Today, the phrase “racial capitalism” is ubiquitous—invoked by the Movement for Black Lives, debated in Dissent, and even mentioned in the New York Times. As a term of art, racial capitalism emerged in debates on the South African Left in the 1970s. Subsequently, Cedric Robinson’s 1983 Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition moved the understanding of racial capitalism beyond apartheid South Africa to encompass the global development of capitalism and neglected forms of anti-capitalist resistance.
The contemporary renaissance around Robinson’s Black Marxism and the framework of racial capitalism is driven in no small part by the Black Lives Matter movement. Following a year of sustained Black struggles against anti-Black state violence, UNC Press brought out a third edition of Black Marxism. What makes Robinson’s text useful for contemporary anti-racist and anti-capitalist struggles? What lessons might the Left learn from engaging with it?
Black Marxism is not a corrective or plea for Marxist analyses of capitalism to account for white supremacist racial domination. Robin D.G. Kelley puts it best in his new foreword: “Black Marxism is neither Marxist nor anti-Marxist. It is a dialectical critique of Marxism that turned to the long history of Black revolt… to construct a wholly original theory of revolution and interpretation of the history of the modern world.” By centering Black struggles against racial slavery, colonization, and capitalism, Robinson offers a critique of orthodox Marxism, providing an alternative historical and structural understanding of the capitalist world-system.
Black Marxism contests Marx’s and Engels’s understanding of capitalism as a complete overhaul of feudalism. European feudalism, for Robinson, was rife with “racialist” ideologies that normalized intra-European relations of conquest, enslavement, and labor domination. The rise of capitalist social relations out of feudalism extended and expanded racialist differentiation. This is not a transhistorical argument. Robinson shows how racial hierarchies, from the 17th century onward, mark a rupture from the past because emerging global capitalist relations transformed material conditions between differently racialized populations within and outside of Europe. For example, Robinson identifies how modern nationalism and Anglo-Saxon chauvinism stymied working-class solidarities in 19th-century England. By centering England’s colonization of Ireland and the super-exploitation of Irish workers in Britain, Robinson demonstrates how competing “racial” and “national” interests were constitutive of the English proletariat. In doing so, Robinson troubles Marx’s revolutionary subject, as well as the Euro-American Left’s uncritical embrace of a deracialized and universal industrial proletariat as the vanguard of revolution.
Rather than homogenizing class antagonisms, per Marx and Engels, Robinson underscores how capitalism operates through a logic of differentiation. This structural analysis makes sense of how “extra-economic” coercion (expropriation) exists alongside wage-labor exploitation. Moving past a tendency in some Marxist thought to abstract and bracket colonization and the Atlantic slave trade as either outside the orbit of capitalist development or a historical phase prior to the emergence of capitalism proper, Robinson establishes the centrality of multiple forms of racialized and gendered expropriation, including racial slavery and super-exploitation, to the expanded reproduction of capital.
Although not a work of political economy, its power lies in the systematic exploration of the fundamental links between racial domination, colonialism, and global capitalism. Foregrounding the “Black radical tradition,” it also highlights how thinkers such as W.E.B. Du Bois, C.L.R James, and Richard Wright reshaped or broke with Marxism to understand Black struggles against capital and the state. Going beyond wage-labor relations in the industrial center, Black Marxism forces the Left to reckon with resistances that have often been invisible to orthodox Marxists. These include slave insurrections, runaway communities established by those escaping slavery, anti-colonial revolutions (exemplified by the Haitian Revolution), and contemporary struggles against state-sanctioned anti-Black violence. Overcoming racial capitalism thus requires that we bring together, not separate, anti-racist and anti-capitalist struggles, building power across the racialized and gendered exploitation/expropriation continuum.