Black Marxism – Cedric J. Robinson

Black MarxismBlack Marxism is a book of immense scope and impressive in its immensity. It felt absolutely overwhelming as I read it, but going back over it, it feels more like some kind of treasure trove that will continue to yield new things every time I open its cover — so some initial lengthy yet also paradoxically brief notes…

The European Roots of Capitalism

It begins at the European beginning of Capitalism, going through the rise of the bourgeoisie through first cities, then absolutist and colonial states. As Robinson states: “European civilization is not the product of capitalism. On the contrary, the character of capitalism can only be understood in the social and historical context of its appearance.” [25] And because this is true, the age-old conceptions of race, enemy and exploitable other simply translated itself into new terms as the world changed: “As an enduring principle of European social order, the effects of racialism were bound to appear in the social expression of every strata of every European society no matter the structures upon which they were formed. None was immune. [29]”

He moves on then to look at the English working class, and how their formation was also entwined with racialism. Marx and Engels both acknowledged the existence of racial divisions, but believed that these would be erased as capitalism developed, even though there did not appear to be signs of it happening. As Robinson pointedly notes:

Neither Marx nor Engels were unaware of the proletariat’s failure to become a universal class.76 Both studied the Irish Question closely, were active in the attempt to resolve its destructive impact on the historical processes of English working-class formation, and commented on its import for future proletarian organization. Nevertheless, the impact of their experience with the English proletariat on their theory of the proletariat’s historical role appears to have been slight. [51]

He’s scathing of the whole Socialist tradition really, particularly in its early stages, and in my opinion entirely rightly. Its solid basis lies in the bourgeoisie itself, with no connection to the working classes:

It is a period dominated by eccentrics, visionaries, and didacts. The wistful trails of Godwin, Paine, Fourier, Saint-Simon, Cabet, Pecquer, lesser and grander lights, preoccupy the historians, along with the most often short-lived utopian communities associated with some ofthem. The agitations, rebellions, riots, and struggles of artisans, wage laborers, peasants, and slave laborers are largely irrelevant to the tradition in the early nineteenth century and mostly constitute a background “noise” in this the era of the socialist writer. … Their work becomes a demonstration of the independence of socialist theory and social movements from one another. When once again they collide, in the 1840S, 1870S, and early 1900S, each had assumed forms and prerogatives only slightly tolerable to those of the other.

He returns Marx to his time and place, from 1848 to the rise of Bismarck in 1862. He traces the ambiguities of Marx and Engels’ positions on nationalism, and argues that they did not understand it, in the same way that they failed to understand racialism: that it was neither an aberration nor a stage, but something as determined by history as their world revolution failed to be. He argues that ideologies have in fact “helped to abort those social and historical processes believed to be necessary and inevitable; have catalyzed rebellions and revolutions in often unlikely circumstances and among unlikely peoples; and have assisted in extraordinary historical achievement where failure was “objectively” immanent.” [82]

Only then do we return to race:

In short, there were at least four distinct moments that must be apprehended in European racialism; two whose origins are to be found within the dialectic of European development, and two that are not:

1. the racial ordering of European society from its formative period, which extends into the medieval and feudal ages as “blood” and racial beliefs and legends.
2. the Islamic (i.e., Arab, Persian, Turkish, and African) domination of Mediterranean civilization and the consequent retarding of European social and cultural life: the Dark Ages.
3. the incorporation of African, Asian, and peoples of the New World into the world system emerging from late feudalism and merchant capitalism.
4. the dialectic of colonialism, plantocratic slavery, and resistance from the sixteenth century forward, and the formations of industrial labor and labor reserves.

It is now a convention to begin the analysis of racism in Western societies with the third moment; entirely ignoring the first and second and only partially coming to terms with the fourth. … In each instance, the root of the methodological and conceptual flaws is the same: the presumption that the social and historical processes that matter, which are determinative, are European. All else, it seems, is derivative.

Black Marxism is a refutation of such a framework.

Moments of Black struggle

And so on to rebellion and uprising in Africa and its diaspora flung across the world by the European slave trade. He writes:

Black radicalism, consequently, cannot be understood within the particular context of its genesis. It is not a variant of Western radicalism whose proponents happen to be Black. Rather, it is a specifically African response to an oppression emergent from the immediate determinants of European development in the modern era and framed by orders of human exploitation woven into the interstices of European social life from the inception of Western civilization: [97]

Robinson finds how this was ignored in a deep historical look at previous contacts between Blacks and whites, the shift of Blacks being seen as Islamic militants and soldiers to slaves and a very different set of stereotypes. From there he looks at the long history of the slave trade, mentioned earlier was the Italian trafficking of ‘Tartars’ and ‘Poles’ and ‘Cathays’, but now it has expanded into the extraordinary movement of tens of thousands of people in the trans-Atlantic trade. Thus we arrive at black radicalism. As he states at the opening of chapter 6:

However, Marx had not realized fully that the cargoes of laborers also contained African cultures, critical mixes and admixtures of language and thought, of cosmology and metaphysics, of habits, beliefs, and morality. These were the actual terms of their humanity. These cargoes, then, did not consist of intellectual isolates or deculturated Blacks-men, women, and children separated from their previous universe. African labor brought the past with it, a past that had produced it and settled on it the first elements of consciousness and comprehension.
This was the embryo of the demon that would be visited on the whole enterprise of primitive accumulation. [173]

And thus follows a whole splendid history of Black resistance through the ages, uprisings and revolts, some of the marron comunities you might have heard of like Palmares but many that you probably have not. It ends with Africa: Revolt at the Source. In delving deeper into the nature of the Black radical tradition, he finds in fact that “one note has occurred and recurred: the absence of mass violence.” [242], in contrast to the ‘massive and often indiscriminate’ brutality of the Europeans in quelling such revolts. He claims that such an absence shows that

This was a revolutionary consciousness that proceeded from the whole historical experience of Black people and not merely from the social formations of capitalist slavery or the relations of production of colonialism.
It becomes clear, then, that for the period between the mid-sixteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries, it was an African tradition that grounded collective resistance by Blacks to slavery and colonial imperialism.

He goes on to argue for a particularly African tradition of granting primacy to the metaphysical, not the material. A tradition of resistance through collectivity. I’m not entirely convinced by the psychology of it, but there’s definitely something there. “They lived on their terms, they died on their terms, they obtained their freedom on their terms.” He argues that this cast doubt on the idea that capitalism was able to ‘penetrate and reform’ all social life, or strip life down to bare survival.

The Formation of the Black Intelligentsia:

Black Marxism then moves on to the third section to look at W.E.B. Du Bois, C.L.R. James and Richard Wright. It is an immensely rich look at Du Bois, my favourite passage distilling some of the wealth in Black Reconstruction:

And in every instance, peasants and agrarian workers had been the primary social bases of rebellion and revolution. Nowhere, not even in Russia, where a rebellious urban proletariat was a fraction of the mobilized working classes, had a bourgeois social order formed a precondition for revolutionary struggle. Revolutionary consciousness had formed in the process of anti-imperialist and nationalist struggles, and the beginnings of resistance had often been initiated by ideological constructions remote from the proletarian consciousness that was a presumption of Marx’s theory of revolution. The idiom of revolutionary consciousness had been historical and cultural rather than the “mirror of production.” The oppositions that had struck most deeply at capitalist domination and imperialism had been those formed outside the logic of bourgeois hegemony. [324]

C.L.R. James loved fiction! Who knew. This section looks more at his critiques of Marxism, some interesting reflections on Black Jacobins and this interesting passage: “It implied (and James did not see this) that bourgeois culture and thought and ideology were irrelevant to the development of revolutionary consciousness among Black and other Third World peoples. It broke with the evolutionist chain in, the closed dialectic of, historical materialism.” [386]

And the section on Wright, so rich on how writing and experience and political consciousness fold together, there is so much here, I can’t sum up. There’s this:

For Wright, it was not sufficient for Black liberation that his people come to terms with the critique of capitalist society. He had observed: “Marxism is but the starting point. No theory of life can take the place of life.”55 As a critique of capitalist society, Marxism was necessary, of course, but it was ultimately an internal critique. The epistemological nature of historical materialism took bourgeois society on its own terms, that is, presuming the primacy of economic forces and structures.56 As such, the historical development from feudalism of the bourgeoisie as a class served as a logical model for the emergence of the proletariat as a negation of capitalist society. Wright appeared quite early to have understood this thesis as a fundamental error in Marxist thought. Even as early as 1937, he had begun to argue that it was necessary that Blacks transform the Marxist critique into an expression of their own emergence as a negation of Western capitalism.

Brilliant stuff on ideology and violence, the importance of experience, but I will let Robinson himself do the final summing up of the contributions of each to a valid theory of liberation:

Du Bois

It was, Du Bois observed, from the periphery and not the center that the most sustained threat to the American capitalist system had materialized. … Just as important for him, however, was the realization that the racism of the American “white” working classes and their general ideological immaturity had abnegated the extent to which the conditions of capitalist production and relations alone could be held responsible for the social development of the American proletariat. The collective and individual identities of American workers had responded as much to race as they had to class. The relations of production were not determinant. [448]


No revolutionary cadre, divorced from the masses, ensconced in state bureaucracy, and abrogating to itself the determination of the best interests of the masses, could sustain the revolution or itself. [449]


Wright evoked in his writings the language and experience of”ordinary” Black men and women. In this way he pressed home the recognition that whatever the objective forces propelling a people toward struggle, resistance, and revolution, they would come to that struggle in their own cultural terms. [449]

And my final quote which I believe deserves much thought:

Western Marxism, in either of its two variants-critical-humanist or scientific-has proven insufficiently radical to expose and root out the racialist order that contaminates its analytic and philosophic applications or to come to effective terms with the implications of its own class origins. As a result, it has been mistaken for something it is not: a total theory of liberation. [451]

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