The radical black left that played a crucial role in twentieth-century struggles for equality and justice has largely disappeared. Michael Dawson investigates the causes and consequences of the decline of black radicalism as a force in American politics and argues that the conventional left has failed to take race sufficiently seriously as a historical force in reshaping American institutions, politics, and civil society.
African Americans have been in the vanguard of progressive social movements throughout American history, but they have been written out of many histories of social liberalism. Focusing on the 1920s and 1930s, as well as the Black Power movement, Dawson examines successive failures of socialists and Marxists to enlist sympathetic blacks, and white leftists’ refusal to fight for the cause of racial equality. Angered by the often outright hostility of the Socialist Party and similar social democratic organizations, black leftists separated themselves from these groups and either turned to the hard left or stayed independent. A generation later, the same phenomenon helped fueled the Black Power movement’s turn toward a variety of black nationalist, Maoist, and other radical political groups.
The 2008 election of Barack Obama notwithstanding, many African Americans still believe they will not realize the fruits of American prosperity any time soon. This pervasive discontent, Dawson suggests, must be mobilized within the black community into active opposition to the social and economic status quo. Black politics needs to find its way back to its radical roots as a vital component of new American progressive movements.
[An] important new book… Dawson’s frontal challenge to liberal and social democratic pontificates and his passionate defense of the black revolutionary tradition is a great gift to all students, especially black youth who have been robbed of their own history. Dawson brings to life the complexity of building a black and multi-racial left and highlights the profound achievements of black leaders and organizations that were purged from popular history. He emphasizes several important leaders who are too-little known today: Hubert Harrison, Cyril Briggs, Harry Haywood, Claudia Jones, W.E.B. Du Bois, A. Philip Randolph, Paul Robeson, and Fannie Lou Hamer. By reminding us that black revolutionary action has a long and influential tradition that extends well beyond the ’60s, Dawson challenges the white intellectuals who saw the unification of minority groups as a threat to their own interests… Dawson’s historical analysis provides a model for reinvigorating the revolutionary organizations of today.
Dawson is at his finest in exposing how many historians of the U.S. left have erased the black presence within American radicalism. Parallel to this ‘whitewashing,’ and perhaps a more nefarious form of political amnesia, has been the effort by some white scholars to blame the current fragmentation of the organized left on the profusion of racial, gender-based, and sexual ‘identity politics.’… Blacks In and Out of the Left is an act of socially committed scholarship that deserves the widest possible reading public among students of African-American social movements, black political thought, public policy, labor and working-class history, and U.S. radicalism.
Dawson offers a fresh interpretation of the largely unknown and often misrepresented history of black radicalism in an effort to chart a progressive path forward that will effectively challenge racial injustice, economic inequality, and imperialism. This provocative and enlightening book creatively fuses analytical history with political theory to diagnose what has ailed the American Left for decades. But it is not a pessimistic book. Rather, in the spirit of hope and possibility, it calls for utopian yet pragmatic political thinking that regards independent black political organizing not as a balkanizing force or distraction from the ‘universal’ fight for a democratic society, but as an indispensable element of any viable Left-wing politics.
- 256 pages
- 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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