History, Theory, Politics & Invisible Man

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

Nathaniel Mills


PAUL HEIDEMAN’S SPIRITED critique of my review of Barbara Foley’s Wrestling with the Left testifies to the reach of Foley’s study. That the politics of Ellison’s novel would be up for debate in a journal like Against the Current would be unthinkable without Foley’s efforts. In multiple articles going back more than a decade, and culminating in Wrestling, Foley challenges the consensus critical position that Invisible Man was made possible by Ellison’s clean break from the left, and that the novel offers an objective and accurate critique of U.S. Communism.

Foley has established what before her intervention would have been a bizarre proposition: that a writer long associated with literary anticommunism, vital-center liberalism, and conservative American nationalism is a writer the left can and should read. Wrestling with the Left is one of the most generative academic treatments of both Ellison and the U.S. literary left ever produced.

My concern with Foley’s study was that it did little to dislodge the ways the final 1952 text of Invisible Man has always been read. While identifying the radical and proletarian content of Ellison’s drafts, she agrees that in its final form Invisible Man espouses pluralism, individualism, and nearly every other vector of Cold War American ideology (though she obviously evaluates that espousal very differently than most of Ellison’s other critics).

Heideman insists that Invisible Man’s “dominant political ideology” is anticommunism and American exceptionalism. Heideman agrees with Foley and other critics that the novel pretends to represent, in a mimetic and historically-referential manner, the CPUSA and the historical encounter of the CPUSA with African Americans in the 1930s and 1940s.

Like Foley, Heideman finds that reference to be a misrepresentation, a dishonest Cold War caricature. But the totalitarian political organization in the novel is something Ellison elected to call the Brotherhood. If we read this as a straightforward historical reference masquerading behind euphemism, we lose the chance to examine why Ellison, in such an allegedly unambiguously anticommunist novel, would refrain from calling out Communism by name.

Non-referentiality in general is Invisible Man’s most salient aesthetic strategy. The novel offers not the CP but the “Brotherhood,” not the Tuskegee Institute but the “College,” not Booker T. Washington but the “Founder,” etc. The carnivalesque or surrealistic nature of most episodes (the battle royal, the hospital, the riot), the overtly symbolic functioning of names (the “Golden Day” saloon, the “Calamus Club,” the “Chthonian”) and the structure of the narrative upon recurring tropes (Bellerophonic documents, blindness and vision, etc.) make it hard to see the text as referring to an extra-literary historical real.

We efface the novel’s formal singularity (and insights that might derive from it) by historicizing it. I suggested a different way to read Invisible Man from the left, taking seriously its claim to non-referentiality.

Invisible Man could be read for its dramatization of a set of conceptual political problems related to the particularities of U.S. society and the place of African Americans within the United States: the possibility of revolutionary institutions becoming more invested in their own preservation than in achieving utopian transformation, the question of whether African Americans should seek political representation in racially-particular or universalist political institutions, the possibilities and dangers of spontaneist uprisings, etc.

I also suggested that Ellison’s emphasis on the fluidity of American society could be read in light of Louis Althusser and Antonio Gramsci’s theorizations of the substantiality of superstructural processes.

What is Historicizing?

Heideman objects to my de-historicizing approach in reading the novel, a method that he charges “[goes] against the grain of a good deal of Marxist criticism,” specifically Fredric Jameson’s slogan from The Political Unconscious: “Always historicize!”

I admit that Jameson’s maxim doesn’t inform my reading of Ellison, but it’s worth noting that Jameson distinguishes two possible “paths” of historicization: “the historical origins of the things themselves and that more intangible historicity of the concepts and categories by which we attempt to understand those things.”

The second path requires “foreground[ing] the interpretive categories or codes through which we read and receive the text in question.”(1) While historicizing can be a practice that periodizes a text — reading it according to the social and ideological parameters of its historical moment — Jameson also invites us to historicize our means of interpretation. This involves totalizing them within the “untranscendable horizon” of Marxism, which as the theory of the capitalist totality “subsumes … apparently antagonistic or incommensurable critical operations, assigning them an undoubted sectoral validity within itself.” The historicizing Heideman defends is not necessarily identical with “Marxist criticism” but must itself be evaluated in relation to other methods (de-historicizing, perhaps) on the grounds that Marxism knows and can combine all such methods.

My reading of Invisible Man is motivated by a political reasoning rather than by strict fidelity to any one Marxist theory of literary ontology. When it comes to the notoriously difficult question of defining Marxist politics, Jameson elsewhere reminds us that Marx and Lenin were, in their political practice, working from no real theory. They were “in the very best sense of the word opportunists . . . capable of the most astonishing turns and reversals, and [of] placing the value of the concrete analysis of the situation or conjuncture higher than faithfulness to any preconceived principles.”(2)

Such opportunism “in the very best sense of the word” can be a useful political guide for Marxist literary criticism. In general, that opportunistic spirit asks: what is the most useful approach, in a given conjuncture, to revolutionary action? Or for our purposes: what hermeneutic method will make Invisible Man useful for the left today? I answered that question by crediting the novel’s (and Ellison’s) insistence on the non-referential nature of its project.

Some will charge that this is a non-Marxist, ludic “surface reading” that seconds the text’s suppression of its historical unconscious; but reading the novel as representing an interrelation of general or archetypal figures, institutions, and events is the best way, I find, to make its conceptual and theoretical investments legible.

In de-historicizing Ellison I follow Louis Althusser’s method of reading Marx and Lenin. Althusser sought to abstract from their writings general procedures for practice (be it philosophical, political, etc.) that, because not historically-contingent, retain generative value.

Althusser posits that Lenin’s writings about the Russian Revolution are not “the texts of a historian,” of interest for how well they document the facts of a past conjuncture so temporally and nationally singular as to offer little instruction for the present and future. Rather, they are and should be read as “texts for direct political use.” Althusser thus extracts from them general theoretical protocols of revolutionary politics.

“However much any ideologue tries to bury him [Lenin] beneath a proof by historical analysis,” Althusser writes, Lenin provides ahistorical concepts that enable Marxists “not to demonstrate or explain the ‘inevitable’ revolutions post festum, but to ‘make’ them in our unique present.”(3)

But one could identify other Marxist inspirations for what Heideman calls “the progressive potential of de-historicization.” Walter Benjamin’s model of the Marxist historicist as someone who ransacks the archive of the past for insights that speak to the present is probably the most familiar.(4) There’s also Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s opening to Dialectic of Enlightenment, in which The Odyssey is ripped from its historical context for an “opportunistic” reason: to demonstrate, using the well-known and instructive example of Odysseus, the contours of capitalist subjectivity.(5) There is Herbert Marcuse’s argument that the “truth of art lies in its power to break the monopoly of established reality . . . to define what is real,” that the utopian and truly revolutionary vision of the aesthetic is constituted by its non-coincidence with historical reality.(6) All of which is to suggest that de-historicizing, broadly conceived, isn’t as “against the grain” of Marxist criticism as Heideman claims.

My most salient objection to Heideman’s piece is that he seems to employ historicization as a resistance to the theoretical work in which texts and writers engage. He dismisses Althusser’s concept of “relative autonomy” not on any of its own theoretical merits, but as a Stalinist ploy. Althusser’s theory of struggle within ideological state apparatuses is for Heideman an elaborate “thereotical justification” for the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. And Heideman cites Regis Debray’s well-known “quip” about Althusser’s description of Marxist philosophy as a theoretical form of class struggle (“all we had to do to become good theoreticians was to be lazy bastards”) to imply that this insight into what Marxist philosophy can (and cannot) do, and where it is situated within the aggregate of social practices, was really just a way for Althusser to justify being an academic.

While Heideman says less about Gramsci, he similarly dismisses him from consideration on the grounds, apparently, that anything he might have formulated about the substantiality of the sociocultural only signifies within “Third International debates and discourses.”

The accuracy of these historical motivations for Althusser and Gramsci’s work is not, to my mind, the question. Rather, I’m concerned about this move to use the historical context or unconscious of theories to dismiss them without engaging in the more difficult work of evaluating them on a conceptual level, as theories. This is a troubling anti-theory tendency with the potential to discount much of the conceptual thought furnished by Western Marxism.

Heideman’s readings of Althusser, Gramsci, and Invisible Man have the virtue of consistency: he aligns the political identity or utility of the epistemological claims of each in relation only to their historical and discursive contexts. But if Marxist literary criticism aims to use texts to do something other than produce knowledge of the past, it must consider bracketing historicization when necessary.

“Brotherhood” and “Americanism”

As Heideman insists, Ellison’s Brotherhood does resemble the CP in multiple ways, just as the College resembles Tuskegee Institute. It’s only logical that Ellison would draw on his experiences with both when writing about the ways different types of institutions — government-backed educational ones and politically-radical ones — incorporate and define African-American identity. But the novel provides little concrete information about the Brotherhood’s program, little besides tropes of anticommunism with which to equate the fictional Brotherhood with the historical CP.

When invisible man asks Brother Jack what his organization stands for, Jack tells him: “It’s simple; we are working for a better world for all people. . . . Too many people have been dispossessed of their heritage, and we have banded in brotherhood so as to do something about it.”

As a statement of political identity, that’s pretty vague. Jack does mention that in this better world “the joy of labor shall have been restored,” but this is as much emphasis as the Brotherhood gives to Communist-sounding rhetoric.(7)

The Brotherhood is against “dispossession” — a broad sense of the oppressions of a social order that must be overthrown — and for “history,” a term never aligned with a recognizably Marxist concept, but one invoking a general objective determination that cancels the need for inventive political action and grants authority to Brotherhood leaders as the “scientists” who always know how to interpret “history.”

The Brotherhood resembles the CP less than it does an abstract model of any disciplined movement seeking to represent and direct African Americans in a universalist and radical program. And it is a movement that stifles revolutionary organization in the novel (despite Heideman’s claim to the contrary) in that it censors invisible man each time he develops an “opportunistic” political tactic that seems likely to empower the Harlem masses.

Nor is the Brotherhood necessarily wholly discounted within the novel. As John S. Wright argues, each of the novel’s “mis-leaders” (Bledsoe, Brother Jack, etc.) are figures in which “vision and impaired vision co-exist,” so that “[e]ven Brother Jack’s mechanistic theory of life as all pattern and discipline and science . . . conveys truths without which organized political action is inconceivable.”(8) The pointless destruction of the novel’s riot scene, in which organic leaders who seem to rise from the ranks of the masses burn down their Harlem tenement and put themselves and their neighbors on the street, can be read as indicating the need for some form of “pattern and discipline and science” to guide action.

Similarly, the protagonist’s closing invocation of his grandfather’s advice — “we were to affirm the principle on which the country was built” — is more than run-of-the-mill American exceptionalism.

One must consider how Ellison understands the “principle” of American democracy both in and beyond Invisible Man. In his National Book Award speech, he proclaimed: “The way home we seek is that condition of man’s being at home in the world, which is called love, and which we term democracy.” He later referred to “that simple state of human certainty and stability . . . and communion which is sometimes called love, brotherhood, democracy, or sometimes simply the good life.”

Ellison also described “the Constitution and the Bill of Rights as composing “the acting script which future Americans would follow.” “The Founders’ dream was a dream of felicity,” and the history of America is, for Ellison, the history of attempts to make that dream a reality.(9) This “democracy” is not a constitutional principle or a code word for capitalism and Americanism. It suggests abstract potentials of love, happiness, and non-alienation — “brotherhood” with a lower-case b.

The overall questions posed by the novel, I find, are then quite pressing: by what routes should African Americans seek to achieve a social order based on “brotherhood”? What dangers does a political movement dedicated to “brotherhood” need to avoid? How and when do the historical, ideological, or cultural particularities of the United States enable or hinder this utopian effort? If we historicize Invisible Man we lose those questions, for within the signifying parameters of Cold War ideology, an exploitative radical political group can only be the CPUSA, while an insistence on the diversity of American society and “the principle on which the country was built” can only be an affirmation of liberal patriotism.

Again, the remarkable fact is that not only is Ralph Ellison being discussed on the left as someone whose work may be of value, but protocols of Marxist literary criticism are being discussed outside of English departments. That is ultimately why I find Wrestling with the Left to be so exciting: it can galvanize discussions within and without the academy about the ways writing and reading literature can contribute to the left’s ongoing struggle for “brotherhood.”


  1. Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981), 9-10.
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  2. Jameson, Representing Capital: A Commentary on Volume One (London: Verso, 2011), 143.
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  3. Althusser, For Marx (London: Verso, 1996), 176-80.
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  4. Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” in Illuminations (New York: Schocken, 1968).
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  5. Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002).
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  6. Marcuse, The Aesthetic Dimension: Toward a Critique of Marxist Aesthetics (Beacon Press: Boston, 1978), 9.
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  7. Ellison, Invisible Man (New York: Vintage, 1995), 304.
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  8. Wright, Shadowing Ralph Ellison (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2006), 114.
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  9. Ellison, The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison (New York: Modern Library, 2003), 154, 705, 855.
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November/December 2011, ATC 155