Transforming Rebellion into Revolution: Rereading Cedric Robinson and Eugene Genovese

This piece is a part of our ongoing series, entitled “Rethinking the Revolutionary Canon.” 

By Tim Bruno

In recent years, Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism (1983) has grown in stature from cult favorite to recovered classic. Readers might be aware of the proliferating essays, conference panels, anthologies, and special issues on Robinson’s text. The University of North Carolina Press has published a new edition, and Robinson himself is receiving his due with Joshua Myers’s upcoming biographyBlack Marxism has become popular among the more theory-minded public, too. Last semester, I joined a Black Marxism reading group including not only institutional scholars (both grad and post-grad) but also independent ones, activists, and radicals. As “racial capitalism” gains widespread use, readers of many stripes are turning to Black Marxism for a gloss on the term—although the book is less about racial capitalism than about conceptualizing Black revolutionary action, as its neglected subtitle hints: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. And in the wake of rebellious 2020, newly radicalized readers are seeking a guidebook on how to build revolution from resistance while being grounded in a liberatory past.

Given Robinson’s growing popularity, it is surprising how much Black Marxism is in conversation with the unpopular Eugene Genovese. For all the impact the white Marxist historian had on Atlantic slavery studies, Genovese is now recalled as either old-fashioned or problematic, not least because of his reactionary turn late in life. Even earlier, in his epochal Roll, Jordan, Roll (1976), Genovese infamously asserted the infrequency of slave resistance in the US relative to the Caribbean and South America, arguing that it was due to enslaved people’s accommodation to enslavers’ cultural hegemony rather than to what Walter Johnson rightly identifies as a material “[im]balance of power.”[1] Moreover, until recently, scholars have turned away from “resistance” as a critical keyword, a term that had been significant in Genovese’s early work. With these shifting scholarly fortunes and his own shift rightward, Genovese himself fell out of fashion. I now understand why a mentor once told me, “I never want to hear the word ‘resistance’ again.”[2]

Juxtaposing these writers with inverse receptions reveals something surprising. More than a rebuttal of Genovese, Black Marxism shares a project with him; Robinson and Genovese both sought to recuperate Black rebellion as fully political, world-historic revolution, albeit in contrasting ways. I do not mean to suggest that Genovese is at the heart of the Black Radical Tradition or that Robinson took inspiration from a white historian. Moreover, Robinson’s keyword is actually “radical,” not “revolution.” Yet, against a culture that refused to read Black resistance as political—and against Genovese’s own earlier scholarship—Robinson and Genovese both sought to reread its long durée as a history of revolutionism. Although often necessary, such reparative assertions of revolutionary-ness simultaneously imply deep-rooted ideas about the inadequacy or apolitical nature of Black direct action. Even for some defenders of Black radicalism, rebellion needs to be discursively transformed into revolution.

In thinking through Robinson with Genovese, though, we should not turn to Roll, Jordan, Roll but to the less read From Rebellion to Revolution (1979). That book does not theorize an autochthonous Black radicalism, but it remains a key text for the study of enslaved revolts. Rereading it now alongside Black Marxism illustrates how much Robinson responds to Genovese. Marronage—Black people’s practice of establishing communities outside of slavery through fugitivity, guerrilla warfare, and uneasy truces with enslavers—figures significantly in both works. Genovese devotes a full third of his book to marronage, while Robinson uses marronage as his signal example of the Black Radical Tradition’s autonomy, creativity, and continuity. Robinson discusses marronage partly to reject Genovese’s earlier claims that it constituted a pre-revolutionary form of rebellion. Indeed, this is From Rebellion to Revolution’s thesis. Genovese argues that for centuries “the goals of [slave] revolts and the terms in which they were cast changed with the revolutionary changes in the social relations of production and the ideology of European and American society as a whole.” For Genovese, it was a historical event, the Haitian Revolution—influenced by contemporary bourgeois revolutions, he argues—that “constituted a turning point in the history of slave revolts and, indeed, of the human spirit.”[3] Much of Robinson’s text works to decouple a Black revolutionary tradition from European ones—the opposite of Genovese’s point. Black Marxism makes sense, then, partly as a reply to Genovese that enslaved revolt in the longue durée is, in fact, revolutionary and distinctly Black. Yet Robsinson’s references to Genovese are not solely critical. One endnote indicts Genovese’s thesis in Roll, Jordan, Roll, while another draws affirmatively on From Rebellion to Revolution. Most curiously, Robinson appears playful in how he cites Genovese: Robinson dubs Genovese a “radical historian” in a way that plays on Genovese’s own dismissive use of that phrase in 1966, simultaneously drawing readers’ attention to Genovese’s later avowal of Black radicalism in 1979.[4] Simply put, Robinsons’ words frame Genovese as both target and fellow traveler.

For all of Robinson’s critiques, both scholars try to transmute Black rebellion into revolution. Genovese argues that Black resistance to enslavement began as “isolationist,” “restorationist,” and localized attacks on particular instances of mistreatment under slavery, but as bourgeois revolutionary ideology spread from Western sources, Black resistance transformed into total revolution against chattel slavery. He asserts a historical qualitative shift in the meaning and character of Black resistance to enslavement. To Genovese’s credit, this is a thoughtful reversal of the arguments in Roll, Jordan, Roll. Moreover, he is emphatic that there was a long, coherent tradition of Black resistance (albeit one that experienced change over time). Robinson agrees, of course, on that point.[5] Whereas Genovese sought to identify qualitative change in the character of Black resistance, Robinson rethinks what we take that resistance to be and to mean. Like W. E. B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction (1935) and C. L. R. James’s The Black Jacobins (1938), Black Marxismrereads revolutionary Black agency into the archive. Thus, marronage transforms from isolationist retreat into the best example of a Black alternative to racial capitalism; the long sweep of acts against racial capitalism becomes a coherent tradition with a distinctly Black origin and character. If Genovese attempts to provide a historical answer to the question, “how do we get from rebellion to revolution?,” then we could say that Robinson reorients history to provide a new ideological and perspectival answer to the question. Yet, both try to perform the same rhetorical alchemy on the category of “Black rebellion.”

But, I am left wondering, what is wrong with “mere” rebellion? In 2015, following the wave of protests surrounding the Baltimore police’s murder of Freddie Gray, I attended a coalition meeting of progressive activists on my campus. There, one student-activist referenced “the Baltimore riots” but then pointedly corrected themselves: “I’m sorry, ‘uprising.’” The moment struck me and stuck with me, and it now colors my reading of Robinson and Genovese. Of course, words have power, and renaming can be an act of recovery or repair. Yet, when others exchange “revolution” for “rebellion,” or “uprising” for “riot,” I often hear a note of justification, apology, even something like what Jennifer Nash has called “defensiveness.”[6] Can we accept rebellion on its own terms, in all its smallness, incompletion, or vexed politics? I suppose Robinson’s version of the Black Radical Tradition makes this possible by encompassing all resistance to racial capitalism into the revolutionary fold. Yet, that is the alchemy: “rebellion” becomes “revolution.” 

This is not an argument about which words to use but rather an argument that our reparative use of language risks obscuring what is required of us. Defensiveness about the revolutionary-ness of resistance potentially understates just how much is needed to expand and escalate the rebellious conditions that precede Black liberation. Rereading Robinson and Genovese, it becomes clear how much of the Black Radical Tradition is about historiography—it is a tradition, after all. Perhaps, we ask this historiographical analysis to do too much political work in our present. Use whatever words you like, but it remains on us to materially transform rebellion—including the one in George Floyd’s name—into revolution.


Tim Bruno is Instructor of English at Howard Community College. He researches depictions of Black rebellion in the long nineteenth century US. You can learn more about his work at tbruno.net.

Title image: William Berryman’s sketch of Jamaican maroons, “Maroons. Buckra reading their pass,” ~1810.

Suggested Readings:

Jackson, Kellie Carter. Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019.

Shirley, Neal and Saralee Stafford. Dixie Be Damned: 300 Years of Insurrection in the American South. Oakland: AK Press, 2015.

Williams, Robert F. Negroes with Guns. Edited by Marc Schleifer. Chicago: Third World Press, 1973.

Dixon, Ivan, dir. The Spook Who Sat by the Door. 1973; Monarch Home Video, 2004. DVD.

Osterweil, Vicky. In Defense of Looting: A Riotous History of Uncivil Action. New York: Bold Type Books, 2020.

Endnotes:

[1]    Eugene D. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, (New York: Vintage, 1976), 597-8; Walter Johnson, “A Nettlesome Classic Turns Twenty-Five,” Commonplace, vol. 1, no. 4 (July 2001): accessed January 21, 2021, http://commonplace.online/article/a-nettlesome-classic-turns-twenty-five/.

[2]    For touchstones in the turn away from “resistance,” see James C. Scott, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985) and Walter Johnson, “On Agency,” Journal of Social History 37, no. 1 (2003): 113-24. A recent call for papers from the Journal of African American History suggests how the pendulum has swung: https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/journals/jaah/cfp-reconsidering-the-uses-of-violence-in-african-american-history.

[3]    Eugene D. Genovese, From Rebellion to Revolution: Afro-American Slave Revolts in the Making of the Modern World (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1979), xiv, xix.

[4]    Cedric J. Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 176.

[5]    Genovese, From Rebellion to Revolution, 84. 

[6]    For a necessary revaluation of rioting, see Vicky Osterweil, In Defense of Looting: A Riotous History of Uncivil Action (New York: Bold Type Books, 2020), which also notes the “riot”/“uprising” dichotomy; Jennifer C. Nash, Black Feminism Reimagined: After Intersectionality, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s