Newsletter #56: Freedom Dreams and Counter-Histories, with Robin D.G. Kelley

By Mack Penner

One way to think about Robin D.G. Kelley’s interview with The Dig, and the book Freedom Dreams on which the interview is focused, is as an exercise in “counter-history” that cuts through and pushes against established historical understanding.

On the Left, this can go at least two ways, both of which are evident in Kelley’s interview. Counter-history can take the form, first, of a critical re-appraisal of broad regional or cultural stereotypes, as when Kelley makes the point, citing Cedric Robinson, that the American South is not a pathologically conservative “backwater.” Instead, Kelley says that the South is a place where reaction has been especially vehement owing to the historical experience of near-revolution. In other words, Southern conservatism is in large part a function of the revolutionary threat posed especially by the black radical movements that historically have threatened white supremacy.

Counter-historical thinking can also contribute to the Left’s histories of itself, by forcing a clear-eyed assessment of the radical past. The counter-historical mode is a sort of antidote against nostalgia. As the Italian communist and philosopher Domenico Losurdo wrote in a different counter-historical context, “bidding farewell to hagiography is the precondition for landing on the firm ground of history.” This point is implied across Kelley’s interview, which makes constant allowance for the kinds of knots and complexities that feature throughout the history of black radicalism as they do across the history of the Left more generally.

Listen to this week’s episode of The Dig here.

I raise these points to suggest a throughline from previous episodes (one and two) with Michael Denning on Antonio Gramsci. Especially in the second and longer of those episodes, Denning makes the point repeatedly that, for Gramsci, it was imperative for radical movements to constantly analyze and re-analyze their own historical circumstances, and to do so without the false certainty afforded by dogma.

This imperative applies to the present and the past alike. Being serious about understanding the present conjuncture means being equally serious about the histories that have shaped the conjuncture. In this way, counter-history can be an aid to our present efforts at shaping the future.

Further Reading

For a concrete and extended argument about how counter-historical thinking can be especially useful on the Left, I recommend reading Rebels, Reds, Radicals: Rethinking Canada’s Left History by Ian McKay, a Gramscian historian. While the book is addressed to the Canadian context, it is more broadly relevant. McKay doesn’t use the term “counter-history,” but in his conceptualization of historical reconnaissance, he suggests the value of the counter-historical mode and offers a specific example of what that mode can look like as a “political act of research.”

“When leftists write the history of their movements,” McKay writes, “they often fall into the trap of reading back into past political realities all the terms and conditions of the present.” This can have a comforting effect, seeming to assure us of the transhistorical applicability of concepts or, more negatively, dogmas. From counter-history and reconnaissance, then, we can avoid this pitfall and gain insights about the “little-explored realities” that can enliven our political efforts at a time that requires much more than our dutiful adherence to inherited ideas.