Limits of the Black Radical Tradition and the Valueform

Shemon Salam

Limits of the Black Radical Tradition and the Value-form develops an immanent critique of the Black Radical Tradition to show the boundaries of its own categories, history, and epistemologies. Limits argues that the Black Radical Tradition developed in the national context of completing Reconstruction and the international context of colonialism-decolonization resulting in a particular form and content of the tradition. This process constituted the tradition, and subsequently the tradition is still working with the older set of tools that struggle to grapple with Afro-Pessimism, Indigeneity, racial capitalism, and even the George Floyd Uprising. Limits carefully reformulates the tradition so it can once again play a leading role in revolutionary struggles.

Limits offers a critique of value-form theory, while still arguing that value-form theory is the direction that Black Marxism must head if it is to stay relevant to revolutionary struggles, decolonization, and the fight against anti-Blackness. The Black Radical Tradition demonstrates that value-form theory has a narrow understanding of class politics, reduces history to the struggle of factory workers, and is ultimately Euro-centric. The Black Radical Tradition can re-orient value-form theory to account for race, geo-politics, and other forms of oppression which are not reducible to an economic accounting.

Concurrently value-form theory addresses shortcomings in Black Marxism’s analysis of Capital, value theory, and more concrete analysis of capitalism. Value-form theory removes the priority of labor, progress, and stages of development from Marxism. Paradoxically, this move on the part of value-form theory recovers a hidden history of Black revolutionaries dealing with the value-form. This recovery shows that the Black Radical Tradition was working towards its own analysis of the value-form as well.

This double maneuver of recovery and critique of the Black Radical Tradition and value-form theory follows Cedric Robinson’s last words in Black Marxism, the traditions of Marxism and Black Radicalism must come together if they are going to overthrow racial capitalism. Limits follows in Robinson’s footsteps.

Table of Content:

Limits is an innovative look at the history, dynamics, epistemology, and concepts of the Black Radical Tradition developed by Cedric Robinson. Limits historicizes the Black freedom movement from the Civil War to the 1970s as driven by Reconstruction and national liberation. Limits is the first sustained interrogation of the key categories developed in Black Marxism by Cedric Robinson. The Black movement developed a set of reasons explaining the defeat of the 1970s. Limits demonstrates the boundaries of those categories, and in turn develops a more robust explanation.

Limits places Black Marxism in conversation with value-form theory, Afro-Pessimism and Indigenous Studies. Limits recovers the foundational contributions of C.L.R. James to value-form theory and reveals a hidden history of value-form theorization in the Black Radical Tradition. Finally, Limits challenges the concept of culture articulated by Robinson, systemizing a more robust account of culture rooted in the dynamics of racial capitalism.

Chapter 1: Categories of Defeat in the Reconstruction-Revolution and Decolonization Phase of the Black Radical Tradition

The first chapter will look at the categories used to explain the defeat of the Black liberation movement of the 1960s: culture, state-repression, structural, dichotomy trap, assassination, co-optation, mis-leadership, betrayal, gender, and false consciousness. Taken together they form the categories of defeat. I argue that these categories do not explain the defeat of this phase of the Black Radical Tradition.

I take inspiration from C.L.R. James’s rigorous analysis of categories in Notes on Dialectics. He emphasized that categories are the tools used to understand the world. As the world changes, so too must our categories. James felt that this was a difficult task, even for Marxist revolutionaries. The contradictions of capital cannot be explained by the categories developed in a previous period. I examine these categories and offer my own set of categories: the Reconstruction-Revolution and decolonization as meta-categories.

Chapter 2: Dynamics and Ontology of the Black Radical Tradition

The second chapter takes the Black Radical Tradition as theorized by Cedric Robinson and works through its categories of analysis, history, and periodization. My analysis of Robinson’s framework reveals the main factors driving the Black liberation movement was the program to complete Reconstruction and national liberation. These two programs however had to work through geo-politics, war, class dynamics, racial capitalism, gender, class relations, and the state revealing the complex formation of the Black Radical Tradition. This is not a history of those dynamics per se, but a distillation and abstracted set of conclusions based on several centuries of struggle. The larger claim is that movements do not occur for singular reasons or for reasons reducible to the economic such as the falling rate of profit, crisis, repression, or the correct leadership.

The consequences of communism and national liberation’s defeat is undertheorized in the Black Radical Tradition. By this I do not mean why those defeats happened, but more contemporaneously how do movements posit a new horizon of liberation in the context of defeated communism and national liberation. This a fundamentally different problem from the era when the two projects were seen as utopian horizons. As David Scott in Conscripts of Modernity has pointed out the promise of those futures, has now become the nightmare of our contemporary moment. While hesitant to offer solutions, this chapter will draw from the Haitian Revolution, Reconstruction, and the Rainbow Coalition in pointing out historical tensions which continue to animate struggles and the questions that must be answered in actual movements.

Chapter 3: Value-form and the Black Radical Tradition

The third chapter, Value-form and the Black Radical Tradition is an interrogation of the relationship of capitalism and the Black Radical Tradition. Cedric Robinson posited that the medium of the Black Radical Tradition was culture and that it was not contaminated or defeated by capitalism. This bold move allowed the tradition to maintain continuity for hundreds of years.

This is in direct contradiction with value-form theory which sees a world dominated by capitalist social relations, where every aspect of life is now dominated by the commodity form. Value-form theory proposes the dissolution of all social relations into atomized sellers of labor-power. Catastrophically, this should signal the end of the Black Radical Tradition.

While Black cultural theory has analyzed the content of music, literature, film, and plays it has left alone the more abstract value-form relationship to the culture of the Black Radical Tradition. This chapter looks at that relationship in more general cultural terms drawing from a range of cultural criticisms, but making a larger claim around culture and value-form. This chapter defines culture as the conceptual category that came to explain revolutionary possibilities in the Black Radical Tradition.

The category of culture has become an overarching analytical tool that has lost specificity in its descriptive, analytic, and theoretical capacities to explain the dynamics of struggle. This chapter positions culture within the framework of racial capitalism, market dynamics, and the form of social organization found in capitalism. By doing so, culture’s changing positionality within the larger system can be seen as relational and historical. Unlike value-form theory which sees culture completely dominated by capitalist social relations, I posit culture on more contradictory terms. My starting point is C.L.R. James who simultaneously saw culture’s contradictory role, its radical potential, and yet situated culture in the broader class and geo-political struggles of movements. In other words, James positioned culture in a very specific set of relations. In the contemporary moment, culture has lost this specific theoretical placement and has become an all encompassing category that is no longer able to explain victory and defeat of movements. Limits argues that culture is a space of resistance but must be situated back into broader field of social relations best articulated by James’s Black Jacobins.

Chapter 4: C.L.R. James and the Contradictions of the Value Theory and Race

On the surface it appears that the Black Radical Tradition left value-form theory unattended. This chapter recovers James’s and the formation he belonged to, the Johnson Forest Tendency’s, work in theorizing value-form theory. More broadly, the chapter, opens up an entire new paradigm in the study of Black liberation. That Black liberation has its own tradition of dealing with class fractionalism, surplus populations, and deindustrialization and value theory. Value-form theory associated with European origins is also born within the struggles against racism and capital in the Black Atlantic. This paradigm shifting move is a much needed corrective to contemporary theorists of value-form who have had little to say on the original intellectual contributions of Black thinkers to value-form theory.

This chapter moves from James’s thinking on value-form to concrete strategic questions that James drew from the former. James’s work was a unique attempt to link the dialectics of race and class into a revolutionary potential, but he too fell to the agenda setting horizon of Reconstruction’s defeat and Jim Crow’s rise. These twin events and processes powerfully set the horizon of struggle. James’s value theory predicated on labor simultaneously saw Black workers as the vanguard, in need of alliance with white workers, and subordinated to the political economy of capitalism. The question was how to connect the struggle for Reconstruction to revolution. It is here where James excels. I show that Reconstruction was the logic that the Black movement was forced to work through and James’s political thought reflected the most sophisticated accounting of completing Reconstruction and flipping it into Revolution.

Chapter 5: The Vanguard and Program of Black Liberation

Chapter Five, Vanguard and Program of the Black Radical Tradition, focuses on strategies used by the workers movement and Black liberation to cohere an identity and a set of politics. However Black liberation faced the triple agenda settings realities of Reconstruction’s defeat and Jim Crow’s rise and national liberation rise and fall. This chapter traces a history of the vanguard and program of the Black Radical Tradition. I conclude this chapter by looking at Max Stanford’s ground breaking World Black Revolution as the highest form of affirmation and program achieved in the Black Radical Tradition. Stanford explicitly challenges the Communist Manifesto as he displaces the proletarian revolution for the Black revolution. In exploring the dynamics of the vanguard and the program, I ask why the Black struggle did not develop a more straightforward theory of value-form, akin to its European counterparts. The answer lies in the centrality of not only actual violence but also the category of violence in Black liberation. Capitalism, the state, white supremacy were all constituted by violence and that it was violence which became a major site of theoretical exploration and practice. The Black Radical Tradition developed an exceptionally rich understanding of violence which became crucial in later formulations of the value-form.

Chapter 6: From Du Bois’s Color Line to the Dance of Death and Settler Decolonization

W.E.B. Du Bois theorized the problem of the 20th century as the color line. This became the basis for solidarity amongst people of color around the world for the next seventy years. Empire, colonialism, and Jim Crow provided a united front against white supremacy and capitalism. The results unfortunately do not confirm Du Bois’s theory. The color line collapsed and revealing a hierarchy developed amongst the racialized. The unity of people of color was never as unified or laboratory as liberation struggles assumed.

Afro-Pessimism and Indigenous Studies have argued in contrast to the color line thesis. This chapter will examine what their contributions are to the Black Radical Tradition. Limits argues that while this can be potentially destructive, leaving each racialized group in a version of their own nationalisms, there is a possibility of solidarity but on terms very different from Du Bois’s color line thesis. Limits reworks Black Marxism and value-form theory, to remove Marxist labor metaphysics, notions of progress and development and in their place develop a new basis for solidarity. However, Limits does not invent this basis, instead arguing that movements in motion will have to develop a radically new basis of solidarity, radically different from Du Bois’s color line thesis. Limits returns to C.L.R. James’s Black Jacobins for a possible framework in understanding how a new basis for solidarity might appear.

Chapter 7: The George Floyd Uprising

The George Floyd Uprising has forced a powerful reexamination of the Black Radical Tradition and Black Marxism. This is a transformative event which has brought clarity to exactly what is the tradition after its defeat in the 1970s. The strategies, tactics, and militancy of the tradition was revealed by Black proletarians across the country. The illegal riot was the premiere strategy of the tradition, but has largely been unaccounted for.

This chapter will use the uprising to continue developing a new iteration of the tradition rooted in the self-activity of the Black proletariat.

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