Saturday, October 4, 2014

William R. Jones, Jr. on Black liberation theology: Mao, Martin, or Malcolm?

This is an old essay. I see no indication of an earlier publication, so perhaps this is the first time it appeared; on the other hand, the subject matter suggests it was written at least a decade earlier:

Jones, William R. "Liberation Strategies in Black Theology: Mao, Martin, or Malcolm?", in Philosophy Born of Struggle: Anthology of Afro-American Philosophy from 1917, edited by Leonard Harris (Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, 1983). pp. 229-241.

This concern belongs to an earlier era, but given the key role that Jones played in countering black liberation theology from within and furthering black participation in the philosophy profession, this is worth revisiting if only for the limitations of Jones's perspective, which Stephen Ferguson correctly characterized as Feuerbachian.

Jones triangulates the three key figures on their attitude to violence. Mao and Martin Luther King, Jr. are polar opposites: Mao claims that power grows out of the barrel of a gun and thus violence is the only means to fundamental change, while King categorically eschews violence as counter-productive. Malcolm X's formulation "by any means necessary" avoids either of these extremes: Malcolm advocates violence for self-defense or when all other means are exhausted, but not as a first principle.

Jones finds that black liberation theology has gravitated away from both King and Mao and has veered closer to Malcolm X. But he doesn't say anything further about black theology, as the real purpose of this article is to criticize King.

It is obvious to the average person, I would think, that all other things being equal, Malcolm's position would be the most rational and aligned with the real world. If a philosophical position on violence were the only thing that distinguished these three figures, Jones would have a good argument. But their overall political positions and relation to their own traditions differ in several ways, such that Jones's comparison ends up being superficial. We don't even learn what differentiates King's orientation from the asceticism and social backwardness of Gandhi, or Mao's vulgar nationalistic version of class struggle from the intellectual depth of Marx. Nor do we gain any knowledge about the rest of Malcolm X's politics and what he learned once he separated himself from Elijah Muhammed's petit bourgeois fascist religious cult.

A deeper analysis of King's politics might also give additional insight into what differentiates King's universalist radical Christianity from the parochial vision of the black liberation theology of James Cone et al ideologically aligned with the black power movement. King's ideological illusions aside, there is one key aspect of King's political strategy overlooked here. Once the initial legislation was passed putting an end to legal Jim Crow in the South, King turned to the intractable problems of de facto institutional racism in the rest of the country, also implicated in the perpetuation of poverty. King realized that he had to tackle the entire institutional structure of American society, rather than to carve out a petit bourgeois enclave within the black ghetto. King took a bullet for black garbagemen; at the same time King was in the process of organizing a pan-racial Poor People's Campaign

To overlook this superior aspect of King's social vision over the parochialism of black nationalism (which should not be equated with "black power" as an abstract concept) is to do a major injustice to any evaluation of political actors of the 1960s. If one wishes to pursue a critique of King's politics, the proper focal point would not be his religiously-inflected pacifism, but the perspectives for the Poor People's Campaign and what it could or could not lead to.  But now back to Jones.

Jones quotes from King's Gandhi-inspired philosophy of nonviolence, for example, by allowing violence to be inflicted on oneself refusing to strike back, one eventually shames the perpetrator. Jones convincingly demonstrates that this is nonsense, as well as the argument that a violent defensive response to violence can only perpetuate a cycle of violence. There is another aspect of a nonviolent strategy that Jones fails to consider, which is not the effect of nonviolence on one's direct oppressors, but on public opinion. (A historical fact once forgotten but recently brought to public attention in at least one new book: that many of the very same people involved in nonviolent public demonstrations had their guns ready at home to defend themselves against racist assaults.) If the public also has no conscience, then of course the situation becomes even more difficult.

The substance of Jones's case against the philosophy (call it metaphysics) of nonviolence begins on page 236. The ridiculousness of Gandhi's argument becomes evident, for example, in its practical refutation by the example of Nazi Germany. The Gandhian perspective ignores the fact that when the oppressor has classified different groups into the human and the subhuman, no appeal to conscience is possible (237). Another crucial defect of Gandhianism is its focus on the psychological, which overlooks the material imbalance of power. Violence can only be understood when contextualized, which involves configurations of power (238). Jones also points out the selective reception of King's views and the rejection of King's philosophy when it came to criticizing the Vietnam War (239). Jones also points out that King failed where Gandhi succeeded because black Americans constitute a minority, the reverse of the situation in India (235).

The black theologians' reaction against King is related to King's notion of Christian self-sacrificing love connected with his philosophy of nonviolence, which by the late 1960s was seen as ineffective.
In this essay Jones stops here, rather than proceeding onward to reject all theology as obscurantist. Elsewhere in Jones's work we learn that he is a religious humanist rather than an atheist per se, and his war against the (liberation) theology of revealed religion takes the form of an immanent critique using theodicy, or the problem of evil, as a linchpin, hence the key question embodied in the title of his book, Is God a White Racist?. It is also worth noting that Jones treats "white society" as a concept, rather than developing a social theory that would root white supremacy as a ruling class formation having grown out of the institutionalization of slavery as a foundation of the power and wealth of the emerging bourgeoisie. Again, Stephen Ferguson is the only aficionado of Jones who has recognized Jones's position as essentially Feuerbachian, opposing ideology within the realm of ideology without grounding it in a social theory.

Jones to his credit does take into account the other aspect of King's political philosophy: King acknowledges the validity of the exercise of power; nonviolent resistance does not appeal to conscience alone; it succeeds by making existing society ungovernable (234-235). In the footnotes (240-241), Jones quotes King emphasizing the exercise of power beyond the tactics of moral suasion. While some look at this as a later alteration of King's initial position, Jones rejects this interpretation. Quoting Vincent Harding, Jones maintains that King never fully incorporated an analysis of power into his thought, hence never crossed over into the terrain of "black power". Perhaps, but one might question to what extent the advocates of black power were able to craft an effective political strategy given the constraints of being a minority basing themselves in the ghetto facing the overwhelming might of police state violence. Ultimately, who had the more realistic and more profound political vision?