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Robin D.G. Kelley on the Importance of Utopian Visions for Social Movements

The Black radical tradition reminds us that leftist struggle is just as much about imagining the world we want to create as critiquing the conditions of our oppression.

Robin D.G. Kelley is professor of American history at UCLA. His classic study Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination, was recently released in its 20th Anniversary Edition. Kelley shows how radicals have, in circumstances of grinding oppression, managed to expand our minds as to what is possible. The book looks at communism, surrealism, Pan-Africanism, and even funk and jazz music to show the colorful and marvelous dreams that have kept social movements alive. His book is invaluable for leftists, because it shows how, in addition to our critiques of capitalism, racism, and patriarchy, we can create inspiring and creative new cultural practices. The revolution needs poetry, dance, and fiction, and Kelley shows us that movement activists have always been dreamers as well as doers. Kelley’s other books include Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression, Race Rebels: Culture, Politics and the Black Working Class, and an acclaimed biography of Thelonious Monk, Thelonious Monk, the Life and Times of an American Original, which was highly praised by the New York Times. Kelley came on the Current Affairs podcast to talk to editor-in-chief Nathan J. Robinson about Freedom Dreams on its 20th anniversary. This interview has been edited and condensed for grammar and clarity.

Robinson

You’ve just reissued this book with a new preface and a new conclusion. I hadn’t actually read this book before deciding to bring you on the show. The book surprised and delighted me. One of my frustrations on the Left is that so often we end up sounding a bit negative. We end up being against a lot of things. We point out the problems with various systems. We do a lot of analysis and diagnose many social and economic ills. But you draw attention to the other side of this. You say that, specifically in the Black radical tradition, there has always been an embrace of marvelous visions of freedom. And those are important. When you began this book, was it partly out of a frustration with a lack of appreciation about how utopian visions form a core part of social movements?

Kelley

Exactly. The book germinated in the late ‘90s, around the time Amadou Diallo was killed by police. Some people may know the story. This was 20 years ago. Diallo was an immigrant from Guinea who was shot multiple times by the NYPD. And a lot of protests emerged. At the time, I was teaching at Columbia University. I was going back and forth between Columbia and NYU, and I was dealing with many students who really felt a sense of despair. This was a very exciting time in the late 1990s and early 2000s. But there was a sense that because this activism was happening, that one ought to leave the university—they didn’t think there was anything to find in radical theories. And so for them, it was like self-defense to be able to go into the streets to try to organize.

That’s when I developed this course called Black Movements. And the course was a response to that moment and to despair. And, in many ways, I was trying to get them to think about alternative, radical visions. For my students, there was only really one movement they knew about: the Black Panther Party. That’s what they knew. They didn’t know much else in terms of alternative radical visions. And part of what I was trying to establish was that it’s not about winning or losing. In fact, it’s not even about optimism or pessimism. It’s about a sense of determination and having some kind of map to your destination. And that destination could be socialism, land, gender freedom. All these things, of course, are connected.

And so the book was an attempt to give undergraduates, activists, and even high school students the history of revolutionary movements that may not have succeeded in the definition of success but that left us a legacy of thinking. As a historian, I see a problem in that we tend to be teleological, meaning that we stand in the present and try to figure out, for example, how we got to the overturning of Roe v. Wade. How did we get to this moment of heightened right-wing nationalism? This is in contrast to standing in the moment of the 1850s or the 1930s and looking at the horizon in front of people at the time, which is a very different thing. Then you start to see options. You start to see other possibilities rather than create what I call tunnel vision.

In other words, hindsight is not 20/20. It’s tunnel vision. Because you’re telescoping back to explain how we got here. So a lot of the book is about that. What was the horizon at the end of Reconstruction, the horizon in the 1930s which was the height of radicalism but also the height of the Great Depression? What was the horizon in the 1960s and ‘70s, that sort of thing?

Robinson

You also encourage readers to reject a way of thinking that is quite common, a kind of dichotomy between the world of ideas/dreams/theory—the kind of abstract world that we associate with the university—and the real, practical, grinding, everyday struggle of the activists. There’s an idea that activists don’t do theory and grand visions and utopias; they do the hard, incremental work. One thing you point out is that actually, this is the wrong way to think about it. In practice, over the course of history, these things have been unified, and theoretical development and vision have actually come out of movement practice.

Kelley

Exactly.  I’m so glad you said that. That’s the number one point of the book and the point that often gets missed. What often gets missed is that movements are generative. It’s not just that the police beating you up is generative. It’s the organizing work, and trying to plan out and think about next steps, that’s generative. When we use terms like “reformist” versus “non-reformist,” that comes out of political activity and organizing work.

One of the things I was trying to do is produce something like an intellectual history so that we understand that the future that people were trying to build didn’t come from going to sleep and waking up. It’s not dreams in the literal sense. But it’s producing an incipient critique of the arrangements, whether those arrangements are around economics, politics, power, democracy, gender, sexuality, even around the idea of imagination. There’s a movement toward a kind of deeper understanding of the way these things operate. And the only way to produce alternatives, even if they’re misguided, is to do collective work. And that’s where reading and studying is really important. I’ve spent 35 years of my life studying social movements. And I’ve yet to find one where it was completely organic, without any relationship to the past, no relationship to knowledge or production. Everything has a theory. And theories sometimes are transformed or molded. Theoretical work is part of the work of organizing a struggle.

In fact, when you think about almost all of the significant splits or breaks within movements—when people go in different directions—they usually didn’t split simply over tactics. They usually split over ideas. They may not use those words, but theory is what it’s ultimately about. Some of the most Important splits in the Black radical tradition have been around issues of nationalism versus Marxism, or feminism versus nationalism. And these are generalized terms that sometimes mask the specificity. But, the theoretical work is there.

Robinson

So, it’s inaccurate to think in terms of intellectuals versus activists. What you point out is that the movements themselves are intellectually rich, and there are intellectual debates about the kind of world we want, and these debates happen within every single social movement.

Kelley

Exactly. I think that’s exactly right. When we use terms like organic intellectual, which is one of the hot terms nowadays, it’s used as a kind of substitute for anyone who’s unschooled, which is not the point at all. Organic intellectual refers to any intellectual embedded and dedicated to movement. In other words, that’s their commitment. Based on my reading, all the people in these movements are intellectual. They’re thinking, theorizing, philosophizing about the meaning of their life and work. What is the outcome of the work that they’re doing? What is the world they want to produce? And so once we recognize that, we’ll see organic intellectuals very differently, and we’ll see this book, I hope, as a work of intellectual history as well as social history.

Robinson

You also draw attention to the fun side of social movements. You have that part talking about leftist trying to determine the music of the proletarians. They’re like, We have to listen to Woody Guthrie songs and you’re like, No, we’re gonna listen to Bootsy Collins. Even things that don’t seem explicitly political are often part of a broad alternative vision.

Kelley

Right, exactly. That’s a true story. I was just a kid in those days. It’s funny you mentioned that. Just last night, I was at the Hollywood Bowl Jazz Festival. There was a lot of music that was political, and there was a lot of music that was just joyful. And I’m not saying that they’re a split. I’m saying that they operate together. And you could see the audience’s response. People were listening and thinking about some of the challenges being brought forth in the music, especially the wonderful music of Terri Lyne Carrington and her band, Social Science. And then you have basically dance music. It’s jazz, but it’s like hyped up music. And people were doing both of these things simultaneously and finding fellowship with one another and fortifying themselves with joy. You could see people’s bodies being free in many ways and just absorbing vibrations in a way that is not the same as hearing about police brutality or the attacks on Roe v. Wade. To me, they’re not separate but part of the same thing.

It took me a while to come to this conclusion despite the fact I write about music. My whole life was like living in these two different worlds: writing about music for the New York Times and writing about politics. And then I rediscovered surrealism. I have a chapter in the book on surrealism. People like Franklin Rosemont, Penelope Rosemont, Ted Joans, and others forced me to read and study surrealist movements as political movements. So that opened up a path for me to think more about this.

Robinson

That was going to be my next question. One of the most surprising things that readers probably encounter in this book is a chapter on surrealism. When readers see a book about the Black radical tradition, I think they expect a book about politics and social movements. I don’t think they expect surrealism.

Kelley

Right. And for all of my old left friends, that was the hated chapter. That was the one I got so much flack for. And I pushed back because I don’t think those who were critical read it very carefully. On the other hand, for young people, that’s often a chapter that draws them in generationally. And let me say two things. One, I wrote the chapter not as an abandonment of Marxism, but as a critique. I just want to remind your listeners—I’m sure they know this—that probably the sharpest critic of Marxism was this guy named Karl Marx. They just forget that. He was someone who was always self-critical, always moving forward. When he died, he was studying the peasantry because he felt like he undertheorized the role of agricultural movements. When he died, he was thinking about what we today call the Global South. I mean, he was sick and trying to rehabilitate himself in Algeria, in North Africa, and rethinking where the next revolution was going to take place, recognizing that Russia was probably the next step. Marx was rethinking his own position.

So my point is that if we’re going to be really genuine as we call ourselves radical thinkers who go to the root, we have to constantly rethink things. And surrealism forced me to rethink some things. In the 1920s, after the first surrealist manifesto, there was engagement between the Paris group and people from the Caribbean, from the French Antilles. They were all rethinking Marxism as they were joining the Communist Party—people like Pierre Naville, for example, who became a Trotskyist. They were members of the Communist Party trying to figure out a way to pull together the discoveries about the unconscious that Freud was making, the power of art and the imagination, the libidinous quality of everyday life—that is, the bodily sense of desire—in relationship to the drudgery of proletarianization. They’re trying to figure all this stuff out and trying to come up with a different way of thinking about freedom. It wasn’t just freeing the productive forces so that the state would control it and we’d all be beneficiaries of that. They were like, that’s not enough. And that forced me to think.

In fact, what I argue in that chapter is not that surrealism is this new thing that we need to embrace. I actually say it was there, deep in what we’re calling the Black radical tradition, before there was a surrealist movement. So here we are finding relationships between the metaphysical and the material, between the unconscious and the conscious, between the dream state and the waking state. All that is stuff that I had to go back and dig into to understand all the other movements that are in the book. So it was a breakthrough for me. But again, it was a challenge to those who basically argue that we need to treat Marxism the same way we treat the Bible. And that’s not even true.

Robinson

Maybe you could say a little more about surrealism. How does, for example, the poetry of Ted Joans fit with political and social movements? How do you put these things together? What does poetry offer to movement participants?

Kelley

Well, a couple of things. On the Left, we’re surrounded by those who think that history begins in 1789, that the French Revolution is the beginning of the world. But if you look at insurgencies around the globe in the last 200 years, there’s not a single one that doesn’t have its poetry. Just show me a movement that doesn’t have its poetry. If you show me one, I will eat my computer. It doesn’t exist. So it’s always there. It’s always the driver. And sometimes, anti-colonial rebellions in particular are driven by the metaphysical. For example, if I say that my physical body is not that important, but the collective body is, I’m going to fight for freedom. We’re going to overthrow the system of slavery. In the case of the Amistad slave ship rebellion in 1839—I don’t write about this in the book, but it’s a very important moment—before anyone could organize a rebellion, everyone on the ship had to agree. There was a level of participatory democracy. You had to have 100 percent consensus. It’s part of a different philosophy that says, I’m part of a millipede, one piece of it. Everyone in our society is incomplete. We’re all incomplete without each other.

In the new edition, there’s a beautiful foreword by the poet Aja Monet. I asked her to write the foreword because, as a poet, she understands that book probably better than anyone I’ve ever met. And she tells a story in her forward about what it meant, as poets and organizers in Florida, to put together a movement around the poetic forms that I talked about in that chapter. The new edition also has a new epilogue. And in that epilogue, there was a chapter that had I cut out of the original, which was a kind of fictional, imaginative leap into what I imagined to be a revolution that was prompted by the protests around the murder of Amadou Diallo—which, by the way, looked very much like what happened after George Floyd was murdered. But in that epilogue, I tell the story in which maroon poets basically organize a rebellion, which lasts in the original version like 700 years. I cut it down to 100 years for this edition. Climate change took care of that.

The point is that creative strategies such as abolitionist politics around care and dispensing with old ideas and embracing new ones came about because of poets. Maroon poets were at the forefront of these movements. So Monet tells a story of basically doing exactly what I lay out in the story in Florida—and she hadn’t read that because it was unpublished. It’s just absolutely stunning. So you can see concrete examples of surrealism at work. It’s there. It’s just not named.

Robinson

One of the things you invite us to do is to be impressed by the human capacity for imagination. When we think about people in conditions of extreme oppression and deprivation, it all seems very bleak or not rich in a sensory manner. It’s kind of amazing that anyone can, in certain conditions, imagine things to be different. There’s that phrase about the difficulty of imagining the end of capitalism versus the end of the world, right? It’s difficult to imagine things. You stress the importance of artistic creativity in breaking through the boundaries of the everyday and expanding people’s minds to different possibilities.

Kelley

Yes. I’m so glad you brought that up. There’s a phrase coming out of the south that James Boggs uses which I talk about: “making a way out of no way.” And here’s the irony about the way capitalism works. It’s more likely that you would get people with even fewer resources—those barely making a living, barely having clean water to drink—who would bring about the most dynamic and imaginative insurgencies.

I’ll give you three examples. You’ve got 250 million farmers and workers going on strike in India. That’s the largest strike in the history of the globe. These are people who have a history of suicide because of the kind of debt regime that they have to deal with and the struggles they’re dealing with. And they’re resisting Modi’s neoliberal policies. You’ve got Colombia where people in the streets made possible the election of a socialist president, which has all kinds of possibilities. Chile, same thing. It’s the poorest of the poor—even the middle class people who just suddenly don’t have anything.

Now, turn to the United States. The U.S. is not the only example. But one of the things that I think undermines our ability to imagine a world post capitalism is debt. Many of the people who have nothing can still have something if they get another credit card. So we’re living in a hyper-material sort of world in which you can prolong your suffering by getting more things with a credit card. Debt becomes a leverage on people’s ability to imagine something beyond what we have.

In order for us to free our imagination, we need new forms of social relations and new forms of democracy. I mean real democracy. We keep saying democracy is in crisis, but it’s voting that’s in crisis. And that’s a serious thing. I don’t want to undermine that point. But what does it mean to go to a people’s assembly and make a decision about the city budget? What does it mean to make decisions not by choosing who’s going to decide for you but by making decisions about things like energy or land use? Consider two cities: Jackson, Mississippi, and Detroit. I have a section on Detroit in the new epilogue.

In Detroit, people have taken democracy into their own hands. They’re creating their own energy grids against the privately owned energy company. Artists are coming together with activists and community people to create solar panels to freely charge cell phones using community land grants. They’re organizing companies coming into certain neighborhoods in East Detroit to provide low income housing for workers. They’re using community land grants to extend community farming and to push back against the privatization of land. They’re finding ways to be sustainable. High school students are developing solar energy or using bicycles. In other words, human energy is used to produce electricity. You’ve got the struggle against the privatization of water.

The imagination is so free, and so open. And people are organizing in a way and creating a sense of community even around questions of safety. Instead of allowing the police department to put cameras everywhere, they’re like, No, we’re going to have elders sit out on the porch to watch our kids as they walk back and forth to school, not as a form of surveillance but as a form of community protection. We’re going to develop closer relationships between elders and youth. That’s what’s being done right now.

Robinson

As people try to experiment with alternatives, they have historical precedents that they can look to. As you point out, these movements did not always win. And we look at the ones that won or succeeded. One of the striking things when reading this is how many incredible people and organizations have essentially been forgotten. Or they don’t appear in the textbooks that you would be assigned in high school and college. Yet they’re inspiring and wonderful. As you look over the pages of history, there are so many incredible examples and people that you can look to for inspiration to break your mind out of the prison of capitalist ideology.

Kelley

Exactly. Part of the point of writing a book was to show students movements they hadn’t heard of instead of the same old, same old. I do say a little bit about the Black Panther Party, but I say more about the Revolutionary Action Movement. I say more about the Combahee River Collective. I say more about Third World women’s liberation movements. I have a chapter on reparations, which now is a very hot topic, although it’s always been a hot topic my lifetime. Part of the argument in the reparations chapter is that if we think of reparations as merely a kind of legal strategy, we’re going to miss out on the fact that social movements brought the question of reparations to the forefront. And when we look at social movements, what we discover is that the way they envision reparations was very, very different.

One of the organizations I talk about is the Black Workers Congress, which had a Detroit base. They came up with the Black Manifesto, which had a budget for how to spend reparations money. And it wasn’t about housing and property ownership. It was about giving the National Welfare Rights Organization $10 million to organize and giving African liberation movements like $20 million. They had a whole list of the movements because their argument was that this was seed money for revolution. That’s what this money is for. It’s not to end a debt. It’s not to make sure that we’re all even and we’re all cool, and now we can all be property owners. So, studying those movements is really, really key.

Nowadays, in the age of the pundit, a lot of really interesting and generative thinkers are living in isolation. They blog and tweet and sit around thinking, This would be a good idea. And then if they get enough good ideas, they might be able to get on MSNBC and talk about them. With no relationship to movements. Yet these movements have produced some of the most generative ideas. We don’t have to make them up. So that’s part of what I was really trying to get at.

Robinson

When people educated in American public schools see that you’ve written a book on the freedom dreams of Black radicals, the first person they might think of is Martin Luther King, Jr., who barely appears in the book. The tradition is so rich. You’re going beyond what people have heard of. You just excavate all these incredible stories. And one thinks, Why don’t I know about these people? Why haven’t I been taught about these people?

Kelley

That is exactly the point. Dr. King does appear; he was important. But I also would argue—and I’m not the first one to say this—that he’s very much a product of these histories. As Vincent Harding would say, he’s part of a river of struggle.

Robinson

Reparations is more than this demand for the paying of debt. Indeed, if you look at the Movement for Black Lives agenda, it’s really, really comprehensive. It’s an incredible kind of all encompassing vision. It’s very, very inspiring. You originally wrote this book 20 years ago. You can tell it was written post 9/11 because it’s written in this kind of bleak moment. At one point, you said something like, I don’t want to be accused of being a traitor here. And it’s true that in that moment, post 9/11, we had this horrible with-us-or-against-us atmosphere. It was very, very bleak. And there weren’t many promising social movements. And in the 20 years since, particularly in the last five years, a lot of the things that you were hoping would blossom have started to. Talk a little bit about the difference between the moment that you wrote it and now.

Kelley

That’s a great question. The new edition explains that in detail. That was the whole point of reissuing it. But I’ll say a few things here. I started writing it before 9/11, and then 9/11 happened. The epilogue that I reinstated had already been written and had been ready to go in the first iteration of the first edition. I had to pull it because of 9/11. And I pulled it because there was an apocalyptic theme that runs through it that could be misread. I was finishing the introduction of the book on 9/11. I was sitting at my computer writing, and I said, I have to get this thing in today. So I didn’t go running like I usually do in the morning. I was living in New York City, downtown, NYU. The World Trade Center was outside my window, and the plane crashed. And I was typing and hearing all the sounds but I wasn’t paying attention. Someone had to call me from Michigan, to say, brother, look out your window. And it was smoking, right? That was the context of my finishing the book. So a lot of things did change.

So what became the very short epilogue, which I’ve actually removed, and replaced with this new one, says a lot about the tone and somber feelings that characterized that time. It was very hard to walk around downtown New York City, lower Manhattan, and smell the smoke and the rubble. It was like 18 blocks from Ground Zero. So that was kind of rough. At the same time, we’re still living with the consequences of 9/11.

I was writing the introduction and epilogue at the very moment when Biden was pulling troops from Afghanistan and declaring the end of the war that began after 9/11. The war that began the book is the war that’s allegedly ending. So that is a huge transition. What I did have to do, though, was come to terms with all the things that I wish I had done and things that I learned in the last 20 years.

So two things happened. One, I talk about all the movements and artists who actually embrace the concept of freedom dreams: different musicians, composers, and movements. But then I talk about things I would do differently. For example, I think about queer and trans liberation in the updated version. That’s something important because you’re talking about a vision of the future that has a radically different definition of the human right. And mutual aid. My daughter, who was nine years old at the time, is now a professor at Yale University and a great author herself with a book coming out. She got me thinking about mutual aid. Dean Spade’s writings, for example, helped me think about mutual aid as political practice and an ingredient in revolution. Disability Justice, another one, which really embraces an abolitionist framework. And finally, decolonization is one of the biggest gaps. These are all gaps, but the lack of Indigenous thought was one of the big things I really regret because it made me think about what it meant to demand reparations for stolen land. Land is a really important part of a chapter in the book. So, I don’t have any regrets. But I do want to always push the envelope of self-critique.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what reparations means in terms of decolonization. So all that’s in the introduction. For me, it’s the lessons of struggle as well as the distance we have come, which, in many ways, is a very far distance. In other ways, we’re back at square one—depending on how you look at it.

Robinson

In that original edition where you were speculating about what we should do post 9/11, you have a wonderful question. You said, “What shall we build on the ashes of a nightmare?” I love that. You thought about the World Trade Center site. You laid out this proposal for how we could move forward and how we could expand the possibilities. And of course, eventually, they built a mall and gift shop there, unfortunately. When I saw the mall for the first time, I thought, wasn’t it inevitable? And one of the points that comes out of your book is, No, these things aren’t inevitable. As you say, we shouldn’t think in terms of teleology. We should think in terms of many, many possibilities that lay out in front of us, many paths. And, you know, art and culture and utopian visions and movement action all generate these many, many paths. It’s beautiful, and I’m glad you’ve reissued it.

Kelley

Thank you for a really wonderful conversation.

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