Nathaniel Mills: Ragged Revolutionaries

Interviewed by Selim Nadi

man with gun in car

A French version of this interview was originally published at

  • In your book – Ragged Revolutionaries (University of Massachusetts Press, 2017) – you look at how African American authors (and especially members of the Communist Party of the USA, or close to it) have rethought the concept of the Lumpenproletariat in “order to better explicate the socioeconomic and cultural structures of the modern United States” (p. 3). The fact that the concept of Lumpenproletariat is rather negatively-worded in “classical” Marxism and that African American leftists have reconceptualise it is a very interesting point, but why did you focus on authors and on literature? And why especially during the Depression-Era?


I wanted to bring new light to African American writers on the Depression-era left. Activists, intellectuals, and writers affiliated the African American Communist left created a remarkable range of theoretical and political innovations to Marxist thought, African American literary and cultural theory, and radical culture. As a literary critic, I wanted to explore how that innovation worked in African American literary craft of the Depression: what explorations in social and political thinking did black writers undertake through and within their creative work? What conceptual lineages in Marxism would both help explicate those explorations as well as be enhanced by them? How could can we understand black writers affiliated with the 1930s Communist movement as not just temporarily taken with or influenced by radicalism because of the Depression climate—a common claim of much scholarship on writers like Ralph Ellison and Margaret Walker—but as actively contributing, through their craft, new lines of inquiry to the collective body of Marxist thought? These were the major questions that guided my project from its conception to its final form. I think that, even today, there’s a tendency to see African American cultural and political particularity as adjacent to or even opposed to Marxism. This tendency both flattens the conceptual diversity of Marxism and erases the significant Marxist insights African American writers and artists have offered. Certainly the Eurocentric blindnesses of Marxism, as well as its uneven treatment of race, cannot be overlooked. But African American writers have long been working through those shortcomings to extricate useful theoretical models and vehicles. You see this in the work of black writers in the mid-century Communist movement, who according to early and still influential scholarly arguments were simply temporarily misled or had their judgment clouded by the (white) left. My book is thus one additional effort—after similar interventions by scholars like Alan Wald, Mary Helen Washington, William Maxwell, Bill Mullen, Brian Dolinar, and others—to dislodge that misperception.

Another motive behind pursuing the question of the lumpenproletariat in literature has to do with the capacities of literary form themselves. Marx and Engels’s scorn and lack of sustained theoretical interest in the lumpenproletariat stems not only from a kind of Victorian moralism, but also from pragmatic doubts about the lumpenproletariat’s objective political tendencies. If individuals on the margins of production have to prioritize their self interest in order to survive, then not only are there few clear reasons for them to affiliate with a proletarian movement organized through productive relations in which they don’t participate, but they’re also much more likely to take the bribes of reactionary forces in class struggle. Simply put, Marx and Engels saw nothing in the lives of criminals, transients, or underworld figures that would position them as bearers of transformative agency or insight. Given the historical circumstances Marx and Engels were considering, this is certainly a justifiable conclusion. Wright, Ellison, and Walker also knew that the lives of the dispossessed didn’t often tend toward progressive political consciousness, but that literary representations of those lives could imagine lumpenproletarian existence as a source of new revolutionary methods and perspectives. That imaginary work could then furnish an occasion and resources for theoretical reconsiderations of the lumpenproletariat—and the social worlds, lives, and practices entailed by the lumpenproletariat’s positioning as external to production and class—that otherwise would be difficult to conceive. In short, Wright, Ellison, and Walker’s work suggested to me how literary form can open up possibilities for thought that sociopolitical discourse might overlook. Given the relative absence of any sustained theoretical consideration of the lumpenproletariat in the canon of Marxist theory (with a few exceptions, as I discuss below and in my book), the prerogatives of literary form seem required to uncover useful routes for thinking this concept. Clearly, in claiming special prerogatives for literature my book makes a claim that runs contrary to the common sense of much materialist thinking about aesthetics, but I think a consideration of literature’s formally distinct capacities is crucial to making the case for the value of radical literature as a contribution to Marxist theory. To see literature written by writers on the left as merely an illustration of theoretical and political positions—that is, as propaganda, even if we discard the pejorative bourgeois connotations of that label—is, to my mind, inadequate. For one thing, that position would relegate African American writers on the left as mere explicators or illustrators, rather than theoretical producers, of Marxism—a claim that would lend support, ultimately, to critical conclusions that black Communist writers regretfully subordinated their art to political aims foreign to black history and experience. In broadest terms, then, my book is interested in considering what literature can offer, as literature and because of its capacities for posing and resolving theoretical problems, to the epistemological arsenals of the left. While Wright, Ellison, and Walker never produced a theoretical text explicating the place of the lumpenproletariat in U.S. society and its consequences for intersectional operations of capitalism, Jim Crow, and patriarchy in the U.S., their fiction and poetry undertakes that project, and their efforts stand collectively not as a creative flight of fancy, nor as merely an accessible literary model of extant Marxist theses, but as a revision and expansion of Marxism’s theoretical body of work.

  • Three authors are at the core of your book: Richard Wright (and especially his book Native Son), Ralph Ellisson and Margaret Walker. Could you please come back on why you choose to focus on those authors? How would you explain that Margaret Walker was less known than her male counterparts?


I selected these writers not only because I detected similar sensibilities about the lumpenproletariat in their work, but also because they had personal connections to each other. Walker and Ellison were only slightly acquainted personally, but both were close personal friends with Wright during the 1930s. They struck me as a cohort, sharing infuences and tendencies at the same time that they implicitly challenged or departed from each other in their approaches to writing committed literature. The selection also positioned me to engage the academic reputations of each writer. Wright, of course, has long been known as the foremost African American Communist writer of the Depression, and the political nature of his work has long been the key consideration in both positive and negative critical evaluations of his accomplishments. He has, in other words, stood as the paradigm of—depending on the critic—either the way in which Marxism and the left distorted and simplified black aesthetic production into mere masculinist didacticism, or of the organic centrality of protest to African American literature itself. By revisiting Wright’s 1930s work through the lens of the Marxist concept of the lumpenproletariat, I wanted to dislodge some sedimented assumptions about the political and aesthetic components of his project during the period. Walker and Ellison both became well-known figures after the 1930s, when they generally (though not entirely) moved away from the political discourses and ambitions of that decade. Ellison and Walker, as well as scholars of their work, often tended to bury or overlook that early phase of their careers as an immature apprenticeship. Following the Depression, Ellison became canonized as a Cold War liberal and defender of American national values, as well as an aesthetically-superior craftsman compared to protest writers like Wright. Walker became associated with black nationalist cultural currents of the Civil Rights era, as well as with an aesthetic enriched by a close attention to black folk culture (again as opposed to protest writing, which critics often alleged to be defined by a merely instrumental aesthetic). However, their work as 1930s leftist writers has also been largely overlooked by scholarship because so many of the texts they wrote during the Depression were unfinished, unpublished, or uncollected. So pairing Ellison and Walker with their comrade Wright provided an occasion to delve into the archives and reconstruct the substantial bodies of work Ellison and Walker produced as leftist artists during the Depression. By showing how both writers were, at an earlier stage, like their friend Wright committed to the sophisticated revision of Marxist thought in light of modern African American cultural resources and sociopolitical desires, I hope to challenge some long-standing assumptions about divisions between literature and Marxist theory, as well as between politics and aesthetics more broadly, in the African American canon.

  • While you explain that the Lumpenproletariat was frequently and object of suspicion in proletarian literature, could you please explain how it was conceptualize in the African American literature you focus on (in opposition to the “proletariat” for example)?


My book suggests how these three writers suspected that the leftist cultural image of the heroic worker-turned-revolutionary didn’t fit their conceptions of where transformative potential might lie in both the African American community and U.S. society more broadly. For one, African American histories of subservience and exploitation seem to have made it difficult for these writers to credit the classical Marxist dialectic whereby labor is positioned with a progressive dialectical trajectory. For Richard Wright, the desire of the African American individual to be recognized as a subject in a racist society—one built on perpetuating the denial of such recognition—was a desire that outstripped, in its revolutionary import, the interests of U.S. workers. For Ralph Ellison, the relative instability and fluidity of power relations and hierarchies in the United States opened up opportunities for actions and encounters that seemed more transformative (at least in their implications) then the activities of workers at the point of production. And for Margaret Walker, the resources of African American culture furnished a richer lexicon of revolutionary opportunity than working-class identity and organization. For each writer, the lumpenproletariat was the concept in Marxism that named the alternative sources or agents of political potential they glimpsed, and this led them to create a body of radical Marxist writing paradoxically remarkable, in one way, for its relative lack of positive portraits of working-class identity and activism.

The proletariat thus occupies an uncertain place in the writings of all three figures, and this, I argue, sets them apart from the proletarian literary movement that constituted a major component of Depression-era leftist aesthetics in the U.S. To begin with, it’s important to note that many of their works distinguish the concept of the proletariat—Marxism’s vehicle of historical transformation produced by capitalist relations of production—from empirical members of the U.S. industrial working class, and tend to posit a fair amount of distance separating the latter from the former. When it comes to the objectively revolutionary tendency Marx assigned to the proletariat, these three writers tend to locate something like that tendency not among industrial workers (whom they, anticipating later arguments by the Black Panthers and the New Left, tend to see as incorporated within capitalism and invested in protective measures), but among African American transients, gangsters, prostitutes, outlaw figures, and so forth. For example, members of the black working class appear briefly in Native Son, but their desire to protect their slight foothold in the Depression economy opposes them to the more radical kind of sociopolitical desire that drives the lumpenproletarian Bigger Thomas, who has no economic foothold worth protecting. In two of Ellison’s unfinished 1930s novels, African American protagonists only discover radical consciousness or enact—literally and allegorically—revolutionary resistance once they drop out of the waged ranks of the working class into the precarious world of the lumpenproletariat. And for Walker, working-class life often entails a subservience to labor that perpetuates the history of endless toil to which African Americans have always been subjected. Positive depictions of working-class characters and activism are indeed present in the work of each writer, but unlike much proletarian writing of the 1930s, such depictions are not the focus of Wright, Ellison, or Walker’s radical aesthetics.

  • In reading your book, I was fascinated by the way you used concepts from Louis Althusser in order to analyse some of the literary work you are dealing with. You especially use the concept of “interpellation” in order to show how Bigger Thomas, the main character from Native Son, is interpellated in a negative way – or rather the way he is non-interpellated and how this established his non-subjectivity. Could you please come back on the relevance Althusser’s work has for you and can be used in order to analyse some race issues, even if Althusser never clearly wrote about racism?


Althusser has always struck me as someone whose conceptual itinerary can open up new and productive ways of thinking about the operations of power, social form, and political practice in the United States. While he never wrote about racism in a forthright way, and never wrote extensively about the United States, his work furnishes concepts adequate to the task of charting American social, cultural, and ideological processes—including racialization and racial oppression—without reducing those processes to illustrations of economic class relations or defining them as historical manifestations of some idealist dialectical form. I’m thinking especially of his development of concepts like the conjuncture, overdetermination, articulation, and the structure in dominance. In addition, Althusser’s theory of subjectivity and interpellation seems well suited for understanding the dynamics of racialized subject formation in the United States. In applying Althusser like this, I’ve tried to read him as he read Marx: that is, by extracting from his body of work mobile and generative concepts that can be implemented within a range of situated analyses in order to produce new knowledge. In Ragged Revolutionaries, Althusser’s work provides a theoretical vocabulary that helps bring to light the sophisticated analyses of Wright, Ellison, and Walker in the 1930s. To be somewhat reductive, black Marxist thinkers of the Depression could never neatly isolate economic relations of production from their imbrication with sociocultural and subjectivizing operations (Jim Crow, gender norms, and so on)—and they also knew that to read such operations as reflections of economic struggle was to perform that isolation in a simply more Marxian-sounding way. Indeed, one might speculate whether American historical framings of whiteness make it possible for class struggle in the United States to be thought  of or represented as a primarily economic matter, given how whiteness’s ideological coding as non-particularity creates a conceptual sphere in which actors can be defined through productive relations independently of other particularizing subjective interpellations. Althusser—and to a lesser extent, Gramsci, Arendt, and Sartre—serves in Ragged Revolutionaries to give explanatory shape and theoretical voice to what Wright, Ellison, and Walker were aiming to do in their creative work: craft an ontology of American social form that would be complex and fluid enough to account for the peculiarities of U.S. social form and African American history and culture, and the multiple kinds of practice that could emerge from within both.

  • Another interesting point, which also is highly relevant for today’s situation, is the fact that the struggle for individual recognition by black characters – something that sometimes is seen as very conservative or as un-politicized “identity politics” – is analysed as something that could lead to social change and that can have a very revolutionary aspect. Could you please come back on this point? How did the struggle for individual recognition correlate with the struggle for Communism in this kind of literature?


Criticisms of “identity politics” from the left seem to assume that particular group identities organized around race, gender, or sexuality are necessarily resistant to the kind of universal structural change revolution seeks. You could argue this is due to the influence of classical Marxism in theorizing the proletariat as the universal class whose political interests aren’t exactly particular in that they require total revolutionary change to be realized. You could also attribute it to various forms of liberatory humanism that position the category of the human as a universal organizing ground which must supercede identitarian difference. As a result, politics organized around identities other than economic or humanist ones are often seen as narrow and particularist deviations from larger social change— “identity politics.” The history of African American radical thought furnishes numerous critiques of this rather reductive way of thinking, and many of them coalesce around a similar assertion: that the particular interests of African Americans are, due to the intersectional dynamics of power and exploitation in the United States, only achievable through wholesale structural social, cultural, and economic revolution. This is a sensibility that was particularly common among black thinkers on the left during the Depression. For instance, as Nikil Pal Singh has shown, it informs W. E. B. Du Bois’s articulation of black politics in the Civil War and Reconstruction era in Black Reconstruction. It manifests itself in the Communist Party’s “Black Belt” thesis, which held that African Americans in the U.S. South were a repressed nation whose struggle for national autonomy was a key component of a larger, international struggle against capitalism itself.  And it manifests itself in the most famous black left work of the Depression, Richard Wright’s Native Son. Bigger Thomas’s desires for society to recognize him as a subject capable of free action. This may seem to be an extistential rather than political desire, but Wright’s point is that a society in which that recognition could be extended to African Americans would be neither racist or capitalist. Wright insists that Communists must learn to understand and harness this particularly African American yet universally transformative desire. Today, it seems to me that the “identity politics” standing in the way of structural revolutionary change is certainly not feminism, the LGBTQ movement, transgender politics, or Black Lives Matter. It’s whiteness. We saw in the 2016 presidential election how a segment of the working class’s protective investment in whiteness and white privilege led to political reaction. Ragged Revolutionaries doesn’t confront the issue of identity politics directly, but the book is informed by my sense that the demand for the transcendence of “identity politics” is usually a coded call for the abandonment of non-white, non-male, and non-heterosexual interests. Such a coddling of white male privilege as the location of “universal” political interests is regressive in its own right and is used by reactionary groups in the U.S. today. It’s particularly unfortunate when “identity politics” is invoked negatively by the left, given that it’s the implementation of “particular” or “minority” interests—the interests of those repressed by the state and by ideologies of normativity—that carries truly universal, inclusive, and transformative political energy.

  • Are they differences in the way Wright, Ellison and Walker understands and use the Lumpenproletariat in their work?


Each writer situates the lumpenproletariat—as literary characters and as a concept—in her or his writing in different ways, according to similar yet ultimately distinct literary and political agendas. For Wright, lumpenproletarian practices of crime function as a possible vehicle through which African American individuals outside of the state’s law, as well as the ideological “law” of subjectivity, can compel recognition of their humanity. Using crime to compel recognition may not often be effective, but for Communists to dismiss such activity as merely illegal self-interest is to overlook a vital, if unusual, source of political potential. For Ellison, the mobility of lumpenproletarian drifters and hobos—a mobility produced by the joblessness and lack of socioeconomic incorporation caused by the crisis of the Depression—makes visible how gaps and inconsistences in the power arrangements of American social structures can open up new chances for political resistance. For Communists to dismiss that mobility as politically unconscious transience is, for Ellison, a strategic error. For Walker, the lumpenproletariat informs two of her main projects in the Depression. In her unpublished poetry about prostitutes and underworld gangsters, she, like Wright, locates alternative modes of existence, freedom, and resistance in crime. Walker is especially interested in the experiences of African American women in the urban underworld, and how crime affords them social and personal liberties beyond economical, racial, and patriarchal restrictions. In the folk ballads she wrote for her first book of poetry, For My People (1942), Walker synthesizes the concept of the lumpenproletariat with various “badman” narratives from African American folk culture to imagine a kind of allegorical revolutionary activism: the experiences of black men and women who refuse racial capitalism’s regime of labor and subjugation illustrate new modes of political strategy and awareness. Uniting these three writers’ projects are, as I see it, three main convictions. First, they all evince a skepticism about working-class life and labor’s likelihood to lead to revolutionary concsciousness and practice, and instead turn to the margins of production, whose inhabitants Marx understood under the concept of the lumpenproletariat, in order to think revolution. Secondly, they all preserve, in their writing, an awareness of the distinction between the figurative import of lumpenproletarian experience for leftist theory and politics, and the actual immiseration of those who exist on socioeconomic margins, without regular wages and without structures of social support while confronting other forms of exploitation. The tension between what my book defines as the romantic and realistic poles of the lumpenproletariat animates a good deal of the drama and complexity of Wright, Ellison, and Walker’s texts. Finally, they all position the lumpenproletariat as the concept within Marxism’s theoretical economy that, when appropriated, enables the expansion of Marxism to incorporate persons and sites of modern life classical Marxism has neglected. The concept of the lumpenproletariat gets used, in Marx and Engels’s writings, to name that which doesn’t fit within or matter to their thought. By repurposing the theoretical discards of Marxism, Wright, Ellison, and Walker all push the boundaries of Marxism to allow it to incorporate and be informed by African American experience and U.S. social conditions in the Great Depression.

  • You refer to the way the Black Panthers later reconceptualised in a revolutionary way the Lumpenproletariat, where the BP influenced by the Depression-Era African American literature you are interested in?


The theorists of the Black Panther Party were some of the few Marxist thinkers and activists of the twentieth century to take the lumpenproletariat seriously as a concept, as a point of departure for critical thought. Marx and Engels crafted the term, but when they didn’t use it as a kind of casual leftist insult, they used it primarily to dismiss individuals who weren’t involved in production as theoretically irrelevant as well as morally and politically suspect. It isn’t until you get to the work of Panther thinkers and activists like Huey Newton, Kathleen Cleaver, and Eldridge Cleaver in the 1960s and 1970s that you have a real body of Marxist theoretical work organized around the lumpenproletariat. One of Frantz Fanon’s departures from Marxist orthodoxy in The Wretched of the Earth (1961) is his positive reconsideration of the lumpenproletariat as a revolutionary agent in colonial contexts, and the Black Panthers built off of Fanon’s analysis to understand segments of the postwar African American population as an internally-colonized lumpenproletariat with revolutionary potential. In elaborating this revision, they preserved many epistemological features of Marxism while repositioning the lumpenproletariat within its own network of concepts. The lumpenproletariat, in other words, operates in their work as a kind of catalyst not for abandoning or moving beyond Marxism, but for rearranging its conceptual priorities from within. And this is essentially what Wright, Ellison, and Walker had done earlier. So one presence of the Black Panthers in Ragged Revolutionaries is as theoretical interlocutors for the book’s literary analyses: I use their theorization of the lumpenproletariat, alongside arguments by philosophers and critical theorists who have also taken up the term, to help make legible the conceptual stakes of Wright, Ellison, and Walker’s creative efforts. While I argue that the Black Panthers were experimenting, in their theoretical writings as well as in their activism, with the kind of revisions of the lumpenproletariat that Wright, Ellison, and Walker had explored in their literature decades earlier, I think the extent to which the Panthers were consciously influenced by that earlier literary work is a complicated question. Richard Wright’s Depression-era fiction certainly carried a good deal of political credibility in Black Power-era radical circles, and Bigger Thomas is at times referenced in Black Panther writings as a popular representation of the African American lumpenproletarian individual. But I’m not sure the Panthers attempted to find sustained theoretical linkages between their work and Wright’s. Many of Ellison and Walker’s most inventive Depression-era treatments of the lumpenproletariat were unpublished or little known in following decades. Furthermore, Ellison’s reputation, by the 1960s, as a conservative apologist for the U.S. nation state tended to put him far outside the discourse of Black Power radicalism. I don’t think there’s enough to say there was a consciously-upheld lineage of black radical thought about the lumpenproletariat from the 1930s through the 1970s. But similar problems, and similar efforts to answer those problems through the lumpenproletariat, inspired both black Communist writers in the 1930s and black radical activists in the 1960s and 70s. Nor, of course, are these the only possible junctures in which this trend is readable: for instance, its understanding of the urban African American lumpenproletariat seems to be only one way in which contemporary rap and hip-hop has replayed and resituated black radical sensibilities. Grasping all of this should, I think, lead us to continue to explore how and why this relatively minor and—according to Marx and Engels themselves—insignificant Marxist concept seems to emerge, in different historical moments, to anchor black revolutionary thought and expression.


Nathaniel Mills is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Minnesota. His work on African American literature, U.S. literary radicalism, and the literature and culture of the U.S. Communist left has appeared in journals like African American Review, MELUS, Twentieth-Century Literature, and Journal of Modern Literature. He lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.