| black revolutionary politics | MR Online

Time to reclaim black revolutionary politics

Originally published: ROAPE (Review of African Political Economy) on December 19, 2023 by Mikayla Tillery (more by ROAPE (Review of African Political Economy))  | (Posted Dec 22, 2023)

With a refreshing and incisive perspective, Okoth is not afraid to challenge contemporary Black scholarship in his poignant exploration of revolutionary Black political theory and action in his new book Red Africa: Reclaiming Revolutionary Black Politics. In a scathing yet insightful dissection, he exposes the limitations of discourse on issues including Black and Colonial Studies, afro-pessimism, Negritude, and Franz Fanon. His searing analysis leaves the reader aware that the future of revolutionary Black politics requires both Marxism and Black radicalism to reconcile what was lost with the incomplete project of decolonisation. Okoth impeccably straddles three audiences:

  1. Those who are well-versed in revolutionary Black political theory (Namely, Franz Fanon, Cedric Robinson, Walter Rodney, Frank B. Wilderson III, etc).
  2. Those unfamiliar with these foundational authors and texts.
  3. And those who have read seminal works and misinterpreted them, either maliciously or negligently.

Without compromise, he illuminates the failures and misrepresentations that have marred the intellectual landscape in modern Black political theory. Okoth’s call to action resonates strongly; he urges a resurrection of anti-imperialist solidarity, reminding readers of the imperative to salvage a contemporary path to liberation from the vestiges of Red Africa. Despite the forces that eroded these Marxist anticolonial movements–betrayal, suppression, or erasure–Red Africa is a rallying cry for revolutionary Black politics.

Black Studies and Afro-pessimism’s Betrayal of Radical Roots

In his polemic chapter on Black Studies and Afro-pessimism 2.0, Okoth condemns “the retreat of Black radicalism” in American universities. What once could have stood as beacons for Black revolutionary international solidarity,

failed to realise [their] radical potential.

Okoth focuses on the betrayal of the Black Campus Movement, a movement that cultivated Black Studies at American universities as a space for radical student-activism and international solidarity only to be sold out to “institutionalisation and professionalisation.” He delineates the soul-crushing transition from Black Studies as a place of revolutionary thought and action, to a political playground for Black, middle-class, American men to reinforce parochial epistemologies, with nothing to show for their efforts when asked about solutions. With Okoth attributing this transformation to universities’ “precarious employment, low pay, pressure to publish, [etc]”, he outlines the conditions that often leave only the most neo-liberal Black scholars to survive.

In particular, Okoth highlights the proliferation of afro-pessimism–what Okoth calls AP 2.0–by scholars like Frank B. Wilderson III and Jared Sexton as a symbol of the failure of the Black Studies project. Beginning (and ending) in American universities, AP 2.0 describes an ontology distinct from Marxism that posits two classes: Human and Black/Slave. This is also distinct from the prior conception of afro-pessimism (AP 1.0) which defined the term as the negative or pessimistic portrayal of Africa in Western media. In afro-pessimist 2.0 theory, the Black/Slave is uniquely dehumanized to the extent that solidarity is an impossibility. From the perspective of afro-pessimist 2.0 scholars, “Because anti-Blackness is qualitatively different from the regimes of violence that affect the Marxist proletariat, or the non-Black person of colour… we cannot speak of any experience of oppression without reference to the ontological disparities between Black/non-Black people.” As a result, the struggles of Black people are not only “qualitatively different from those of other oppressed peoples”, but also they leave no room for political action, interracial nuance, Marxist integration, or inquiry into colonial or imperial dynamics.

Revolution vs. Negritude

In a parallel critique, Okoth exposes the limitations of the monolithic portrayal of Blackness in the Negritude movement. Emerging in Paris in the 1930s from francophone African and Caribbean émigrés, Negritude was an ideological and political movement that essentialized Black identity, culture, and heritage with hopes to challenge colonial ideals of beauty.

Within Negritude’s “malpractice of diaspora”–defined as “the conflation of myriad experiences of racialisation under a monolithic Blackness”–Okoth takes issue with Negritude’s facade of universality. For Okoth, there is no universal “common Black heritage” when the philosophy neglects “particularities of race relations on the continent.” Negritude failed to do more than offer empty, non-transferable platitudes on Black exceptionalism. Okoth asks, “Is it at all surprising that, under Césaire’s leadership, Martinique chose to remain an overseas department of France?” That is, is Negritude so daft as to actively reinforce colonialism?

Okoth instructs that those wishing to transcend Negritude “should develop a practice of Black internationalism that is attentive to the multiple histories of diaspora, and that reaches for linkages despite such differences.” Okoth points to Amílcar Cabral, who navigated a post-Negritude approach by integrating Maoist tactics with his localized knowledge of Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique. In practice, Negritude is easily eclipsed by Marxism when political and intellectual leaders have the creativity to “[connect] the insights of Marxian method with the conditions of struggle on the ground.”

The Twisted Truths of Franz Fanon

Within contemporary Black scholarship, Okoth objects to the distortions of Fanon’s conclusions, the revisionist interpretations of his psychoanalytic role, and the academic reception of Fanon’s scholarship.

Okoth believes that afro-pessimists base their support of Fanon on a mistranslation. To believe that “The Fact of Blackness” represents an afro-pessimist Black ontology requires a fundamental misunderstanding of “L’expérience vécu du Noir” wherein afro-pessimists misrepresent lived experiences as being. Although the two are related, “The experience of racialisation creates the impression that Blackness is an inescapable and eternal condition; consequently, it transforms Blackness into a perceived reality.” This is a tradition of AP 2.0 which “distorts beyond recognition the various Black liberation movements that fought against racism, colonialism and imperialism throughout the global south.” Afro-pessimists would rather cling to an obtuse mistranslation than admit Fanon was a political, anti-imperialist Marxist, revolutionary in addition to his Black radicalism.

As Okoth moves from this critique, he asserts that some misrepresentations of Fanon “justify ‘post- or anti-revolutionary’ intellectual projects.” In response to Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Wilderson, who both distil Fanon as solely psychoanalytic by rejecting his other works, Okoth condemns that “anti-colonial thought has been distorted by the neoliberal university and emptied of its revolutionary content.” When scholars disregard Fanon’s connection to national liberation movements in favor of myopic Black radicalism, they betray “Fanon’s (self-)critique of the ‘native’ or colonised intellectual.” While Fanon was a psychiatrist, it’s a distortion of his legacy to treat his psychoanalytic work as anything but a call to “produce the spiritual and material conditions for the emergence of a new, decolonised subject.” His work as a psychiatrist was not to intellectualize the trauma of racism but to advocate for actionable revolutionary politics that integrate both Marxism and Black radicalism.

This comes to a head when discussing Fanon’s reception by “the ivory tower.” Okoth expresses frustration that the academy “lack[s] interest in the crucial everyday work of revolutionary struggle.” It is possible that Fanon’s positive academic reputation is because of his works’ misappropriation, or it could be because of his abstraction of revolutionary action. Either way, it stands to reason that the strategic and selective reading of Fanon is a short-sighted, yet normalised way to engage with Black radical politics in contemporary Black scholarship.

What is More Western: Marxism or Imperialism?

| Red Africa | MR OnlineIn Red Africa, the word betrayal is best reserved to describe failures in realising national liberation. Okoth details the suppression of Marxism in Kenya as a case of independence being thwarted by “the architects of revolution… gradually [becoming] its gravediggers.”

In revolutionary Kenya, it was clear that Jomo Kenyatta rhetorically situated Marxism as Eurocentric and anti-African in order “to sell imperialist positions to the public as ‘authentically African.’” It was a classic bait and switch; Kenyatta offered “African socialism”, a malignant misnomer, only to provide Western-endorsed privatization and primary commodity exportation. Kenya’s Minister of Justice at the time would argue that “Because no class problem existed in traditional African society… Marxism was irrelevant in Kenya.” As Marxists and leftists were systematically assassinated, Okoth instructs the reader to consider how “socialism, emptied of its revolutionary content, was used to silence a leftist opposition which sought to challenge the one-party state by evoking a different, more radical kind of Marxian socialism.” The reader is left to wonder if revolutionary leaders’ aversion to Marxism in Red Africa is betrayal in itself.

As a result, Okoth expresses scepticism for scholars that brand Marxism as a Eurocentric ideal, like Cedric Robinson in his theory of Black Marxism. Okoth refutes the claim that “Marxism… was an insufficiently radical self-examination of Western civilisation.” While he concedes that Marx was a Western, bourgeois scholar “supported by unfree labour”, Okoth cites several instances of Marx considering non-Western class dynamics, chattel slavery, and its abolition to disprove the assumption proffered by Robert Brenner, Robinson, and afro-pessimists that “enslaved labour is non-capitalist since capitalism is a system based on the exploitation of ‘free’ wage labour.” By rejecting this argument, Okoth concludes that “slavery was not a pre-capitalist form, but represented capitalism in its early stages as a mode of production”, thus rejecting a Black ontology argument against Marxism as a Western ideal.

While Okoth primarily agrees with Robinson’s takes on the historical contingency of Blackness and slavery, he argues that many of Robinson’s stances are not mutually exclusive with Marxism as a method. Instead, he argues, “we can avoid parochial ontological conceptions of Blackness while simultaneously emphasising the histories of interconnection between Black people across the world.” Going back to the Kenya example, Okoth conceives of a Red Africa that incorporates both Marxism and Black radicalism so long as Black radical thought leaves room for Marxists to realize national independence as decolonial and anti-imperialist.

Gender in Revolutionary Politics

In Okoth’s exploration of gender, his attempts to champion Andrée Blouin’s anti-colonial feminist contributions veer into gender essentialist perspectives. His focus on Blouin, an influential figure in 20th-century anti-colonial feminism, feels myopic in its analysis of women’s contributions to Red Africa. While acknowledging that Blouin’s struggle to impact post-independence politics should be attributed to misogyny, it is important not to conflate questions of what national politics could have looked like with more female participation and deterministic assumptions that women’s representation, and the gendered traits we ascribe to revolutionary women, are what keeps us from the success of the national liberation project.

In one instance, Okoth argues that “For Blouin, [Lumumba’s] inability to put the needs of the nation over those of his family, as she had often done, constitutes nothing short of the betrayal of national liberation.” While this may apply to Blouin, Okoth then immediately extends the conclusion to the larger feminist anti-colonial project: “Blouin gives the strong impression that the African revolution… would have been more radical if the women responsible for igniting it had found a place in post-independence governments, or if they had been more intimately involved in the formal process of decolonisation.” By ascribing characteristics to Blouin, such as her apparent prioritization of national liberation over motherhood and selflessness, then gendering these characteristics, Okoth perpetuates gender stereotypes, even if he portrays them as being positive. In line with prior critiques he has of Negritude, it is important that Okoth condemns strategic or positive gender essentialism.

Okoth’s interrogation of Black revolutionary politics in Red Africa instigates a crucial discourse within contemporary academia and intellectual spheres. His critique challenges the complacency shrouding modern Black intellectuals, urging for a re-evaluation of ideologies and frameworks that restrain the realization of liberation. As readers journey through Okoth’s elucidation of the failures within Black Studies, AP 2.0, Negritude and interpretations of Fanon, they are challenged to embrace a paradigm shift towards a more inclusive, nuanced, and action-oriented approach to Black internationalism, Marxism, and Black radicalism.

Okoth leaves the reader with a farewell remark: “It is up to us to build a communism for our times from the ruins of Red Africa.” He reminds us that, in spite of the forces that cannibalized Red Africa–asymmetric power assigned to the intellectual elite, monolithic portrayals of Blackness, and a misrepresentation of diasporic Black perspectives as universal–we have an obligation to reinvest into the anti-imperialist solidarity that gave us Red Africa.

Mikayla Tillery is an activist and an African and African-American Studies student from Stanford University. She founded Students for Black Maternal Health, an online coalition of Black students advocating for legislation that addresses the disproportionate rate of Black women dying from pregnancy.

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