YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

April 9, 2018

Ralph Ellison’s ambivalence re white racism

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Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man was copyrighted in 1947, but the book was not published until 1952. It has become a classic of “Negro” literature. This blog is about his mixed message concerning black nationalism, for Ellison took care to separate himself from the separatist movement headed by Marcus Garvey in the 1920s. And yet he gave much testimony regarding the appalling degree of what would be called today “white racism.” Moreover the last one-third of the book is a round condemnation of betrayal by the Communist Party (of which, like Richard Wright and other blacks in the American branch of the CP, the invisible man was an ex-member).

And yet Ellison was heaped with honors by the literary establishment; similarly he always seemed to me to be the most level-headed analyst of the (unfulfilled) promise of American life as it pertained to black citizens. This blog is also about the Herman Melville declaration that “the Declaration of Independence makes a difference.” For Melville shared Ellison’s ambivalence about the future of American democracy and the rationalism advanced by the Enlightenment. The “Epilogue” to Invisible Man suggests that Ellison had backtracked on his initial mocking words about “social responsibility,” just as Melville separated himself from Captain Ahab in the Epilogue to Moby-Dick.

One review of Ellison’s masterpiece (and his single published novel) mentions that the author became more conservative in temperament as he got older. Such is the case with many ex-communists. Perhaps Ellison, like Melville, was always upwardly mobile, and yet his emphasis on (white racism), so persuasively presented in the novel Invisible Man, must ingratiate him with today’s liberals and other moderates who support such separatist movements as “Black Lives Matter.”



November 25, 2014

Reflections on the Ferguson aftermath

Having lived through the 1960s, later chronicling the rise of the civil rights, antiwar, and feminist movements on Pacifica radio, then going to graduate school in history at UCLA where I studied 19th and 20th century social movements and how they were taught by UCLA’s radical faculty, I have thoughts on the violent response to the Ferguson Missouri’s grand jury’s decision not to indict policeman Darren Wilson, which was met by lumpen mayhem and/or “protest” in the streets, not only in Missouri, but in larger cities with radicalized minority populations and sympathetic “liberal” white grownups of a certain age.

In response to the looting and burning, conservative pundit Andrea Tantaros suggested on the Fox show Outnumbered that families should sit down and talk to their (adolescent) kids, presumably to keep them on the straight and narrow. This is an understandable wish, but hopelessly naïve. Why?

As most parents know, puberty and adolescence are harrowing times, for youngsters, with or without the discipline of fathers, are rejecting parents for peer groups, and often indulge in ritual rebellions (as in their preference for the “romanticism,” drugs, fast cars, and the defiance of rock and roll). Add to this that the current population of American kids have been instructed by 1960s-70s veterans of social movements that were often New Left in orientation, hence undisciplined and attracted to anarchy and chaos, unlike the comparatively disciplined pre-war 1930s communist activists to whom they are often linked by populist conservatives.


Indeed, academics sometimes link the New Left spirit to that of the Jazz Age in the 1920s. There is the same primitivism and the same fantasy that pre-capitalist or “Third World” societies are closer to Nature, are uncorrupted by technology, and hence are instinctually liberated. It is imagined, incorrectly, that there are no rules about sex or aggression amongst, say, South Sea Islanders. (I have written about this misunderstanding ad nauseum. See for instance https://clarespark.com/2011/05/12/the-great-common-goes-to-the-white-house/, retitled “Rappers, primitivism, and ritual rebellion.” Or try this more recent blog on Robert Redford’s movie The Company You Keep, with its fantasy of a reconstructed happy family close to Nature: https://clarespark.com/2013/11/17/rehabilitating-the-weathermen/. Or, compare Marx to Lenin: https://clarespark.com/2014/06/07/marx-vs-lenin/.

I have left out one crucial cause of the looting, burning, and general protest, and it involves American communist politics in the 1960s. The Old Left should have known better, but having supported a Black Belt in the Southern US in the 1930s, later communists rejected the peaceful,  integrationist, pro-American strategy of Martin Luther King Jr. for what should be described as contemporary fascism or proto-fascism: the separatism and anti-“Euro-centricity” of the law-and-order West. It too found supporters in disaffected youth, herded together in ghettoes dominated by the Democratic machine.  (I chronicled this partly here: https://clarespark.com/2009/10/31/the-offing-of-martin-luther-king-jr-and-ralph-bunche/.) The Right has correctly pointed out the power of the Democratic machines in opposing school choice, but fails to understand child development, while overestimating the power of the “strong Father,” whose authoritarianism may incite revolt in the children.

It would be better for liberals, moderates and conservatives alike to pay attention to this recent history, which remains alive today. Historians of fascism as disparate as George L. Mosse and Robert O. Paxton similarly agree that European fascism was partially sparked by youth revolt, participants in the disillusion and brutality of the masses that were traumatized and ready to rumble after the horrors of the Great War–a cataclysm whose after effects still haunt us.

The action faction, sadly, is not dead.


April 30, 2014

Racism in America has disappeared? The Donald Sterling scandal

SterlingEver since the privately taped scandalous racist talk of billionaire owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, Donald Sterling, was revealed over the weekend of April 26-27, news media have been agog over the matter, each pundit or reporter proudly declaring her or his—even a regenerated America’s– freedom from racist sentiments, unlike the appalling Sterling. Some went so far as to declare that America has eliminated the national sin, even as they pinpointed billionaire Sterling as the retrograde outlier. (For the Wiki bio see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donald_Sterling.For my own struggle with racism see https://clarespark.com/2012/01/21/the-persistence-of-white-racism/.)

Several commentators on Fox News (including Greg Gutfeld who should know better) went so far as to condemn the 80 year-old sports mogul as delinquent in his attitudes, since he was old enough during the 1960s to have repented and made reparations for the national sin—as opposed to mouthing anti-black opinions in his dotage.

The subject of this blog is to observe 1. That racism is not so easily obliterated, as even liberals indulge themselves in a subtly racialist discourse (i.e., multiculturalism), and 2. That liberal elites as early as 1968 promoted “cultural anthropology” as a curriculum item that would explain cultural relativism and presumably support affirmative action; and 3. Though it would be difficult to stop what we now call “hate speech”, in the privacy of one’s home or other sheltered venues, it would be okay to use the “N” word or other obnoxious put downs of non-whites “at the dinner table,” and “underground.” A conference at Martha’s Vineyard was called apparently to address the burning down of big cities after the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

The suggestion that racist talk be driven underground and hence smothered was put forth by the up and coming black advisor to liberal elites, Christopher Edley (see https://clarespark.com/2010/07/18/white-elite-enabling-of-black-power/).
Here is the money quote from Christopher Edley, affirmed by a son of FDR:

[Christopher Edley (Program Officer in charge of the Government and Law Program at the Ford Foundation):]…I’m convinced that the way you eliminate prejudice and racism in America is not by talking and education and explanation. I think you have to start with a simple cliché‚ like God, motherhood, or country. You have to have something that has a noble ring. And it seems to me that what this country needs is a movement, and I don’t know that this is the appropriate group to sponsor it. This country needs a movement. The way to eliminate prejudice is to smother it. If we could bring about a climate in this country where no one could express a prejuducial viewpoint without being challenged, we would begin to drive prejudice underground. And I submit to you that prejudice unexpressed and unacted upon dies–it doesn’t fester and grow–it dies. Now this is high sounding, and I don’t expect people to agree with such a simplistic solution. But I really believe that you can stamp it out. And if you look at our national figures today, there are certain people who cannot make a prejudicial remark. Many of our Governors, the President, many responsible Senators are precluded in their public lives from ever making a prejudiced public statement, and if they make a statement that sounds like it’s prejudicial, they’re called on it and the next day, as General de Gaulle found, it was necessary to recant. So we don’t allow them to get away with anything. But at the lower levels, over the dinner table…[ellipsis in original, Edley is an African-American now teaching at Harvard Law School.]

[Franklin Roosevelt (Former Chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Congressman from the Twentieth Congressional District in New York during the eighty-first to the eight-third Congresses):] The citizen level…[ellipsis in orig.]

[Christopher Edley:] At the citizen level, we say it’s perfectly all right for a bigot to express his bigoted thoughts. If you’re anti-Negro you can speak out against the Negro at supper. The simplicity of the idea I submit to you is the thing that gives it some national potential for changing the climate (145). [Identifications as published, xiii-xv].

The National Basketball Association has ostensibly put the scandal to rest through various punitive measures, but that will not stop the chatter about Sterling’s venality; nor will the smugness stop in the media. For not only are these ostensibly unbigoted journalists lacking in self-criticism, they lack curiosity about the competing attempts to combat racism in the 1960s and even before that. I refer to the integrationist strategy versus the separatist black power approach, that kept blacks and other minorities and women at bay in the academy and elsewhere. That controversy has also disappeared down the collective memory hole. One wonders how long and how widely the legacy of self-proclaimed “fascist” Marcus Garvey has lingered, or how many “African-Americans” follow the Nation of Islam, and for whom Louis Farrakhan is a revered figure.

Detroit race riot, 1967

Detroit race riot, 1967

July 19, 2012

Communist ideas go mainstream

Rosa Luxemburg

[This blog should be read in tandem with https://clarespark.com/2012/08/20/ernest-hemingway-carlos-baker-and-the-spanish-civil-war/.]

The most important idea in this blog: that the original Progressives wanted a regulated capitalism that would stave off the specter of red revolution. Their enemies were Gilded Age robber barons/ finance capital, but more so, a militant working class that seemed to be on the march, especially during the riotous year of 1919, but before that, in the take-off period for industrial capitalism after the Civil War. In the first eight months of 1919–in August introducing the first article publicizing the ostensibly forgotten Herman Melville (1819-1891), The Nation magazine advised its conservative readers to move sharply to the left, outflanking the Industrial Workers of the World and its evil twin the Socialist Party. Oswald Garrison Villard’s influential magazine preached “honest Anglo-Saxon populism” of the communitarian sort that such Anglo-Saxon upper-Midwesterners such as Ernest Hemingway would embody in his novels, for instance in A Farewell to Arms (where war is blamed on the upper classes, and suffered by hapless peasants), and then For Whom The Bell Tolls (1940, written shortly before EH was to be recruited by the KGB as revealed in The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, 2009, see https://clarespark.com/2012/07/09/hbo-does-gellhorn-in-red/).

Nation writers in 1919 also made a vital distinction between industrial capital and finance capital: the latter were Shylocks, while industrial capital was, by contrast, close to the earth, *suggesting the same primitivism, earthiness, and regressive use of language [childish prattle?] that Hemingway (a.k.a. “Hemingstein”) admired. They also posited mystical bonds to unite society, for they were at heart organic conservatives, hostile to anything that smacked of empiricism or “materialism.” Above all, they preached deference to gentlemanly, compassionate Anglo-Saxon experts, who, properly reconstructed, would avoid the extremes of heartless laissez-faire capitalism and communist revolution (Jew/Jacobin-led mob rule). That is why I call them the moderate men, and these moderates can be found in both political parties today, arguing for “the neutral state,” while at the same time, the moderate men are attuned to life among the lowly (see https://clarespark.com/2012/06/29/the-neutered-state/, with its bizarre notion that all conflict can be reconciled by the artful, manipulative “mediator” bringing progressive ideas of order to the “mixed-economy”).

For a detailed account of The Nation line in January-August 1919, see https://clarespark.com/2009/09/19/populism-progressivism-and-corporatist-liberalism-in-the-nation-1919/. For more on the separation of finance capital from industrial capital see https://clarespark.com/2010/09/11/is-wall-street-slaughtering-the-middle-class/.

In a more recent blog, I summarized the main ideas of Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes in their detailed summation of the Communist movement in the U.S. (See https://clarespark.com/2012/06/03/connecting-vs-connecting-the-dots/. ) As Klehr and Haynes demonstrate the heyday of American communism was the Great Depression, or as literary scholars say, the Red Decade, where virtually every important writer studied Marx and Lenin, with many joining the communist movement, though there were vicious animosities between Stalinists and Trotskyists that remain relevant today (for instance, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, between readers of The New Masses and Partisan Review). Klehr and Haynes argue that the communist movement today is weak and nearly defunct, but did not trace the infiltration of Leninist statism into the progressive movement and the New Left, though they mention several instances where New Deal strategies such as social security were first introduced by the CPUSA (but see Professor Cherny’s objection to this claim below in his lengthy comment).

Marcus Garvey

New Left developments: The civil rights movement, under infiltration by communist thinkers and organizers, quickly turned from an integrationist movement (the MLK Jr. line) to a militantly cultural nationalist movement, drawing on both the cultural pluralism introduced by earlier progressives, and the separatism advocated by avowed fascists such as Marcus Garvey (a petit-bourgeois radical and precursor to Malcolm X), or by Communists  advocating a Black Belt in the deep American South as reparations for the horrors of slavery, debt-peonage, and Jim Crow.

Schine, McCarthy, Cohn

The New Left (many of whom were readers and admirers of the anti-imperialist, anti-Zionist British Left still reeling from the 1956 revelations about Stalin) defined itself as “anti-anti-Communist,” with a great horror of McCarthy and his vile [Jewish] henchmen, Roy Cohn and G. David Schine, arguing that anticommunism was a (continued) cover for right-wing opposition to the statist New Deal, and of course that we had not “lost China” as “right-wing loons” had insisted. It was this 1960s generation that turned once again to history from the bottoms up, or social history or cultural history, histories that had already been made fashionable and appealing by 1930s progressive journalists, authors, songwriters, filmmakers, and playwrights  celebrating the Common Man/the Salt of the Earth.  See https://clarespark.com/2012/06/16/the-social-history-racket/, but also recent blogs on such figures as Edna Ferber, Oscar Hammerstein, and Martha Gellhorn. Today, NPR, the Pacifica Foundation, and academic departments of humanities  continue the populist-communitarian strain extant since the last decade of the 19th century, antisemitism and all. What a shock it must have been when Yale University Press published its series of books that delved into the briefly opened Soviet archives, revealing that Alger Hiss, the Rosenbergs, et al, were guilty of espionage after all, that Whittaker Chambers was no sociopath, and though McCarthy was a vile opportunist, he was not so far off the mark as liberals had insisted.

TIME Cover, March 8, 1954

Although in prior blogs I have made sharp distinctions between liberal anticommunists (social democrats) and hardcore communists and fascists, the statism and crypto-elitism advanced by “progressivism” have so blurred the boundaries between social democracy and full-fledged Marxist-Leninism that I cannot blame those on the Right who conflate all the variant statisms into one huge encroaching monster. Popular Front politics did not stop in 1939, but persist into the present.

*It was Nation writer Lincoln Colcord who draw a distinction between “international bankers” versus “commercial bankers”; the latter were closer to the site of production, hence would make concessions to labor, whereas the international bankers were solely involved with the extraction of profits. Cf. J. A. Hobson, also favorably cited by The Nation in this period.

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