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A Special Supplement: The Trouble with Black Power

Black Power—with or without the guerrilla rhetoric—is a “strategic retreat.” “It proposes to change, not the white world outside, but the black world inside, by reforming it into something else politically or economically.” The Muslims, Cruse points out, have “already achieved this in a limited way, substituting religion for politics”; and Malcolm X (whom the advocates of Black Power now list as one of their patron saints) quit the Black Muslims precisely because “this type of Black Power lacked a dynamic, was static and aloof to the broad struggle.” By emphasizing “Psychological Warfare” as “Phase 1” of Black Power, as one of the new nationalists puts it, the advocates of Black Power have placed themselves “almost in the lap of the Nation of Islam.” Moreover, they have reversed the proper order of priorities, according to Cruse, for “psychological equality” must be the product, not the precondition, of cultural regeneration and political power.

He thinks that integrationists, on the other hand, while they may have addressed themselves to the “broad struggle,” conceive of the struggle in the wrong terms. They waste their strength fighting prejudice, when they ought to be organizing the ghetto so that it could exert more influence, say, over the use of anti-poverty funds. Instead of trying to change the Constitution in order to make it “reflect the social reality of America as a nation of nations, or a nation of ethnic groups,” even advocates of violence like Robert Williams propose merely to “implement” the Constitution, with, in Williams’s words, “justice and equality for all people.” Cruse accuses integrationists of being taken in by the dominant mythology of American individualism and of failing to see the importance of collective action along ethnic lines, or—even worse—of mistakenly conceiving collective action in class terms which are irrelevant to the Negro’s situation in America.

CRUSE HIMSELF is a Marxist—that is, a historical materialist. But he opposes the obstinate effort to impose on the Negro problem a class analysis which sees Negroes as an oppressed proletariat. He thinks this obscures, among other things, the nature of the Negro middle class and the role it plays in American life. Actually “middle class” is a misnomer, because this class is not a real bourgeoisie. The most important thing about it is that “Negro businessmen must depend on the Negro group for their support,” which according to Cruse means two things: Negro businessmen are more closely tied to the Negro nation than to their white middle-class counterparts, no matter how hard they may struggle against this identification; and they occupy a marginal position in American capitalism as a whole, since black capitalism can only function in limited areas—personal services to the Negro community, such as barbershops, insurance companies, etc.—which white capitalism does not choose to enter.

Because of its marginal position, the black bourgeoisie does not have the resources to support Negro institutions—a theater, for instance—which might help to give the Negro community some consciousness of itself. Negro intellectuals thus depend on white intellectuals—or white foundations—as much as Negro maids depend on white housewives, even though the intellectual world, according to Cruse, is the only realm in which genuine integration has taken place or is likely to take place. Even there, Negroes have been forced to compete at a disadvantage. They have had to regard their white counterparts not only as colleagues but as patrons. Hence the dominance of Jews in the Negro-Jewish coalition that has been characteristic of American Marxist movements.

THE EFFORT to explain how this coalition emerged and what it did to Negro radicalism occupies the better part of The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. The history of the Negro intellectual from the 1920s to the present necessarily becomes a history of American Marxism as well. Cruse begins with the “Harlem renaissance,” when Marcus Garvey’s version of black nationalism was only one of many signs of cultural and political awakening among American Negroes, and he shows, step by step, how Negro intellectuals retreated from these promising beginnings and began to preach culturally sterile and politically futile doctrines of proletarian uplift. Thus in the Twenties and Thirties Negro intellectuals lent themselves to the Communists’ efforts to convince Moscow that American Negroes could become the spearhead of a proletarian revolution. A delegation of Negro Communists in Moscow claimed in 1922 that “in five years we will have the American revolution”—just as Stokely Carmichael now carries a similar message to Havana. “I listened to the American delegates deliberately telling lies about conditions in America,” wrote the poet Claude McKay, “and I was disgusted.”

Thirty-eight years later Harold Cruse found himself in a somewhat similar position in Castro’s Cuba, where he had gone with LeRoi Jones and other Americans “to ‘see for ourselves’ what it was all about.” “The ideology of a new revolutionary wave in the world at large had lifted us out of the anonymity of the lonely struggle in the United States to the glorified rank of visiting dignitaries. …Nothing in our American experience had ever been as arduous and exhausting as this journey. Our reward was the prize of revolutionary protocol that favored those victims of capitalism away from home.” But in the midst of this “ideological enchantment,” none of the delegates bothered to ask: “What did it all mean and how did it relate to the Negro in America?

The new-wave Negro militants, like their forerunners of the 1930s, “have taken on a radical veneer without radical substance” and have formulated “no comprehensive radical philosophy to replace either the liberalism they denounce or the radicalism of the past that bred them.” In a chapter on “The Intellectuals and Force and Violence”—in some ways the most important chapter in the book—Cruse examines a notable instance of the prevailing confusion among Negro radicals (shared by white radicals): the cult of “armed self-defense” as a form of revolutionary action. Robert Williams, an officer of the NAACP, raised the issue of self-defense in Monroe, North Carolina, in 1959, when he armed his followers against the Ku Klux Klan. In the uproar following the NAACP’S suspension of Williams and his deification by the new black Left, basic questions went unanswered. For one thing, violence in the South, where it is directed against the Klan, has been strategically different from violence in the North, where it has been directed against the National Guard. For another, the issue of armed self-defense does not touch the deep-rooted conditions that have to be changed if the Negro’s position is to be changed. Violence, Cruse argues, becomes a meaningful strategy only in so far as American institutions resist radical change and resist it violently. Since the Negro movement has not yet even formulated a program for radical change, violence is tactically premature; and, in any case, “the main front of tactics must always be organizational and institutional.”

NEITHER THE BLACK LEFT nor the white Left, however, understands that an American revolution (even if it were imminent, which it isn’t) “would have very little in common with the foreign revolutions they have read about.” Lacking a theory, lacking any understanding of history, confusing violent protest with radicalism, black radicals persist in yet another mistake—the equation of pro-blackness with hatred of whites. Violent hatred fills the vacuum left by the lack of an ideology and a program. Long before the new radicals came on the scene, Cruse writes, “this had been one of the Negro intellectual’s most severe ‘hang-ups”’—one that in our own time threatens to become the driving force of the Negro movement. “This situation results from a psychology that is rooted in the Negro’s symbiotic ‘blood-ties’ to the white Anglo-Saxon. It is the culmination of that racial drama of love and hate between slave and master, bound together in the purgatory of plantations.” The self-advancement of the Negro community, however, cannot rest on ambivalent hatreds. “All race hate is self-defeating in the long run because it distorts the critical faculties.”

The complexity and richness of The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual is difficult to convey in a review. The book documents not only the failure of Negro radicalism but the failure of American radicalism in general, which lives off imported ideologies and myths of imminent revolution in which Negroes have always been assigned a leading part. Reading this book today, in the wake of such disasters as the Conference for New Politics, one realizes how little has changed, and how, in spite of its determination to avoid the mistakes of the radicals of the Thirties and Forties, the New Left remains trapped in the rhetoric and postures of its predecessors. The Left today should be concerned not only with the long-range problem of creating new institutions of popular democracy (a subject to which it has given very little thought) but with the immediate problem of saving what remains of liberalism—free speech, safeguards against arbitrary authority, separation of powers—without which further democratic experiments of any kind will come to an end.

The Left should take seriously the possibility which it rhetorically proclaims—that the crisis of American colonialism abroad, together with the failure of welfare programs to improve conditions in the ghetto, will generate a demand for thoroughgoing repression which, if it succeeded, would seal the fate of liberals and radicals alike. But instead of confronting the present crisis, the Left still babbles of revolution and looks to the Negroes, as before, to deliver the country from its capitalist oppressors. “We are just a little tail on the end of a very powerful black panther,” says one of the delegates to the Conference for New Politics. “And I want to be on that tail—if they’ll let me.” In the next breath he urges white radicals to “trust the blacks the way you trust children.”

In this atmosphere, Harold Cruse’s book, quite apart from its intrinsic and enduring merits, might do much immediate good. It might help to recall American radicals to their senses (those that ever had any). Perhaps it is too late even for intelligent radicals to accomplish anything. The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual exposes the mistakes of the past at a time when the accumulated weight of those mistakes has become so crushing that it may be too late to profit from the lesson. Crises overlap crises. The defeat of liberal colonialism in Vietnam coincides with the defeat of liberalism in the ghetto, and the deterioration of the ghetto coincides with the deterioration of the city as a whole: the flight of industry and jobs from the city, the withdrawal of the middle class, the decay of public transportation and schools, the decay of public facilities in general, the pollution of the water, the pollution of the air.

In the 1930s an alarming crisis stirred enlightened conservatives like Franklin Roosevelt to measures which palliated the immediate effects of the crisis and thereby averted a general breakdown of the system. By throwing its support at a decisive moment behind the CIO, the New Deal made possible the organization of elements which, unorganized, threatened to become an immensely violent and disruptive force. One might imagine that the still graver crisis of the Sixties might lead conservatives to consider a similar approach to the more moderate black nationalists. Indeed some gestures have recently been made in this direction. But given the total lack of national political leadership at the present time, and given the decay of the city, the kind of “solution” which will seem increasingly attractive to many Americans is a solution that would merely carry existing historical trends to their logical culmination: abandon the cities completely, put up walls around them, and use them as Negro reservations. This could even be done under the cloak of Black Power—“self-determination for the ghetto.” On their reservations, black people would be encouraged to cultivate their native handicrafts, songs, dances, and festivals. Tourists would go there, bringing in a little loose change. In American history there are precedents for such “solutions.”

Not only have things reached the point where any program of radical reform may be inadequate, it is still not clear whether even Cruse’s version of black nationalism, as it stands, points the way to such a program. That the book itself offers no program is not an objection—although the objection applies, it seems to me, to Carmichael and Hamilton’s Black Power which claims to present “a political framework and ideology which represents the last reasonable opportunity for this society to work out its racial problems short of prolonged destructive guerrilla warfare.” Cruse does not pretend to offer a “political framework”; his book attempts to clarify underlying issues. The question is whether his analysis clarifies those issues or obscures them.

THAT IT CLEARS UP a great deal of confusion should already be evident. Certain questions, however, remain. One concerns the slippery concept of “nationalism,” which may not be the best idea around which to organize a movement of Negro liberation. Cruse does not seem to me to confront the possibility that black nationalism, which he realizes has always been flawed by its “romantic and escapist” tendencies, may be inherently romantic and escapist—now looking wistfully back to Africa, now indulging in fantasies of global revolution. The analysis of American Negroes as an ethnic group should properly include a study of the role of other nationalist ideologies, like Zionism or Irish-American nationalism, in order to discover whether they played any important part in the successful efforts of those communities to organize themselves. From what I have been able to learn, Irish-American nationalism focused almost exclusively on Ireland and contributed nothing important to the political successes of the Irish in America. (See Thomas N. Brown, Irish-American Nationalism.) A study of other ethnic nationalisms might show the same thing. It is possible, in other words, that nationalist movements in America, even when they cease to be merely fraternal and convivial and actually involve themselves in the revolutionary politics of the homeland (as was true of some Irish-American movements), have had no practical bearing on ethnic group politics in America itself. In that case, nationalism may not serve Negroes as a particularly useful guide to political action, although it is clear that the Negroes’ situation demands some sort of action along ethnic lines.

Even as a means of cultural regeneration, nationalism may be too narrowly based to achieve what Cruse wants it to achieve. Black nationalist movements in the United States are largely movements of young men—of all groups, the one least able to develop values that can be passed on to the next generation. According to C. Eric Lincoln’s study of the Black Muslims, “up to 80 per cent of a typical congregation is between the ages of seventeen and thirty-five”; moreover, “the Muslim temples attract many more men than women, and men assume the full management of temple affairs.” Frazier remarks, in another connection, “Young males, it will be readily agreed, are poor bearers of the cultural heritage of a people.” Of course there is no reason, in theory, why black nationalism should remain a young man’s movement. The chief exponents of Negro-American nationalism or of a point of view that could be called nationalist—Booker T. Washington, Garvey, and DuBois (when he was not swinging to the opposite pole of integration)—were themselves men of years and experience.

But historically the nationalist ideology has owed much of its appeal to the need of the young Negro male to escape from the stifling embrace of the feminine-centered family and church. The assertion of masculinity so obviously underlies the present manifestations of black nationalism that it is difficult, at times, to distinguish nationalist movements from neighborhood gangs. It is easy to see why black nationalism might be associated with riots, especially as nationalism becomes increasingly secularized and loses its capacity to instill inner discipline; but can it produce a culture capable of unifying the black community around values distinct from and superior to those of American society as a whole?

There is the further problem of what Cruse means by “culture.” Sometimes he uses the word in its broad sense, sometimes narrowly, as when he asks Negro intellectuals to follow the lead of C. Wright Mills by formulating a theory of “cultural radicalism.” In modern society, Cruse argues, “mass cultural communications is a basic industry,” and “only the blind cannot see that whoever controls the cultural apparatus…also controls the destiny of the United States and everything in it.” This statement is open to a number of objections; but quite apart from that, it is not clear what it has to do with what Frazier called the Negro’s “primary struggle”—to acquire a “culture” much more basic than the kind of culture Mills and Cruse, in this passage, have in mind. How are Negroes to get control of the “cultural apparatus” until they have solved their more immediate difficulties? And how would their efforts to control the culture industry differ from the efforts of Lorraine Hansberry and Sydney Poitier, whom Cruse criticizes on the grounds that their personal triumphs on Broadway and in Hollywood did nothing to advance Negro “culture”?

THESE QUESTIONS ASIDE, Cruse leaves no doubt of the validity of his main thesis: that intellectuals must play a central role in movements for radical change, that this role should consist of formulating “a new political philosophy,” and that in twentieth-century American history they have failed in this work. They must now address themselves to a more systematic analysis of American society than they have attempted before, building on the social theory of the nineteenth century but scrapping those parts that no longer apply. This analysis will have to explain, among other things, how the situation of the Negro in America relates to the rest of American history—a problem on which Cruse has now made an impressive assault, without however solving the dilemma posed by W.E.B. DuBois: “There faces the American Negro…an intricate and subtle problem of combining into one object two difficult sets of facts”—he is both a Negro and an American at the same time. The failure to grasp this point, according to Cruse, has prevented both integrationists and nationalists from “synthesizing composite trends.” The pendulum swings back and forth between nationalism and integrationism, but as with so many discussions among American intellectuals, the discussion never seems to progress to a higher level of analysis. Today, riots, armed self-defense, conflicts over control of ghetto schools, efforts of CORE to move Negroes into cooperative communities in the South, and other uncoordinated actions, signify a reawakening of something that can loosely be called nationalism; but they express not a new synthesis but varying degrees of disenchantment with integration. The advocates of Black Power have so far failed to show why their brand of nationalism comes any closer than its predecessors to providing a long-range strategy not for escaping from America but for changing it. The dilemma remains; more than ever it needs to become the object of critical analysis.

In the meantime, will events wait for analysis? Immediate crises confront us, and there is no time, it seems, for long-range solutions, no time for reflection. Should we all take to the streets, then, as Andrew Kopkind recommends? In critical times militancy may appear to be the only authentic politics. But the very gravity of the crisis makes it all the more imperative that radicals try to formulate at least a provisional theory which will serve them as a guide to tactics in the immediate future as well as to long-range questions of strategy. Without such a perspective, militancy will carry the day by default; then, quickly exhausting itself, it will give way to another cycle of disillusionment, cynicism, and hopelessness.

Letters

Culture of Poverty May 9, 1968

Culture of Poverty May 9, 1968

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