The "Master-Slave Dialectic" and the "Negro Question"

Benjamin Graves '98, Brown University

The dialectic teaches that in all forms of society we have known, the increasing development of material wealth brings with it the increasing degradation of the large mass of humanity...Thus it is that the moment when the world system of capitalism has demonstrated the greatest productive powers in history is exactly the period when barbarism threatens to engulf the whole of society. (C.L.R. James Reader 155)

The rise of capital engenders a corresponding rise in the "degradation" of the labor force-the same labor force that makes such capital possible. Although in terms of Hegel's "thesis, antithesis, synthesis" dialectical model the exigencies of capital appear antithetical to the condition of exploited laborers, in fact both capital and labor share a mutual dependence. Capital for the most part occupies a position of dominance, of course, but only insofar as that position is legitimated by the "barbarism" of a downtrodden working-class. The debasement of laborers invests in them a potential for revolution-the agency to "negate" capitalist systems that would suppress or "negate" them in turn. The "quantity" of labor and capital rise simultaneously, leading eventually to revolution in which "quantity" changes to "quality"; as I (mis?)understand it, the revolution redefines the "quality" of the relationship between capital and labor (155-6). I'm over-simplifying terribly, I'm afraid, and of course James has much more to say about the "logical contradiction" between the "concrete and abstract," the causal relationship between production and politics, the role of the state, intellectualism, etc. But how do Hegel and Marx bear upon James' plans for the black proletariat in the United States? In the following passages, James outlines the negro proletariat's imperative to seize the means of production/relations of production that shape American industry:

Such is the proletarian composition of the Negro people, so hostile are they to existing social order because of the special degradation to which it subjections them, that the political organization which knows how to utilize their preoccupation with their democratic right can find ample ways and means for carrying on that socialistic propaganda which must always be the climax of revolutionary effort, particularly in this period. (85)

In the United States social revolution is impossible without the independent mass struggles of the Negroes, whatever the prejudices, the reactionary fantasies, the weaknesses and errors of these struggles. (73)

In the passages above, James' seems compelled by the hostility, "special degradation," and "subjection" and the black proletariat. And yet "subjection" ironically is the very condition that renders the black proletariat a potentially "militant" revolutionary collective that may ultimately lead the rest of the proletariat to the "climax of revolutionary effort." As James says in the second passage, the working class in America will fail to amount any revolutionary project without harnessing the political energy within the "independent mass struggles of the Negroes." Again, as I suppose Marx would argue, the "contradictions" of capitalism don't impede socialist revolution but create the conditions for its inevitability. Look again at the passages with which I started (xxvi, 64). The "exclusion" of the Negro Movement may be unfortunate, but such material abjection ironically equips the black proletariat with the necessary impetus to "negate" American capitalism. It's as if James argues that the black proletariat exists at a level of degradation exceeding even the white proletariat, and this is precisely its strength!

One way of understanding the contradictory position of the black proletariat amidst the broader working class is in terms of Hegel's master-slave dialectic. As I understand it, the slave occupies a position of subordinance but ironically shares in some of the master's power because the master's position of dominance presupposes the slave's position of debasement. In other words, the binary between master and slave is unstable. The slave assumes agency insofar as the master depends upon him to legitimate his dominant status. The Marxian understanding of the slave rests upon his ability to assume control of the means of production, to which, in the existing regime, he is subordinated. Of course the master-slave scenario particularly befits the predicament of black slaves in America. I suggest James seeks to cultivate the black proletariat's "defiance from abjection" (a snippet I've re-appropriating from queer theory). The Negro Movement, more than any other constituent of the proletariat, has endured degradation enough to "hate properly" the tradition of American Capitalism.

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