Race, Class, and Revolution: Some Marxist Reflections by a Student Activist

Jens Johansson

Summary: The materialist explanation of racism provides anti-racist activists with a powerful conceptual tool that demystifies racial thought and exposes unequal production relations hidden behind the idea of race. Referring to Oliver C. Cox, CLR James, and Raya Dunayevskaya, the author concludes that there are no hierarchies concerning which struggle is the most important, and that thingification of human relations is the prerequisite for race prejudice — Editors

Recently I came across some works by three Marxists from the post-World War II era, Oliver Cromwell Cox, CLR James and Raya Dunayevskaya, which caught my full interest. These authors are discussing race and racism together with the struggle for socialism. They are explaining racism completely without essentialism. Instead, the material aspect dominates their explanations.

Reviewing these three Marxist’s terrific works may be a helpful guidance for a left-wing movement of today concerning questions like “what is the history of racism?” and “how can we interpret independent movements of racial minorities?” in the United States and in Europe. The purpose of discussing such questions should be to end up with a discussion of how to overcome racism. The answer on that question is of course bounded to context, which means that every generation has to evolve theory and practice in a unified form in order to start a reconstruction towards a new society based on truly human relations. I think Cox, James and Dunayevskaya provide us with the base for that.

Cox’s main theoretical approach

Cox published Caste, Class and Race in 1948. His way of picturing racism as a consequence of a capitalist system, and stressing class analysis was, and still is, controversial. Due to anti-leftist imperatives in the United States, with the rise of McCarthyism, his book went out of print immediately after publication.

Cox is obviously heavily influenced by Marx’s analysis of capitalism, although he does not refer to him. I would suggest that one could trace his Marxist influences when exploring how he views the current racial system not as an eternally given system, but as a consequence of a certain historical context. He also stresses that the invidious outcome of labor relations in society is determined by capitalism.

By using a historical materialist approach, he explains current racism as a set of ideas and practices used by the white man in order to legitimize exploitation of labor. Cox proposes that racism and race prejudice developed together with the European discovery of the new world in the end of the 15th century and the growth of the African slave trade. In this period of merchant capitalism, racism then became institutionalized in the large-scale plantations in the United States, the Caribbean and in Brazil:

Our hypothesis is that racial exploitation and race prejudice developed among Europeans with the rise of capitalism and nationalism, and that because of the world-wide ramifications of capitalism, all racial antagonisms can be traced to the policies and attitudes of the leading capitalist people, the white people of Europe and North America. (Cox, p. 322)

Cox’s materialistic approach fired off a deadly shot against essentialist and idealist explanations of racism as an inherent human trait. Earlier, for example, the famous liberal sociologist Robert E. Park claimed that there existed a mechanism in the human mind, which automatically classifies all human beings we meet, based on their external characteristics, and therefore racism, segregation and isolation have a natural basis. (Cox shows this in one of his footnotes on page 322.) This is one example of how Cox means that racism was maybe not as much a conscious design, but rather developed into an ideology actually believed by the dominant classes.

Cox challenged the liberal and social democratic idea that it is possible to solve the problem of racism within the capitalist system. He constantly stresses the history of the class struggles and writes that racism is just one consequence of capitalism:

… racial exploitation is merely one aspect of the problem of the proletarianization of labor, regardless of the color of the laborer. Hence racial antagonism is essentially political-class conflict. (Cox, p. 333)

A critical observation one could raise against the text is that it provides activists with few clear directions of how to unite a racially segregated working-class. The piece in itself is educational, and I think that Cox saw his purpose as dragging away the veil that hinders us from seeing the exploitative production relations behind the ideas and practices of race and racism. Cox de-fetishizes race, to use Marx’s own vocabulary. But, as the history since Cox’s publication has shown, his approach of how to understand race has not yet had much success in establishing a common understanding of race among the working classes.

James’s main theoretical approach

CLR James provides us with a particular interpretation of a Marxist historical materialist approach in order to understand current racism. Note that this was not the mainstream interpretation of that time.  Also in 1948, James stresses the importance of the struggles of the Black population before the Civil War:

But for twenty to twenty-five years before the Civil War actually broke out, the masses of the Negroes in the South, through the underground railroad, through revolts, as [Communist Party historian Herbert] Aptheker has told us, and by the tremendous support and impetus that they gave the revolutionary elements among the Abolitionists, absolutely prevented the bourgeoisie – (revolutionary later) – absolutely prevented the bourgeoisie and the plantocracy from coming to terms as they wanted to do. (James, p. 185)

James opposed the idea that the real leadership of the Black people’s struggle in the twentieth century must rest in the hands of organized labor and of the Marxist party. Instead he wrote that the Black struggle is vital, has historical roots, and is able to intervene with terrific force upon the social and political life of the nation. The Black struggle should therefore be taken seriously as an independent factor.

We can therefore read that James is not foreign to the idea of an autonomous Black movement and in fact supports it. He draws on Lenin’s theorization of small independent and powerless nations in the struggles against imperialism. He means that they, the powerless nations and the independent movements of racial minorities, can act as ferments which can bring to the scene the real power against imperialism, which James considers to be the socialist proletariat.

James also says that the only way to achieve social change is through revolution.

On the question of what is called the democratic process, the Negroes do not believe that grievances, difficulties of sections of the population, are solved by discussion, by voting, by telegrams to Congress, by what is known as the “American way”. (James, p. 183)

Through his speeches and writings, James worked with and drew upon classical Marxist and Leninist methods and theory, and developed these in order to incorporate the experiences of Black people’s struggles.

When reading James’s text, I experienced some vagueness about his concept of the proletariat. Who is he actually talking about? Why is it that the Black movement cannot be the real power against imperialism and capitalism? Is it simply just because they are not a numerical majority?

Analysis of Cox’s and James’s texts

A second critical question that arises when reading James’s texts is why a Black movement should ally with a mainly white proletarian movement, which might have shown racist tendencies against Black people. One can of course understand the skepticism of a racialized group to engage in supporting parts of a racially dominant group whose members have not often come to their support. However, according to Cox’s and James’s interpretations of the origins of racism, racism originates from the capitalist system. What they want to say with that, I believe, is that both the Black movement fighting for racial equality and the predominantly white proletariat fighting for better working conditions are each challenging the capitalist system in their own way. Capitalism is a system that can be fought on various fronts. James’s emphasis on the socialist proletariat as the real power against imperialism may therefore not be due to some sort of superior quality one gets from experience on the work floor of a factory. Rather, he may just emphasize the socialist proletariat because of their current numerical majority and that they had the capability of shutting down big plants at that time. That in turn means that there is no fixed hierarchy to determine which movement is the most important in the struggle against capitalism.

I think James means that we have to understand that the relationship between those who own the means of production and those who are exploited by it is in a constant motion. It is a dialectical relationship. The bourgeois class is constantly trying to revolutionize the means of production, which changes the way the exploitation of labor is carried out. Therefore, the composition of the numerical majority of the most exploited class also changes over time and space. What I get from James is that it can be the Black independent movement, the socialist proletariat, the feminist movement or even the movement for the protection of the environment that composes the current biggest threat against capitalism at a certain place, and at a certain time. The question over which movement is the most important therefore loses its relevance as a purely numerical question and in fact depends on the particular historical conjuncture. This is because all of the serious movements should fight against the root of the problem, capitalism. Fighting against capitalism and imperialism I interpret as struggling to abolish commodity production, value production, surplus value, wage labor, and abstract labor, as well as racism, homophobia, sexism, environmental destruction and so on, in order to establish a new society with qualitatively different human relations.

What I learned and will keep as a result of reading James is, as mentioned, that there are no hierarchies with regard to what struggles are most important. Race based groups can be emancipatory for the individuals engaged in them, but there has to be cooperation and recognition among and between the groups that they are allies in a common struggle against capitalism.

Dunayevskaya’s Interpretation of Race

Another interesting book dealing with the connection between racism and capitalism is Raya Dunayevskaya’s American Civilization On Trial — Black Masses as Vanguard (ACOT) from 1963. (Actually, by 1948 when James wrote the essay discussed above, Dunayevskaya had been working with him for seven years. This included her own writings on race and class, developed further in ACOT.)  In ACOT, Dunayevskaya’s notion, like that of Cox, is that the economic base determines racist structures. Dunayevskaya opposes the popular claim made by historians of the time that racism was only rooted in slavery. She writes:

Historians who state that “the Negro problem” is rooted in slavery, and stop there, fail to see the crux of the question. The “stigma” of slavery could not have persisted so long if the economic remains of slavery — share cropping and tenancy — had not persisted. (Dunayevskaya, p. 41)

Dunayevskaya discusses how monopoly capitalism grew into imperialism and not only allowed the establishment of racial segregation in the South, but also brought it to the North. She talks about how industrial capitalism developed rapidly in the decades after the Civil War, where the development of factories in the North and the sharecrop system of agriculture in the South led to a situation in which Black folk were heavily exploited and could only work in the worst paid jobs in heavy industry or as sharecroppers to former slaveowners. The aftermath of the abolition of slavery during the Civil War thus became a betrayal for Black folk. According to Dunayevskaya, the betrayal of Black folk comprised of three practices:

1, the freedmen did not get the 40 acres and a mule they were promised; 2, the old slave owners did get back their plantations and thus the power to institute a mode of production to suit cotton culture; and 3; the crop lien system was introduced with “new” labor: share cropping. (Dunayevskaya, p. 41)

In the quote above, Dunayevskaya makes an original and interesting argument claiming that capitalism is the reason that racial discriminatory structures survived the abolition of slavery. She writes about the Populist Movement forty years after the Civil War and how it unified white and Black farmers for a time. However, the movement later became shattered by monopoly capital, which racially divided the poor farmers and implemented racist legislation such as the Jim Crow laws.

The next historical process examined in Dunayevskaya’s book concerns how United States involvement in World War II was played out in terms of race and class. The U.S. joining the Allies against Nazi Germany prompted the Communist Party in the U.S., which wanted to see the Soviets win the war, to work towards stopping strikes in factories that were producing materials critical to the war effort. Dunayevskaya criticized this and similar tactics carried out by the Communist Party in the United States during the Second World War. The Communists had a significant Black support but dismissed the independent Black movement by holding the war effort above all else. They did so in the name of anti-fascist class unity across racial lines, which also deepened the suspicion of Blacks toward the white left wing. On this point, Dunayevskaya quotes the Black journalist George Schuyler:

Whereas at one time they were all for stopping production because of Jim Crow employment policies, low pay or bad working conditions, they are now all-out for the Government’s policy of no wartime strikes and have actually endorsed labor conscription, i.e., human slavery. Everything must be done to save Russia even if Negroes’ rights have to go by the board. (Dunayevskaya, p. 75)

Difficulties of unification

Looking at these issues at an international level, the capitalist system today employs sophisticated methods in order to stop recognition and cooperation among different groups. Big parts of the working class in Europe today do not understand that it is the owners of the means of production that are the ones who put them in the relatively poor situation in which they have happened to end up. For example, more and more working class people think that newly arrived Syrian refugees are responsible for their worsened situation. The tragic thing is that the working classes in Europe, which have been relatively wealthy compared to the working class in the Global South have not, at least at present, succeeded in unifying around the idea that it is the whole system of exploitation and stratification, which is the one they should fight to get rid of.

It is, of course, easier to understand why the working classes have not been able to unify, considering that the people on the very top of the pyramid constantly guard their interest to stay up there, for example by implementing ideas that split working classes around the world and by spreading antagonistic ideas among them. If this happens, then the working classes will be busy fighting against each other and will not pose any serious threat against the dominant class’ position on the top of the pyramid. In the next paragraph I will develop the idea that the capitalist ideology is an excluding ideology which is the source that produces these antagonistic ideas among the working-class.

First however, it is important to point out that this is not simply a question of the working class being conscious of these problems. Today many people in the working class are fully aware of the processes of production and the exploitative production relations. During the last decades, the powers of the corporations have grown exponentially. Today, some transnational corporations have even bigger economic weight than entire countries. In this process, often referred to as globalization, there has been a geographical diversification of the working class, increased sub-contracting, and a race to the bottom among corporations in finding the places with the lowest numbers of laws controlling salaries and benefits for the workers. Therefore, it has become much harder for the working class to organize themselves. Imagine how hard it can be for a Detroit autoworker and a Chinese autoworker to find common ground. They cannot easily speak with each other, have no common culture, are very far away from each other geographically, and have very different pay scales. One can expect similar challenges if a racially marginalized group in the United States should attempt to organize with another marginalized group in the Middle East, for example. This really places a lot of new challenges on the whole world’s working classes in terms of organizing together.

Thingification as the prerequisite for race prejudice

A third interesting question and a possible critique of James’s, Cox’s and Dunayevskaya’s materialistic approach lies in the question of whether racism today has developed into its own ideology, which is capable of surviving capitalism. In other words, would racism still persist even after a revolution against exploitative production relations? That is a good question because most people will probably agree that racism today has become such a strong institution, primarily in the western world, that it is sometimes hard to see from where it originated.

But I want to contest the argument that racism could long survive the system of commodity production. This argument fails on the simple idea that without capitalism there would be nothing that reproduces a racist ideology. Racism would then, so to say, lose its possibility to breathe, and suffocate to death.

Assuming the premise put forth by Cox, James and Dunayevskaya is true, that racism due to external characteristics is not an inherent human trait, then there must be something that constantly reproduces racism. Something has to constantly produce a thingification of human relations, make human relations thing-like, in order for humans to possibly accept the idea of treating people different because of the color of their skin. We are not born racists; we become racists.

Let’s look at it this way; many, including me, believe that the most forceful practice against racist prejudices is to humanize relations between dominant and racialized groups. Racist prejudice can exist because of a lack of contact, knowledge, and real human relations between groups. If, for example, a white racist middle-aged male is forced into lengthy contact with a racialized group and to some extent becomes dependent upon its members, then most likely he will realize that these people are ordinary people just like him. What happens then is that his dehumanized perception of the racialized group becomes humanized. What then follows is that that man will face a big challenge to keep up his racist ideology. I believe it is impossible to uphold a racist idea about a person or a group of people whom you know is just like yourself.

Critique of social movements

Considering how Black people have been exploited and discriminated against I believe one cannot understand contemporary class relations, in the United States or Europe, without understanding race. The housing market, justice system, job market, and the welfare system are all intertwined with racist assumptions. As Dunayevskaya and James showed, even the Communist movement dominated by whites did not always fully recognize Black people’s struggles. The experience of being Black in America has such deeply alienating effects that the classical Marxist analysis of a racial issue, by separating the economic base and viewing racism as just a cultural superstructure, may no longer be a useful analytical tool. Sometimes racist structures do precede economic structures, however, this does not imply that racism is an inherent human trait that will survive capitalism. It only emphasizes the need for a full recognition of the Black experience.

Dunayevskaya wrote that only when theory and practice finally evolves in a unified organizational form, only then could the reconstruction of a new society based on truly human foundations be built. Looking back at the social movements of the 20th century, we have learned that an anti-capitalist movement has to be inclusive and must recognize all forms of oppression.


Under capitalism, human relations needed to become thing-like relations. Otherwise, the heavy exploitation of human labor would cause an explosion of the human mind. Who could ever have treated humans with such cruelty as the colonizers did, without an ideology to convince them that these people deserved such treatment, and that their actions against them were the right thing to do? I think that is why the white man in the beginning of the modern era instead called this terrible treatment his civilizing “burden.”

In a socialist society, where commodity production has been abolished, thing-like human relations will follow the same destiny, and racism and race prejudice together with it. But in order to challenge capitalism a social movement has to be anti-racist, anti-sexist, etc. It has to recognize and be open minded concerning all forms of oppression to be able to acknowledge and abolish them.



Alexander, M. (2010). The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press.

Cox, O. C. (1948). Caste, Class & Race. Garden City, New York: Doubleday.

Dunayevskaya, R. (2003). American Civilization on Trial – Black Masses as Vanguard. Chicago: News and Letters.

James, CLR. (1992). The CLR James Reader. Edited by A. Grimshaw. Oxford: Blackwell.

Loewen, J. (2005). Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism. New York: Touchstone.

Monthly Review. (brought 05/20/16). Race and Class in the Work of Oliver Cromwell Cox: http://monthlyreview.org/2001/02/01/race-and-class-in-the-work-of-oliver-cromwell-cox/

Roberts, S. (2009). Infectious Fear: Policies, Disease, and the Health Effect of Segregation. The North Carolina Press.

Vargas, J. H. (2006). Catching Hell in the City of Angeles: Life and Meanings of Blackness in South Central Los Angeles. University of Minnesota Press.



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