“Black radicals not only anticipated the rise of fascism; they resisted before it was considered a crisis.” An Interview with Robin D.G. Kelley

November 14, 2020
By

Robin D.G. Kelley in March 2019.

Robin D.G. Kelley is the Gary B. Nash Professor of American History at UCLA. The author of many books, including a biography of Thelonious Monk, he co-edited “This Ain’t Ethiopia, But It’ll Do”African-Americans and the Spanish Civil War (1990) and currently serves on ALBA’s Honorary Board.

Do you recall a letter or an individual that jumped out at you in your research on Black volunteers of the Lincoln Brigade? How quickly in your research did you see that Black volunteers were connecting the Spanish Civil War with the struggle for racial and economic justice in the United States?

First, I should give some background as to how I came to this research in the first place. Having written my first book on the Communist Party, I was familiar with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and the basics of Spanish Civil War history. But in 1990, I was summoned by ALBA and Danny Duncan Collum, who edited the book of documents on African Americans in the Spanish Civil War, to write a lengthy introduction. So I had immediate access to the archives and, especially, the documents selected for the book. There were many more veterans alive back then and the meetings I attended were robust, exciting, and sometimes contentious. And they wanted to see every draft I wrote. So I imagined trying to write by committee, with various people chiming in—not just in terms of factual accuracy but political tone. Both Bill Susman and Marc Crawford were exacting yet brilliant in their criticism and encyclopedic knowledge. Susman, in particular, hipped me to the fact that John Gerassi’s oral history of the veterans of the Lincoln Brigade was filled with errors and passages that he had invented. That sent me to all of the original transcribed interviews he conducted.

Those interviews proved to be the richest source, especially the interviews with Oscar Hunter and Admiral Kilpatrick. Kilpatrick was a former Wobblie from Oklahoma who had survived the Palmer raids in 1919. I loved his recollections of testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee: “I didn’t take no Fifth Amendment. What the hell am I going to take the Fifth? They knew who I was, I didn’t give a damn. . . . I’ve been trying to take the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendment all my damn life and got nowhere.” Oscar Hunter’s recollections were the first that made the explicit connection between Ethiopia and Spain (and his quote was the source of the title of the book and my Introduction). Finally, there were things I received from people that ultimately ended in the archives that really struck me: Vaughn Love’s memoir (still unpublished), Joe Brandt’s self-published history of Black Spanish Civil War vets. I recall vividly visiting Joe at his house and him pulling out all of these clippings and photos.

With apologies to our readers, but the Russian historian in me wants to broadcast your recent co-edited volume of the writings of the Guyanese anticolonial intellectual Walter Rodney (The Russian Revolution: A View from the Third World). How did you become familiar with Walter Rodney’s works? How did they change how you understand the Russian Revolution?

Here is the short version. Of course, like every Marxist, anti-imperialist, and Black nationalist-leaning young person in the 1970s and ‘80s, we all knew Walter Rodney’s work, especially How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1972) and Groundings with My Brothers (1969). But putting together and editing Rodney’s lectures on the Russian Revolution was something I never thought I would do. Again, I was at the right place at the right time. I began this project in graduate school in the mid-1980s at UCLA, as Professor Edward Alpers’s research assistant. Rodney’s papers were literally in his office. After Rodney had been assassinated in Guyana in 1980, his widow, Pat Rodney, fled the country with his papers. We discovered a stack of typed lectures on aspects of the Russian Revolution for a course he taught at the University of Dar es Salaam in 1971. The lectures had handwritten notes scrawled in between and in the margins but no citations. The files also contained a hand-written Preface bearing the title, “Two World Views of the Russian Revolution: Reflections from Africa,” suggesting that Rodney planned to turn these lectures into a book but never got around to it. My task was to do just that. Twenty lectures then became nine chapters, which required a major reorganization. I also had to track down all of his citations (he had no footnotes). After about a year or so working on it, Pat decided to take the papers and I kept a copy of the completely unfinished manuscript. Long-story-short, in 2015 the Rodney family was interested in the text so I went back to work on it for two years, with help from Jesse Benjamin.

The book was more or less a meditation on the politics of writing the history of the Russian Revolution rather than a history of the revolution, per se, and as such it reflected a political era when the Bolshevik seizure of power was a little over 50 years old, and it appeared to most of us on the Left that socialism was winning—even if one looked at the Soviet Union as an example of a failed socialist experiment. Rodney’s lectures covered the gamut from pre-revolutionary movements to Stalinist economic planning; he examines the challenges of socialist transformation in a “backwards” empire, the consolidation of state power, debates within Marxist circles over the character of Russia’s revolution, and the ideological bases of historical interpretation. Rather than produce a narrative history, Rodney chose to interrogate the meaning, representation, and significance of the Russian Revolution as a world-historical event whose reverberations profoundly shaped Marxist thought, Third World liberation movements, and theories of socialist transformation.

But doing this project, especially almost thirty years after the collapse of the USSR and my own shifting interpretations of revolution, socialism, and democracy, “rebuilding” and introducing the book proved—for me at least—to be genuine reckoning with Stalinism, post-Soviet critiques, and the interpretation of Third World revolutions in the era of Global South-based neoliberalism. While I’m very proud of the work I did to create Rodney’s The Russian Revolution, I came away far more critical of Rodney’s interpretations than I had been in the 1980s. It struck me that we can never know what arguments he would have developed or revised if given the opportunity to complete the book. I had to work with texts stuck in 1971, foreclosing any insights he might have gained from his later political work in Guyana after leaving Tanzania. And in a forthcoming essay I wrote on Rodney and Rosa Luxemburg, I argue that judging from his political work and writings in Guyana at the end of his life, he would have made substantive changes to his interpretation of Stalinism and democracy. Nevertheless, this is what I took away from Rodney: To study the Russian Revolution is not to emulate it. There are lessons to be learned, and the principle of socialism must be defended, but African and Third World revolutionaries cannot slavishly adopt it as a model. “Where do we stand?” Rodney muses in the conclusion. We need to be wary of either a “Marxist view through [a] distorted bourgeois lens” or the Soviet view despite being “very close because of the similarity of our present and past with their past in the period under study.” He ends on a profoundly reflective note: “Assuming a view springing from some Socialist variant is not necessarily Marxist but anti-capitalist, assuming a view that is at least radical humanist – then the Soviet Revolution of 1917 and the subsequent construction of Socialism emerges as a very positive historical experience from which we ourselves can derive a great deal as we move to confront similar problems.”

You are the author of two seminal books on the history of jazz (Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times and Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original). I’m not going to ask the obvious question—what your is favorite Monk record? Instead, I’m interested to know what musicians, jazz or otherwise do you find yourself listening to these days.

My favorite Monk record is an easier question! But here is a partial list of who I’m listening to now….

James Brandon Lewis, Samora Pinderhughes, Jason Moran, Vijay Iyer, Terri Lyn Carrington, J. D. Allen, Craig Taborn, Eisa Davis, Jennifer Koh, Miles Okazaki, Nicole Mitchell, Makaya McCraven, Eric Reed, Tomeka Reid, Ambrose Akinmusire, Jen Shyu, Courtney Bryan, Abdullah Ibrahim, Robert Glasper, Dianne Reeves, Chick Corea, Stanley Cowell, Todd Cochran, Harriet Tubman (the band), Heroes are Gang Leaders, Fatoumata Diawara, and many others, including the ancestors—Randy Weston, Geri Allen, Albert Ayler, Alice Coltrane, John Coltrane, Archie Shepp, Billie Holiday, Charles Mingus, Charlie Haden, Eric Dolphy, and yes Thelonious Monk, and a whole lot of Erroll Garner right now because I host a podcast on Garner’s music called Erroll Garner Uncovered.

Could you tell us about your current book project Black Bodies Swinging: An American Postmortem? Has your conception of state-sanctioned racialized violence and resistance to it changed since the spring of 2020? I think what I’m asking here is if you see a maturing crisis of racial capitalism in the last six months.

Before I try to describe the book, let me answer the last two questions first. No, my conception of state-sanctioned violence and resistance hasn’t changed much since the spring of 2020 largely because I see the events of this year as part of a much longer story and this is its latest manifestation. Racial capitalism experiences periodic crises that are not only the result of business cycles or relative overproduction, etc., but also generated by struggle, insurgencies especially around the legitimacy of the racial regime, which is always unstable and must constantly change and adapt. This may be hard to believe, but throughout our history almost every moment of potential revolutionary transformation has centered on battles for racial justice.

At the same time, I do think there is something to say about an intensification of crisis, if not necessarily maturing, made visible by the spring 2020 protests and the global pandemic. Unlike previous rebellions, we are seeing millions taking to the streets behind a radical abolitionist banner. Calls to abolish police and prisons and to shift those resources to housing, universal healthcare, living wage jobs, universal basic income, green energy, and a system of restorative justice are not entirely new, but such proposals never gained popular support or were taken seriously. What we’re witnessing now is a paradigm shift. Demands that were once considered pipe dreams are now seen as viable and even necessary. The idea of abolition has taken hold in ways that has disrupted, if not shattered, America’s liberal illusions.

How this happened, I argue, wasn’t simply the result of a convergence of COVID and another racist state-sanctioned murder caught on film. The kinds of political non-reformist demands we’re seeing are manifestations of three decades of organizing. While my book traces a longer history of state violence and collective resistance to it, I make a specific argument that the current movement, which we tend to date back to 2012 and the killing of Trayvon Martin, has its roots in 1990s, in the opposition to Bush and Clinton-era neoliberalism, the war on drugs, the war on terror, anti-Black and anti-immigrant racism, prison expansion, police brutality, gendered and racialized violence against women of color, queer and trans people, and the ongoing struggle for reproductive justice.

But I also argue that in order to fully understand what killed George Floyd or Michael Brown or Breonna Taylor requires a different kind of autopsy—an historical postmortem that lays bare the structural conditions responsible for premature death. Each chapter opens with a dead body, whose death and the life I reconstruct, along with the life and death of their neighborhoods, the city, the police, the generations who came before them. To truly understand the “cause of death” means going back decades, even centuries.

The title, Black Bodies Swinging, is inspired by the lyrics to “Strange Fruit” by Abel Meerpol, sung by Billie Holiday, which goes:

Blood on the leaves

Blood at the root

Black body swinging in the southern breeze

I trace the deaths and the lives of our most recent casualties to the “blood at the root”—the racial terror at the base of our system of exploitation and wealth accumulation. The blood at the root is “racial capitalism.” In other words, it is not only the effects of racist policing but the extraction of wealth from black people, displacement, predatory lending, regressive taxation, disproportionate ticketing and fines, disfranchisement, environmental catastrophe, and the long history of looting through terror and government policies that suppressed black wages, relieved us of property, excluded black people from better schools and public accommodations, suppressed black home values, and subsidized white wealth accumulation, dismantled the welfare state; privatized public schools, hospitals, and other public resources; and funded the massive growth of prisons. These policies have produced scarcity, poverty, illicit economies regulated through violence, and environmental and health hazards.

In light of the overwhelming backlash, the resurgence of white supremacist violence, the most recent political developments, the final chapter asks the question: “Where Do We Go from Here? Abolition or Fascism?” We’re trying to answer that question right now.

How are you thinking about the recent rhetoric from President Trump and the right-wing media about the radical left and its Antifa mobs? 

To be quite honest, I don’t think too much about it because we’ve seen it over and over again throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It’s from a very old playbook—and veterans of the Lincoln Brigade experienced it firsthand, as they were the original antifa in the U.S. But I worry about how Trump as a crazy person is exceptionalized. Yes, he and his entire regime are dangerous and must be voted out. No, Biden and Trump are not the same. But if we believe the culprit is Donald J. Trump and his crew and that all we need is a return to the good old days of Clinton/Obama/Biden, then we are treading dangerous waters. We have at least four decades of globalization, neoliberal attacks on the welfare state, public institutions, and the poor, covert wars, and political and cultural backlash against movements for racial and gender justice. White supremacy, rampant xenophobia, open misogyny and attacks on reproductive rights, a backlash against “diversity,” a terrifying spike in homicides of transgender people, did not begin with the Trump campaign. In 1979, even before Ronald Reagan officially took office, Klansmen and Nazi’s killed five labor organizers in Greensboro, North Carolina, in broad daylight—and the whole thing was captured on camera. Four victims were members of the Communist Workers Party. Their killers were not criminally convicted.

So you have to imagine what it means to Black and Brown observers of Trump’s flirtation with white supremacists when armed white militias can show up at public rallies and on the steps of state capitols, defying social distancing measures and demanding an immediate end to “stay at home” orders. After years of watching footage of unarmed Black people beaten and killed by police for walking, loitering, running, standing in front of their homes, showing insufficient deference, protecting their kids, being a kid, these scenes of white men brandishing AR-15s in the face of police and government officials and evading jail, injury or death, begs incredulity.

To underscore my point, Black people in the state of Michigan were already being terrorized by Republican legislators when they replaced elected local officials (city councils, school boards, mayors, etc.) with Governor-appointed emergency financial managers with the power to fire elected officials, abrogate labor contracts, sell off public assets and impose new taxes on residents—all without a single vote from anyone. Or in the case of Flint, force the privatization of water by shifting the city’s water source from the Detroit River to the polluted Flint River. And when the Secretary of State decided in the 2016 presidential election to throw out some 48,000 ballots in Detroit because the machine could not read them (Trump won Michigan by a little over 10,000 votes). So we focus our attention on dangerous white men on the fringe – which we must – but at the expense of thugs who have stripped Black people of a democratic voice and denied them power to stop the divestment of their communities. In 2016 in Michigan, about 49% of the African American population had no locally elected government and were under emergency managers, and yet Black people make up only make up 14% of the state’s population.

In your view, what are the lessons of the International Brigade in our current political and social crises? Are you teaching the Spanish Civil War any differently today than you were five or ten years ago?

The most important lessons are the importance of international solidarity and the urgency of fighting fascism wherever it rears its head. Internationalism seems like it is slowly disappearing from our political culture. (The recent Aaron Sorkin Netflix take on “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is a perfect example of turning anti-imperialist radicals into nationalist liberals by portraying an anti-war movement that is patriotic and cares only about Americans dying in Vietnam!) It also teaches us how Fascists consistently claim the mantle of civilization, the restoration of Law and Order, while attacking every manifestation of genuine social democracy. I find myself reflecting more on the counterfactual—what would the world look like had the Spanish Republic and the world defeated Franco?

I rarely have a chance to teach the Spanish Civil War anymore now. But I did recently write an essay about Angelo Herndon that ended with his brother, Milton Herndon, who died in Spain. It is for a book coming out with Random House in a few months edited by Keisha N. Blain and Ibram X. Kendi, titled, Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019.

I will use their words to make my point here. Angelo Herndon wrote in his 1937 memoir, Let Me Live:

The Fascist racketeers were no fools. They understood the psychology of their starving victims. Their appeal to them was irresistible. It went something like this: “Run the niggers back to the country where they came from – Africa! They steal the jobs away from us white men because they lower wages. Our motto is therefore: America for Americans!

Of course, for us in 2020, these words are familiar; the author, less so. Angelo Herndon was the very embodiment of antifa. In 1937, he was twenty-four-year-old with a sixth-grade education and had spent almost three years in a Georgia jail cell, about five years in Southern coal mines, and at least two years as a Communist organizer in the deep South. As American finance capital eagerly floated loans to Mussolini and Fortune Magazine, Saturday Evening Post, and the New Republic extolled Italian fascism, Black radicals like Herndon called out and resisted homegrown fascism in the form of lynch law, the suppression workers’ organizations and virtually all forms of dissent, and the denial of civil and democratic rights to black citizens. As this was the state of affairs in much of the United States long before Mussolini’s rise, Black radicals not only anticipated the rise of fascism, they resisted before it was considered a crisis. That, too, should sound familiar.

So even before Franco’s troops invaded Spain, Herndon and his comrades were calling on workers to fight Fascism at home. And Fascism meant the indiscriminate killing of Black people. In one of his speeches, he said, “Today, when the world is in danger of being pushed into another blood-bath, when Negroes are being shot down and lynched wholesale, when every sort of outrage it taking place against the masses of people—today is the time to act.” Black radicals heeded Herndon’s plea “to act,” mobilizing in defense of Ethiopia, resisting lynch law in the South, organizing a global anti-colonial movement, and defending Republican Spain from the Fascists. Angelo’s brother, Milton Herndon, died fighting Franco’s troops in the Spanish Civil War. He told his men why he was there. “Yesterday, Ethiopia. Today, Spain. Tomorrow, maybe America. Fascism won’t stop anywhere–until we stop it.” His words still ring true.

Aaron Retish teaches at Wayne State University.

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