption that a black American revolution would develop its own revolutionary culture out of the political struggle itself—a process opposite to both what Du Bois had documented historically in the Slave Revolution and what Locke had theorized as well. Such was not the case for Cruse, who viewed black culture as potentially motivating revolution if black intellectuals and artists, especially, would utilize it in emancipatory ways. In practical terms, he viewed the opportunity for black cultural revolution during the CRM lost because movement leaders didn’t understand its necessity (Cruse, 1971c), while, for him, the BPM declined due to its failure to develop a viable independent black political party (Cruse, 1974ab).
In theoretical terms, Cruse recognized the capacity of black culture to facilitate social change beyond the cultural sphere specifically, implicating political and economic factors in ways to challenge the white racial hierarchy of the United States. Cruse’s conception of cultural revolution focused on democratizing and nationalizing mass media is novel. His chosen cultural strategy to revolutionize the CRM assumed that specific claims regarding the rights of black authors, writers, performers, entertainers, artists—as well as laborers and institutional supporters of black artistic production—to ownership of their cultural production; as well as the overturning of Jim Crow so that blacks could enjoy the right to public access through radio/TV, public space for performance, public investment streams in the arts and sciences (e.g., in public schools, museums, monuments, festivals), public education (administration, admissions, funding, curricula, etc.), would transform those spheres toward greater democracy and ramify to the economic sphere as well. Given that the realm of African American cultural production was demonstrably black, then the issue of ownership of that cultural product seemed straightforward, as were the historic and ongoing violations of the rights of blacks to their own cultural production. Cruse understood that these cultural and economic factors were connected such that by raising the cultural issues, the issues of economic inequality in both the public sphere and the private market would be implicated and the CRM’s agenda could be extended into the economic domain. Once the economic boundary was breached, the broader issues of economic racism could take their place among the political, legal, and social issues that the CRM challenged.
With the CRM’s turn to issues of economic democracy signaling the onset of Cruse’s cultural revolution, white supremacist counterrevolutionary opposition would likely intensify, and at that point, blacks and their allies (nonwhites and whites) would need as much room as possible to maneuver within the political system to not only reinforce their legal, cultural, and economic claims but to provide political support for their emerging revolution. The U.S. political system’s winner-take-all electoral systems are designed to prevent minority claims from being represented above the city or county level; therefore, a concomitant strategy to institute proportionally representative voting systems might have been necessary not only to promote greater democracy in the electoral system (a demand already asserted in the CRM) but to provide political cover for the minority constituencies advocating the initial claims and perspectives of the incipient revolutionists. Promoted as a cultural claim, proportional representation advocacy is an important avenue to draw political democracy into the cultural sphere. Resources from the struggle for economic democracy would provide support for the proportional representation initiative; and in securing those political gains, revolutionists would be able to use the resources of their control of public offices and agencies to increase their economic capacity to support and expand their political, cultural, and economic claims.
For Cruse, cultural claims provided the glue to bind civil rights to economic rights in novel ways, especially in the era of mass media. Further, Cruse’s focus on bringing the cultural apparatus under public control, given that blacks are only a minority of the public, implies that blacks would not be alone in attempting to democratize the cultural apparatus, as other racial minorities and non-Anglo white American groups (and some white Anglos as well) might ally or make common cause with black Americans against the Anglo-American cultural oligarchy. Although Cruse didn’t flesh out these implications, it seems clear that his conception of black cultural revolution is attentive to the need for supportive actions by nonblacks to achieve its objectives. What is less clear is the form that this struggle would take, that is, would it be violent, nonviolent, or both? Further, Cruse did not offer prescriptions on the preferred strategy that CRM activists should undertake once their movement became revolutionary in order to incorporate his cultural strategy into its program and institutions. As a result, Cruse’s thesis of cultural revolution is seaworthy as a concept, but, as a program for revolution, it is rudderless.
Implicit in Cruse’s thesis is that the focal issues of the cultural revolution should dovetail with those central to the CRM, linking them to the direct action focus of the CRM. It is not clear how capturing the cultural apparatus would provide the impetus for such a mobilization beyond what the CRM had already generated, in a movement that Cruse argued was not revolutionary. Although cultural factors could be linked to economic issues to add another dimension of struggle to the politico-legal focus of the CRM, capturing the cultural apparatus did not seem sufficiently salient as an objective to galvanize the kind of grassroots mobilization that revolution seemed to require. Further, once the CRM abated, it was not clear what institution would carry the black cultural revolution forward during the BPM, although for Cruse the clear candidate was an independent black political party, such as the National Black Political Assembly (NBPA), and he lamented its failure to ground itself more thoroughly in black American domestic issues.12
While the importance of democratizing the cultural apparatus seemed straightforward and progressive for the CRM, it seemed more appropriate as a tactic to extend the CRM, rather than a strategic objective of revolutionary struggle in general, a process to cast off the veil of centuries of miseducation among blacks insofar as “American capitalism’s technological advances in mass cultural media—films, radio, and music records, etc.—was a new capitalistic feature to replace Marx’s ‘religion’ as the real modern opium of the people” (Cruse, 1968, p. 136). This is not to say that utilizing such a tactic could not evolve the CRM into a revolutionary struggle somehow, but it seems more apparent that cultural revolution required a cultural thrust centered on an issue/factor that raised more fundamental contradictions in the U.S. socio-politico-economy. As noted in chapter 3, such a cultural issue was African American reparations; but Cruse was largely silent on this issue.
The moral argument for reparations was apparent: the enslavement of millions of blacks by the United States for almost 250 years was clearly immoral. The expropriation of their labor provided for the industrialization of the United States—and the Industrial Revolution, itself—and its economic development; ironically, former slavemasters were given reparations for their treason in the form of the return of their confiscated land by the white supremacist president Andrew Johnson (as well as benefits they accrued from their renewal of black oppression in the South), but not the newly manumitted slaves. The imposition of a century of Jim Crow and its systematic repression of nominally free black people, who were taxed as full citizens without enjoying the rights of white citizens also demanded redress. The legal argument for reparations was self-evident domestically, even prior to the success of the Japanese American World War II internment reparations case, and internationally in the recognition of the human rights of national minorities in the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Establishing a legal argument for reparations might be the domain of the NAACP-LDF just as were the legal cases that culminated in the Brown decisions. Reparations would focus on the main unresolved issue of Reconstruction: providing an economic basis for black freedom. Thus, at minimum, compensation would take the form of allotments of land to descendants of slaves. Land redistribution would have to be protected by the establishment of special rights of recipients, akin to customary land rights employed in colonial/postcolonial arrangements, so that blacks could not be cheated out of their newly acquired capital. There would be broader economic, political, and social compensation, the latter in the form of educational and industrial training as well as permanent endowments to black universities, as well as pre-K-12 schools.
A successful black reparations case would require a major redistribution of wealth in the United States, probably the greatest since the Civil War, when most of the wealth of the CSA—in the form of human chattel—initially walked away from the servitude of slave plantations as free people; however, in little more than a decade these nominally free “ex-slaves” would be plunged back into conditions often described as “slavery by another name” (Blackmon, 2008). A successful reparations case required an unequivocal assertion of the human rights of African Americans and a commitment to the recognition of such rights—in material ways—by the United States, the richest and most powerful country in the world, which promoted itself as the leader of the “free world” during the CRM. The assertion of black culture could only reinforce the recognition of the cultural contributions of black people to U.S. society and put in bolder relief the contradictions of historic and ongoing white supremacist domination in the United States. This could not only be a movement of blacks, but given the resources at issue, it would demand a response by white Americans (among others), and in this way compel white allies of black self-determination to raise the issue of cultural revolution for white Americans, not simply as a counterculture, but in tangible ways that transformed those political, economic, and social institutions of the United States that were organized around white supremacy. Splits among whites—possibly along regional, class, ethnic, or even religious lines—would need to be exploited by white (and nonwhite) supporters of freedom, justice, and equality in ways not seen since the U.S. Civil War. During the CRM, such splits might generate a sectarian crisis among whites, exacerbating the intraracial frictions among them that became evident in the protests against the Vietnam War.
A reparations strategy also challenged the façade of the interest group/melting pot conceptualization of Americans instead of what is actually the Herrenvolk democracy in the United States. The assumed horizontal competition among ethnic groups contained and concealed the vertical hierarchy among racial groups, and bred interethnic competition and assimilation for non-Anglo whites but interracial subordination and repression for nonwhite racial groups. Blacks knew the problems of interest group politics from their experiences with political machines in cities in which they were concentrated—the same urban regimes that created and maintained the ghettoes that housed them—and only a decade after passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 allowed them to elect thousands of blacks to political offices across the country; yet, many blacks realized the hollowness of ethnic succession as a project to relieve their national underdevelopment. Reparations for the black nation could not be accommodated like other interest group claims, just as the claim of African Americans for freedom a century earlier was not simply an “interest group” claim nor was it reconcilable with a war aim to simply preserve the Union, but required that the Civil War become a part of the Slave Revolution, which ended chattel slavery as an economic, political, and social system in the United States permanently. Reparations were a cultural claim for which blacks had exclusive standing, and in addressing such a major unresolved issue of social-economic-political injustice, it was likely to create a systemic crisis. It would necessitate a major redistribution of resources unseen since Reconstruction.
Nonetheless, Cruse did not focus his thesis of black cultural revolution on a reparations strategy, although such a program of action was consistent with it. This is somewhat surprising, given that the issue of black reparations for slavery had a long history, with which Cruse was not unfamiliar, and proponents of black reparations—especially in New York and Detroit—were also familiar to Cruse. It would be surprising if Cruse was unfamiliar with Callie House, who was one of the most important leaders of the major black reparations organization following the Civil War, the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association (Berry, 2005). In fact, in Cruse’s Harlem of the 1950s, Audley Moore had been the most prominent advocate of reparations for black Americans. Queen Mother Moore, as she is more famously known, was a life member of the UNIA, a stock owner in the Black Star Line, who had attended Garvey’s first international convention in New York City. She had become a member of the CPUSA following its support of the Scottsboro Boys case, but she left it once it abandoned the Black Belt thesis and opposed the Double V campaign. She was the founder and president of the Universal Association of Ethiopian Women, the founder of the Committee for Reparations for Descendants of U.S. Slaves, bishop of the Apostolic Orthodox Church of Judea, and during the height of the BPM she was a founding member of the RNA, influencing its support for reparations. Beginning in 1957, Moore attempted to petition the UN for reparations for African Americans for slavery and Jim Crow. She sought compensation for those blacks who desired to return to Africa and an indemnification of 200 billion dollars to those blacks choosing to remain in the United States. In 1960, Malcolm X invited Moore to his Harlem Mosque to speak on black reparations. Nonetheless, Cruse ignored black nationalists’ support for reparations, and did not incorporate it into his thesis.
An even greater omission for Cruse’s thesis was that it “scarcely recognize[d] the existence of religion in the [black] community” (Wilmore, 1983, p. 191). That is, his thesis of black cultural revolution ignored the most powerful black cultural institution in the United States, the Black Church. Put another way, while Cruse focused on the cultural apparatus of the United States as a target for revolutionary activity; he ignored the key institution of the cultural apparatus of the black community itself. This neglect is doubly troubling given that unlike Du Bois who died in 1963 and Locke who died in 1954, Cruse published The Crisis in 1967 after witnessing the major successes of the CRM, whose institutional locus was the Black Church. In addition, Cruse’s thesis ignores the issue of gender relations in black institutions, and in U.S. society as a whole, and the need to address sexism in order to realize the substantive transformation he sought through cultural revolution. These are not small oversights. They represented two institutional factors within black communities that were critical aspects of black culture and among the most powerful change agents in black communities; thus, they were essential to projecting a meaningful program of cultural revolution. At minimum, Cruse might have proposed substantive changes in the Black Church and black gender relations that might have moved the black liberation struggle much farther forward in the early 1960s, but in the event Cruse paid little attention to either.13 These problems would plague subsequent theses of BPM revolutionists as they attempted to organize around many of the principles and objectives originally put forth by Cruse.
As noted above, Cruse was directly associated with several BPM organizations such as the FNP, BARTS, and the NBPA; but his ideas had a much broader and more sustained impact on the BPM.14 With the FNP failing to adopt his strategy of black cultural revolution in its program, this left black nationalists bereft of an electorally oriented approach that was inculcated with a cultural program. Although the FNP would run candidates for local and state offices, particularly in Michigan, in which black nationalists Milton Henry and Albert Cleage were included, given the still relatively small numbers of blacks and the failure of the FNP to tie its electoral program to a concurrent strategy to transform the winner-take-all and single member district format of the elections—replacing it with a proportional representation or single transferable voting scheme as was being undertaken in some areas of the U.S. South—the FNP candidates did not win office in these still predominantly white areas of Michigan. This signaled a missed opportunity for black nationalists to build on Malcolm X’s “ballot or the bullet” approach, which also emboldened the Democratic Party in its belief that its base of Northern black support could be shored up with little concessions made to the surging black nationalists, a lesson that would become bitterly evident in the Gary and Little Rock conventions of 1972 and 1974. This breach would be temporarily addressed by the successful electioneering of Baraka’s Committee for a Unified Newark (CFUN) following that city’s bloody 1967 rebellion, but the latter’s impact on Democratic Party hegemony in black electoral politics in the North would also be short-lived, as discussed in chapter 8. Without his own organization in which to situate his cultural revolution thesis, leadership on the issue gravitated to more prominent spokespersons, such as Malcolm X, and organizationally to RAM, Us, and the BPP. In the next chapter, we begin our discussion of how these organizations addressed the role of black culture in the revolutions they sought during the BPM.
In this chapter, I discussed the first explicit thesis of black cultural revolution, proffered by Harold Cruse, which was influential among BPM revolutionists. Cruse argued the necessity of advancing a cultural strategy to revolutionize the CRM. Recognizing that American political, economic, and cultural institutions were linked in a matrix of white supremacist domination that imposed domestic colonialism on black Americans, he argued that by attacking “the economic spheres of cultural communications in America” the CRM could extend its efforts into the economic and political domains, culminating in capturing and nationalizing the cultural apparatus (i.e., the mass communications media) of U.S. society in a cultural revolution (Cruse, 1968, p. 117). For Cruse, the relationship of culture, politics, and economics necessitated that blacks focus on the weakest aspect of the domestic colonial system, the cultural front. Attacks on the cultural front might include class action legal claims of black artists against white expropriators of their cultural product to both provide redress for black artists and fund independent black organizations—especially CRM organizations defunded by whites as they transitioned to black power (e.g., SNCC and CORE). Cruse’s focus on the cultural apparatus was a conceptual advance that prefigured BAM and contributed to the onset of the BPM. It also suggested the institutional objective absent from Locke’s thesis. One might say that while Du Bois historicized black cultural revolution, Locke theorized it and Cruse gave it its institutional focus: the mass communications media.
This novel focus on capturing the cultural apparatus was also a major shortcoming of Cruse’s thesis, since it seemed insufficiently salient as an objective to orient, or a theme by which to mobilize for the black cultural revolution that he sought. Such a focus detracted from considerations of historical and contemporary black cultural claims with respect to unresolved issues of social justice related to chattel slavery and Jim Crow, epitomized in the cause of black reparations. Ironically, Cruse’s thesis seemed less attuned to the challenge of capturing the cultural apparatus of the black community itself as a precursor to this broader struggle, insofar as Cruse had difficulty integrating the major black cultural institution, the Black Church, into his theoretical arguments on cultural revolution. Cruse also largely ignored the role of sexism as a major institutional impediment to the cultural change that he sought. Further, in privileging Harlem initially, it ignored an important aspect of black cultural development in urban areas with large black concentrations that Harlem did not typify, namely, cities with more powerful industrial working classes, although he addressed this issue in his 1971 follow-on essays. In general, his lack of consideration of Du Bois’s cultural framework in Black Reconstruction and Locke’s cultural thesis may have contributed to Cruse’s dependence on the ongoing CRM to provide the practical momentum for his cultural revolution, which was less of an issue to the extent that his intention was to revolutionize the CRM. However, on a theoretical level, it led Cruse to appropriate aspects of Haywood’s Black Belt thesis in order to provide the dynamism that his thesis lacked. Consequently, Cruse’s thesis of cultural revolution did not clearly articulate a program of cultural revolution beyond the CRM because cultural claims, values, and institutions within black communities provided less of the dynamism in his general thesis than a political revolution to overthrow the system of domestic colonialism. Thus, without the motor of the CRM to propel it, Cruse’s cultural thesis became static.
Cruse’s conception of African American revolution is usefully contrasted with those of Haywood and Boggs, given that Cruse’s thesis emphasized the role of black culture like Haywood’s, while Boggs’s proffered no significant role for black culture as a revolution-generating force. The latter’s focus minimized considerations of the indigenous historical referents of African American revolutionary change to inform his revolutionary thesis. While Cruse, like Haywood, was more attentive to African Amerian revolutionary history, neither fleshed out its implications toward Du Bois’s thesis in Black Reconstruction, so neither appreciated the Slave Revolution during the U.S. Civil War as a black political revolution that was motivated by a black cultural revolution, or integrated this understanding into their respective frameworks. In addition, Cruse’s thesis did not specify the institutional vehicle for organizing and mobilizing blacks to capture the cultural apparatus once the CRM had abated. With little faith in the Black Church as a change agent, his thesis relied on the development of an independent black political party to push the demands forward, but Cruse did not flesh out this aspect of his thesis either—and the short-lived NBPA did not consider it seriously (as will be discussed in chapter 8); thus, his focus on democratizing the cultural apparatus as an objective of black cultural revolution did not seem to transcend the CRM, at least not on a practical level. Nevertheless, it influenced several major BPM organizations.
In sum, the novel insights and shortcomings of Cruse’s—as well as Haywood’s and the Boggses’—revolutionary theses resonated among BPM revolutionists and both guided and hamstrung their programs for black liberation in the subsequent decades. Cruse seems to have influenced Malcolm X’s discourse on black cultural revolution, which encouraged RAM’s and Us’s promotion of the concept. Both Cruse’s and Boggs’s broader thesis on revolution informed the ideology of RAM, while Haywood’s thesis influenced it indirectly. Boggs’s view that revolutions would generate the requisite revolutionary culture was consistent with the BPP’s perspective as well. Thus, early in the BPM, issues related to cultural revolution were highly salient to the struggle that major BPM organizations sought to wage.
1. Cruse lamented that the “long awaited” and “long overdue” book of Locke’s writings by Butcher (1956) “greatly disappointed because it did not answer the question [whether Negroes should develop and uphold an Afro-American or an Anglo-American culture] at all” (Cruse, 1968, p. 49).
2. Cruse’s thesis is similar to the Situationist perspective emerging contemporaneously in France, such as Guy Debord’s (1967) The Society of the Spectacle, which was influential in the general strike in Paris of 1968.
3. That Cruse theorized the centrality of democratizing the cultural apparatus well before the blaxploitation film era and the creation of hip-hop is testament to his grounding in black cultural politics. It is ironic that in the hip-hop era, many of the same critics of Cruse’s thesis admonish rap artists for not helping to develop an independent base for black politics and culture.
4. Black millionaire C. J. Walker’s support for the Garvey Movement, and black banker A. C. Gaston’s support for the CRM are noted examples of black petit bourgeois support of black activism.
5. In 1982, in Manifesto for an American Revolutionary Party, Boggs asserted that “no one race, no one class, no one sex” in the United States “is automatically revolutionary,” and “individuals in all these groups have the potential for being counter-revolutionary as well as revolutionary” (pp. 40–41).
6. Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge demonstrated horrifically that revolutionary activity does not necessarily generate a revolutionary culture in a progressive sense; instead, it might create reactionary and genocidal culture, as evident in the killing fields of Cambodia or the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution.
7. In the subsequent decades, the Boggses clung to the view that a vanguard was necessary for revolution in the United States and alternated privileging “outsiders” and school-aged dropouts they called “opt-outs.” A teleological rigidity bound them to nondialectical rationales enjoining a continual search for a vanguard to lead a revolution they prophesized and awaited with millenarian earnest. Viewing revolution as both means and end—instrument and objective—what was lost in their analyses is that revolution is not the objective of political struggle but simply a means to social justice.
8. Although Boggs was clearly familiar with and encouraged the study of Du Bois’s works and often traced black labor history to the slave revolts and invoked the General Strike, he had difficulty integrating the cultural aspects of these phenomena into his broader thesis. As a result, unlike Du Bois’s exposition of the role of black cultural transformation in the slaves’ prosecution of the General Strike, Boggs’s (1963) analysis of the Civil War in The American Revolution is bereft of a sense of black cultural agency in the war, conflating issues of race and nation under a single rubric of class struggle (pp. 75–77).
9. Only shortly before her death a half century later—often in conversation with this author—did Grace Boggs begin to suggest the utility of cultural revolution in the United States both as an analytical device and sociopolitical objective; but one she still tethered to a neo-Marxist teleology embracing autonomist theorists such as Castoriadis rather than Du Bois, Locke, or Cruse.
10. Critics even two decades apart, such as Perkins (1977) and Smith (1999), and up to the present, continue to ignore Cruse’s engagement of the issue of privileging Harlem in the follow-on essays of 1971 (Cruse, 1971abc). Many otherwise substantive crtiques of Cruse’s thesis typically redounded to the oft-repeated neo-Marxist claim that cultural and racial factors were epiphenomena of class, while ignoring that Cruse’s original thesis of black cultural revolution was intended to revolutionize an existing movement, the CRM, and not to pose a universal thesis of revolutionary change.
11. On the Nadir, see Logan (1954). For a review of “renaissances” outside of Harlem, see Moses (1990, pp. 201–222) on the renaissance in Washington, D.C., beginning in the 1890s, decades before Harlem’s of the 1920s; Clark Hine and McCluskey (2012) on Chicago’s a decade later; Whitaker’s (2018) focus on Pittsburgh; and Glasrud and Wintz’s (2012) discussion of black renaissances from Kansas City to the Bay Area.
12. Cruse disparaged what he viewed as ill-conceived “internationalist” and pan-Africanist rhetoric of the NBPA that detracted from domestic issues and led to needless internecine disputes that undermined the NBPA and contributed to its collapse.
13. Frances Beal of SNCC and the Third World Women’s Alliance provided important discussions of black womens’ agency in the CRM and BPM as well as incisive critiques of sexism such as her seminal 1969 pamphlet “Double Jepoardy: To be Black and Female.” Grace Lee also contributed an essay to the important work The Black Woman, which also published a revised version of Beal’s (1970) essay, and was edited by Toni Cade Bambara. The Boggses (1974) provided a trenchant critique of sexism and the necessity of overturning it as an essential element of revolution in the United States.
14. Cruse discusses BARTS in Crisis; also, see Goose’s (2004), especially his discussion of Yuri Kochiyama’s notes from Cruse’s course in “Cultural Philosophy” at the school.