Huey Newton Marxsplains Race and Predicts the Future – Shape of Jizz to Come – Oct 14

In an article recently posted on these boards, a white educator talks about his experiences teaching white privilege to his students:

As I am unplugging, a few of those white kids creep up to ask a good question: so what should we do? If we want to be more than just not racist, if we want to be actually anti-racist, then how should we act? How do we deal with the burden of a privilege we did not earn?

Now I gotta get to another class half-way across campus, so I don’t have time to tell them that so-called “liberal guilt” is not the answer and that empathy and solidarity are. I don’t have time to explain that learning to share anger at injustice is the start of a common conversation, and that they can learn how to recognize where privilege resides in their own lives by reading about and listening to the experiences of others who do not have it. But I gotta run, so I just say to them: “It’s a long argument, and an endless series of principled choices, but the short version is simply: don’t be a douchebag.”

The last sentence is pithy in that tired, snarky way that’s the tone of choice for much of today’s online writing. But putting that aside, it’s not even a useful prescription.

What black people face today is not just a case of people being “douchebags” to them. They face a relentless assault from the prison-industrial complex and the poverty industry (payday loans, for-profit universities, and other usurious schemes that have filled the economic void in poor communities). Slavery and Jim Crow ensured that they would start at a marked disadvantage, and decades of reactionary policy have ensured that little has changed from a material perspective. Indeed, despite the advances made since the Civil Rights Act, the average net worth of black households has only gone down. 

In the face of overwhelming hardships, “don’t be a douchebag” is a feeble, impotent response. “Not being a jerk” is not going to put food on people’s tables. “Listening to their experiences” is not going to stop cops from gunning them down in the streets.

Racism is not just a matter of individual relationships. It’s a societal issue, an economic issue, a material issue. In order to understand it, we need to turn to someone who can help us understand social and material forces. We need Marx.

Not too long ago in this forum, certain posters were accused of “Marxsplaining,” using Marx to shut down conversations about gender or race. The stereotypical call of the Marxsplainer (what a hideous portmanteau) was that “once the revolution occurs, racism/sexism/homophobia will no longer be an issue.”

Now, I can’t say whether or not this is true. Marxism is just as good as any other system at predicting the future, in that it’s not very good at it at all (more on this later). So I can’t say whether racism/sexism/whatever will end once capitalism ends. And neither could the stereotypical Marxsplainer, and people were correct in saying that this line of reasoning was boorish and unhelpful. But I will predict that all those things will be different once capitalism ends, because capitalism affects the nature of these other things on a very deep, profound level.

What we think of as racism is unthinkable without capitalism. During the heyday Roman Empire, there was no “black” or “white.” You were either a Roman or a non-Roman, and you were either a slave or you weren’t. A slave from Carthage was no different than a slave from Gaul, at least from a societal standpoint. Likewise, while it’s true that patriarchal society predates capitalism, its nature was profoundly changed by the advent of capitalism (see Caliban and the Witch for a much more in-depth discussion on this).

For many, this will sound like “intersectionality” But that idea doesn’t go far enough, in my mind. “Intersection” implies a number of things that have an independence all on their own which intersect, or collide, at various points. Saying that “racism” or “sexism” or “capitalism” all intersect with each other is redundant, a tautology. The point is that each of these things already have all the others in them; each thing carries the totality within itself, and vica versa. A societal force like “sexism” cannot change without changing everything else along with it.

The problem with Marxsplainers was not that they were trying to bring Marx down to bear on things like racism or sexism. I don’t believe these things can truly be understood without Marx. Their mistake was applying it in a clumsy, one-sided fashion. But applying Marx to things like racism is the correct approach, and it’s certainly not the approach of “ivory tower academics” with no connection to real people or real struggles. We can see how it was used by the most successful anti-racist revolutionary group of the last 50 years: the Black Panther Party.

Huey Newton gave a speech at Boston College in 1970, which you can read here: http://democracyandclasstruggle.blogspot.com/2012/04/huey-newtons-speech-at-boston-college.html

In it, the same sentiments:

Marx, as a social scientist, criticized other social scientists for attempting to explain phenomena, or one phenomenon, by taking it out of its environment, isolating it, putting it into a category, and not acknowledging the fact that once it was taken out of its environment the phenomenon was transformed. For example, if in a discipline such as sociology we study the activity of groups – how they hold together and why they fall apart – without understanding everything else related to that group, we may arrive at a false conclusion about the nature of the group. What Marx attempted to do was to develop a way of thinking that would explain phenomena realistically.

The entire speech is an invaluable read. In the interest of fairness, I should note that I don’t agree with all of it. Newton refers to a “dialectic method.” I think this is a mistake — dialectics is a way of explaining and understanding social phenomena, but it’s not a method, any more than the Periodic Table is a “method” of chemistry. It’s a description, not a prescription. And while I’m not a huge fan of Kant, Newton’s descriptions of his ideas are virtually unrecognizable to me. Most concerning to me is Newton’s idea that dialectics can be used to predict the future. Again, not only do I think there’s no dialectic method, but a dialectic understanding of things is no better at predicting the future than anything else. Dialectics is a way of understanding things after they’ve happened, not before.

Ironically, I say all this while admitting that Newton has done a very good job of predicting the future. The points that he makes in this speech are more relevant today than ever before. Perhaps this is less “predicting the future” and more of a keen eye for the conditions that were already present in his time today. Compared to other social commentators of the day, Newton is practically a Cassandra.

First, let’s draw attention to this passage:

Marx attempted to set up a framework which could be applied to a number of conditions. And in applying this framework we cannot be afraid of the outcome because things change and we must be willing to acknowledge that change because we arc objective. If we are using the method of dialectical materialism we don’t expect to find anything the same even one minute later because “one minute later” is history. If things are in a constant state of change, we cannot expect them to be the same. Words used to describe old phenomena may be useless to describe the new. And if we use the old words to describe new events we run the risk of confusing people and misleading them into thinking that things are static.

Newton’s understands something that eludes many commentators of Marx: even his language and terminology changes its meanings depending on the social conditions. This is crucial, since Newton is about to use Marx’s language in a particularly unorthodox way:

In this country, 1970, the Black Panther Party issued a document. Our Minister of Information, Eldridge Cleaver, who now is in Algeria, wrote a pamphlet called “On the Ideology of the Black Panther Party.” In that work Eldridge Cleaver stated that neither the proletarians nor the industrial workers carry the potentialities for revolution in this country at this time. He claimed that the left wing of the proletarians, the lumpen proletarians, have that revolutionary potential, and in fact, acting as the vanguard, they would carry the people of the world to the final climax of the transformation of society.

In traditional interpretations of Marx, this is a very strange passage. Marx uses the term “lumpenproletariat” to describe the society of prostitutes, pimps, thieves, and other petty criminals of Paris’ underclass. Marx felt that this group had no revolutionary potential. Newton clearly does. What’s changed?

It should be obvious that Newton is using the term very different than Marx was. And really, their two viewpoints are not incompatible. If Marx was referring to pimps and high-level drug dealers, then he was probably correct in stating that this group has no real revolutionary potential. They are essentially a criminalized capitalist class.

But Newton and the Black Panther Party use it in a different sense: to refer to the group of people that exist outside the standard capitalist/worker relationship. He elaborates in what may be the most important passage of the speech:

In this country the Black Panther Party, taking careful note of the dialectical method, taking careful note of the social trends and the ever-changing nature of things, sees that while the lumpen proletarians are the minority and the proletarians are the majority, technology is developing at such a rapid rate that automation will progress to cybernation, and cybernation probably to technocracy. As I came into town I saw MIT over the way. If the ruling circle remains in power it seems to me that capitalists will continue to develop their technological machinery because they are not interested in the people. Therefore, I expect from them the logic that they have always followed: to make as much money as possible, and pay the people as little as possible – until the people demand more, and finally demand their heads. If revolution does not occur almost immediately, and I say almost immediately because technology is making leaps (it made a leap all the way to the moon), and if the ruling circle remains in power the proletarian working class will definitely be on the decline because they will be unemployables and therefore swell the ranks of the lumpens, who are the present unemployables. Every worker is in jeopardy because of the ruling circle, which is why we say that the lumpen proletarians have the potential for revolution, will probably carry out the revolution, and in the near future will be the popular majority. Of course, I would not like to see more of my people unemployed or become unemployables, but being objective, because we’re dialectical materialists, we must acknowledge the facts.

There’s a lot to unpack here. First, Newton is riffing on the Marxist idea, from volume one of Capital, that there always needs to be a group of unemployed people in order to meet any sudden demand for labor power. What Newton is suggesting is that the lumpenproletariat goes one step further: they are permanently unemployable, at least in any meaningful sense.

Second, Newton predicted that a society rapidly advancing in technology would only further swell the ranks of the unemployable. There’s two parts to this. On the one hand, technological advancement leads to declining rates of profits (Marx’s classic law of the tendency of the rate of profits to fall). This in turn leads to fewer jobs. And on the other hand, the technology that Newton was beginning to see would automate many lower paying jobs.

This second point is the sine qua non for understanding the world we live in and the situation facing black people in the West today. We’re already beginning to see this automation taken to its extreme. In response to increased demands from fast-food workers to receive higher wages, companies are beginning to look into automating their food service. Now you can order your Big Mac on a touchpad! Amazon is looking at starting a delivery service using automated drones.

The automation of these service jobs will be devastating for the black and Hispanic communities in this country. The loss of these jobs will only further swell the ranks of people who are unemployable, and further grind them up as they desperately try to escape poverty: more loans, more degree mills, more debt and impoverishment as they try to crawl themselves up just to make a living wage, more people thrown into the prison-industrial grinder.

Not only can these problems not be solved by “not being a douchebag” but they cannot even be comprehended using that framework. By using Marx to attack racial studies, Newton was not only able to see things that current anti-racists miss, but his work takes on a frightening prescience.

In fact, this perspective can be taken even further by combining it with the “Third Worldist” ideas of J. Sakai, Samir Amin, Zak Copes, etc. It’s not that the proletariat “disappeared” as Newton thought; they only disappeared from his immediate vision. In the Third World, you have an increasing global proletariat as Western capitalists sought new sources of labor power free from those pesky unions. And in the FIrst World, you have an increasing class of unemployable people that exist outside of the sphere of capitalist relations.

This is the sort of explanation that can only exist with a, dare I say, dialectic view of the situation. The problem isn’t Marxsplaining. If anything, the problem is that we’re not Marxplaining enough.

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