"Ambivalent Man": Ellison's Rejection of Communism

By Wolfe, Jesse | African American Review, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

"Ambivalent Man": Ellison's Rejection of Communism


Wolfe, Jesse, African American Review


"I too have become acquainted with ambivalence," I said. "That's why I'm here."

Ambivalence. No term--in a novel written immediately after World War II by an African American with a history of involvement in left-wing causes--could be more laden with moral and political connotations. This essay situates Invisible Man at a specific moment in American political history: early in the Cold War, when numerous intellectuals once sympathetic to Marxism sought philosophical justifications for their disenchantment. Proclaiming one's ambivalence in such an intellectual atmosphere, I will argue, amounted to a direct assault on a rich Marxist/Hegelian philosophical tradition. A specific source of complaint, for thinkers like Reinhold Niebhur, Lionel Trilling, and Ralph Ellison, was the confidence with which Marxist dogma asserted that contradictions--historical, psychological--would be resolved. Invisible Man's ambivalence amounts to a counter-assertion that "I am a living contradiction, who eludes dialectical logic." Thus Ellison's novel stands as a quintessential expression of "New Liberalism"--t he anti-Stalinism of the post-World War II American left.

Invisible Man performs a sophisticated critique of numerous Marxist/Hegelian philosophical premises, as preached by the Brotherhood: not only the notion that history will resolve contradictions, but that individuals matter only insofar as they embody historical moments or principles; that race matters less than class in American society; that a society as complex and fluid as America's can be understood with "scientific" precision; and that an avant-garde party can embody the consciousness of entire masses of individuals. As preposterous and repugnant as Ellison found many of these assumptions, I claim, his novel's complex analysis of its narrator's psyche, and of American society, would have been impossible without Hegelian/Marxist concepts like "contradiction," "recognition," and "negation." The novel is suffused with such concepts, even as it bitterly ironizes "scientists" like Brother Jack. Indeed, its struggle with these concepts is one of its richest features. The first section of this essay will pair passages from the openings of Invisible Man and Hegel's Phenomenology of the Spirit in order to clarify the foundations of the larger Western intellectual tradition within which Ellison works and against which he struggles. An additional passage from The Souls of Black Folk will demonstrate how Hegelian terminology, routed through Du Bois's racially specific psychological theories, becomes especially relevant to the situation of our oft-confused hero.

The second section will narrow the cultural context of the novel to America after World War II. Here Reinhold Niebhur will play a large role in establishing the terms on which thinkers like Ellison challenged Communist orthodoxies. In this section the full implications of the term ambivalence should grow clear. Marxism, posited as a vast Other in Cold War discourse, comes to be associated with dogmatic certainties about "history," the expendability of individuals, etc.--an array of dangerous enthusiasms to which an ambivalent individual would not be prone. The Brotherhood reveals its susceptibility to many dangerous dogmas as soon as it welcomes Invisible Man into its ranks, after his eviction speech. The intellectual arrogance with which it (mis)reads this speech to fit its own (deracialized) theories of history alerts us to the reasons that the organization should be mistrusted. Ambivalence, then--whatever its dangers (and Ellison is keenly aware of them)--comes to seem, in comparison, a morally responsibl e reaction to the complex horrors of life in Harlem at a time when Black Nationalists and Communists are busy recruiting foot soldiers.

The final section suggests broad intellectual affinities between Invisible Man and "The Horror and the Glory"--part two of Richard Wright's Black Boy--and further narrows our context, to African American intellectuals' shifting relationship with the Communist Party. …

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