Racism, Capitalism, and Class Struggle

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The anti-racist uprising in the United States over the brutal murder of George Floyd reopens a strategic question: How do we link the struggle against racism with the struggle against capitalist exploitation? This article draws the counterpoint between the theories of intersectionality and Marxism.

The images of the antiracism protests in the United States over the brutal murder of George Floyd have moved the world. The cry of Black Lives Matter has also been heard in France in a demonstration that brought out thousands of people demanding justice and truth for young Adama Traoré, who was murdered by racist French police. The demonstrations of the manteros (street vendors) in Spain, the strikes of the agricultural workers in Italy from sub-Saharan Africa, and the strikes by Romanian migrants harvesting strawberries in Germany all bring to the forefront once again, in the middle of the Covid-19 crisis, the exacerbation of racism and xenophobia that add to the precariousness of work for millions who are on the front lines.

The eruption of the class struggle in the heart of the American empire, driven by the protest against police racism and the economic crisis that hits poor Black and Latino neighborhoods in particular, reopens debates about the relationship between racism and capitalism today and how to articulate a revolutionary socialist strategy for the emancipation of all the oppressed and exploited.

Theories of intersectionality argue that Marxism has some “fault” at its core that needs to be overcome in order to address this issue, but is that true, or is this a caricature of Marxism? What is the method that Marxism offers for understanding gender, race, and class relations?

Marx, Slavery, and Colonial Plundering in Capitalism’s Genesis

For many who adhere to the theories of intersectionality, it has become commonplace to challenge Marxism for its supposed “economism,”1 as if it were a theoretical tradition that does not consider racism or gender oppression to be important. In reality, though, this is a straw man argument — a vulgar version or deformed caricature of Marxism.

In the work of Marx and Engels, however, as well as in the thinking of Lenin, Luxemburg, and Trotsky, there are important contributions on the role of racism as one of the mechanisms of capitalist domination from its very beginnings. In Capital, Marx wrote, “The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signaled the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.”

Capitalist development has involved, in different historical periods, the displacement of large populations and the subjugation of entire peoples. There has been forced migration at gunpoint and in chains, as with the enslavement of Black Africa, and massive migration provoked by the need to escape poverty, hunger, and war.

Several authors point out that the idea of “race” is a creation of capitalist modernity. The construction of different “racial types” to which physical determinations, character, or intellectual capacities are attributed, following a hierarchical order in which white skin is always superior and black skin is the inferior end, was consolidated with the generalization of slavery. And slavery, in turn, is a key element in the origins of capitalism.

As Kevin Anderson points out, the young Marx had already theorized that industrial capitalism was founded not only on the exploitation of the wage-earning working class, but also on the existence of slave labor by Black people. He quotes Marx (with slight alterations to the translation): “Direct slavery is as much the axis around which our present industrialism revolves as machinery, credit, etc. Without slavery there would be no cotton, without cotton there would be no modern industry.” Anderson adds that “slave labor organized in a highly modern capitalist sense” has “marked differences” from slavery in antiquity.2

It was then that the concept of “race” acquired its modern meaning and was codified in laws establishing that some people could be sold, whipped, raped, separated from their children, and exploited to work until their deaths. The racialization of slave labor was combined with the indignities of gender oppression. In the North American colonies, the law stated that the children of a slave woman and an English father would be born as slaves, legitimizing systematic rape and reducing women to birthing machines to feed the plantations.

Pillage and the most brutal violence were the methods of the colonial system, from the Americas to the East Indies to the island of Java, where “modern” Holland stole people to be trafficked. But this situation of brutal exploitation and racialization of the labor force was not only experienced in the “New World.” There were also early racialized peoples in Europe, such as the Irish, Slavs, Roma, and Jews. At the same time, the capitalists were providing themselves with other sources of cheap labor, through child slavery in England (the theft of poor children and putting them to work was commonplace) or the dressed-up enslavement of wage earners, men, women, and children subjected to grueling hours in the mines and mills. There was a reason Marx wrote that “capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.”

More generally, a key concept for placing the question of racism at the heart of capitalist accumulation — rather than considering it some sort of “ancillary” phenomenon or a “legacy of the past” — is the need for capital to create and permanently re-create an industrial reserve army, a “surplus laboring population,” which Marx maintained is a “condition of existence of the capitalist mode of production.” This industrial reserve army is composed first and foremost of workers who have been dismissed from the production process or kept out of it for various reasons. The existence of this supplementary human material allows capital to incorporate labor power at massive levels during periods of prosperity and to get rid of some of it in moments of crisis. At the same time, it has other beneficial effects for the capitalists, since it puts pressure on the employed working class in the form of competition, forcing it to overwork and submit to the dictates of capital to keep from being thrust into the ranks of the unemployed.

But this industrial reserve army is not fed only by the workers expelled from production in periods of crisis, but more generally by all those “hands ready” for work, as a “latent” industrial army. Marx thus analyzed the situation of the peasants in England, whose living conditions were extremely poor and who were ready to migrate to the cities at any time, where they would become part of the industrial reserve army, extending its boundaries. In the history of capitalism, millions of people have found themselves in the same situation: both the working and impoverished classes of the colonial and semicolonial countries and a large part of the immigrant and racialized populations, as well as the women of working-class families, entering and leaving the labor market, occupying the most exploited and oppressed sectors.

Racism: One of Capitalist Domination’s Big Secret Weapons

Researcher Satnam Virdee points out that there is an inseparable relationship between capitalism, class struggle, and racism, and argues that capitalism consolidated its rule “through a process of differentiation and hierarchical re-ordering of the global proletariat.”3 His argument is that racism is a mechanism used not only to maximize profits but also to dominate workers, a mechanism promoted historically by the ruling classes and the state to divide the strength of the working class where there had been important earlier experiences of multiethnic struggles that tended to unify different sectors.

Virdee takes a historical journey from the colonization of Virginia in the 17th century to Victorian Britain and processes in the 20th century, asserting that “racism formed an indispensable weapon in the armoury of the state elites, used to contain the class struggles undertaken by subaltern populations with a view to making the system safe for capital accumulation.” This journey allows him to situate racism as part of the mechanisms of domination of capitalism in relation to the class struggle between classes, and not as the product of some polarity between the West and the rest of the world, as is the postcolonial tendency. “This explanation of the structuring force of racism and the differentiated ways in which the proletariat has been incorporated into capitalism relations of domination,” he writes, “has important implications for emancipatory politics.”

Similar definitions can be found in Marx’s work, in particular in his analyses of the subjectivity of the English working class with respect to Irish workers. The latter were the racialized of the time; physical and personality characteristics were attributed to them that marked them as inferior and as having a greater proclivity for hard labor and poverty. Marx found in the racism and hatred of the English workers toward the Irish to be one of “secrets” of the domination of the English bourgeoisie.

As Marx wrote:

The English bourgeoisie has not only exploited the Irish misery to keep down the working class in England by forced immigration of poor Irishmen, it has also divided the proletariat into two hostile camps. The revolutionary ardor of the Celtic worker does not go well with the solid but slow nature of the Anglo-Saxon worker. On the contrary, in all the big industrial centres in England, there is a profound antagonism between the Irish and English proletarians. The average 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.

He regards him practically in the same way the poor whites in the southern states of North America regard the black slaves. This antagonism between the proletarians in England is artificially nourished and kept alive by the bourgeoisie. It knows that this split is the true secret of maintaining its power. 

At the end of the 19th century, the development of capitalist plunder and pillage took a leap forward, giving way to the imperialist phase. Capital extended its tentacles to the farthest corners of the planet. In a short time, as if by magic, it set up workshops and modern factories where rural economies and local traditions had not changed for centuries. This “unequal and combined development,” as the Russian Marxist Leon Trotsky called it, is a constituent feature of the new epoch of capitalism, with which the colonial and semicolonial oppression of the entire world is reinforced. Once again, the imperialist bourgeoisies would use racism and colonial domination to force splits in the world proletariat — between sectors subjected to the greatest exploitation and oppression in the colonies, as well as deep divisions in the working class in the imperialist countries themselves, and between a workers’ aristocracy with greater privileges and the more exploited and precarious swathes of the working class.

This infernal machine of imperialist domination increasingly used these deep differences as it pitted oppressed peoples against each other and exacerbated differences of gender, “race,” and nationality for its own ends. To accomplish that task, it counted on the invaluable collaboration of the workers’ bureaucracies in the social-democratic parties and trade unions, which supported the colonial enterprises as elements of “civilization.” This reached a high point in 1914, when social democracy in the European countries supported credits to wage World War I, bolstering their own bourgeoisies and underwriting workers from different countries to kill each other in order to carry out a new distribution of colonies and world markets.

Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky, and other revolutionary Marxists fought those very fractures within the working class, the consolidation of chauvinist and racist prejudices, and the influence of bourgeois ideology among the workers promoted by these bureaucracies.

On the Black question in particular, the Third International stated that the communist movement should not stay on the sidelines of the Black movement. Instead, “Communists must use this movement to expose the lie of bourgeois equality and emphasize the necessity of the social revolution which will not only liberate all workers from servitude but is also the only way to free the enslaved Negro people.”4

Leon Trotsky and the Black Question

Less well known is Trotsky’s thinking on the Black question, expressed in his discussions and debates with the American Trotskyists in the 1930s. Trotsky’s thinking offers an enormous amount of strategic wealth for considering these issues, especially in the midst of an unprecedented social crisis as rebellion is beginning to return to the streets.

In a 1932 letter titled “Closer to the Proletarians of the Colored Races,” Trotsky raised a very important question about the relationship of the revolutionary party to the oppressed races. The starting point was his vision of how the Left Opposition should position itself given the approaches of different sectors of society. Trotsky wrote,

When ten intellectuals, whether in Paris, Berlin, or New York, who have already been members of various organizations, address themselves to us with a request to be taken into our midst, I would offer the following advice: Put them through a series of tests on all the programmatic questions; wet them in the rain, dry them in the sun, and then after a new and careful examination accept maybe one or two.

The case is radically altered when ten workers connected with the masses turn to us. The difference in our attitude to a petty-bourgeois group and to the proletarian group does not require any explanation. But if a proletarian group functions in an area where there are workers of different races, and in spite of this remains composed solely of workers of a privileged nationality, then I am inclined to view them with suspicion. Are we not dealing perhaps with the labor aristocracy? …

It is an entirely different matter when we are approached by a group of Negro workers. Here I am prepared to take it for granted in advance that we shall achieve agreement with them, even if such an agreement is not actual as yet. Because the Negro workers, by virtue of their whole position, do not and cannot strive to degrade anybody, oppress anybody, or deprive anybody of his rights. They do not seek privileges and cannot rise to the top except on the road of the international revolution.

We can and we must find a way to the consciousness of the Negro workers, the Chinese workers, the Indian workers, and all the oppressed in the human ocean of the colored races to whom belongs the decisive word in the development of mankind.

Later, in February 1933, Trotsky participated in discussions with the American Trotskyists on the Black question. From his exile in Prinkipo, Turkey, the revolutionary responded to questions from members of the Communist League of American and polemicizes with the League over its refusal to raise the slogan of “self-determination” for Black people. Trotsky argued that the only way to win over Black workers to communism was if revolutionaries convinced white workers that they fight “to the last drop of blood” to guarantee black people full democratic rights, including, if they so choose, the right to secede as an independent nation.

In this exchange, in the face of his interlocutor’s reluctance to defend that program, Trotsky was categorical in repudiating all racist prejudice in the American working class:

Negroes are not yet awakened and they are not yet united with the white workers. 99.9 percent of the American workers are chauvinists, in relation to the Negroes they are hangmen and they are so also toward the Chinese. It is necessary to teach the American beasts. It is necessary to make them understand that the American state is not their state and that they do not have to be the guardians of this state. Those American workers who say: “The Negroes should separate when they so desire and we will defend them against our American police” — those are revolutionists, I have confidence in them. 

Trotsky reinforced his argument, stating that Blacks could “become the most advanced section” of the American working class in the class struggle. The Russian revolutionary experience, he stated, confirmed that: “The Russians were the European Negroes.”

In Trotsky, we find strategic thinking on the question of racism and the need to formulate a hegemonic program from the working class, not only to unite its ranks and overcome internal divisions but also to win allies against the divisions promoted by imperialism to maintain its domination. The only way to combat the influence of the radical petty bourgeoisie among Black workers, which would lead to a separatist, reformist, or class-conciliation program, is for revolutionaries to defend “to the last drop of blood” a transitional program to combat racism and for full democratic, political, and social rights for Black people, within the framework of a more general revolutionary program.

Racism, Capitalism, and Socialist Strategy

If throughout the history of capitalism the racial question has been inseparable from the class question, it is much more so in the 21st century, when the working class has spread worldwide, with greater precarity, racialization, and feminization. Immigration laws, walls, and fences are new forms of modern “segregation” (in the style of the segregationist regime that legally separated whites from Blacks in the United States until the 1960s) adapted to a globalized capitalism in which migration has burgeoned and the working class in the major imperialist countries is deeply multicultural and multiethnic.

But positing that the racial question is intersected by the class question is not the same as reducing the former to the latter. First of all, racism affects not only sectors of the working class but also other intermediate social sectors such as the peasantry — for example, in Latin American countries, where the peasant question also intersects with the indigenous national question — and large sectors of the urban petty bourgeoisie. For this reason, antiracist social movements organized around oppressed racial identity are also heterogeneous from the class point of view.

Moreover, in recent decades, Black and Latino people have managed to reach prominent positions within the world bourgeoisie or the institutions of capitalist states. Barack Obama, the first Black president of the world’s most powerful imperialist state, and Oprah Winfrey, one of the richest Black women in the world, are textbook examples. On this same basis, in the 1980s and 1990s, the debate on the trilogy of gender, race, and class was assimilated as “multiculturalism” or identity politics, within the orbit of postmodern theories. Neoliberalism took the form of “progressive neoliberalism.”

In the spirit of the epoch, the theories of intersectionality — although often critical of the liberal drifts of that muticulturalism — gave more weight to the questions of racism, sexuality, and gender while devaluing the issue of class.

In the new framework of the crisis of neoliberalism and the reemergence of social movements such as the women’s movement and the antiracist movement, there are positions in certain sectors of activists that tend to “autonomize” racial or gender oppression from a more comprehensive struggle against the capitalist system. They underestimate or deny the centrality of the working class as a revolutionary subject, seeing it as being replaced, for various reasons, by other subjects such as the women’s movement, Black people, immigrants and refugees, youth movements against climate change, peasants resisting the privatization of land, and so on.

Meanwhile, some sectors of the Left assert class-reductionist positions that underestimate the question of racism, deny its importance, or reduce it to a secondary “cultural” phenomenon (as if police violence that kills and imprisons a greater proportion of Blacks and Latinos were not a material reality). They thus end up supporting the trade unions above the working class, or supporting corporate or a certain “welfare chauvinism” in the imperialist countries, with priority given to winning a few social measures for some sectors of the native working class while maintaining police control of the borders and imposing on racialized populations the conditions of second-class workers without rights.

Because of the strategic positions the working class occupies in production, circulation, and reproduction, the working class worldwide remains the sole social force capable of overturning the existing order and vanquishing the social minority of capitalists that maintain the exploitation and oppression of millions around the world. As has become clear during the Covid-19 crisis and in the debate over what is “essential,” without the millions of workers in the fields, driving trucks, working in logistics, the food industry, telecommunications, transport, as cleaners, as nurses and other healthcare workers, supermarket cashiers, bank and trade workers, in steel and energy production, the world does not move.

The bourgeoisies fear nothing more than the moments in history when the class struggle manages to overcome internal divisions among the oppressed, overcome racial prejudice and all other forms of prejudice, to build a unified force of struggle against the state and the capitalists and conquer hegemony over allied sectors. These moments, which have occurred over and over again in history, are what Black revolutionary C. L. R. James called moments when lightning announces thunder.

The deepening trend toward rebellion by Black youth in the United States, but even more so the tendency toward convergence with precarious white and Latino youth and with workers on the “front lines” in demonstrations and protests against the police, can thus be seen as the prelude to something truly new.

First published on June 6 in Spanish in Ideas de Izquierda.

Translation by Scott Cooper.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Translator’s note: “Economism” in the period before the Russian Revolution of 1917 was characterized by Lenin as limiting the tasks of the working class to an economic struggle for things such as higher wages and better working conditions rather than for overturning the capitalist system itself.
2. Kevin B. Anderson. “Karl Marx and Intersectionality.” Logos: A Journal of Modern Society & Culture 14, no. 1 (2015).
3. Satnam Virdee, “Racialized Capitalism: An Account of Its Contested Origins and Consolidation,” Sociological Review 67, no. 1 (2019): 3–27.
4. Translator’s note: John Reed, “The Negro Question in America,” speech at the Second World Congress of the Communist International, Moscow, July 25, 1920.

About author

Josefina L. Martínez

Josefina L. Martínez

Josefina is a historian from Madrid and an editor of our sister site in the Spanish State, IzquierdaDiario.es.