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Two Incisive Marxist Accountings of Past and Present

An Anthropology of Marxism, Second Edition
by Cedric J. Robinson
The University of North Carolina Press, 204 pp., $29.95

The Dialectic and the Detective: The Arab Spring and Regime Change in Libya
by Julian Lahai Samboma
Ebeefs Press, 176 pp., $6.99

Two impressive volumes, both by estimable and talented dialecticians of African descent, have recently been published which I cannot recommend highly enough. Individually the titles are engaging and worthwhile reads. However, as a duology, they provide a narrative history of the past and the present while demonstrating the utility of the Marxian dialectic.

The late Cedric J. Robinson authored over the course of his magisterial academic career an inter-connected and all-encompassing corpus that can be called “The Black Radical Tradition.” In his Black Marxism, Terms of Order, and Forgeries of Memory and Meaning, the late scholar described a dialectic of world-historic proportions, the thesis of racial capitalism and the antithesis of how African-descended people were at the forefront of the resistance to it in the praxis of the Black Radical Tradition. By elaborating upon this praxis, Robinson offered a sustained, astonishing, and profound critique of Marx’s thought and its various descendants for the undeniable dearth within its matrix when it came to anti-Black racism and its function within the ontology of capital.

An Anthropology of Marxism began life as a graduate seminar course reader Robinson authored for his students and was previously published by a small British press in 2001. (Fortunately, in 2019 the University of North Carolina Press re-issued An Anthropology of Marxism with a stunning new Introduction by H. L. T. Quan.) While he obviously familiarized himself with well-known histories of Marxism (most notable perhaps being the reactionary polemic Main Currents of Marxism by Leszek Kolakowski and the much more respectable and progressive academic titles by David McLellan such as Marxism After Marx), the scope and daring of the inquiry demonstrates how original this scholar truly was.

Using a multitude of sources that most Marxists are simply oblivious of (or alternatively ignore owing to unfair biases inherited from Marx and Engels), the historic arc of socialism is expanded to begin with the collapse of the Roman Empire. Robinson shows that capitalism and socialism were two forms of rebellion, deployed simultaneously by the rich and the poor respectively, that were intended to break society free from the grip of the feudal system. Patterns and habits of governance and social organization (mutual aid, communal ownership of the means of production, welfare programs attenuated to the needs of vulnerable populations, et. al.), otherwise called socialism, have a long heritage that dates back to radical heretical Christian sects, like the Poor Clares and the Franciscans, and their relegation to the dustbin of intellectual history named “utopian socialism” by Marx and Engels is a disservice to contemporary activists that Robinson clearly felt needed to be surmounted. (Indeed, the irony, that Marx and Engels never actually elaborated clearly on a programmatic framework for their allegedly superior “scientific socialist” praxis going beyond the sparse coordinates in works like The Critique of the Gotha Program, a longtime source of consternation for Marxist-inclined governments and politicians, is obvious.)

The volume is multi-disciplinary, including succinct and precise summaries of major philosophical challenges scholars, most notable being a summary of Hegel’s impact on the genesis of Marx’s thought, that I found both insightful and refreshing. After literal years of trying to understand the German idealist’s utility for small-c communist activism, Robinson provided me in several paragraphs a clear answer to a query that otherwise might have consumed a decade of intellectual wanderings. Similarly, readers are given a concise and useful understanding of how the major Marx/Engels texts related to contemporaries within groupings such as the Young Hegelians and English economics, not to mention heirs like Kautsky, Lenin, and Mao, in a way that throws doctrinaire historiographic notions to the wind in the name of intellectual honesty. He concludes the volume with this brilliant paragraph, “Both in the West and the world beyond, the socialist impulse will survive Marxism’s conceits just as earlier it persevered the repressions of the Church and secular authorities. The warrant for such an assertion, I have argued, is located in history and the persistence of the human spirit. As the past and our present demonstrate, domination and oppression inspire that spirit in ways we may never fully understand. That a socialist discourse is an irrepressible response to social injustice has been repeatedly confirmed. On that score it has been immaterial whether it was generated by peasants or slaves, workers or intellectuals, or whether it took root in the metropole or the periphery.” As we see the renaissance of Black radical politics today materialize in Ferguson and under the banner of #BlackLivesMatter/Movement for Black Lives, this forecast is indeed reassuring.

The Dialectic and the Detective is a different kind of book but should appeal to a similar audience. Here Julian Lahai Samboma has created a useful primer that demonstrates the methodology of dialectically interrogating a recent event, the NATO destruction of Gaddafi’s Libya, in a structured and precisely enunciated fashion. Some readers might understandably take issue with the prose and its step-by-step enunciation but perhaps this is a virtue for the proper audience. In the Anglophonic world, dialectical reasoning is completely foreign to a conventional wisdom where English empiricism instead is the predominant philosophical framework that is espoused within the education system. From the earliest school days, children are taught to think in terms that find their ancestry in Francis Bacon and John Locke. Dialectics of any persuasion, idealist or materialist, is a methodology that seems not only confusing but outright ridiculous. Samboma guides the reader through an approach to a recent event as a case study in Marxian dialectical reason that is useful for students making their preliminary approach to such analytical efforts.

 In terms of subject matter, the volume does not explicitly say so but this episode of American-led Western imperialism is not only recent but the central moment that has catalyzed our contemporary socio-economic and political landscape’s geography. Hillary Clinton’s war on Libya sparked the fuse that led to not only the destruction of the Arab Jamahiriya but the current xenophobia-inspired anti-immigrant ascendancy of the far right in Europe, the election of Donald Trump in the United States, and the infiltration of the Syrian civil war by weapons and right wing fighters that had origin in Tripoli.

Today, refugees from Africa and Syria perilously travel across the Mediterranean through a gateway that was previously blocked by Gaddafi, creating an influx of refugees in the already austerity-wracked European Union that inspires opportunism in reborn fascist political parties. 

Clinton’s decision to use a private email server while serving as Secretary of State was motivated at least in part to circumvent public records laws about official correspondence, a practice gleaned from the previous George W. Bush administration, and therefore one is compelled to deduce that included obscuring the origins of the attack on Libya, which in turn trace back to, among other things, personal financial gain for the Clinton Foundation and its operatives like Sidney Blumenthal. That email scandal, a goldmine for the conspiracist-inclined loons in the Republican base, provided Donald Trump with reams of talking points that were undeniable and gave him an edge when combined with his economic populist and nativist rhetoric. The humanitarian disasters that we have seen occur at home and abroad since Election Day 2016, in other words, are indebted to the Libya disaster, providing a haunting illustration of Aíme Césaire’s theory of fascism as boomeranging imperialism from Discourse on Colonialism.

If Robinson’s corpus explains the historical precedents that activists derive guidance from, Samboma provides a novel way for understanding the forces they oppose and why. His approach to the Arab Spring furthermore offers a novel take that accommodates the nuances of those popular uprisings, neither endorsing the idea that it was entirely a revolution from below nor the argument it was all a CIA-sponsored plot that was targeting Iran and other opponents in the region. And by framing things in the form of a detective narrative making reference to the popular Columbo series starring Peter Falk, we read something that has a dose of whimsy, which is certainly welcome in proceedings that are oftentimes arid in tone and brutal by nature of the history.

The opportunity to have a guidebook for interrogating these developments with a Marxian dialectical framework is a different experience and might strike readers in an off-key manner. But for professors teaching seminars on dialectics I think this is a very good textbook that furthermore will not kill student wallets, always an added virtue.

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Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.

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