It is to be hoped that most readers of Critical Legal Thinking who enjoy a passing acquaintance with twentieth-century history or the writing and activism of Angela Davis, will recognise Eric Heinze’s article ‘Angela Davis’s Racism’ for what it is: a pompous and purblind character-assassination, whose ignorance of history and political bad faith make old school anti-communist polemics seem like paragons of fairness and scholarship by comparison.
Heinze’s ‘argument’ is easily summarised: Angela Davis campaigns against racism, Angela Davis supported communist regimes, communist regimes were racist, ergo Angela Davis is a racist and a hypocrite. Implicit corollary: Angela Davis has no legitimacy as a critic of racism and should thus not be given a prominent platform from which to voice her position. Now, Heinze presents his argument as a kind of corrective to a prior, and far more classic piece of red-baiting, Alan Johnson’s tawdry little blog editorial in The Telegraph.1 Though he evidently shares Johnson’s political inclinations, he wishes to strike a more sophisticated, academic pose. So we get a superficially reasonable preamble chiding Johnson for not attending to the contentiousness of Cold War alignments, or acknowledging that Davis’s idea of freedom does not belong to Johnson’s liberal canon. Whence Heinze’s Gamble: ‘immanent critique’.
Perhaps Heinze really doesn’t know what ‘immanent’ means, incapable as he manifestly is of inhabiting Davis’s position with a modicum of accuracy for even a moment, thus mistaking critique for inquisition. Staking his ground, he writes:
Unlike Johnson, I am asking not about an anti-discrimination activist who, by openly supporting Soviet politics, flagrantly embraced attacks on other people’s civil and political rights. Let the world judge that as it may. Rather, I am asking about the anti-discrimination activist who cheerfully embraced other people’s discrimination.
Now, baseless as this slur is (if not quite as slanderous as branding Davis ‘the Honorary Queen of Soviet Imperial Apartheid’), it also misrepresents Davis as a moral advocate against discrimination, rather than a political (and for a long while openly revolutionary) militant for feminist, anti-racist and anti-capitalist emancipation. Though Heinze insists on seeing her thinking in a moral register (‘condemning’, ‘provoking’, etc.) her idea of freedom and of justice has insistently been oriented towards social transformation.
In his only nod to legal matters, Heinze also perplexingly identifies Davis’s ‘starting point’ as a ‘critique of legal formalism’. Rhetorically, this may be expedient: it allows Heinze not only to feign distance from Johnson’s Cold War tirade, but to simulate a proper respect for Marxian critiques of law. Yet not only is this not ‘immanent’, it betrays a staggering lack of historical attention and moral taste. Davis’s starting point, and the enduring domain of her thinking and activism, is the concrete experience of gendered and classed racial oppression and its embeddedness in the ongoing US history of capitalist exploitation and imperialism. As a mere glance at her inspiring work on the systemic racism that drives the US carceral system would reveal, this has little in common with a critique of legal formalism blandly considered.2
Heinze evidently has no interest in or affinity with this kind of work, or with this kind of politics. So much for immanent critique. What of the main plank of his polemic, Eastern Bloc racism? Here Heinze demonstrates how shallow his apparent distancing from Cold War diatribes is. The first false step is to follow Johnson in taking his moral authority from Solzhenitsyn. Despite the indisputable force of his narratives of the gulag archipelago, Solzhenitsyn was a notorious Great Russian nationalist who defended the Vietnam War, attacked Daniel Ellsberg for publishing the Pentagon Papers and, not least, has been repeatedly criticised for anti-semitic opinions. Perhaps not the best source for a moralistic screed against inconsistency. Heinze then proceeds to present the Soviet Union as some kind of white supremacist Empire, to shore up his repugnant analogy between Davis attending state celebrations in her honour in East Germany and politicians flying in to praise racist Alabama in the 1950s — even more in bad taste considering that this is where Davis originates from, and where some of the most horrific violence of white supremacy struck very close to her.
There is no disputing that ethnically-directed campaigns of terror were employed under Stalin, most brutally in the mass deportation of Chechens and Ingush in 1944 and in the ‘Doctors’ Plot’ episode of 1953, when an explicit campaign of state-led anti-semitism was halted by Stalin’s death. But presenting the entire history of the USSR as a history of white power is absurd — even the Sovietological quote that Heinze uses to backup his claims about Soviet racism relies on a statement by Lenin against Russian chauvinism. The real, if ambivalent, presence of national and ethnic self-determination in the ideology and practice of the USSR is a matter of historical record and only myopic self-serving moralism would mutate this into the caricature of the Soviet Union as a racial state founded on discrimination. A recent consideration of the debate, written by a Harvard University scholar who one hardly imagines is a Stalinist plant, puts the state of the debate as follows:
The views of Western scholars on Soviet nationality policies have changed over time. In the 1970s and 1980s, most scholars believed that the Soviet government was engaged in an extensive and deliberate program of Russification that was aimed at destroying minority languages and cultures. This viewpoint was consistent with the dominant paradigm of the Cold War, which portrayed the Soviet Union as first and foremost a repressive state that aimed to eradicate all differences among its citizens in its efforts to create a ‘new Soviet man’. With the end of the Cold War and the concurrent explosion of nationalism in the Soviet Union and throughout the former Communist world, this dominant view was replaced by its opposite. The current dominant perspective among Western scholars is that not just the policies but even the very structure of the Soviet state strengthened ethnic identity among Soviet minorities.3
Heinze is clearly an extreme and uninformed exponent of the ‘Cold War paradigm’. His inability to discern between morality and moralism also leads him into extreme hyperbole. Honecker is referred to at the beginning in rather purple tones as ‘one of the last century’s overlords of terror’. Would he add JFK, Lyndon Johnson and Nixon (or Blair for that matter: if we’re doing body counts, he far outstrips Honecker) to this kitsch rubric of political judgment? One wonders if Heinze, so attentive to the moral blindness and hypocrisy of anti-imperialists, begins every one of his public lectures denouncing the US and UK for their crimes, which, unlike those of Stalinism, happen to be occurring in the present.
Matters take an even worse turn when, in a splenetic turn to the seemingly impertinent issue of Israeli apartheid, Heinze asks:
How racist should we deem any number of scholars who gladly spent the Cold War branding, for example, Israel an apartheid state, yet never once thought to use that epithet for an empire spanning a colossal Euro-Asian landmass! — and who, to this day, still ‘forget’ to call China an apartheid state? What kind of a brain discriminates in such a way, justifying its own racism simply (as we see in the USSR or China) by parading it in the Orwellian newspeak of ‘anti-racism’?
Curiously, the first person to describe Israel as an apartheid state — which as a scholarly trope is more of a post–Cold War phenomenon — was one of the architects of apartheid, Prime Minister Henrik Verwoerd, bemoaning Israeli hypocrisy for disavowing their commonalities with South Africa.4 David Ben-Gurion also warned that continued occupation after 1967 would generate an ‘Apartheid State’.5 Whether apartheid is the most appropriate term to define the settler-colonial forms of rule and exclusion exercised by the Israeli state is not our concern here, but if the word is to mean anything (and not merely be elided with racism, ethnocentrism or discrimination) spatial segregation, hierarchy and exclusion based on ascribed racial characteristics would need to be part of it.6 Ethnic discrimination and violence in the Soviet Union and contemporary China are a matter of record. But why evoke apartheid, if not to undermine Palestine solidarity today? Were there Russian-only roads under Stalin? Are there legal prohibitions for Han Chinese nationals to marry Tibetans today? Similarly, people have long made claims for ethnic or national self-determination in Tibet, Chechnya, and elsewhere in the socialist and post-socialist world, but to lump these experiences of oppression with the racism of white supremacy is analytically and politically sterile. Incidentally, the fact that Heinze does not pause to reflect on how racism has manifested itself with such virulence in Eastern Bloc countries, and particularly Russia, after 1989 — including in the virulence of racist ideologies of whiteness repressed under Soviet rule — shows that his concern is with smearing Davis not with furthering the cause of practical anti-racist solidarity.
But the nub of the question is to be found in Heinze’s castigation of the GDR’s ‘visceral appeal’ for Davis. Puzzlingly, this ethnically-cleansed bastion of white hegemony publicly celebrated the achievements and example of a black woman. Were there instrumental reasons for this? No doubt. Was the GDR repressive? Of course. But it is entirely impossible to understand the relationship between anti-racism, black internationalism and Eastern Bloc communism without a sense of the long history of this relationship, and of the particular geopolitical and ideological conjuncture that framed Davis’s visit.
Davis was welcomed in the GDR and the Soviet Union at a time when she was being personally persecuted, the FBI was engaged in a campaign of murder and repression against the Black Panthers and other black and left militants, and the US state was in the midst (among other conflicts) of a vast, racist war against the Vietnamese (the ‘gooks’)7 — in contrast to which, if we’re playing the ‘what about?’ game, Honecker’s crimes pale. It doesn’t take such a flight of the moral or political imagination to understand how East Germany may have appeared as an attractive port of call for a black US communist woman, just as the Soviet Union could have drawn the hopes — however misplaced — of black communists like Claude McKay in the 1920s, when lynching was still a reality in the US South, or Claudia Jones in the interwar period, when the CP was campaigning against the frame-up of the Scottsboro Boys for rape, or of WEB Du Bois in the 1950s, when Jim Crow and McCarthyism defined the American polity.8 We should also not ignore that this was not just true for radical intellectuals; it was a lived reality for masses of racially-oppressed people in the US and abroad for whom Communism represented the possibility of self-emancipation. As David Roediger writes in an illuminating review of Robin D.G. Kelley’s Hammer and Hoe, a study of communism among the black Alabaman poor in the 1930s:
the wild, often ultra-Stalinist and sectarian Third Period that preceded the Popular Front better undergirded Black organization among tenant farmers and industrial workers. The extreme confrontational rhetoric of the Third Period Communists was not taken seriously by Alabama’s early Black party members, who avoided posturing and suicidal confrontations whenever possible. But on another level, rhetoric regarding a “new world”, which probably appeared extravagant to other working class audiences, resonated among African Americans, whose traditions emphasized both a struggle for survival and the transcendent hope of deliverance. Help from a powerful ally, even one as far away as Moscow, could seem a source of power and possibility.9
Surely, we can recognise the reality of this hope, and its often positive effects, without forgetting the contemporaneous and devastating violence of the Stalinist Terror.
Heinze accuses Davis (and Mari Matsuda)10 of succumbing to a ‘peculiarly American parochialism’ yet at the same time, entirely ignores the international context of the struggle against racism. Precisely because Davis was (and is) not simply an ‘anti-discrimination’ activist but a political militant for race, class and gender emancipation, she understood the struggle of black and other oppressed peoples in the United States as part and parcel of a broader international movement in which struggles for national liberation played a prominent role. In particular, she — and many other black radicals of the time — saw the struggle as intimately linked with the world’s anti-colonial and anti-imperialist movements. Here, one can hardly say that the stances of the USSR or China were ‘transparently bogus … anti-racist platitudes’. Whilst — again — one cannot ignore the self-interested motives at issue here, one equally cannot ignore the material, political and ideological support that the ‘second world’ gave to anti-colonial and national liberation movements, and the central role that Communist Parties played in them.11 China too was a core part of the Third World movement.
Indeed, as Bill Bowring has noted, many of the anti-colonial international legal innovations were only achieved through the action of the USSR.12 This is another reason why a huge number of radical anti-racists in the US identified — in complex ways — with either the Soviet bloc or the People’s Republic of China.13 One can certainly object to these identifications, but on Heinze’s account one would be forced essentially to write off a huge swath of radical, racially-oppressed individuals as ‘racist’.14 To put it mildly, this is perverse.
It is patent that Heinze has no interest in Davis’s actual politics. Through a particularly unsubtle sleight of hand, he tendentiously argues that Mari Matsuda criticises American law in comparison to that of the Soviet Union. Yet at no point does he actually demonstrate that Davis criticises the US because it was somehow wanting in comparison to the USSR, or that this was a central element of her political vision. Indeed, we actually hear nothing about what the USSR actually had to do with Davis’s politics, simply that she made political visits to several countries in the Soviet bloc (it is worth noting that in her autobiography Davis does mention the contrast in her own experience of racism in East and West Germany). Davis’s critique of racism and oppression manifestly does not rely on comparing it to some imagined standard.
Moreover, Heinze notes that Davis ‘renounced her membership of the US Communist Party many years ago’. What he doesn’t note are the circumstances of her departure from the CPUSA or what her politics inside of the Party were. Here, we might simply point out that Davis was part of the reform wing of the Party, purged after its hardliners backed the 1991 anti-Gorbachev coup.15 Hardly the actions of an unreconstructed supporter of the old Soviet system.
Here Heinze’s moralism once again rears its ugly head. One is left wondering what the actual stakes of his intervention are. Even if we go along with him in entirely decontextualising black radicalism and black internationalism, we have to ask the question: what exactly should Angela Davis have done differently? Presumably she should have stayed in the US and faced whatever the state threw at her, stoically accepting the same fate as Fred Hampton or Bobby Hutton. And now, before she ever speaks, she ought to go through a list of the problems and crimes of the Soviet bloc, express contrition, wring her hands. One assumes that Heinze’s lengthy denunciations of American and British imperialism (as opposed to the one or two throwaway platitudes he makes in this respect) are to be found in some other article.
It is this ultimate lack of attention to the specificity of Davis’s politics and its historical context which betrays something more troubling about Heinze’s intervention. Early in the piece he argues that he is concerned ‘not with Davis per se, but with a powerful political attitude which she embodied back then, and which, in new guises, lives today’. Smearing a radical black woman as a ‘racist’ in pursuit of some broader abstract point is problematic in and of itself. But one is ultimately left wondering what Heinze’s real target is. Who now operates with this ‘powerful attitude’? In this respect, one might note the previously mentioned reference to the idea of Israel as an apartheid state. This reflects the general tenor of the piece, namely that one cannot criticise any specific oppressions without first condemning every other oppression there has ever been. These tactics — ‘whatabout?’ and ‘will you condemn?’ — are a well-known hallmark of those both on the ‘left’ and the right who have sought to blunt and suppress criticisms of imperialism (up to and including supporting the Iraq war) and to stifle opposition to Israel’s dispossession of the Palestinians.16
In this respect, is it a coincidence that Heinze’s smear comes on the eve of Davis’s participation at an event on Palestine, G4S and the prison industrial complex?17 To launch such a specious attack on an eloquent and courageous fighter against oppression is bad enough. To do so in order to undermine her defence of a people bearing the brunt of unrelenting military, political and economic violence would be despicable.
Robert Knox is a PhD Candidate in Law at the London School of Economics. His PhD focuses on the concept of imperialism in Marxist and Third World approaches to international law.
Alberto Toscano is Reader in Critical Theory in the Department of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of Fanaticism: On the Uses of an Idea.
The authors would like to thank Brenna Bhandar and Adam Hanieh for their comments and suggestions.
- Alan Johnson, ‘What does Angela Davis know about freedom?’, 25 October 2013, available at: http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/alanjohnson/100243058/what-does-angela-davis-know-about-freedom/ ↩
- See Angela Y. Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? (New York: Seven Stories, 2003). ↩
- Dmitry Gorenburg, ‘Soviet Nationalities Policy and Assimilation’, in Rebounding Identities: The Politics of Identity in Russia and Ukraine, edited by Blair Ruble and Dominique Arel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006). Also available at: http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~gorenbur/gorenburg%20assimilation.pdf. Gorenburg does stress the continuity in policies of Russification, rectifying the new paradigm, but does not frame this in terms of either ethnic cleansing or racism. ↩
- Ronnie Kasrils, ‘Apartheid in duplicate’, Middle East Monitor, 2 July 2011, available at: http://www.middleeastmonitor.com/articles/guest-writers/2545-apartheid-in-duplicate ↩
- http://mondoweiss.net/2010/06/not-just-barak-and-olmert-ben-gurion-predicted-apartheid-40-years-ago.html ↩
- Article 2 of the Apartheid Convention defines it as ‘inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them’. See John Dugard, ‘Convention of the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid’, available at: <http://legal.un.org/avl/pdf/ha/cspca/cspca_e.pdf>. It is worth noting that the USSR and GDR voted in favour of this convention. The US and UK, along with Portugal and South Africa voted against. Israel abstained. To get a sense of the ideological map over the question of racism and apartheid in 1973, the year of Angela Davis’s visit to the GDR’s Tenth World Festival of Youth and Students, it is worthing casting an eye over this map (countries in green voted to condemn apartheid): http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c0/ICSPCA-members.PNG ↩
- http://www.davidroediger.org/articles/gook-the-short-history-of-americanism.html ↩
- This is not to ignore the profound rifts among black and anti-racist militants about the role of both Soviet Communism and Marxism to their struggle. The intellectual biographies of CLR James and WEB DuBois, to name but the two most important figures in the ‘Black Marxist’ tradition, attest to this complexity. Anyone actually interested in ‘immanent critiques’ of black Communism could profitably turn to them. But see also the very stimulating recent crop of books on ‘black and red’ encounters and the communist genealogies of black left feminism: Kate A. Baldwin, Beyond the Color Line and the Iron Curtain: Reading Encounters Between Black and Red, 1922 – 1963 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002), esp. Ch. 1 on McKay and Ch. 3 on Du Bois; Carole Boyce Davies, Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008); Komozi Woodward, Dayo Gore, Jeanne Theoharis (eds.), Want to Start a Revolution?: Radical Women in the Black Freedom Struggle (New York: New York University Press, 2010); Erik McDuffie, Sojourning for Truth: Black Women, American Communism, and the Making of Black Left Feminism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011). ↩
- David Roediger, ‘Where Communism was Black’, in Towards the Abolition of Whiteness (London: Verso, 1995), pp. 56 – 7. ↩
- Eric Heinze, ‘Truth, Myth and Critical Theory’, in Reza Benakar (ed.), Rights in Context: Law and Justice in Late Modern Society (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010). ↩
- Vijay Prashad’s The Darker Nations (New York: New Press, 2007) details this very well. ↩
- Bill Bowring, The Degradation of the International Legal Order (London: Routledge-Cavendish, 2008), pp. 9 – 38; see also John Quigley, Soviet Legal Innovation and the Law of the Western World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 115 – 24, for an account of how Soviet legal practices impacted upon racial equality legislation. ↩
- See, for instance, Robin D. G. Kelley and Betsy Esch, ‘Black Like Mao’, Souls 1.4 (Fall 1999): 6 – 41. Available at: http://kasamaproject.org/race-liberation/2006-38black-like-mao-red-china-black-revolution-part-1 ↩
- Max Elbaum details how the US New Left was closely bound up with the national liberation Marxism in Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che (London: Verso, 2002). ↩
- Erwin Marquit and Doris G. Marquit, ‘Party survives, but as a shell’, Minnesota Daily, 19 February 1992. Available at: <http://archive.is/b1L8j>. ↩
- http://decentpedia.blogspot.co.uk/2007/08/decent-blitzkreig.html ↩
- http://www.waronwant.org/news/events/18019-on-palestine-g4s-and-the-prison-industrial-complex-an-evening-with-angela-davis-and-gina-dent ↩