Against the ‘Compatible’ Radical Academic Left

Rethinking Racism and Capitalism

Introduction: Reclaiming the revolutionary communist tradition

The relationship or antagonism between class and race has plagued educational theory for decades. Some scholarship was generally about Marxism and postmodernism in the 1990s; recent focus centres on particular readings of Marxism emanating from imperialist academies, on the one hand, and racial theories emanating from the same place, like Critical Race Theory (CRT), Afro-pessimism and the Black Radical Tradition, on the other. Revisiting this literature today clarifies what precisely the stakes of the conversation are, not in terms of what side is theoretically right or wrong, but in terms of the objectives to be accomplished. What is, with a few exceptions, clearly lacking in discussions about capitalist and racist oppression are the historical examples of revolutionary struggles that worked – and work – to overturn both. Instead, they remained at the theoretical level of debating the utility of certain concepts like white supremacy.

My primary intervention is to direct our attention away from the realm of ideas and toward the realm of the actually-existing struggles against exploitation and racist oppression. The effectivity of any liberatory theory can’t be assessed in writing, only in action and through struggle. It is in this spirit that I offer the following article, written by a communist organiser who was raised in the internationalist tradition – and spent over a decade in a revolutionary party – that prioritised the class struggle and the Black struggle, as well as all struggles of oppressed nations, races and identities. However, my aim is not to show that ‘all we need is Marxism’ or even that ‘we need to supplement’ a certain theory with Marxism. Marxism is a guide to understanding and transforming the world and, as such, is historical through and through. Thus, it is somewhat redundant to repeat Frantz Fanon’s assertion that ‘Marxist analysis should always be slightly stretched every time we have to do with the colonial problem’ in that such flexibility is part and parcel of the Marxist tradition. Yet my aim is not to defend the ‘great Marx’ as an untouchable and pristine theorist and organiser. Instead, my aim is to reclaim the revolutionary communist tradition – including the central pillars Marx articulated – as a dynamic and living orientation guided by the actuality of revolution. Doing so helps address the overwhelmingly abundant dismissals of Marxism and, more troublingly, the actual history of liberatory and emancipatory struggles that the oppressed have, do and will win.

Such flexibility is the only way to practice revolutionary Marxism, which can’t abstract, fix, or render static race, class, or structures of exploitation and oppression. There is a reason, after all, why anti-communism remained the implicit religion of the US for over a century; why it was mobilised to persecute, assassinate and repress Black revolutionaries and other radicals. Marxism’s openness to contingency, complexity and heterogeneity accounts for its applicability in radically diverse places, times and societies. In the US, Charisse Burden-Stelly finds that ‘for radical Black thinkers, Leninism was far from a dogma to be mechanistically applied; rather, it was an opening to a more finely tuned materialist analysis of anti-Black formations sutured to capitalist (super) exploitation.’ Indeed, one attribute of Leninism is precisely the radical openness to tactics and strategy coupled with the adherence to a strict political line, a line developed in concrete nodes in place, time and relation. And one primary obstacle in educational scholarship is that those who are or were Marxists, Marxists-Leninists, or communists and who actually did, have and are making revolutions are generally ignored or discounted.

There is a reason why anti-communist Marxism is encouraged in universities today. In academia, heroic revolutionaries are caricatured as ‘dictators’ or ‘authoritarians,’ the exact same language deployed by the US State Department. Marxism is acceptable as an analytical framework or as one option among many only if one denounces actually-existing socialism for idealist, racist, careerist, or chauvinist reasons. Because the world-historic processes in which we’re still engaged were and are led by non-Europeans and states outside of Europe and the US, Marxism becomes reduced to an unsaid ‘(white) Marxism’ that’s irrelevant to or irreconcilable with the Black liberation movement. The Black struggle is, to be sure, much longer than the socialist movement, as the former was, from the get, as Frank Chapman puts it, ‘characterised by the fight for equality and the right of Black folk to their own separate existence as a dignified people.’ Nor is there any denying that white supremacy or white chauvinism was and is the primary stumbling block for all liberatory struggles, particularly in the US. Such chauvinism must be – and has been – ruthlessly combatted within the movement, not on paper.

The racial and class orthodoxy of educational theory

In education, orthodox Marxism is traced back – or sometimes solely attributed – to Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis’ Schooling in Capitalist America. As critical pedagogy quickly transformed the educational landscape in the 1980s, it rejected Schooling as ‘orthodox’ and positioned it as something ‘to move past.’ Michael Singh and Zeus Leonardo recently reiterated the value of the educational ‘cultural turn in Marxism’ because it ‘illuminated the power of a critical pedagogy and the revolutionary role of educators’ by way of ‘moving beyond the economic determinist framings of education.’

As is so often the case, critiques suffice for the original source materials: thus, the never-ending repetition of the completely incorrect assertion that Marx’s ‘theory’ of primitive accumulation was a past and finished event relegated to Europe; that he only recognised two classes; that he was ‘Eurocentric;’ or that he didn’t think that dispossession and enslavement were central to Capital.

Why did ‘neo-Marxism’ and its attention toward culture and away from revolutionary transformation emerge as the dominant paradigm in educational thought? Answering this question is crucial. Isaac Gottesman’s inquiry helps us situate this intellectual turn within a broader conjunctural shift that has less to do with economic determinism or orthodoxy and more to do with the abandonment of the revolutionary project in favour of reformist strategies and ever-refined nuanced critiques of everything. Yet he doesn’t tie together these trends inside and outside the university or place them on a global scale.

The intellectual arena determined by the rejection of actual material transformation resulted from the struggle between and within two classes, which are not fixed economic categories but rather processes and camps. The war between two class camps was fought politically, militarily, economically, pedagogically and on all fronts on the global level, something that the bravest and most astute revolutionary thinkers and organisers generally recognised. The global context is one best understood not as the ‘Cold War’ but as the global class war. While it sometimes appeared as a war between states, these were, in reality, wars between two global classes and blocs: the imperialist bloc led by the United States, on the one hand, and the working and oppressed peoples of the world led by the Soviet Union and later the People’s Republic of China, on the other hand. It wasn’t a war between imperialism and socialism insofar as many members of the oppressed camp were bourgeois nationalists (but weren’t imperialist lackeys).

It’s hard to grasp the radical transformations of the 20th century. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 demonstrated that workers and oppressed peoples could overthrow their oppressors and create a new society in the interests of the oppressed. It spread hope and inspiration across the world, and, later, the Soviet Union was able to provide economic, political and military support as the colonised overthrew their colonisers. It proved that normal people can, when organised, create new social orders, which happened in Korea and Vietnam, Cuba and Nicaragua, Angola and Mozambique, Iraq and Iran, as well as South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Guinea Bissau. In each instance, Marxist Parties or Marxist-influenced revolutionaries and organisations provided the vehicle for overthrowing their oppressors and taking power into their own hands with vital educational, military, economic and political support from the USSR and Cuba, with China playing a mixed role.

The radical US movements of the 1960s–70s occurred in this period, and many situated themselves explicitly within it as particular expressions of this global phenomenon. While in the US, the movement never reached that peak, it was strong and militant enough to seriously threaten Capital’s confidence in its future. As always, however, the ruling class fought back. Along with state repression like COINTEL-PRO, the expansion of policing and the construction of the mass incarceration system, US capital also responded ideologically, by funding and promoting liberal groups and foundations with left language and phraseology but without any political or economic critique or vision and in a way that either equated socialism with fascism or at least equated all nations and countries with the US, particularly with economic inequality and racial oppression.

The pedagogical offensive against the revolutionary tide in the US

Relevant here is Gabriel Rockhill’s research on how and why the Marxist foundations of critical theory are today barely present, as the material circumstances and ideological predispositions of its leaders worked to help the Frankfurt School’ corral critique within the liberal fold,’ serving ‘to recuperate potential radicals within the ideological consensus that a world beyond capitalism and pseudo-democracy is not only impossible but undesirable.’ He documents the material incentives and other mechanisms used to recruit critical theorists into the service of imperialism. The Frankfurt School’s Institute for Social Research ‘had numerous military, intelligence and propaganda contracts, including with the CIA.’ A case in point is the anti-communist American Committee for Cultural Freedom, a kind of less militant McCarthyism that explicitly worked to combat communist and pro-communist intellectual thought. With members like Daniel Bell and with funding from the CIA, the Congress ‘established a world-wide network of national committees from New York to Bombay. It offered help to intellectuals in the Third World and behind the Iron Curtain (including books and magazines on request, cultural exchanges and travel grants).’

They produced ‘critical’ scholars so we can, in turn, produce the particular kinds of labour-power that capitalism needs, including habits of mind that accommodate diversity and even rebellion – just never revolution. Academic radical criticisms of capitalism are as frequent as their affirmations that no alternatives exist or, even worse, that capitalism is better than socialism. Such unfounded assertions ‘ultimately lead to an acceptance of the capitalist order since socialism is judged to be far worse. Not unlike most of the other fashionable discourses in the capitalist academy, they proffer a critical theory that Rockhill calls ‘ABS Theory: Anything but Socialism.’ Today’s hottest intellectual goods adhere to a theoretical critique of actually-existing revolutions and social struggles.

The anti-communism of the Cold War impacted the Black movement especially hard, as Gerald Horne confirms that ‘African Americans were a disproportionate victim of McCarthyism.’ The Black liberation struggle was generally either part of or sympathetic to – if also critical of – communism. In addition to state-sponsored repression and terrorism against revolutionary Black leaders and organisations, the US made some concessions to the liberal wing of the Civil Rights movement. This included ‘a turn among the Black bourgeois leadership class of this era to Black Cold War liberalism,’ which pursued equality according to the US narrative of racial uplift, partially through state repression that combated the influence of socialist and communist trends and violently repressed Black radicals and Marxists.

The reduction of revolutionary struggle to culturalism, and, in particular, the forced schism between Marxism and anti-racism, was especially key for the US as its former colonial territories rose up and threw off the shackles of their oppressors in Africa, Asia and Latin America. What the most fashionable and well-funded concepts in academia share in common is, in general, a rejection of Marxism or, at least, the revolutionary communist and internationalist struggle. The repressive and ideological elements of the state merged in various ways to promote the real orthodoxy in academia today: that revolutions are a thing of the past, an ideal widely and permanently discredited.

While much is made of the apparent unbridgeable divide between Marxism and race, there is little attention paid to the well-documented marriage of racism and anti-communism. As Gerald Horne argues, racism to this day in the US is linked with the emancipation of the formerly enslaved – the class and the Black struggles. This is because Reconstruction – even after its counterrevolutionary overthrow – was the single greatest expropriation of the oppressors. Until, that is, the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. As such, ‘African Americans are living reminders of lost fortunes,’ and so ‘the reaction to socialism – which has also involved expropriations of property – is difficult to separate from race and racism.’ Those who didn’t fall in line, like Eslanda Robeson, Shirley Graham Du Bois, Ben Davis and so many Black revolutionaries and their comrades of different races and nationalities, were violently repressed.

Intellectually, this played out in the rise of culturalism, whereby the original theories that galvanised the introduction of Black Studies, for example, were divorced from political economy and political struggle.

These effects ripple throughout society and social movements, where today, for example, it is common to hear and see the words’ Assata Taught Me’ without any reference as to what Assata taught us or what project she did – and continues to – advance. In her autobiography, Assata says she initially saw Marxism as it’s portrayed in educational research: as a white male thing. Until, that is, Shakur read works by African revolutionaries and studied the African liberation movements. Then, she grasped how the liberation struggle wasn’t only about race or nationality but of political economy because replacing white rule without altering the relations of production would replace white power with white power in Black face. The most political conceptions of Blackness identify it not with skin colour or pigmentation but rather with political projects. Walter Rodney, for example, says that, since the early 1900s, the Russian and Chinese Revolutions eroded white power even though the former were white and held state power. They were not, however, a racist colonising power.

Material victories, not academic one-upmanship

As Lenin said in his project to reclaim Marxism from the national chauvinists of the Second International:

During the lifetime of great revolutionaries, the oppressing classes constantly hounded them, received their theories with the most savage malice, the most furious hatred and the most unscrupulous campaigns of lies and slander. After their death, attempts are made to convert them into harmless icons, to canonise them, so to say, and to hallow their names to a certain extent for the ‘consolation’ of the oppressed classes and with the object of duping the latter, while at the same time robbing the revolutionary theory of its substance, blunting its revolutionary edge and vulgarising it.

Is this not precisely what has happened in academia to W. E. B. Du Bois? When his relations with the communist movement are mentioned, they are decontextualised, and his increasing support of the Soviet Union and communism, as well as his serious study of Marx and Lenin, are omitted or downplayed. Du Bois admired the Soviet Union and the communist struggle because of his first-hand experiences with the absence of capitalism and racism there. It should be quite easy to understand why Black people in the US, living under Jim Crow apartheid, would look favourably to a union of different races and nationalities working together for a common cause, where apartheid didn’t exist and where the oppressed nations had real power.

In a 1950 symposium in the Negro Digest on Paul Robeson’s 1949 remark that Black people in the US won’t fight a war with the USSR, which caused great controversy amongst the political elites and some factions of the Black Press, Du Bois says Robeson was right, and his assertion emerged from his time during both the USSR and the US: ‘He knew better than most men … that, of all countries, Russia alone has made race prejudice a crime; of all great imperialisms, Russia alone owns no colonies of dark serfs or white and, what is more important, has no investments in colonies and is lifting no blood-soaked profits from cheap labour in Asia and Africa.’

Rarely are Du Bois’s touching obituaries for Stalin in the National Guardian and Pravda mentioned. The latter is especially revealing, as Du Bois begins by stating that ‘the death of Joseph Stalin shocked 15 million American citizens of Negro descent in a peculiar way,’ and each of the four paragraphs deals directly with Stalin and Black Americans. So firmly did Du Bois support the USSR that he openly defended their repression of the attempted 1956 counterrevolution in Hungary.

The Bolsheviks immediately and unconditionally renounced their ‘rights’ to foreign territories and exposed the secret imperialist agreements about what country would get what colony. After the Revolution, the Bolsheviks formally started the People’s Commissariat of Nationalities to handle matters of oppressed nationalities, with leaders from those nations directing the process. They had to protect and advance the unity that won their struggle for power against forces looking to divide the Soviet peoples based on nationalities. The USSR alphabetised national languages, dozens for the first time ever, promoted cultural expressions and implemented affirmative action policies, all of which significantly overcame the former Russian Empire that the Bolsheviks characterised as ‘a prison house of nations.’ To be sure, the Soviet Union didn’t eliminate national or racial inequality, but it nonetheless made heroic strides in the very short time it existed. They even outlawed racism and national chauvinism, both of which were treated as more serious crimes than assault or battery!

Conclusion: The tradition of radical blackness

This is the political and theoretical history we inherit and the tradition those committed to not just resisting but overthrowing capitalist and racist oppression carry forward. Let’s learn from our past mistakes, yes, but let’s also not cede ground to our enemies by repeating their anti-communist lies and propaganda; let’s not retreat into the realm of ideas and ideological purity in the face of the life-and-death struggle of imperialism, capitalism and national and racial oppression.

Unlike Cedric Robinson’s ‘Black Radical Tradition,’ we should build on Charisse Burden-Stelly’s ‘Tradition of Radical Blackness.’ She understands ‘Blackness as a special relationship to the capitalist mode of production; considers intraracial class conflict and antagonism; and strives for the eventual overthrow of racial capitalism.’ Crucially, this tradition is based in the revolutionary theory and practice of Black communists, those who built on and applied Leninism and communist struggle toward revolutionary ends in practice and in thought.

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Derek R. Ford

Derek R. Ford is a teacher, organiser and educational theorist who serves as associate professor of education studies at DePauw University and as an instructor with The People’s Forum. Their work has appeared in a range of academic journals, including Critical Education and Cultural Studies as well as popular outlets like Black Agenda Report, Monthly Review, Peace, Land and Bread and the International Magazine. They also hosted the popular podcast series Reading ‘Capital’ with Comrades.

They’ve published eight monographs, the latest of which is Teaching the Actuality of Revolution: Aesthetics, Unlearning and the Sensations of Struggle (2023). Ford is the editor of Liberation School and a contributing editor at the Hampton Institute, as well as an organiser with the Indianapolis Liberation Center, ANSWER Coalition, the International Manifesto Group and others. You can reach them at

Recent works by Derek include: