As part of the Revolutionaries Reviewed series, Bill Mullen argues the works of Trinidadian socialist and revolutionary C.L.R. James help us grapple with the key debates in the Black Lives Matter movement, and argues the need for anti-racist organising to be at the centre of the struggle against capitalism.
The Black Lives Matter movement across the U.S. against police violence and racist inequality is one of the most dynamic political developments in years. The movement has launched campaigns to abolish and defund U.S. police departments; demanded redistribution of social resources from policing to health care, public works and education, especially in African-American communities; and forced the demolition or destruction of monuments to slavery and racism in the western world.
The movement has also mobilized more people into the streets than at perhaps any time in U.S. history. The New York Times estimates that as many as 26 million people have participated in public protests since police murders of Breona Taylor and George Floyd unleashed mass public rage.
Also notable about these recent protests are the large number of white protestors following the lead of Black organizers. Almost 95 percent of the U.S. counties that have held a Black Lives Matter protest are majority white. Nearly 75 percent of those counties are approximately ¾ white.
For Marxists, these developments call attention to the centrality of fighting racism as a means to fight capitalism.
Marx & Engels on Race & Class
Marx and Engels famously wrote in Capital: Volume I that “Labor in the white skin cannot be emancipated while in the black it is branded.” They argued that slavery and the trafficking in Black skins were essential to what they called “primitive accumulation,” the means by which capitalist states created the wealth that built capitalism itself.
Marx also saw the creation of racial differences and racial antagonisms as a central tool by which capitalists divided and ruled the working class. In an 1870 letter to Sigfrid Meyer and August Vogt, Marx wrote:
Every industrial and commercial center in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker, he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation, and consequently, he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. He cherishes religious, social and national prejudices against the Irish worker. His attitude towards him is much the same as that of the “poor whites” to the Negroes in the former slave states of the U.S.A. The Irishman pays him back with interest in his own money. He sees in the English worker both the accomplice and the stupid tool of the English rulers in Ireland.
This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organization. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this.
In order to defeat capitalism, Marx argued, workers would need to overcome these deeply sown prejudices created by the ruling classes. There was no other way forward.
The Marxism of C.L.R. James
Among the writers and organizers following Marx, the Trinidadian socialist C.L.R. James did much to advance analysis and understanding of the dynamics of building a unified interracial working-class movement with the fight against racism at the center.
In his 1948 essay The Revolutionary Answer to the Negro Problem in the U.S., James proposed that Black workers and Black working-class movement had a central and unique role to play in the fight against capitalism.
James urged revolutionary socialist organizations and the labor movement to recognize the special oppression faced by Black workers under capitalism. He also sought to encourage Black workers to organize for themselves as a means of contributing to the fight against capitalism.
James put the matter this way:
We say, number 1, that the Negro struggle, the independent Negro struggle, has a vitality and a validity of its own; that it has deep historic roots in the past of America and in present struggles; it has an organic political perspective, along which it is traveling, to one degree or another, and everything shows that at the present time it is traveling with great speed and vigor.
We say, number 2, that this independent Negro movement is able to intervene with terrific force upon the general social and political life of the nation, despite the fact that it is waged under the banner of democratic rights, and is not led necessarily either by the organized labor movement or the Marxist party.
We say, number 3, and this is the most important, that it is able to exercise a powerful influence upon the revolutionary proletariat, that it has got a great contribution to make to the development of the proletariat in the United States, and that it is in itself a constituent part of the struggle for socialism.
James arrived at this position through an application of both Marxist theory and historical example.
James derived from Lenin’s arguments in support of the rights of colonies to self-determination that, in James’s words, “Small groups, nations, nationalities…can act as one of the ferments, the bacilli which will bring on to the scene the real fundamental force against capitalism, the socialist proletariat.”
Black workers were for James one of those “small groups.” In the same essay, James gave as example the massive influx of Black workers into unions in the 1940s after the creation of the interracial Congress of Industrial Organizations. Once in a union, he argued, Black workers would gain a higher level of class consciousness and more confidence in their ability to organize to fight. The result, he wrote, was “since 1940…the independent mass movement has broken out with a force greater than it has ever shown before.”
James also argued for independent Black movements against capitalism because Black workers would be subject to special prejudices generated by the bourgeoisie against them. Here, James tackled in depth one of the most important challenges for building an interracial working-class movement, namely the role of white workers.
In his 1945 essay “White Workers’ Prejudices,” written three years before “Revolutionary Answer to the Negro Problem,” James explained that white workers would always be vulnerable to absorbing racial prejudices against Black workers because capitalism was built out of slavery, segregation of the races and racial hierarchy which shaped the society as a whole, especially the workplace.
James pointed out for example that in their daily experiences, white workers would nearly always encounter negative examples of Black life. As he put it:
The Negroes whom he happens to meet are as a rule poor, shabby, often belonging to the dregs of the population. There are many whites who belong to the dregs of the population also. But counteracting these are the whites who are rich, powerful, well educated; besides the number who are just ordinary citizens, neither rich nor dregs, but fulfilling in their various ways the social functions of society.
James also pointed out that “[A] worker never goes into an insurance office, or a department store, or a lawyer’s office where he sees a Negro or Negroes occupying positions of authority, or giving evidence of knowledge, or receiving the consideration which is due to those who have achieved the status of the middle class.”
Making matters worse were books, magazines and movies offering negative and demeaning representations of Black life. All of these could infect the mind of the white worker with prejudice.
Yet James was also clear that racism and prejudice among white workers was a reflection of the bourgeois society they lived in, not something they chose for themselves. Seizing upon Marx’s notion that the ruling ideas of a society are the ideas of the ruling class, James said, “It would be very strange if there wasn’t some racism in the white working class because in any society the ideas that are dominant in the ruling class will find a reflection in the elements of those who work.”
Indeed, James argued that both Black and White workers would be affected by bourgeois racism in different ways that could harm them both. Black workers, for example, might bring a natural distrust to working alongside whites because of their own experiences of racism. This, too, could hamper working-class unity.
As James put it, “…bourgeois race prejudice against the Negroes in the United States is something extraordinarily powerful and of a range and subtlety that it takes years to understand and only the proletarian revolution and the break-up of the bourgeoisie will make the proletariat fully understand.”
James’s analysis is important for those seeking to put the fight against racism at the center of the fight against capitalism. It is also important for Marxists seeking to combat arguments that white workers are either inherently prejudiced or cannot overcome their prejudice in order to fight capitalism. This idea is sometimes called “white privilege.”
“White skin privilege” first appeared as a codified body of analysis in 1967. In that year, the Americans Noel Ignatiev, under the name Noel Ignatin, and Theodore Allen, produced a pamphlet containing two articles: “White Blindspot” by Ignatiev, and “Can White Radicals be Radicalized?” by Allen.
“White skin privilege” theory, as they developed it, argued that white radicals and activists did not put enough emphasis on racism in either assessing U.S. history or developing tactics to build revolutionary movements. Their analysis combined the influence of Black nationalism’s emphasis on white supremacy in U.S. society; a commitment to the centrality of Black workers to the revolutionary struggle; and an argument that “white chauvinism” among white workers was the single-biggest obstacle to working-class unity, and hence revolution.
The Ignatiev/Allen pamphlet was published by the Students for Democratic Society Radical Education project, and had a lasting impact on the New Left, SDS and the Maoist New Communist Movement.
In his later, important book The Invention of the White Race, Allen called white privilege the “bait” offered to white workers by bosses to put their own self-interest against and over that of non-white workers.
Allen argued that only by rejecting that “bait” could white workers see through the divisive tactics of the ruling class.
Allen and Ignatiev’s analysis led to a movement to “abolish” whiteness articulated in journals like Race Traitor. The abolitionists argued that only when whiteness was recognized by whites as a fiction, and white identity rejected, could the power of white supremacy be dismantled.
James’s analysis is different. Capitalist forces themselves, he argued, would bring workers into interracial unity by virtue of their shared experience of exploitation in the workplace.
As he put it in the essay White Workers’ Prejudices:
“The productive system of the United States created the basis of the Negro situation and it is the productive system which is creating the basis of its solution. It is the mass production industries which have within recent years placed whites and Negroes together on a basis of equality in that most fundamental social sphere – the process of productive labor.”
James therefore argued against people who saw white workers’ prejudices as either fixed and insurmountable. Once confronted with the accusation that he had his own “blind spot” about working-class racism, James responded, “…while you can accuse me of having a blind spot in regard to the racism of the white working class, I would say you have a much blinder spot in regard to the progressive, revolutionary element of the British working class…that is a much more powerful element”.
Anti-Racism is Class Struggle
James’s analysis is supported by other writers like the African-American Marxist W.E.B. Du Bois. In his book about slavery, the American Civil War and its aftermath, Black Reconstruction, Du Bois referred to the racial “bribe” of white privilege as the “wages of whiteness.” He argued that after the Civil War, southern plantation owners sought to implant racism in the minds of white workers to prevent them from unifying:
The race element was emphasized in order that property-holders could get the support of the majority of white laborers and make it more possible to exploit Negro labor. But the race philosophy came as a new and terrible thing to make labor unity or labor class-consciousness impossible. So long as the Southern white laborers could be induced to prefer poverty to equality with the Negro, just so long was a labor movement in the South made impossible. (Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, p. 680)
Like James, Du Bois understood that white workers were subject to bourgeois influences which could hurt their chances at class unity. For Du Bois, white worker failure to see through bourgeois racism prevented the formation of a multiracial working-class fighting force in the South after slavery and emancipation. He lamented that white workers could be vulnerable to racist ideas that would actually undermine their own class interests.
The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci described the contradiction Du Bois was analyzing this way:
The active man-in-the-mass has a practical activity but has no clear theoretical consciousness of his practical activity which nonetheless involves understanding the world in so far as it transforms it. His theoretical consciousness can…be historically in opposition to his activity.
One might almost say that he has two theoretical consciousnesses (or one contradictory consciousness): one which is implicit in his activity and which in reality unites him with all fellow workers in the practical transformation of the real world; and one superficially explicit or verbal, which he has inherited from the past and uncritically absorbed. The person is strangely composite: it contains Stone Age elements and principles of a more advanced science, prejudices all past phases of history at the local level and intuitions of a future philosophy which will be that of a human race united the world over. (Antonio Gramsci, Further Selections from the Prison Notebooks (London, 1995), p. 641).
We can see Gramsci’s ideas at work in the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement. Polls shows that people’s attitude towards the police have been changed significantly by the protests. Confidence in the police, typically very high, is now at an historic low, especially among white people.
This development confirms James’ analysis. Independent Black struggle can make a significant contribution to the ideas of the wider society and the character of the fight against capitalism. White workers’ can through interracial struggle recognize the racist nature of bourgeois society, and work against it.
As Marxists, as Socialists, our task is to continue to fight for working-class self-emancipation by recognizing the working-class itself as the greatest agent and engine of change.
Putting the fight against racism at the center of that fight is critical to our success.