Dialectical Contradiction and the "Negro Question"

Benjamin Graves '98, Brown University

Briefly, the idea is this, that the Negro is "nationalist" to the heart and is perfectly right to be. His racism, his nationalism, are a necessary means of giving him strength, self-respect, and organization in order to fight for integration into American society. It is a perfect example of dialectical contradiction. (xxvi)

Thus, side by side with his increasing integration into production which becomes more and more a social process, the Negro becomes more than ever conscious of his exclusion from democratic privileges as a separate social group in the community. This dual movement is the key to the Marxist analysis of the Negro question in the U.S.A. (64)

In the passages above from C.L.R. James on the 'Negro Question,' James examines the "dialectical contradiction" and paradoxical "dual-movement" that characterize the Negro Movement's simultaneous integration and exclusion "on the road to the proletariat." Although in many ways James' "revolutionary answer" itself foregrounds the incompatibility of socialism and the Negro Movement, James' essay "Dialectical Materialism and the Fate of Humanity" (collected in Anna Grimshaw's edition of The C.L.R. James Reader, 1947) points toward the guiding Marxian principles that underwrite and somewhat justify James' advocacy of a proletariat revolutionary model.

How does James understand Marx and Hegel's notion of the "dialectic" in the context of the "Negro Question"? The first excerpt from a letter to Constance Webb emphasizes the ironic predicament (the "double-consciousness," so at least Du Bois might argue) of African-Americans whose integration into American society presupposes a "nationalist" visibility that ultimately stigmatizes or separates the Negro Movement from the social systems it enters. Notice how James perhaps facetiously valorizes "racism" (which he terms "black chauvinism" elsewhere--a sort of racial or racialized consciousness) as a necessary component of black integration.

James' discussion of "nationalism" frames a curious tautology of integration and exclusion. On one hand, the Negro Movement's integration into American society ironically presupposes a certain degree of "black chauvinism"-a mode of critiquing white America so as to emphasize the differences between races. On the other hand, by achieving "organization" sufficient to resist American capitalism, the Negro Movement in fact gains entry into (perhaps becomes complicit with) the same social systems that deny its agency.

James' comments on nationalism interrogate the scope of the term "nation" itself. Much as his notes on the Russian Revolution in "Stalin and Socialism" 1937) emphasize the debate between national and international socialization of labor, James' notion of "dialectical contradiction" seems especially sensitive to the Negro Movement's geographic scope-or rather the way in which tacit political and racial allegiances constitute "nations" that perhaps replace ostensible, geographic national boundaries.

But how can "blacks in the west" (as Gilroy has it) achieve a "national" collective subjectivity or agency when their displacement in the west circumscribes them within the "national" limits of American capitalism? Last Wednesday, for example, I tried to explain how James' ambivalence towards the NAACP indicates the paradoxical integration/exclusion of "nationalist" collectives. James characterizes the NAACP's growing membership as "one of the surest signs of the insoluble social crisis in the United States" (48). In other words, James suggests a mutual (and inverse) correlation between the NAACP's visibility and the degradation of blacks whose conditions it seeks to ameliorate. James perhaps dismisses the NAACP's potential for revolution because its visibility paradoxically attests to black exclusion and degradation.

The second passage above from "The Historical Development of the Negroes in American Society" (1943) contextualizes the "dialectical contradiction" within the field of "production." Here James' "dialectical contradiction" involves the union of white and black laborers and the subsequent exclusion of the Negro's "democratic privileges." Initially, it seems our responsibility to problematize James' assumption of inevitable and successful alliances across race within the utopic proletariat space he advocates. Can we characterize James' privileging of class concerns over those of race and his faith in working-class solidarity as naive and universalist-instances in which James "leaps out of history," as Paul Buhle quipped?

James' revolutionary model acknowledges no space for black autonomy and that James' numerous assertions otherwise function merely as stategic, perfunctory gestures in the name of Marxist propaganda (see 11, 80, 139). Whereas James assumes alliances across race within the proletariat, he fails to consider alliances across class within the Negro Movement-characterizing all blacks as "proletarian or semi proletarian" (71) and making only scant mention of any possibility of complicity between petty-bourgeois blacks and the black proletariat (84). The passage continues James' dubious notion of "community." Again, what is the scope of James' proletariat community in terms of "nationhood" and its intersection with race, class, and political affiliation? Why must the community or collectivity of workers precede a community predicated upon race? The answer to this question, it seems, rests upon the centrality of class to a transformation of capitalist society. What's telling is Marx's characterization of socialism's inevitability and it's ironic "dialectical" dependence upon capitalism's internal contradictions. It's not that James confuses the dialectic; the dialectic is inherently contradictory.

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