Considering Ellison’s Critique of Marxism in Invisible Man

The following is a paper I recently wrote for a graduate course in American literature.  I do not plan to upload full-length papers on a regular basis, but I thought it might be of interest to the readers of this blog.

Published in 1952, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is a novel about both race and class in America. It is a novel of its time, belonging to the revisionist movement of “new liberalism” that was born out of the disillusionment of American intellectuals with the communist project following the horrors of World War II. Like other members of this movement, Ellison is aware of the Marxist materialist critique of capitalist class society, yet he rejects this critique in favour of an idealist critique of society that emphasizes the importance of “irony” and “ambiguity.” Where the socialism of the 1930s was collectivist and objectively-oriented, Ellison’s new liberalism is individualist and subjectively-oriented. While it may be argued that Ellison’s position in Invisible Man is not a rejection of Marx per se, but rather a rejection of the Stalinism of the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) the fact remains that Ellison does not elaborate his critique of the CPUSA through a “return to Marx,”1 And a close reading of Ellison’s conclusions suggests that his work in fact diverges considerably from that of Marx. This paper will therefore seek to address Ellison’s criticisms of Marxism, first by analyzing Ellison’s position within the context of new liberalism, and then by referring to Marx’s Grundrisse and Capital in order to consider whether Ellison’s intellectual rejection of historical materialism is a necessary conclusion of those criticisms.

Before addressing the text of Invisible Man itself, it is important to provide the historical context of new liberalism as a movement, and of Ellison’s specific position within that movement. Thomas Hill Schaub’s American Fiction in the Cold War provides an excellent basis for such a background. Schaub identifies the origins of new liberalism in the betrayal of the revolution represented first by the Moscow show trials, and later by the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939 in which Stalin made peace with the arch-reactionary Nazis. Further decisive events in pushing intellectuals away from communism were Stalin’s actions during the Spanish Civil War,2 and the “mass deception” of the proletariat into following the fascist governments in Germany and Italy through the use of propaganda, which suggested that the proletariat could not only be deceived into passivity, but into ultra-reactionary violence.3 At the same time the American left was subjected to the counter-revolutionary state terror of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI political police and the McCarthyist witch hunts.4 In this atmosphere of disillusionment, fear, and isolation former socialists such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Reinhold Niebuhr adopted a “centrist” position of “new liberalism.”5 This new liberalism took a pessimistic view of human nature, “oppos[ing] the realities of human corruption and an irrational history to the utopian illusions of science and secular humanism”6 and shifting “away from purely social and economic sources of historical change and emphasiz[ing] instead psychological and behavioral categories like ‘anxiety’ and ‘conformity’ which cut across class divisions…”7 In moving from a worldview based on optimism, objectivity, rationality, historical materialism, and collective solidarity, to one based on pessimism, subjectivity, irrationality, ahistorical transcendentalism, and elitist introspection the “new liberals” in fact moved very close towards something like old-world conservatism of the Burkean variety, a change that some both recognized and embraced.8 In the representative work of Lionel Trilling, heavily influenced by Freudianism, “reality is finally at base a psychological reality, an experience of complexity that has its generative roots in the ineradicable conflicts of the private self. Ideation and rational action have their troubled source in subterranean emotions.”9 While this form of “liberalism” does not possess the “one-dimensionality” of the “sunshine liberalism” of pro-American propagandists in that it retains an agonistic view of society, it also turns Marx “on his head” in rejecting materialism and denying the possibility of progressive epochal change (i.e. social revolution).10

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man largely fits within the pattern of new liberalism, yet it also differs from the work of white new liberals in that it is preoccupied not only with the “ambiguity” of human nature, but also with the ambiguity of American identity rooted in racial oppression and conflict. As Schaub writes:

While ‘contradiction’ and ‘irony’ might be constitutive of human existence and history for Cleanth Brooks and Lionel Trilling, for black Americans these terms described their experience within a political system that promised freedom and equality for all but in practice failed to deliver those rights to a tenth of its citizens. In writing Invisible Man, Ellison made this long-standing hypocrisy a central theme of his novel, but his determination to make the experience of his central character resonate universally for all readers had the effect of mediating historical and political urgencies within the ashistoricism of mythic form and tragic vision so typical of postwar critical thought.11

For Schaub then Invisible Man “is constituted by the dynamism of…incompatible discourses…”12 While the tension between the concrete historical struggle of black Americans for social equality and the situation of that struggle within an “ambiguous” view of human nature and history forms a dialectical unity of opposites, its result is not dynamic motion but “paralyzed alertness.”13 Ellison was disillusioned by his experience with the CPUSA, and summarized his views as follows: “The Communists recognized no plurality of interests and were really responding to the necessities of Soviet foreign policy, and when the war came, Negroes got caught and were made expedient in the shifting of policy”14 These criticisms of the CPUSA’s reductionism, opportunistic ‘realism,’ and abandonment of African Americans form the background of Ellison’s critique of Marxism in Invisible Man.

Although Ellison’s critique of Marxism is the subject of this investigation, Invisible Man is hardly a novel solely concerned with this issue, and it does not begin to make itself clearly apparent until the unnamed protagonist begins his employment at Liberty Paints in Chapter 10 of the novel. This chapter is perhaps the most clearly influenced by Marxist thought in that it examines relations of production in an industrial capitalist enterprise, and uses these relations as the basis for a broader social critique. Prior to this chapter the class analysis in Invisible Man is more concerned with questions of ressentiment and the hypocrisy of philanthropy than it is with the question of exploitation.15 Liberty Paints is a corporation in the business of producing “Optic White” paint, a white so bright and pure that it is used for painting national monuments.16 However we later learn that in order to form this pure white, it must be mixed with a black “dope,” and Ellison leaves the question of whether the paint is really white or is in fact grey (yet mistaken as white) open to interpretation.17 Ellison’s color symbolism here repeats his theme running throughout the book that American culture is formed from an admixture of both black and white culture, but that its blackness is rendered invisible. However in this chapter Ellison takes this concept to a higher level by combining it with a class analysis, heavily laden with Marxist imagery. As the chapter progresses the reader learns that the “guts” of the Optic White paint is produced in the basement of the factory by the uneducated black worker Brockway, and later sent upstairs to be “mixe[d]” and made “pretty” by the white and black middle class workers.18 Here Ellison combines his race analysis with the imagery of Marx’s base and superstructure model. Liberty Paints becomes a model of society, with a literal superstructure resting upon a literal base. However Ellison problematizes this model by introducing a number of antagonisms between the various workers. While Brockway occupies an archetypal proletarian position, he is ferociously opposed to any form of solidarity with his fellow workers. He is tremendously suspicious of the younger protagonist, who he fears has been sent to take his job, and suspicious of the other workers as well. A unionization effort is underway in the factory, and when the protagonist introduces himself as a subordinate of Brockway at a locker room union meeting he stumbles upon he is immediately confronted with extreme hostility and labeled a “fink.”19 The mostly white union men label him as such because Brockway did in fact previously betray them to the corporate management, while the protagonist (based on his experience in the American South) mistakes the source of their hostility as stemming from racism and not the state of class struggle in the factory.20 Furthermore, there is a struggle between the union leadership and the mob-like rank-and-file in this scene, with the leadership trying to maintain control over the rank-and-file’s anger against the “finks.” When the protagonist extracts himself from the meeting he is put-off by the encounter, but encounters even more hostility from Brockway, who flies into a murderous rage at the mention of the union, attacks the protagonist, and after being defeated pronounces his servile devotion to the capitalist management:

‘…them young colored fellers up in the lab is trying to join that outfit, that’s what! Here the white man done give ’em jobs,’ he wheezed as though pleading a case. ‘He done give ’em good jobs too, and they so ungrateful they goes and joins up with that backbiting union! I never seen such a no-good ungrateful bunch. All they doing is making things bad for the rest of us!’21

Finally in the chapter’s conclusion Brockway attempts to murder the protagonist in an industrial “accident,” succeeding in forcing him out of his job at the factory.22 Chapter 10 is unique in the novel in that it directly combines both a race and class analysis, with problems of miscommunication and capitalist hegemony frustrating all attempts at building inter-racial and inter-generational proletarian solidarity. While it is conceivable that Ellison would carry on the novel’s narrative from this point by continuing his analysis of these problems and working through them towards the end of building solidarity, Chapter 10 in fact occupies a strangely disconnected position in the novel’s narrative, almost entirely unrelated to the protagonist’s later involvement with the “Brotherhood” (Ellison’s name for the CPUSA in the novel) in Harlem.

In the Brotherhood-focused chapters of the novel (Chapters 13 – 25) Ellison moves from the structural analysis of Chapter 10 into an organizational and ideological analysis that indites the CPUSA along the lines laid out in Ellison’s criticism of the party cited above. He here lays out a “liberal narrative” as identified by Schaub, describing a movement towards “maturation and realism, of awakening to a more sober and skeptical perception of political reality and human nature.”23 The naïve protagonist is lured into working for the Brotherhood, and dazzled not only by their claims to “science” and “liberation” but also their claims to racial equality, which cause him to see within the Brotherhood his long-awaited chance to achieve a position of social prominence and leadership. Over the course of the final section of the novel the protagonist becomes disillusioned on two levels: first by the Brotherhood’s rigidly hierarchical structure and cruel realpolitik, and second by the Brotherhood’s reductionist Marxist epistemology and blind adherence to the notion of the scientific inevitability of revolution. Given that the concept of Leninist (Let alone Stalinist) democratic centralism was not an invention of Marx, but rather a later development following his death, our interest here will be in examining Ellison’s epistemological critique of Marxism, and not his critique of the CPUSA’s political structure.24

Ellison’s critique is foreshadowed throughout the Brotherhood section of the novel, yet it is most succinctly stated in Chapters 22-23, where the protagonist undergoes a crisis of faith and rejects the Marxist ideas of the Brotherhood. In Chapter 22, a crucial section of the novel, the protagonist realizes that Brother Jack, the leader of the Brotherhood cell to which he belongs, makes use of a glass eye to stand in for an eye he previously lost in the line of duty. This lost eye constitutes Brother Jack’s “sacrifice” to the cause.25 In this rather heavy-handed symbolism Ellison portrays Brother Jack as having sacrificed his full vision in his devotion to the communist cause, leaving him with a one-sided and incomplete understanding of reality. In Chapter 23 Ellison explains just what is missing from the communist world-view, revealed to the reader in a picaresque montage of scenes of ghetto life. The protagonist dons a disguise of hat and sunglasses which cause him to be mistaken for Rinehart, a Harlem mover and shaker whose name refers to a conflation of appearance and essence, exterior and interior – rine and heart.26 As “Rinehart” the protagonist stumbles into a series of episodes, learning of the variety of Rinehart’s professions: pimp, number runner, gambler, briber of police, preacher. This journey through the Harlem underworld culminates in the protagonist’s discovery that “Rinehart the rascal” includes “Spiritual Technologist” amongst his professions, combining preaching with neon lights, gaudy costumes, and the music of electric guitars to provide one of his many opiates to the masses.27 The protagonist’s discovery of the mass acceptance of this blatant charlatanism destroys his faith in the “objective reality” of Marxist science:

Could he himself be both rind and heart? What is real anyway? But how could I doubt it? He was a broad man, a man of parts who got around. Rinehart the rounder. It was true as I was true. His world was possibility and he knew it. He was years ahead of me and I was a fool. I must have been crazy and blind. The world in which we lived was without boundaries. A vast seething, hot world of fluidity, and Rine the rascal was at home. Perhaps only Rine the rascal was at home in it. It was unbelievable, but perhaps only the unbelievable could be believed. Perhaps the truth was always a lie.28

The protagonist then goes on to reflect on the implications of his discovery for the Marxist ideology of Brother Jack. He considers the notion that he could subsume his experience within the rational categories of social science: “Perhaps, I thought, the whole thing should roll off me like drops of water rolling off Jack’s glass eye. I should search out the proper political classification, label Rinehart and his situation and quickly forget it” but then rejects this possibility.29 The protagonist concludes that he has “discovered Jack’s missing eye” by realizing the fluid and ambiguous nature of reality.30 Schaub observes of this passage that “Ellison seems to use the Rinehart episode to ground ‘social equality’ not on the rights of man but within a metaphysics of illusion which applies to all institutional and personal identity, without regard to race, creed, or color.”31 This “metaphysics of illusion” runs up against the fatalist determinism of the Brotherhood’s conception of history when the protagonist proceeds to seek some final reassurance in the counsel of his former teacher, Brother Hambro. Hambro justifies the Brotherhood’s abandonment of Harlem in abstract terms of “scientific necessity,” “progress,” “sacrifice,” “objectivity,” and “realism”32 Hambro explains calmly to the protagonist that “it’s impossible not to take advantage of the people” whereupon the protagonist realizes that the Brotherhood is nothing more than “Rinehartism.”33 The metaphysics of illusion applies equally to both Rinehart’s charlatanism and the false objectivity of Marxism, with Rinehart at least providing the people with the thrills of “an electric guitar”34 Marxist science is revealed as nothing but another mask behind which lurks a subjective will to power no less reprehensible than that possessed a ghetto hustler.

In Ellison’s Epilogue this logic is further extended, yet also subsumed within the metaphysics of nationalism. The figures of Rinehart and Jack are once again summoned up, and Rinehart made to stand for “freedom,” while Jack stands for “power.”35 The protagonist rejects both as a path he will follow, but argues that the knowledge he has gained from Rinehart has made his world “one of infinite possibilities.”36 Nevertheless the protagonist claims to have moved past illusion, as he has come to recognize the importance of “difference” and “diversity.”37 He accuses the Brotherhood of being “tyrant[s]” because of their reductionism and denial of diversity, which for him personally means a denial not only of his freedom, but of his blackness, attempting to force him to become “colorless”38 These realizations are all subsumed within the idea of “America,” which is “woven of many strands” and therefore embodies the transcendental principle of diversity.39 Ellison writes:

It’s ‘winner take nothing’ that is the great truth of our country or of any country. Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in the face of certain defeat. Our fate is to become one, and yet many- This is not prophecy, but description.40

The metaphysics of illusion therefore gives way to a metaphysics of liberal pluralism, with America standing in for universal truth. With this knowledge of “ambiguity” in mind the protagonist gives up on the notion of a “public life and…the assumption that the world [is] solid and all the relationships therein” in order to pursue the truly authentic action of communicating the ambiguity of life through writing.41

However it must be asked whether Ellison’s conclusions in fact follow from the premises of his critique. The crux of Ellison’s critique of the Marxist epistemological approach lies in the Reinhart episode, and so it is from there that we will proceed. Here Ellison’s contention is that the world of fluidity and illusion which Reinhart inhabits cannot adequately be addressed by the Marxist method. He states that Brother Jack would “search out the proper political classification, label Rinehart and his situation and quickly forget it” (emphasis added) because it did not fit within his general conception of society as comprised of economically determinate subjects. While this may have been the Stalinist worldview, it hardly seems to be a fair description of Marx’s method. For example in the introduction to the Grundrisse, where Marx attempts to lay out the conceptual basis for his work in Capital, he writes the following:

…production, distribution, exchange and consumption form a regular syllogism; production is the generality, distribution and exchange the particularity, and consumption the singularity in which the whole is joined together…Production is determined by general natural laws, distribution by social accident, and the latter may therefore promote production to a greater or lesser extent; exchange stands between the two as a formal social movement; and the concluding act, consumption, which is conceived not only as a terminal point but also as an end-in-itself, actually belongs outside economics except in so far as it reacts in turn upon the point of departure and initiates the whole process anew.42

Marx here argues that the social totality is in fact comprised of three levels of analysis: generality, particularity, and singularity. The generality has a law-like character, the particularity has a social-accidental character, and the singularity has an unpredictable and unrepresentable character. He then goes on to investigate how these levels of the social totality are dialectically interrelated to one another, eventually arriving at his conclusion:

The conclusion we reach is not that production, distribution, exchange and consumption are identical, but that they all form the members of a totality, distinctions within a unity. Production predominates not only over itself, in the antithetical definition of production, but over the other moments as well…A definite production thus determines a definite consumption, distribution and exchange as well as definite relations between these different moments. Admittedly, however, in its one-sided form, production is itself determined by the other moments. For example if the market, i.e. the sphere of exchange, expands, then production grows in quantity and the divisions between its different branches become deeper. A change in distribution changes production, e.g. concentration of capital, different distribution of the population between town and country, etc. Finally the needs of consumption determine production. Mutual interaction takes place between the different moments. This the case with every organic whole.43

This passage may at first appear cryptic, but its meaning is in fact quite simple. Marx here is using the term “production” in two separate senses. The “one-sided form” of production is the simple form of production as the creation of things, whereas production in the sense of the “antithetical definition of production” refers to the concept of the mode of production – in other words to the totality.44 Therefore Marx is here stating that the totality predominates over its various aspects because the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The generality has a determining effect on the particularity and singularity, yet these levels also have a determining effect upon the generality. This mutual reciprocity manifests itself as the “predominance” of the totality, not as the predominance of the generality.

The unfortunate overemphasis on generality committed by Marxists therefore arguably does not arise from Marx’s fundamental ontology, but rather from the fact that Marx largely confined his analysis in Capital to the level of generality in order to draw upon the power of abstraction,45 even as he acknowledged the importance of particularity and singularity in various parts of the analysis. With Capital (rightly) viewed as Marx’s masterpiece, many Marxists have tended to forget that his other excellent work in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, The Civil War in France, and The Class Struggles in France does not follow this pattern, focusing to a much greater degree on particularity or “social accident” than on any law-like generality. This is to say that Marx conducted his analysis at a level he considered appropriate to his subject matter, and did not value general analysis over any other level, an interpretation consistent with his emphasis on the importance of totality over any one level of analysis.46 Yet even when we turn to Marx’s general analysis of the laws of capitalist society in Capital, we still find a considerable sensitivity to the ambiguities of representation.

In Marx’s celebrated discussion of the fetishism of commodities, where he describes the peculiar manner in which value is represented, he writes the following:

Men do not therefore bring the products of their labour into relation with each other as values because they see these objects merely as the material integuments of homogeneous human labour. The reverse is true: by equating their different products in each other in exchange as values, they equate their different kinds of labour as human labour. They do this without being aware of it. Value, therefore, does not have its description branded on its forehead; it rather transforms every product of labour into a social hieroglyphic. Later on, men try to decipher the hieroglyphic, to get behind the secret of their own social product: for the characteristic which objects of utility have of being values is as much men’s social product as is their language. The belated scientific discovery that the products of labour, in so far as they are values, are merely the material expressions of the human labour expended to produce them, marks an epoch in the history of mankind’s development, but by no means banishes the semblance of objectivity possessed by the social characteristics of labour. Something which is only valid for this particular form of production, the production of commodities, namely the fact that the specific social character of private labours carried on independently of each other consists in their equality as human labour, and, in the product, assumes the form of the existence of value, appears to those caught up in the relations of commodity production (and this is true both before and after the above-mentioned scientific discovery) to be just as ultimately valid as the fact that the scientific dissection of air into its component parts left the atmosphere itself unaltered in its physical configuration.47

Even though value possesses only a “semblance of objectivity” which has been identified by Marx as illusory, it nevertheless continues to persist as a social force. In his Representing Capital, Fredric Jameson identifies this passage as making use of Hegel’s concept of “objective appearance”:

We are then here in the realm of Hegel’s objective appearance, or what Marx calls the Erscheinungsform, the ‘form of appearance’ of a properly capitalist reality which is in that sense neither true nor false but simply real.48

This “objective appearance” is remarkably similar to Ellison’s formulation of the protagonist’s epiphany in the Rinehart episode, and Schaub seems to interpret it in these terms: “That is, order is always a fiction, but nonetheless real. Surface in this sense has depth-has the substantial power to ignite action and reaction, to produce lived history.”49 Indeed, Schaub sees Ellison’s thinking as representing a kind of “psychologized Marxism typical of new liberal discourse.”50 But can Ellison’s thought in Invisible Man really be called Marxist at all? After all, paid apologists of the bourgeoisie such as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman make use of Marxist concepts in their work, but no one would make the mistake of calling their work Marxist!51

It seems possible to read Ellison’s critique in Chapter 23 as a critique of Stalinist vulgarizations of Marx, rather than a total rejection of Marxism. Indeed, as Jameson states regarding this split between value-theory analysis (of the sort prominent in Soviet Marxism) and reification analysis (of the sort Ellison is conducting here) in Marxism:

…reification, the transformation of a potential experience into a commodity or, in other words, an object or thing, is a figural process, however real or social it may also be. Its critical practitioners will then inevitably end up moving in a different direction than those of the theory of value, if only in the sense in which parallel lines, prolonged to infinity, end up diverging. Both are essentially thematizations: that is, they translate and transform aspects of a given analysis or a given reality into terms which structure a discussion of the consequences in their own semi-autonomous fashion, becoming at one and the same time names for methods and codes for evoking reality itself.52

In other words “economic” value theory analysis and “symbolic” reification analysis move within Marxism with the same revolutionary origins and orientation, yet diverge due to the method of their investigations.53 In this view Ellison’s critique in Chapter 23 could be included with the general movement of reification analysis. yet the quietism and “paralyzed alertness” of Ellison’s Epilogue would seem to invalidate that interpretation. After all, Marx’s discussion of the “objective appearance” of value is located in the first section of Capital, and forms the point of departure for his subsequent analysis. Marx was not discouraged into inaction by his discovery of “ambiguity”, but rather carried on in the spirit of his famous eleventh thesis on Feuerbach.54 He was not deceived into believing that this symbolic ambivalence constituted “infinite possibilities” in itself, but rather went on to investigate how the objective appearance of value formed, at the level of generality, a law-like social objectivity fraught with contradictions that pointed towards social revolution. These general findings could then be entered into a dialectical analysis of the moving social totality through its combination with an analysis of given particularities and singularities.55 In the case of the situation presented in Invisible Man, this would entail situating the particularity of Harlem society within the general movement of the capitalist totality, while also considering how the fluidity of life in the Harlem ghetto in turn determined these broader levels of analysis.56 While Ellison approaches such an analysis with his description of the paint factory in Chapter 10, and to some extent in his description of Harlem in Chapter 23, he ultimately abandons it in order to escape into idealist abstractions. His abandonment of Marxist analysis is not required by the limitations of Marx’s analysis, but only represents a rejection of a superficial form of Marxism. The resulting “paralyzed alertness” represents a theoretical and political retrogression from the potential presented by a more fully developed Marxism.


1That is, by attempting to critique orthodox “Marxism” through a critical reading of Marx’s work in order to establish the basis for an independent Marxism. This was the path taken by Gramsci, the Monthly Review school and other third worldist Marxists, the Frankfurt School, the Sartean existentialists, the Althusserian Structuralists, the Black Panthers, and to a lesser extent the Trotskyist movement.

2Namely, Stalin’s brutal betrayal of the FAI anarchists and POUM left-communists first to the liberals and then later to the fascists as documented in: George Orwell, “Homage to Catalonia,” last modified February, 2011, Project Gutenberg Australia,

3Thomas Hill Schaub, American Fiction in the Cold War (USA: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991), 4.

4This terror was arguably so effective in smashing, demoralizing, and subsequently co-opting the American left that it has never recovered to pre-war levels of influence since.

5Schaub, American, 9.

6Schaub, American, 14.

7Schaub, American, 17.

8Schaub, American, 11.

9Schaub, American, 21.

10While Marcuse’s postwar work shares a number of characteristics of “new liberalism” in its turn towards subjectivism, it also differs in that it retains some notion of collective solidarity and grounds the (however remote) possibility of revolution in the overcoming of alienation. Herbert Marcuse, “One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society,” last modified May, 2005, Official Herbert Marcuse homepage,

11Schaub, American, 92.


13Schaub, American, 97.

14Schaub, American, 95.

15While these concepts are frequently used in Marxist analysis (often in combination with an analysis of race relations similar to that employed by Ellison) they are not clearly Marxist concepts in the manner of the analysis of the paint factory.

16Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man, (USA: Random House, 2001) 202.

17Ellison, Invisible, 205.

18Ellison, Invisible, 214.

19Ellison, Invisible, 221.

20Ellison, Invisible, 219.

21Ellison, Invisible, 228.

22Ellison, Invisible, 230.

23Schaub, American, 6.

24The concept of democratic centralism was first elaborated in 1868 by Jean Baptista von Schweitzer, a member of the German Social Democratic Party, and was further developed by Lenin in his famous What is to be Done? Lenin Rediscovered. Anarchists and Marxists alike have drawn on concepts from Marx to critique the ideas of democratic centralism. See: Lars T. Lih, Lenin Rediscovered: What is to be Done? in context, (The Netherlands: BRILL, 2006).

25Ellison, Invisible, 475.

26“rine” is a non-standard spelling of the word rind.

27Ellison, Invisible, 498.



30Ellison, Invisible, 499.

31Schaub, American, 111.

32Ellison, Invisible, 504.

33Ellison, Invisible, 504.

34Ellison, Invisible, 506.

35Ellison, Invisible, 575.

36Ellison, Invisible, 576.

37Ellison, Invisible, 577.




41Ellison, Invisible, 576.

42Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft), (England: Penguin Books, 1993), 89.

43Marx, Grundrisse, 99.

44David Harvey, “Reading Marx’s Capital Vol 2 – Class 1, Introduction,” last modified 2012, Reading Marx’s Capital with David Harvey,

45Bertell Ollman, “Dance of the Dialectic: Steps in Marx’s Method Chapter 5,” last modified 2012, Dialectical Marxism: The Writings of Bertell Ollman,

46 In the years following Marx’s death Gramsci would develop a sophisticated Marxist analysis of particularity, while the Birmingham School of cultural studies developed a Marxist analysis of singularity, but these did not become dominant methods of analysis until the second half of the twentieth century.

47Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy Volume One, (England: Penguin Books, 1990), 166.

48Fredric Jameson, Representing Capital: A Reading of Volume One, (London: Verso 2011), 26.

49Schaub, American, 111.


51See: Thomas L. Friedman, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, (New York, Farrar, Straus, and Girioux, 2005).

52Jameson, Representing, 27.

53This is not to disparage value-form analysis, as both forms of analysis are necessary to grasp the movement of the totality.

54“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach,” last modified 2005, Marx/Engels Internet Archive,

55David Harvey, “Reading”

56Here Marxist human geography would provide a fruitful basis for the construction of the analysis.



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8 responses to “Considering Ellison’s Critique of Marxism in Invisible Man

  1. Excellent analysis. I just happened to be looking for a Marxist interpretation of this classic. Thank you for your scholarship and thoughtfulness. One thing I would add is that everyone is always in process. The narrator of this book and the author included. The facts are that in the context Ellison was writing he and other African-Americans had been burned by Stalinists. So had millions of others of many ethnicities and backgrounds in various ways. It was a time of deep alienation fostered by what should have been a praxis of addressing of that alienation. But Stalinism allowed little or no honest regard for alienation or the individual. The frustration should not be and never is in reality the end of the dialogue. The material problems of the ghetto and the oppressed remained/remains to be addressed. Peace.

    • Thank you for your comments. I agree it would have been exceedingly difficult for someone like Ellison to make a “return to Marx” given the dominance of Marxist thought by Stalinism at the time and the betrayal of minorities by the CPUSA and other Stalinist parties. I wrote this review with a sense of respect for Ellison’s experience, but also an awareness of the need to critique his conclusions, which were often later repeated by liberals and (in a somewhat modified form) by post-modernists in their attacks on Marxism.

      • Thank you for your work on this. Exactly as you suggest, it was what I needed to recognize the kind of mistaken interpretation you describe. This is complex stuff for someone like me wandering into Ellison’s work for the first time who is not a scholar of Ellison or Marx but recognizes that the journey through the wilderness of the former and the analytical powers of the latter make a contribution and have to be accounted for as we oppose oppression and necessarily have to better understand our brothers and sisters in the world around us. I could not have hoped to integrate these two men and their work without your work of liberation and scholarship.

  2. Just to let you know, I recently cited to your post/paper in a lengthy multi-subject pamphlet. Among many other things, I believe that the quest for resolution of the issues Ellison raised while also resolving the issues Marx raised, which as you point out partly overlap, is highly important. My pamphlet is available for free at It is Pamphlet No. 1: A Winding Path to Workers’ Gardens. I would love your critical analysis if you can find the time. Peace and solidarity,

  3. maxwell lavisky

    I strongly agree that it would be binificial to your reading experience and just too better understand and have more insight to the setting and tone of the book, if you were to go back and read about the history that lead up too this point. In Ellisons invisble man the “Optic White” paint isnt really just white its shown that the white is mixed with a black and white and this really made me think that the mixture really represents the community and the fact that without the blck it wouldn’t be as pure. I firmly agree with this comparison made in the paper because they take the black for grantid but they really need it.

    • Aron Doi

      I agree with the claims of this article. It summarized some of the most important and meaningful parts and themes of the book that were hard to comprehend and made them a little more understandable. It clearly defined what Marxism is and how Ellison used it in his book. The article also breaks down what each part or chapter of the book meant. For example, it states that Chapter 10 talks about the struggle of building an inter-racial society. After reading this article it made me think about whether Ellison really was or wasn’t against Marxism. I do feel that if we would have read this article before we did the reading that it would have helped us to understand the book’s terminology a bit more. But, overall this article was very helpful and it did change the way I viewed this book.

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