Swans Commentary » swans.com November 16, 2009  



Jonah Raskin's The Mythology of Imperialism
A Revolutionary Critique of British Literature
and Society in the Modern Age


by Louis Proyect


Book Review



Raskin, Jonah: The Mythology of Imperialism: a Revolutionary Critique of British Literature and Society in the Modern Age, Monthly Review Press, 2009, ISBN 978-1-58367-186-3, 320 pages.


(Swans - November 16, 2009)   When you hear the name Joseph Conrad conjoined with the word imperialism, there is a good chance that you will think of Edward Said, the Columbia University professor and Palestinian activist who died of leukemia in 2003. To be more exact, you will be reminded of an analysis that went against conventional wisdom. Despite the nominally anti-imperialist viewpoint of The Heart of Darkness, Said argued in Culture and Imperialism (1993) that:

It is no paradox, therefore, that Conrad was both anti-imperialist and imperialist, progressive when it came to rendering fearlessly and pessimistically the self-confirming, self-deluding corruption of overseas domination, deeply reactionary when it came to conceding that Africa or South American could ever had had an independent history of culture, which the imperialists violently disturbed but by which they were ultimately defeated. Yet lest we think patronizingly of Conrad as the creature of his own time, we had better note that recent attitudes in Washington and among most Western policymakers and intellectuals show little advance over his views.

As it turns out, Jonah Raskin beat him to the punch by 20 years. In 1971, a book titled The Mythology of Imperialism: a Revolutionary Critique of British Literature and Society in the Modern Age appeared. Adapted from author Jonah Raskin's PhD dissertation, it surely deserves Edward Said's accolade on the back cover: "The Mythology of Imperialism I have read, used, and considered to be one of the genuinely important books on modern literature."

The Columbia University connection is not just to Edward Said. When Raskin was teaching literature at SUNY Stony Brook in 1968, he was arrested up on campus along with 800 Columbia students who were protesting the war and racism. As a committed Marxist, he saw the need to combine theory and praxis. As such, Mythology is a Molotov cocktail aimed at the pretensions of high culture, especially at those authors who had -- with the exception of Rudyard Kipling -- a veneer of progressivism. After reading Mythology, now available once again from MR Press, you will never see luminaries such as Conrad, D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster, and Joyce Cary in the same light again.

Very much a product of its time, Raskin's book has an urgent quality that you are not likely to find in today's left-leaning criticism so often marred by postmodernist cleverness and irony. This is a work that despite its obvious connection to a distant time and place still has the power to evoke strong feelings, like Jimi Hendrix performing All Along the Watchtower.

On almost every page, there are cultural signifiers that place Raskin in the turbulent 1960s. The subheading for a discussion of Rudyard Kipling is titled Honky in Nighttown. Referring to Joseph Conrad's love of the sea, Raskin says that without it, he is a "nowhere man," a reference to the Beatles. The Rolling Stones get a tip of the hat as well. In making the case that Heart of Darkness is about the decay of Western civilization, Raskin raps it down like this: "Paint it black, Conrad exclaims." Understanding full well of course that it was Mick Jagger's words. In writing about an American villain in Conrad's Nostromo, Raskin refers to him as someone who speaks like LBJ with his Texas drawl and who would, in Cecil Rhodes's words, "annex the planets if he could."

What a contrast to today's academia when PhD students play it close to the vest in order to keep a dissertation board mollified. Every word is measured in order to make sure that nobody gets offended. And when these students become endowed with a teaching job, they will also play by the rules in order to get tenure. By the time they are tenured, they have gotten so used to placating those above them that they have often forgotten whatever radical politics they once had. That was one of the major differences with the 1960s. Ironically, the war-induced prosperity made students and youth less docile since the threat of dismissal from a job does not have the power to intimidate that it does today.

Like Edward Said, Raskin's approach to Conrad is nuanced and even dialectical. Understanding the Polish author's limitations, he gives him credit for rejecting imperialist domination:

Heart of Darkness is an epiphany. It takes us behind the words "civilization" and "empire." Behind the door of civilization is European barbarism; behind the door of empire is exploitation, death, disease, exile. Heart of Darkness is a vision of evil. The heart of darkness is the core of truth beneath the surface. It is the moment in which all is revealed. There is all the "rot let loose in print" by the press -- about the imperial enterprise. He sweeps it away. There is the pretense of the philanthropic enterprise. He pricks holes in that bag. There is the face of the jungle; he goes into the interior. There is the accountant with his oiled-down hair, starched white shirt and cufflinks. His cool exterior hides his heart of avarice and greed. He would rather kill a Congolese than make an incorrect entry in his account book. "When one has got to make correct entries," he says, "one comes to hate those savages -- hate them to death." There are the African masks -- those masks which inspired Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" -- which hide the features of the Black man. Conrad unmasks. Heart of Darkness turns everything inside out, upside down. Light is dark, up is down, good is evil, death is life. The agents of civilization are barbarians. The Enlightenment thinkers are torturers. The Christians are devils.

Everything turns into its opposite, denies, then destroys itself. Marlow makes two important discoveries on his trip. The first is that European civilization rests on the exploitation of Black people by white people, that European society rests on the annihilation of the wretched of the earth, on the theft of the riches of the planet.

Apart from the analysis, one other thing impresses us about this passage. Raskin uses language like a good boxer uses a jab. There is not a wasted word and he understands that the vernacular has a way of getting the reader's attention. If there is a better way of saying that Conrad reveals the reality behind the colonizer's pretensions than "He pricks holes in that bag," I can't imagine what it may be. This is prose aimed at the solar plexus.

Caught between two worlds, Conrad cannot bring himself to identify with Africans who remain as "The Other":

No Africans, no Third World men or women, are major characters in Heart of Darkness. They are a moving force in history, they are a power, but they are not seen as specific individuals. In Heart of Darkness they are in the background -- Black arms and legs glimpsed through the dense jungle.

There is a Black primitive rebel who turns to arson and burns down a company warehouse as an attack on the colonial enterprise. There is the jumped-up Black servant whose white master provokes him to mock other whites. There is the Black guard with rifle in hand, making sure that his Black brothers do not escape from the chain gang. There is also the Black woman who steps out of the jungle: the Earth Mother, sensual, fertile, fecund. She is a creature out of cheap romantic fiction. She is the embodiment of Conrad's dream fantasies.

Conrad's fear and loathing of people of color was fairly universal in modern fiction until such peoples began to use the novel as a vehicle for their own voices. It took a Chinua Achebe or a Naguib Mahfouz to make the black or brown man and woman the protagonist.

This was less of an obstacle for white writers who broke with their own class and made the decision to bind with the colonized rather than the colonizer. First and foremost among them was the elusive B. Traven who took up the cause of Mexican Indians in the so-called Jungle Novels. Once he had disposed with colonial literature, Raskin turned his attention to Traven who is arguably the most authentic anti-imperialist ever to emerge out of the dominant nationality in 20th century literature:

When I wrote The Mythology of Imperialism I had little firsthand experience in the Third World itself, though I had briefly visited Algeria and Tunisia where I saw the remnants of French colonialism.

Since then I have lived in and written about Mexico, and come to understand the role of American colonialism there as well as opposition to it, from the Mexican Revolution of 1910-20 to the Zapatistas in Chiapas in our own time. I have written, in My Search for B. Traven, about the enigmatic, tantalizing case of B, Traven, the exiled European author, anarchist, and pacifist who wrote about colonialism and revolution in a distinctive series of six books called The Jungle Novels. Traven was and still is important to me as a white man who identified with the Third World, and though he was not immune to prejudices and stereotypes, he presents an example of a writer who left Europe, lived in Mexico, and began to see the world from the point of view of its indigenous population. Alternatives to the imperialist vision and point of view do exist. Said insisted on that part of the story, too, again and again.

It is probably obvious that I hold this book in great regard, but I found myself arguing with the author as I read through it. Of course, this is what one would expect from any thought-provoking work. I found myself wondering whether the novelist has any other duty except to create fine art, a question that has preoccupied Marxists concerned with art and revolution from the beginning of the 20th century. Alternatively, I wondered if some novels could serve as indictments of a decaying social system despite the reactionary beliefs of the author.

In a letter to Margaret Harkness in 1888, Engels made the case for Balzac, a disgusting royalist in his private beliefs:

The more the opinions of the author remain hidden, the better for the work of art. The realism I allude to may crop out even in spite of the author's opinions. Let me refer to an example. Balzac, whom I consider a far greater master of realism than all the Zolas passés, présents et à venir [past, present and future], in "La Comédie humaine" gives us a most wonderfully realistic history of French 'Society', especially of le monde parisien [the Parisian social world], describing, chronicle-fashion, almost year by year from 1816 to 1848 the progressive inroads of the rising bourgeoisie upon the society of nobles, that reconstituted itself after 1815 and that set up again, as far as it could, the standard of la viellie politesse française [French refinement]. He describes how the last remnants of this, to him, model society gradually succumbed before the intrusion of the vulgar monied upstart, or were corrupted by him; how the grand dame whose conjugal infidelities were but a mode of asserting herself in perfect accordance with the way she had been disposed of in marriage, gave way to the bourgeoisie, who horned her husband for cash or cashmere; and around this central picture he groups a complete history of French Society from which, even in economic details (for instance the rearrangement of real and personal property after the Revolution) I have learned more than from all the professed historians, economists, and statisticians of the period together. Well, Balzac was politically a Legitimist; his great work is a constant elegy on the inevitable decay of good society, his sympathies are all with the class doomed to extinction. But for all that his satire is never keener, his irony never bitterer, than when he sets in motion the very men and women with whom he sympathizes most deeply -- the nobles.

But beyond Balzac's value as an observer of the nobility in decay, there is Balzac the artist whose mastery of plot, dialog, character, and wit elevate him to the pantheon of great writers of the 19th century next to Charles Dickens whose sympathy for the poor was undermined by a typically Victorian belief that charity is the only answer for their plight.

Around fifteen years ago I took a class at the Brecht Forum in New York with the novelist Sol Yurick who like Jonah Raskin was not inclined to worship at the altar of high art. He spent time debunking Greek tragedies, Shakespeare, and a number of other writers always discussed in hushed tones in freshman classes in your better universities. Yurick had a particularly impudent attitude toward Shakespeare, whom he regarded as a toady of the Elizabethan ruling class who regarded working people as clowns and their superiors as to the manor born. The net effect was one of watching a mustache drawn on the Mona Lisa, or at least a reproduction. To an extent, Yurick's goal was to provoke. I doubt that his critiques were calculated to persuade anybody to stop reading Shakespeare, but only to read him with a critical eye.

That, I believe, was Raskin's purpose as well. The reputation of a Conrad or an E.M. Forster will withstand any exposure of their political limitations. As much as I agreed with Raskin's assessment of Forster, I have fond memories of Howard's End and will always use the novel's epigraph "Only connect" on apt occasions.

Furthermore, I doubt that Raskin would have bothered writing a dissertation on these flawed characters if he did not find them compelling on their own terms. As we live in a society whose ruling ideas reflect those of the ruling class, it is not surprising that the gamut of ideas found in most novels runs from troglodyte reaction to tepid liberalism. That will certainly change when working people wrest control of the means of production and begin to foster the development of a new kind of culture. Until then, it will be difficult to turn our back completely on those writers, musicians, and artists who at least offer a partial resistance to the powers that be. In 1908, Leon Trotsky paid tribute to Leo Tolstoy who was 80 years old and whose ideas were a confused mixture of agrarian sentimentality and Christian pieties. Tolstoy had written I Cannot Remain Silent as a protest against the Czarist repression that had gripped Russia after the defeat of the 1905 revolution. Trotsky wrote:

Conservative anarchist, mortal enemy of liberalism, Tolstoy finds himself on his eightieth birthday a banner and a vehicle for the noisy and tendentious political manifestation of Russian liberalism.

History has gained a victory over him, but failed to break him. Even now, in his declining years, he has preserved intact his priceless talent for moral indignation.

In the heat of the vilest and most criminal counter-revolution on record which seeks with its hempen web of gallows to eclipse forever our country's sun; amid the stifling atmosphere of degraded and cowardly official public opinion, this last apostle of Christian all-forgiving, in whom kindles the wrath of Biblical prophets, has flung his pamphlet I Cannot Keep Silent as a curse upon the heads of those who serve a hangmen and a condemnation upon those who stand by in silence.

And though he refuses a sympathetic hearing to our revolutionary objectives, we know it is because history has refused him personally an understanding of her revolutionary pathways. We shall not condemn him.

And we shall always value in him not alone his great genius, which shall never die so long as human art lives on, but also his unbending moral courage which did not permit him tranquilly to remain in the ranks of THEIR hypocritical church, THEIR society and THEIR State but doomed him to remain a solitary among his countless admirers.


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Published November 16, 2009