Transcript: 73. Vanessa Wills on Africana Marxism

Vanessa Wills speaks to us about Marx and his Africana legacy, with a special focus on black women Marxists.

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

Peter Adamson: Before we get into Africana Marxism, let's talk about Marx, after whom Marxism is obviously named. And there would obviously be a lot to say here, but maybe you could just mention a few of the main ideas in his work that would be taken up in the later Africana tradition. 

Vanessa Wills: I think one of the most important ideas that Marxism offers that gets taken up later by anti-racist figures, by anti-imperialist movements, by decolonial movements, and so on, is first of all the idea that there's a kind of connection between a universal human struggle and the particular points of view and the particular situations of oppressed people around the world. In particular, Marxism connects the exploitation of the working class and sees that as a central kind of process and organizing principle that shapes really increasingly all, everything about human life that is affected by the spread of capitalism, which is most if not all human life around the world, especially as history unfolds. And it argues that we can connect to this global process that is bringing human beings into relationships with one another, that that offers a kind of framework for thinking about the freedom that can be realized as an aim in all kinds of movements against oppression and exploitation in local or specific contexts around the world. 

Peter Adamson: Yeah. I suppose in a way, like at the dawn of the 20th century, it was probably the dominant framework for thinking about oppression. 

Vanessa Wills: It was extremely important for oppressed people all around the world. And one of the things that is very interesting to think about is the impact that the victory of the Bolshevik Revolution in the Soviet Union had for Black people in the United States who were looking at that and saying, oh, okay, this is an example of what it looks like for the working class to take power. And of course, now in 2020, looking back, we can have all kinds of debates and conversations about what the nature of the Soviet Union was. But the fact is that for many people around the world, it had at least that symbolic meaning, especially since the Soviet Union claimed to have abolished racism, or at least to have significantly decreased the level of racism. Again, whether that happened is a separate question, but the inspirational effect that that had, it's hard to overstate it. 

Peter Adamson: It was at least part of the rhetoric. And there's a more technical notion in Marxism that you've talked about in some of your work, which is false consciousness, which I guess is actually a phrase that was not used by Marx but was introduced by his colleague Engels. Can you explain what false consciousness is, and say how it might be operative in racism? 

Vanessa Wills: So when Engels talks about false consciousness, he coins this phrase in a letter that's written after Marx's passing. And Engels is talking about the wrong ideas that people have about how their ideas come to be. So I refer to that as a kind of second-order false consciousness. It's a false belief about how you come to form your beliefs. And in particular, Engels is concerned that people tend to think – he thinks that intellectuals and academics are particularly guilty of this …

Peter Adamson: That might be true. 

Vanessa Wills: That we tend to think that the ideas we have are just the result of our own individual, uninfluenced genius, simply cognizing and grasping true aspects of reality out there in the world. And that we fail to have a kind of perspective and humility about all the kinds of non-cognitive or material forces that come in from the outside to explain why we have some of the beliefs that we do. So that's how Engels used the term false consciousness. I think that we also need to have a concept of first-order false consciousness. And I use the idea of first-order false consciousness to refer to some of our beliefs themselves. So we have all kinds of beliefs that are just wrong. And that's very interesting for people who are concerned about epistemology, which should be all of us. And so that's very interesting, but that's not the thing that I think we should understand as false consciousness. False consciousness has this kind of strange relationship to the world in that it actually does accurately reflect a real fact about how the world is organized. So Marx, for example, talks about ideology that is like the world reflected upside down on our retina or in a camera obscura. It's upside down, it's wrong, but its particular form of its wrongness tracks all kinds of real relationships between our perception and the world that it's a perception of. And it does give us some information about the world itself. So we don't just want to sweep it away and say, well, this is just wrong, false, and illusory. We actually want to investigate it further and try to understand what is the relationship between our perceptions, between the world, and understand why the world is being represented to us in the way that it is. And this is the sense in which I think it's useful to think about racist ideology as a form of false consciousness. We know that racist beliefs are wrong, but they also reflect actual ways that the world is arranged. So when people believe, for example, that Black people are inferior, that's wrong. But they're capturing facts about the way the social world is arranged, that Black people are paid less for their work, that their lives are treated with less care, all of these things that are real features of the world, that's what's being reflected in their beliefs. And that's what makes it useful to think about that as this kind of specific kind of wrongness that actually reveals real facts about the world. 

Peter Adamson: I see. And then second-order false consciousness would also be relevant, because racists think that their beliefs about Black people are on the basis of something like empirical evidence. 

Vanessa Wills: Exactly. 

Peter Adamson: Whereas actually it's because they were raised by racists. 

Vanessa Wills: Exactly. For example. 

Peter Adamson: Okay, great. I mean, not great, but –

Vanessa Wills: Terrible. 

Peter Adamson: But the point is good. It's illuminating. So, let’s move on now to specifically Africana Marxism, which has actually been espoused by several of the figures we're covering in this series. And thinking about it as a kind of general phenomenon, it seems like there might be a very simple thing going on here, which is just the observation that there's a link between economic oppression through capitalism and racial oppression through racism. And maybe it's even just a kind of analogy, or maybe you could think about it as somehow causally linked. What is exactly the relationship then between the analysis of racism and the analysis of capitalist oppression? 

Vanessa Wills: First, I'm going to say the thing that people often get very skeptical of, which is to say that a Marxist analysis argues that capitalism ought to be understood as a cause of racism, of sexism, of all kinds of identity-based oppression, and not just any cause, but that, in fact, it is the fundamental condition that explains a great, great deal of why we have these forms of oppression develop in the manner in which they do, and also that helps to explain why these things seem so stubborn and intractable. There's a number of ways to spell that out. One thing to say is that when Marxists say this about capitalism, it's because of a claim that Marx makes at a deeper level about the role of human self-making, of this idea that the essential activity for human beings is the labor process, which for Marx is this activity of intervening into our natural and social worlds in order to satisfy our needs in a way that transforms the world, in turn transforms ourselves, creates new needs, and provides this ontological basis for an in-principle unlimited proliferation of capacities and powers and changes and human development. It so happens that in a capitalist society, that process is mediated by class. We do that work of producing and reproducing our lives by showing up and selling our labor power, or by showing up and being the person that owns the factory. This just is the way that we organize this essential fundamental activity. In one sense, that should make it seem much more plausible in a way, the thing that folks often find hard to understand or just don't like. Because ultimately the reason why Marx gives this causal ontological primacy to class is not arbitrary. I think that sometimes there's a concern that the choice of class is just arbitrary. Well, why class? When we know that there's all these other divisions in society. The idea is that Marx is focusing on class because this is how we're producing all these facts about our lives, including producing these racial divisions and hierarchies. Now, there's another kind of explanation to give. Marx argues that because capitalism tends to concentrate power in the hands of a very small economic elite, and because the interests of the mass of society are different from the interests of that economic elite, it's in the interests of that small elite to try to stoke as much division as possible and maintain it. They have the motive and the opportunity because of their position to do this. So that's another way to think about this relationship, for Marx, between these factors. 

Peter Adamson: So it would be in the interest of the capitalist to pit the white workers against the Black workers or lower-class white people against lower-class Black people. 

Vanessa Wills: Yeah, and you see someone like W.E.B. Du Bois offer an explanation like this when in Black Reconstruction he talks about the public and psychological wage, which he describes as a method that was employed by the Southern white planter class specifically in order to frustrate the possibility of multiracial class-based solidarity. Now, Du Bois – he lives for a hundred years, he comes at this problem in all kinds of different ways. But I think that's one really important example of how the combination of doing the historical work of looking at what were the strategies that were employed in these particular historical situations can help shed some light on these philosophical questions of cause and effect essentially. 

Peter Adamson: Something that you've worked on, as we've said, is Africana Marxism, but there's something even more specific that you've worked on, which is Black women Marxists. Presumably just as there's more to being an anti-racist Marxist than being worried about racism and being a Marxist, there's more presumably to the phenomenon of Black women Marxists than just that there are some thinkers who are Black who are women and a Marxist. What is the definitive or defining feature of this strand of the Marxist tradition? 

Vanessa Wills: I'll come at this sideways by saying a little bit about how I got interested in this project. In one sense, I am a Black woman Marxist, and so just as a personal fact, I cared a lot about people who had gone before me and wanted to know how did they walk this road that I'm on. But more specifically, I think oftentimes unnecessary tensions and confrontations between Marxist analyses of identity-based oppression, such as racism and sexism – I think there's oftentimes unnecessary tension and conflict between what Marxists have to say and then the kinds of analyses that come from other orientations, like people who are doing various forms of critical race theory or feminism or other kinds of intersectionality. I just think that that doesn't need to be the case. And so I thought, well, here are the lives of women who have navigated this complex of oppression and exploitation, and done it while engaged in struggle, engaged in practical confrontation with these oppressive and exploitative forces. I wanted to know what are they doing and what are they thinking about? I'm looking at figures like Angela Davis, like Claudia Jones. One of the things that makes this possible is that over the past decade or so, there's been amazing work being done by historians, giving back to us the histories of someone like Claudia Jones, who was active especially in the earlier part of the 20th century. Trinidad-born, moved to the United States, was horribly persecuted by the US government, eventually moved to London where she died at the age of 49. You imagine the amount of years she spent in jail and the stress she was under. She died of a massive heart attack, but did so much within the 49 years that she had. Anyway, what we get when we look at these figures is a concern, of course, with race, with gender. They are thinking about these things directly. They're oftentimes actually having to intervene in all kinds of different directions at once. They are intervening in conversations happening within racist white feminist movements. They're intervening in Black liberation movements that are at times functioning in sexist ways. And they're intervening in their socialist organizations, having to insist upon the importance of race and sex. Essentially, we don't have to look at these things in a vacuum and treat these problems as though they're new. It turns out there's a whole rich tradition of women who have been doing this work. There's such important resources for answering this question. How do we take advantage of everything that a Marxist standpoint has to offer and has had to offer to resistance movements around the world, while also recognizing the importance and, in many cases, the centrality of struggles against identity-based oppression? 

Peter Adamson: Can I ask you about that thing you just mentioned about intervening in different directions? Because it seems to me like there might be at least a pragmatic and maybe even a principled philosophical problem, or tension at least, between the project, for example, of trying to create a coalition across classes and races of women to focus on resisting gender oppression, as opposed to say creating a cross-racial coalition of workers. Because interests may not align – and maybe the philosophical issue is that your analysis of the oppression that you're trying to fight might be very different if you're thinking about sex, as opposed to thinking about race. Is that a problem that you think that these figures got some way towards solving? 

Vanessa Wills: They all thought that the key to fighting these forms of oppression was to build the workers movement, was the victory of the working class. The working class, of course, as we know, inherently multiracial, multigender, multiethnic. All of these questions of various forms of identity-based oppression, they can't be swept aside. I actually am somewhat pessimistic about cross-class solidarity based on identity as a primary strategy for addressing identity-based oppression. 

Peter Adamson: You mean like a coalition between upper-class and lower-class Black people, for example? 

Vanessa Wills: Yeah. I certainly don't have the view that they should just always be rejected. Sometimes there's opportunities for cross-class solidarity in this way and in very meaningful respects. I think that is actually especially true in some ways for racial minorities. In the case of Black people, for example, there's a lot that's quite valuable actually about identifying on the basis of race in some ways with Blacks who are doing well and who are successful. That's something of enormous value for members of a race who are oppressed and denigrated and dehumanized. So I think there is a lot of value in that. As a political strategy, I think that ultimately it's very important for working-class people to insist upon their interests as a class, and that there are going to be cases where that comes into conflict with the interests of the elites, even elite members of their own race, in exactly the way that you're putting forward in the question. And I think that when that happens, there's no one-size-fits-all answer, but I think that the cause of doing away with racism and with racist oppression absolutely depends on the mass of racially oppressed people being able to organize society in a way that reflects their economic interests and other kinds of interests. I think that's of the utmost importance, and there are going to be times where that does come into conflict with doing the thing that perhaps is going to promote the interests of a Black CEO. 

Peter Adamson: It's interesting because it seems like with Africana Marxism in general and then with Black women Marxists in particular, we might have expected there to be an internal critique that takes the form of questioning class as the primary unit of analysis, or the driver in terms of when you're trying to say what is the driving force behind oppression. It sounds like they don't do that, so they always accept maybe that's just what it means to be a Marxist still. They always accept that class is the fundamental problem or the fundamental thing that you need to understand. And then racial and gender oppression is always understood within that. Is that right? 

Vanessa Wills: Of course, I guess as is always the case, I will talk about this in the way that reflects my thinking at this moment, which is what everybody always does. I think this is actually a really complicated question, and part of what's complicated about it is that folks tend to have all kinds of built-in presuppositions about what it means to be a materialist. And a lot of those have to go away when we talk about what Marx means by historical materialism. Marx's historical materialism – it's like any other materialism in this sense, that it regards material, concrete, physical, and also, in this case, economic concerns to be fundamentally determining aspects of being. But it's not true for Marx that he thinks that ideas are somehow epiphenomenal or not real or don't matter. Indeed, they can sometimes be of very central importance and be absolutely the crux or the focal point for thinking about how we can transform things at the level of matter. I use these words like “level” and “aspect.” If people don't like that, they can replace something. I don't actually care that much about the “level,” the “aspect,” whatever. I think about these relationships between thinking about racism and sexism and class. Oftentimes, when you look at the ways that arguments between Marxist approaches to these questions and approaches coming from all sorts of other directions look at these questions, it actually resolves down into a disagreement about the relationship between matter and ideas. Where racism and sexism are thought to be mainly a question of the bad racist beliefs and affective attitudes that people have, and class is this economic thing. And so, if you're looking at it in that way, and you're thinking, oh, well, the Marxists are materialists, so that's going to mean they only care about the economic class stuff. They just think that this racism and sexism is this epiphenomenal cloud, that it just doesn't matter. Well, that would be a terrible view. That would be a very bad view, and people should hate any view that has that conclusion, but that's just not a Marxist analysis at all. 

Peter Adamson: It's like a caricature. 

Vanessa Wills: It's a caricature of a Marxist analysis. For Marx, these questions about racism and sexism and the ideas that people have, the way that they treat one another and the way that we organize our social structures, that's not a kind of inessential ghost of reality. That is our lived reality. It's in and through that whole ideal and material complex of social being that we navigate any of these kinds of conflicts and contradictions that we engage in. When we're thinking about the work of Claudia Jones, Angela Davis, of someone like Louise Thompson Patterson, what we see is they say again and again, class is central. I wouldn't put it as unreflectively leaving class uninterrogated or something like that. Rather, it's that they are understanding these issues of racism and sexism as themselves a part of this holistic social system that, at the end of the day, we have to understand as our human product, as a thing that we're making. That's what makes class so important. That's one of the things that Marxists have to contribute to the conversation about racism and sexism. When Louise Thompson Patterson, who was also active in the early part of the 20th century and was part of the Harlem Renaissance, and she was one of a group of Black intellectuals and artists who traveled to the Soviet Union to make a film – which didn't get made, but she had a very interesting time over there – this was very meaningful for the folks who went because they weren't experiencing the kind of harsh anti-Black hostility that they were so accustomed to in the US. When she came back, Louise Thompson Patterson was asked, don't you think that in the Soviet Union there'd be more anti-Black racism if there were more Black people around? Which first of all is the most racist question, that the mere fact of Black people around would make you hate them. 

Peter Adamson: It's enough to provoke racism. 

Vanessa Wills: Yeah, right. So first, so let's, whatever, the most racist question possible. But Patterson answers, she says, no, she says, I don't think that racism is this kind of necessary, natural consequence of human nature such that you just throw people of different skin colors together and you're just necessarily going to get racism. She says, I think racism is something that we do, that we produce, that we make. So if you think about racism in that way, then the usefulness of a theory like Marx's historical materialism that comes at the world from the point of view of, he says, the working class, which is essentially just to say it comes at the world from this point of view that we've made it, that everything in our social world, and – this is a more controversial claim – he thinks it's also correct to say that our natural world as well. And to the extent that it's so transformed by capitalism. But the point for Marx is that we create our being with a capital B. We've made it. And so the way that you then approach the problem of racism or sexism, not as a kind of timeless scourges upon humanity and not as just natural consequences of our nature as human beings. But if you think of them as things that have been made that are historical, that have an origin in history, and therefore could have an end in history, that they're susceptible to human intervention, that's what Marxism as a theory that centers human activity has to offer. Right now I'm looking for ways in my talks and in my work to characterize that. I've started to say that Marxism is a production-based theory. Maybe that's more helpful, because – the class-based theory is correct, but it's a kind of shorthand – because of course historical materialism is a theory that Marx thinks is useful to explain not only capitalist society, but pre-class societies and so on. 

Peter Adamson: Actually, can I ask you one last question, which is about that, which is – maybe this is another kind of cliche that people associate with Marxism, but it's thought to be very deterministic, partially because it's materialist – that it had to happen, that there was the medieval feudal way of organizing society and that had to give way to these other ways of organizing society. So is there a kind of problem within Africana Marxism in particular in thinking that actually racism is somehow inevitable, because everything's inevitable, so it has to be determined by economic forces, even if we can look forward to its going away someday? 

Vanessa Wills: So I think the question of determinism in – well, this part is not going to be surprising to anyone – it's complicated, Peter. It's complicated. So I like to lead with this: the best argument for thinking that Marx is a strict determinist and fatalist in this way, and that he thinks communism is inevitable, is that in the Communist Manifesto, he makes this claim, communism is inevitable, the workers have only a world to win. But of course the Manifesto is serving many functions, some of them rhetorical and rabble-rousing. But there's a deeper kind of conversation to have about the relationship between human agency and freedom and determinism in Marx. My view is that many of the puzzles that seem to arise for Marx's understanding of determinism emerge from trying to impose a kind of contemporary analytic philosophical way of thinking about freedom and determinism onto what Marx is doing, which unsurprisingly leaves a lot of things out. I think the most important thing that it leaves out is the historicity of freedom for Marx. Human freedom, like everything else, is also a human product. It's a thing that human activity is in the process of creating. Now that means that activity is going to be carried out in more or less free ways. So there's this kind of – it's not right to call it a paradox, but there's this, I don't know, we can call it a puzzle maybe for Marx, that deterministic historical forces realized in and through human activity actually lead to the proliferation of human capacities. It leads to the development of greater human consciousness about ourselves, about our world, about what we're doing. It allows for a more robust and complex form of human rationality. And so for Marx, it's wrong to think of freedom and determinism as kind of statically locked in this opposition to one another. For Marx, it's a historically unfolding contradiction. Then there's the question, well, what do we say about these various historical events that have occurred, or economic periods that we've been through? I don't think that Marx has the view that, if you had gone back and looked at early man, that if you had enough foresight somehow, that would allow you to see that things had to go this way. So I don't think that that's the case for Marx. He thinks class conflict, for example, is actually inevitable in a class society. That's a kind of determinism. But the outcome of that conflict, he thinks, is yet to be seen. It turns out that bourgeois classes across Europe were successful in overthrowing feudalism, incompletely in many cases. But I don't think it's the case that he thinks you would have been able to see that, if you were in ancient Greece or something. 

Peter Adamson: So it's almost like it looks inevitable in hindsight, but while you're in it, you're still making it happen. 

Vanessa Wills: I don't even know that it looks – I mean, that's a real I don't know, not an annoying philosophy I don't know – if it looks inevitable in hindsight. But I do think that on a Marxist conception, there is the thought that using a historical materialist framework, understanding these things as the products of human choices, and human beings responding to their material needs in various ways will allow you to develop a greater understanding of what happened and why. I think that's absolutely the case. As for the sort of eventual appearance, perhaps, of communism – and by communism, I'm talking about the democratic control over society's resources – whether we're going to reach a state like that, that also is a complicated question. I think that Marx thinks that there are processes unfolding under capitalism that make it more likely all the time. So if we look, for instance, at the major distribution and production networks of Amazon and all these massive corporations that have all kinds of problematic aspects to them, it's also true that even under capitalism, in our incomplete and often irrational and limited ways, we are developing this huge potential for production and distribution. And these are exactly the kinds of capabilities that make it all the more reasonable to imagine a world where everybody is able to get what they need. Anyway, it's complicated.


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