Revolt of the Natives

Published in Twentieth Century October 1968


If, as Marx has pointed out, each epoch needs to be examined in terms of categories suitable to it, the category relevant to our own is not so much class as colour, which tends increasingly to divide the world vertically into white and non- white, irrespective of class. The hierarchical concept of society may help to explain the internal dynamics of particular societies but between the West (including Russia) and the Afro-Asian countries, the line of demarcation is the colour line. That the colour line is also the line of poverty makes the division that much more inexorable. But whether the eradication of poverty by itself can restore the question of colour to its proper socio-economic perspective is doubtful. The classless society may conceivably be “colourless” one, but colour and class at the moment have lost their common denominators.

Economic categories, in other words, help to identify capitalism as the common enemy of proletarian  and colonised alike, but they do not explain why such a identity of interest is unable to bring them together. The answer is to be sought elsewhere: in the theology of racial superiority with which capitalism, in its colonial phase, sought to rationalise and justify the exploitation of “one thousand and five hundred million natives “ over a period of four hundred years. In effect it put the white man, worker and bourgeois, in a class above his Black counterpart and indeed, above Black people generally. It gave him a fictitious stature based on the belief of the Black man’s worthlessness. It allowed him to invest the Black man with every psychological inadequacy in his own make-up. It kept him, in a word, from acknowledging himself and achieving the humanism he so blatantly vaunted. His conscience, in Sartre’s phrase, caught up in its own contradiction.

The native, for his part, accepted the white man’s image of himself as the quintessence of evil… representing not only the absence of values but also the negation of values…the corrosive element disfiguring all that has to do with beauty or morality.” Black he realised, was the mark of oppression, the colour of non-being. He would ape the white man, accept his values without question, be equally derisive of native traditions and custom, and so escape the prison of his skin. But all his attempts at “freedom” took him further away from himself and no to the whiteness which he had been led to believe was the highest good. In the process his psyche became a coiled, palpitating pent-up thing, “ready at a moment’s notice to exchange the role of the quarry for that of the hunter.” 

The sickness of racism had over taken the economics of colonialism. To allege in these circumstances (as the international socialists do) that the racial myth is a capitalist red herring is to obscure the psychological barrier between white and Black which, in our time, has assumed pathological proportions. Capitalism is indeed the prime of racial prejudice as we know it today, but prejudice itself has set up categories which need to be defeated on their own ground. The answer to “white is right” is at least that Black is beautiful. The antithesis of white power is surely Black power. The reply finally to white separatism is Black separatism.

The sequence of action and reaction is clear: the whites act, the Blacks react — and in terms of history there is no doubt as to where the sequence begins. To which one might reply that Black reaction is at best a riposte to inequality, not an answer to prejudice; it is, in fact racism in reverse. But then prejudice is not the Black man’s problem. His concern is quite simply to achieve his humanity. What keeps him from this achievement is white oppression. The need to oppress the primitive notion of racial superiority, is the white man’s burden. It is he who must choose to lose it. The Black man has no choice.

To put it differently, white racism is at one level a matter of choice, at another a matter of privilege, but at all levels an exercise in oppression. White racism incurs, some where down the line, the denial of human dignity; “Black racism’” envisages the destruction of that denial. It is “the rhetoric of abstracted liberalism” which accords them equal weight. The romantic fallacy of Soviet Communism, on the other hand stems from its inability to make a distinction between the oppression of the working classes and the oppression of the Blacks, in its colonial aspect, had undergone a qualitative change and had come to wear a different face for each occasion. Class exploitation was superseded by race exploitation. Whiteness came to enshrine privilege as much as capitalism did: when the chips were down, the white proletarian found himself on the side of the white man, albeit a capitalist. The dialectical confrontation (which makes for change) was no longer that between master and servant, but between white and Black. Colour, not class, was the agent of revolution.

On any showing, the class line has ceased to be the colour line. But racial conflict, however frightening, is involved with fundamental change, whereas the conflict of class is a game played within the bounds of the existing scheme of things. And yet the Marxist theologians (of the West) refuse to see the distinction. Nor can they be absolved on the ground of innocence or dogma. In the light of their rabid antipathy to China, it is more than likely that they themselves are not immune to the prejudice of colour (their animosity to Cuba, they would plead, is another matter: that of professional revolutionaries to dilettantes).

Or else, in embracing Marx the social scientist, they have missed out Marx the humanist — that aspect of him which informs and illuminates every line of his analysis. At the time that he was writing, the proletariat (irrespective of colour) the most alienated segment of society; they were at the bottom of the heap. In their struggle to emancipate themselves they would engender the emancipation of all mankind. Values, Marx was saying, are created from the very bone of humanity. Today it is the Black man who is at the bottom of the pile, and it is his attempt to recreate himself that must lead to the resurrection of man. It is up to the (white) worker to identify him elf with the cause of those more oppressed than himself.

But such an “identification requires sensibility and imagination, a notion of one ’s real need to confirm and be confirmed by one’s fellow men, a sensitivity to other people’s pain, love – categories other than self-interest. But, as Marcuse has pointed out, the technological civilisation of the West predicates and fulfils the “false needs” of man, needs which “perpetuate toil, aggressiveness, misery, and injustice.’” It not merely rejects, but outlaws anti-social, the inner need to be and to become. “The machine process (as social process) requires obedience to a system of anonymous powers total secularisation and the destruction of values….” It ensnares both master and servant till their mutual dependence, as has already been stated, is no longer a dialectical relationship fraught with change but rather a vicious circle enclosing them both.

And so the revolt of the natives is resisted on two grounds: racial superiority and the cult of technology, and the white worker is doubly lost to the Black man. The latter must seek his allies else where, in people of like sensibilities, in a cross-section of white Society which has arrived at the “programme” as himself, though down a different road – in the student population, perhaps, of industrialised societies. For they too, like the Blacks, want to be done with the reification of man. Slavery, they agree with Marcuse, is determined “neither by obedience nor hardness of labour but by the status of being a mere instrument.“ Their lives are equally untenable, ordained and manipulated as they are by a generation of “hollow men”. Their aim, as stated on the posters nailed not so very long ago – to the doors of the Sorbonne, is “to call into question not only capitalist society but industrial society. The consumer’s society must perish violent death. The society of alienation must disappear from history. “

They do not know any more than the Blacks how they will achieve these aims, but they accept that the violence inherent in a monolithic power structure will only respond to violence. Liberalism is no more than a moral sinecure, and serves to mask the “repressive tolerance” of the “free world.” Muscovite Communism is hidebound, doctrinaire, and equally lacking in moral content.

The students themselves have no blueprint for Utopia, not even a theory of revolution. But they know that the theories which “succeed’ are evolved in the process of being acted out, and do not transpire on the drawing-boards of dialectical draftsmen. They know what they must do, now, and hope that the values which engender their revolt inhere in the world they create. Their revolt, like the revolt of the native, is revolt as man.