Remarks on Race, Capital, and Revolution

Jens Johansson

Summary: Delivered as a comment after a presentation by Kevin B. Anderson on Marx at the Margins at University of Lund, Sweden — Editors

This is a comment on some aspects of Kevin B. Anderson’s Marx at the Margins. I will also connect this to the work of another scholar who in an original way wrote about race and class, and to the present moment. Let me start by going back to a sentence from Marx about the racist attitude of the nineteenth-century English worker against the Irish subproletarians.

The common English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers wages and the standard of life. He feels national and religious antipathies for him.

In Sweden today (this is an example of how upside-down everything is at the moment), the right-wing block consisting of the Moderates, the Sweden Democrats, and the Christian Democrats are currently criticizing the Social Democrats for not spending enough money on public welfare. The Sweden Democrats, especially, are using exactly this rhetoric that Marx singles out, i.e., they say that in order to get more money to the welfare, we need to cut down on the costs of accepting immigrants. In fact, the only idea that the Sweden Democrats are building all their arguments and analysis on is that immigrants should never come here because they lower the standard of life for so-called “real Swedes”. This leads me to the other quote I found interesting. It was the Marx-quote about the English worker who is a victim of mass media and bourgeois propaganda.

This antagonism among the proletarians of England is artificially nourished and kept up by the bourgeoisie. It knows that this split is the true secret of the preservation of its power.

There is no question that there also today exists bourgeois mass media that creates and spreads ideas about immigrants as essentially different people who negate everything that is good is there no question about. However, my initial interpretation of this sentence points at something more. Marx says that the antagonism is artificially nourished. I suppose that with today’s vocabulary we can say that Marx seems to mean that the whole idea about race antagonism is socially constructed, and that it is constructed for a material purpose, with other words to preserve power.

About 65 years after Marx had passed away in 1948, there was a Black scholar in Detroit who developed a similar line of thought. His name was Oliver Cromwell Cox. In the book Caste, Class and Race, Cox makes the argument that racism is a set of ideas and practices used by the white people from the dominant classes in order to legitimize exploitation of Black labor. Cox suggests that racism developed together with the European discovery of the new world in the end of the 15th century and with the growth of the African slave trade. In this period of merchant capitalism, racism became institutionalized in the large-scale plantations in the United States, the Caribbean, and in Brazil.

What Cox means is that racism, as we know it, has a history of just about 500 years. Before that, racism did not exist. There was, of course, oppression in the feudal, the ancient, and in the eastern world as well, but not on racial basis– rather, the oppression then was carried out on a cultural or religious basis, Cox argues. He writes:

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.

The interesting part of this argument is, I think, that Cox frames racism as a consequence of capitalism. I will argue that to really understand that statement, one has to see it through the lens of Marx’s concept of the commodity fetish. The crucial aspect of the concept of the commodity fetish is that in a capitalist system, human relations take the form of relations between things. For example, on a market a human individual relates to other individuals only as other de-humanized units of labor power, i.e. as if they were things and not as if they were other human beings.

What Cox seems to suggest is that back then, when the colonizers went from Europe to Africa and towards America in the triangular trade of slaves, sugar, etc. they needed an extreme form of capitalist ideology that legitimized the brutal treatment of Black people. How could they otherwise have treated other human beings with such an extreme cruelty as they did without an ideology to convince them that these people deserved such treatment? I think that is the key to understanding why later on Rudyard Kipling in 1899 called this the white man’s burden, and to understand how racism developed for the purpose of extracting profit for the ruling class, the bourgeoisie.

This materialist explanation of the development of racism has implications for our understanding of how to overcome it. As I see it, from this, it follows that the only way we in the long run can fully overcome racism is by finally overcoming the processes in our current society that keep producing and reproducing these de-humanized human relations. Analyzed as Cox does here, racism and class society are two sides of the same coin, so to speak. He means that the de-humanized and thingified human relations are the prerequisite for the development of racial hierarchy and class society. What we want is a society where we recognize each other as human beings, not as things. It would follow that fighting against racism and, for example, fighting against class hierarchies would not be mutually exclusive, but essentially fighting capitalism from two different fronts. In this perspective, race the existence of the ideology of race, thus the existence of racism has to be considered by the white working class as a reason for revolution. Because, as Marx said:

Labor in a white skin cannot emancipate itself where it is branded in a black skin.


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