Cedric Robinson’s Radical Democracy

Amid the Uprisings

Cedric Robinson’s theory of collective resistance.


On the morning of December 17, 1979, several Miami police officers stopped Arthur McDuffie on a 1973 Kawasaki. The initial police report said McDuffie had run a red light, forcing officers on a high-speed chase through Miami, and falsely characterized the incident as a bike accident and a scuffle with officers. McDuffie was taken to the hospital with multiple skull fractures; four days later, he was dead.

In a turn of events that could have happened last year or last week, an internal investigation revealed that the officers’ version of events was almost entirely fabricated. There was a chase but no scuffle. McDuffie had already surrendered when the officers surrounded him, removed his helmet, and beat him lifeless. They allegedly ran over his motorcycle to make it look as though it had been in an accident. These details were enough to lead to charges against the officers, but not enough to convict them. After a speedy trial, prosecuted by state attorney (and future US attorney general) Janet Reno, an all-white-male jury exonerated the officers.

By nightfall on the day the verdict was announced, the city was in flames. As the historian Manning Marable put it in the pages of The Black Scholar at the time, “the streets belonged to the poor people of Liberty City.” As insurrection ruled the night, calls for order grew louder from state and local officials. Bob Graham, Florida’s Democratic governor, took to the press to tell residents that “we have come too far, worked too hard, to see that everything is lost in one more night of needless violence and rage.” Such declarations, of course, rang hollow for most of the people in the streets on those bitter nights, considering that state and local governments had done far more to ravage this community, gutting the social safety net and leaving the poor and vulnerable with no place to go but the prisons and the cooling boards built for them. Miami Mayor Maurice Ferré invited Andrew Young and Jesse Jackson to the city to help quell the rebellion, but it was too late: Miami was consumed by an uprising that had been produced by not just one act of police violence and corruption but a whole system of racial enclosure and exploitation.

Miami set the tone for a decade of relentless domestic warfare in which the police, state prosecutors, and elected officials attempted to crush the very people they were supposed to serve. As disinvestment intensified in deindustrialized urban centers, so too did the carceral state. Yet the strategy also generated resistance. Rebellious responses to disinvestment and brutal acts of “law and order” were, as Marable and other radicals noted at the time, living evidence that deceit, insult, humiliation, removal, and violence had not sucked the life out of a people subjected to a brutal racial contract; it had enlivened them. As Marable put it, “the uprising can only be understood as a ‘twentieth century slave revolt.’” The uprisings in the cities were acts not just of desperation but of collective politics—efforts to jam the gears of continued capitalist and state violence and subjugation.

A young political theorist and contemporary of Manning by the name of Cedric Robinson made a similar point in the pages of Paul Gilroy’s London-based Emergency. “For the ever-growing numbers of Blacks forced to come to terms with the deteriorating situation in Britain,” he wrote, against the backdrop of the Brixton uprising that rocked the United Kingdom in 1981, “the historical record of Black collective resistance to political and economic oppression is rich and suggestive.” The uprisings were a form of democratic politics too—perhaps more democratic than the legislative systems that appeared so determined to maintain an order of racial partition in Western society.

Rejecting the resignation that was beginning to emerge in many corners of Black life after the civil rights movement, Robinson—much like Manning, Gilroy, and other Black contemporaries—found in the disinvested ruins of the city a new radical and egalitarian form of democracy. “The pursuit of justice is dialectically embedded in the very tapestry of injustice,” Robinson later noted. For him, the urban rebellions offered a vision of collective action in the face of a society that favored atomization, profit and property, and racial domination. The state might have cast these rebellions as incompatible with democratic aims, inconsistent because of their offense to civility and order. But Robinson insisted that they were the very expression of democracy. Just as Marx and Engels had maintained that the most exploited classes of modern society would become the agents of revolutionary change, Robinson asked who could understand democracy’s true moral and ethical demands better than those rebellious people farthest from justice.

In 1983, Robinson outlined the historical antecedents of this Black and urban radical democratic tradition in his book Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. He departed from Marx and Engels by uncovering forms of radicalism that couldn’t be confined to the grammar and logic of the European working class and linked this tradition to the long struggle for decolonization. The rebellions of the 1970s and ’80s could thus be understood as forms of Black resistance within a longer inventory of resistance to capitalism’s order of racial and economic domination. The ordinary men and women in Miami and London were not unlike those Black workers who resisted earlier forms of racial and economic domination, forms that Robinson went to great lengths to highlight in Black Marxism. Slave resistance was an early antecedent of this tradition of radical democratic struggle, and it clarified for him the idea that something about justice could be discerned from those farthest from it. Drawing from the writings of Amílcar Cabral, W.E.B. Du Bois, and C.L.R. James, Robinson saw Black insurgencies as challenging the race-based structure of capitalism and the state by illuminating resistance as the basis of moral authority. In response to the question of who sets the agenda for Black struggle, Robinson answered in the plural: As he suggested in Emergency, Black liberation rested on “the maximum of the human resources contained in our communities.”

Robinson, who had long been the director of the Center for Black Studies Research at UC Santa Barbara, died in 2016. His insight into how Black mass movements have helped to reconfigure the nature of democratic authority and political activity in the modern era can be found in today’s movements struggling to free the country from its brutal confluence of state-sanctioned violence and capitalism. As Robin Kelley noted in 2017, “Today’s insurgent black movements against state violence and mass incarceration call for an end to ‘racial capitalism.’” It was a term that Robinson did not invent, but it was central to his analysis of domination in modern society. The insurgents today have sought to take the battle to the streets; theirs is a politics from below, not from above. The work of building new forms of life can happen nowhere else.

Over the past several years, organizers of these movements have drawn from and directed attention to Robinson’s work, particularly in the context of political education workshops building the bridge between theory and practice. Now, thanks to Pluto Press and to the dedicated work of his partner and longtime collaborator, Elizabeth Robinson, along with others like H.L.T. Quan and Kofi Buenor Hadjor, we have a new book that collects his published and unpublished work both before and after Black Marxism. Through these essays, we see further evidence of Robinson’s profound faith in the ability of ordinary people to fight against the corruptions of a world that routinely mocks the logic and practice of democracy. In them, we get a clear sense of what Robinson insisted in his work from the outset: that Black freedom struggles are a central part of resisting today’s violent racial and capitalist order.

Cedric Robinson was born in 1940 in Oakland, Calif. His family was part of the wave of African Americans who had moved from the South to escape the specter of racial domination. Often it was more than a specter: In one of the rare moments of biographical detail he shared, Robinson recounted, in a 1999 interview, why his family had left Alabama in the 1920s—his grandfather had beaten nearly to death the white manager of a luxury hotel in Mobile who’d tried to rape his wife, Robinson’s grandmother, who worked there as a housekeeper.

In Oakland, the Robinsons became part of a small but intrepid Black working-class community that was mostly confined to East and West Oakland. That fledgling community grew with the influx of manufacturing and industrial jobs in the Bay Area in the early postwar years. East and West Oakland were almost entirely Black because of racist federal housing policies and redlining, and it was there that Robinson witnessed the forms of care, education, and mutual aid found in Black communities under the Jim Crow racial order. As Robin Kelley notes, “He attended public schools where he learned from Black women and men who held advanced degrees but could not break the professional color bar. He took great pride in his teachers and the challenging intellectual environment they created.”

In 1959, Robinson enrolled at UC Berkeley to study anthropology and discovered a radical world of rebellion on campus. Falling in with a group of students that included J. Herman Blake, the cochair of the campus NAACP chapter, he initially got involved in a number of student protests against US involvement in Cuba. For Robinson and Blake, the struggle against the apartheid conditions of Blacks in the United States was linked to the struggle against colonial occupation across the Global South. In 1962, just after serving a suspension at Berkeley for protesting the Bay of Pigs invasion, Robinson traveled to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) under the auspices of Operation Crossroads Africa. The organization was itself an artifact of a Cold War “scramble for Africa” in which NGOs flocked to the continent to jump-start what were effectively neocolonial development projects under the guise of humanitarianism. But the experience only further radicalized him, as he discovered a profound sense of connection to those living under the weight of colonialism and underdevelopment. For Robinson, internationalism was both ideology and practice. “Africa understands, Asia understands, you and I and the millions of blacks in the U.S., Brazil, and the West Indies understand,” he wrote, “not because we are black or brown but because we have lived it and are living it now.” Already in 1962, as a young man still finding his way, Robinson could perceive the links between the forced enclosure and immiseration of colonial violence and the racial and capitalist order under which he grew up. Returning to Berkeley, he continued his work in anthropology so as to better understand the history of this social order and those that existed elsewhere.

At Berkeley, Robinson proved to be a ferocious intellect as well as an activist. He and his comrades read Marx, Ralph Ellison, Malcolm X, Melville Herskovits, and many others who were themselves struggling to understand the class and racial dynamics of their societies. Robinson’s interest in anthropology partly explains why these figures appealed to him. Yet for him and his friends, intellectual discovery served another purpose as well: political education. Education was not a mere scholastic endeavor for them; it was the study of what had gone wrong in the world and a search for affirmative acts of political struggle against anti-democratic forces.

Robinson continued his studies at San Francisco State, working on a master’s thesis critiquing the Stanford political scientist Gabriel Almond, whose account of “political culture,” he argued, too easily accepted the idea that the masses—their beliefs, behaviors, and attitudes—provided order to political society. It was exactly the other way around, Robinson insisted, and this argument turned out to be the beginning of his long-standing ambivalence toward the state as a means for achieving human flourishing, something neither to celebrate nor to simply cast aside. His work at San Francisco State earned him the attention of Stanford’s political science department, which in 1967 recruited him to join its PhD program. Despite his criticism of Almond, Robinson wound up working closely with him, as well as with the political scientists Charles Drekmeier and Alexander George In fact, Drekmeier chaired his doctoral committee and became an important voice in defending Robinson’s work during his time there.

Robinson’s dissertation, called Leadership: A Mythic Paradigm, proved to need a lot of defending from the faculty. Largely completed while he was visiting England as a Leverhulme Fellow with Elizabeth in 1970, it argued that the apparent naturalness of a political order was a myth exposed by the constancy of violence and repression that almost all such orders relied on; with only rare exceptions, political leadership as practiced in Western societies was top-down, institutionally unaccountable, and fearful of the kind of authority that comes from below. Even when these political orders called themselves democratic, they were in fact afraid of a truly democratic system. To contrast these Western political orders with more democratic forms, Robinson turned back to his training in anthropology, citing communities like the Tonga people in Zambia as examples of societies that have more effectively constructed order rooted in maximum human flourishing. He acknowledged these forms of kinship and community even as he recognized the tendency in the field of anthropology to minimize contributions of non-Western societies as primitive. But what he saw in the Tonga people challenged a foundational belief, as old as Aristotle, in which rule was seen as necessary to manage relations between human beings. In this way, the contribution of the Tonga people held practical and philosophical weight far beyond anthropology’s racist constraints.

In response to this challenge, Almond and George resigned from his dissertation committee: What was political science if not a “science” of states (or the state)? Robinson’s dissertation refused to confine human activity to this narrow frame of thinking, because by doing so, one recapitulated the state’s mythologies and reduced community to a means rather than an end in itself. Despite the controversy over his dissertation, Robinson eventually did get a PhD from Stanford, and his dissertation was published by SUNY Press as The Terms of Order in 1980. The book version was pretty much unaltered from the original. But the development of an expanding and solidifying neoliberal consensus—one that claimed to exist for the sake of those social forces (primarily the market) outside the state—only helped demonstrate Robinson’s point: Politics is everywhere, with or without the state. So, too, were forms of racial domination, economic dependence, underdevelopment, and violent repression.

Even before he completed his PhD and published his book, Robinson got a job as a lecturer in the political science department at the University of Michigan. In 1971, Black and Latino student activists had put tremendous pressure on the university administration to embrace a series of anti-discrimination policies and to hire more faculty of color, and Robinson joined a cohort of preeminent Black and feminist intellectuals that included Nancy Hartsock and Harold Cruse. At Michigan, he also began to develop the second part of his thesis: that politics happened outside the state as well as within it. He began to search for not only reactionary antecedents but also radical ones. As one of his former students recounted, “We read and debated classic, radical and contemporary books, articles and treatises, as well as each other’s research. Occasional guest lecturers included C.L.R. James, Robert Williams, James and Grace Boggs, as well as political and social activists from the area or further afield.” Robinson also paid close attention to the wave of urban rebellions sweeping the country in the 1970s and ’80s—the fonts of democratic action that he would later write about.

One of the first courses Robinson taught after joining the Michigan faculty was “Problems of Political Development: Black Radical Thought.” The course was noteworthy for a lot of reasons, one of which was that it was part of a constellation of courses and academic programs that were springing up across the country in response to a general failure to take Black radical thought seriously. “The purpose of this course is to reconstruct the historic relations between the Black Liberation movement (of the 20th century) and the various ‘Marxist’ oriented organizations, historic relations which have been of continuing concern among students of radical politics.” The readings that appeared in the syllabus were staples in many programs and organizing circles at the time: Robert Allen’s Black Awakening in Capitalist America, James Boggs’s Racism and the Class Struggle, George Padmore’s Pan-Africanism or Communism. The course may also have been among the first informal reading groups leading up to the publication of Black Marxism a decade later.

Walter Rodney’s 1972 book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa would mark an important development in Robinson’s thinking about radical democracy as well, and when he joined the faculty at SUNY Binghamton in 1973, it was a splendid coincidence that Rodney was there as a visiting lecturer. His book only further bolstered Robinson’s internationalism, helping him track the intersections between Black American resistance to racial partitioning and the resistance of postcolonial movements in the Caribbean and elsewhere. Rodney’s analysis of capitalist imperialism, he noted, also told the story of resistance, of “what African masses are doing and have done.” If one cared to look, Robinson insisted, the archive overflowed with examples of Black people refusing to resign themselves to the conditions they faced.

Black radical politics is fundamentally about reaching out to others, identifying the sources of a shared condition, and demanding that the world be reordered accordingly. It is an imaginative enterprise that rejects the inherited assumptions about how power and society are divided under a system of racial capitalism, one that seeks to find new connections in the midst of this atomization. To this end, Robinson challenged contemporary notions of race as a fixed, transhistorical category consistent across time and space. Every state, he argued, deployed its own racial signs and myths to crush its disposable populations and create “order.” In some of his later work, such as Forgeries of Memory and Meaning, Robinson elaborated on this tendency: “Racial regimes,” he wrote, derive their authority in part from the meaning-making power of cultural institutions, so that circulated images of so-called savages and brutes become the basis for politically justifying racial violence and partitioning. (Those who wish to know more about Robinson’s account of racial regimes should look forward to Josh Myers’s new biography.) Yet the source of their power is also the source of their weakness: The people these regimes oppress create countercultures and thereby toss a wrench into the gears of a system that feeds on racist images in order to stay alive.

Robinson’s account of racial regimes and the counterhegemonies they help spawn also pointed to the democratic forms of resistance these countercultures might create. The social life we inhabit—one that for centuries held human beings in bondage and continues to leverage race to the benefit of capital—cannot necessarily be altered in one fell swoop. Yet the countercultures and the acts of urban resistance that this social life can inspire help keep open the door of possibility. Freedom is not inevitable—every struggle for liberation may well fall back toward slavery—but it is only through struggle with others that this freedom is made possible in the first place.

The new essay collection—which includes Robinson’s reflections on Africa, US foreign policy, popular culture, and urban rebellion—tracks these struggles for liberation across the globe and wherever they can be found. At times, the search for radical democracy in these essays can appear to be too wide-ranging, but that is part of the point: If Black Marxism helped recover an alternative archive from which the left might draw in building a radical consciousness against racial capitalism, these essays expanded its scope and expression.

The essays that make up the first half of the volume explain why Robinson felt compelled to tell a different story about the meaning and true potential of democratic rebellion. “Bourgeois historiography,” he argues, has created a set of dominant Western historical narratives that are particularly contemptuous of the demos, depicting it as a body that needs to be governed from above. After examining the “Platonic origins of anti-democracy,” he then considers those expressions of politics that sought to resist it, including in Africa and the United States. In these communities, Robinson finds the ethos of emancipation: groups of people self-consciously building democratic culture by refusing colonial domination, capitalism, and enslavement. From the visions of African liberation he finds distorted in George Shepperson’s writings to the novels of Pauline Hopkins, and from the anticolonial studies of George Washington Williams, Frantz Fanon, and Amílcar Cabral to the ambivalent Black responses to Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign, the 1992 Los Angeles rebellion, and the misrepresentations of Black liberation in the blaxploitation film genre, Robinson tells the story of the Black radical tradition.

Robinson challenges Marxist historiography too. Again, readers will have to take note of the sheer audacity in reconstructing a historical archive with Black struggle at the center, particularly given the tendency even in left intellectual circles to do otherwise. Earlier in Black Marxism, he noted that neither Eric Hobsbawm nor E.P. Thompson—two leading historians of working-class radicalism in England—said much, if anything, about Black working-class struggles. Thompson’s magisterial book The Making of the English Working Class mentions Black people only twice—once in a passing reference to an artisan and once in reference to a Black man who appeared as Satan in the dream of a dissident minister. Robinson’s essays on the Black radical tradition and its misrepresentations seek to correct this record: By showing that there is much to recommend in the histories of Black struggle in the Americas, the Caribbean, and Africa, they attempt to provide new archives from which to envision the world. Robinson’s political thought challenges readers to turn to these histories not as an addendum to the dominant approach but as the approach from which to proceed. In the pages of Emergency, he quoted C.L.R. James in “The Making of the Caribbean People” to emphasize the point: “These are my ancestors, these are my people. They are yours too, if you want them.”

For as much energy as he put into challenging the limits of European radicalism and liberalism, Robinson also challenged the limits of what he called the “fictive radicalism” of Black nationalist thought. “I felt strongly that Black nationalism as it was being pursued by spokespersons like Stokely Carmichael and Louis Farrakhan was a failed enterprise,” he said in a 1999 interview. “As a peevish and perverse inversion of the political culture and racialism which had been used to justify the worst excesses of the exploitation and oppression of Black people, it served as a fictive radicalism, a surrogate mirage of the Black struggle.”

For Robinson, a truly emancipatory Black politics required transcending race. Radical black struggle, then, promised nothing less than total human emancipation from social domination in all its forms. Robinson was stubborn in his unwillingness to map out a concrete political program. But that was precisely because any grassroots, bottom-up expression of democracy was better understood as a constantly unfolding horizon of freedom and resistance. He refused the presumptuousness that is characteristic of political theory: Intellectuals, he insisted, can learn a great deal more by embedding themselves in the struggles of ordinary people than by trying to impose grandiose theories of change.

We can learn quite a bit from Robinson’s humility in this regard. His account, for example, of those Black struggles against fascism in the 1930s, led by the Negro World Alliance, the Provisional Committee for the Defense of Ethiopia, and the African Patriotic League, demonstrates the importance of paying careful attention to the front lines of struggle against racial capitalism and its fascist permutations.

If today we are bombarded with ideas about fascism as a threat external to American society, Robinson reminds us that Black struggle against fascism should be understood as a barometer of what racial capitalism has always been intrinsically capable of and what a movement against it should entail. Black Americans around the world responded to fascism the way they did because they were already victims of it, expressed in white supremacist longings for their partitioning and extermination. At the same time, Robinson understood the Black struggle against fascism as a global one, to be found among the dockworkers in southwestern Africa refusing to work on Italian ships or the hundreds of Black Cubans and Bahamians enlisting in the armies of Ethiopia. In one of his two essays on fascism, Robinson invoked the words of Milton Herndon, a Black steelworker who was killed while fighting fascists in Spain in 1937, to convey this point: “Yesterday, Ethiopia, Czechoslovakia—today, Spain—tomorrow, maybe America. Fascism won’t stop anywhere—until we stop it.”

The 2014 uprising in Ferguson, Mo., which appears at the end of the volume (in an essay cowritten by Elizabeth), might also be an opportunity to draw connections to the long and historic inventory of Black struggle that could trace many of its American roots to Black anti-fascist actions in the 1930s. The militarized response, too, was not unprecedented in the United States; nor was it unprecedented against the backdrop of the ongoing brutal racial partitioning in other parts of the world. From the United States to the occupied territories of Palestine, racial regimes sustain order by enforcing difference through violence. Yet again sounding a familiar theme, the Robinsons were clear that oppressed people would not simply accept these terms.

One of the remarkable things about Cedric Robinson is that he was a profoundly collaborative thinker—both in the sense of not assuming an authoritative posture over the archives he illuminated and in terms of his pedagogy. It is a common refrain among those who have written about him: Over the course of his life, he and Elizabeth would often invite students into their home to study and find ways to challenge the world from where they were.

But nowhere was Robinson’s ethic of collaboration more potent than when it came to his wife. Reading an interview recently between the two, I was struck by the “we” he used to describe the work that bears his name. It was Elizabeth, he said in Black Marxism, who first suggested the value of the book. “She shared her sense of the exact with me in work and in principle,” he wrote in The Terms of Order. In Santa Barbara in 1980, he and Elizabeth founded and hosted the long-running radio program Third World News Review in order to push back against the racialized media distortions propping up our racial capitalist culture, and Elizabeth was at the center of the effort to get this collection of essays into public view.

Robinson was once asked in an interview how he would characterize his political commitments. Riffing on the collaborative spirit that had defined so much of his work, he replied: “My only loyalties are to the morally just world; and my happiest and most stunning opportunity for raising hell with corruption and deceit are with other Black people. I suppose that makes me a part, an expression, of Black Radicalism.”

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