Organizing Histories

Aspects of Negro Life: An Idyll of the Deep South (Aaron Douglas, 1934)

In her painful and beautiful book Lose Your Mother, Saidiya Hartman begins by noting that “the most universal definition of the slave is the stranger,” and that the color of her skin does not change the fact that even in what she hopes to experience as a return to Ghana, or at least a new kind of belonging, she remains a stranger. Identity, in her travels, is an estrangement. Nevertheless it is also the afterlife of the nine slave routes which ran through Ghana, the afterlife which in the contemporary United States is the “skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment” that affect black lives today – and yet, the afterlife which is also Hartman herself.1

In Lose Your Mother, Hartman grapples with the problem of constructing narratives from the archives of slavery: the dangers of reproducing the scenes of violence which historically constituted and now reinforce the afterlife of slavery. Yet at the same time, as she writes in her article “Venus in Two Acts,” her historical project is to imagine a certain resistance, by listening “for the mutters and oaths and cries of the commodity.”2 In “Venus in Two Acts,” she tries to make this resistance visible in a way she felt incapable of doing in Lose Your Mother, by imagining a story the archive would not allow her to tell: the story of what words and gestures may have been exchanged between two girls tortured and murdered by Captain John Kimber on the slave ship Recovery in 1792. While one girl’s murder is described in detail in the proceedings of Kimber’s trial, in which he was acquitted for both murders, the other is only mentioned in passing. The temptation Hartman feels is to imagine these two girls as friends – comforting each other, in their death throes, in the cruel misery of the slave hold, practicing the grief and mourning that “the annihilating violence of the slave ship” made impossible. Is this a romantic temptation which “would have trespassed the boundaries of the archive,” serving only as a consolation for the troubled historian?3 Or is it precisely this “task of writing the impossible,” a narrative which exposes the “incommensurability between the experience of the enslaved and the fictions of history,” which is required for us to be able to “imagine a free state, not as the time before captivity or slavery, but rather as the anticipated future of this writing”?4

It is the recognition of this inescapable and yet productive tension which leads Hartman to the extraordinary passage I wish to underscore:

those existences relegated to the nonhistorical or deemed waste exercise a claim on the present and demand us to imagine a future in which the afterlife of slavery has ended. The necessity of trying to represent what we cannot, rather than leading to pessimism or despair must be embraced as the impossibility that conditions our knowledge of the past and animates our desire for a liberated future.5

I would like to take as my point of departure Hartman’s refusal of pessimism and despair. My book Mistaken Identity is about how a term which originated at a historical turning point characterized by a crisis of mass movements came to be radically transformed in a political climate framed by pessimism and despair. This is a complicated story to tell, because when we speak of these affects, it is not always clear whether we are operating at the level of the diagnostic or the prescriptive – or neither or both – and what relation these terms have to what appear to be their opposites, namely optimism and hope. To imagine a “free state” is a question of historiography, but it is also a question of political action, and thus leads us to problems and practices which are generally not accorded the status of theoretical significance: constituting collectivities, constructing organizational forms, cultivating agency, and other practices in everyday life which are so often exiled from the political.

This text is a theoretical intervention, which has been prompted by questions and discussions surrounding my book. It is an interweaving of meditations on the narration of history, ideology, and the question of liberation – themes that used to belong to one fabric, but which have been torn apart in most contemporary discourses on identity.

Plot Twists

Let us begin with the affects. Consider, for example, the conceptions of history that are implied by optimism and pessimism. As Joshua Dienstag points out in his study of philosophical pessimism, “the optimistic account of the human condition is both linear and progressive.” It is “premised on the idea that the application of reason to human social and political conditions will ultimately result in the melioration of these conditions. Pessimism, while retaining a linear account of time and history, denies this premise.”6 In other words, the stance of pessimism is “to deny the existence of progress while maintaining the linear historical perspective of modern temporality.”7

Despair, as Robyn Marasco has argued in her account of Hegel’s thought, also displays an affective ambivalence. Hegel describes how when “natural consciousness,” a consciousness which thinks it knows something but really does not, comes to acquire real knowledge, this process is experienced as a loss of self. Thus the journey from the notion to the concept, as Hegel vividly puts it, is a journey down the highway of despair. The obverse of despair, of course, is hope, which we have learned from Ernst Bloch to tie to utopia. But Marasco proposes that in critical thought, “hope and despair are not quite opposed.” She writes: “Despair rebels against the quiet comforts of both optimism and pessimism… Quite unlike pessimism, despair sees limitations everywhere while also having the tendency to embolden thought and praxis to press against the limits of existing conditions.” It thus “preserves the possibility of something radically different and conjures the spirit of hope that it also quiets.”8

In fact, these affects take on different critical valences depending on how they are inserted into a historical narrative. As Hayden White pointed out: “interpretation in history consists of the provisions of a plot structure for a sequence of events so that their nature as a comprehensible process is revealed by their figuration as a story of a particular kind. What one historian may emplot as a tragedy, another may emplot as a comedy or romance.”9 That is, we could narrate a history experienced according to these affects in various ways: as romance, which moves towards a heroic transcendence; tragedy, which denies the possibility of a different future; or comedy, which celebrates the organic coherence of present.10

David Scott has famously proposed a shift from a romantic to a tragic emplotment in C.L.R. James’s magisterial account of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins. Scott reads The Black Jacobins “as a tragedy of colonial enlightenment,” which “transgresses the now conventional Romance of revolutionary overcoming and offers us the elements of a critical story of our postcolonial time.”11 Scott argues that this shift of historical emplotment – which he reads in the seven new paragraphs appended to the second edition of The Black Jacobins – occurs because between 1938 and 1963, James has registered the waning of a certain optimistic vision of the future of the anticolonial revolutions.

However, this underlying understanding of romantic emplotment will have to be confronted with what G.S. Sahota describes as “the general romantic disregard for bourgeois norms and capitalist clock time,” which becomes clear when our understanding of the form itself is shifted outside Europe to “late colonial” literature within languages like Bengali, Hindi, and Urdu.12 “Romanticism was always situated as a world literary phenomenon, emerging as it did between languages more than within any single one,” Sahota writes. It was “imbricated in imperialism over its entire historical durée.” The study of late colonial romanticism outside of European languages demonstrates that it constituted “an evolving critique, generated by yet ultimately antagonistic toward imperialism.”13 Challenging “the directionality of Enlightenment,” it “spoke to the simultaneity of the nonsimultaneous, of the antimodern within the modern.”14

Guided by this challenge to colonial temporality, I want to point to an important risk: the risk that the tragic emplotment may also draw us, almost imperceptibly, towards a historical eschatology: a vision of a linear historical process that inevitably culminates in a present in which “the anticolonial utopias have gradually withered into postcolonial nightmares.”15 This is the nightmare that Hartman, too, experiences when she visits Ghana, whose symbolism of black self-determination for figures like W.E.B. Du Bois, Richard Wright, and Martin Luther King gave way to an impoverishment in which “racism and colonialism seemed indestructible.”16

My argument is that neither an Enlightenment teleology nor a postcolonial eschatology will suffice for understanding this historical process.17 It is neither an apocalyptic trajectory which demands pessimism and despair, nor an unattained salvation which allows us optimism and hope. These affects are unavoidable; they are persistent and powerful features of the experience of political practice. But between these opposed terms, there is no reconciliation, and because of their mutual imbrication and complicity, a decision on behalf of one against the other is a futile gesture. None of these affects has an intrinsic political content.

An affect, Spinoza tells us, is a composition of bodies in which a body’s power of acting is increased or diminished. Passions are confused ideas of our body’s greater or lesser powers of acting. They operate at the level of the imaginary, or of ideology, in the sense that they are elements of the way we make sense of our relationship to material relations of causality which necessarily exceed our lived experience. But all of these affects must be situated within a historical and political temporality which determines if they are sad passions, passions which diminish our power of acting.18 Even those affects that appear to be positive and affirmative may remain essentially passive – the optimism which believes the existing world is the best that God could create, and the hope with which one awaits the gift of God’s grace. A choice on behalf of one particular affect in any given narration of history will inevitably carry the traces of its other. And when the historical process within which these affects appear is one whose outcome is determined in advance, it matters little which emplotment it follows; they are all sad passions. Only when we are the adequate cause of an affect, rather than its passive object, we may speak of action rather than passion.

Let us now arrive at what is, after all, the story I sought to tell in Mistaken Identity: the beginning of the term “identity politics,” and its reversal of fortune. It is a story which begins with the Combahee River Collective in 1977, to which I devote the first chapter. The Combahee River Collective proposes the term “identity politics” as a strategic maneuver to disrupt the exclusionary hegemonic universals that had been constructed in the black liberation movement, the feminist movement, and the socialist movement. The assertion not only of the identity of black women, which lay outside the spontaneous self-consciousness, or ideology, of these movements, but quite explicitly the autonomous political organization of black women, could undermine these structures of exclusion and bring about a new general emancipatory possibility, which can be read plainly in a core proposition of the famous collective statement: “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.”19 And what is clear from the historical literature on the Combahee River Collective and in the reflections of its members is that autonomous political organization brought about the possibility of a practice of coalition.

Barbara Smith, a founding member of the collective and co-author of its collective statement, has reflected on this practice of coalition by pointing out that identity cannot be taken to determine or exhaust any political standpoint:

I always say that the people I can work with are the people with whom I share political values and goals and priorities. So that means just about anybody as far as ethnicity, race, gender, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. I don’t have a litmus test for, like, “I only work with certain kinds of people who share my specific identities.” I’m going to be a political idiot if I only work with Black lesbian feminists and refuse to work with anybody else. I mean, I wouldn’t know the things that I know about Black feminism and about organizing if the only people I had ever worked with were Black feminists who were lesbians. Don’t get me wrong. I have learned a tremendous amount from working with people whose specific identities I share, but I also would have lost a lot if I had never worked with people who are different from myself.20

The puzzle of my book is to understand how the concrete, specific, and nuanced revolutionary political hypothesis of the Combahee River Collective came to be inverted, in the present moment, into an abstract and totalizing allusion to hypostatized categories of “race and gender,” and a series of political practices which reject coalitions and solidarities and instead operate according to reductive and essentializing conceptions of the self. This is a complicated history, which I trace in my book with reference to the crisis of hegemony in the 1970s.

As Briahna Joy Gray has pointed out, the consequences of this inversion are practical and contemporary – they are not merely intellectual, and they are not restricted to marginal left infighting. In an analysis of mainstream electoral politics and media debates, Gray writes: “once the distinction between perspective and identity is erased, voters of color become an undifferentiated hive mind incapable of political independence.” The obscene expression of this assumption is that “leftists of color are regularly told—by white liberals!—that we are white and/or secretly racist.”21

Gray identifies three general risks with this weaponized deployment of identity: first, “if people are defined by their demographic characteristics, they can be reduced to those characteristics in a way that obscures differences within groups.” Second, if their “identity” is equated with their “perspective,” then “dissenting members within the identity group risk having their viewpoints erased.” Third, “people of a particular political faction” are able “to wrongly imply that they speak for all members of their racial or gender group.”22

Quilting Points

Allow me to shift, then, to a narrative which you may be relieved to hear is a comedy: the 2016 Democratic primaries. This comedy came after a black president had been elected, and in his two terms largely carried on the neoliberal and militarist practices of governance that he inherited from the Clinton and Bush years. In this context the characters of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders came to operate as what Lacan called points de capiton – varyingly translated as quilting points, anchoring points, or nodal points – where the shifting relations of racial, sexual, and economic issues were fixed. As Lacan put it, there is the plane of “the sentimental mass of the current of discourse, a confused mass in which appear units, islands, an image, an object, a feeling, a cry, an appeal.” For our purposes it is the plane of the lived experience of social relations, of bodies affected and adrift. And then there is the plane of the signifier, “a pure chain of discourse, a succession of words, in which nothing is isolable.” The quilting point is “the point at which the signified and the signifier are knotted together, between the still floating mass of meanings.”23

Part of what Clinton represented was the continuation of a neoliberal and militarist legacy. Yet she became a quilting point for a “civil rights” agenda, against racial and sexual discrimination, equated in the popular discourse with “identity politics.” Clinton became the fixed signifier of a program that opposed racial and sexual discrimination, instead of being a signifier of a continuing neoliberal and militarist legacy, and any criticism of that legacy was interpreted as an attack on civil rights, or even on particular identity groups themselves. As Gray points out: “if we believe that Hillary Clinton is ‘the candidate of women and people of color,’ and ‘women and people of color’ are defined entirely by those identities, it becomes impossible to understand how anyone who shares the identity could reject the candidate.”24

On the other hand, Sanders became the fixed signifier of a program that opposed economic inequality. But this program was represented by the media as incompatible with a program for racial and sexual equality. The constantly shifting interactions of these social relations were fixed by these quilting points into opposed totalities, and so race and class themselves became fixed as an opposition. Despite the long history of converging anti-racist and anti-capitalist movements in which the politics of race and class were understood to be inseparable – even within the Democratic primaries themselves during the Reagan era, in the form of the Jesse Jackson campaign and the Rainbow Coalition – in 2016 an ideology of race was used to undermine and reject the progressive aspects of the Sanders platform, while the neoliberalism and militarism of the Clinton platform ended up represented as a progressive agenda.25 This is history as comedy, in which blunder and misrecognition lead to the restoration of pre-existing values.

Thus in our current political conjuncture, the term “identity politics” has acquired what Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe would describe as a new hegemonic articulation. Any use of the term today must reckon with the logic described by Laclau and Mouffe, recalling the point de capiton, that “politico-hegemonic articulations retroactively create the interests they claim to represent.” They do not simply name an object that already exists, and there is no necessary and intrinsic connection between the signifier and what it appears to represent; rather, their “originary institution” is achieved through a “contingent articulation,” which is constantly contested by “politics as an autonomous activity.”26

We could certainly describe the history of this term “identity politics” in this way, and in my opinion the neoliberal status quo has won this lexical war of maneuver. When mainstream television pundits and liberal journalists refer to “identity politics,” they do not mean a revolutionary program to overcome interlocking systems of oppression; they mean the demand of identity groups reduced to their injured status for recognition by the state, and for inclusion in the existing economic and political élite. When activists use the term “identity politics,” some may indeed be referring to the revolutionary and coalitional practice that characterized the term’s inception, but others may be referring to a usage learned in the depoliticized classrooms of the corporate university, in which privilege-checking and “calling out” have replaced the mass organization and concrete projects that characterized the history of anti-racist movements.

Given the existing balance of forces, I propose that the important thing is not to cling to any specific term proposed in a past conjuncture, but instead to work to propose terms that are adequate for our own conjuncture. To presuppose that the term “identity politics” has a unitary meaning which has different consequences in different contexts simply accepts as fixed the hegemonic meaning that is currently quilted to the signifier, and then unconsciously rewrites the contested and contradictory history of the term according to the logic of the dominant ideology. Discourses on identity politics that presuppose the aforementioned hegemonic meaning, and propose that the term still has a radical or emancipatory potential, are operating at the level of a speculative empiricism which seeks to unveil the object which is veiled by the word, and whose revelation will resolve the political difficulties that it generates. In such accounts of identity politics, political antagonisms are rendered external to the term, which, it is hoped, will grow capacious enough to incorporate and account for every contradiction, resolved into a unity which is retrojected back into its history and will persist for eternity.

However, I cannot follow Laclau and Mouffe in proposing that this problem can be resolved by generating “a chain of equivalence among the various democratic struggles against different forms of subordination,” because this flattens different social struggles and different forms of subordination and ignores the specificity of their articulation into a social structure at a given historical moment.27 As Hartman argues in her landmark Scenes of Subjection, we can only understand concrete histories of domination by studying “the articulation of various modes of power, without simply resorting to additive models of domination or interlocking oppressions that analytically maintain the distinctiveness and separateness of these modes and their effects, as if they were isolated elements that could be easily enumerated – race, class, gender, and sexuality – or as if they were the ingredients of a recipe for the social whereby the mere listing of elements enables an adequate rendering.”28

So I propose here instead a partisan analysis, that is, a method of thought which draws a line of demarcation in a specific conjuncture and with reference to a specific history. This is the dividing line between the history of mass anti-racist movements and a contemporary liberal elitism which justifies itself through the cynical appropriation of this legacy. The thesis of Mistaken Identity is that what we now call identity politics is a neutralization of the legacy of the mass anti-racist movements. This is a partisan thesis; in fact, any theoretical account of a political term will be partisan, even if it denies its partisanship. I intentionally posit a specific and partisan thesis, a thesis which is meant to produce a division that puts us at a distance from the ideological.

Return to the Source

I would like to examine this kind of practice of partisanship in a different historical conjuncture. The anticolonial revolutionary Amilcar Cabral shows in a 1972 speech called “Identity and Dignity in the National Liberation Struggle” how in the specific context of national liberation struggles in Africa, the seemingly unitary factor of identity ends up dividing in two. Surprisingly, he begins by describing a biological aspect of identity, meaning a line of filiation through biological reproduction that makes the consistency and coherence of a community over time. However, this community only constitutes an identity through sociological factors, which are fundamental and determining. Furthermore, this identity is “not a constant,” but is rather in “constant change.” This is because “biologically and sociologically, there are no two beings… completely the same or completely different… Therefore the identity of a being is always a relative quality.” No one, Cabral adds, can have a complete awareness of their own identity. Identity takes place at the level of the imaginary, or of ideology, because our awareness of our identities is always “incomplete, partial and false,” because it “leaves out or does not comprehend the decisive influence of social conditions on the content and form of identity.”29

Cabral then applies this complex account of the formation of identity to the class differentiation of the anticolonial struggle. He says the indigenous masses in the rural areas of the colonies are largely autonomous from the culture of the colonial power, and in fact are antagonistic against it, so identity does not appear as a problem for them. Their culture and their resistance to entirely external domination preserve their identity. In his words, “the masses of people… are the repository of the culture and at the same time the only social sector who can preserve and build it up and make history.”30 It is from the vantage point of the masses, rather than the romantic world-historical revolutionary, that a different future for the anticolonial revolution is projected.

It is only the petite bourgeoisie who experience a loss of identity, as they come to identify with the colonizing power through colonial education, integration into colonial economic and political structures, and migration to the colonizing country. They directly experience marginalization, humiliation, alienation, and rejection by the colonizer, and so they develop what Cabral calls a “frustration complex” which leads them to want to re-discover their identity, by turning back to the indigenous culture.31

This is what Cabral calls the “return to the source.” It is a rejection of the claim to superiority by the colonizing culture. Significantly, Cabral adds that the return to the source

seems to be even more pressing the greater is the isola­tion of the petite bourgeoisie (or native elites) and their acute feelings of frustration as in the case of African diasporas living in the colonial or racist metropolis. It comes as no surprise that the theories or “movements” such as Pan-Africanism or Negritude (two pertinent expressions arising mainly from the assumption that all black Africans have a cultural identity) were propounded outside black Africa. More recently, the Black Amer­icans’ claim to an African identity is another proof, possibly rather a desperate one, of the need for a “return to the source” although clearly it is influenced by a new situation: the fact that the great majority of African people are now independent.32

The return to the source, Cabral emphasizes, does not have an automatic political meaning. If it “goes beyond the individual and is expressed through ‘groups’ or ‘movements,’ the contradiction is transformed into… the struggle for liberation.” It provides a basis for the reconnection of the intellectuals with the indigenous masses, through the medium of culture, which can develop into a liberation movement. However, if this connection between intellectuals and the masses does not happen, Cabral says that the return to the source becomes “nothing more than… a kind of political opportunism.”33 That is the contradiction of the return to the source. It can become a transition to the struggle for liberation or it can be political opportunism, which leaves the class differentiation internal to the society of the colonized intact.

To introduce a partisan division does something different from the affective divisions with which I began: optimism and pessimism, hope and despair. Cabral’s theoretical practice divides identity into the biological and the sociological; it divides the return to the source into liberation and opportunism. Hartman describes precisely this partisanship at the end of her year in Ghana:

If after a year in Ghana I could still call myself an African American, it was because my Africa had its source in the commons created by fugitives and rebels, in the courage of suicidal girls aboard slave ships, and in the efforts, thwarted and realized, of revolutionaries intent upon stopping the clock and instituting a new order, even if it cost them their lives. For me, returning to the source didn’t lead to the great courts and to the regalia of kings and queens. The legacy that I chose to claim was articulated in the ongoing struggle to escape, stand down, and defeat slavery in all of its myriad forms. It was the fugitive’s legacy. It didn’t require me to wait on bended knee for a great emancipator. It wasn’t the dream of a White House, even if it was in Harlem, but of a free territory. It was a dream of autonomy rather than nationhood. It was the dream of an elsewhere, with all its promises and dangers, where the stateless might, at last, thrive.34

The Field of the Visible

Contemporary ideologies of pessimism and despair are closely tied to the opportunistic return to the source. By ideology I mean, once again, the imaginary relation to the determining sociological factors of identity, the constitution of selfhood by social relations which can never be perceived as a totality in lived experience. Contemporary discourse on race frequently engages in a regression of identity to the biological, the biological disguised as the ontological, but what is actually a metaphysics of presence, of race as substance, present, visible, and legible in the body, rather than inscribed on the body by the chain, the brand, and the lash.

It is thus by no means simple to define the relationship between race and identity. As Hartman writes in Scenes of Subjection,

It is important to remember that blackness is defined here in terms of social relationality rather than identity; thus blackness incorporates subjects normatively defined as black, the relations among blacks, whites, and others, and the practices that produce racial difference. Blackness marks a social relationship of dominance and abjection and potentially one of redress and emancipation; it is a contested figure at the very center of social struggle.35

Hartman describes not only how these relations are constituted within the practices of slavery, but also how race is reconstituted after Emancipation and after Reconstruction. The exemplary case is Plessy v. Ferguson, and Hartman’s analysis identifies its core question: “what did it mean to assign race when race exceeded the realm of the visually verifiable?” Homer Plessy’s ability to pass for white in the trains of post-Reconstruction Louisiana, where the race line ran between separate railway cars, was a complex and contradictory contestation of the very meaning of race. As Hartman puts it:

The preservation of racial integrity and the attendant enforcement of racial legibility required the constant examination of bodies for visible and sanguineous inscriptions of blackness. However, as in the case of Plessy himself, these racial signs were sometimes not detected or misread… Thus the Court affirmed the value of whiteness while admitting the uncertainty that attended the reading and fixing of race.36

It is this uncertainty that is at stake in Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel Passing. Two black women, Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry, grow up together in Chicago, and follow diverging paths. While Irene remains in the black community and pursues a life within the Harlem petite bourgeoisie, Clare passes as white, marries a wealthy white man, and attempts to uproot herself from every trace of her former life.

After a chance encounter, Clare invites Irene for tea along with their other childhood friend Gertrude. When Clare’s husband John arrives, it becomes clear not only that he is completely unaware that his own wife is black, but also that he has assumed that the other two women are white. Here we witness, first of all, a remarkable drama of recognition and misrecognition. Clare is passing intentionally, but Irene and Gertrude are passing unintentionally. All are, in their own different senses, “performing whiteness.”37 Not only that, but John launches into a series of grotesque racist jokes, forcing each woman to experience simultaneous conflicting emotions and impossible choices. Irene does not correct him or rebuke him, but sits silently, “seething with anger, mortification, and shame,” while also repressing “rage and rebellion.”38 Both shame and rage are products of the misrecognition of unintentional passing. Later she asks herself, with “disbelief and resentment,” why she had remained silent. And she reflects on the double bind she encountered. “She couldn’t betray Clare,” the narrator says, “couldn’t even run the risk of appearing to defend a people that were being maligned, for fear that that defence might in some infinitesimal degree lead the way to final discovery of her secret. She had to Clare Kendry a duty. She was bound to her by those very ties of race, which, for all her repudiation of them, Clare had been unable to completely sever.”39

Later Irene recounts this experience to her husband Brian, who considers Irene’s experience to have been banal, and also dismisses passing as a trivial and transitory phenomenon. “They always come back,” he says. “I’ve seen it happen time and time again.” They return to the source. When Irene asks why, Brian gives his remarkable response: “If I knew that, I’d know what race is.”40 After some further speculation on the motivations for passing, Irene dismisses Brian’s tendency to explain everything with a “general biological phrase.”41

Larsen’s narrative of recognition and misrecognition is a tragedy. But rather than viewing its emplotment as closure, I want to call attention to its staging of the performance of identity. Identity is an imaginary constitution of selfhood in the face of misrecognition. It attempts to reconcile the affects which are experienced as an opposition, and which can exist not only between political antagonists but within the lived experience of a single person. To think one knows oneself only to find that one has been misrecognized, and indeed that one’s very selfhood is constituted by misrecognition, is to travel down the highway of despair.

So the sad passions I have described earlier are not only caused by the decline of the power of acting, the decline of mass organizations, but also contribute to this decline, in the form of the rage and resentment which can bubble over into fragmentation and decomposition. To ignore or dismiss these imaginary relations in the name of an already achieved absolute knowledge would be to lose sight of their very real, material causes and consequences. And we are concerned here with a litany of affects which devolve from pessimism and despair.

This is why I began by situating the affects within particular narrations of history, with the kinds of emplotment that provide us a history with guarantees. The romantic teleology of revolution is obviously a history with guarantees. But the notion that the failure to realize this revolution requires us to switch to the tragic eschatology of defeat is merely the obverse of the same narrative. And such an eschatology may not be the source of apocalyptic dread, but rather a source of comfort, because it licenses a political quietism.

For this reason I follow Hartman, who, while acknowledging the inevitability of narrative in recovering the stories suppressed by long histories of violence, also speaks of “narrative restraint.” As she puts it,

the refusal to fill in the gaps and provide closure, is a requirement of this method, as is the imperative to respect black noise—the shrieks, the moans, the non-sense, and the opacity, which are always in excess of legibility and of the law and which hint at and embody aspirations that are wildly utopian, derelict to capitalism, and antithetical to its attendant discourse of Man.42

Practicing this restraint requires us to consider the gaps of a historical process which remains unfinished and unwritten, and thus actively refuse those narrations of history which fill the gaps with a particular affect, or achieve closure by reconciling opposed passions. This is not in order to transcend these passions, but rather to engage in a retreat from the realm of the imaginary: to retreat to material relations and a process of history without guarantees.43 It is a mode of thinking about the future, as Banu Bargu puts it, “neither as a teleological movement, nor as a prognostic device, but as a discourse that precludes closure and termination.” Thus it is a discourse which is “driven by politics.”44 It is such a political discourse that may give us the possibility of reinscribing these affects in different processes, and of discovering other affects and compositions that increase rather than diminish our power of acting. As Bargu writes, “the point is not simply to think the ways in which one mass ideology can be substituted for another, however revolutionary it might be, but to understand the processes and forms in which political subjects are constituted so that the conditions of possibility of their transformation can be delineated.”45

Unfinished Histories

To explain what I mean by this I will return to C.L.R. James, and to his direct intervention in the concrete problems of postcolonial development at precisely the moment when he supposedly made a turn from romance to tragedy. His intervention takes the form of the remarkable text called “Lenin and the Problem.” Invited in 1963 to submit an article by a political journal in Ghana, he responded that what he had to say about the leadership of independent African nations “would not be published in any African paper.” So instead he submitted an article, published in Ghana in 1964, on “Lenin’s final reflections on Soviet Russia, the first underdeveloped country to face the problem of the transition to the modern world.” It would be included in his book Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution, the bulk of which consists of an account he began to write after long discussions in Ghana with Kwame Nkrumah and George Padmore in 1957, the year of Ghana’s independence. It would be published with supplementary material 20 years later.46 In his 1977 introduction James laments that in 1958 he “had sent a bound copy of these writings of Lenin to Nkrumah to mark his fiftieth birthday. But it seems that only after an ocean of blood, sweat and tears will African politicians be able to understand Lenin’s prophetic warnings and drastic revolutionary proposals for solution.”47

In this book as a whole James deals directly and extensively with the problems that lead to our postcolonial present. His starting point is always a celebration of the universal significance of the African revolution. As he wrote in a letter to Nkrumah in 1962: “you have always had as your undeviating aim the emancipation from a subordinate position of the people of Africa and of African descent and your struggle for that emancipation in the context of worldwide events and the emancipation of the whole of humanity.”48 In this regard James recalls the contestation of universality that appears in his account of the relation of the 1789 French Revolution and the 1791 Haitian Revolution in The Black Jacobins.

The French revolution introduced the “the paradox of national universalism”: it “created the idea of universalism in modern France and welded the identity of the French nation to that idea.”49 However, it is not satisfactory to simply request inclusion in this identity, which would reduce universality to an entry permit into a history determined by Europe.50 As Adom Getachew has brilliantly shown in her careful analysis of the Haitian political process through 1804, the universality of the Haitian Revolution cannot be reduced to a mere realization or extension of the “truncated universals” that originated in Europe. It should rather be understood in its specificity as “an alternative universal premised on the ideal of autonomy and emerging out the specific sites of colonial domination.”51

In Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution and elsewhere James applied this principle of specificity to grasp the universality of the anticolonial revolutions. His narration of the struggle for independence shows us Nkrumah returning to the Gold Coast from London in 1947, having been trained in Marxism and Pan-Africanism, and beginning his work as an organizer. His political practice revolves around his famous slogan: “organisation decides everything.” He immediately proposes a program of political struggle for the United Gold Coast Convention, and goes from village to village to educate and mobilize the population. Nkrumah’s distinction as a political leader, writes James, is his ability to navigate the “innumerable twists, turns, accidents, and catastrophes” that characterize revolutionary politics, which “like any creative activity, consists in equal measure of careful preparation and leaps into the unknown.”52

Unlike other Western-educated African intellectuals, Nkrumah does not look down on the ordinary people of the Gold Coast, but rather goes out among them, and speaks to them of the economic nature of imperialism, the history of political struggles for freedom, the importance of universal suffrage, the importance of national unity, and the program for independence. He travels great distances. James recounts: “Often, his old car having broken down, to reach them he had to sleep by the roadside. He carried his luggage in a small suitcase. He slept in their mud huts and ate yam and fufu with them.”53 For James, “what matters most is Nkrumah’s sympathy for the ordinary people, his intuitive understanding of them, his respect for them.” He compares this to Lenin, who “used to sit in his office in the Kremlin listening for hours to delegations of peasants telling him what he had already heard dozens of times and in any case knew beforehand.”54

As the masses grow impatient with the gradualism of the leadership, Nkrumah follows their call to form the Convention People’s Party in 1949 and launches a general strike for “self-government now” in 1950, as part of campaign he calls “positive action.” The electoral victory of the CPP the following year, for James, does little more than “translate into political terms set by the government what the people had already said in their own way in the general strike.”55

At this point, however, begins the long and complicated process of building a new state, and for Padmore and James the fact that Nkrumah delays independence for another six years ultimately “caused the deterioration of his party and government.”56 From this perspective he declaration of independence in 1957 is only a moment in the longer process by which a new government is being built, and an entirely new set of questions arise. James observes Ghana closely and from time to time communicates his concerns. What worries him above all is the fact that the independent government has inherited the structures of the colonial administration, and that the class differentiation of the society prevents the masses of people from participating in and supervising governance.

Whatever tragic dimensions we may be tempted to project onto Nkrumah, in James’s account Nkrumah’s failure is not that of the tragic hero.57 It is the failure of a transitional process which has no necessary and predetermined outcome.58 The transitional process must be understood in the context of the colonial encounter, which leads James to an analysis of the political structures of the capitalist West. James declares that “Modern Europe begins in 1848,” rather than 1789. He cites Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte and the description in that text of the growth of the state machine through the various processes of bourgeois revolution and restoration.59 And he sees this expansion of the executive power and the parasitic bureaucracy taking place in his present: “The African state enmeshes, controls, regulates, superintends and tutors civil society from its most comprehensive manifestations down to its most insignificant stirrings.”60 This was a state plagued by “the corruption of government and party officials from the highest to the lowest.”61

Note that James identifies this state machine and its corruption as a phenomenon general to the capitalist West and the postcolonial states, not as the outgrowth of some aspect of non-Western cultures. However, this careful distinction James makes is frequently missed, because of an overwhelming fixation on the question of economic development, which lies at the center of what now appears as the postcolonial nightmare. The distinction became completely obscured when optimism about African development gave way to what in the 1980s began to be called Afropessimism, predating by decades the recent academic trend.62 This was an argument that the continent was mired in poverty not only because it was a victim of colonialism, but also because its backwards cultural values had made it resistant to modernity, and it had thus refused to develop. A fairly precise repetition, in fact, of the colonial myths which James opened his book on Ghana by eviscerating, the myths that were used by British colonialism to justify its rule as a gift of development, which stood refuted by the utter failure of the colonial government to meet the standards invented by its own mythology, and the flagrancy of its violent exploitation which was met with the autonomous resistance of the colonized.63

Hartman recalls in Lose Your Mother the experience she has during her visit to Ghana, familiar to anyone who has spent time in the postcolonial world, of the rationing of electricity, when one is suddenly reminded of the heat and darkness from which even the middle classes are only temporarily shielded. She recalls Nkrumah’s declaration in 1957 that “what other countries have taken three hundred years or more to achieve” would have to be achieved in Ghana in a single generation, and the step he took in 1965 towards “electricity in abundance” when he “switched on the power at the Akosombo Dam.”64 It is difficult not to recall Lenin’s declaration that “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country.” But even aside his urgency for development in this 1920 speech, Lenin warned that “that there has been a revival of bureaucratic methods, against which a systematic struggle has to be waged,” and that “if we wish to combat bureaucratic methods, we must draw people from below into this work.”65

Indeed, when James cites this same 1957 call for accelerated development in Ghana, he notices that Nkrumah suggests that achieving this may require “emergency measures of a totalitarian kind.”66 Already in 1958, though he is unwilling to condemn a leadership operating under extraordinary external constraints, James registers a discomfort with this shift away from the mass organization of 1947-1951, in a series of letters and articles culminating in “Lenin and the Problem.” And so when in 1966 a coup d’etat deposes Nkrumah and installs a régime friendly to what Nkrumah had famously described the previous year as “neocolonialism,” James writes an article called “The Rise and Fall of Kwame Nkrumah” in which he points out that “in his frantic attempt to modernise Ghana,” Nkrumah “had become more and more dependent on the leadership of a now huge bureaucracy.”67 Furthermore, “he had inherited a British colonial government organised for purposes quite different from his own.”68 In this situation he assumed dictatorial powers in order to resolve conflicts internal to the bureaucratic state machine, and ignored or forgot that for the government to function democratically, political leaders would have to be “on trial before the mass of the population.”69

So rather than vacillating between optimism and pessimism about economic development, let us consider the political points of Lenin that James thought were so relevant for the postcolonial world.70 James refers to Lenin because, as I have already quoted him saying, he has studied the Russian Revolution and the building of Soviet society as the first historical example of revolution and socialist construction in an underdeveloped country. But he departs from a teleology of development, because he sees that the accelerated economic development of the USSR, which became a core reference point for postcolonial development, came after a period in which fundamental political and organizational questions had been left unresolved. These were global questions, bridging Africa, Asia, and Latin America, where postcolonial states confronted the problem of development within specific social and cultural conditions – but consistently arrived, within the specificity of their own particular political trajectories, at the problems Lenin had encountered years before. Indeed, alongside Lenin and Nkrumah, the other figures James lists who confronted these questions are Gandhi and Mao Zedong.71

It is not a romantic vision of Lenin which James proposes here. Nor is it a tragic vision of Lenin’s hubris begetting tyranny. It is instead an account of Lenin the organizer, who is deeply and critically preoccupied with the seemingly mundane problems of socialist construction. His significance, as Bargu puts it, is that “Lenin not only analyzes the structure of his own conjuncture but also identifies the political project dictated by the contemporary situation, works to create the agency for that political project, and acts upon the contemporary situation by seizing on the opportunities provided by the irruption of events in the direction of that political project.”72 According to James, Lenin’s political project in 1923 revolves around state reform and mass education.73 He identifies Lenin’s two “essential points”: “(1) The reconstruction of the governmental apparatus which, he said, despite the name soviet, was no more than an inheritance from tsarism; and (2) The education of the almost illiterate peasantry.”74

To engage in the socialist transition, to move towards the society in which, as James said in a detournement of Lenin, “every cook can govern,” means not passively following a teleology of development, but actively dismantling the survivals of the previous state apparatus, and constructing institutions of education that make mass self-governance possible.75 In “Lenin and the Problem,” James characterizes this as an “organisational reconstruction” whose outcome cannot be determined in advance.76 Lenin himself goes through a profound learning process; James writes: “For Lenin the backwardness of an underdeveloped country imposed on the party the necessity of teaching and above all teaching themselves.” This sentence is so important to James that he repeats it twice, almost verbatim, on the same page.77 And it is impossible not to recognize here the classic Marxian theme that the educator must also be also educated. James quotes Lenin’s last article, “Better Fewer, But Better,” which says:

In order to renovate our state apparatus we must at all costs set out, first, to learn, secondly, to learn, and thirdly, to learn, and then see to it that learning shall not remain a dead letter, or a fashionable catch-phrase (and we should admit in all frankness that this happens very often with us), that learning shall really become part of our very being, that it shall actually and fully become a constituent element of our social life.78

Is there a solution, I am constantly asked, to the problems I identify with identity politics, to the fact that the signifier for a strategy that sought to disrupt exclusion and extend emancipatory struggles beyond their existing limits, has now been quilted to practices of fragmentation and demobilization? I am tempted to return to the revolutionary slogan of Nkrumah that organization decides everything; and I believe that what is necessary is precisely the kind of strategic political thought identified by James, which retreats from the oscillation between passions and a history with guarantees to everyday organizational practices in which the educator is also educated and the future remains open. There is no general answer, but only careful preparation and the leap into the unknown. To invoke once again Spinoza, taking a certain liberty: we do not yet know what a social movement can do.


  1. Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), 5-6. 

  2. Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe 12:2 (June 2008): 11-12. The category of the commodity is central to Hartman’s analysis: “Impossible to fathom was that all this death had been incidental to the acquisition of profit and to the rise of capitalism. Today we might describe it as collateral damage. The unavoidable losses created in pursuit of the greater objective. Death wasn’t a goal of its own but just a byproduct of commerce, which has had the lasting effect of making negligible all the millions of lives lost. Incidental death occurs when life has no normative value, when no humans are involved, when the population is, in effect, seen as already dead. Unlike the concentration camp, the gulag, and the killing field, which had as their intended end the extermination of a population, the Atlantic trade created millions of corpses, but as a corollary to the making of commodities. To my eyes this lack of intention didn’t diminish the crime of slavery but from the vantage of judges, juries, and insurers exonerated the culpable agents. In effect, it made it easier for a trader to countenance yet another dead black body or for a captain to dump a shipload of captives into the sea in order to collect the insurance, since it wasn’t possible to kill cargo or to murder a thing already denied life. Death was simply a part of the workings of the trade” (Lose Your Mother, 31). 

  3. Ibid., 9. See chapter 7 of Lose Your Mother, “The Dead Book.” 

  4. Ibid., 4. 

  5. Ibid., 13. I am indebted to Wendell Hassan Marsh for bringing my attention to this passage, and for posing many of the questions that I explore here. 

  6. Joshua Dienstag, Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 18. 

  7. Joshua Dienstag, “Pessimism” in Encyclopedia of Political Theory, ed. Mark Bevir (Los Angeles: Sage, 2010), 1029. 

  8. Robyn Marasco, The Highway of Despair (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), 10, 16. Not only Robyn Marasco’s book, but also her perceptive comments and probing questions about my book, have inspired much of the argument of this essay. 

  9. Hayden White, Tropics of Discourse (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), 58. 

  10. Hayden White, Metahistory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973), 7-10. 

  11. Of course, the shift from romance to tragedy is incarnated in the figure of Toussaint L’Ouverture, a romantic and yet tragic hero who “is placed at a crossroads of absolute choice between options to which he is equally and completely committed (the freedom of the slaves on the one hand and the enlightenment of revolutionary France on the other) and in circumstances in which he must choose and yet cannot choose without fatal cost”; David Scott, Conscripts of Modernity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), 14. The dilemmas of postcoloniality which Scott presupposes in Conscripts of Modernity are explicated in Refashioning Futures: Criticism After Postcoloniality (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999). 

  12. G.S. Sahota, Late Colonial Sublime (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2018), 9. See chapter 2, “Romanticism’s Horizons, or The Transmission of Critique.” I am also in dialogue with the crucial analysis of emplotment and the national question in Bue Rübner Hansen, “Winter in Catalonia,” Viewpoint Magazine (December 19, 2017). 

  13. Ibid., 11. 

  14. Ibid., 10, 12. 

  15. Ibid., 2. In his lovely tribute, “Stuart Hall’s Ethics,” Scott proposes conceptions of history and identity that are in great concordance with mine here, drawing on the common source of Stuart Hall; Small Axe, 9:1 (2005): 1-16. See also Hall’s extraordinary response, “Through the Prism of an Intellectual Life” in Culture, Politics, Race, and Diaspora, ed. Brian Meeks (Kingston: Ian Randle, 2007). Where I disagree with Scott is his insistence that these conceptions of history and identity involve a break with Marxism, which he narrowly understands as a variation on a Hegelian teleological theme; see Omens of Adversity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014), 5-6. I believe that a more expansive conception of Marxism – including a very profound and important underground current of anti-teleological Marxist thought – is required if we are to understand the thought of C.L.R. James, not to mention the contradictions of anticolonial revolution. In Stuart Hall’s Voice (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017), nearly a decade and a half later, Scott takes some distance from the earlier tribute’s fidelity to Hall’s problematic, but in a gesture of friendship which cannot fail to move the reader, retaining the fundamental points of departure, so central to Hall’s thought, of contingency, conjuncture, displacement, and dispersal. 

  16. Hartman, Lose Your Mother, 37. 

  17. See Étienne Balibar, “Eschatology versus Teleology: The Suspended Dialogue between Derrida and Althusser” in Derrida and the Time of the Political, ed. Pheng Cheah and Suzanne Guerlac (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009) and Warren Montag, “Althusser and the Problem of Eschatology” in Althusser and Theology, ed. Agon Hamza (Leiden: Brill, 2016). 

  18. See Spinoza in the Ethics: “From what has been said it is clear that we are driven about in many ways by external causes, and that, like waves on the sea, driven by contrary winds, we toss about, not knowing our outcome and fate. But I said that I have shown only the main [NS: affects], not all the conflicts of mind there can be. For proceeding in the same way as above, we can easily show that love is joined to repentance, contempt, shame, and so on. Indeed, from what has already been said I believe it is clear to anyone that the various affects can be compounded with one another in so many ways, and that so many variations can arise from this composition that they cannot be defined by any number” (IIIP59S). 

  19. “The Combahee River Collective Statement” in Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, ed., How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective (Chicago: Haymarket, 2017), 20-1. 

  20. “Interview with Barbara Smith” in Taylor, How We Get Free, 64. 

  21. Briahna Joy Gray, “How Identity Became a Weapon Against the Left,” Current Affairs (September 3, 2017). I have sought to address many of Gray’s thoughtful and challenging questions about my book in this article. 

  22. Ibid. 

  23. Jacques Lacan, The Psychoses, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller and trans. Russell Grigg (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1997), 261, 268. 

  24. Gray, “How Identity Became a Weapon Against the Left.” 

  25. I have elaborated my thoughts on the differences between the Jesse Jackson and Bernie Sanders campaigns in response to the challenging and constructive commentary of Bill Fletcher, Jr.; see Bill Fletcher Jr. and Danny Glover, “Visualizing a Neo-Rainbow,” The Nation (January 2005) and “Bernie and the Movement,” Jacobin (February 2016). A compelling account of the significance of the 1984 primaries and the response by the white left to the Rainbow Coalition can be found in Mike Davis, Prisoners of the American Dream (London: Verso, 1986). 

  26. Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (New York: Verso, 2001), xi; see also 112-4. 

  27. Laclau and Mouffe, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, xviii. This becomes apparent in their theoretical commentary on identity throughout the book, which makes many valuable points while progressively lapsing into a purely chaotic and idealist conception of the social, and a weak and ineffectual conception of politics; see especially chapter 6, “Beyond the Positivity of the Social: Antagonisms and Hegemony.” For a brilliant critique, delivered with enviable ease in the course of a conversation, see “On postmodernism and articulation: an interview with Stuart Hall” in Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies, ed. David Morley and Kuan-Hsing Chen (New York: Routledge, 1996). 

  28. Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 118-9. 

  29. Amilcar Cabral, Return to the Source (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1973), 64. 

  30. Ibid., 61. 

  31. Ibid., 62. 

  32. Ibid., 62-3; see also 90-2. 

  33. Ibid., 64. 

  34. Hartman, Lose Your Mother, 234. 

  35. Hartman, Scenes of Subjection, 56-7. She adds, crucially: “The emphasis on the joining of race, subjection, and spectacle is intended to denaturalize race and underline its givenness—that is, the strategies through which it is made to appear as if it has always existed, thereby denying the coerced and cultivated production of race. (This was particularly the case in the antebellum period, in which race was made an absolute marker of status or condition and being black came to be identified with, if not identical to, the condition of enslavement.) The ‘naturalization’ of blackness as a particular enactment of pained contentment requires an extremity of force and violence to maintain this seeming ‘givenness.’ The ‘givenness’ of blackness results from the brutal corporealization of the body and the fixation of its constituent parts as indexes of truth and racial meaning. The construction of black bodies as phobogenic objects estranged in a corporeal malediction and the apparent biological certainty of this malediction attest to the power of the performative to produce the very subject which it appears to express.” 

  36. Ibid., 195-6. For a vitally important discussion of the problem of the visibility of race in the context of contemporary technoscience, see Paul Gilroy, Against Race (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), 11-53. 

  37. I am adapting the complex analysis of performativity in Hartman, Scenes of Subjection, 56-9. 

  38. Nella Larsen, Passing (New York: Penguin, 2003), 42. 

  39. Ibid., 52. 

  40. Ibid., 55. 

  41. Ibid., 56. 

  42. Harman, “Venus,” 12. See also Stephen Best and Saidiya Hartman, “Fugitive Justice,” Representations 92:1 (Fall 2005): 1-15. This article engages directly with Scott’s account of narrative, but note that Best and Hartman do not specifically adopt a tragic emplotment, instead mentioning a melancholic affect. I am trying to push the conception of narrative towards a different historical temporality: one in which multiple temporalities coexist and cannot be resolved into narrative closure. On this point see Massimiliano Tomba’s forthcoming Insurgent Universality and Marx’s Temporalities (Leiden: Brill, 2012). 

  43. I part ways with Scott’s equation of Hall’s “without guarantees” with the tragic; Stuart Hall’s Voice, 82-4, 129-30. 

  44. Banu Bargu, “Machiavelli After Althusser” in The Radical Machiavelli, ed. Filippo Lucchese, Fabio Frosini and Vittorio Morfino (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 434-5. 

  45. Banu Bargu, “Althusser’s Materialist Theater: Ideology and Its Aporias,” differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 26:3 (December 2015): 83. Here I only begin to address some important questions posed to me about my book by Banu Bargu, specifically regarding ideology and the development of subjectivities of resistance. An elaboration on these questions will take certainly take as its starting point her sharp and insightful commentary, which I do not have the space to do justice to here. 

  46. C.L.R. James, Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution (Westport: Lawrence Hill, 1977), 11. The complexity of C.L.R. James’s assessment of Lenin (and indeed of the meaning of “Leninism”) can be interestingly compared to the conception proposed in Scott’s Omens of Adversity, of “a more tightly knit, more disciplined, and more doctrinally focused party form… seeking… to take state power” in contrast to “the Jamesian model of the party as an agitational tribune with a relatively antihierarchical and inclusive organizational structure” (40-1). Here we can only briefly touch on the complicated relationship between organization and spontaneity in James’s thought, and the relationship of the party to this dialectic, but it is worth simply noting what James wrote in “Lenin and the Vanguard Party” in 1963 (once again that pivotal year): “Lenin never had as a central thesis of Marxism the establishment of the one party state. His central concern was never the party. So as to facilitate controversy I want to repeat, central to his ideas was never the party, never, never, never”; The C.L.R. James Reader, ed. Anne Grimshaw (Cambridge: Blackwell, 1992). 

  47. Ibid., 11-2. 

  48. Ibid., 179. 

  49. Tyler Stovall, Transnational France (Boulder: Westview Press, 2015), 14. 

  50. This is essentially what Stovall does in Transnational France, 473-5. 

  51. Adom Getachew, “Universalism After the Post-colonial Turn: Interpreting the Haitian Revolution,” Political Theory 44:6 (2016): 822-3, 832. Getachew also points out that Toussaint remained attached to the French identity as the mediating element of universalism, while Dessalines proposed a political blackness as a universalist conception of Haiti as an “empire of liberty” (827, 835-7). I thank Massimiliano Tomba for bringing this article to my attention. For an important analysis of the tension between self-emancipation and rights, citizenship, and the nation-state, see Carolyn E. Fick, “The Haitian Revolution and the Limits of Freedom: Defining Citizenship in the Revolutionary Era,” Social History 32:4 (2007): 394-414. For an account of the general question of “truncation and fulfillment” see Samuel Moyn, “On the Nonglobalization of Ideas” in Global Intellectual History, ed. Samuel Moyn and Andrew Sartori (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013). See also David Scott, “Antinomies of Slavery, Enlightenment, and Universal History,” Small Axe 14:3 (November 2010), with which I am largely in agreement. 

  52. James, Nkrumah, 82. See also Amilcar Cabral, “Homage to Kwame Nkrumah” in Unity and Struggle (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1979). 

  53. Ibid., 84. 

  54. Ibid., 119-20. 

  55. Ibid., 146. 

  56. James, “The Rise and Fall of Kwame Nkrumah” in The C.L.R. James Reader, 357. 

  57. In 1957-8, he was equally derisive of a romantic view, despite the very positive portrayal of the process leading to independence; see James, Nkrumah, 139. Consider also his remarks specifically comparing Nkrumah to Toussaint, made in 1971 at the Institute of the Black World in Atlanta, Georgia, “Lectures on the Black Jacobins,” Small Axe 8 (September 2000): “But he becomes a ruler, he starts to take charge of laws and economic demands and justice and this and that and the other, and he loses contact with the mass of the population. That’s what happens to all of them. It is a historical development… Nkrumah built up the party by personal contact with the mass of the population, and when he became ruler he lost contact with them, and he begins to pass a lot of laws by which he can detain people without trial and so forth” (78-9). I believe that this comparison is best explained by the fact that James had begun to consider Toussaint through the lens of the political process he derived from his study of Lenin and his experience of Nkrumah’s leadership. In the same lectures, James ends with a reflection on the psychological studies of leaders: “we see it is not the weakness of individual men but it is a certain objective situation in which they find themselves that tends to corruption and makes them lose that interest and concern in mobilizing the mass of the population and makes them get lost in the questions of the details of government” (109-11). Scott tends to portray this shift in Toussaint as a tragic flaw (Conscripts, 72-4), but I believe we should follow James’s emphasis on the objective aspect of the post-revolutionary situation. We might also distinguish James’s analysis of the “political character” from an analysis of historical emplotment. 

  58. Just as significant in indicating James’s emphasis on the guiding role of the masses (rather than heroes) in revolutionary struggles is his repeated speculation that if he wrote The Black Jacobins in 1971 he would have shifted the emphasis from Toussaint to the “two thousand leaders” whose insurrectionary plot had terrified General Leclerc in 1802 (75-6, 107-8). For some fascinating background on this point, see Carolyn E. Fick, “C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins, and The Making of Haiti” in The Black Jacobins Reader, ed. Charles Forsdick and Christian Høgsbjerg (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017). 

  59. James, Nkrumah, 12. Compare this emphasis on 1848 to the emphasis on 1789 that one would derive from The Black Jacobins; see David Scott, “The Theory of Haiti” in The Black Jacobins Reader. As for how James viewed The Black Jacobins at the moment of independence, he modestly tells us that it was carefully studied by Nkrumah and “is treasured by most African nationalists and is widely known among Negro leaders in the United States.” Most importantly, he writes: “Historical in form, it drew its contemporaneousness, as all such books must, from the living struggle around us” (Nkrumah, 66). It is this “living struggle” which I wish to emphasize as James’s enduring concern. See Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Volume 11 (New York: International Publishers, 1979), 185-6. One important elaboration on James’s point would come from connecting the revolutionary turbulence in France in 1848 to the slave insurrections in Martinique and the anticolonial revolts in Algeria. Modern Europe was formed by the insurgency of the colonized, as well as by colonial counterinsurgency. 

  60. Ibid., 13. 

  61. Ibid., 15. 

  62. See Boulou Ebanda de B’béri a & P. Eric Louw, “Afropessimism: a genealogy of discourse,” Critical Arts: South-North Cultural and Media Studies 25:3 (2011): 335-346, along with the rest of this special issue on Afropessimism. 

  63. See the first chapter of James, Nkrumah, “The Myth.” 

  64. Hartman, Lose Your Mother, 177. 

  65. V.I. Lenin, “Our Foreign and Domestic Position and Party Tasks” in Collected Works, Volume 31 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1966), 419, 426. It is for this reason that the following month, and again a month later, Lenin vigorously opposes Trotsky’s proposal to “militarize” the trade unions and absorb them into the state; not only is it unacceptable to incorporate independent workers’ institutions into a state deformed by bureaucracy and corruption, the trade unions must be allowed to operate as pedagogical institutions, schools of solidarity and production. These are texts which should be read by anyone interested in making an appraisal of Lenin; they are quoted widely in “Lenin and the Problem,” and were the subject of a series of lectures James gave in Montréal, included in You Don’t Play With Revolution, ed. David Austin (Oakland: AK Press, 2009). See V.I. Lenin, “The Trade Unions, The Present Situation and Trotsky’s Mistakes” and “Once again On the Trade Unions, the Current Situation And the Mistakes Of Trotsky and Buhkarin” in Collected Works, Volume 32 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1965). 

  66. James, Nkrumah, 158. 

  67. James, “Rise and Fall,” 356. 

  68. Ibid., 358. 

  69. Ibid., 359. 

  70. James directly addressed the problem of development in a 1960 speech in Ghana. It is primarily devoted to celebrating the achievement of independence; he says, “what I want to establish this evening is that these policies if followed by the great labour and socialist movements of the world are the policies which could lead not only to the emancipation of Africa but to the emancipation of the whole of modern society from the terrible evils from which they are suffering at the present time.” But gently, constructively, he points to the risks faced by an underdeveloped country existing within the capitalist world market. To try to establish a socialist society it must engage in trade with foreign capital, and it must establish a social layer of people with technical training in order to ultimately operate independent of foreign capital. But it must also prevent foreign capital from establishing market relations and relations of exploitation if it is to continue to build socialism, and in order to do so it must have a functioning socialist party independent of the government, which already shows signs of corruption. See James, Nkrumah, 162, 174. See also “Rise and Fall,” 357-8. 

  71. Ibid., 223. 

  72. Banu Bargu, “In the Theater of Politics: Althusser’s Aleatory Materialism and Aesthetics,” diacritics, 40:3 (Fall 2012): 92. 

  73. The relevant texts are V.I. Lenin, “On Coöperation,” “How We Should Reorganise the Wokers’ and Peasants’ Inspection,” and “Better Fewer, But Better” in Collected Works, Volume 33 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1965). 

  74. James, Nkrumah, 191. 

  75. See C.L.R. James, A New Notion, ed. Noël Ignatiev (Oakland: PM Press, 2010), and V.I. Lenin, “Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power?” in Collected Works, Volume 26 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1964) 113, 127. 

  76. Ibid., 207-8. 

  77. Ibid., 197. The first time it is: “The backwardness of Russia imposed on the party the necessity of teaching and above all teaching themselves.” 

  78. V.I. Lenin “Better Fewer, But Better” in Collected Works, Volume 33 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1966), 488-9. 

Author of the article

is an editor of Viewpoint and author of Mistaken Identity: Anti-Racism and the Struggle Against White Supremacy (Verso, Spring 2018).