In his 1938 preface to the first edition of The Black Jacobins, C. L. R. James wrote famously that “great men make history, but only such history as it is possible for them to make.” James riffs, of course, on birthday boy Karl Marx’s 1852 remark that “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please.” Instead they change the world “under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”
James’ remark implies more emphasis perhaps on the ways that the unfolding present — not just what Marx called the “tradition of all dead generations [that] weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living” — set the limits of revolutionary leadership and provide the terrain from which leaps of revolutionary thought occur.
Such limits, we ought to remind ourselves, applied to Marx and James themselves. Perhaps that self- and social knowledge gave both some solace in moments when their revolutionary leadership could only lead a little. Perhaps such knowledge should do the same for us.
There is much to consider in the juxtaposed James and Marx quotations above, but I want to settle in the thousand words that I’ve allotted myself on some of their implications for how Marx’s limits and his forward motion regarding race and gender might be understood together.
One point of departure is the gendered language in both quotes. They both unsurprisingly posit “men” as the history makers. For Marxists there is ample reason to desire to push this to the side as inconsequential and/or as a mere convention of the language of the time(s).
Thus, I myself have a record of simply silently correcting the gendered language of a Marx, James, or W.E.B. Du Bois by silently shoving words outside quotations — thus men and women “make their own history.” Elsewhere I have resorted to awkward, graceless brackets: “[wo]men make their own history.” You know, bringing things up to date.
While defensible in some ways — well, not the brackets — such amendments cause us to minimize the extent to which humanity’s nightmares weighed on the brains of a James or a Marx too. An eloquent acknowledgment of this came when James himself followed up on a 1971 talk at Atlanta’s Institute of the Black World on “How I Wrote Black Jacobins” four days later with “How I Would Rewrite Black Jacobins.”
Things do change, the world does teach, and we do get to move beyond boundaries.
I want to briefly play with such ideas around what is now becoming a staple of Marxology in some quarters, namely the idea that the old man — now 200 — was relatively “good” on questions of race, national oppression, and to a lesser extent gender. Sometimes this assessment carries an implied “for his benighted times’ and at others it seems to apply to ours as well.
Sometimes Engels is shoehorned into a marxandengels amalgam of advanced thinking; at other junctures, as in Kevin Anderson’s account of understanding of each of the revolutionary emancipation of U.S. slaves, we learn how thoroughly Marx’s pace of advance outstripped that of Engels. Even when Marx was weighted with the nightmares of racism and Eurocentrism, we learn from Anderson, August Nimtz, and others, he was capable of learning and almost always did grow.
Marx in Motion
I do not want to nitpick here regarding the overall point that Marx frequently moved, especially on questions of race and empire, from positions that were ill-thought or un-thought to far more productive ones. As in past writings, I’d add my agreement with the Marxist economist Michael Lebowitz, who persuasively holds that such leaps did not however find their way into the most comprehensive and most read of Marx’s theoretical works.
There is no developed role in Capital, according to Lebowitz, for the necessity of capital to produce divisions among workers.
What I do wish to underline is that Marx’s leaps where race was concerned came not just or mostly from study or even from application of a method. Instead they arose from seeing matters literally anew because of social motion by the oppressed and in particular by the colonized and the enslaved.
The very emphasis on self-emancipation of the working class in the foundational documents of the First International came as Marx had before him the concrete examples of the self-emancipation of the enslaved persons of the Confederacy, and the emancipation of Russian serfs.
Sharp questioning by Marx of his earlier beliefs in the progressive role of empire followed the Sepoy Rebellion in India in 1857-58, and its brutal suppression. It was in this moment that, as Pranav Jani writes, Marx started “to theorize the self-activity and struggle of colonized Indians.”
While Marx’s interest in Irish struggles was longstanding, his acute concern with Ireland came after Fenian militancy, as Anderson puts it, “really came to a boil.” It was then that Marx argued that the “national emancipation of Ireland is not a question of abstract justice or humanitarian sentiment but the first condition of social emancipation.”
Similarly, it was in the wake of the self-emancipating general strike of U.S. slaves that he could write “Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin while in the black it is branded.”
The late, great U.S. historian Lerone Bennett described Abraham Lincoln as having been “forced into glory.” On this view the resistance of the enslaved made Lincoln into an emancipator. Marx too, starting from a higher place, was forced into more glorious positions by movements, ideas, and inspirations proceeding from the bottom up.
In conclusion: Fred Thompson, my old Industrial Workers of the World friend now 30 years dead, used to break into song about Karl Marx when he sensed that meetings were lapsing into sectarian posturing. I remember the song as endlessly repeating “Karl Marx’s Whiskers They Were Eighteen Inches Long.” Others say it was 16 inches. Anyhow, I hope it is sung at the party.
Originally published in Against the Current 195[book-strip index="1" style="display"]