Critical links

Issue: 147

Ken Olende

Abigail B Bakan and Enakshi Dua (eds), Theorizing Anti-Racism: Linkages in Marxism and Critical Race Theories (University of Toronto Press, 2014), £22.99

Significant sections of the left have argued that Marxism is an inadequate tool to discuss how racism works—often because it is seen as Eurocentric or reducing all social relationships to class.

This new collection of essays aims to show that it can be useful, partly by arguing that differences between elements of Marxist theory and other theories of oppression such as post-colonial theory are not as insurmountable as theorists defending each sometimes claim.

In some ways the current divisions recall attempts from the mid-1950s on—and particularly after 1968—to revitalise Marxism both by bringing in ideas from other sources and by looking back to earlier Marxist traditions before it had become ossified in a Stalinist dogmatism. Class-based Marxism was very much out of fashion, partly because of the kinds of ideas that thinkers like Frantz Fanon and others had put forward. Attempts by radical left wingers to re-establish it were met then with hostility.

Theorizing Anti-Racism uses later divisions on the left as its reference point—though Fanon is mentioned, it is the disputes after the tide of 1968 had receded that dominate, and specifically thinkers such as Michel Foucault. The book is divided into four sections, “Rethinking Foucault”, “Revisiting Marx”, “Legacies and Relationships” and finally “Interventions in Race, Class and State”.

It shows that Karl Marx did not ignore racism, though his engagement with it was not central. But as the editors point out “Marx, in fact, also provides insights into alienation and oppression” (p95). While defending it from a number of attacks, in general it presents Marxism as one of a range of useful tools an academic can use to comprehend the world.

However, editors Abigail B Bakan and Enakshi Dua refer uncritically to complaints that Marxist thought “conflates class with race, ignores whiteness, and fails to examine the relationship between culture and political economy” (p249).

Dua opens an introductory essay by looking at what she calls “the impasse” Marxism reached because, she claims, racism, sexism and imperialism were treated as separate struggles. When she became politically involved in Canada during the 1980s “raising the issue of racism in feminist and left-wing groups…was met with profound hostility” (p19). This was undoubtedly true of some organisations, but it presents a very different view from the experience reflected in Satnam Virdee’s recent book Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider (reviewed elsewhere in this issue) which shows how Marxists were central to linking anti-racism with socialist ideas in the same period—in Britain at any rate.

Theorizing Anti-Racism is at its strongest where it shows the benefits and flaws of those critiquing Marxist ideas. Dua quotes Edward Said in Orientalism on a weakness of Foucault, that he talks about power, but ignores “how and why” power is gained (p67). She also quotes Stuart Hall critiquing Foucault for his inability to “theorize resistance” (p79).

Himani Bannerji’s “Marxism and Anti-Racism in Theory and Practice” engages with Marxism, but like several contributors tends to dehistoricise Marxism as if it has not been part of a developing tradition until this point.

Dua refers to Stuart Hall comparing Marxist discussions of race and complaining of their insistence on the centrality of economic relations and particularly the role of slavery. Hall, in contrast, talked of relations that exist “not simply as residues and traces of previous modes, but as active structuring principles of the present organisation of society” (p27). But Hall’s analysis leaves out a different tradition of Marxism, including writers such as C L R James who did incorporate insights such as these.

Indeed, in this volume Anthony Bogues looks at the central role of C L R James and W E B Du Bois in developing theories of racism, but Bogues’s use of Marx is unhelpful. He complains of James talking about the low cultural level of the slaves who revolted in Haiti (p162). He demands that the slaves should be seen on their own terms and in their own cultural context. Bogues takes from the idea of “history from below” that to give people a voice is to understand them. It is vital to give voice to such excluded people, but it is not enough. It is not simply a matter of getting hidden voices heard; it takes additional theory to understand how social relations can be changed.

Bakan does refer to “the non-Stalinist, self-emancipationist tradition” of Marxism (p254). The International Socialist tradition, associated with this journal, to which Bakan once belonged, has always associated itself with this strand. It has tried to add to the core of Marxist thought while maintaining a reliance on historical materialism and the centrality of the working class, while integrating ideas from a range of less orthodox sources.

Bakan rightly points out: “A Marxist analytic can be augmented through intersections with other critical approaches in extant literature” (p255). But this is a process of working with ideas in a non-dogmatic way. It is not saying that any ideas are equally valid.

Her own useful essay on ­anti-Semitism combines Marxism with “whiteness theory”, starting from the arguments in Karen Brodkin’s essay “How the Jews Became White Folks”. Bakan talks of the Nazis’ “explicit racialization of whiteness as ‘Aryan’ and the Jews as a specifically non-Aryan ‘race’” (p263). But this is to remove the Nazis’ extreme version of racism from more general race theory at the time. For example, US journalist Kenneth Roberts’s 1922 anti-immigration book Why Europe Leaves Home already talked about the “Nordic race”, in opposition to other European races—such as the Alpine and the Mediterranean. The widespread use of such categories at the time suggests a limitation to whiteness theory.

None of this is to say that Marxists can’t learn from other currents and certainly non-Marxist currents have been very important. The difficulty can be in definition. Eunice N Sahle talks about “Intellectuals, Oppression and Anti-Racist movements in South Africa”, which is a vital subject, especially given current discussions held by the country’s biggest trade union Numsa about creating a new workers party. Whereas Fanon talked about class alliances to build a national state, Antonio Gramsci uses examples of building national states to work out a way to abolish the capitalist state all together (p216).

Theorizing Anti-racism is a valuable addition to current debates, though the different essays cover a variety of topics and do not all come together to make a coherent argument. In the end it is notable that rather than draw any conclusions the final chapter merely restates what the preceding chapters were about.