The following excerpt is taken from Robin D.G Kelly’s new foreword to Black Marxism: The Making of a Radical Tradition, Revised and updated Third Edition by Cedric J. Robinson
Racial capitalism has been the subject of a robust body of scholarship and has become virtually a field unto itself since the re-publication of Black Marxism. In fact, the term has become so commonplace in Left circles that when the neo-Marxist philosopher Michael Walzer confessed his ignorance of “racial capitalism” in the pages of Dissent, social media lit up, shaming and schooling the professor for being a political and theoretical luddite. Walzer’s response, however, is typical of a number of leading Marxist thinkers who have dismissed as insufficiently anti-capitalist the decade-long uprising against state sanctioned racialized violence, mass criminalization, political disfranchisement, deportation, pipeline expansion, and starvation wages for fast-food and service workers. Racism, like heteropatriarchy, they argue, is not constitutive of capitalism but operates alongside capitalism—an added irritant, as it were—to oppress particular subgroups and divide the working class. When Alex Dubilet questioned the Marxist geographer David Harvey for ignoring or sidelining racialization in the “historical and material story of capitalism,” especially since “the most intense mobilizations [in the United States] against the capitalist order” were aimed at anti-Black police violence,” Harvey replied that race was simply not part of the logic of capital accumulation. There was nothing inherently anti-capitalist about antiracism, he wrote, adding, “I don’t see the current struggles in Ferguson as dealing very much in anti-capitalism.” Similarly, in a short essay published six months after Cedric’s death, Walter Benn Michaels declared,
It’s not racism that creates the difference between classes; it’s capitalism. And it’s not anti-racism that can combat the difference; it’s socialism. . . . You don’t build the left by figuring out which victim has been most victimized; you build it by organizing all the victims. When it comes to the value of universal health care, for example, we don’t need to worry for a second about whether the black descendants of slaves are worse off than the white descendants of coal miners. The goal is not to make sure that black people are no sicker than white people; it’s to make everybody healthy.
Just to be clear, to insist that capitalism has always operated within a system and ideology that assigns differential value to human life and labor does not mean that hiring Black cops or incorporating Black elites into the existing power structure will hasten racial capitalism’s demise, or bring us closer to achieving a pure “color-blind” capitalism. Cedric Robinson never subscribed to this idea, and the movements who find inspiration in his work certainly don’t believe it. So Walzer, Benn Michaels, Harvey, and others are not only attacking straw people but also failing to grasp how the logics of racism fundamentally shape both capital accumulation and the role of the state. We know, for example, that Black people around North St. Louis County took to the streets of Ferguson not only to demand justice for Michael Brown Jr. but also to protest a predatory system of policing that used citations, fees, fines, and arrest warrants to extract millions of dollars from mostly poor, Black, overpoliced communities while extending generous tax abatements to corporations, stripping public schools and essential services of much-needed revenue. And they were fighting for the basic right not to be beaten, tortured, or killed by police (whose raison d’être is to protect property and maintain order). We also know that universal health care, a fundamental long-standing demand of the Black freedom movement, will not by itself magically abolish the conditions that produce racialized health inequities, nor will it guarantee equal, bias-free treatment for patients. Just on a descriptive level, we can plainly see that capitalism does not operate from a purely color-blind market logic but through the ideology of white supremacy. We see it in the history of the policing of Black and Brown communities, land dispossession, displacement, predatory lending, taxation, disfranchisement, and environmental catastrophe; in racial differentials in wages and employment opportunities; in depressed Black home values; in the exclusion of Black people from better schools and public accommodations for which they are taxed; and in the extraction of Black labor and resources to subsidize white wealth accumulation. And we recognize a neoliberal variant of racial capitalism that involves dismantling the welfare state; promoting capital flight; privatizing public schools, hospitals, housing, transit, and other public resources; and the massive growth of police and prisons. These policies have produced scarcity, poverty, alternative (illegal) economies regulated through violence, and environmental and health hazards.
Cedric revealed exactly how racial capitalism “creates the difference between classes” and why antiracism is fundamental to “combat the difference.” He begins by dismissing the myth that capitalism was the great modernizer giving birth to the proletariat as a “universal class.” “Instead,” he writes, “the dialectic of proletarianization disciplined the working classes to the importance of distinctions: between ethnics and nationalities; between skilled and unskilled workers; and . . . between races. The persistence and creation of such oppositions within the working classes were a critical aspect of the triumph of capitalism in the nineteenth century.” Just as the Irish were products of very different popular traditions borne and bred under colonialism, the “English” working class was formed by Anglo Saxon chauvinism, a racial ideology shared across class lines that allowed the English bourgeoisie to rationalize low wages and mistreatment for the Irish.
Building on the work of the Black radical sociologist Oliver Cox, Robinson challenges the Marxist idea that capitalism was a revolutionary negation of feudalism. Instead, he argues, capitalism emerged within the feudal order and flowered in the cultural soil of a Western civilization already thoroughly infused with racialism. Robinson does not argue that the modern racism originating in the seventeenth century was the same thing; rather, he argues that hierarchies based on constructed “racialized” difference were already in place prior to the emergence of capitalism. Capitalism was “racial” not because of some conspiracy to divide workers or to justify slavery and dispossession but because racialism had already permeated Western feudal society. The first European proletarians were racial subjects (Irish, Jews, Roma, Slavs, etc.), and they were victims of dispossession (enclosure), colonialism, and slavery within Europe. Indeed, Robinson suggests that racialization within Europe was very much a colonial process involving invasion, settlement, expropriation, and racial hierarchy. Insisting that modern European nationalism was completely bound up with racialist myths, he reminds us that the ideology of Herrenvolk (governance by an ethnic majority) that drove German colonization of central Europe and “Slavic” territories “explained the inevitability and the naturalness of the domination of some Europeans by other Europeans.” To acknowledge this is not to diminish anti-Black racism or African slavery but rather to recognize that capitalism was not the great modernizer giving birth to the European proletariat as a universal subject, and the “tendency of European civilization through capitalism was thus not to homogenize but to differentiate—to exaggerate regional, subcultural, and dialectical differences into ‘racial’ ones.”
Robin D. G. Kelly is an American historian and academic, who is the Gary B. Nash Professor of American History at UCLA. He is the author of many books, including Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression.
Cedric J. Robinson (1940-2016) was professor of Black studies and political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His books include The Terms of Order, An Anthropology of Marxism, and Forgeries of Memory and Meaning.