The Shadow of the Plantation

W.E.B. Du Bois, City and Rural Population, 1890.
W.E.B. Du Bois, City and Rural Pop­u­la­tion, 1890.

There is a sto­ry we tell our­selves about his­to­ry which presents it as the eter­nal pro­gress towards greater free­dom. Cap­i­tal­ism is seen as a chap­ter in this sto­ry, by lib­er­als and Marx­ists alike, since it is under­stood to revolve around the cat­e­go­ry of free wage labor – the juridi­cal­ly free and mobile work­er who enters into a vol­un­tary con­tract with the own­er of the means of pro­duc­tion on the mar­ket­place.

But this sto­ry, as Hei­de Ger­sten­berg­er has point­ed out, is based on a false premise. “The actu­al his­to­ry of cap­i­tal­ism,” she writes, “does not sup­port the assump­tion that the full legal and polit­i­cal auton­o­my of labor­ers is a fun­da­men­tal require­ment for cap­i­tal­ist forms of exploita­tion.”1 In fact, dur­ing the peri­od of capitalism’s emer­gence and ini­tial rapid growth, free wage labor only encom­passed a mar­gin­al por­tion of the pop­u­la­tions incor­po­rat­ed into the cap­i­tal­ist world mar­ket. Var­i­ous forms of forced labor were wide­spread through­out the colo­nial world, meet­ing the demand for cot­ton, cof­fee, and sug­ar in Indus­tri­al Rev­o­lu­tion Eng­land.2

How does this recog­ni­tion, sup­port­ed by con­tem­po­rary research into the his­to­ry of cap­i­tal­ism, affect our con­cep­tu­al cat­e­gories?3 The term “racial cap­i­tal­ism,” the most fre­quent­ly invoked for­mu­la­tion of Cedric Robinson’s famous book Black Marx­ism, has become more and more promi­nent. At first glance, it appears to accu­rate­ly rep­re­sent the his­to­ry of cap­i­tal­ist devel­op­ment, which, as Marx him­self vivid­ly described, was char­ac­ter­ized by the plun­der of the colonies and the bru­tal­i­ty of slav­ery.

The term also holds con­sid­er­able polit­i­cal appeal. In the place of for­mal­ist debates on “race and class,” it points us towards a uni­fied pol­i­tics of anti-racism and anti-cap­i­tal­ism. Per­haps it even allows for a cer­tain the­o­ret­i­cal hybridiza­tion between Marx­ism and what Robin­son calls the “Black Rad­i­cal Tra­di­tion.”

Of course, a uni­fied pol­i­tics of anti-racism and anti-cap­i­tal­ism would not be a new inven­tion. The black com­mu­nist Har­ry Hay­wood, for exam­ple, wrote in 1933:

In the present epoch of impe­ri­al­ism and pro­le­tar­i­an rev­o­lu­tion the Negro ques­tion in the Unit­ed States must be con­sid­ered as part of the nation­al colo­nial prob­lem, or, in oth­er words, it is part of the gen­er­al world-wide prob­lem of free­dom of the oppressed and depen­dent peo­ples from the shack­les of impe­ri­al­ism.4

On the basis of this analy­sis, the Com­mu­nist Par­ty USA engaged in a sus­tained attack on white suprema­cy, lay­ing the ground­work for the black free­dom move­ment.5 How­ev­er, like many oth­er com­men­ta­tors, Robin­son sees the under­ly­ing the­o­ry as unfor­tu­nate and archaic Euro-Marx­ist bag­gage, if not a for­eign impo­si­tion by Rus­sian agents. This is because Hay­wood had pro­posed that the glob­al cen­tral­i­ty of the black strug­gle lay in its char­ac­ter as a part of the nation­al ques­tion.6 The “Black Belt The­sis,” can­on­ized by the Com­mu­nist Inter­na­tion­al in 1928, pro­posed that the soil stretch­ing from East Tex­as to Vir­ginia, with its heart­land in the prairies of Alaba­ma and Mis­sis­sip­pi, con­sti­tut­ed a black nation which had the right to demand self-deter­mi­na­tion.

It remains to be seen what kind of pol­i­tics can be built on the foun­da­tion of the notion of racial cap­i­tal­ism. To deter­mine what orga­ni­za­tion­al and prac­ti­cal activ­i­ty can be derived from this analy­sis, we should turn to the com­par­ison we have in front of us: the work of the com­mu­nists of the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry, who began with the now wide­ly dis­cred­it­ed and ridiculed Black Belt the­sis. At stake is not only the Marx­ist analy­sis of his­to­ry, but also the prac­ti­cal and orga­ni­za­tion­al lega­cy of inter­na­tion­al rev­o­lu­tion. Today, that lega­cy runs the risk of being reduced to an arcane mythol­o­gy. Its preser­va­tion will require us to revis­it lan­guages new and old, in order to dis­cov­er what unex­pect­ed mean­ings may be revealed in the notions of “racial cap­i­tal­ism” and the “black nation.”

The Black Radical Tradition

First it is essen­tial to rec­og­nize that in Black Marx­ism Robin­son has not mere­ly mod­i­fied a Marx­i­an account of cap­i­tal­ism with an indi­ca­tion that racial oppres­sion was one of its devel­op­men­tal deter­mi­nants. Rather, “racial cap­i­tal­ism” is a cat­e­go­ry that is specif­i­cal­ly artic­u­lat­ed from the van­tage point of the “Black Rad­i­cal Tra­di­tion.” In order to define the Black Rad­i­cal Tra­di­tion, Robin­son has to trace an aston­ish­ing sweep of world his­to­ry. He pro­pos­es that the Black Rad­i­cal Tra­di­tion has its roots in the col­lec­tive resis­tance of New World slaves, a resis­tance which, accord­ing to Robin­son, was based on an epis­te­mol­o­gy that “grant­ed suprema­cy to meta­physics not the mate­ri­al.”7

Accord­ing to this epis­te­mol­o­gy, the force which the Black Rad­i­cal Tra­di­tion oppos­es can be iden­ti­fied as “racial cap­i­tal­ism.” Black resis­tance was based, Robin­son writes, on “the African­i­ty of our consciousness—some epis­te­mo­log­i­cal mea­sure cul­tur­al­ly embed­ded in our minds that deemed that the racial cap­i­tal­ism we have been wit­ness to was an unac­cept­able stan­dard of human con­duct.”8

From this van­tage point, one which priv­i­leges the cul­tur­al and meta­phys­i­cal, the con­fronta­tion of an African con­scious­ness with racial cap­i­tal­ism is a kind of clash of civ­i­liza­tions, since racial cap­i­tal­ism express­es the char­ac­ter of West­ern Civ­i­liza­tion itself. What, then, char­ac­ter­izes West­ern civ­i­liza­tion, and how can its expres­sion as racial cap­i­tal­ism be explained by cul­tur­al and meta­phys­i­cal caus­es rather than mate­ri­al ones? Robin­son explains this in terms of a sys­tem of “racial­ism,” which pre­cedes cap­i­tal­ism and cat­e­go­rizes the diverse pop­u­la­tions of Europe, dis­tin­guished by region­al, cul­tur­al, and lin­guis­tic dif­fer­ences. The nation is an illu­so­ry cat­e­go­ry; it con­fus­es the struc­ture of the bureau­crat­ic state with the real his­to­ry of par­tic­u­lar iden­ti­ties and and social struc­tures that con­sti­tut­ed Euro­pean soci­ety. Robin­son under­stands cap­i­tal­ism as the deep­en­ing of racial­ism: “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.”9

“Racial­ism” allows Robin­son to provide a meta­phys­i­cal and cul­tur­al expla­na­tion for the emer­gence of cap­i­tal­ism. Again­st the reduc­tion of his­tor­i­cal expla­na­tion to mate­ri­al fac­tors, he argues: “Racial­ism insin­u­at­ed not only medieval, feu­dal, and cap­i­tal­ist social struc­tures, forms of prop­er­ty, and mod­es of pro­duc­tion, but as well the very val­ues and tra­di­tions of con­scious­ness through which the peo­ples of the­se ages came to under­stand their worlds and their expe­ri­ences.”10 Cap­i­tal­ism is then a moment in the devel­op­ment of Euro­pean racial­ism.

Black Hegelianism

Hegel explains world his­to­ry as the suc­ces­sion of par­tic­u­lar nation­al spir­its, the spir­it of a peo­ple as it is built up objec­tive­ly in the state, and which depends on the cul­tur­al for­ma­tion of its self-con­scious­ness.11 But while for Hegel the par­tic­u­lar­i­ty of a cul­ture and its nation­al expres­sion joins the devel­op­ment of a uni­ver­sal his­to­ry, Robin­son presents a rel­a­tivist phi­los­o­phy of his­to­ry, in the sense that there are dif­fer­ent spir­i­tu­al prin­ci­ples of dif­fer­ent peo­ples, whose rela­tions to one anoth­er are not pro­gres­sive.

Robin­son shows us the racial char­ac­ter of Hegel’s Absolute Spir­it, which is ulti­mate­ly the con­sti­tu­tion of the his­to­ry of Europe as a spir­i­tu­al uni­ty. How­ev­er, Robin­son seeks not to cor­rect Hegel’s false uni­ver­sal­ism with a real uni­ver­sal­ism, but rather to oppose the White Absolute Spir­it with a uni­tary Black Rad­i­cal Tra­di­tion, which aspires not to Uni­ver­sal His­to­ry but to the inter­nal con­sis­ten­cy of its own com­mu­ni­ty.

At a polit­i­cal lev­el, Robinson’s book leads us to a repu­di­a­tion of Marx­ism – it is a post-Marx­ism. How­ev­er, there is a con­tra­dic­to­ry tem­po­ral­i­ty at play, because the­o­ret­i­cal­ly Robinson’s prob­lem­at­ic is pre-Marx­ist. He has pro­posed a Black Hegelian­ism which attempts to super­sede mechan­i­cal mate­ri­al­ism, as Hegel did with the phi­los­o­phy of the Euro­pean Enlight­en­ment.

But Marx’s mate­ri­al­ism was not sim­ply a return from Hegel’s ide­al­ism to the mate­ri­al­ism of the 18th cen­tu­ry. It was an entire­ly new inven­tion, based on a care­ful and orig­i­nal cri­tique of ide­al­ism. While Robinson’s elab­o­ra­tion of the term “racial cap­i­tal­ism” iden­ti­fies pro­found­ly impor­tant char­ac­ter­is­tics of the his­tor­i­cal devel­op­ment of the world mar­ket and its recom­po­si­tion of the glob­al pop­u­la­tion (nations, migra­tion, slav­ery), it remains, like Hegel’s “civil soci­ety,” an ide­o­log­i­cal notion. Even the most super­fi­cial inter­pre­ta­tion of the term implies the exis­tence of a non-racial cap­i­tal­ism – that is, a cap­i­tal­ism which did not emerge and devel­op with­in a world mar­ket that incor­po­rat­ed racial slav­ery. There is no such cap­i­tal­ism, except as a fic­ti­tious a pos­te­ri­ori con­struct.

If we exam­ine the term more deeply we encoun­ter a seri­ous his­to­ri­o­graph­i­cal prob­lem. By explain­ing cap­i­tal­ism as the expres­sion of an under­ly­ing civ­i­liza­tion­al log­ic, the notion of racial cap­i­tal­ism obscures the con­tin­gent ori­gins of cap­i­tal­ist social rela­tions – the crux of the dif­fer­ence which sep­a­rates Marx from Adam Smith. In this light it is eas­ier to under­stand Robinson’s inabil­i­ty to present a coher­ent inter­pre­ta­tion of Marx. What appears to be a cri­tique of Marx is at best a cri­tique of Hegel, from the van­tage point of a Hegel relo­cat­ed to Africa.

Thus Robinson’s account of fig­ures who could accu­rate­ly be described as “Black Marx­ists” relies on idio­syn­crat­ic read­ings, since he tries to incor­po­rate the­se fig­ures into the Black Hegelian Tra­di­tion, imply­ing that from this van­tage point they came to see Marx­ism as inad­e­quate. This can only apply, to some extent, to Richard Wright, while Robinson’s oth­er exam­ples, W.E.B. Du Bois and C.L.R. James, could be con­sid­ered some of the best refu­ta­tions of Robinson’s the­sis, since they demon­strate that Marx­ism is a far more diverse and fer­tile field than Robin­son indi­cates. In order to rep­re­sent Du Bois and James as crit­ics of Marx­ism, rather than some of its most bril­liant and sig­nif­i­cant rep­re­sen­ta­tives, Robin­son presents a reduc­tive car­i­ca­ture of Marx­ist the­o­ry, and engages in dubi­ous inter­pre­ta­tions of Du Bois’s and James’s work which are not remote­ly jus­ti­fied by his own cita­tions.12

The Shadow of the Plantation

The lim­its of this car­i­ca­ture are obvi­ous. But does the com­mu­nist analy­sis under­ly­ing the Black Belt the­sis pro­pose a sub­stan­tive alter­na­tive to Robinson’s Smithi­an assump­tion that cap­i­tal­ism was the nat­u­ral out­growth of Euro­pean val­ues?

Let us turn to Har­ry Haywood’s 1948 Negro Lib­er­a­tion. The 19th cen­tu­ry Amer­i­can slave plan­ta­tion, Hay­wood wrote, was

a hybrid of two sys­tems, clas­sic slave econ­o­my and mod­ern cap­i­tal­ism, com­bin­ing the worst fea­tures of both. It was sired by a cap­i­tal­ist com­mod­i­ty-pro­duc­ing soci­ety, devel­oped under its wing and sub­ject­ed to its mar­ket rela­tion­ships. Then, as now, the nature of the planter’s crop, its price and his returns were deter­mined by the cap­i­tal­ist mar­ket. His sup­plies and finances came from out­side. Dur­ing slav­ery, the plan­ta­tion was financed by big bank­ing and com­mer­cial insti­tu­tions in the North as well as in Eng­land.13

The so-called “race” prob­lem, Hay­wood argued, was the result of “the social stric­tures imposed upon the Negro under the eco­nom­ic sur­vivals of slav­ery, with the extra-eco­nom­ic ele­ment of racial coer­cion.”14 Its con­tin­ued exis­tence was man­i­fest­ed in the “curi­ous anom­aly of a vir­tu­al serf­dom in the very heart of the most high­ly indus­tri­al­ized coun­try in the world.”15 Jim Crow, lynch­ing, Klan ter­ror, share­crop­ping, and debt peon­age allowed “the for­mer slave­hold­ers to main­tain the old slave rela­tions under the new con­di­tions of legal eman­ci­pa­tion.”16

The Great Migra­tion, which tipped the bal­ance of the black pop­u­la­tion towards cities and the North, was a form of resis­tance to the­se sur­vivals of slav­ery, a line of flight which deprived cap­i­tal of an arti­fi­cial­ly cheap­ened labor force.17 As its abil­i­ty to use extra-eco­nom­ic coer­cion to increase pro­duc­tiv­i­ty declined, cap­i­tal had no choice but to rely on the mech­a­niza­tion of agri­cul­ture, which in its turn dis­pos­sessed black share­crop­pers, dri­ving even greater pop­u­la­tions to North­ern cities where they were fol­lowed by what Hay­wood called “the shad­ow of the plan­ta­tion.”18

In the North, black wage labor encoun­tered the same dynam­ics on the fac­to­ry floor and in the city streets. One is remind­ed of the famous line of Mal­colm X: “As long as you’re South of the Cana­di­an bor­der, you’re South.” A sin­gle black indus­tri­al work­er would be com­pelled by racist man­age­ment to do the work of sev­er­al white work­ers, in increas­ing­ly unsafe con­di­tions. Fac­to­ry automa­tion usu­al­ly meant black unem­ploy­ment, lead­ing to the close con­nec­tion of class strug­gle in the fac­to­ries to the urban rebel­lions of the out­siders.19 The­se ongo­ing strug­gles showed that the juridi­cal free­dom of wage labor is not the pro­duct of a guar­an­teed his­tor­i­cal evo­lu­tion; it only appears when the mar­ket-depen­dent work­ing class resists the force and coer­cion imposed upon it.

The Ideology of Race

How did cap­i­tal­ist force and coer­cion come to be exert­ed along racial lines? A 1930 polemic by Har­ry Hay­wood with the extra­or­di­nary title, “Again­st Bour­geois-Lib­er­al Dis­tor­tions of Lenin­ism on the Negro Ques­tion in the Unit­ed States” attempts to answer the ques­tion.20 He declared: “Race, as a social ques­tion, exist[s] only for the ide­ol­o­gists of the bour­geoisie and in the minds of those delud­ed by them.” The basic move of this ide­ol­o­gy was to imbue “dif­fer­ences with­in the human species, such as col­or of skin, tex­ture of hair, etc.” with “a social mean­ing,” and on this basis claim “the exis­tence in nature of mas­ter and slave races.”21

This did not mean, how­ev­er, that race was sim­ply an illu­sion. Race the­o­ries arose to provide a moral jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for colo­nial poli­cies, and there­by took on real polit­i­cal forms which per­pet­u­at­ed the under­ly­ing rela­tion of exploita­tion.22 By cul­ti­vat­ing hatred and resent­ment between the pop­u­la­tions of the oppressed and oppres­sor nations, the ide­ol­o­gy of race pre­vent­ed the emer­gence of a uni­fied glob­al chal­lenge to impe­ri­al­ism.

This ide­ol­o­gy took a speci­fic form in the his­to­ry of the Unit­ed States, due to two demo­graph­ic fac­tors. The first was migra­tion. Recent­ly arrived immi­grants were sub­ject­ed to spe­cial exploita­tion, while native-born Amer­i­can work­ers enjoyed greater priv­i­leges and were orga­nized in exclu­sion­ary, chau­vin­ist craft unions. But this dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion tend­ed to dis­ap­pear as Euro­pean immi­grants were inte­grat­ed over the course of gen­er­a­tions. The sec­ond fac­tor was African slav­ery, which made it pos­si­ble to root labor mar­ket dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion in vis­i­ble phys­i­cal dif­fer­ence. Hay­wood wrote: “The pecu­liar his­tor­i­cal devel­op­ment of Amer­i­can cap­i­tal­ism bound up as it was with the devel­op­ment of cot­ton pro­duc­tion and the nec­es­sary uti­liza­tion of Negro slave labor, con­tribut­ed to the ear­ly rise of racial the­o­ries. The moral sanc­tion­ing of the bru­tal sys­tem of slav­ery neces­si­tat­ed the exclu­sion of the Negro slave from the human cat­e­go­ry.”23

Since black peo­ple and white peo­ple lived side by side in the Unit­ed States, with­out the rigid geo­graph­i­cal, cul­tur­al, and lin­guis­tic divi­sions that char­ac­ter­ized the rela­tions of Euro­pean colo­nial­ism, the race fac­tor became a cen­tral pil­lar of the dom­i­nant ide­ol­o­gy. The Amer­i­can nation came to be defined in terms of white­ness, with phys­i­cal dif­fer­ence in col­or tran­scend­ing intra-Euro­pean hier­ar­chies among immi­grants, car­ried by oppressed nation­al­i­ties from Ire­land, South­ern Italy, and the Rus­sian Empire.

It was no sur­prise, then, that the black nation­al­ist respon­se of Mar­cus Gar­vey would also root itself in racial ide­ol­o­gy. Even reformist inte­gra­tionism was sus­cep­ti­ble to this trap. By view­ing the prob­lem of racism as a mat­ter of prej­u­dice, due to instinc­tive hatred on the part of whites, it reduced the entire eco­nom­ic and social struc­ture of racism to its ide­o­log­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion. The lib­er­al reformist the­o­ry was thus unable to rec­og­nize the polit­i­cal antag­o­nism between black self-deter­mi­na­tion and the shad­ow of the plan­ta­tion – it could only see the elim­i­na­tion of prej­u­dice, through edu­ca­tion and phil­an­thropy.

The Fantasies of Separatism

For the black com­mu­nists, the Gar­vey move­ment rep­re­sent­ed a grass­roots alter­na­tive to reformist inte­gra­tionism; it res­onat­ed with the nation­al­ist under­cur­rent of the black mass­es, which Hay­wood described as “an indige­nous pro­duct, aris­ing from the soil of Black super-exploita­tion and oppres­sion in the Unit­ed States.”24 Because Gar­vey­ism opened the way to a rejec­tion of white soci­ety as it exist­ed, rather than inclu­sion with­in it, it attract­ed a rank and file from the “sub­merged Black peas­antry” that had recent­ly migrat­ed. But it also attract­ed the busi­ness­men of the ghet­to, look­ing to pro­tect their “mea­ger mar­kets” from the “encroach­ments of preda­to­ry white cor­po­rate inter­ests.” Because this mass move­ment includ­ed “var­i­ous class­es and social group­ings with con­flict­ing inter­ests, ten­den­cies and motives, all gath­ered under the uni­fy­ing ban­ner of nation­al lib­er­a­tion,” it had a fun­da­men­tal­ly con­tra­dic­to­ry char­ac­ter.25 While the rank and file saw the black nation­al­ist state as “the ful­fill­ment of their yearn­ings for land and free­dom,” the elite lead­er­ship sought to estab­lish a “Black con­trolled econ­o­my” with­in which they could “exploit their own mass­es free from the over­whelm­ing com­pe­ti­tion of dom­i­nant white cap­i­tal.”26

Gar­vey­ism attempt­ed to resolve the­se class con­tra­dic­tions with an ide­ol­o­gy of race, and this ide­ol­o­gy rep­re­sent­ed an orga­ni­za­tion­al prac­tice of sep­a­ratism. The utopi­an pro­jec­tion of exo­dus to Africa gave sep­a­ratism a basis in the fan­ta­sy of an organ­ic com­mu­ni­ty that pre­ced­ed Amer­i­can his­to­ry. In this way black sep­a­ratism invert­ed the ide­ol­o­gy of race that had accom­pa­nied white dom­i­na­tion. The con­cept of nation­al oppres­sion was an attempt to break out of the quag­mire: race could not be tak­en as a pre-given cat­e­go­ry, a real, sub­stan­tial attrib­ute which then became the object of racial prej­u­dice. A the­o­ry of racial oppres­sion had to explain the con­sti­tu­tion of the very phe­nom­e­non of race, rather than assum­ing its exis­tence.27

For this rea­son it was cru­cial not to reduce the prob­lem of racism to a mat­ter of prej­u­dice, due to instinc­tive hatred on the part of whites. In con­trast, when the prob­lem of race was reframed in terms of the his­to­ry of the ter­ri­to­ry in which racism emerged, as a dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion of forms of labor and their juridi­cal free­dom, it became clear that white suprema­cy could also exert its vio­lence again­st white work­ers, farm­ers, share­crop­pers, and migrants, whose exploita­tion was under­pinned and repro­duced by the sur­vivals of slav­ery. A sec­tion called “Degra­da­tion of Whites” in Negro Lib­er­a­tion spells this out in detail:

It is not acci­den­tal… that where the Negroes are most oppressed, the posi­tion of the whites is also most degrad­ed. Facts unearthed and wide­ly pub­li­cized… have thrown vivid light on the “par­adise” of racial big­otry below the Mason-Dixon Line. They expose the stag­ger­ing price of “white suprema­cy” in terms of health, liv­ing and cul­tur­al stan­dards of the great mass­es of south­ern whites. They show “white suprema­cy”… to be syn­ony­mous with the most out­ra­geous pover­ty and mis­ery of the south­ern white peo­ple. They show that “keep­ing the Negro down” spells for the entire South the nation’s low­est wage and liv­ing stan­dards. “White suprema­cy” means the nation’s great­est pro­por­tion of ten­ants and share­crop­pers, its high­est rate of child labor, its most degrad­ing and wide­spread exploita­tion of wom­en, its poorest health and hous­ing record, its high­est illit­er­a­cy and low­est pro­por­tion of stu­dents in high schools and col­leges, its high­est death and dis­ease rates, its low­est lev­el of union orga­ni­za­tion and its least democ­ra­cy.28

It fol­lowed that the demand for black self-deter­mi­na­tion was not the spe­cial inter­est of a racial group. As Hay­wood wrote, it “rep­re­sents the basic inter­ests of the impov­er­ished white minor­i­ty of the region whose back­ward­ness and dis­tress are anchored in the oppres­sion of the Negro mass­es, since they can be freed only through uncom­pro­mis­ing sup­port for the full rights of the Negro peo­ple.”29

Towards Clarity and Unity

It has not been my inten­tion to argue, as cer­tain grou­pus­cules may still do today, that the the per­sis­tence of racist vio­lence and exploita­tion today should be explained as “nation­al oppres­sion,” still less that it would be rea­son­able to call for a black nation in the Amer­i­can South. But let us recall that the com­mu­nist analy­sis of the nation­al ques­tion under­stood the strug­gle for self-deter­mi­na­tion as an attack on the foun­da­tions of impe­ri­al­ism, rather than the abstract right of an organ­ic com­mu­ni­ty.30 Nations were under­stood as his­tor­i­cal­ly con­sti­tut­ed phe­nom­e­na, which com­posed a given com­mu­ni­ty rather than nam­ing a pre-exist­ing one. The sub­ju­ga­tion of minori­ties in the form of nation­al oppres­sion gave rise to the demand to be able to speak their own lan­guage, to learn their own his­to­ry in school, to move freely through their native lands. But the jus­tice of the­se demands could not be used to ratio­nal­ize an essen­tial­ist and sep­a­ratist pol­i­tics, in the man­ner of Gar­vey­ism, which would cut off each nation­al com­mu­ni­ty from the strug­gle again­st the com­mon impe­ri­al­ist ene­my. The demand for self-deter­mi­na­tion had to be tak­en up by a mul­ti-nation­al orga­ni­za­tion agi­tat­ing for inter­na­tion­al rev­o­lu­tion.

We should pause for a moment to appre­ci­ate the com­plex­i­ty and sub­tle­ty of this argu­ment. It com­plete­ly rejects the notion that there is a cohe­sive and uni­tary inter­est of an organ­ic black com­mu­ni­ty, because this notion is itself based on an inver­sion of the white suprema­cist ide­ol­o­gy of race, and because it obscures the objec­tive con­flict between the major­i­ty of black peo­ple and the black elite. Yet it is just as vehe­ment in reject­ing the econ­o­mistic and social-demo­c­ra­t­ic view that by advanc­ing the inter­ests of white work­ers, the prob­lem of black oppres­sion will auto­mat­i­cal­ly be solved. In fact, not even the eco­nom­ic inter­ests of white work­ers can pos­si­bly be rep­re­sent­ed out­side of a strug­gle for black lib­er­a­tion. In Haywood’s words, “the slo­gan of self-deter­mi­na­tion is a slo­gan of uni­ty. Its over­rid­ing pur­pose was and still is to unite the white and Black exploit­ed mass­es, work­ing and oppressed peo­ple of all nation­al­i­ties.”31

This eman­ci­pa­to­ry project lies out­side the bound­aries of the meta­phys­i­cal “Black Rad­i­cal Tra­di­tion.” And we will cer­tain­ly get no closer to that project by invok­ing “racial cap­i­tal­ism.” “Cap­i­tal­ism” is suf­fi­cient to name our ene­my; let us con­front it direct­ly, with­out shame or hes­i­ta­tion.


  1. Hei­de Ger­sten­berg­er, “The Polit­i­cal Econ­o­my of Cap­i­tal­ist Labor,” View­point 4 (Sep­tem­ber 2014). Note that this com­ment fol­lows an overview of the per­sis­tence of extra-eco­nom­ic coer­cion in Eng­land and France – indi­cat­ing that the analy­sis of extra-eco­nom­ic coer­cion pro­duced by the­o­rists of slav­ery and colo­nial­ism is not of mar­gin­al import, but rather of uni­ver­sal sig­nif­i­cance in the the­o­ry of cap­i­tal­ist labor regimes. 

  2. On some the­o­ret­i­cal impli­ca­tions of this point see San­dro Mez­zadra, “How Many His­to­ries of Labor? Towards a The­o­ry of Post­colo­nial Cap­i­tal­ism,” Jan­u­ary 2012, trans­ver­sal; and Mas­si­m­il­iano Tomba, “His­tor­i­cal Tem­po­ral­i­ties of Cap­i­tal: An Anti-His­tori­cist Per­spec­tive,” His­tor­i­cal Mate­ri­al­ism, 17:4 (2009): 44-65. See also Yann Moulier-Boutang, De l’esclavage au salari­at: économie his­torique du salari­at bridé (Paris: PUF, 1998), 89-270.  

  3. For a valu­able review of this recent empir­i­cal lit­er­a­ture and its con­cep­tu­al gaps, see John Clegg, “Cap­i­tal­ism and Slav­ery,” Crit­i­cal His­tor­i­cal Stud­ies (Fall 2015). 

  4. Har­ry Hay­wood, “The Strug­gle for the Lenin­ist Posi­tion on the Negro Ques­tion in the Unit­ed States,” The Com­mu­nist, Sep­tem­ber 1933. 

  5. See Erin Gray’s excel­lent intro­duc­tion to Har­ry Hay­wood and Mil­ton Howard’s Lynch­ing: A Weapon of Nation­al Oppres­sion, reprint­ed on View­point

  6. For a vital con­cep­tu­al analy­sis of the nation­al ques­tion see Gav­in Walk­er (2011), “Post­colo­nial­i­ty and the Nation­al Ques­tion in Marx­ist His­to­ri­og­ra­phy,” Inter­ven­tions: Inter­na­tion­al Jour­nal of Post­colo­nial Stud­ies, 13:1, 120-137. 

  7. Cedric Robin­son, Black Marx­ism: The Mak­ing of the Black Rad­i­cal Tra­di­tion (Chapel Hill: The Uni­ver­si­ty of North Car­oli­na Press, 2000), 169. Robinson’s book has been crit­i­cized from the van­tage point of a cer­tain Marx­ism in Gre­go­ry Mey­er­son, “Rethink­ing Black Marx­ism: Reflec­tions on Cedric Robin­son and Oth­ers,” Cul­tur­al Log­ic 3:2 (Spring 2001). Meyerson’s arti­cle pro­vides some use­ful empir­i­cal and inter­pre­tive cor­rec­tives, though it does not take the approach we employ here of iden­ti­fy­ing Robinson’s prob­lem­at­ic. 

  8. Robin­son, Black Marx­ism, 308. 

  9. Robin­son, Black Marx­ism, 26. 

  10. Robin­son, Black Marx­ism, 66. 

  11. See G.W.F Hegel, The Phi­los­o­phy of His­to­ry, trans. J. Sibree (New York: The Colo­nial Press, 1899), 71; Vor­lesun­gen über die Philoso­phie der Geschichte, ed. Eduard Gans (Berlin: Dunck­er & Hum­blot, 1848), 89. 

  12. For cor­rec­tives see Matthieu Renault, “Toward a Coun­ter-Geneal­o­gy of Race: On C.L.R. James” and Fer­ruc­cio Gam­bi­no, “W.E.B. Du Bois and the Pro­le­tari­at in Black Recon­struc­tion.”  

  13. Har­ry Hay­wood, Negro Lib­er­a­tion (New York: Inter­na­tion­al Pub­lish­ers, 1948), 49-60. 

  14. Hay­wood, Negro Lib­er­a­tion, 44. 

  15. Hay­wood, Negro Lib­er­a­tion, 11. 

  16. Hay­wood, Negro Lib­er­a­tion, 37. 

  17. Har­ry Hay­wood, “For a Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Posi­tion on the Negro Ques­tion.” See also Negro Lib­er­a­tion, 16-20. 

  18. Hay­wood, Negro Lib­er­a­tion, 113-4. 

  19. The term is James Boggs’s in The Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion; see Patrick King’s intro­duc­tion to “Black Pow­er: A Sci­en­tific Con­cept Whose Time Has Come” in e-flux

  20. Har­ry Hay­wood, “Again­st Bour­geois-Lib­er­al Dis­tor­tions of Lenin­ism on the Negro Ques­tion in the Unit­ed States,” The Com­mu­nist, August 1930. 

  21. Hay­wood, “Again­st Bour­geois-Lib­er­al Dis­tor­tions,” 695-6. 

  22. Hay­wood, “Again­st Bour­geois-Lib­er­al Dis­tor­tions,” 696. 

  23. Hay­wood, “Again­st Bour­geois-Lib­er­al Dis­tor­tions,” 698. 

  24. Hay­wood, Black Bol­she­vik, 230. 

  25. The mass char­ac­ter of the Gar­veyite move­ment should not be under­es­ti­mat­ed: there was strong sup­port for Garvey’s Unit­ed Negro Improve­ment Asso­ci­a­tion in both the cities and the rural South. Mary G. Rolin­son has writ­ten a remark­able account of the pop­u­lar­i­ty of the UNIA among Black Belt share­crop­pers over the course of the 1920s, leav­ing a pro­found influ­ence on lat­er protest move­ments and appeals for self-deter­mi­na­tion in the region: Grass­roots Gar­vey­ism: The Unit­ed Negro Improve­ment Asso­ci­a­tion in the Rural South, 1920-1927 (Chapel Hill, NC: Uni­ver­si­ty of North Car­oli­na Press, 2007). Robin D.G. Kel­ley has probed the ongo­ing effects of ear­lier forms of black nation­al­ism, includ­ing Gar­vey­ism, on Com­mu­nist activists in “‘Afric’s Sons with Ban­ner Red’”: African-Amer­i­can Com­mu­nists and the Pol­i­tics of Cul­ture, 1919-1934,” in Imag­in­ing Home: Class, Cul­ture, and Nation­al­ism in the African Dias­po­ra, ed. Sid­ney J. Lemelle and Robin D.G. Kel­ley (New York: Ver­so, 1994), 35-54.  

  26. Hay­wood, Black Bol­she­vik, 109-110; see also Negro Lib­er­a­tion, 197-204. 

  27. See the effec­tive sum­ma­ry, in anoth­er con­text, of Éti­en­ne Bal­ibar: “The object (the tar­get) of cur­rent Euro­pean racism is not by any means just the black, the Arab or the Mus­lim, though they doubtless bear the main brunt. This point is also impor­tant because it forces us once again to go beyond abstract inter­pre­ta­tions in terms of con­flicts of iden­ti­ty, or rejec­tion of the Oth­er and of ‘oth­er­ness’ as such – as though oth­er­ness were some­thing con­sti­tut­ed a pri­ori: expla­na­tions which, in real­i­ty, mere­ly repro­duce part of the racist dis­course itself.” Pol­i­tics and the Oth­er Scene, trans. Christine Jones, James Swen­son, Chris Turn­er (New York: Ver­so, 2002), 44. 

  28. Hay­wood, Negro Lib­er­a­tion, 66-7. 

  29. Hay­wood, Negro Lib­er­a­tion, 166. 

  30. On the the­me of “com­mu­ni­ty” see Jean-Luc Nan­cy, The Inop­er­a­tive Com­mu­ni­ty, ed. Peter Con­nor and trans. Peter Con­nor, Lisa Gar­bus, Michael Hol­land, and Simona Sawh­ney (Min­neso­ta: Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press, 1991); and Éti­en­ne Bal­ibar, “Cit­i­zen­ship with­out Com­mu­ni­ty” in We, the Peo­ple of Europe? Reflec­tions on Transna­tion­al Cit­i­zen­ship, trans. James Swen­son (Prince­ton: Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2004). 

  31. Hay­wood, Black Bol­she­vik, 279. 

Author of the article

is an editor of Viewpoint.