Historical Subjects Lost and Found

Against the Current, No. 196, September/October 2018

Cecilia A. Green

MY FIRST ENCOUNTER with Marx was as a “recognition” of something old and familiar, not so much as a “discovery” of something new and interesting. I remember scouring a great multi-volume tome in the relatively sparse library of my childhood by Edward Gibbon Wakefield on the subject of colonies and colonization (A View of the Art of Colonization, 1849) and straining to find some thread of familiarity in its encyclopedic panorama regarding my own, dimly but hauntingly and naggingly experienced, ontological positioning in the world as a “colonial.” Of course, I found none: Gibbon was championing settler colonialization as a way of solving the problems of British political economy.

I spent the critical years of my dawning consciousness in Sixth Form, a level in the British schooling system that we, the colonials, had inherited. It comprised a two-year program roughly equivalent to the first year of college in the U.S. system. At Convent High School in Dominica, West Indies, I discovered “historical and dialectical materialism” as the formal philosophical term for an understanding of the way in which — I agreed in my own relatively class-privileged and untested consciousness — the world worked. Little did the (European) nuns who taught me suspect that their eclectic library might yield such revelations. In this unlikely setting, I had my first “Aha” moments. If I could not find us, as historical subjects, in the great written record of human civilizations and achievements, at least I had stumbled upon the tools to understand why we had gotten lost and to locate the cracks through which we had fallen.

Having developed a passion for anti-imperialism and West Indian self-determination, I opted to go to the University of the West Indies (UWI) on my colonial government-funded scholarship.

The Mona campus of UWI in Kingston, Jamaica, was still in a state of lingering ferment. The “Rodney riots” had taken place in early 1968 when Walter Rodney, Guyanese pan-Africanist, Black liberationist, anti-imperialist, Marxist-inspired socialist, was banned by the conservative Jamaica Labor Party government of Hugh Shearer from re-entry into Jamaica to resume his faculty position in the History Department. (In 1980 he would be assassinated by the regime of Forbes Burnham, the authoritarian leader of Guyana who passed himself off on the global stage as a non-aligned “socialist,” running the “cooperative republic” on the declared principle of the “paramountcy of the party.”)

At UWI, I became immersed in the teachings of the Caribbean “dependency school,” whose starting point for the study of Caribbean and other Third World societies was fairly simple, but profound in its implications.

Colonialism was the historical and systematic underbelly of capitalism, serving to “underdevelop” the colonies as much as it served to “develop” capitalism at the center. Postcolonial societies reproduce and sustain structures of dependency established during colonialism because of continued domination by global capitalist forces, blocking their capacity for independent development.

The devil, of course, was in the details, and much brilliant writing on the fate of “plantation societies” and on transnational corporate structures of exploitation and expropriation of the labor and raw materials of the Caribbean and other “peripheral” or “Third World” countries made up the living ferment of an unfolding tradition of radical Caribbean scholarship.

Theories of Liberation

This anti-imperialist/anti-colonial nationalist/Third World socialist thinking accreted around a collective known as the New World Group, founded by Trinidadian scholar Lloyd Best, who devised the theory of “plantation economy.”

Best was probably the most hostile to Marxism/historical materialism among the group’s leading scholars, a position that did not remain uncontested. He teamed up with Canadian scholar, Kari Levitt, the daughter of the famous Karl Polanyi (better known today as Kari Polanyi Levitt, still alive and active in her nineties), to write some of the most widely recognized signature and now-classic pieces of the “New World” Caribbean school of thought.(1)

I was fortunate enough to be taught economics and history by some of the greatest Anglophone Caribbean scholars in modern history: Norman Girvan, George Beckford, C. Y. Thomas (as an occasional visiting lecturer), and historian Elsa Goveia, among others.

It is important to note the profound limits of this autobiographically inflected context for an understanding of radical Caribbean working people’s movement history, the main agents of which were not academics, although they were organic intellectuals, deeply embedded in non-academic movement debates and political scholarship. But some of these debates were also reflected in the academy.

Marx always occupied a foundational position within these debates, ranging alongside and/or against other foundational “native” (Anglophone-Caribbean-born) thinkers, like Marcus Garvey, C.L.R. James, Richard Hart, Eric Williams, George Padmore and, all too rarely, Claudia Jones.(2)

While there were direct hostilities and skirmishes,(3) notably between radical economic nationalist Lloyd Best and “orthodox” Marxist James Millette, there was seldom, among the engaged campus “massive,”(4) the feeling of irreconcilable differences or of mutual exclusiveness among historical materialism, pan-Africanism, Black liberation thought, anti-imperialism/anti-colonial nationalism, dependency theory, and all the other fighting tools of a prospective Caribbean liberation struggle (including liberation theology).

Given the academic context, a tradition of independent Marxism prevailed over, say, pro-Soviet Communist thought. Whether from a position of intellectual incoherence or intellectual expansiveness, Marx’s thought was seldom engaged in a purely adversarial or mutually exclusive way vis-à-vis other philosophies of liberation. On the other hand, neither was Marxist philosophy seen as furnishing a self-contained “sufficient” basis for analyzing and transforming our societies or, indeed, all aspects of them.

We stood on the site of multiple contradictions, with which we grappled intellectually in separate and combined forms: colonial legacies of national/regional economic and political dependency, global capitalism and Western/White hegemonic supremacy, anti-Black/anti-African racism, neocolonial authoritarian governments, deeply embedded color/class structures, and barely acknowledged postcolonial patriarchies.

These contradictions could only be reduced to a single capital-labor contradiction with considerable violence and erasure, yet many of us had always acknowledged the centrality (though not the exclusivity) of that contradiction.

When later, in North America, I would read or listen to pat and often formulaic critiques in the name of Marx, some contemptuously dismissive of so-called Third Worldist thought, I would recoil at the suggestion that preoccupation with race and colonialism and Western political and cultural domination was misguided — since everything could be explained by the immanent, self-expanding economic dynamic of capitalism and the capital-labor relationship.

I have followed, with increasing intellectual disengagement, the path of the critique from the idea that capitalism as a dominant mode of production was peculiarly and primordially, autonomously, European to the current globalist or cosmopolitanist version which says, rather counterintuitively, that capitalism has no geography, no place, no small “h” history, no state, no nation, no center, no culture, no ethnicity (and therefore those things are not significant).

Indeed, the history of capitalism narrative put forward often recounts a simple transition from competing national capitalisms to global capitalism, completely eliding empires and colonies (those which were not “historical nations”). And since nations in this view have little significance under global capitalism, latecomers have even less claim on our intellectual attention.

This waving of a magic wand which flattens all into a single totality with permutations emanating from Capital at the center (but which claims no centers or peripheries) has been challenged by a number of (particularly Global South) writers, who have either simply insisted on place-based accounts (e.g. Arturo Escobar) or have put forward an alternative “geopolitical economy” Marxist understanding of capital (e.g. Radhika Desai). One does not have to embrace all aspects of their work to understand exactly where they are coming from…

Confronting Capital and Colonialism

I read the three volumes of Capital in a series of classes I took at the Marxist Institute(5) in Toronto, where I attended graduate school. During the course of these readings, I got a chance to plumb the depths of sections of the Grundrisse, the methodological prelude to Capital, where Marx lays bare the determinate and abstract scaffolding supporting his monumental capital-logic construction in Capital.

To the extent that any component of Marx’s work became a “bible” to me, it was those sections of the Grundrisse that furnished me with a lasting assurance of the difference between “simple abstractions” and “determinate abstractions” and the principle that grand “reconstructions in thought,” based on the “unity of many determinations,” must never become the (unmediated) stand-in for either grounded, historically specific analysis or politics, despite being critical as “deep” starting points in social and political analysis.

In scouring Marx for references to colonialism, I still don’t understand the status of Marx’s references to “the colonial system” and whether he differentiates this from “foreign trade,” which is often the vehicle, in his relatively self-contained capital-logic account, for the insertion of critical value inputs from abroad, including “the colonies,” into the circuit of capital at the center. Of course, if he has collapsed “the colonial system” — that vast and unspeakable exercise in enslavement, conquest, brutality and genocide — entirely into “foreign trade,” I would completely reject such a move, as I have suggested elsewhere.(6)

The generic reference to “foreign trade” does not distinguish trade between Britain and France, as independent and relatively equal entities, from so-called “trade” of either with their colonies. If according to Marx the commodity, as historically-arrived determinate abstraction, assumes the entire cycle of reproduction of capital, then it should include colonial production and colonial producers as an integral part of its internal repertoire and “closed” circuit.

Such producers were seldom “proletarians” in the classic sense, although they shared exploitation by capital in common with European proletarians. However much one might want to second-guess Marx, the capital-logic account he gives us in Capital assumes, prima facie, a national economic and class system, as a bounded unit of social reproduction, albeit within a capitalist world market. Given the domination of the world by European empires at the time, we must acknowledge that another type of thought-experiment was entirely possible.

Regarding Ireland, in a letter to Marx in 1856 Engels pointed out that “… one can already notice here that the so-called liberty of English citizens is based on the oppression of the colonies.” Eleven years later, as demonstrated in his letters to Engels and others, Marx appeared to be pursuing the “Irish question” with systematic vigor.

He saw, unequivocally, the national emancipation of Ireland as a condition for the social emancipation of the English working classes, suggesting that “the sole means of hastening” the transition to socialism in England, the only country in the world allegedly containing the material conditions for such a transition, was “to make Ireland independent.”

Marx was convinced that a failure on the part of the English working class to initiate a struggle for Irish emancipation alongside the Irish and to actively place themselves in opposition to British ruling class policy on Ireland would tie the former to the class interests of its bourgeoisie and force them to join with the latter “in a common front against Ireland.”(7)

This warning increasingly acquired the ring of disillusionment, as both Marx and Engels began to doubt the capacity of the English working class to lead the struggle for national and social liberation. By 1870 Marx declares, “After occupying myself with the Irish question for many years I have come to the conclusion that the decisive blow against the English ruling classes (and it will be decisive for the workers’ movement all over the world) cannot be delivered in England but only in Ireland.”

He pointed out that the English worker had allowed himself to become “a tool of the aristocrats and capitalists of his country against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself.” The antagonism of the English worker towards the Irish worker was “the secret of the impotence of the English working classes, despite its organization.” It was also “the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power,” a weapon of which they were “fully aware.”

In one of his letters, Engels put it even more damningly: “You ask me what the English workers think about colonial policy. Well, exactly the same as they think about politics in general: The same as the bourgeois think.”(8)

Marx’s World and Ours

Between the grand (but determinate) abstractions of Capital and Marx’s epistolary and journalistic polemics, where he gets down and dirty naming names and places, there is a whole world to discover.

I see Marx’s uneven actual and potential legacy as inhabiting four areas, which I think can be understood distinctly if not separately: his monumental and unsurpassed work on the political economy of capitalism as a system, Capital; the sometimes obscure but often stunning adumbrations of his historical-dialectical materialist methodology in the Grundrisse and elsewhere; his fledgling political sociology (and the implications for a wider sociology) showcased in such works as The Civil War in France and The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon; and the sometimes inscrutable but intriguing interplay between his polemics and his longer-view politics, which deserves more serious study.

With all my suspicions of closed systems of thought — on the edge of which (in my opinion) Marxism often teeters — I cannot imagine my intellectual life, my thinking, my writing, and my unevenly and intermittently engaged politics, without Marx. And I have never endorsed the rubbish that we have nothing to learn from Europe or from white men, although I appreciate the radical shift in historical subjectivity that this opinion implies. There is nothing quite like the daily existential crisis of experiencing the world written, spoken and conducted from the point of view of the dominant Other, to twist that concept around.

The thought-experiment conducted by Charles Mills in The Racial Contract, centering Race, occupies as important a place in my intellectual toolkit as does Capital — even as it is argued completely outside the terrain of Class and on the grounds of liberal philosophy (and deliberately so, achieving another kind of turning-on-its-head).

I can say with certainty that I no longer seek the Kingdom of Truth exclusively in Marx (if I ever did). And for what it’s worth, I trust the political impulses I find in Gramsci more than I do those expressed in The Communist Manifesto, which may not be saying much, given the specificity of purpose of the latter. My reading of Marx, however, leads me to believe that he might understand just what I am getting at.


  1. See Lloyd Best and Kari Polanyi Levitt, Essays on the Theory of Plantation Economy: A Historical and Institutional Approach to Caribbean Economic Development, with a foreword by Norman Girvan (University of the West Indies Press, 2009).
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  2. A robust tradition of Caribbean academic feminism/feminist research scholarship was established somewhat later, by scholars belonging to my generation.
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  3. I do not mean here to sweep under the carpet previous contentious differences of historic significance, such as the ones between Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. DuBois and between C.L.R. James and Eric Williams.
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  4. Jamaican patois term meaning “the people.”
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  5. From my memory, a non-brick-and-mortar program of classes run by a voluntary collective of Marxist professors and independent scholars.
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  6. See “Caribbean Dependency Theory of the 1970s Revisited: A Historical-Materialist-Feminist Revision,” in New Caribbean Thought: A Reader, ed. by Brian Meeks and Folke Lindahl (Kingston, Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press, 2001), 40-72.
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  7. References for this paragraph are from the following book, in the following order: Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, On Colonialism (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976), 316, 338, 330.
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  8. References for this paragraph continue in the following order: 335, 337, 342.
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September-October 2018, ATC 196