Wrestling with Ellison

Against the Current, No. 155, November/December 2011

Paul M. Heideman

NATHANIEL MILLS’ REVIEW of Barbara Foley’s Wrestling With the Left (ATC 152, May-June 2011) raises a number of very important issues for understanding the politics of Ralph Ellison’s masterpiece, and by extension 20th-century African-American literature as a whole. In particular, Mills’ criticisms of Foley’s neglect of potentially liberatory moments in the text foregrounds the crucial issue of how revolutionary critics should go about the task of investigating novelistic politics.

Though Mills is surely right to raise this issue, his criticisms of Foley and his alternative reading of Ellison ultimately evade the dominant political ideology of the novel, rendering hollow any attempt to claim emancipatory moments within it.

Mills’ criticisms run along two main lines. First, he argues that Foley is mistaken in reading the novel’s portrait of The Brotherhood as a mimetic stand-in for the Communist Party, and that the institutions and figures Ellison creates at various points in the novel are, in fact, non-representational generic archetypes. Mills argues that this non-referentiality is politically progressive, as it allows Ellison’s critique to have a greater reach. Second, he argues that Ellison’s insistence on the formlessness and chaos of life is not an evasion of the reality of oppression and domination, as Foley contends, but rather an insight of theoretical value for the Left.

Before considering the specifics of Mills’ first argument, I think it’s worth pointing out that it is a rather strange one for a Marxist to make. Fredric Jameson, after all, declared “Always Historicize!” to be “the one absolute and we may even say ‘transhistorical’ imperative of all dialectical thought,”(1) and while Jameson’s word is not law, it is a sentiment Marxist critics have tended to affirm.  Mills’ argument for the progressive potential of de-historicization would read more convincingly if he at least acknowledged that he was, in fact, going against the grain of a good deal of Marxist criticism.

More substantively, there seem to me to be good reasons to read the novel as mimetically as Foley has. Mills’ argument is “that Ellison doesn’t document a certain historical period, certain historical events, or certain historical institutions like the Communist Party.” Mills offers little in this essay to sustain this argument, drawing instead on the work of John Callahan, who has written insistently on the need to distance Ellison’s representations from any immediate history. Ellison, Callahan argues, “puts as much distance as possible between events of history and the imagined situations of his novel.”(2)

Mills’ and Callahan’s arguments here are buttressed by the authority of Ellison himself, who frequently castigated critics for trying to link his representations to concrete historical referents such as the Tuskegee Institute or the Communist Party. Yet there are good reasons to believe that Ellison was, to put it simply, lying (a possibility critics of Callahan’s persuasion have curiously overlooked, given their emphasis on Ellison’s affinities with trickster archetypes).

Take, for example, Ellison’s picture of the Black college the Invisible Man attends in the first part of the novel, which readers have generally associated with Tuskegee. Ellison describes “the bronze statue of the college Founder, the cold Father symbol, his hands outstretched in the breathtaking gesture of lifting a veil that flutters in hard, metallic folds above the face of a kneeling slave”(3) which stood on the campus grounds.

At Tuskegee, meanwhile, Booker T. Washington, the campus founder, is represented by a bronze statue entitled “Lifting the Veil of Ignorance,” in which Washington lifts the veil from the head of a crouched slave. Is this “as much distance as possible between events of history and the imagined situations of his novel”? Hardly.

The “Brotherhood” and Communism

The picture of the Brotherhood is similarly laden with referentiality. Mills cites Callahan’s argument that “the Brotherhood derives a measure of significance from its similarity in some respects to the relation between American Blacks and the Democratic and Republican parties.”(4)

This is, if anything, even less convincing than the case of Tuskegee. For example, the Brotherhood’s leadership in the book, Jack, is written as a foreigner who poses as an American, whose duplicity is revealed when he is angered and begins babbling in a foreign tongue the invisible man sarcastically describes as “the language of the future.” (476) A few lines later, he refers to Jack as “a dialectical deacon,” a phrase that both symbolically links Jack with the manipulative Black churchmen who were in charge of the college and unmistakably associates him with Marxism.

A purported linkage with the Democratic and Republican parties  becomes even less tenable in the epilogue, when after dreaming that Brother Jack leads a lynch mob to castrate him, the invisible man remarks that “Jack and the boys are waiting with their knives, looking for the slightest excuse to…well, to ‘ball the jack,’ and I do not refer to the old dance step, although what they’re doing is making the old eagle rock dangerously.” (576)

Here, Jack the foreigner is positioned as a threat to the nation, an operation that renders the invisible man’s position in his dream as metonym for the nation. If the Brotherhood is an archetypal representative of American political parties, these clusters of imagery make no sense — are we supposed to read Ellison as implying that political parties in general are gangs of foreigners waiting for the slightest opportunity to castrate Uncle Sam?

If the Brotherhood is read as the CP, however, the portrait fits perfectly (to the point that Ellison’s representation can be read as one species of the hysterical anticommunism portrayed in Dr. Strangelove, where General Buck Turgidson’s reason for starting the war is precisely the threat he imagines the communists pose to his virility).

Mills argues that while we shouldn’t read the Brotherhood as a direct reference to the CP, the portrait nonetheless is of value for the Left “as a warning against potential tendencies (toward political dogmatism and vanguard elitism, institutional self-preservation at the cost of revolutionary creativity, etc.) that any leftist organization should avoid.” This is unconvincing.  For one thing, Ellison shows no sign in the novel of any sympathy for revolutionary anything, so it makes little sense to assert that his portrait of the Brotherhood is a warning against stifling revolutionary creativity.

More to the point, however, is the fact that Ellison’s portrait of the Brotherhood in the published novel is unremittingly hostile — it is a totalitarian, racist organization symbolically linked with white racists.

In this context, it seems perverse to read his representation as some sort of friendly criticism.  Arthur Schlesinger, Richard Pipes and Bernard-Henri Levy make many of the same criticisms of dogmatism and elitism in revolutionary groups. Does this mean their writings should be taken as valuable advice as well?

Mills’ second primary line of argument concerns Ellison’s insistence “that American society is more complicated and unpredictable than most established epistemological and political paradigms allow.”

For Mills, this point evinces an affinity between Ellison’s picture of the United States and “theories of social form and process articulated by European Marxists like Louis Althusser and Antonio Gramsci. Both Althusser and Gramsci revised classical notions of economic determinism in order to identify the complexly overdetermined realms of the social and cultural as potential sites for revolutionary politics.”

Recent scholarship on Gramsci (I am thinking particularly of Peter Thomas and Timothy Brennan) has shown that his thought was far more a product of Third International debates and discourses than critical reception has allowed. This work has rendered suspect the clichéd image of Gramsci as complicator of a previously simplistic Marxism.

The two conceptions of cultural struggle I can detect in Althusser’s work are both deeply unsatisfactory. First, Althusser’s notion of theoretical practice rewrites Marxist philosophy as an autonomous part of the class struggle. Regis Debray provided the immortal verdict on this theory with his quip, “all we had to do to become good theoreticians was to be lazy bastards.”

The second, of struggle in the ideological state apparatuses, is even more troublesome, given its provenance as a theoretical justification for the bureaucratic madness of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, as well as its subsequent use in the hands of Gauche Proletarienne as a reason for regarding reformist trade unions as apparatuses of the capitalist state.

Ellison’s American Exceptionalism

More important than this Marxological esoterica, however, is the fact that in Ellison’s novel, the fluidity and complication he emphasizes are linked to an ideology of American exceptionalism. We have already seen how the invisible man stands as a metonym for the United States in his vulnerability to the castrating fanatics of the Brotherhood.  Ellison goes much further than this, however, in his deployment of tropes of American exceptionalism.

In his reflection on his grandfather’s words, the invisible man declares that his grandfather, who he concludes was right after all, “must have meant the principle, that we were to affirm the principle on which the country was built and not the men, or at least not the men who did the violence.” For the invisible man, the lesson of his experiences is that “we had to ‘say yes’ to the principle, lest they [Brother Jack and the others who have manipulated the invisible man] turn upon us and destroy both it and us.” (574, 575)

Ellison’s affirmation of American exceptionalism in these pages is directly linked to his conception of America as chaotic and complex.  As he remarks, “America is woven of many strands; I would recognize them and let it remain so.” This affirmation of American diversity is expressly linked to a repudiation of Jack and his ilk: “Let man keep his many parts and you’ll have no tyrant states.” (577)

Finally, it’s worth noting that Mills proposes Ellison’s picture of complexity as a remedy for what is effectively a straw man.  He argues that “One must recognize the struggles of these oppressed as both literally contained by power and exceeding the grasp of power. Invisibility is both delimiting and freeing, just as oppression also contains within it (dialectically, or what Ellison might call ‘chaotically’) the potential for freedom.”

The idea that the oppressed are not completely defined by our oppression is one that, as far as I can tell, is universally accepted on the Left today. Indeed, it seems to be axiomatic to any conception of Left politics that oppression is never total and complete, and people will always resist. If this weren’t true, there would be little point in doing anything besides working for Goldman Sachs. In his argument for Ellison’s utility on this front, Mills ultimately assents to the caricature of the Left that informs Ellison’s novel.

In conclusion, I think it is worth considering the importance of Mills’ arguments in the broader context of revolutionary criticism. Although as the preceding paragraphs indicate, I am quite unsympathetic to the substance of his claims, I think Mills raises crucial issues about the political valences of texts and the ways revolutionaries can relate to them.

To my mind, Ian Birchall provided a pithy summary of the contradictions of textual politics in his review of Terry Eagleton’s work in the 1980s. Eagleton, he said, insists on the subversive moments lurking in all texts, which Marxist critics have been too eager to write off in favor of blanket denunciations of reaction. Birchall noted while Eagleton was right that all texts are contradictory, this did not imply that all texts were politically equal: The French censors recognized as much when they banned Sartre’s work but not Camus’.

This seems to me to be correct. Invisible Man is obviously a great novel, and there are numerous moments within it that pose questions Leftists have to answer. But we will suredly get the answers wrong if we imagine they are posed in an innocent way. Recognizing the dominant political ideology of a novel is a necessary step in attempting to seize any insights hidden within.


  1. Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981), ix.
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  2. John F. Callahan, “Chaos, Complexity, and Possibility: The Historical Frequencies of Ralph Waldo Ellison,” Black American Literature Forum 11.4 (Winter 1977), 134.
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  3. Ellison, Invisible Man (New York: Vintage, 1995), 36.
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  4. Callahan, 134.
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November/December 2011, ATC 155