U.S. Intellectual History Blog

(Guest Post) Cedric Robinson and the Ends of the Black Radical Tradition

(We are very pleased to share this guest essay from Dr. Josh Myers, reflecting on the life and legacy of Cedric J. Robinson).

Ends and Endings

The search for an ending point is perhaps one of the most vexing decisions confronting writers, thinkers, and artists. How do we know when we have finished? Does the ending designate the completion of a thought? Does the final word connote the last word? Such questions are all the more difficult when we consider the ending of a human life. With one’s physical transition, we are left wondering how we deal with and move forward from an ending. As Ayi Kwei Armah reminds us, though, death cannot be the end. Like the Akan, the Bantu-Kongo, and many other African cultural groups remind us, in the dance of life, there are only entrances and exits, there is no ending to the circle of human existence.[1] This reminder is perhaps the only thing that has given me comfort as I have reflected on passage into ancestry of Cedric J. Robinson a little over a week ago.

In his magisterial work, Black Marxism, Robinson titled the closing chapter, “An Ending.” To my mind, this conscious choice of wording, following perhaps his generation’s most deft and consequential treatment of the subject of Black radicalism, indicated to the reader that the history he was writing could not end (any time soon), that the tradition of resistance in which it was grounded must continue, that our reading between, within, and around the crevices of Western intellectual silences must persist, and that we have to maintain our struggle to think anew the assumed and unquestioned verities and laws handed to us by intellectual traditions that present themselves as universal salvation.

An ending, not the ending. Robinson’s physical exit means that his ancestral energy is now “in front” of us, orienting us, guiding us, preparing us for the new beginnings we will face. May we find solace in that, for as the singer Lizz Wright beautifully stated, “the gift of an end is a beginning.”

Cedric J. Robinson’s transition has already elicited profound insights and eloquent tributes to his personal character, which have necessarily marked the continuing celebration of his life.[2] It is striking to see how many lives he has touched, how many intellectual trajectories he has shaped. But as those tributes have shown us, the intellectual work, too, must continue, even as we rightly reflect on his deeply humane example of what it means to be part of what he termed “the radical intelligentsia.” Here, I would like us to think together about both what kind of “beginnings” we might embark upon in light of his transition—that is, where our work must now go—as well as the “ending”—that is, the teleology— of the Black radical tradition as both theory and reality.

“We Must Refrain From Telling Lies”


At the November 2004 gathering conference on his life’s work, Cedric Robinson opened with a comment about that year’s recently passed presidential election. Quoting Amilcar Cabral (“Tell no lies, claim no easy victories”), he reminded the audience that regardless of the distress that they felt in that moment, it was necessary to remember that “[John] Kerry was a lie.” He continued by explaining the inability of the electoral system to truly address injustice on its own and that the moment revealed the work that needed to be done. It is easy to dismiss this as some sort of nihilistic or defeatist attitude, as is often the immediate response to such views from those in the prevailing political environment. But Robinson’s dismissal of electoral politics as the fount of our hope and dreams was more studied and was premised on a lifelong engagement with the subject of political theory and the myths that produced the idea that Western electoral systems (i.e. political order) are how just societies must emerge. The urgency of his lesson, his invocation of the work to be done loudly resounds twelve years later. We have lived through eight years of the latest rendition of the lie, another improvisation of the lie that Amilcar Cabral warned us not to tell. And in many ways it that has generated a bigger lie. (It is true that once you tell a lie, you have to tell bigger lies to cover the original lie). This newest lie revolves around the idea that Donald Trump’s candidacy has to be resisted by folding all of our political energies into the Democratic Party, or else face armageddon. The lies convince us that our energies must be directed to opposing a figure, only a representative of the political order, and not the order itself.

This is the result of the myth of political leadership that Cedric Robinson addressed in his first book, The Terms of Order.[3] In that text, Robinson argued that what we have now considered normative, the idea of political authority as embodied by political leadership, is but a forceful myth that ultimately works to secure both the ascendancy of the market and the industrial organization that manages the labor needed to produce the capital that it seeks. Political leadership (often charismatic), political authority (often repressive), and yes, political theory (and most disciplines!) are handmaidens to capital. On the latter point, Robinson’s interest in revealing the deep connection between political theory, disciplinarity, and the prevailing status quo showed an interesting convergence with another political scientist by training, Jacob H. Carruthers, whose similar suspicions generated his differently conceived, but brilliant Science and Oppression and “An Alternative to Political Science” both of which might be read together with The Terms of Order.[4]

The search for a theory of society “without rulers,” or anarchism, became central to this thesis. Much like he would accomplish with later texts on other ideological movements, Robinson undertakes a deep archaeology of anarchism, ultimately revealing the ways that it converged with myths of the political and how it attempted to overcome that common inheritance. His treatment of anarchism revealed how crucial it was to constructing an internal critique of the idea of repressive authority, but ultimately how it foundered on the shoals of a metaphysical likeness to that very authority:

Anarchism was a theory of society conscious of and in opposition to political society. Though anarchist theories attempted to reconstruct social order mainly on the basis of economic authority, their conceptualizations of social order had identical epistemological and metaphysical foundations to that which they sought to oppose.[5]

And of Eurocentrism:

Western social science seems to recede further from relevance. Their staple of universal laws resemble more and more a coincident or the correspondence of the study and projection of one epic phenomenon: the history and development of Western institutions. Western social thought is not merely ethnocentric, but epistemocentric as well.[6]

Robinson ends with a brief discussion of the Tonga, a Southern African ethnic group, arguing that they may be a useful exemplar of a society that was able to reproduce itself “without rulers.” Whether one agrees with these conclusions or not, The Terms of Order, unarguably helps us see the world beyond the current political order, which as a matter of course, gives us the confidence that they are “replaceable.”[7] That is no lie.

Preserving Ontological Totality


It seems a rehearsed reply: “This text changed my life!” If words, ideas, concepts can change lives, perhaps Black Marxism is the evidence. Robin Kelley’s foreword to the 2000 edition captures that ethos well: “I can say without a trace of hyperbole, that this book changed my life. Like a specter, it has haunted me from the day I pulled it out of its brown padded envelope to the moment I agreed to write this foreword.”[8] He goes on to discuss how his intellectual development and scholarly career was redirected and reshaped as much by a reading of this text as by Robinson’s mentorship.

I have heard these testimonies repeated consistently. Yet, as great as it was, Robinson was often keen to point out some of its errors. It is likely that he did not see it as a sacred text. But monumental it was. Perhaps mostly so because of how it came to be. When we read the original preface of this work, we see evidence of how Robinson’s own experiences in political struggles meaningfully shaped his scholarly agenda. It is worth quoting at length:

It is always necessary to know what a book is about, not just what has been written in it but what was intended when it was written. This work is about our people’s struggle, the historical Black struggle. It takes as a first premise that for a people to survive in the struggle it must be on its own terms: the collective wisdom which is a synthesis of culture and the experience of that struggle. The shared past is precious, not for itself, but because it is the basis of consciousness, of knowing, of being. It cannot be traded in exchange for expedient alliances or traduced by convenient abstracts or dogma. It contains philosophy, theories of history, and social prescriptions native to it. It is a construct possessing its own terms, exacting its own truths. I have attempted to demonstrate its authority. More particularly, I have investigated the failed efforts to render the historical being of Black peoples into a construct of historical materialism, to signify our existence as merely an opposition to capitalist organization. We are that (because we must be) but much more.[9]

With the benefit of some biographical knowledge, it is clear that Robinson was writing and thinking from the conceptual locations of having been a participant in that very struggle. It was perhaps obvious that his engagement with these questions, his challenge to “convenient abstracts and dogma” came out of the contests for “ideological clarity,” what Ronald Walters called “the two-line struggle” that characterized the Black struggle in the 1970s.[10] In writing this text, Robinson ultimately accomplished what, in his reading, W.E.B. Du Bois was seeking to accomplish in Black Reconstruction: “It was not simply a historical work, but history subjected to theory.”[11]

Among Black Marxism’s many achievements, was its clear articulation of the genealogy of Western radicalism, its engagement with the historical roots of Marxism, and its challenging of the latter’s claim of universalism. In fact, Cedric Robinson came to this position at the same time that scholars like Carruthers and others associated with the Afrocentric World Review as well as Ayi Kwei Armah had framed this question in their own ways.[12] More could be said here. And indeed a lot has been said about this particular feature of the text.[13] But arguably, the critique of Marx was merely the space-clearing for the most essential of the contribution of the text—the making of the Black radical tradition.

The idea of the Black radical tradition was an answer to the question of what liberation might look like, to what society could be devoid of or beyond the debilitating and demoralizing ideologically restricting visions of society represented by the battle between Soviet communism and Western capitalism/Washington consensus imperialism. The Black radical tradition argued that Black resistance to/within modern societies stemmed from pre-existing “African cultures, critical mixes and admixtures of language and thought, of cosmology, and metaphysics, of habits, beliefs and morality.”[14]

Different terms, a different authority, and different conceptions of “order” grounded African resistance in the “New World”—which was only the “cauldron” of and not the “inspiration” for their appearance.[15] The work of the radical intellectual then, was to rediscover these terms of being, existing, and resisting and to craft theoretical tools from such ways of knowing present in their still-living descendants which would allow us to further comprehend how Africans resisted and also how that tradition might be applied in the present. The Black radical tradition was an orientation and as such provided some spatial and conceptual senses of what utopian freedom beyond a racial capitalist modernity could be.

Among the most fundamental of those visions were those which grounded the political act of marronage. Its salience has important implications for everything from the idea that violence is central to revolution to the idea of the nation-state, ideas upon which Robinson has provided crucial interventions.[16] Scholars like Neil Roberts in his Freedom as Marronage have begun to imagine for these times how marronage could frame political freedoms today.[17]

This concept of the Black radical tradition, particularly its grounding in African cultures and philosophies, has framed how I have come to understand intellectual history in toto. While Robinson applied this notion of the discovery of that tradition to Du Bois, C.L.R. James, and Richard Wright, I have tried to think about how we might understand the relationship between more expansive intellectual genealogies of Africana and their foundations in the larger Black radical tradition. I have been concerned without how this sort of framing might shift the debate about methodology in Black Studies.[18]

It was a way of seeing that was first presented to me in a course entitled “Black Thought in the Diaspora” taught by Greg Carr at Howard University, where along with Ron Walters’s Pan-Africanism in the African Diaspora, we read Black Marxism. (I teach the same course at Howard today, with these very texts). Carr’s notion of intellectual genealogy also utilized Robinson’s framing. In fact, Black Studies, in Carr’s reading is “the academic extension of the Black radical tradition”[19] and the approach to tracing intellectual histories that he designates “the Black radical tradition approach” is one that

links ideas of “African cultural unity” to the material contexts and circumstances of Western racialization and racial hierarchy. These various contexts are seen as informing the meaning-making and social movements of African people as they emerge from a relatively common, long-view (meaning pre-European encounter) set and range of epistemological and axiological assumptions.[20]

The political order that we confront and the social cauldron that we inhabit has not remained idle, though it has been consistent.  In important ways, we have seen a regressive movement since 1983. The ascendancy of neoliberal political cultures and the post-soul orientations of some have reduced Black intellectual traditions to a simple consideration of representation and diversity and a debate about what kind of capitalism might best support such goals. In some corners, one could literally frame political identities as the vision evident in the mantra of the hip-hop artist Drake: “I just wanna be successful.” The most spirited debates are about whether that success in a racial capitalist setting means that such a setting is by opening up somehow, also becoming less anti-human.[21] Witness the recent exchange near the end of the Smithsonian’s Future of the African American Past Conference panel on capitalism. (Thankfully Barbara Ransby intervened!). How is it the case that one has to actually ask if “the racial capitalism that we have been witness to” is still “an unacceptable standard of human conduct”?[22]

I think it is safe to assert that the “terms of order” of yesterday still exist and we might therefore think of the undercommons as sources of a renewed politics of rupture with a world that denies us the ability to act as what Avery Gordon characterizes, following Robinson, “divine agents” of transformation; for the goal is the same, “the preservation” of the “collective being, the ontological totality” in the face of a system of attempts to negate it. [23]  It is a teleology of preservation and reconstitution. Life is a cycle.

“It was Never My Purpose to Exhaust the Subject, Only to Suggest that it Was There”


There thereness of the Black radical tradition was manifest in Robinson’s very writing of the Black radical tradition. As I suggested elsewhere, its subject, in a very real way made possible its production. And as we move to the enactment of human freedom, those who experience racial capitalism’s oppressive excess can do no better than to read his work! All of it. I often get strange reactions when I reveal to other scholars that I regularly teach Black Marxism to undergraduates. (Given my undergraduate experiences, I thought it was normal). Teaching this work is just as rewarding as reading it. Not only is it “Google-proof”—reading it cannot be faked—it more importantly gives students a language to deal with a reality that they could not name before and that alone is its own prize. Armed with that critical consciousness, students no matter their level can think in quite different and more prescient terms about their own experiences and the global experiences of African people.

And if we teach this and Robinson’s other works satisfactorily, more workers will gravitate to the intellectual tradition that it narrates and explains. The work is not complete; the exit from this cycle has not yet been achieved. Black Studies can do more to mine from African cultural life the philosophical values that might frame different “orders,” a la Robinson’s The Terms of Order. Scholars can do more to excavate historical archaeologies of Black resistance a la Robinson’s Black Marxism. As the racial regimes persist in Hollywood, critical memories of its marriage with political authority might caution us from assuming any sort of renaissance in Black film, absent an undoing of that very structure; all insights gleaned from Robinson’s Forgeries of Memory and Meaning.[24] Robinson’s example shows us that we can be so much more, perhaps not him, but we can be more like the folk from whom his “genius was also derivative. The truer genius was in the midst of the people of whom [he] wrote. There the struggle was more than words or ideas but life itself.”[25]


In a brief talk to the Critical Ethnic Studies Conference in 2013 at the University of Illinois, Robinson gave a snippet of what will likely be his enduring contribution and his testament for us, knowledge workers, activists, and dreamers: the location of our work is not necessarily the academy but in those spaces where we can hear “the noise”—the voices of our people— and in those conceptual spaces where utopias are being imagined, spaces not like the current order, because these spaces have never been. Their time around the cycle is coming.

Cedric Robinson, maa kheru (true of voice). Presente!


(Josh Myers teaches Africana Studies in the Department of Afro-American Studies at Howard University. He blogs at http://speaktomekhet.wordpress.com and can be found on Twitter at @ddehewty. He can also be reached via email at [email protected]).


[1] Ayi Kwei Armah, The Eloquence of the Scribes: A Memoir on the Sources and Resources of African Literature (Popenguine, Senegal: Per Ankh Publishers, 2006), 212. On entrances and exits and the ongoing cycles of life, see Robert Farris Thompson, African Art in Motion: Icon and Act (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 1974) and K. Kia Bunseki Fu-Kiau, African Cosmology of the Bantu-Kongo (Brooklyn, NY: Athelia Henrietta Press, 2001).

[2] See the five-part tribute of the African American Intellectual History Society, of which I took part, as well as the tributes from the Institute of Race Relations and darkmatter. A critical contribution is the Institute’s 2005 tribute volume of Race and Class (Vol. 47, no.1) edited by Darryl C. Thomas, which does much more on Robinson’s personal life and scholarly contribution than this brief blog post can hope to accomplish. Another great source is the symposium published in the journal, African Identities in 2013.

[3] (Albany, NY: State University Press, 1980). This text was recently brought back into print by the University of North Carolina Press, with a foreword by Erica Edwards.

[4] Jacob Carruthers, Science and Oppression (Chicago: Kemetic Institute, 1972) and “An Alternative to Political Science,” in Intellectual Warfare (Chicago: Third World Press, 1999), 75-84.

[5] Robinson, The Terms of Order, 187.

[6] Ibid, 202.

[7] Ibid, 218.

[8] Robin D.G. Kelley, “Foreword,” in Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, by Cedric J. Robinson (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), xi. See his tribute for AAIHS.

[9] Robinson, Black Marxism, xxxiv.

[10] Ronald W. Walters, Pan-Africanism in the African Diaspora: An Analysis of Modern Afrocentric Political Movements (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1993), 54-88.

[11] Robinson, Black Marxism, 195.

[12] For the latter, see Ayi Kwei Armah, “On Marx and Masks: The Marxist Ethos Vis-à-vis African Revolutionary Theory and Practice,” in Remembering the Dismembered Continent (Popenguine, Senegal: Per Ankh, 2010), 73-118.

[13] See Kelley’s foreword and the Race and Class special issue cited supra.

[14] Robinson, Black Marxism, 122.

[15] Ibid, 72-73.

[16] On marronage, see Robinson, Black Marxism, 121-166 and his Black Movements in America (New York: Routledge, 1997), 11-19. Robinson’s notion that the Black radical tradition was notable for the absence of mass violence in its phenomenology is still a critical revelation, consequential for how we conceive of struggle. Chapter Seven (pp. 167-171) of Black Marxism is perhaps one of the most pedagogically challenging of all his work. See also his “In Search of a Pan-African Commonwealth,” Social Identities 2 (1996): 61-68 for a discussion of Pan-Africanism and the state form.

[17] Neil Roberts, Freedom as Marronage (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015). See AAIHS’s roundtable on this work.

[18] See my previous efforts to write about Cedric Robinson, Joshua Myers, “The Scholarship of Cedric J. Robinson: Methodological Considerations for Africana Studies,” The Journal of Pan African Studies 5 (June 2012): 46-82 and my dissertation “Reconceptualizing Intellectual Histories of Africana Studies: A Review of the Literature,” (Ph.D. diss., Temple University, 2013), 47-48.

[19] Greg Carr, “What Black Studies is Not: Moving from Crisis to Liberation in Africana Intellectual Work,” Socialism and Democracy 25 (March 2011): 178.

[20] Ibid, 180.

[21] Robin D.G. Kelley frames it this way: “In our neoliberal age, economic debates focus not on alternatives to capitalism but on what kind of capitalism—capitalism with a safety net for the poor or one driven by the by extreme free market liberalization,” “Preface to the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Edition,” Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression (Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press, 2015), xix. See also his “Black Study, Black Struggle” Boston Review, March 9, 2016, https://bostonreview.net/forum/robin-d-g-kelley-black-study-black-struggle. Martin Kilson’s critique of Jonathan Scott Holloway is in some ways representative of a trend that has reduced African American intellectual history to the question of representation and an elision of the larger discussion of political economy. Liberalism is simply assumed. See his The Transformation of the African American Intelligentsia, 1880-2012 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014), 86-114. The recent dialogue between Howard French and Ta-Nehisi Coates and between bell hooks and a range of different feminist voices surrounding Beyoncé’s Lemonade encapsulates these concerns. And these are just the latest in a long list.

[22] Robinson, Black Marxism, 308.

[23] Avery Gordon, “Cedric Robinson’s Anthropology of Marxism,” Race and Class 47 (2005): 25; Robinson, Black Marxism, 171.

[24] (Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press, 2007).

[25] Robinson, Black Marxism, 184.