The Rawick File: How Do People Revolt?

— Paul Buhle

George Rawick
Listening to Revolt, Selected Writings
Edited by David Roediger and Martin Smith
Chicago: Charles H. Kerr Company, 2010,
$14 paperback.

GEORGE RAWICK (1929-1990) was a powerful socialist scholar in the C.L.R. James tradition, sometimes an equally powerful mentor for young radicals, and also a tortured soul.  He is largely forgotten today, because he did not write easily or found a “school” with his methods — or even get along with his friends and allies very well.

Yet we find Rawick’s stamp, for instance, in the critically important work of Robin D.G. Kelley, posing over the course of massive research on African-American life the crucial question of why populations have often engaged in cultural expressions (e.g. clothes styles like the Zoot Suit, but also today’s Rap music) or misdemeanor crime (e.g. refusing to pay for a bus ride in segregated buses of the South), rather than organizing for reform or revolution.

Leftwing activists, emphatically including brilliant strategic organizers, have naturally asked themselves these questions as well. Martin Luther King, Jr. observed late in his life that he had not easily understood the rage of urban Black youth in the South because they were outside his understanding of The Movement.  By the end of the 20th century, with the world’s labor movement as well as the Left in a fragmented state and familiar Marxist formulations ever less satisfying, the questions involved became more intense and unavoidable.

One root of the matter goes back decades among socialist scholars, and we find it best articulated in the conversation of British Marxists around the journal Past and Present, Marxists mostly about to leave the Communist Party and figure out what to do with their ideas and research.

Robin Hood offered an early mystery to unravel, and the only one of the group to remain in the CPGB, Eric Hobsbawm, posed the issues broadly in his famed volume Primitive Rebels: what do we say about supposed romantic criminals over the centuries? They and their legend exist in every modernizing society (and many premodern ones), the outlaw leader who is more moral than the official order, often seen as fighting for the rights of ordinary people against some new or newly oppressive order.

Some real-life Robin Hood types, in the early 20th century U.S. Southwest and across the border, turn out to have been Wobblies (militants of the Industrial Workers of the World — IWW) close to Indian villages and to struggles on both sides of that border. Others, heroized even today in corridos, are mere drug dealers supposedly passing around some of the ill-gotten gains.

George Rawick’s Journey

George Rawick arrived at his own influential formulation after great difficulty. He came on the stage among other leftwing youngsters in the 1950s United States. Not only did they face the grim McCarthy Era, they also felt that they had come of age too late, too late by generations for the glory years of the IWW, by more than a decade for the upsurge of the CIO (and the political Left) and a little too late for the creative rethinking that seemed to point toward alternatives to Communist domination of the Left in the years immediately following the Second World War.

For young Rawick, as for thousands of others his age, the civil rights movement would bring new purpose, and the 1960s movements at large, including Black Nationalism, still more, but with serious complications. Should intellectuals like himself give guidance to youngsters — or seek it from them? And if they were teachers, writers, scholars (their one great advantage was to hold these positions when young people were desperate for information and understanding), how did it happen that they would remain on the outside of the direct action that they had hoped and waited for?

George Rawick: Listening to Revolt, Selected Writings, edited by David Roediger and Martin Smith, is a valuable book for all kinds of reasons, but not because it offers the answers that Rawick never found in his own life, or perhaps found fitfully and lost just as fitfully, time after time. The extended introduction by David Roediger, the essays by Rawick and various supplementary materials lay out a poignant story that is likely to be meaningful in ways as emotional as political for radical generations to follow.

Young George Rawick suffered from the religious and political conservatism of his Jewish family but from the splits in the badly reduced, actually shattered American Old Left that soldiered on losing steam almost all the way to the middle 1960s.

Former Communists constituted the majority of not only the local (mostly, not entirely white) activists at the street level for assorted causes, but the main constituency for support of Third World revolutions. Disoriented by the collapse of the Soviet Union, not to mention the FBI on their tail, they did not supply much heavy lifting when it came to theory and strategy.

Trotskyists and former Trotskyists tried to pick up the intellectual slack, along with a fairly small handful of independents like C. Wright Mills who came along a little late for any past affiliation of note. A complicating factor in all this was the prestige and power of former radicals, anti-communist socialists and ex-socialists, and also ex-Trotskyists drifting rightward.

Something more politically threatening, even, than massive repression faced this near-Left:  an opportunity for swift upward mobility, mainly via academic positions previously barred to Jews, but also as journalists, union-connected aides to officialdom, and sometimes even as high-flying novelists and critics. Along with writing well, they had only to declare themselves part of liberal “American Team” in the ongoing Cold War — and naturally to mute their criticisms of capitalism, generally restyling it “democracy.”

They would add, not too insistently, that the system could be greatly improved, that nonwhites needed some measure of equality for the good of the system as well as the good of the victims of racism, and so on.

This kind of declaration did not guarantee success (internal documents of the American Committee for Cultural Freedom reveal a determined desire to keep the list of intellectuals, artists and critics coming to meetings and signing petitions, etc., small and limited to prestigious figures), but stood as a precursor for personal success, sometimes the basic minimum needed to get and hold a job.

George Rawick, although without an ounce of careerism or even the capacity to advance himself in the cocktail party crowd of intellectuals, did not escape the anxiety of radical Jewish youngsters seeking to make a living in a Gentile academic world.

He wandered through years in the mainstream noncommunist socialistic movement or what was left of it, a period marked by one of his best anecdotes: fellow youngsters of his faction liked to pose to each other the unanswerable question: who had the worse personality among the group’s intellectual savants, was it Irving Howe or Hal Draper? Each was a formidable candidate…but George himself, growing more formidable with each year, would not have been out of the running.

The C.L.R. James Group

Rawick toiled over a PhD, he wrote for the New International, the Anvil (a socialist student paper) and the American Socialist (the premature effort to launch a New Left, based on contemporary efforts in Britain), and became a bit more of a bohemian, less of an old-fashioned didactic Marxist.

Then came his Detroit phase and intimate contact with the small and diminishing group around an exiled Black Marxist: C.L.R. James. This proved to be the arena of his happiest, most productive years, marked by unending academic uncertainty but extended moments of rich experiences among the younger generations.

Cultic at moments around the immensely attractive but somewhat mystical figure of James, smaller than even a few years earlier (when Raya Dunayevskaya and her followers departed), this “Tendency” offered a rich brew of interests and sensibilities. A sort of modernized syndicalism or spontaneism, expectation of workers’ councils emerging from below the bureaucratic layers, inclined believers into tasks far from the usual building of cadre or leafleting factory gates.

The politically uncertain later 1940s, as a Tendency activist recalled to me, had been the great moment of theory, following the earlier excitement of political activity. They read excerpts from Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, they mulled over heretical developments within the Left from around the world, and they did not spend much time arguing, for instance, whether Mao’s China was the center of Stalinist Barbarism or the hope for a new nonwhite global tomorrow.

Rawick inherited all this along with an emerging imperative: Black History. Because Detroit was the center of the militant African-American working class, because James himself had written The Black Jacobins, the foremost treatment of the Haitian Revolt of the 1790s that had set the white world’s teeth on edge, and because James of the presest day was becoming increasingly a widely-recognized figure of Pan Africanism — from Ghana to his Anglo-Caribbean homeland to the streets of Detroit and Toronto — the moment was ripe.

Using James’ central notion that slaves controlled as much of their own lives and culture as they possibly could manage — a precursor, in James’ view, to the self-activity of modern factory workers — and were prepared to move forward when the opportunity came, Rawick looked for evidence that, along with James, he anticipated he would find.

The volume in question is notable first of all because principal editor David Roediger is himself a notable scholar of race, and devotes many pages to explaining Rawick’s evolution. Roediger is most keen in exploring how the working-class side of Rawick’s work relates to the African-American side, and where they cross, as inevitably they would, above all in Rawick’s Detroit of the 1950s-60s.

But there was more to Rawick’s expansion upon Marxist notions of class. The recuperation of Hegelianism that had been central to the James/Dunayevskaya (known as Johnson-Forest) current within later 1940s Trotskyism, freighted with phrases like “self-activity” (that is, self-directed activity), marked the group as over-optimistic or a little looney.

Rawick, following the group’s 1948 document State Capitalism and World Revolution, fleshed out the notion of a working-class history in which workers organized the unions rather than vice-versa, and in which the addition of new bottom layers (nonwhites and women) to the workforce “completed” its content in a philosophical as well as strategic sense.

The working class could no longer, as it had been for most of the history of organized labor in the United States, be controlled by exclusionary union bodies (most notoriously the racist and anti-immigrant AFL, but later also a CIO whose leaders had little interest in agricultural or clerical workers). Now something else could happen.

Some of these essays appeared in my own Radical America around 1969-71, and in trimming them editorially, I found myself drawn to the power of the logic as well as drawn to make sense of them for readers.

In light of the widespread strikes of that period, many of them against union officials’ misleadership and even more amidst the many mass movements of the time, Rawick’s perspectives were intellectually revolutionary. A decade or two later, they would be less persuasive; yet even mediated by many levels of compromise, they still offer the remaining hope for the survival of unionism, through encompassing the new immigrant workforce and newly organized sectors.

From Sundown to Sunup

Rawick’s major step into documenting African-American history emerged only a few years later with his publication of his gathering of the “slave narratives,” interviews taken by Works Progress Administration fieldworkers of the 1930s but left in archives (or worse: misedited).

To find them, including transcripts buried away in Southern state archives, to prepare them for publication and make them available in nearly 30 volumes was the triumph of a lifetime. Without George, the task might have waited decades.

His accompanying, short narrative volume From Sundown to Sunup: The Making of the Black Community, Volume I (1972)  could hardly be up to the same level, and his friends believed that slavery historian Eugene Genovese scooped up George’s best formulations and put them to his own ambivalent purposes (in future decades, Genovese moved ever-further Rightward). At any rate, the “great American history book” was not to be written by Rawick.

He remained a hardworking teacher in a number of schools, also a difficult faculty colleague even for those who admired him. Probably, the blue-collar students appreciated him most, along with the small number of those young radical intellectuals (George Lipsitz, Robin Kelley and Peter Rachleff foremost) who could draw a lifetime of inspiration, put to their own purposes.

Reduced to one key idea, the leitmotif of George Rawick: Listening to Revolt is one that should be familiar to any devotee of James but useful for all of us: the necessity of revolutionaries or would-be revolutionaries to stop preaching, at least for a bit, and start listening to the putative revolutionary subjects.

This idea was and is susceptible to its own over-simplification. Spontenaists have a tendency to wait around for the next revolt, which however might be a long time in coming.

On the positive side, they are ideally suited to study past revolts, whether immediately or long past — and useful always for rethinking who we are, as leftwingers, among those who (typical for blue-collar Americans) have few strong political views but are often willing, even in the heart of the Empire, to rethink the present…and the future.

ATC 148, September-October 2010

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