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You are here: Platypus /Beyond racial capitalism: Black Marxism and the question of modernity

Beyond racial capitalism: Black Marxism and the question of modernity

Wes Vanderburgh

Platypus Review 139 |September 2021

FOR A NEW GENERATION grappling with anti-black violence and capitalism, it is no accident that Cedric Robinson’s book, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (1983), is making a comeback. You may have heard the latest attempt to come to terms with both these phenomena simultaneously and in the fullness of their interrelationship: the term racial capitalism. Robinson’s book is often cited as its origin. Indeed, now entire curricula, research projects, and institutes are dedicated to exploring the seemingly old content signified by this hot new buzzword.[1] Lots of scholarship since Robinson’s 1983 publication has built on the topic, qualifying and operationalizing it to feed new iterations of research and activism. Thus many want to get back to the source and learn about the concept in its original guise. And why not? The book is daunting but well worth the read. It is ambitious, clever, and ruthless in its commitment to critique.

But if all one took away from this mighty book were the idea of “racial capitalism,” they would be missing the most important part. Indeed, while Part I sets up a discussion of the racialized history of capitalism, that is very much not the heart-and-soul of the project. Rather, as the subtitle reveals, Robinson is more interested in this phenomenon he calls the “Black radical tradition.” In the course of naming, diagnosing, and tracing this tradition through three prominent intellectuals of the western-hemisphere African diaspora, Robinson makes a subtle claim that most of his present-day disciples fail to pick up on.

All the attention given to “racial capitalism” masks Robinson’s own ambivalence to the Marxist tradition he claims he is working with. He even goes as far as saying that capitalism has been unsuccessful in refashioning the terms of being “Black,” in contrast to the whole arc of “classical” Marxism. In effect, Robinson turns his back on the revolutionary potential of capitalism itself, throwing in his lot with this transhistorical “Black radical tradition,” which he sees as revolutionary to a higher degree than Marxian socialism.

Black Marxism thus marks an important theoretical turning point right at the beginning of neoliberalism. It adopts the language and, to an extent, the method of Marxism to liquidate the Marxian attention to self-consciousness in history. I argue that we should refocus our attention on this aspect of the book, as this is a charge that the contemporary Left needs to take seriously once again. Is it really the case that there are forms of being human that escape the totalizing grip of capitalism? Is it true that Marxism is doomed because it is so culturally bound as not to have any bearing on world history at all? Is the “Black radical tradition” capable of affecting the kind of overcoming to which capitalism points? These are much more serious questions than contemporary anxieties over the extent to which racism and capitalism are intertwined. The Left today is probably unable of even understanding the question, let alone answering it. But its response determines its true character, indeed its emancipatory potential at all. The longer Robinson goes unanswered, the longer the world suffers the by-now needless alienation of capitalism.

Here I will only outline a brief articulation of the task at hand. I will first point out how minimally Robinson deals with the concept of “racial capitalism” (he hardly ever uses the phrase himself). Next I will examine his central claim in light of the original self-understanding of Marxian socialism. Then I will conclude by highlighting the unfinished threads that must be taken up. Cedric Robinson remains relevant at the very least because he calls us to account. He demands a reckoning with his work and the traditions he claims to represent. We owe him that at least.

Writing in Boston Review about the third and updated edition of Black Marxism, for which he also provided a new foreword, Robin D. G. Kelley dismisses the notion that the book revolves around the idea of racial capitalism. “Contrary to popular belief,” he writes, “Black Marxism was primarily about Black revolt, not racial capitalism.”[2] Yet its one-dimensional legacy as the originator of the “powerful” and “novel” concept remains. Apart from the title of the first chapter of the book, Robinson hardly ever uses the phrase himself.

But it is not as if the term is absent from his project. With his goal being the articulation of the conditions underpinning the emergence of what he calls the “Black radical tradition,” he employs the idea of a racialized beginning to the modern age to frame the crucible in which this tradition was forged. Indeed, without such a device, without the interpretation of the modern age as racialized (but neither always nor univocally “racist”), the entire project of “the” “Black radical tradition” collapses. Thus, the opening and smallest section of the book is dedicated to reconstructing this foundation.

I will not spend too much time on this, as so many others have taken the concept and run with it. To me, it seems that it both does not tell us much that we do not already know, and yet transhistoricizes the concept of “race” to the point of theoretical (not to mention practical) uselessness. We may sum up the former with the following quote: “The historical development of world capitalism was influenced in a most fundamental way by the particularistic forces of racism and nationalism.”[3] Now, Robinson does dive into the details of the middle and latter centuries of medieval Europe to reveal the complicated ways in which region, language, religion, and even skin color interacted to constitute political, economic, and discursive relations of power. He uses this brief but rich historical sketch to show later on how elements of these medieval relationships were re-articulated in modern racisms. This is how he explains, for example, the instability of American racism: It amalgamates half-dead and yet reconfigured aspects of older prejudices based on conflicting social bases (e.g., imputed biological objectivity of phenotype combined with the supposed subjectivity of religion, all wrapped up in a denial of the modern concept of freedom of labor). Far from theorizing capitalism as irredeemably racist, as do many contemporaries, he limits himself to the much more realistic, if blander, recognition that racialized aspects of control and ideology were floating around Renaissance Europe and got sucked into the modern project. To me, this hardly seems new.

But what is troubling is his sloppy and ultimately transhistorical usage of the concepts of “race” and “racism.” The rest of the quote used above goes like this: “This could only be true if the social, psychological, and cultural origins of racism and nationalism both anticipated capitalism in time and formed a piece with those events that contributed directly to its organization of production and exchange.”[4] Is it just that the antecedents of modern racism and nationalism already existed, anticipating their later incorporation into capitalism? Not quite: “The development of capitalism can thus be seen as having been determined in form by the social and ideological composition of a civilization that had assumed its fundamental perspectives during feudalism.”[5] Here we have the crystallization of “race” into a phenomenon that apparently existed right from the beginning, even before the beginning. Racism is a particularly “European” disease, and thus no “European” product (Marxism included) can ever conceivably rid itself of this original sin. But Robinson already anticipated my doubts: “And though our era might seem a particularly fitting one for depositing the origins of racism, that judgment merely reflects how resistant the idea is to examination and how powerful and natural its specifications have become. Our confusions, however, are not unique. 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.”[6] Race is thus a category that transcends time and place. Capitalism, then, is fundamentally racist at its core, by the magic of an ill-defined and loosely applied category of “race.”

Robinson thus belies a fundamental ambiguity in his deployment of “racial capitalism.” On the one hand, it signifies merely the many indigenous European ethnocentrisms competing for dominance amid the emergent Renaissance, eventually being subsumed into the Enlightenment. On the other, it is an intrinsic and intentional part of the European-ness of capitalism. But I will not concern myself with this topic anymore. This discussion transitions nicely into the area that I think has been under-appreciated in Robinson’s work. For if racism and racialized modes of being human pre-date the modern epoch, then that means that our age does not represent a total reconfiguration of what it means to be human and what potential exists to overcome this meaning. In other words, if there is some kind of “essence” to being human that the modern epoch did not break with, but simply remolded for its own purposes, then there seems to be no way of transcending that essence. What I am getting at is best understood in contrast with older iterations of the Left’s self-understanding. Since Robinson’s vision directly clashes with this, we must digress a little in order to grasp the power (and challenge) of his critique.

Marxism once understood itself as the heir to the radical bourgeois project of freedom. In this way, it tasked itself with fulfilling the revolutionary potential of capitalism, instead of contemporary visions of softening or competing with it. This transition in self-understanding hinges on the hypothesis that there is something new about the modern age, something that is not merely a hold-over from previous epochs, that what it means to be and become human has changed. Let us back up a bit. In one sense, the history of the modern epoch is continuous with most previous moments in human history. In other words, class society has not ended with the modern age. In fact, the violence of class society is on display with perhaps greater concentration and ferocity now more than ever. But the new, modern contradiction of this violence is that it points toward the elimination of violence as such. The industrial mode of production portends the ability to create abundant surplus value and empower individuals to make of themselves what they will solely via the transformative power of their labor. This is the promise of the modern, even if it has become twisted and stagnated in its crisis in capitalism. The Marxist hypothesis is that this transcendent potential exists and only needs to be actualized.

What is new in human history, then, is a fundamental restructuration of what it means to be and become human. Human life, the relationships needed to sustain it, and its potential expressions all took on different forms in class societies that did not contain the potential of their own overcoming. In other words, gone is the notion of a transhistorical human nature. Instead, one’s epochal context is the great framer of the “blank slate” of the human. Humanity in the modern is characterized by its capacity to labor, to bring about something that did not exist before, to create the ends of life instead of following the arbitrary dictates of religion or caste or a closed mode of production like feudalism. Labor sets people free to become instead of just being for the short duration of their lives. Of course, humanity as such is also in crisis just as the modern is in crisis in capitalism. Therefore this potential has not been realized. But the totalizing reach of the modern has remade what it means to be human such that this potential now exists in a real sense. It may have existed before in an abstract or theoretical or religious-transcendent way. But for the first time, the ability to become nearly anyone one wishes, and to agentically intervene in history on that basis, exists in a real, practicable, this-earthly way.

But Robinson takes issue with this idea. Instead, he hypothesizes a transhistorical black essence that has broken capitalism’s ability to refashion what it means to be human. As such, he believes this mode of being, the “Black radical tradition,” to be revolutionary to a greater degree than any mere socialism, Marxism included. Writing of forms of black resistance to chattel slavery and Jim Crow, he says, “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.”[7] Instead of “merely” being bounded by its historical context, the “Black radical tradition” instead proceeds from somewhere else. He highlights elements such as culture; historical memory of pre-modern epochs embedded in, for example, language; spiritualities that emphasize the harmony of the whole over the individual; and an abiding rootedness in the specific context of all these things. None of these are primarily black or African in their original essence, but given the foundational role that chattel slavery of Africans played for the development of world capitalism, this tradition is now primarily black and/or African. He continues:

All of it was a part of a tradition that was considerably different from what was made of the individualistic and often spontaneous motives that energized the runaway, the arsonist, the poisoner. It more easily sustained suicide than assault, and its ideological, psycho-social, cultural, and historical currencies were more charismatic than political. When its actualization was frustrated, it became obeah, voodoo, myalism, pocomania-the religions of the oppressed as Vittorio Lanternari put it. When it was realized, it could become the Palmares, the Bush Negro settlements, and, at its heights, Haiti. But always, its focus was on the structures of the mind. Its epistemology granted supremacy to metaphysics not the material.[8]

He takes issue with the Marxian notion of world history and world-historic consciousness. He counters the Marxian hypothesis with his own. He draws a straight line from “the” African to “the” African-American, the connecting thread being a unique form of resistance and/or consciousness based on a “Blackness” that withstands modern reconfiguration. Capitalism, then, does not have any revolutionary potential because it has not succeeded in breaking down the formidable and transcendent integrity of the “Black radical tradition.” In other words, what it means to be and become “Black,” the parameters of human-ness bounded/made possible by “Blackness,” retains an essential continuity throughout time and place. This is what Robinson means by his phrase the “Black radical tradition.” It has not only enabled Africans and their descendants to survive, itself visibilized as an ongoing victory, but it has also exposed the limits of the pretentious claims of the modern age. In so doing, this tradition supplies what Marxism seems to crave yet always lacks: an attention to culture and awareness of its own contextual limits. Here is his final verdict: “The Black radical tradition cast[s] doubt on the extent to which capitalism penetrated and re-formed social life and on its ability to create entirely new categories of human experience stripped bare of the historical consciousness embedded in culture.”[9]

Black Marxism, or black Marxism, puts the Marxian hypothesis on trial. It demands from it an answer. In this respect, the book is beyond valuable. The remnants of the Left today evidence a complete ignorance of their own history. They have severed all links to the revolutionary potential of capitalism. In trying to adapt Marxism to their own changing circumstances, they ended up abandoning Marxism altogether. Robinson is merely posing to them the original question anew. Especially in the last quote I offered, he strips it bare of the intervening decades’ worth of nuance and deviation and confusion.

But his challenge is not simply for the Left to uncritically remember what it was. Instead, it must ask itself the question all over again. The answer is far from obvious. Robinson could be right, after all. And if he is, then we need to seriously interrogate what that means for liberatory praxis in the contemporary moment. If he is wrong, that does not necessarily make Marxism correct either. What will it take to achieve emancipation? Emancipation from/into what? And by whom? Robinson offers a wake-up call to stop amalgamating every dissident into a single radical tradition all the while playing at Democratic grassroots politics. To be clear, his argument evidences his own immersion within capitalism. Far from discovering something that wriggles free of the totalizing crisis of capital, his “Black radical tradition” is as much its product as is Marxism. But before the Left could even respond to Robinson, it would have to develop a position of its own. That is why I have left out a more detailed criticism of Robinson’s “alternative.” The prior issue of the Left’s own disorientation is much more important. And in this context, Black Marxism could hopefully mark a turning point, though not perhaps as its disciples might expect.

Kelley observes that “Black Marxism is neither Marxist nor anti-Marxist. It is a dialectical critique of Marxism that turns to the long history of Black revolt to construct a wholly original theory of revolution.”[10] At a time when the book is being rediscovered, we ought to keep this observation in mind. Cedric Robinson offers something much more powerful than “racial capitalism.” He calls the whole leftist project into question. He levels a devastating yet answerable charge right at the heart of Marxism. Those who believe in the Marxist hypothesis, then, must respond. The longer they fail to do so, the longer the contradictions of capitalism go unresolved. Worse, perhaps. The longer Robinson goes unanswered, the longer the Left will content itself with a “Black Marxism” that seems revolutionary while really serving as little more than ammunition for the Democrats. So let us re-read Black Marxism. But let us set aside the insight of “racial capitalism” and instead channel all our energies into this problem. Robinson himself deserves nothing less. We deserve nothing less.


[1] See Burden-Stelly for a brief overview, particularly the introduction and second footnote. Charisse Burden-Stelly, “Modern U.S. Racial Capitalism: Some Theoretical Insights,” Monthly Review 72, no.3 (July–August 2020), <https://monthlyreview.org/2020/07/01/modern-u-s-racial-capitalism/>.

[2] Robin D. G. Kelley, “Why Black Marxism, Why Now?,” Boston Review, February 1, 2021, <https://bostonreview.net/race-philosophy-religion/robin-d-g-kelley-why-black-marxism-why-now?/>.

[3] Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 9.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 24. Emphasis added.

[6] Ibid., 28.

[7] Ibid., 169.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 170.

[10] Kelley, “Why Black Marxism?”

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