III. Race: Imperialism’s Necessity
Humanity is inherently creative. Unlike other animals, humans consciously labor to change their environment – not by instinct but according to pre-conceived ideas or plans. Such efforts are not haphazard. Neither are they simply under the control of those humans; they result from historical circumstances over which our species has up and until now had little control. This pertains to the capitalist class and its use of racism in the development of capitalism and the transformation of the system into imperialism.
“Race” and “racism” were invented not by accident, nor conspiracy, nor a fully developed plan, nor genetic determinism – but in the course of constantly changing events by a ruling class pragmatically and shortsightedly seeking to maximize its capital and preserve its rule. Racism thereby reflected the needs and behaved according to the underlying logic of the vicious system it served.
Around the beginning of the twentieth century, the forces of production had already developed internationally to the point where, for the first time in human history, they potentially could create abundance for the entire species. The organization of production, the technology and the working class itself had developed sufficiently so that everyone on this planet could be fed, clothed and housed. However, the capitalist system itself now became the reactionary barrier to actualizing this potential.
Racism in capitalism’s initial epoch was a by-blow of the new system’s need to accumulate through the most intensive exploitation the world had ever known. Theoretically speaking, it wasn’t absolutely necessary for the development of capitalism.
Capitalist imperialism obviously did not suddenly appear full-blown with the outset of the twentieth century. Its roots go far back in history, but it really developed on a solidly bourgeois footing in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. However desirable in general for the advance of capitalist accumulation, imperialism remained a policy rather than an inescapable necessity until the transitional period between the two epochs around the turn of the twentieth century. Indeed, prior to that, imperialism and colonialism were pushed with zeal at certain times and treated as of dubious benefit by the metropolitan capitalists at others. By the outbreak of the First World War, monopoly capitalism, i.e. imperialism, defined the system.
Racism developed alongside of imperialism and served as its ideological armor and shield. Its development took on particular forms in relation to the development of slavery in the colonies and congealed as an ideology. Of course in practice, slavery gave rise to a variety of forms and degrees of racist ideology depending on region and country in the New World (and even elsewhere). And, accelerated and developed by the need to defend slavery, racism was expanded to reflect a general ideological need of the imperialist powers.
The racist arguments were varied and often conflicting, especially when fought out on a religious level. Nevertheless, contradictory or not, they were compounded into an overall ideology as imperialism began to encircle the globe. Such an ideological justification was vital to offset the opposition (and to try to enlist the active aid) of the laboring masses of Western Europe and the European colonial-settler nations, and to aid the capitalists in ravishing and subjugating the laborers of Africa, the Americas, Asia and the South Pacific. As the global ambitions of full-fledged capitalist imperialism widened, the rationalizing ideology increasingly became racist through and through; directed against the people of color who were indigenous to those lands. The Europeans justified massacre, destruction and exploitation as part of their “civilizing mission” and the need to bring God to the pagans. The “white man’s burden” was enshrined.
An end to the slave trade and calls for abolition won wide support from the European proletariat. The Haitian slave revolution was favorably received. Later, during the American Civil War, British workers actively demonstrated support for the North and opposition to slavery, preventing London from entering the war on the side of the South.
The 1848 revolutions and the later growth of working-class parties throughout Western Europe – in the First and later in the Second International – haunted the bourgeoisie with the specter of communism. The Paris Commune sent chills down the spine of even American government officials, to say nothing of what it did to the fears of the European bourgeoisie.
It was necessary to break any identification by the European masses with those of the colonial and semi-colonial world. It was also vital to enlist the masses in imperialist efforts which were becoming more and more necessary for raw materials, markets and profitable investments. But over time, the bourgeoisie was also to learn the benefits of buying off sectors of the European working class with cheap foodstuffs imported from the colonies and with a small portion of their profits. The capitalists gave the workers temporary crumbs from their tables, not out of charity but to forestall the powerful working-class upheavals, the growth of socialist parties and the danger of a unified international struggle.
Generalized racism was created by early expansive capitalism. It was deepened by slavery and amplified by the ongoing development of imperialism. It was finally made inescapable and inherent for the system by virtue of the transformation of capitalism itself into imperialism as its “highest stage.”
Racism was the ideological prop for the maintenance of the whole gamut of superexploitation visited on people of color around the world. The variety of superexploitative forms grew as imperialism grew, deepened and transformed the world. Racism as an ideology was made potent by the material differences in conditions between the various forms of labor and structures of servitude both within nations and between aristocratic layers of workers in the home countries and those subjugated abroad. Slavery, indentured servitude, peonage, tenant farming, share cropping, “coolie” labor, child labor and myriads of other forms of poorly paid and murderous toil were justified by racist ideology.
Racist ideology buttressed the material growth of the labor aristocracy in imperialist countries as a whole, not just in the U.S. in relation to American Blacks. The intensity varied according to regional bourgeois needs, but the doctrine was universally necessary because it was vital to the maintenance of the entire system. Race thus became ingrained as a decisive coloration for worldwide imperialism.
When imperialism matured with this epoch, slavery was already past history in the U.S. Inevitably, the fragile and often unfriendly alliance between the expanding Northern capitalists and the Southern planters that propped up the federal government had exploded. Slavery was destroyed because it objectively inhibited the political and economic growth and expansion of Northern industrial capitalism. As much as the dominant sectors of the bourgeoisie tried to hold the alliance together, it proved impossible. The logic of capitalist development, the necessities of the ensuing Civil War, and the decisive participation of a considerable Black presence in the Union army, finally forced the complete abolition of slavery.
The social changes wrought by the war and the post-war eras were revolutionary. A brief but important period of hopeful changes in the status of Black Americans occurred. But completion of the revolution was thwarted by the rise of monopoly dominated capitalism. Southern conservative “Redemption” below the Mason-Dixon line sought to crush any further attempts to change property and class relations by reinforcing the old race divisions among the poor plebeians of the South.
The hopes of Black plebeians raised by the Civil War and its immediate aftermath for jobs, land and equality, were smashed in the years following. Employment remained highly restricted, and the promise of “40 acres and a mule” proved to be a lie. Nevertheless, the alliance of Radical Republicans and Blacks during the 1867-76 Reconstruction period, which spawned new state governments in the South, did produce limited but real democratic gains for Blacks. It was ended by the increasingly conservative policies of the newly developing big capitalist industrialists and speculators who moved rapidly to dominate the post-war scene. Northern capital deserted the former slaves and forged an economic and political bloc with the Southern conservatives and the commercial capitalist interests they reflected. The Southern plantocracy, an anomaly within capitalism, disappeared into the pages of history as new and more organic capitalist relations were forged.
The new senior/junior partner alliance between Northern and Southern capital replaced the old doomed arrangement; a fledgling re-stabilization of American capitalism and its state power began to occur. The foundation no longer included slavery, but the bloc did rest on the containment of Black labor in the South and its reduction to semi-peonage. Tenant farmer and sharecropper Blacks in the South and poor urban Black free labor, predominantly in the South but existing in the North as well, constituted the basic superexploited layers of a newly reconfigured and subjugated Black caste in American society. The barriers isolating Blacks as a people had weakened but had hardly been obliterated.
As monopolies and finance capitalism changed the face of America, the desperation of masses of workers and small farmers could not be contained without a further upheaval and a more decisive class confrontation. The populist agrarian alliances and the upheavals in the countryside that exploded in the 1880’s were particularly radical in the South. They substantively united poor whites and Blacks in a closer relationship than ever before. The burgeoning white and colored farmers’ alliances enrolled millions, and collaboration cutting across the race line ensued; this stimulated the rise of the radical Populist Party.
Among workers in the South and elsewhere, the Knights of Labor began to supplant the older national labor federations, which had been segregated. Although far from complete, major steps were taken toward breaking the color line inside the Knights and, even more dramatically, in the United Mineworkers, the major union to be organized industrially rather than on a craft basis at the time. Interracial collaboration was an important feature of a number of important strikes in the South, where the overwhelming majority of Blacks still lived.
But the struggle of the masses against the new capitalism had many serious problems. In addition to the racial and ethnic divisions, the major weakness was the absence of a powerful revolutionary working-class Marxist party. As well, the deep depression in 1893-4 was an important objective factor in the breakup of the developing plebeian populist onslaught and its subordination to the Democratic Party. The transformation of a once progressive but petty bourgeois-led populism into a racist, counterrevolutionary lynch-mob phenomenon in the South buried any hope for blunting the growth of American finance capitalism and its racist substructure. White plebeians were demagogically whipped up to see Black plebeians as their enemy instead of their ally. The old segregationist walls were shored up once again, re-elaborated and reinforced with murderous vengeance, although based on new class relationships. The American masses suffered a monumental defeat.
In the years around the turn of the century, one Southern state after another passed Jim Crow segregation laws, legally formalizing the reinforced racial borders of the newly reconstructed and socially transformed caste structure of the United States. The constitutional amendments guaranteeing Black rights were rendered a hollow shell throughout the country. Southern Blacks were largely restricted to backward agrarian conditions and denied the vote. In the North, contrary to most academic versions of “caste” analysis, the caste relations also were dominant. There they were more a result of the absence of laws protecting Blacks against discrimination than of openly racist laws, although those existed as well.
It was no coincidence that the same years saw the outbreak of the Spanish-American War and the launching of U.S. imperialism as a permanent and major factor on the world scene. The re-consolidation and transformation of the race-caste system served as the basis for the take-off of the imperialist epoch in the development of the United States and its now relatively stable and very powerful federal government. As long as the “Old South” could be kept racist and backward, reactionary Southern congressmen could provide continuous bottom heavy ballast for the modern twentieth-century American ship of state.
In order to divide the laboring population, the capitalist rulers of the early American colonies chose to make race into a brand. The “Black” or “Negro” race was made into a badge of degradation and forced on a group of people who were thus distinguished as allegedly inferior, because of a few superficial differences in skin color and physiognomy. The stigma was inflicted so as to mark off and isolate a special and different kind of toiler, slaves. Blackness was an indelible, permanent, brand designating the wearer not only as inferior but also as properly subject to becoming property.
Skin color was made into a brand of race not because people just happened to decide Black meant inferior. As we have demonstrated, skin color became a convenient and palpable way to mark off and isolate a particular group of people who played a particular role in the economy that society wanted to make sure was unique. Race wasn’t the reason; the slave role was. Race was the brand specifying the role.
Usually, classes in society have a distinct relationship to the means of production (or, more loosely speaking, to the economy in general), but they are not a separate people. However, on quite a number of occasions in history, societies have designated a distinctive group to function as the sole population of a particular class, when it seemed to be important to ensure the uniqueness of the specific role. In his trail blazing work, The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation, Abram Leon, one of the most outstanding thinkers in the history of the Trotskyist movement, described the Jewish people in ancient society and in feudal Europe in this way.
The feudal lords needed a segregated group of distinctly different people to play the socially necessary and interconnected roles of traders, merchants and usurers, in order to bar others from engaging in those occupations in their rigidly stratified society. The Jews were a pariah class, branded as outsiders by society while they played a necessary role within its economy. They were the unique members of a unique class.
Leon referred to the Jews as a “people-class.” Black slaves in North America were also a people-class – more precisely, a race-class.
Slaves differed from feudal Jewish traders in many obvious respects. Slaves were subjugated and superexploited; Jews were also badly persecuted at certain times, but those who functioned as merchants and usurers generally benefitted as a special privileged class. Nevertheless, both the pre-capitalist merchants and the slaves of capitalism were constituted as people-classes at their different times in history.
Among the glaring differences between the two groups is that the feudal Jews had a choice, a chance to discard their sign of differentiation: their adherence to Judaism as a religion. The option of Christianity was present for those who wished to switch class roles (or when their roles ceased to be unique). Most often, conversion paved the way for assimilation into the wider society. American slaves had far less choice about their class role in society. And their brand was permanent: slaves were property for their entire lives, and the condition was passed on to their children. Conveniently for the capitalist slave masters, the skin color brand was also passed on.
For the most part, slaves had no option of voluntarily switching class roles. There can be no real comparison with the Jews on this score. However, some slaves were successful in escaping, some were able to buy their freedom, and some were freed in other ways. As we have pointed out, most of the free Blacks became low-paid workers or unemployed. As such, they were forced into being a superexploited section of the free working class.
We have used the term “class” for the slaves without yet indicating whether or not they were, in our opinion, part of the developing American working class or a different class, subject to a different kind of exploitation. Both Marxists and non-Marxists have debated whether the American slaves were actually proletarians or a separate laboring class. Another document will deal with that question at some length, along with a more extended treatment of Leon’s conception of a people-class and its applicability to U.S. Blacks. For our summary purposes here, let us just indicate that whatever conclusion one comes to, it is clear that slave labor was quite distinct in very important ways from ordinary wage labor, even when slaves worked in urban industry.
However, it is also true that slave labor played an economic role (as well as the political and social roles we have mentioned) in relation to free wage laborers. Slaves could not freely sell their labor power on the market nor could they commonly bargain for what they were paid. As a whole, they obviously received far less than other labor for comparable tasks. That also meant that slave labor tended to lower the whole wage structure, even for free workers and agrarians – most obviously in the South.
When individual slaves achieved freedom, the social brand of race was not removed. Its meaning was extended to include slave-worthy if not actually enslaved, and unequal by nature with respect to social, economic and political rights in what was considered to be the white man’s America.
Early U.S. race relations were fundamentally sculpted by capitalism’s need for racially determined slavery, but we cannot ignore the role of the growing number of Black wage laborers. Nor for that matter should we underplay the development of small but politically and socially important petty-bourgeois businessmen and ministers as well as professional middle-class elements. Blacks were not simply members of a single class: they were part of a segregated race-caste which contained elements from different social classes. In order to understand race relations under capitalism, it is necessary to extend Leon’s people-class conception to embrace the idea of a people-caste – and its particular expression as a race-caste).
Although the early American Black race-caste contained numbers of people who occupied differing class positions, the caste was based on the superexploited slave class. The end of slavery undermined the old caste relationships. However, with the defeat of the populist-led rebellion in the late 1800’s, race-caste walls were reconsolidated on a new and transformed basis. The modern twentieth century race-caste is based on the capitalist superexploitation of oppressed Black wage laborers and small farmers.
Since the turn of the century there has obviously been a shift from peons and agrarian proletarians to the urban working class as the center of exploitation within the oppressed caste. Today, in the wake of the 1960’s upheavals there has been added a layer of aristocratic Black workers.
The race-caste also includes the small merchant, religious and professional layers who have provided much of the leadership, and even a handful of capitalists. The middle and upper strata have also expanded. Despite the importance of other class elements, the essential reasons for the existence of the caste relationship are the race division of the proletariat, the superexploitation of the Black working class, and the consequent maximization of exploitation of the entire class. The racial division of the working class serves to stabilize and defend the dominance of the big bourgeoisie and its state power. In the modern era, the stability achieved by racial oppression and caste containment has enabled American imperialism to become the mightiest superpower the world has ever suffered.
The people who constitute the modern race-caste are far more rigidly contained than were the feudal Jews, because the brand is skin color and virtually indelible. We have examined some of the reasons why this was necessary for the early capitalists with respect to American slavery. However, with the development of Black wage labor as the dominant class relationship, Blacks no longer performed a unique economic role in the same sense as they did under slavery.
Generally speaking, the relation of Black workers to the bourgeoisie has the same essential character as that of white workers, except that the jobs are worse and harder to obtain. And they get much less in return. In fact, American capitalism needs to utilize Blacks as a pariah sector of a multiracial working class and as a reserve army of labor. This serves to hide class identity and maximize exploitation. The need for a uniquely cordoned-off group remains, but the uniqueness has to be marked more by the exclusive brand than by an exclusive function. That is one crucial reason behind the twentieth-century reinforcement and expansion of genetically ascribed racism.
The idea of race-caste that we have developed is quite different from the idealist and suprahistorical versions of caste advanced by Gunnar Myrdal and the academic sociologists. As indicated, we will discuss a Marxist understanding of castes at greater length in a separate document. For us, the importance of pointing out the caste condition is to focus on the fact that racism has been the enforcer and not the reason for the oppression of Blacks and other people of color. It shows that the race relationship is institutional and directly tied to the system’s need to exploit. If differences in skin color and physiognomy were suddenly to disappear, another brand would have to be discovered to mark off a caste, lest the underlying class relations of capitalism be exposed.
Castes in Indian society centuries ago were a product of a different epoch in human history. The American caste relationship is utterly different in appearance and content. Castes differ hugely from one social system to another, just as classes do. However, all such lines of stratification tend to hide the inner class relations of the particular society, and tend to stabilize it. Castes have an institutional, shut-in and permanent character; permanent, that is, in relation to the existence of particular societies.
Trotsky once pointed out the unfortunate fact that “caste” is a poor term, which he used in an obviously makeshift fashion. We, like Trotsky, bemoan the fact that sociology hasn’t come up with a more scientific terminology. But the point isn’t academic labeling; it is that racism reflects an institutionalized pariah condition which is now inherent and permanent as long as capitalism continues to exist. Reform rather than revolution is the consequence of any other supposedly anti-racist view. And trying to reform the system in the belief that it will eliminate racism is a completely utopian path.
Dying capitalism means more, not less, rivalry between capitals. The emergence of monopoly capitalism’s domination in this epoch did not destroy competition; it rendered it worldwide and raised the stakes, thus wintensifying its ferocity. Today’s “global market” means that multinational corporations both interpenetrate and compete with each other everywhere. Today’s national capitals erect more and more protectionist barriers against each other, often in the name of free trade. The declining rate of profit and the scramble for diminishing pieces of the economic pie force even more hostile rivalries. Eventually imperialism, if it isn’t stopped by revolution, will produce a third world war.
Since the systemic purpose of competition is to deepen the exploitation of the working class, it should be no secret that the current waves of “downsizing” and austerity attacks across the world are accelerated by these rivalries. Corporations institute wage reduction systems, lay off thousands of workers, take back fringe benefits and break unions, all – as they see it – to better compete in the global market. Governments cut budgets to the bone, getting rid of the gains won by the workers in the past. The reason given is the need to become “lean and mean” – to save capitalists’ social overhead costs so they can undercut their rivals on the world market. Now, even the relatively higher wages of the aristocracy are being undermined as a result of decaying capitalism and its whipsawing of different groups of workers against each other around the world.
The imperialism Lenin described has evolved in keeping with its laws of motion. Export of capital is still dominant, but it takes new forms. Today, imperialism is driving the poorest neo-colonies to the wall and draining the most superexploited sections of the working class at home and abroad. However, instead of maintaining the past level of sops to the labor aristocracy and the middle classes, it has decisively moved toward draining them too. Instead of building up the labor aristocracy at home, it has partially industrialized the “uneven and combined” countries (Pacific Rim, Latin America, etc.) within the so-called “third world” and has expanded and enforced the deadliest forms of exploitation of the workers, including child labor. In turn, it uses the low wages it pays there to undercut workers at home.
Of course Marxists fight to keep every real gain won by even the aristocratic workers. The task is not to give the capitalists their sops back but to win for the whole class what the labor aristocrats have won, and then a lot more. As materialists, we aim as well to expose the efforts of the imperialists to give the aristocrats “moral values” instead of real value. “God,” “family,” “country” and “race” are counterfeit coin. Blaming the workers of other nations, nationalities and races for worsening conditions is suicidal for any part of the working class.
Imperialism’s whipsawing of the working class internationally means not only using the workers of countries abroad against the workers at home. Imperialism has also forced the greatest migration of peoples that the world has ever known. Today, roughly 2 percent of the world’s population – approximately 100 million people – have left home to become international migrants. Capitalism uses the import and export of (largely) poor workers so that competitive divisions are multiplied at home as well as abroad and exploitation is thereby maximized. Then the indigenous workers are told their enemies are the poor workers from abroad, not the system which forces them to migrate under the threat of starvation.
Country after country throughout the world plays host to immigrant groups of poor workers who left their homelands in a desperate search for livable wages. Virtual slave labor has returned, not only in poor countries but in advanced imperialist countries like the U.S. For example, mainland Chinese labor is imported to work in sweatshops under slave conditions to compete with low paid labor producing competitive goods in China, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Indonesia, etc. Mexican workers are driven by excruciating poverty inflicted at home by imperialism to work for a pittance in the U.S.
Germany plays host to Turks and Kurds. France maintains a workforce with many Caribbean, North African, sub-Saharan African and Middle Eastern immigrant workers. Iran utilizes Afghan labor. Pakistani and West Indian workers are a serious factor in the British working class. Israel exploits Thai and Romanian workers as well as Palestinian. Saudi Arabia uses Pakistanis, Palestinians and so forth. Northern Italy uneasily hosts southern Italians, Sweden has its Latinos, Denmark its Africans, Australia, its Asians.
U.S. Blacks are hardly alone in the imperialist world in being forced into castes for the purpose of providing and preserving superexploited labor. Even in the U.S., they are being joined by others. In North America, this arrangement includes Latinos, Asians, Haitians and West Indians. Within and between nations, imperialism pits one group against the next in an intra-class fratricidal war. Superexploited layers compete with other superexploited layers as well as with nationally, ethnically and regionally divided layers of workers who are, or were, better off.
As if that is not enough, the worldwide conglomeration of castes are increasingly being developed as racially determined castes. For example, in Japan there are the Burakumin, a group of approximately 3 million people – a little more than 2 percent of the population – whose ancestors did the dirty jobs under feudalism and who are still outcasts. In recent times the discriminatory barriers against them have been lowered significantly, although there are no guarantees of permanency. The reason? The Burakumin are Japanese, only distinguishable by name and residence, both of which are changeable in a period of such great flux as today. Now Japanese capitalism prefers to superexploit the more readily identifiable Korean “immigrants,” who even if born in Japan are not considered Japanese.
In country after country, national or regional groups who are distinct because of physiognomy, language or other suitably identifying brands are being transformed into race-castes, even when they haven’t been technically cast into different “races.” The point is that they are being treated as such. Race has become imperialism’s ideal divider.
Trotsky made the point that American Blacks were a racial group and not a nation; but he went on to say that under conditions of historical trauma, they could be forged into a nation. Race can be the raw material for the creation of nationalities. We can now say that imperialism is turning nationalities and even religious and regional groups into race-like formations. Seemingly unique characteristics are used to mark off groups who are forced to compete with their fellow workers who perform in similar occupations, a competition configured by those differences. This reality amplifies the necessity of viewing interracialism as part of an internationalist strategy, since escalating institutional racism is far from just an American phenomenon.
The modern epoch of capitalism was ushered onto the world scene with the bloody disaster of World War I. Capitalism was then ripe for revolution. That the Russian revolution did not spread and that world capitalism still persists has meant that the world grows evermore overripe for socialism. The disasters of the early days of the epoch seem small compared to what has happened since, and even these horrors will seem pale next to what is now being brewed by imperialism. The vast intermixture of peoples and cultures now going on would be a wonderful experience for the human race if we lived in a classless world of plenty. If capitalism persists, it will drown our species in the blood of new wars waged ostensibly for the stupidity of proclaiming the superiority of a particular race or nationality – but in reality for the superprofits for a few.
The migration of vast numbers of workers into the heart of industry around the world can have a magnificent effect on the proletariat as a whole, even prior to the communist society of the future. Superexploited workers can often make the best revolutionaries. Trotsky believed that U.S. Blacks would play a vital role in the vanguard of the American proletarian revolution. Less well known is another comment of his about French strikes in 1930, which noted
the important role of the foreign-born workers in the strike movement, who, by the way, will in the future play a part in France analogous to that of the Negroes in the United States. But that is the music of the future.
Indeed it is! And now, not only in France.