Robin D. G. Kelley discusses Black radical history, liberation and capitalism : Throughline It may seem bleak, but Robin D.G Kelley's view of the world says there is no promise of liberation, only struggle. Kelley has spent his career bringing to life the stories of the Black labor organizers and anti-capitalists who are often left out of history books, from radical farmers in the South to Black unions during the Gilded Age. And he's come to a provocative conclusion: that the secret to capitalism's survival is racism. His scholarship uses historical connections between race and labor to directly challenge the premise that there can be any justice within America's current economic system — and to ask what that means for the people who seek it. This week on Throughline, a view of Black history you don't often hear in February.

There Are No Utopias

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RUND ABDELFATAH, HOST:

It is Black History Month.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Class is in session.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: This February, AT&T brings you a new kind of history lesson with history by us, lesser-known stories from Black History told by those making it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Stories of...

ABDELFATAH: A month where we celebrate and reflect on the unique contributions of Black Americans to U.S. history.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Black History meant to me giving a voice to those who might not have had one.

ABDELFATAH: But also, it's a time for corporate branding.

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TAMAR BRAXTON: How hype were y'all when you saw the Google Black History Month commercials?

(APPLAUSE)

JEANNIE MAI: Yes.

ADRIENNE BAILON: Brought a tear to my eyes.

MAI: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: We see you making moves, coming together on the leaderboard, putting up numbers, shining bright.

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, HOST:

These are all advertisements from AT&T, Dick's Sporting Goods, Google and Peloton for Black History Month. And this is just the start. There are so many more of these ads you can find easily online. They feature Black Americans on the move, working hard, laughing, being inspired. Sometimes we see historical figures like Martin Luther King Jr. or Rosa Parks in them. They are reminders that these companies want consumers to believe that they very much care about Black people and their history. Yet the hypocrisy is hard to ignore and very cringe. Companies like AT&T and Google have been accused of unfair labor practices by their Black employees.

ROBIN D G KELLEY: If that's not capitalism, I don't know what is. This is racial capitalism textbook 101.

ARABLOUEI: This is Robin D.G. Kelley.

KELLEY: I'm a professor of history at UCLA. I write books about social movements.

ABDELFATAH: That's a very humble self-bio. Robin Kelley is actually one of the most important active historians in academia today. He spent a career bringing to life the stories of Black labor organizers and anti-capitalists who are often left out of history books. He's directly challenged conventional wisdom about race and class in American history.

KELLEY: The central story of race and the making of the capitalist order isn't always the most obvious story. Race and, I would add, gender are modalities in which class is lived.

ABDELFATAH: He's spent his career telling stories about Black history that aren't often told. He's documented Alabama communists during the Great Depression, bus driving union organizers during World War II, Black miners who rebelled against their bosses and much more. In the process, he's built a vision of history that includes racism as an inherent feature of capitalism.

KELLEY: The story of race in the making of the global capitalist order is also about the capacity of capital in the state to capture the white working class and tie its identity to race as to whiteness and masculinity. So the secret to capitalism's survival is racism.

ARABLOUEI: The secret to capitalism's survival is racism, an idea that might make many people in the U.S., regardless of their political affiliation, uncomfortable. Kelley's scholarship uses historical connections between race and labor to directly challenge the basic idea that there can be any justice within America's current economic system.

KELLEY: Justice does not entail taking someone's labor from them, taking someone's money from them, taking someone's livelihood from them, taking someone's home from them so that you can get some money in your pocket. It doesn't entail living a precarious life all because the free market says, this is just the outcome; I'm sorry about that; you lose.

ARABLOUEI: Kelley comes from a tradition of historians who view capitalism and anti-racism as incompatible. In other words, there's no way to achieve equality within a capitalist system because that system will always exploit workers and create devastating inequality.

KELLEY: So any true liberation has to be anti-capitalist. There's no way capitalism can save us. And even if you could create a capitalism that's somehow non-racial, which of course, is impossible - but let's say in theory you can do that. We still have deep exploitation and inequality produced by it.

ABDELFATAH: In this episode of THROUGHLINE from NPR, we're going to explore a view of Black history you rarely get every February, a historical view that connects capitalism and racism in ways that are both surprising and disturbing.

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ARABLOUEI: Coming up, a conversation with historian Robin D.G. Kelley.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Part I - racial capitalism.

ABDELFATAH: In 2020, after the international outcry over the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, UNC Press reissued a book called "Black Marxism: The Making Of The Black Radical Tradition." It was written by Cedric Robinson, an American professor and thinker, and was originally published in 1983.

ARABLOUEI: In "Black Marxism," Cedric Robinson developed the concept of racial capitalism. The idea is complex, but it basically means that race and racism are not just incidental features of capitalism. They are foundational. Robinson says that capitalism emerged from racial hierarchies that existed in the world, not the other way around. And this idea influenced Robin Kelley deeply. Cedric Robinson was his mentor, and in his work, Kelley has continued to come back to this concept again and again.

KELLEY: So racial capitalism for him is a way of not describing a type of capitalism but of establishing that capitalism extracts wealth and structures value by assigning differential value to human life and labor - that is to say, some workers are more valued than others because of how they're racialized. So what that means is that whole groups of people are determined to be less human. Certain groups are subject to slavery or land dispossession, like Indigenous people, denied citizenship. They turned into migrant labor. Migrant labor hardly has ever been sort of racially neutral.

And then the final thing about racial capitalism which is really, I think, key is the story of racial capitalism isn't necessarily always the story of slavery and imperialism and dispossession. But it is the capacity of capital and the state to capture the quote, unquote, "white working class" - that is, to convince white people, much like Du Bois said when he talks about the wages of whiteness, to tie their identity, their racial identity, their whiteness and, in many cases, their masculinity in terms of men to the ruling class, to capital.

And so capitalism's origins in the U.S. especially but, I think, all over the world depends not just on the subjugation of Black and brown people. It's on being able to get that myth to work, to convince a whole section of the class that those are the cats over there - they're not worthy of your solidarity. They should be working for you, and they should be making less than you. And what's the outcome? The outcome is the U.S. South has a white working class that makes way less money than white working people elsewhere. Why? Because they make more than Black people. That's it. I mean...

ARABLOUEI: Yeah.

KELLEY: And so Cedric is fond of quoting Otis Madison, who was a colleague of his, who basically says, you know, racism wasn't created for Black people. For Black people, guns and tanks are sufficient. It was created for white people to convince them - right? - that somehow you need to be on the side of the people who exploit you, you know? And that is the magic of racial capitalism. The secret to racial capitalism is a capacity to, once again, capture white working people who are convinced that somehow being white is a thing and that they deserve some things as a result of it. And yet it ends up exploiting them as well but differentially.

ARABLOUEI: So I'm just thinking of, like, Fred Hampton's quote. I think the quote is, "we believe that racism is an excuse used by capitalists."

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FRED HAMPTON: We're not a racist organization because we understand that racism is an excuse used for capitalism. And we know that racism is just - is a byproduct of capitalism.

ABDELFATAH: Fred Hampton was the influential leader of the Illinois Black Panther Party. He was killed by Chicago police in 1969.

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HAMPTON: Everything would be all right if everything was put back in the hands of the people. And we are going to have to put it back in the hands of the people.

ARABLOUEI: Does racial capitalism theory push back against that at all? Or is it really just a - kind of in the same neighborhood of argument?

KELLEY: Right. Well, this is where I get myself in trouble because I actually believe that a lot of people use the term racial capitalism in multiple ways, in some ways that are really problematic. It sometimes translates into people thinking it is either a type of capitalism, or it gives them the excuse to avoid class, you know? And I actually agree with Fred Hampton. And I think that there's an argument to be made, yes, capitalism uses difference as a way to generate surplus, to extract surplus and to be able to build and create a kind of protective army of labor. That is the army of labor that believes that, because they get a piddling more because they don't have to be subjected to segregation because they have all-white waiting rooms or could be in the white section, that somehow the wages they make have a little bit more magic to them.

When you break it down - and this is what, I think, Fred Hampton was saying. When you begin to break down where that surplus actually goes, only a piddling of it actually goes to white working people in this kind of so-called middle class, right? But most of that goes to capital. They are able to make more profits as opposed to fewer profits because of racial capitalism.

ARABLOUEI: OK. So we should stop here for a second and explain a few things. First, you're hearing a lot of Marxist ideas from Robin Kelley about labor and economics. Here's the most basic way to understand it. The concept of Marxism comes from Karl Marx, who was a German economist active in the mid-1800s. He co-wrote a pamphlet called "The Communist Manifesto." In it, he claimed that workers would rise up and end the exploitative system of capitalism, that workers would seize the means of production in a mass revolution. In other words, the workers in the factories would take power from the owners, and industries would be owned by the public. And so it's easy to see why this idea would appeal to economically exploited Black Americans like Fred Hampton. It's through this lens that Robin Kelley sees history.

KELLEY: So what racial capitalism actually acknowledges is that, you know, the racial difference isn't just a chimera. It's not just fake. It's real. But it's real in a way in which its mechanisms allow for three things to happen at once - the extraction of greater surplus, the violent subjugation of people who were considered to be not fully citizens, not fully human, not fully accepted, and then the third thing it ultimately does is it creates structures that go beyond direct capitalist exploitation but state structures - like, for example, for groups to be taxed through things like regressive tax, sales tax, and sometimes those sales taxes go to subsidizing things that mostly white and middle- and upper-class people benefit from. It permits things like disenfranchisement, the political war against people of color, not allowing them to vote or participate in democracy and justifies that because, again, racial capitalism allows a particular part of the class to say, you know, this is OK with me. And so what it essentially does - racial capitalism actually subsidizes white wealth accumulation, partly by taxing people who can't benefit from government expenditures.

So it is a state process as well of, you know, redistribution of wealth, but what it doesn't do is that it doesn't eat at its own and doesn't actually undermine capitalism itself, and it doesn't undermine the extraction of surplus from white people and poor white people and working white people. You know, they just get a little more, but it's not necessarily - it doesn't translate into liberation. And that's what Fred Hampton was trying to say.

ABDELFATAH: Liberation - we usually hear that and think about political freedom or, in the context of Black history, freedom from enslavement. But the liberation Fred Hampton and other Black Marxists were advocating for fell more in line with the liberation of "The Communist Manifesto." They believed that true freedom must include freedom from the economic oppression of capitalism, that the working classes who represent the majority of the people should be in control of the country instead of the elites.

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ARABLOUEI: So how did Robin Kelley come to agree with Fred Hampton, and how can his story inform our own view of how he got to the present moment?

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ARABLOUEI: Coming up - raising Robin Kelley.

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ANNA MESSHER: Hi. My name is Anna Messher (ph) calling from Nashville, Tenn., and you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Part 2 - the ether.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Singing) The revolution has come.

Off the pigs.

(Singing) Time to pick up the guns.

Off the pigs.

(Singing) The revolution has come.

Off the pigs.

(Singing) Time to pick up the guns.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Pillage, looting, murder and arson have nothing to do with civil rights.

ARABLOUEI: In New York City during the 1960s, Harlem felt like the center of a revolution.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: We want some action now. Action has to come.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: You wanted action here, didn't you? Because you don't like the idea of white people shooting Black people down, do you? And you're ready to do something about it, aren't you? I know you are.

ARABLOUEI: And Robin D.G. Kelley grew up in the thick of it.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: So the new generation, when it is time for them to take over this ghetto here, which is their home, they will be the ones to say what will go on, what will not go on and what they will accept and what they will not accept.

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KELLEY: I mean, this is the age of the Black Panther Party, the Black Liberation Army. Revolution was taking place all around us, you know?

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ANGELA DAVIS: You are defending yourselves. You're defending yourselves. You're defending the struggle. You're defending the cause of liberation. It's that we will not stop until there are no more prisons.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Singing) No more pigs in our community.

Off the pigs.

(Singing) No more pigs in our community.

KELLEY: This is sort of the high point of that movement. But I'm still a kid, so I'm not really aware. I can't say with all honesty that I was, like, having conversations. But what I can say is that it was really in the ether.

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ARABLOUEI: Robin was raised in the 1960s, mostly by his single mother. Along with his older sister and younger brother, they grew up in a tenement apartment on the border of Harlem and Washington Heights.

KELLEY: Living in a household with my mother, her focus was on non-Western religions. So it wasn't a typical household because my mother's a hippie. She's walking around barefoot with long hair in a poncho in Harlem reading the "Bhagavad Gita." And what it meant was that there were no boundaries or borders. The United States didn't exist as an enclosure.

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NELSON MANDELA: South Africa is a country of many races. There is room for all races in this country.

CHE GUEVARA: (Speaking Spanish).

MAO TSE-TUNG: (Speaking Mandarin).

KELLEY: The entire globe was at our disposal and being talked about...

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UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing in non-English language).

KELLEY: ...Whether in the streets, people talking about Africa or Haiti, in my house, talking about India, Hinduism, listening to street corner speeches about Mao Tse-Tung and Black liberation. The thing is my home life in New York was actually great. In other words, I didn't come from a broken home. I came from a really stable, beautiful, spiritually grounded, little, tiny tenement apartment. That was foundational. That was the basis of the outlook.

ARABLOUEI: But the idyllic, stable life Robin experienced in Harlem changed when he and his sister were forced to move across the country to live with their father in Seattle. It was the early 1970s. He was in fourth grade. And like many other kids from the city, he was bused to a school in the suburbs.

KELLEY: So you go from Harlem to living in the Central District of Seattle to getting on a school bus to go out to the suburbs, which are hostile and racist. I don't use the word racist lightly. They're not just racist because they're white people who were not nice. They did mean things to kids, Black kids, and treated us like we were not even human.

ARABLOUEI: Despite this harsh change in environment, Robin and his sister got straight A's. But this didn't protect them from bad treatment, even from his teachers.

KELLEY: Because I got straight A's, I had teachers who'd just literally wage war on me. I had a homeroom teacher in the seventh grade - we didn't have report cards sent to us. The homeroom teacher would hand them to you. And so she would open them up and look to see what you got. And every time it got to me, she would look at me with contempt and throw the report card down and just do a huff and puff.

ARABLOUEI: Was all this difficulty worth it? Did Robin and his sister receive a better education at the suburban school? According to him, no. The overcrowded school he went to in Harlem was more academically challenging than the suburban one he was bused to in Seattle.

KELLEY: And this tells you something about, like, the experiment of desegregation and what it was supposed to produce and what a failure it was in terms of this assumption that moving Black and brown kids into white spaces will make them better people and make them more knowledgeable.

ARABLOUEI: By the time he was in high school, Robin and his sister moved again. They went back to live with their mom but this time in southern California. And at that point in his life, there were very few people who would have guessed that Robin would one day become a well-known, successful academic.

KELLEY: I was really typical, you know, meaning that my sister was ahead of me. She's really smart. She was the scholar. I'm famous at Pasadena High School in 1980 for one thing, and that is that I threw the party of the year.

ARABLOUEI: (Laughter).

ABDELFATAH: Tell us more about this party (laughter).

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KELLEY: Back in the days of house parties, I threw the party of the year. We had a DJ. They were playing The Whispers over and over again. I mean...

ARABLOUEI: (Laughter).

KELLEY: This was, like, the days.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLEY: And my future wasn't destined to be involved in organizing, activism, scholarship, none of that.

ABDELFATAH: And after high school, Robin applied to Long Beach State, not entirely sure what he even wanted to study - first photography, and for about two weeks, he was a business administration major.

KELLEY: Business administration - me, me.

ARABLOUEI: Wow.

ABDELFATAH: (Laughter).

KELLEY: It doesn't make any sense, right? I'm, like...

ARABLOUEI: Yeah.

KELLEY: ...The anti-capitalist, right? But I didn't even know what that meant.

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ABDELFATAH: During that first year in college, Robin experienced two traumatic events that would change the course of his life. The first happened soon after he joined an all-Black fraternity.

KELLEY: And one night, we're going to get some chicken. And long story short, a group of six white boys armed with two-by-fours, bolt cutters, pipes jump out the car and, for no other reason that we're Black, chased us down. And I'm in a chicken place. And I get beat up, and I'm hospitalized.

ABDELFATAH: Then just a few weeks after Robin was attacked on the street, he was attacked again, this time by the police.

KELLEY: They thought I was criminal, grabbed me, threw me on the ground, dumped all my books in the mud. You know, I used to walk around with a legal briefcase. That's what a nerd I was, right?

(LAUGHTER)

KELLEY: All my books in the mud, and I'm laying there, and they got their hands on my neck, my arm behind me. And my arm is actually in a small kind of cast 'cause I had a hairline fracture from being beaten up from the white boys.

ABDELFATAH: These things happened to Robin at the same time as he was getting into campus politics and Black studies, reading Frederick Douglass, Chancellor Williams, Cheikh Anta Diop. And he started to make connections between his life and the things he was reading.

KELLEY: I minored in Black studies and decided on history. And I decided on history because history, one, as a discipline seemed to combine all the things I was interested in, but also was the avenue for the questions I wanted to understand. That is, what is the source of state violence and racism? What have we done in the past to try to overturn that?

ABDELFATAH: He found himself surrounded by nurturing professors who encouraged him to be an intellectual, to challenge his own assumptions and open himself to new ideas. But according to Robin, it was what was happening outside the classroom that really shaped his worldview.

KELLEY: I was vice chair of Black Student Union at one point. I was involved in a study group organized by the All-African People's Revolutionary Party, AAPRP, and we'd study Walter Rodney, Frantz Fanon, C.L.R. James, Angela Davis, I mean, Kwame Nkrumah. So this was outside the classroom. This is where I got the real education. And when you discover that your heroes are Walter Rodney and C.L.R. James, both of whom wrote these history texts, that's the point at which I'm like, history's for me, you know? Not because I wanted to be a historian, but by that time I just wanted to be, just like any grown person, a communist.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLEY: That was my goal. I just - I wanted to be a communist for life. I wanted to make revolution. And it's like, of course, you've got to be a historian to be a real good communist, not the other way around.

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ARABLOUEI: Coming up, how Robin Kelley applies the lessons of the past to the challenges of today.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NICK JONES: My name is Nick Jones (ph). I'm from Honolulu, Hawaii. You're listening to THROUGHLINE with NPR. That's what you do.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Part 3 - There are No Utopias.

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ABDELFATAH: Back in 2020, just a few months after Amazon opened a new warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., workers started organizing.

ARABLOUEI: A fight that's still playing out today.

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JENNIFER BATES: We're being treated like we're prisoners who's there to get a job done.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: What's your biggest frustration there?

DARYL RICHARDSON: Job security, respect, your safety and well-being.

BATES: The community don't realize is what's going on behind the curtain? What are the people there going through just to make sure that we getting our packages?

RICHARDSON: It's time for us to make a stand. It's time for some changes.

ABDELFATAH: Many of the workers wanted better working conditions, better treatment and pay, so they attempted to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. Labor organizations around the country were energized by what they saw. It was the largest unionizing effort in Amazon's history. Momentum was growing, but Amazon wasn't happy. It was announced that a vote would take place among the employees of the warehouse about whether they should join a union. Amazon lobbied hard against it, and in the end...

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Amazon walked away with a victory Friday in its battle against the effort to unionize a Bessemer, Ala. warehouse. Workers voted at a more than 2 to 1 margin not to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.

ARABLOUEI: But not long after the vote, the National Labor Relations Board, a federal regulator, began investigating whether Amazon illegally interfered with the vote.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: One of the key and most controversial pieces in focus - a mailbox. Amid the voting process, a mailbox was installed in the warehouse's private parking lot that Amazon says was meant to make voting, quote, "convenient, safe and private." Union organizers, though, say the mailbox was in view of company surveillance cameras and led many workers to wonder if their votes were being monitored.

ARABLOUEI: The investigation concluded that Amazon tampered with the election, so they ordered a second vote. The voting is set to end later in March. Now, it would be easy to see what's happening in Alabama in isolation, outside the context of history. But if you scratch beneath the surface, you will see a story of race and class and labor rarely told. The fact is, nearly 100 years ago, there were intense, radical labor organizing efforts happening in Alabama by farmers - communist farmers, most of whom were Black. Robin Kelley tells this story in his seminal book, "Hammer And Hoe."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KELLEY: If you walked around Birmingham, Ala., in 1929, you would never, ever guess that the Communist Party would ever even be there, let alone (laughter) have a presence. In fact, in 1929, you wouldn't even guess that there would be a union movement.

ARABLOUEI: Yet that same year, communist organizers began arriving in Alabama with the goal of organizing farmers and workers. It was the height of the Great Depression, and they quickly gained support from the local people.

KELLEY: And it happened as a result of a whole bunch of different things converging. You know, one, it's not as if there were - there was any shortage of Black or white workers willing to fight, but the Communist Party came at the right time, and they came at a time when Black working people in the countryside and in the cities were waiting for the return of Reconstruction. They're like, OK, these Yankees, they left us, you know, in the 1870s; I know they're coming back. So imagine being a communist - even a Black communist 'cause it was mostly Black communists - showing up, and they're like, you know, I'm here. I'm building a movement - blahdy (ph), blah, blah. And say, yes, of course. Yes. You know, we've been waiting for you, you know?

And then the other thing is that they brought with them a connection to a world movement. So imagine you're handing out or selling these newspapers, The Southern Worker and The Liberator, and a lot of these folks can't read or write, so they got, like, you know, young girls who are reading out loud under the shade of a tree, stories about the revolutions in Kenya, in South Africa, what's happening in the Soviet Union, and they learn that this is part of an international movement. So you're sitting there thinking, oh, OK, well, I want to be part of that. And you know what happened? Some of those Black folks, especially in rural areas, wrote letters...

ARABLOUEI: Wow.

KELLEY: ...Addressed to Stalin.

ARABLOUEI: Wow.

KELLEY: They wrote letters to Stalin and saying, look; you know, we need help. Send us some troops. Send us some comrades. And what happened was - it was the belief that if anything were to happen, you had these backup troops, you know? And I interviewed people who believe that, you know, who said, you know, we were willing to go on strike against the plantation owners because we knew that if they started trying to kill us, that Stalin would send troops, they'd come in through Mobile, they'd march up, you know, through southern Alabama, and they'd be in trucks, and each truck would have seven men, and they'd have guns, and those seven men would go out, and they'd take out the plantation owners. You know, they believed that.

And that is resonant with another thing that happened, and that is with Roosevelt and the New Deal, workers actually believed the federal government was on their side. So imagine you've got the Soviet Union on your side for one particular constituency. You've got the federal government on your side - you believe it - that's actually doing things that didn't happen before. Passing labor laws. Imposing - legislating the right to organize. So they began winning union elections, not just the communists but the working class as a whole. They're building power - building power. That's what's different. When the - when Amazon workers tried to have their election and go on strike, what was different is the support, the outside support, the feeling that you're not isolated that made a huge difference. And what happened in terms of the history of labor is that when labor becomes quite powerful and robust and militant in Alabama in the '30s and '40s, what did they get? They get the Cold War.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE TRUTH ABOUT COMMUNISM")

RONALD REAGAN: Less than 50 years after the communists seized power in Russia, almost a billion people are under their control. Four out of every 10 of the world's population oppressed. And the conspiracy that is communism is stronger, more determined than ever.

ABDELFATAH: This is a documentary from 1962 called "The Truth About Communism." That's Ronald Reagan narrating.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE TRUTH ABOUT COMMUNISM")

REAGAN: The communist philosophy that the end justifies the means has caused pain out of all proportion to the pitiful social progress communism's achieved. And yet it has spread at a fantastic speed and demonstrated a frightening vitality.

ABDELFATAH: This was essentially a propaganda film that retold the story of communism through an American lens. It was part of the larger conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States in what we today call the Cold War. This tension between the countries created a difficult environment for Americans who were leftists because they were often immediately associated with ideology of the perceived enemy - the Soviet Union. The FBI often targeted individuals and groups who were even remotely connected to communism.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: If a person supports organizations which reflect communist teachings, or organizations labeled communist by the Department of Justice, she may be a communist. If a person defends the activities of communist nations while consistently attacking the domestic and foreign policy of the United States, she may be a communist.

ABDELFATAH: There were even public congressional hearings where prominent left-leaning Americans were forced to publicly defend themselves and their loyalty to the United States.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I am not and never have been a supporter of, a member of or a sympathizer with any organization known to me to be or suspected by me of being controlled or dominated by communists.

ABDELFATAH: And on top of all that, some labor movements like the Alabama Communists were attacked under the pretense that they were disloyal.

KELLEY: There was a war against labor. And then we tell the story all the way up to 1970s, when the largest strike wave since 1946 was in the early '70s, and some of those strikes were in Alabama - quite militant, struggling, winning. And what did they get? They get neoliberalism. They get a logic, backed by the state, that says that capital makes jobs. Rich people are the ones who are going to save us. That's why we need tax policies in which rich people could keep as much money as possible and working people can be paid as little as possible, and that's going to keep our economy going. That becomes the prevailing logic of the world we're in now. The Cold War was really key for crushing labor insurgency. I really want to make that point because sometimes we think, well, you know, just people are just not as militant as they used to be. And, you know, people are just, like - just too lazy. And so we wonder why it's hard to organize a union and yet they're still there, you know? And Alabama is just - has a rich, amazing history, and those people are still there fighting the good fight.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Jeff Bezos putting an angry customer on blast, the Amazon CEO sharing an email criticizing his support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos, saying he'd be happy to lose customers who oppose that company's support of Black Lives Matter.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Bezos taking a screenshot of the email and then posted it on Instagram.

ARABLOUEI: In June 2020, Amazon publicly supported the Black Lives Matter movement. They announced that they would donate $10 million to organizations that would, quote, "bring about social justice and improve the lives of Black and African Americans." This included the Black Lives Matter organization.

KELLEY: I think, to put it very simply, the attempt on the part of corporations to buy off these insurgent movements - this is - it's an old strategy. It happens - it always happens. But it's also very telling that people would even take the money because this is the most effective way to neutralize movements. I mean, it's way more effective than just sending the police out to just beat people up. Once you give - once a corporation gives them money and you're doing commercials for those companies, you owe them something. But more importantly - and this is, I think, the heart of the matter - is it - it's an indication, well, what are you fighting for? You cannot say I'm in alliance with the very corporation who's extracting all kinds of wealth at the expense of people's crushed, destroyed, overworked bodies and you're going to take the money.

ABDELFATAH: So the thing I'm struggling with a little bit - right? - or that - just, like, as a - like, as we think about what the 20th and 21st century look like in terms of, quote-unquote, "progress" - right? - in terms of the reduction of infant mortality rate and violence generally speaking being sort of reduced globally, a lot of people would say, well, capitalism and the pushback against it maybe - right? - like, the tension - that space between the tension - the anti-capitalists, I should say, and the capitalists - that space has generated actually a lot of productive growth and benefits for all of us.

KELLEY: Right.

ABDELFATAH: So is it despite capitalism or because of capitalism?

KELLEY: OK. This is a great - it's a really great question. Let me see how to enter it. So let's begin by acknowledging that capitalism is a dynamic system and it has to keep changing because it has built-in systemic crises. Sometimes these crises are periodic, you know, cyclical. Some of the crises are structural where it just cannot get out of itself. And some crises are just, like, crises that really require radical transformation. But here's the thing - those crises are often brought about by exactly what you talk about, that is the struggles of working people, the struggles of the poor and struggles of other nations. Sometimes they're caused by other things. But actual human activity - the demands - the demands on the welfare state - right? - in the 1960s with the National Welfare Rights Organization, their demands and organizing forced the state to give over a lot more money - not enough to live on but more money than it did - which then created a kind of a crisis for the state and for state financing. So on the one hand, it is true, infant mortality rate has declined. Yes, there's been diseases eradicated, sometimes not by capitalism, though, but by public health supported with state funds. Oh, but who cares about that, you know? But capitalism's not the reason for it. It's in spite of capitalism.

ARABLOUEI: Right.

KELLEY: We - when we look around the world, one of the great magical things that allowed us to have cheap clothes and look fancy and go to H&M was the fast fashion that has exploited sweatshop labor in Central America, in Haiti, in Vietnam, in China, that's producing all this - all these clothes really quickly. And as much as China did raise standard of living, no question about it, Vietnam did raise the standard of living, no question about it, coming out of a war, but it's still sweatshop labor, still labor that's being paid very low wages. And we know this because unions are fighting to raise those wages. All these things have happened all because of capitalism, which has led to immiseration, poverty, destruction of the environment, even if more people have cellphones than they did before.

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ARABLOUEI: This vision of a kind of society which fights all of the kind of isms - racism, ablism, sexism, all these things - are one of the lessons we've learned about human history and especially about how communism actually unfolded in, like, the Soviet Union, for example, is that...

KELLEY: Right.

ARABLOUEI: ...These kind of, some would call utopian visions of a society, can they be dangerous in the sense that they embolden people or give them a kind of sense of, almost, like, a religious fervor in their sense of, like, righteousness and what needs to happen for society? Is it in itself, like, a thing that we should be cautious of?

KELLEY: Let me let me step back for a second and just say that, you know, utopia - the definition of utopia is nowhere, OK? That's the formal definition. And I would argue - I'm the first to say that what we think of as state socialism or communism has been a disaster. I'm the last one to defend what actually becomes, in the case of Soviet Union, for example, not socialism at all, but state capitalism that's redistributive. That's what the Soviet Union became. And China's the same thing. China did amazing things in terms of being able to raise the basic standard of living. But China is a state capitalist neoliberal society. We don't have a communist country anywhere in the world. We've never actually had one. It has never happened.

Having said all that, can utopian hopes lead to kind of, like, false expectations? Part of the the power, and I think failure, of countries that embrace the name of being communist or socialist is that that's what they did. Stalin kept saying, you know, we're the best. We're going to give you the best. You know, and so don't even look anywhere else, you know, don't complain. We're going to provide for our people. So under Stalin, you have things like five-year plans, which are all based on production, which is not necessarily always a good thing. But the five-year plans were meant to prove the superiority of the Soviet system and silence dissent. Because when we ask the question, what do people actually need? Sometimes it's not just money or housing. Sometimes it goes deeper than that. Now, the revolutionary tradition out of which I come, or that I embrace, is one that says there are no utopias.

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KELLEY: We have to keep remaking our vision over and over again and remind us what we're doing is only struggle, this - only struggle. No promise of liberation, you know, only the promise of struggle. And what that means is that we have to consciously rethink where we are. And if we see that the systems that we're creating are actually in the hands of a few people who make a determination for us, that's not good. And I'm not saying that we need to go back to some, you know, romantic notion of what socialism was supposed to be, but whatever we need to do, we need to do it fast and we need to do it in a way that we put at the center - life needs - life needs, human needs, and that is all of life needs, to reproduce ourselves, to be good people. And at the center of all that, of course, is love - agape, as Dr. King would say, the constant struggle to make community. Because the deeper our communities, the harder it is to break us apart, you know? And it means being in the community of people you may not like, but that's how we move forward. With all of our mistakes and errors and all of our misjudgments, we move forward together. And that's without the expectation that there's going to be some kind of rainbow at the end and which we're all going to be happy.

I avoid optimistic and I avoid pessimistic (laughter). I don't even use hope; I always use struggle. And why do I do that? Because I think that you cannot be an intellectual in a think tank, sitting around thinking about these things on your own or on a blog and decide what needs to be done. You can only do it in struggle with other people because that's the source of ideas.

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ABDELFATAH: That's it for this week's show. I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: I'm Ramtin Arablouei. And you've been listening to THOUGHLINE from NPR.

ABDELFATAH: This episode was produced by me...

ARABLOUEI: And me, and...

LAWRENCE WU, BYLINE: Lawrence Wu...

LAINE KAPLAN-LEVENSON, BYLINE: Laine Kaplan-Levenson...

JULIE CAINE, BYLINE: Julie Caine...

VICTOR YVELLEZ, BYLINE: Victor Yvellez...

SCHUYLER SWENSON, BYLINE: Schuyler Swenson...

MANSEE KHURANA, BYLINE: Mansee Khurana...

YOLANDA SANGWENI, BYLINE: Yolanda Sangweni...

ABDELFATAH: Fact-checking for this episode was done by Kevin Volkl.

ARABLOUEI: Thanks also to Casey Miner, Kumari Devarajan, Anya Grundmann and Tamar Charney.

ABDELFATAH: Our music was composed by Ramtin and his band, Drop Electric, which includes...

NAVID MARVI: Navid Marvi...

SHO FUJIWARA: Sho Fujiwara...

ANYA MIZANI: Anya Mizani.

ABDELFATAH: Thanks to Andie Huether for mixing the episode.

ARABLOUEI: And finally, if you have an idea or like something you heard on the show, please write us at throughline@npr.org or hit us up on Twitter @throughlineNPR.

ABDELFATAH: Thanks for listening.

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