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Racism, Capitalism, and Slavery
In his most important work, Marx states that “Labour in a white skin cannot emancipate itself where it is branded in a black skin.”1 Despite attempts by political and intellectual groups to deny Marx and Engels’ (and, by extension, revolutionary Marxism’s) uncompromising stance against racism, the founders of scientific socialism thoroughly understood that racist oppression served as a tool for the capitalist exploitation of all workers. The relationship between capitalism and racism has only grown stronger in subsequent generations. There have been cases in which the falsification of Marx and Engels’ positions and the conscious attempts to equate Marxism with Stalinism have led to generalized attacks on Marxism.This brief article will describe how the leadership of the Russian Revolution understood the fight against racism.
Marxism was developed on the foundations of a new worldview based in historical materialism and offering an explanation that was superior to idealism, religious beliefs, or a view of history as a mere succession of random events. Contrary to these views, Marxism explains the development of history and the division of society into classes as emerging from the material development of human society, and it describes class struggle as the driving force of history. It is from a scientific view of the development of capitalism, and from a critique of political economy and the origins of the bourgeois state, that Marxism explains racism as an ideology that emerged to justify and rationalize one of the greatest atrocities in the history of mankind and identifies it as one of the fundamental pillars of primitive capital accumulation: the enslavement and trade of more than 11 million human beings to work on the plantations of the Americas and the Caribbean. This is a counter-perspective to idealistic conceptions that view racism as an ideology that has always existed and is intrinsic to human nature or as an idea that emerged out of nowhere, dissociated from its material foundations.
Without recognition of this fundamental aspect, it is impossible to have a scientific view of either the development of racism or of capitalism itself. As Eric Williams writes in his classic work Capitalism and Slavery:
Slavery was not born of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery … The reason was economic, not racial … The features of the man, his hair, color and dentifrice, his “subhuman” characteristics so widely pleaded, were only the later rationalizations to justify a simple economic fact: that the colonies needed labor and resorted to Negro [sic] labor because it was cheapest and best.2
Throughout the book — whose theses continue to generate important debates — Williams describes the role slavery played in the process of primitive accumulation, focusing on the relationship between the slave trade and industrial development in England. In its imperialist phase, the era of “crises, wars and revolutions,” the relationship between racism and capitalism was reinforced. It is no coincidence that theories of scientific racism became more fully developed as nation-states played a decisive role in combining racism and capitalism to increase exploitation, precisely when the African continent was occupied and divided up among the European powers.
This is the basis of a scientific explanation of how racism develops as ideology. It is impossible to understand the development of capitalism without considering the relationship between slavery and racism. It is unquestionable that, to this day, racism serves to further capitalist exploitation. Countless statistics indicate that black people have the most precarious, poorly paid jobs and receive far lower wages than white workers even if they do the same work. By increasing the levels of exploitation of the black worker, and especially of black women, capitalists are able to further undercut the wages and living conditions of the working class as a whole. For this reason, the fight against racism must necessarily be a struggle against capitalism.
Revolution and Slavery
The 1917 Russian Revolution showed the working class and the most oppressed sectors of society a glimpse of a future beyond the narrow limits of capitalist oppression. This did not only apply to the Russian workers; the peasants, who came from a history of serfdom in which they were branded like cattle, achieved their dream of agrarian reform; religious minorities obtained religious freedoms; women gained the right to abortion for the first time in history; and gay people were no longer persecuted.
Internationally, the Russian Revolution had a huge impact on class struggle and demonstrated that, even in underdeveloped capitalist countries like Russia or the countries of the African continent, the masses could lead a revolution.
The Third International, led by Lenin and Trotsky, was born out of the struggle against the social-chauvinists who supported the imperialist war in the early 1900s. The international perspective of the socialist revolution was decisive to its founders. After the triumph in 1917, they aimed to transform the newly created Soviet Republic into a barricade for international and global revolution. The interests of the Soviet workers were intertwined with those of the global working class and of the multitudes of oppressed peoples worldwide. One of the most egregious aspects of the early imperialist era was the division and rule of the African continent by 15 European countries at the Berlin Conference of 1885. The expansion of the Russian Revolution, the defeat of the European bourgeoisies, and the victory of the working class in these imperialist countries — which included France, Germany and England — would have been a fatal blow to their colonial project in the African continent. At the same time, the weakening of the European bourgeoisie would have increased the chances of African workers and the oppressed of overthrowing imperialist rule in their regions.
Great revolutionary leaders like Lenin and Trotsky left various testimonies to their enormous enthusiasm for black struggle against racist oppression and the role of all revolutionaries in merging with this struggle internationally. Even before the Russian Revolution, Lenin was already concerned about the situation of black people worldwide, understanding how crucial it was for communists to connect with the most oppressed and exploited sectors of the working class. In 1920, John Reed wrote a report at Lenin’s request, describing the situation of black people in the U.S. to the Second Congress of the Third Communist International:
The Communists must not stand aloof from the Negro [sic] movement which demands their social and political equality and at the moment, at a time of the rapid growth of racial consciousness, is spreading rapidly among Negroes. The 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.3
In a society divided into social classes based on relationship to the means of production and the bourgeoisie’s private appropriation of the social labor produced by the working class, Marxists argue that the exploiters end up being their own gravediggers. The working class, by virtue of its strategic role in the production of all that exists in society, is the only group capable of defeating capitalism, taking on the task of emancipating not only its own class but humanity as a whole. Black people are not only a fundamental part of the working class; they also comprise its most precarious sectors.
The Fourth Congress held in 1922, before the Stalinization of the Comintern, ratified its theses on black liberation, declaring that the revolutionary order of the day included the fight against racism and support for the struggles of black people on an international scale. After stating that “the enemy of [the black] race and of the white worker is identical: capitalism and imperialism,” the theses affirmed that:
The Communist International should struggle for the equality of the white and black races, and for equal wages and equal political and social rights. The Communist International will use every means at its disposal to force the trade unions to admit black workers, or, where this right already exists on paper, to conduct special propaganda for their entry into unions. If this should prove impossible, the Communist International will organize black people into their own unions and then use the united front tactic to compel the general unions to admit them.4
These historical examples show that black struggle is worker struggle, a message that continues to have relevance today. Fighting for the working class means fighting against racism and defending, for example, wage equality between blacks and whites, men and women, and the direct hire of outsourced workers. This fight calls for an end to police brutality, the right to decent housing, and comprehensive agrarian reform, as this is the only way to unite the working class. This is a decisive question since unity is impossible without fighting against racism, and without this unity, victory cannot be achieved in a revolutionary process.
The Black Struggle and the International Revolution
Lenin and Trotsky did not regard the Russian Revolution as an end in itself but rather as the first step in the international and global expansion of the revolution that would first reach other European countries like Germany. This would mean the end of colonial domination in Africa and Asia and a tremendous advance from the point of view of the world revolution.
The reactionary policy of Stalinism in defense of “socialism in one country” promoted after 1924, along with the failures of the Chinese revolution in 1926 and the general strike in England in 1926, sealed the fate of the black struggles and resistance in the African continent. It signalled for the global imperialist bourgeoisie the possibility of regaining its strength and maintaining its international domination, thus delaying for decades the independence of African countries.
In Brazil, the Stalinism represented by the Brazilian Communist Party (PCB) played a deplorable role in racial politics. Among several examples until the 1960s, the PCB was opposed to discussing any demand for admitting black people into trade unions because they argued that it divided the working class, blatantly capitulating to the ideology of “racial democracy.”
Trotsky devoted all his energy to combating the bureaucratization of the USSR. The Left Opposition, and then the Fourth International, were the continuation of the Bolshevik tradition. The passion and aspirations of these revolutionaries were anchored in the solid theoretical-programmatic foundations of the theory of permanent revolution which strongly encouraged the merging of revolutionary ideas with the most exploited and oppressed sectors of capitalist society such as black people in the U.S., Latin America, and Africa. In Trotsky’s words:
We can and we must find a way to the consciousness of the Negro [sic] 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.5
The revolutionary struggle against exploitation and oppression, particularly among blacks, was decisive for the emergence of a generation of black Trotskyists. The fight against Stalinism and the development of the theory of permanent revolution itself were driving forces for the revolutionary perspective of the fight against racism. Perhaps the individual who most stands out in this respect is CLR James, the author of The Black Jacobins. James is recognized in academic circles as the person who revealed to the world the depth of one of the most glorious black achievements in world history: the Haitian Revolution. Few remember his Trotskyist past or the fact that when he examines Haiti, he does so through the lens of class struggle.
The power of this book is based, among other things, on the way James describes how the revolutionary conditions in France were intertwined with the weakening of Saint-Domingue’s elite while highlighting the revolutionary and uncompromising audacity of the black people of the island in search of their freedom. Only someone with a worldview guided by the perspective of the exploited and oppressed in class struggle would be capable of a work that revealed how the revolution transformed the former slaves of Saint-Domingue into heroes.
CLR James was not only a historian but also a Trotskyist militant who sought to link the struggle for black liberation with the direct fight against the imperialist bourgeoisie and its cowardly counterparts in non-imperialist countries. He demonstrated how, in important moments of class struggle, the goals of the whole working class have more chances of being achieved with the unity of the laboring ranks, that is, between blacks and whites.
The Russian Revolution was the highest point in the struggle for an end to exploitation and oppression. It was a demonstration of the audacity, revolutionary courage, and scientific preparation of the Bolsheviks. Notwithstanding the limits of analogy, the same determination in the struggle for freedom flowed through the veins of the black people of Saint-Domingue in this decisive episode in the history of capitalism. The spirit of the Bolsheviks, the Left Opposition, and the Fourth International is reflected in these words:
What we as Marxists have to see is the tremendous role played by Negroes [sic] in the transformation of Western civilization from feudalism to capitalism. It is only from this vantage-ground that we shall be able to appreciate (and prepare for) the still greater role they must of necessity play in the transition from capitalism to socialism.6
From this perspective, the emancipation of both whites and nonwhites, to which Marx refers, acquires full meaning in the struggle for a society free from exploitation and any form of oppression: a communist society. Who, if not those who suffer the most under capitalism, will fight more vigorously for that future?
Translation by Marisela Trevin
1 Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, trans. Ben Fowles (London: Penguin Classics, 1990), 1:414.
2 Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014), 20, previously published in 1944.
3 John Reed, “The Negro Question in America: Speech at the 2nd World Congress of the Communist International, Moscow — July 25, 1920,” in Second Congress of the Communist International. Minutes of the Proceedings (London: New Park Publications, 1977), previously published by Publishing House of the Communist International, 1921.
4 Jane Degras, ed., The Communist International, 1919 – 1943, vol. 1, 1914 – 1922 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1956), 401.
5 Leon Trotsky, “Closer to the Proletarians of the Colored Races,” The Militant 5, no. 27 (2 July 1932), 1, previously published in Fourth International 6, no. 8 (August 1945): 243.
6 CLR James, “The Revolution and the Negro,” New International 5 (December 1939): 339-343