An Interview with Robin D.G. Kelley
by Benjamin Holtzman
(get the PDF)
Robin D.G. Kelley has long been considered one of the premiere scholars of African American history and culture. He is Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California, having previously taught at Columbia University, New York University, University of Michigan, Emory University, and Southeastern Massachusetts University. Kelley is the author of Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination; Three Strikes: Miners, Musicians, Salesgirls, and the Fighting Spirit of Labor’s Last Century (with Dana Frank and Howard Zinn); Yo’ Mama’s Disfunktional!: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America; Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class; Into the Fire: African Americans Since 1970s; We Changed the World: African Americans, 1945-1970 (with Vincent Harding and Earl Lewis); and Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression. His writings have also appeared in numerous scholarly and popular publications, including Color Lines, Utne Reader, The Nation, Journal of American History, Monthly Review, New York Times, New Labor Forum, Jazz Times and Crisis Magazine. Kelley is currently completing three books: a biography of Thelonious Monk, entitled Thelonious: A Life; a survey of African American history, A World To Gain: A History of African Americans (co-authored with Tera Hunter and Earl Lewis), and Speaking in Tongues: Jazz and Modern Africa.
This interview took place on 21 April 2008 in New York City. It was conducted and transcribed by Ben Holtzman.
BH: Growing up, what was your introduction to politics and political engagement?
RK: I grew up in New York, my young years right up in the Harlem/Washington Heights area. My mother was a single parent whose politics were informed by her spiritual convictions. She was a member of the Self-Realization Fellowship. Paramahansa Yogananda. Back in the 1960s, everyone was reading Autobiography of a Yogi, which wasn’t political, but it informed a kind of bohemian, collectivist politics and a concern with the public. With my mother, she was always involved in school issues. In the middle to late 1960s, the main issues were overcrowded schools, community control. These were issues that were dear to my mother. She was a role model. Then, moving to the west coast, it was more of the same. Makani Themba, who is the Founding Director of the Praxis Project, she’s my big sister, so she was a role model as well in terms of her high school and college activism, mainly around issues of race. Like a lot of young African Americans, especially growing up in New York City, where the Black Panther Party had a presence and had a free breakfast program in our area, where Black Nationalism was in the fabric of social life, you just can’t help it. Race becomes the dominant factor. It was not until I got to college and then listening to my sister, that we began to move towards Marxist/Leninist politics. That led both of us to join the Communist Workers Party. To go from the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party to the Communist Workers Party made sense in the early 1980s. It may not make sense to young people today. That was really the beginning of it. It’s still evolving.
BH: Continuing on that, how do you think your background and upbringing contributed to your political beliefs and positioning and the types of activities that you’ve been involved with over the years?
RK: I guess there are three things. One, growing up in a low income, oppressed community of people, every day you witness grassroots, community-based organizing. We didn’t see much labor union organizing. We didn’t see much national organizing. We saw local grassroots, community-based organizing, where women, who were friends with my mother, who lived up on 157th street, would be fighting the landlords on a day to day basis. They would be out there protesting the conditions of the schools, the failure to pick up the trash, the basic survival issues. Number two, growing up in New York and later in Los Angeles, political education was important. It wasn’t enough to take battle by battle, issue by issue. We also witnessed street corner speakers, soapbox speakers, who would speak to a crowd for two hours at a time about issues like why we need reparations. This is like 1969, 70, 71. Issues like why we need to support the Chinese revolution and why we need to support the struggles of African peoples worldwide. So suddenly, what appears to be a world dominated politically by local issues then connects with the globe. Most of those speakers weren’t talking about landlords. They really were talking about what was happening across the Pacific or the Atlantic or in the Caribbean. The third thing, in terms of my own upbringing, had to do with my mother’s household. My mother, she never cursed. She never raised her voice. To this day. She never really showed anger. She showed enormous empathy for people and care and love of other people. She would bring strangers into the house who didn’t have a place to stay. Her politics were driven not by a hatred of the man or a hatred of power, but by a love for humanity. And that was spiritual for her. Her religion demanded that she treat human beings as if they’re her family and that she love everybody. She practiced it. If you ask my mother, “is that politics?” She’d say, “no, not really.” And yet it is politics, very much as a political practice.
BH: I suspect you might continue on some of those themes with this question. One thing that’s striking about your work is the tremendous sense of optimism you have about the future – that today’s political activities really can led to significant change and that greater freedom and liberation really may not be too far off in the future. Where did this optimism come from and how have you retained it so well in your outlook, especially during periods of low political mobilization?
RK: You know what, that’s a good question. It doesn’t come from any abstract sense of hope. Nor does it come from any sense of denial about the political realities that confront us and the extent of power and how it works. It comes out of being a historian. There are so many historical examples of seemingly impossible circumstances in which we had these revolutionary transformations. The period I always turn back to is the period of the end of slavery and Reconstruction. W.E.B Du Bois’ masterpiece, Black Reconstruction, I think is the most important political text I’ve ever read in my life. What he shows is what happens when enslaved people have this vision of what society ought to look like: what the public sphere should look like, how to govern, how to reconstruct social lives around schools, churches, the right to vote, reconstructing families. You have in a matter of less than a decade a moment where people who were enslaved go to suddenly passing legislation in the states of South Carolina and Mississippi and places like that, calling for land reform, implementing free universal public education. There’s been nothing like it. We had more black senators in those days than today. No one in 1864 thought this is what’s going to happen in 1869. In the so-called civil rights movement or human rights movement in 1951, no one thought that Jim Crow would actually be toppled. It’s hard to see what’s possible. It’s hard to see the future. It’s easy to look in hindsight. I think our problem is that when we look in hindsight, we tend to focus on the failures and losses and the intransigence of power. If our expectation is that you can challenge power and create space for new possibilities, then we have millions of examples of that.
BH: I want to keep talking about history for a little bit. I understand that when you first began to study history seriously – not just as an undergraduate, but even in graduate school – that you did so not with the intention of becoming a historian, but to “attempt to solve a series of political problems.” [i] Can you discuss how “political problems” led you to pursuing historical research?
RK: At the time, I was literally caught between a very classic debate or struggle of living between a black nationalism/Third World nationalism/anti-colonial position versus emphasis on class struggle and proletarian revolution. So, I’m reading everything I can read on the subject from the Russian and Chinese revolutions to African and Caribbean to the United States and I’m trying to figure out what’s the best path forward for someone who at the time identified as a Communist in the United States. That’s why I decided to write my dissertation on the Communist Party in a place that did not have traditions of Marxism/Leninism and did have a black majority.[ii] That was my lesson. I learned a lot about how people bring their own cultures and traditions to movements. I learned a lot about the dynamics between race and class and, in particular, the challenge – always the challenge – to mobilize white working people in support of anti-racism. I went there thinking I’m going to study black history. I learned more about white working class consciousness and building solidarity and what that means and the cost of that than I did about the black liberation movement. It was very helpful to me. Each one of the texts that I end up publishing grew out of the political questions of the day. They didn’t grow out of trying to make a contribution to scholarship. In fact, to this day, I’ve never written a book – ever – with the mindset of “here’s a gap in the scholarship, I really want to fill it.” I’m not interested in that.
BH: In your experience, how great of a sense of history do you think those involved in current US political movements have? Do you think that history is underutilized as a tool or form of knowledge amongst those engaged in political activities today?
RK: I’m afraid to generalize too much because I think that there are some organizations and movements in which history is essential. In the Labor/Community Strategy Center in Los Angeles, they’re constantly studying history. The Miami Workers Center, a great activist center, they’re always thinking about historical issues. I think that it’s on peoples’ minds.
I also think that we as so-called professional historians have not done as good a job of looking at things that really matter. I include myself in that. There are some movements that are studied over and over again. How many takes on Garveyism can you really have? How many books on the civil rights movement can you really have? But what happened in Detroit in the 1970s and 80s is extremely important for understanding history. It’s just not on the agenda. Moreover, I think that we place so much emphasis on studying the history of social movements, successes and failures, and we probably need to spend more time looking at the reproduction of power and how things work. What are the weaknesses in a system? How are decisions made? Something as basic as the history of Katrina. So much of the story is about grassroots organizing on the ground. But a good part of the story is about the recent history of corruption and business as usual for the Bush administration. I think the more that stuff is exposed and the more we trace the relationships between those corporations and slum lords and gentrification, then we start to realize that the communities that are falling apart are not falling apart by accident. They’re connected to public policy. I think how they’re connected is something we need to know more about. I hope the future historians deal with these questions of power more directly.
BH: Do you mean specifically that historians who have focused on social movements haven’t engaged enough with what’s happening on a policy level or the interactions between the two and instead focus too much on the grassroots efforts?
RK: Well, I’m being self-critical. I don’t want to attack or criticize everybody. What I’ve come to realize is that a lot of people involved in social movements want history that’s inspiring – successes, strategy. But with strategy comes understanding how power works, where it lies. Even something like an electoral strategy at a local level is actually useful. Greensboro, North Carolina is really a great example of what happens when a group of radicals decide, you know what, we’ll calculate: we could actually take over the city counsel. What’s so radical about that, taking over the city counsel? They essentially pass a living wage bill at the municipal level, which raises wages significantly. They wage a battle against Kmart. They have a platform now. In some cities, that’s not going to work. In other cities, it does work. We need to understand just how power operates. Even for those people in the university who say “where do these investments go?” What’s the relationship between university endowments and, say, the prison industrial complex? Expose those things. I love when I tell my students “your project now is to study the university from the top down and follow the money.” I think the more that you follow the money, it will change the way you talk about strategy. Because then you can actually hit up certain soft spots or expose certain things that are not meant to be exposed.
BH: I want to hopefully go back to some of those issues, but for now I want to talk about some of your earlier work, specifically, Race Rebels. One of the arguments you make in that book is that in order to really understand some of the most dynamic forms of resistance and struggle, we need to look beyond “trade unions pronouncements, political institutions, and organized social movements.”[iii] When one looks at history through the lens of everyday resistance, what type of picture emerges?
RK: Well, before I answer that question, I would add that part of my argument – the part that often gets left out, for the record – is that when we do look at those everyday forms of resistance, it makes the organizing work more effective, because part of what it reveals are a set of desires. What are people really struggling over? What are the things that are affecting them directly? What are they fighting over? Sometimes, if you have a national union without a local perspective or you have an industry-wide perspective, but one that’s not really rooted in the particular needs of the workers themselves, they may miss the fact that you have pregnant women having miscarriages. It may not be their issue. Their issue may be we just want you to have higher wages. Everyday forms of resistance are supposed to be diagnostic, to reveal the underlying tensions of where they lay. So, having said that, the question is what do we do with that information?
BH: When we look at history through the lens of everyday resistance – since I think that’s a pretty uncommon way of looking at history – what type of picture emerges?
RK: On the one hand, you find residents of various communities and people working in certain enterprises who are not satisfied with their situations. There’s a wonderful book by Rick Fantasia called Cultures of Solidarity where he says here’s a bunch of surveys being done on whether or not workers are satisfied.[iv] The surveys are done in like 1945 and everyone’s saying “I’m satisfied with my job,” “I like my job.” Yet, a year later, there are wildcat strikes everywhere. What’s the connection? Part of what he’s revealing and part of what my work tried to do, is to say that the picture that emerges is one of dissatisfaction; one of storm in the midst of calm. One in which people – even when it does not seem like it’s possible – can be mobilized. On the other hand, it also reveals a certain fear in the power of the dominant ideology to basically shut down any organizing work. It’s a lot easier to pilfer from the job, and maybe safer, than to ever sign a union card. You know you’re going to lose your job over that. If there are ways to survive or to get something or to get back at the boss without having to jeopardize your job or your reputation, then that’s even easier. The irony is that we can make too much about the everyday forms of resistance because it’s really diagnostic more than anything else. This is not the basis for a revolutionary movement. But what it does do is tell us is that these are human beings: they are alive, they have a conscious, they have feelings and sensibilities, they have desires, and we have to read those and read them real carefully, because that’s how you become effective organizers – knowing what those desires are.
BH: All these forms of everyday resistance – workplace slowdowns and sabotage to cultural activities like humor, graffiti, music – why do you think so many of these forms of activity have been overlooked or misinterpreted in so much historical writing?
RK: I don’t mention this in the book because I read it after the fact: Cedric Robinson, his very first book was called Terms of Order. I had to go back and reread it because it’s brilliant. What he says is that one of the problems with historical materialism, with empiricism, with virtually every single model of understanding – political theory, structuralism, historical theory, any kind of social phenomenon – has been based on the myth of a certain kind of logic: that social life operates under a certain set of logics. That there’s order. In fact, so much of political activity is chaotic. In other words, the order that we impose on it is an academic or theoretical imposition. Part of the reason why we miss these things is because as scholars, as thinkers, we presume this order and we try to find it through structures. You begin with structures. So, what is the structure? The structure is capital, then the structure is the labor union, then the structure is civic organization, the structure is the political process itself, elected officials, and you go through the structures, and you look through the historical moments of tension and movement. If they exist between the cracks, you’re not going to see them. Or you’re going to see them and say well this doesn’t really mean anything. Or you see them and if you can’t trace back that individual to one of the structures that makes sense in your narrative, then they’re not going to exist in your story. If we throw out the terms of order and begin to see where people are in their daily lives and watch their behavior and try to make sense of the choices that they’re making, including the choice not to join an organization, then we’re going to see more. It’s not even a new idea, because all the serious organizers do that. They don’t go to organizations; they build organizations. They build organizations around the people who are not organized. In their own narratives of why they want to join or how they’re trying to recruit you, they start to learn about each other. They start to learn about the things that they feel in common. The things that they feel are so individual and isolated and atomized, suddenly become part of a collective experience. I think the best of Marx understood that – socialized production, labor and alienation.
BH: I think part of that too is that people who have studied history have in general devalued activity that hasn’t taken place in an organized fashion. I think you’ve certainly touched on some of the reasons why, but I think even more generally, at a simpler level, most people who look at political activity that’s going on today or yesterday don’t focus on what’s not taking place in institutional channels or in an organized fashion. In any case, you also argue that recognizing these acts is not only critical for understanding “the political history of oppressed people,” but also for how they “have a cumulative effect on power relations.”[v] Can you discuss this point?
RK: They sometimes erode power. Again, all of this is situational. The terms of order is also a myth of order and the myth of order is fundamental for the maintenance of order. In other words, where there’s a slave regime, they have to convince everyone around them and themselves that there’s no revolt going on. It reaches the point of writing off active resistance as acts of ignorance or sambo-like behavior. They’re not going take all these acts of opposition, even if they’re organized resistance for that matter, and acknowledge them and say “see, we’re in crisis.” Like what George Bush said about some of the biggest demonstrations against the war – against any war, at any point in history – he called them “focus groups.” It produces a sort of common sense: this is not what real Americans are doing; this is a handful of reneges. Eventually, if it gets out of hand, they have to respond. They respond sometimes by changing the terms: improving conditions, offering the bone, reform. Or just shutting down, violence, capital flight. There are all kinds of ways to respond. It’s not always good. In other words, sometimes acts of resistance, though not intended, can have a deleterious effect. For example, if a job site becomes unruly and governing becomes difficult and the option of capital flight is always there, they’ll leave.
This brings us back to a really important issue: everyday forms of resistance, all these daily actions, don’t really mean much without some sort of ideological intervention, political education. In other words, people learn a lot in process. They learn about what the weaknesses are in the system. But they’re not learning about whether or not they want another system or what’s wrong with that system. They may just see it as their personal problem. That’s why all these forms of activities have to be followed up with political education. How does the system work? How does the state of Mississippi work? Why are so many people in prison? How come wages aren’t going up, but CEO bonuses keep going up? Why is that? What are the answers to those questions? Those answers don’t come out of everyday forms of resistance. They come out of political engagement and conversation and information.
BH: Historically speaking, what do you see as some of the more successful models of political education really taking hold where we see that type of everyday resistance already taking place and things furthering to the next level?
RK: There’s probably dozens, but one is the Mississippi Freedom Schools. What they decided to do was reach young people whose parents, some of them were too afraid to participate in voter registration campaigns and that sort of thing. They said “we’re going to build a whole curriculum around social justice. And we’re going to take what you know best – what you think you know – and that is the state of Mississippi and we’re going to study it. First assignment: you’re going to make a list of the kind of world you live in. Second assignment: what kind of world do you want to live in?” To take something even more specific, what the Freedom School teachers would do, they’d say “make a list of all the things that black people have. What do they possess? And what are all the things that white people have? And of both of those groups, what things would you retain if you had a choice to rebuild your society?” Or to have a mock debate about state expenditures, things like that. To be able to really investigate the world you live in and expose why so many black people are poor, why poor whites are not necessarily on their side or don’t act like they are. What would it mean to have the right to vote? What impact would it have on your lives? That generation went on to really transform southern politics. Those kids become adults very soon. And they were the ones who end up continuing the legacy of the civil rights movement.
I think of the more contemporary examples, I always point to the Labor/Community Strategy Center, where they’re doing political education all the time. And one really good example I should give is when they were organizing the Bus Riders Union and they were doing political theater on the buses and getting people to not pay their fare in demand for a seat. It occurred to them that one of their biggest stumbling blocks were the bus drivers. Because the bus drivers were like “well, you’re coming and disrupting my bus.” And they realized, “we need to organize the bus drivers. We need the bus drivers to know what this campaign is about, number one. And number two, we need to support the bus drivers union.” Suddenly, in no time, the bus drivers became supporters of the Bus Riders Union. If the bus was full – the union was pushing for a no seat/no fare campaign – it was then the bus drivers who put their hand over the meter and said “you don’t pay today, because there’s no seat.” And to me that’s tremendous education.
BH: You spoke about the recent anti-war protests, but going back a few years further, the 1999 protests in Seattle and the subsequent summit protests are often used as a marking point – at least by some – in narratives of recent radical history. Yet so much of the energy from those protests, in some ways at least, seems to have waned. What do you think the mass protests of the late 1990s and early 2000s in the US did or did not accomplish?
RK: If the goal was to disrupt the summits and to bring attention to globalization and its negative impacts on the world, I think it succeeded. It did disrupt; well, it didn’t stop capital. I think the idea was to bring international attention and shut down certain events. What I don’t know if it did, which it should have done, was actually really educate people on what impact globalization has had on ordinary people. What’s so sad about living in the United States is that it’s a very narcissistic culture. And so for some people, if they don’t believe that you’re talking about them, they just don’t care. You could tell them everyday that half the world doesn’t have clean drinking water or half the world makes less than a dollar a day, it doesn’t mean jack. Which is sad. There was a time when it did mean something. But if you say “you don’t have health care right now because of this” or “you’re paying enormous prices for food because of globalization,” then a certain kind of self interest kicks in. Will it mobilize people? I don’t know. But I think most people just don’t know the connections and activists are trying to compete with a discourse of globalization that says it’s the end all and it’s proof that we’ve reached the end of history and everything is great. Finally we’ve achieved something fantastic because you can get any fruit you want at any time of the year. Isn’t that great – globalization? The one campaign that I thought did a pretty good job was the Nike campaign. That was a difficult campaign, because it was divided. Some activists said don’t boycott Nike, because basically, it will shut down these shops where people are living on slave wages and don’t have any other options, so basically what we have to do is put pressure on Nike. I think it made a difference. Those campaigns were sustained, they were propaganda, which to me is a good thing, they were deeply educational and they constantly exposed connections that hit home. Whether it’s the shoes on your feet or the food that you eat. I think those kinds of campaigns could work and, if anything, the big protests are supposed to become teach-ins, where you come away saying “wow, I didn’t know that and now I’m mad.”
BH: If not literally at the event, then in generally raising awareness and providing a way of speaking about those issues in a way that normally does not get into the discourse at all.
RK: Right. Like the event itself, I could be wrong, but I think of these things as international political theater, to project out to the world that it’s not business as usual. And they project out typically to the non-American world both in the global south to the liberal west that there are American activists living in the belly of the beast who refuse to accept the terms. I think it’s a very powerful message and I think it generates support and mobilizes people. Sort of like all those peace activists in Israel who are risking their lives, that sort of thing. It’s a huge thing to stand up like that, for people to see it. That’s why it is sort of a one shot deal in some ways. But it has to be sustained, always in the media, and not waiting for the next big event.
BH: In Freedom Dreams, you note that “Progressive social movements do not simply produce statistics and narratives of oppression; rather, the best ones do what great poetry always does: transport us to another place, compel us to relive horrors and, more importantly, enable us to imagine a new society”[vi] What role do you see imagination playing in contemporary radical organizing? Where do you see the most innovation on this level – the most exciting prospects and the most useful dreams?
RK: A lot of that comes out of my experiences talking to and working with various community based and grassroots organizations. It’s in those sorts of spaces – protected spaces, enclosed spaces – not so much in the streets themselves, that people are able to articulate why they’re in it. What are they fighting for. So, the names I mentioned, the Strategy center, the Miami Workers Center. I just met with a group there, mostly older black people – Haitians, Cuban Americans, African Americans – who are developing a very clear sense of what kind of society they want to build. I’ve had many conversations with Sista II Sista, a group that’s based right here in Brooklyn, with Domestic Workers United. It’s in those places that people – young and old – can articulate why they’re fighting. In the case of Sista II Sista, they’re probably the most visionary, because they’re creating these cooperatives of not just young women but older women as well, where they’re doing collective child care, where they’re training people as child care providers to make money, pulling their resources together, trying to find different ways to live together as a community. Putting forward what their socialist life might look like. What you’re talking about is how you reconstruct relationships as a parent to your child, as a partner to your partner, your neighbor. How can you interact with your neighbor differently? How do you share what you have? How do you participate politically in a different manner where your discourse in no longer private but public? How do you do those things? If you can find those liberated zones, where people can practice that, that’s where it’s the most visionary, because there’s no turning back then.
This goes back to the idea of the commons. Peter Linebaugh has written one of the most important books out there today, which is the Magna Carta Manifesto.[vii] It’s all about the struggle for the commons, the return to the commons, globally. One of the things that he points out – which E.P. Thompson and others pointed out as well – is that you never had to ask permission to chop down wood in the forest or to cultivate something or to graze your cattle or your sheep. It was just part of the collective. But then struggle ensued through enclosure and through expropriation, to make sure people did not have access to things. The things that we had once accepted as common, as common courtesy, common practice, are taken away. If you also take away the memory of that, then people aren’t willing to fight for it. But if you return the memory, people will fight. Why do we have to pay for health care? Why do we have to pay so much money for food? Why is housing ridiculously expense? And who’s really making the money? Why don’t the people who have been displaced by Katrina have a right to return? How did their land get seized – even if they did not own it? It was their property in the sense that they occupied it. How did the land get seized and turned into high price condominiums? It’s about the return of the commons. That demand itself is one of the most visionary demands you can possibly make right now. It’s not a pipe dream. It’s saying this is the obligation of society to provide these things for us. It’s not a hand out or a gift.
BH: You’ve also written that “once we strip radical social movements down to their bare essence and understand the collective desires of people in motion, freedom and love lay at the very heart of the matter.”[viii] I think this is absolutely right, but many folks I know struggle to retain a sense of dreaming and love in their day to day work and lives for a better world. How can we preserve these aspects in our work and lives when the struggle for change can be so difficult and frustrating?
RK: I don’t know! I really don’t know. But I have an idea. The important thing to begin with is an acknowledgment that people, and it doesn’t matter who you are, what you look like, how old you are, color of skin, any of that. Anyone who is committed to social justice is suddenly at war. You’re beaten down immediately. You cannot fight for social justice without being beaten down, because we live in a country where you actually have to fight for social justice. It’s not taken for granted. I mean, why do you have to fight for it? Why can’t it just be something that everyone enjoys? But that’s not the case. Therefore, how do you sustain a sense of purpose, love, commitment, a desire and expectation for freedom when you are thrown into an army? It’s like fighting a war every day. You’re watching people, your comrades, old and younger, fall by the wayside every day, over some basic stuff. Well, this is where the question of the spiritual comes in. What my mother taught me was that spirituality is not exogenous. It’s not something from the outside that penetrates you, like the holy ghost. It’s not something that you try to find or some kind of embodiment. It’s nothing. Glass is just glass. Floor is just floor. But it is what St. Thomas Aquinas – I never thought I’d quote St. Thomas Aquinas – said about faith and that is that you have to believe that even if you lose and destroy the process, that you are doing the will of this greater spirit. Let’s say this spirit is not a god or anything, but the spirit is the spirit of Marx. The spirit of Rosa Luxemburg. You’re committed to a higher principle. Everything you do has to embody that principle. People look at you, the way you behave, the way you treat other people, the way you challenge power, you hold onto the principle because that gives you an ethical and moral center. When you go to bed at night you know that you’re not compromising, that you’re not selling out, that you’re doing what is correct and right. It’s funny, again, I’m not a religious person at all, but that’s stuff is in the Bible. Jesus asks the question, I forget to who, Paul or somebody, one of those biblical things. You walk down a road and you see somebody hungry, what do you do? What do you ask that person? How do you respond to that? And we’ve got to figure out a way to be able to walk that walk knowing that you’re not going to win in the traditional sense of the word, but that every day that you can help someone or change a life or make a dent, you are winning.
But it also means to be smart about it. Because if you see social activism as a kind of stewardship, then you’ve got to take care of yourself. You’ve got to find time to rest. You’ve got to find time to protect yourself. And you’ve got to stay out of the state’s clutches. I don’t think there’s anything romantic about always being arrested. If you’re being arrested as a symbolic gesture to mess up things as usual, that’s cool. But there comes a point where you’ve got to be able to attend to the living of social justice. Transforming your life and the lives of others is much more powerful than having to always get into a fight with the police.
BH: Marx made the argument in Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts that revolution is necessary both to overthrow the ruling class and for the “class overthrowing it [to] rid…itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.”[ix] Can you discuss your feelings on the importance of revolution today?
RK: It is a hard question, because what is revolution? I think there are generations of people who think of revolution as literally the violent overthrow of a class. I don’t necessary believe that’s always the case. Even in cases of clear cut revolutions, like the French revolution, it literally wasn’t the violent overthrow of a class. The bourgeoisie came to power on the backs of working class violence. Even that doesn’t quite fit.
So, what is revolution? Revolution is a fundamental change in the status quo, however that change comes about. In the past fifty years, I think we’ve actually had revolutions. They’re not the revolutions that we chose. I think that the move from the so-called Great Society to extreme laissez-faire capitalism was a revolution. A significant revolution took place – for the worse. That’s not to say that the Great Society was so great, but something revolutionary happened in the fundamental nature of social relations, of power, of the economy. Can we have a revolution? I think yes. What will it look like? I don’t really know, but the revolution I just referred to is an example of a kind of muck of society being thrown off and that is what was once common sense – that you need to help all poor people no matter what, that you don’t have such a thing as a deserving/undeserving poor, that social welfare is a fundamental human right, that racism is unacceptable. The muck of 60s radicalism – that’s good muck – we lost that. So, how do you build a revolutionary movement that could throw off the current muck? I don’t know how to do that, but it’s fundamental. It’s fundamental that the common sense of this age is destroyed. The biggest muck I think we have is the muck of a) a consumer culture, which is just so prevalent that it just shuts down any other discourse and b) a kind of blind patriotism, which is incredibly dangerous, because with a blind patriotism comes a justification for war, it comes a justification for shutting down any forms of dissent and not just for shutting it down but a justification for those people who are observers to not say anything about it. It generates a culture of fear and terror like we’ve never had before, under the name of fighting terrorism. I think all of that needs to be overthrown, for freedom. And you don’t overthrow that, it’s going to be hard to go forward.
i “History and Hope: An Interview with Robin D.G. Kelley.” minnesota review 58-60 (2003), 94.
ii Eventually published as Robin D.G. Kelley, Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990).
iii Robin D.G. Kelley, Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class (New York: The Free Press, 2004), 3-4.
iv Rick Fantasia, Cultures of Solidarity: Consciousness, Action, and Contemporary American Workers (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989).
v Kelley, Race Rebels, 8.
vi Robin D.G. Kelley, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (Boston: Beacon Press, 2002), 9.
vii Peter Linebaugh, The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).
viii Kelley, Freedom Dreams, 12.
ix Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (New York: International, 1966), 69.