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Some Thoughts on the Debate between Fire Next Time and Signalfire

Recently, when Signalfire's most recent rejoinder to the Fire Next Time's analysis of race/racism in the US was posted on /r/communism, I was reminded of how much I appreciated Neftali's clear-headed response to Ba Jin's speculative quasi-materialist theory.  At the time I had meant to make a few glowing comments about the Signalfire post but for some reason that I cannot recall (probably something to do with childcare which is what normally distracts me these days) I forgot about both the article and the planned post.  But now that I have been reminded of the existence of this debate, and though I cannot recall precisely what I planned to say initially, I have the subject matter for a small post that, at the very least, will pad out MLM Mayhem's entries in the past several weeks which are quite sparse.

First of all, some background.  This debate over how to concretely understand race and racism for the purposes of revolutionary organization began with an article written by the Fire Next Time's Ba Jin entitled Ten Theses on the U.S. Racial Order.  This was followed by an article written by Neftali, and posted on the excellent Marxist-Leninist-Maoist blog Signalfire, entitled A Maoist Response to the Ten Theses of Ba Jin.  Ba Jin then responded with a two part rejoinder to the Signalfire critique.  Now we have a further response by Neftali.  Since I do not plan to thoroughly summarize these articles here, I would recommend that the interested reader, if s/he has not already done so, read them in order.  If anything this exchange demonstrates how the problematic of race/racism is being examined in new and creative ways without being overly mired in simplistic applications of the analyses that cohered in the New Communist Movement.

Most importantly, though, I feel that Neftali's interventions demonstrate the importance of examining the phenomena of race/racism in scientific manner based on a concrete analysis of concrete circumstances and a creative rearticulation of past revolutionary theory.  Although it should be clear that I side with the critique and analysis posted on Signalfire, because I feel it is a clear and precise examination of the problem that demonstrates an awareness of revolutionary organization and thus reads as more concrete and systematic than speculative and eclectic––Neftali's approach is a stunning demonstration of how to apply Marxism-Leninism-Maoism to a particular instance––I also did find Ba Jin's initial analysis illuminating.  Indeed, Neftali's first response to these Ten Theses also noted the importance of the Fire Next Time's attempt to escape identity politics by examining race in connection to class and it is worth recognizing this fact rather than dismissing Ba Jin's analysis altogether.

For one thing, Ba Jin desires to move the historical materialist analysis of U.S. white supremacy away from the simplistic categories of the past period of struggle because they rightly note that the current historical context is not identical to the context of the 1960s-1970s, let alone the context in which Harry Haywood wrote his thesis on the "Black Belt".  It is indeed important to note the changing dimensions of racism in the U.S. just as it is important to note the changing dimensions of sexism and any given oppression: we cannot pretend that today's struggle against white supremacy is identical to the struggle as it existed in and around the Civil Rights era for the same reason that we cannot pretend that today's struggle against misogyny is identical to the struggle waged by the radical feminist movement in the 1970s.  I have often felt that marxist theory has been somewhat deficient these days in its ability to grapple with the problem of racial oppression at the centres of capitalism due to its tendency to speak only of the national question and treat the theoretical work surrounding the national question, as it was understood up until the 1970s, as sacrosanct.  None of this is to say that historical materialist theories of the nation or the national question should be dismissed and relegated to the dustbin of history (after all, I do side with Neftali's analysis which creatively rearticulates these theories in opposition to Ba Jin's over-eager dustbinning) but just that there is a history of applying them in rather formulaic and mechanical ways and that marxist theory has often refused to do the hard-work of social investigation by simplistically drawing upon these past analyses.

We do need a more thorough understanding of race/racism that, while still being materialist, does not simply reassert, in a rather crude manner, the past understanding of nations and the national question.  And though there were significant interventions in this debate in the 1960s and 1970s (i.e. Sojourner Truth's various analyses that, in attempting to circumvent the necessity of understanding the national question, actually came up with some creative ways to theorize race/racism that oddly [and perhaps unintentionally] partially proved some of the more radical Black Nationalist theories of the labour aristocracy––it is interesting, then, that Noel Ignatiev comments on the Fire Next Time's initial post) they also cannot be reapplied in a formulaic manner.  The need for a more thorough understanding of race and racism is relevant to my concrete context, Canadian capitalism, where racialization and thus racism were articulated in a different manner than the United States.  Here, north of the 49th parallel border, revolutionary theories of the national question seem to apply only to indigenous nations because there does not seem to be a Black Nation, or Chicano Nation, or now even Quebecois Nation in a revolutionary sense.  Moreover, since patterns of settler immigration were different in Canada than they were in the U.S., racialization emerged in a different way with different communities: the historical basis of the Canadian capitalist economy was not built primarily by African slaves, and while the U.S. also had its oppressed and over-exploited Chinese workers building railways, Canadian use of Chinese labour was arguably more prevalent.

None of this is to say that I disagree with Neftali's new return to the concepts of nation and the national question in the concrete context of the U.S.––or that Neftali's analysis cannot teach us something about understanding the problematic of race in the Canadian context––only that it primarily applies to the United States… But this is also its strength.  Rather than seeking some abstract theory of race that is applicable in every context, it locates the abstract and universal facts about race and then applies them in a concrete manner to a particular social formation.  In contrast, Ba Jin's analysis seeks an analysis of race/racism in abstract categories and then mistakes these categories as concrete.

But in rearticulating the concepts of nation and the national question, Neftali's analysis is significant in that it does not simply dismiss the larger problematic of race, reducing all of its vicissitudes simply to the moment of the national question, though Ba Jin makes this accusation in their initial response.  The second response to Ba Jin on Signalfire clarifies what was meant in the initial critique, as well as demonstrating some of the muddled thinking of the Fire Next Time's analysis, and demonstrates a more thorough grasp of the problem.

While a crude reduction of race/racism to the concepts of nation and the national question is indeed a problem (and again it is laudable that Ba Jin grasped this problem), throwing out these concepts altogether, as Ba Jin appears to do (though with some back-tracking), is quite anti-materialist.  First of all, even leaving aside the Black or Chicano nations (which it seems that Ba Jin believes exist in a revolutionary manner) there is still the deeper and older materialist fact that the United States, along with Canada, was established through the process of settler-colonialism and that thus there is was the contradiction of colonizer-colonized at the moment these country's emerged.  To pretend that indigenous nations are not nations, when they clearly are oppressed as such and even legally controlled as such (and have historically resisted attempts at liquidation), is a practice often endorsed by the most crude chauvinist marxists––as one dogmato-revisionist Trotskyite once told me, indigenous nations do not count as "proper nations" because they lack "a coherent political economy".

With this colonial context in mind, Fanon reminds us that all countries established on the oppression of indigenous nations must necessarily be racist through and through because national oppression logically produces racism.  Thus, even if we were to ignore the fact that there is such a thing as a Black or Chicano nation in the U.S. (and I don't think we should for the reasons indicated by Neftali's analysis), we would still have to recognize the importance of the concept of nation in understanding the phenomena of race and racism which do not emerge in a vacuum.  While it is important to note that Ba Jin, in hir response to Neftali, attempts to make sense of the theory of nation and back-peddle on hir initial failure to even speak about this concrete fact, s/he is still generally and troublingly silent on the indigenous nationhood, and thus on the originary moment of the United States as a national entity, which should be grasped as part of the basis of race and racism in the U.S.  Neftali does grasp this, hence their citation of Fanon at significant moments, but it is unclear whether Ba Jin even makes the connection––it is indeed interesting to note that, as Neftali pointed out, Ba Jin does not seem to have a coherent understanding of the national question (going so far as to display a general ignorance with their arguments against Neftali, demonstrating the lack of a shared understanding of the history of revolutionary theory) despite the Fire Next Time's dabbling in New Afrikan theory.

And yet Neftali also returns, but arguably in a new and creative manner, to Harry Haywood's "black belt thesis" in order to make sense of the Black Nation.  Although I have no significant critiques of their use of this theory––since I do not live and organize in the U.S. I am not part of an organization that has produced a thorough social investigation in this area––I do find it quite interesting that they have chosen to (re)develop a theory that has been challenged by some contemporary Black Nationalists.  In their most recent response to Ba Jin they claim that those who have challenged this thesis (such as James Yaki Sayles) have done so in an idealist manner.  This might be the case but, as an outside observer, I would like to see a thorough critique of Sayles' position rather than what seems, at first glance, to be an off-hand dismissal.  It is significant, after all, that some important revolutionary Black Nationalists have located the basis of revolutionary nationalism in spaces other than the black belt, and have felt that this thesis does not account for contemporary reality––are they completely erroneous, especially when some of them have been participants in significant revolutionary nationalist struggles?  To be fair, since Neftali's object of critique was not these alternate theories of Black Nationalism, but the theories of Fire Next Time, it makes sense, in context, to understand these dismissals as necessarily tangental.  Moreover, much of the work that was done in Neftali's initial critique did demonstrate good reasons to accept a version of the black belt thesis and, by extrapolation, demonstrated how an outright rejection from some quarters was a significant problem.

All-in-all, beyond the subject that was being debated, what is significant about this exchange between Ba Jin and Neftali is what we can learn about historical materialism as a science.  If historical materialism is a science, then examination of the phenomena that it concerns (i.e. social and historical phenomena) must proceed along rigorously scientific and materialist lines rather than speculative and idealist lines.  Only the former approach can produce a coherent and systematic analysis of the object under scrutiny; the latter is about as useful as spiritualist conjecture.  As much as I was intrigued by Ba Jin's initial thesis, I was far more impressed by the methodological rigour and precision of what was posted on Signalfire––a rigour and precision that proved to be absent in Ba Jin's analysis when they replied to Neftali and descended into a haze of nebulous speculation in which an incoherent theoretical eclecticism (where a smorgasbord of disunified concepts were cherry-picked seemingly at random in a wild attempt to respond to a systematic critique) was clearly dominant.  Despite Ba Jin's initial understanding of the need to renew a historical materialist understanding of race/racism, it became quite clear that they were ill-equipped to spear-head this renewal due to an inability to grasp and apply theory, coherently and methodically, in the moment of practice––sometimes I even wondered if they were even aware of the theoretical background of the problematic.

Unfortunately, we are living in a social context where theoretical eclecticism is predominant, and much beloved by the gate-keepers of revolutionary theory, which is thus also a context where anything that even slightly resembles a coherent historical materialist approach is dismissed out-of-hand as vulgar materialism even when it is not.  This is a context where well-intentioned revolutionaries become enamoured with speculative chic theories that resonate only within academic settings and where "book worship" (as Neftali pointed out) becomes a common practice.  Those dedicated to this hodge-podge theorization––analyses without rigour, without coherence, without a concrete understanding of historical processes and material facts––prefer to invent "new" theories by picking and choosing from innumerable theories that they like, mainly due to academic popularity, as if a brilliant new recipe can be concocted simply by throwing together all the ingredients, without any methodological coherency, that they like from a buffet of multiple theories.

So in this context we must remember Lenin's reply to the pseudo-materialists in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism where he was forced to defend historical materialism against quasi-spiritualists who were claiming, based on their inability to grasp the transformation of scientific paradigms, that revolutionary materialism was vulgar.  Most importantly, we must recognize the fact that the revolutionary masses will not be enamoured by this eclecticism and so what is popular for those trained in academic book worship will generally be enable to prove their theories in practice.  What ultimately matters, then, is whether-or-not the political line proposed by Neftali is capable of answering the problematic of race/racism in practice… and if there is a political organization that takes up this line as part of its programme then I think it will prove significant.


  1. I think Neftali is probably one of the most original, fresh, and most rigorous thinkers in the communist movement on the question of race in the USA today, and some of his insights into methodology might have universal implications in terms of how the national question develops in general in the current epoch - the so-called post-colonial era, and of particular relevance politically as the struggles of the First Nations/American Indians/Pre-Colombian peoples of the Americas come to the fore as never before under imperialism - from the resurgence of Mapuche resistance to the #IdleNoMore movement, to indigenous and mestizo-but-proud Presidents and national politicians in Latin America. And of course, it raised the question of Puerto Rico, the last substantial direct colony of the USA, which is now a majority diasporic nation in the USA, and which Neftali shows - in a new and creative way - is one of the pivots from which to understand the dynamics of white supremacy and race in the USA.

    I agree, however, that this means the line that is emerging from his thinking needs to be steeled in practice - but from the ashes of the NCM, the identitarian swamp, the class reductionism, and the anti-internationalist nationalism, here comes a perspective that gives, for the first time in decades, a line of march that is not simple repetition of dogmas, but has actual, concrete, consequences with how to strategically orient the emerging communist forces in the USA.

    Yet, even if only partially correct, in has already, for the rigorous, scientific minded Marxist, uncovered a path not traveled before, that of race viewed as a synthesis of the various contradictions that capitalism poses, and more importantly, of the various currents of thought within the socialist and communist movement: false consciousness/divide and conquer, national question, and white skin privilege.

    No one, to my knowledge, has tried to seriously engage in this process, even if it is by no means the first time the question has been posed in such a way (even in the NCM there were people suggesting this).

    And one of the most refreshing aspects is that behind all this talk about race, nation, racism, and nationalism, there lies, at the center, the question of class, and the question of capitalism, not as divorced from that talk, but as the chewy center of this hard candy.

    Of course, one wishes to see Neftali generate much more than a blog debate, and much more than relatively simple gathering of data and application of relatively simple materialism. But it does show - clearly - that the central MLM tenet of "no investigation, no right to speak" when rigorously applied even in a simple even amaterurish way, stands heads and shoulders above metaphysics.

    1. The points about practice are apt, especially your statement in the last paragraph. As Mao once argued, riffing on Marx's 11th thesis on Feuerbach, while a good analysis is important, it is not enough to make this analysis but it has to lead to changing the circumstances. Of course, having a proper theory in which to build a revolutionary practice is necessary, and the FNT's analysis does not appear to have that basis.

  2. i have to admit only reading the first two installments - Ba Jin and Neftali's originals, and made my own critique of Neftali's position for hir failure to really, at the time, engage the question of onkwehón:we national oppression and liberation. Anyway, i must have missed the part where they said people like Sayles critiqued the Black Belt thesis from an idealist perspective, and i was curious about this. i've read some of Sayles' work, mostly excerpts from his Meditations, and i wasn't aware of his critique of the Black Belt. i'm curious about it, and on what specific grounds Neftali and co. critique it.

    Additionally, as you know i was involved for some time with the Uhuru Movement via there solidarity arm (though i left in recent months on the back of growing personal differences), and the UM is, by not only my estimation, but also the estimation of other non-Movement forces, the largest revolutionary Afrikan nationalist formation in the u.s. right now and it is an organization with increasing international reach in europe, the Caribbean, Latin Amerika and Afrika. Anyway, i bring them up because the UM does reject the Black Belt thesis. The Revolutionary National Democratic Program, the program of the International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement (their mass org) does make space for a possible Afrikan state within it, but overall the UM could be described as neo-Garveryist in relation to the question of Afrikan national oppression and liberation. One comrad from NYC descibed them as Marxist-Leninist-Garveyist, though the UM itself would reject sub a label. They reject the BBT on two main grounds: 1) their Garveyism - they rejects the splitting off of Afrikan people in the u.s. as "New Afrikans", though they do believe that Afrikan people in the u.s. are colonial subjects, 2) they strongly take into consideration onkwehón:we claims to the land in the south east of the u.s. and believe that the BBT liquidates the question of the original genocidal theft of the land from onkwehón:we. As I said, the RNDP does include space for a revolutionary Afrikan state in North Amerika, but does not specify the Black Belt as the location for one, and it states that this sort of path should only be undertaken in anti-colonial unity and agreement with onkwehón:we.

    Anyway, though Uhuru does not claim Maoism as FNT and Signalfire do, i thought it would be worth it to put up their views.

    1. Thanks for the information about the UM's analysis: the second point is interesting, but I'm not sure if the BBT necessarily means a liquidation of indigenous claims, though it definitely could result in that. Even still, although I think Neftali's rejection of the FNT's position is far more concrete and materialist, it would be good to see them deal more directly with these critiques of the BBT as well as internal Black Nationalist critiques. I understand that they were focused on dealing with FNT's analysis (does FNT claim Maoism or, based on their organizational affiliations, are they more some form of nebulous post-maoism?), but I still would like to see this points addressed.

      The claim Neftali makes about Sayles is in the second response and is just a throw-away paragraph, mentioned off-hand. And I am also unsure as to what Sayles says about the BBT (because, like you, I can't remember reading any rejection of it in the *Meditations*), or why his analysis and other New Afrikan analyses (i.e. the position of Kevin "Rashid" Johnson and the NABPP) are idealist. This would be an interesting read for sure.

    2. I necessarily simplified Uhuru's views on the subject for the sake of brevity. Uhuru does outline their views in more detail in some pieces though, such as "Let Independence be Your Aim! African Internationalism: Political Theory of the African Working Class", which was published as part of the political report of the first APSP congress, as one of the documents for the founding of the African Socialist International several years ago. There was also a panel at the 5th Congress of the Party in 2010 on the subject of "Achieving State Power and the Question of Land" (i believe that was the title) which featured Yeshitela and the chairpersyn of the APSP-NYC along with Chokwe Lumumba, chairpersyn of the NAPO/MXGM and member of the PG-RNA; Malik Zulu Shabazz, chairpersyn of the New Black Panther Party; and Saladin Muhammed, a self-identified "New Afrikan communist" who works with Black Workers for Justice.

      Like i said, i am no longer with Uhuru, and have developed some ideo-theoretical differences with them since my departure (and leading up to it as well actually) but i am still sympathetic to point two that i mentioned above of their problem with the BBT. It is my experience that self-identified "New Afrikan" forces do not really take this point into consideration, or do not consider it strongly, for this or that reason. The panel at the APSP congress reflected this. Once the point was raised by the APSP the other panellists seemed to scramble somewhat to take it into account in their replies. The NBPP and the BW4J reps gave totally incoherent answers. Lumumba, who is one of the major leaders and theoreticians of the New Afrikan Independence Movement over the last couple of decades gave the most well reasoned response, and obviously his org (NAPO/MXMGM/PG-RNA) has considered it, as he mentioned agreements with AIM about the New Afrikan question (though i would question the value of agreements with an organization that no longer exists and which was effectively walking-dead, riddled with agents by 1980), though even he descended into "well my great grandma was Cherokee blah blah blah" at one point, only to then turn around and say "but that doesn't matter". It was odd.

    3. Yes, that second point is the most important; I wasn't intending to dismiss it in the above comment. While I don't think the Neftali article articulates a position that is contrary to indigenous sovereignty––and while I do think there is something significant in pointing out what this thesis points out (as based on the graphs and population breakdowns)––more work does need to be done in this area, especially when taking into consideration the colonial foundations of the US.

    4. As a note, FNT does not claim to be maoist, but more from Trotkyist and anarchist epistemology.

      Also, specially in the first text, the settlerism question is put to the fore, explicitly, as an insufficiency in the FNT's analysis. Any insufficiency in Neftali's analysis on this question is one of the narrower focus of the debate as taken up by FNT, not of Neftali's own response.

      Clearly the question of settlerism cannot be ignored in this process, nor is it.

      I will say however, that there is a danger - and therein lies the idealism - of falling into nationalism. Communists are internationalists, and thus, by necessity, in the analysis of reality, the national question is part of the class question.

      I could, for example, mention that Puerto Rico is hardly mentioned at all, in spite of being one of the most visible colonies and internal colonies of the USA. Yet that would be ignoring the contribution in method and the general direction pointed out.

  3. I am a white communist in the US South and I can say with some degree of certainty that the Black Belt Thesis is at the very least still correct on an empirical level.

    Consider that:
    A) Of the twelve US states with the highest percentage of Afro-American / New Afrikan populations, only two (Delaware and Maryland) are not Black Belt states.
    B) Of the ten US cities with the highest percentage of Afro-Americans / New Afrikans, (alone or in combination) only three (Detroit, Baltimore, and Flint) are not Black Belt cities.
    C) 57% of Afro-Americans / New Afrikan live in the US South.
    D) Over the past two decades, we have seen the Afro-American / New Afrikan populations in Southern Black Belt states like Georgia, South Carolina, Virginia, Texas, and Florida increase, whereas we see decline of populations in New York, Illinois, and Michigan. This is due to remigration to the South.
    E) While Northern metropolises like New York, Detroit, Flint, Wilmington, Baltimore, Washington D.C., etc. DO have large Afro-American / New Afrikan populations, (with a lot of revolutionary potential!) there are still familial and kinship networks extending into the Black Belt, e.g. into Atlanta, Richmond, etc.
    F) While NYC remains the city with the largest stand-alone population of Afro-Americans, (over 2 million) it is also true that the Puerto Rican population of NYC far outnumbers that of the island of Puerto Rico. LA, similarly, has nicknamed "the capital of the third world", the sizeable Cambodian proletarian population in LA does not negate the fact that Cambodia is the physical landbase for the Cambodian national-kinship community.

    I am very much of the Neftali school of rejecting idealistic nationalism and grounding analysis of the national question in material reality. E.g. I currently live in a large Southern city with a 60-75% Black population. I do live and organize in the U.S., engaged in specific rev. mass-org social investigation in this specific area. The proletariat of my city is overwhelmingly New Afrikan. This means the national question has a much greater impact on our work here than it would in a city like say Pittsburgh where the white proletariat also makes up a sizable chunk of the population.

    Then we have idealistic nationalism (e.g. of the Uhuru variety) and its obvious weaknesses. Compare the New Afrikan community in DC to the Ethiopian-American community. Ethiopian-Americans have a median household income of $41,582 (nearly twice that of New Afrikans - that's not to say that they lack a proletarian strata, but rather they are a racially oppressed national minority in the US rather than an oppressed nation within the US, hence a larger bourgeois strata) - they have a different food, different neighborhoods, and different languages. (More than 85% of Ethiopian-Americans speak a language other than English) proletarianized Ethiopian-Americans tend to be semi-proletarian or lower petit-bourgeois. (much like many Asian communities) But for Garveyist-type idealistic nationalists, two divides into one, even when real contradictions exist among distinct nations.


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