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James Cone, Marxism and the Black Church

By September 2, 2019 No Comments

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Before posting Part 2 of the Christology and Liberation Theology series, which I will dissect the various forms of Liberation Theology, this current post will hopefully reveal a clearer picture of how liberation theology, or what is now Critical Race Theory, evolved in the U.S. The following essay was written in 1980 by James Cone, for the Democratic Socialist Organization Committee’s on “Religion, Socialism, and the Black Experience,” at the Asbury United Methodist Church. Cone was heavily influenced by Cornell West, a political/racism activist, philosopher, professor, and long time member of the Democratic Socialists of America.

West and Cone presented a seminar at Union Theological Seminary titled “Black Theology and Marxist Thought” in 1980. Cone was strongly and enthusiastically encouraged to pursue reconciling the black church with Marxism and explore socialism issues after he shared a version of this essay as a lecture at the Shaker Heights Community Church’s Martin Luther King Jr. Institute for Racial Justice on April 25, 1980, which was received positively by the “black church people in attendance” (Cone).

I, Ariel, interjected a bit of commentary on this post. It is labeled: Ariel’s Commentary. It is important to know the totality of who it is we promote and allow to influence our views on society, outside of Scripture. We cannot refute what we do not know. 

The Black Church and Marxism: What Do They Have to Say to Each Other

By James Cone, Union Theological Seminary, NY

The black church and Marxism have emerged on the North American continent from separate historical paths and thus have encountered each other only rarely. Marxism is European in origin and was imported into the United States in 1851 by Joseph Weydemeyer, a friend of Karl Marx.

The black church is both African and European in origin. It was created during the late 18th and early 19th centuries when black people refused to accept slavery and racial oppression as consistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ. During the early period of their existence in North America, there was virtually no contact between black churches and Marxists. Both were preoccupied with, their own immediate projects, which were sharply contradicted by the current structures of American capitalism. The primary historical project of Marxists was defined in terms of the destruction of capitalism and the establishment of a socialist society in which the means of productive forces would be owned by the people rather than by an elite ruling class. The primary historical project of the black church was defined as preaching and living the gospel of Jesus in order to receive both the gift of eternal life and the courage to fight against injustice in this world, especially as represented in slavery and racism. The different histories of the black church and Marxism as well as their different perspectives on the human condition confirmed their separateness in the society and thus laid the foundation for their misunderstanding of each other. Because both the black church and Marxism have been marginal in American society, they have been preoccupied with their own survival and have taken little notice of one another. However, to the extent that Marxists and other socialists have been concerned historically with the black community, they have almost always encountered the black church, because the church has been, and to a large degree still is, the most important institution in our community. Similarly, to the extent that black church people have been concerned with creating a completely new society, they have looked in the direction of Marxism. Although the socialist tradition among black church people is small, it is still present and we black theologians and historians should rediscover it in order to enhance our vision of liberation.

The lack of contact between black church people and Marxists has resulted in distorted views of each other’s perspectives. They only know each other from a distance and usually only through the white capitalist media. While rejecting what their mutual enemy says about themselves, they seem to accept readily what is said about each other. As far as I know, this is the first occasion that Marxist-socialists and black Christians have come together for dialogue looking toward doing some things together to make this society more humane. In this initial encounter, it would be wise not to gloss over sharp differences in our perspectives but also to avoid stressing the minor aspects of our viewpoints. We must be keenly aware of our history in relation to each other so we can build on our strengths and avoid our past mistakes.

MARXISM AND THE BLACK CHURCH: HISTORIC ATTITUDES

In the history of relations between black church people and Marxists, we can easily identify three attitudes: indifference, hostility, and mutual support. The most frequent of these has been indifference. In 1911 Thomas Potter, a black socialist from Patterson, New Jersey, wrote: “Let me say in the most emphatic terms that if there is one blot on the record of the Socialist Party, it is that of its utter apathy and indifference toward the negro”.

Mutual indifference can be seen by the absence of references to each other in their respective expressions of radicalism in the United States. For a black person finds it strange that in books on the history of socialism there are few if any references to black radicalism in the United States. The only period in which a few comments are made is in connection with the civil rights and Black Power movements of the 1960’s. It is as if black radicalism does not exist for white socialists until the appearance of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Stokely Carmichael. White socialists seem not to know or care about the radicalism of the 19th and early 20th century of black church people. A similar invisibility obscures early black socialists, like Peter Clark and the Reverend George Washington Woodbey.

Peter Clark, a principal and teacher from Cincinnati, Ohio was the first black to declare himself a socialist. “In 1878, he was chosen as a member of the National Executive Committee of the newly formed Socialist Labor Party,” but had to resign a year later because, in his words “the welfare of the Negro is my controlling motive”. The Socialist Labor Party completely ignored the situation of blacks during the late 19th century, and the same is true of other socialist groups, including the Socialist Party, organized in 1901.

The Reverend George Washington Woodbey was a member of the Socialist Party, attending the national conventions in 1904 and 1908. In 1908 he was nominated but rejected by the convention as Eugene Debs’ running mate in the 1908 presidential elections. He wrote several books reconciling socialism and Christianity, including What to Do and How to Do It or Socialism vs. Capitalism and The Bible and Socialism: A Conversation Between Two Preachers.

(Ariel’s Commentary: At this point of Cone’s essay, he spent some time listing several books regarding socialism and Marxism, which he expressed an apparent frustration that “black people were left out of the conversation – see the full version at the end of this blog post).

Cone continues:

For the socialist’s history in America in relation to black people, it proves how useless is a platform — for the most part theoretically correct—if it is unable to get in contact with the actual needs of the people. It was the strange indifference of the Socialist Party in relation to racism that made W.E.B. DuBois ambivalent about his commitment to it, even though he clearly believed that socialism provided a better social arrangement than capitalism. As early as 1913, DuBois said: “The Negro problem is the great test of the American socialist”.

In succeeding years, white socialists, along with the rest of white society, failed that test. Many socialists, like white Christians, seem to be unaware that there is a serious credibility problem as they are analyzed from a black perspective of reality. Like white Christians who appear to be white first and Christian second, white socialists also seem to be white first and socialists second. Such an identity will always present difficult problems in the context of dialogue with black people.

The indifference of socialism toward the black church is mirrored in the indifference of the black church toward socialism. There were black preachers who became advocates of socialism, but either such advocacy remained on the periphery of their message or the preachers themselves remained on the periphery of the black church.

In 1896 Reverdy C. Ransom, later a bishop in the AME Church, wrote an article entitled “The Negro and Socialism” in which he advocated socialism. He said that when the “Negro comes to realize that socialism offers him freedom of opportunity to cooperate with all people, upon terms of equality in every avenue of life, he will not be slow to accept his social emancipation”. During the 1890 ‘s The Christian Recorder and the AME Church Review carried on a dialogue on the strengths and the weaknesses of socialism, with the writers of the Recorder rejecting socialism and the writers of the Review supporting it. But even the black ministers who supported socialism did not view socialism as central to their perspective on the gospel.

The same is true of black preachers and theologians today (1980). They are indifferent toward socialism, because they know little about it and because they believe that the reality of racism is too serious to risk dilution with socialism. When one reads the histories of black churches in the works of Joseph Washington, Carter G. Woodson, Franklin Frazier, Gayraud S. Wilmore, and others, it is revealing that there are no references to black socialist preachers.

(Ariel’s commentary: It would be fair to say that today’s social justice Christians, of many ethnicities, are very much aware of socialism and Marxism, however, they will often not admit that they are pushing it. They have changed the terms but the concepts of socialism and Marxism are very much alive and active, both inside and outside the church)

Cone continues:

The one event that presented the radical black church movement of the 1960 ‘s with an opportunity to consider the Marxist question was when James Forman issued The Black Manifesto in Riverside Church, May 4, 1969. While the National Conference of Black Churchmen (NCBC) supported Forman, their support ignored the “Introduction” of the Manifesto because it was Marxist. The black preachers of NCBC strongly endorsed the demands of the Manifesto.

However, they sidestepped the Marxist justification of the demands, using instead their own nationalist arguments. While James Forman was referred to as a modern-day prophet by NCBC and other black church people, no black church person, to my knowledge, endorsed his perspective on Marxism. In fact, during all the discussions I attended on the Manifesto issue, no one even raised the issue of Marxism.

It was an intellectual failure on my part that I did not deal with Marxism and socialism when I wrote Black Theology and Black Power 1, which was published in 1969. Neither did the issue of socialism appear in my A Black Theology of Liberation (1970) and God of the Oppressed (1975).

(Ariel’s commentary: This is interesting, especially since these books by Cone are often promoted in various forms in churches and by Christians today)

But after encountering serious socialists who were also serious Christians in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, I began to re-evaluate my silence on this theme. As a result I raised the socialism issue at the first Black Theology Conference in Atlanta, Georgia, August 1977 in a lecture entitled: “Black Theology and the Black Church: Where Do We Go From Here?”

Since that time, I have been convinced that the black church cannot remain silent regarding socialism, because such silence will be interpreted by our Third World brothers and sisters as support for the capitalistic system which exploits the poor all over this earth.

Because of their separate paths to radicalism and their mutual marginality in this society, Marxists and black church people continue their misunderstanding of each other, unnecessarily perpetuating their historic indifference and hostility to each other. As part of the present effort to move beyond massive neglect and occasional sniping, let us consider the unfavorable assumptions by which Marxists and black church people have held one another at arm’s length. I shall start with the black viewpoint and continue with the Marxist one, commenting on each point along the way.

THE BLACK CHURCH’S VIEW OF MARXISM

According to the black church, Marxist philosophy is atheistic and therefore must be rejected. How can the black church embrace a philosophy that denies God’s existence, when the church is based on the faith that God will make a way out of no way? It appears that this fundamental objection would end dialogue before it begins. However, the fact is that many people in Asia, Africa, and Latin America call themselves Marxists and Christians at the same time. They do so by distinguishing between Marxism as a world view and Marxism as an instrument of social analysis, rejecting the former and enthusiastically taking up the latter Black church people in this country may find themselves able to do the same thing. Marxism may be understood as a scientific tool for analyzing the economic, political and social structures of this society so that we will know how to actualize in the world the freedom that we affirm in faith.

(Ariel’s commentary: This sounds awfully close to how many churches today are viewing Critical Race Theory)

Blacks also observe that Marxism is European in origin and therefore white. Whiteness as such is of course no problem but in the black experience whiteness almost always means racism. In the past Marxists and other socialists have been predominantly racist by excluding blacks from their vision of the new socialist society. Some socialists advocated that blacks should be exported to Africa, and others claimed that their vision of a socialist society did not in any way eliminate racial segregation. Others, like Eugene Debs, one of the founders of the Socialist Party in the early 20th century and a frequent Presidential candidate, remained ambivalent on the issue of racism. When the Socialist Party did take a stand against racism during the 1904 and 1908 conventions, the stand was weak and nothing was done to implement it. The party was concerned not to offend southern white socialists who made it quite clear that there was a special place for black people and not even socialism can change that fact.

I think that blacks can overcome the problem of Marxism being white and racist the same way we overcame the problem of Christianity being white and racist. We can indigenize Marxism, that is, reinterpret it for our situation. We do not refuse to ride in cars or airplanes, nor do we reject any other useful instrument just because they were invented by whites. Why then should we reject Marxism if it proves to be of use in our struggle for freedom?

Many white Marxists, especially the communists during the 1920’s referred to black preachers as ignorant and to their religion as superstition, a description that is not likely to win friends among black church people. My comment on this is that I am sure that white Christians, Democrats and Republicans have said and done worse things to us, and I do not hear black Christians saying that we should cease being Christians or reject Republicans and Democrats because some whites in these groups call us bad names.

When Marxists have been forced to face the question of race, they have always made it secondary to the economic question and the class struggle. While this may be scientifically correct, the way in which Marxists put forward their perspective on race and class is usually offensive to the victims of racism. The black church is a nationalist, race oriented institution whose identity is inseparably connected with the struggle for freedom in this life as well as the eternal freedom believed to be coming in God’s eschatological future. How then can the black church embrace a philosophy which by definition makes the elimination of racism secondary? This is a critical question and its implications point to the heart of the conflict between the black church and Marxism. The question is whether the black church in particular and the black community generally has anything specific and unique to contribute to the struggle for libera-tion in this society. Marxists seem to deny that we have anything to contribute, and that is why they seldom turn to our tradition for insight and guidance. Like other whites, they seem to think that they have the whole, pure truth.

A MARXIST VIEW OF THE BLACK CHURCH

According to Marxists, the black church preaches salvation as a reward to be received in heaven and not as justice on earth. In such a context, black religion serves a similar function in the black community that religion serves in the white community. It is a sedative, an opiate that masks the pain of injustice on earth by directing people’s attention toward the joy of heaven. Such a perspective makes people exclusively dependent on God to change the world and encourages them to exclude social analysis and the need for human beings to act on behalf of their own freedom. As Karl Marx said: “The more man puts into God, the less he retains in himself”. It was in this context that Marx also described religion as “opium of the people”.  As with the matter of atheistic ideology, the religion-sedative equation is part of the Marxist world view, which may be ignored while taking up Marxism as a tool of social analysis. To the Marxist claim that black religion is an opiate, we reply merely that sometimes it is and sometimes it is not.

Marxists often claim that when the black church does manage to come down to earth with its message of freedom, it focuses exclusively on racism as if that is the only problem with American society. It does not offer a critique of capitalism or seek to construct a completely new society. Such a limited vision, the Marxists claim, seems to suggest that the black church is a capitalist institution and its members are upset with American society only because they want a larger piece of the capitalistic pie. For the Marxist, the black church is reformist and not revolutionary. Black church people need to take this critique seriously. We can say that in the history of our struggle, the oppression of black people was so extreme in every segment of our community that there was no opportunity for a comprehensive scientific analysis of American society, including a critique of capitalism and a consideration of socialism. Blacks were not a part of a European intellectual class but the descendants of African slaves. They simply responded to the most pressing contradiction in their historical experience namely slavery and racism. They did not define their struggle as being against capitalism per se , and they did not recognize the need for a revolution as defined by Marxism. Blacks wanted to end racism as defined by slavery, lynching, and Jim Crow laws. Now, however, we have a small group of black intellectuals in the church and in other areas of black life who can provide the necessary leadership. They can and should offer black people a critique of capitalism and an alternative vision of social existence.

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

I would like to offer the following suggestions in order that the dialogue between the black church and Marxism might be deepened. Both Marxists and black church people must be open to hear what each is saying regarding their respective projects for justice. Without an openness from both sides, there is no way that a meaningful dialogue can occur.

The openness about which I speak must include on the part of Marxists a willingness to take seriously the uniqueness of black oppression in the world generally and the United States in particular. The uniqueness of black oppression is not to be understood theologically as if blacks are elected by God but only scientifically. It is a fact that most people who suffer in the world are people of color and not European. And it is a fact that the people responsible for that oppression are white Europeans. Marxists have to be open to hear the meaning of that fact by asking whether fascism is inherent in the very nature and structure of western civilization.

But Marxists and other socialists do not like to focus on their racism, and they try to make us blacks believe that racism will be automatically eliminated when capitalism is destroyed. In every European socialist society I have seen, including Cuba, the elimination of capitalism has not eliminated racism.

Marxists must further consider whether the black church has something distinctive to contribute to the struggle to create a new socialist society. Unless white socialists are willing to acknowledge our unique contribution to the struggle, then we have nothing to talk about. I will not participate in a dialogue with any group which assumes that their philosophy of social change is the only true one.

Another aspect of the openness about which I speak is the willingness of black church people to think about the total reconstruction of society along the lines of Democratic Socialism. We must be willing to recognize that a social arrangement based on the maximization of profit with little regard to the welfare of the people cannot be supported. Even “if modern Marxism gives the wrong answers, at least it asks the right question.” Marxism is at least right in its critique of capitalism and in its affirmation of the class struggle. I do not believe that it is morally right for multi-national corporations to have a monopoly on the ownership of the means of production of goods needed for human survival. The earth is the Lord’s and its resources are intended for all. No one has a right to control by private ownership the necessities of human life. If black churches do not take a stand against capitalism and for democratic socialism, for Karl Marx and against Adam Smith, for the poor in all colors and against the rich of all colors, for the workers and against the corporations, how can we expect socialists, Marxists and other freedom fighters to believe us when we sing:

Oh Freedom! Oh Freedom!Oh Freedom, I love thee! And before I’ll be a slave. I’ll be buried in my grave.And go home to my Lord and be free.

Regardless of what happens in the dialogue between black churches and socialists, it is clear that we blacks must begin to think of a radical and total reconstruction of this society from its material, economic base. This reconstruction must include political freedom, racial and sexual equality, in short, the opportunity for all to become what we are meant to be. We must ask whether it is possible to end racism in a capitalistic society, whether a society based on the maximization of profit for a few corporate rich while the majority are dependent on wage-labor for survival can ever create freedom for black people? While a few “middle class” blacks may benefit from the creation of a new intellectual, and managerial class by corporations, we must ask about the masses of blacks: that 30% underclass, permanently unemployed, that 40 to 60% unemployed black youth, and a host of other blacks who have little control over their survival?

How do we propose to eliminate this extreme form of oppression? Can we deal effectively with our situation as oppressed blacks with the tactics used by our grandparents?

It is time for us to consider a radically new social arrangement. The question is whether Democratic Socialism offers us such an alternative. Will it protect the freedoms we now enjoy and eliminate the evils that now exist? When the words socialism and communism are mentioned, most people think of Soviet Russia, Cuba, China, Eastern Europe and other such places — all of which would be decisively rejected by Democratic Socialists as examples of “state capitalism.” The problem with Democratic Socialism is that there are no historical models to which we can point in order to make our claims and goals concrete. White American capitalists often ask radical social critics, “Why don’t you go somewhere else and live?” Or if they are more polite, they ask: “Where does such a socialist society exist, if the ones that adopt the name are not in fact socialist?”

These are hard questions, even if they do come from people who represent the consciousness of the ruling class. But I contend that the absence of an historical model should not deter us from our attempt to create one. For hope in black religion is based on a vision not present in, but created out of, historical struggle. If we limit our hope to what is, then we destroy it. Hope is the expectation of that which is not. It is a belief that the impossible is possible, the “not yet” is coming in history. Without hope, the people perish. Hope is what enabled Frederick

If we blacks today limit our hope to what is, that is, to the Democratic and Republican parties, then our vision is severely limited. If we define our struggle for freedom only within the alternatives posed by capitalism, then we have allowed our future humanity to be determined by what people have created and not by God.

Why not think of a completely new society and begin to devise ways to realize it on earth? For if our heavenly visions have no earthly realizations, then they can only serve as a sedative that eases the pain of an unbearable present. Is that the extent of black religion’s essence?

Perhaps what we need today is to return to that “good old-time religion” of our grandparents and combine with it a Marxist critique of society. Together black religion and Marxist philosophy may show us the way to build a completely new society. With that combination, we may be able to realize in the society the freedom of which we sing and pray for in the black church.

 

Ariel Gonzalez Bovat

Author Ariel Gonzalez Bovat

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