Racial Capitalism: The Nonobjective Character of Capitalist Development

The following is an excerpt from Cedric J. Robinson’s Black Marxism, Revised and Updated Third Edition: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition.

In this ambitious work, first published in 1983, Cedric Robinson demonstrates that efforts to understand Black people’s history of resistance solely through the prism of Marxist theory are incomplete and inaccurate. Marxist analyses tend to presuppose European models of history and experience that downplay the significance of Black people and Black communities as agents of change and resistance. Black radicalism, Robinson argues, must be linked to the traditions of Africa and the unique experiences of Blacks on Western continents, and any analyses of African American history need to acknowledge this.

To illustrate his argument, Robinson traces the emergence of Marxist ideology in Europe, the resistance by Blacks in historically oppressive environments, and the influence of both of these traditions on such important twentieth-century Black radical thinkers as W. E. B. Du Bois, C. L. R. James, and Richard Wright. This revised and updated third edition includes a new preface by Tiffany Willoughby-Herard, and a new foreword by Robin D. G. Kelley.

Robinson’s Black Marxism was recently featured on our Black History Month 2022 Black Resistance Reading List. Black Marxism was also recently mentioned on NPR’s Throughline interview with Robin D.G. Kelley.

The historical development of world capitalism was influenced in a most fundamental way by the particularistic forces of racism and nationalism. This could only be true if the social, psychological, and cultural origins of racism and nationalism both anticipated capitalism in time and formed a piece with those events that contributed directly to its organization of production and exchange. Feudal society is the key. More particularly, the antagonistic commitments, structures, and ambitions that feudal society encompassed are better conceptualized as those of a developing civilization than as elements of a unified tradition.

The processes through which the world system emerged contained an opposition between the rationalistic thrusts of an economistic worldview and the political momenta of collectivist logic. The feudal state, an instrument of signal importance to the bourgeoisie, was to prove to be as consistently antithetical to the commercial integration represented by a world system as it had to the idea of Christendom. Neither the state nor later the nation could slough off the particularistic psychologies and interests that served as contradictions to a global community. A primary consequence of the conflict between those two social tendencies was that capitalists, as the architects of this system, never achieved the coherence of structure and organization that had been the promise of capitalism as an objective system. On the contrary, the history of capitalism has in no way distinguished itself from earlier eras with respect to wars, material crises, and social conflicts. A secondary consequence is that the critique of capitalism, to the extent that its protagonists have based their analyses upon the presumption of a determinant economic rationality in the development and expansion of capitalism, has been characterized by an incapacity to come to terms with the world system’s direction of developments. Marxism, the dominant form that the critique of capitalism has assumed in Western thought, incorporated theoretical and ideological weaknesses that stemmed from the same social forces that provided the bases of capitalist formation.

The creation of capitalism was much more than a matter of the displacement of feudal modes and relations of production by capitalist ones. Certainly, the transformation of the economic structures of noncapitalist Europe (specifically the Mediterranean and western European market, trade, and production systems) into capitalist forms of production and exchange was a major part of this process. Still, the first appearance of capitalism in the fifteenth century involved other dynamics as well. The social, cultural, political, and ideological complexes of European feudalisms contributed more to capitalism than the social “fetters” that precipitated the bourgeoisie into social and political revolutions.

No class was its own creation. Indeed, capitalism was less a catastrophic revolution (negation) of feudalist social orders than the extension of these social relations into the larger tapestry of the modern world’s political and economic relations. Historically, the civilization evolving in the western extremities of the Asian/European continent, and whose first signification is medieval Europe,  passed with few disjunctions from feudalism as the dominant mode of production to capitalism as the dominant mode of production. And from its very beginnings, this European civilization, containing racial, tribal, linguistic, and regional particularities, was constructed on antagonistic differences.