Issue #28: Historical Materialist Study of American Political History
Judith Stein, who died two years ago, left behind a legacy of students, colleagues and admirers who were inspired by her teaching, her scholarship, and her imposing intellect. The essays published here are in Judith’s honor.
Inside the issue
Black studies scholarship on the whole has been plagued by “the temptation to attempt to speak on behalf of the political and social needs of some ‘black community’ outside the academy.” Declaring themselves responsible to this community, which is in no way positioned to ratify the propositions being put forth on its behalf, while disdaining the professional norms prevailing in the academy as inherently biased against the beliefs and practices necessary to carry out their work, many black scholars have been able to operate in a zone of relative unaccountability in which the narrative recounting of their own experiences and thoughts are treated as paradigmatic of “the race.”
Stein’s work shows the depth, breadth and intellectual richness that a grounded historical-materialist perspective can bring to scholarship and understanding. She assumed from the outset that black political history could not be properly understood without situating it in relation to the broader currents within which it has been embedded and with which black agents have interacted at any given point. She never accepted analytical categories that attributed political agency to abstractions like “the black community,” “white supremacy,” or even “capitalism,” and always grounded her arguments in the issues, concerns and understandings of the groups and tendencies she studied. She saw race, class, labor and political economy as irreducibly linked.
As politics changed, the organic model that had dominated black thought since the 1890s lost its power to persuade. Blyden, Du Bois, and Garvey had invented a view of the race to support a politics that addressed the elite discrimination they faced. Like all ideologies, their view of race attempted to interpret the world and direct behavior. Models and goals were taken from Western elite culture. Black elites imagined the majority of Afro-Americans passive and in need of their leadership. The NAACP and Urban League claimed to represent the race by default.
The late Gene Sharp is known worldwide as a Gandhi-like champion of nonviolent protest. But he is better understood as one of the most important U.S. defense intellectuals of the Cold War and a neoliberal theorist who advocated nonviolent action as a means to “State decentralization.” Properly contextualizing Sharp and his ideas is essential to understanding the world today.
Despite his longstanding socialist sympathies, DuBois was repelled by the specter of revolutionary violence, hence his admiring account of the moderation of the southern slaves. They “showed no disposition to strike the one terrible blow which brought black men freedom in Haiti…. for the simple reason that there was an easier way involving freedom with less risk.” They went on strike.
The reason that contemporary liberal writers seem to have such thorough problems with the form of anti-racism exemplified by the Populist movement, is not, therefore, that Populists sought to unite poor white and black tenants in their shared “material self-interest.” Rather, it lies in the fact that they did so without seeing such co-operation as originating in a moral duty, and refused to carry out the necessary amount of affective investment.
these positionings continue to have appeal for academics, who are often relatively well-off at elite universities, who have the leisure to pose and play at abjection. Their work distills a schizophrenic desire: they want to run free with the wolves while howling in protest against their exclusion from society. But the authors are in fact very far removed from the lives of the most oppressed and marginalized, who they take as their models and who they purport to represent.