Marx and race: a Eurocentric analysis?

Issue: 162

Ken Olende

There is currently a welcome call to “decolonise” universities and academia.1 This is about more than demanding the removal of statues of old imperialists. The movement sets out to end the dominance of conservative white men as the repositories of wisdom, and as such rejects the establishment’s view that positive developments in history generally come from white Europeans.2 But for some in the movement it is now common sense to reject Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels—seeing their outlook as similar to that of the colonialists. For instance the only reference to Marx in the recent collection Decolonising the University claims that he

Developed his stages of history from a European perspective that ignored the historical developments of other societies, while arguing that these same stages were universal in nature. When he did address non-European societies and their historical development, as he did Asia, he created a category called the “Asiatic mode of production” that set Asia apart from “normal” trajectories of class conflict.3

In this article I aim to show by looking at the development of Marx’s ideas why none of these assertions is accurate. And, further, that to understand how to challenge racism and imperialism today, activists should build on his insights.

These current positions opposing Marx have largely evolved from earlier arguments that tended to accuse Marxism of “Orientalism” and “Eurocentrism”. The first term was popularised by the Palestinian writer and critic Edward Said in his 1978 book Orientalism, which became a key text in the development of Postcolonial studies. While the term “Eurocentric” has become associated with similar ideas, it was originally coined by the Egyptian Marxist Samir Amin in the 1970s and detailed in his 1988 book Eurocentrism. I will also engage with ideas raised in Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism (1983), which criticises Marxism as Eurocentric from a viewpoint closer to black nationalism.

Many writers now consider it unnecessary to engage directly with Marx and Engels when dismissing their ideas. For instance, William Jamal Richardson, who wrote the piece from Decolonising the University quoted above, cites Said rather than any passage in Marx. In order to counter this tendency I quote directly from Marx and Engels as often as possible. Kevin B Anderson has examined the issues raised at length in his valuable book Marx at the Margins, which I will use as the basis for many of my arguments. However, in doing this I will take into account that Anderson was focused on a slightly different area. As Ben Selwyn notes: “Because Anderson is concerned with demonstrating Marx’s evolving thinking on non-western societies, he does not delve deeper into Marx’s analysis of capitalism in the core of the world system”.4

In Eurocentrism, Samir Amin, who sadly died last year, argues that focussing on ideas that developed in Europe is not in itself Eurocentric. However, he describes how the idea of European superiority emerged with the intertwined development of capitalism and Enlightenment ideas from the 18th century as European states began to surge ahead economically. Before this no European elite could see itself as inherently superior to highly developed Islamic or “more distant” civilisations. Europe’s rising rulers combined excitement at their own prowess with egalitarian ideas of fraternity and equality. Amin comments: “The culture of the Enlightenment was unable to reconcile the fact of this superiority with its universalist ambition. On the contrary, it gradually drifted towards racism as an explanation for the contrast between it and other cultures”.5

This is when ideas emerge of a Europe that was inherently more dynamic, though the explanation for this apparent dynamism varies from the philosophical developments in ancient Greece to Protestantism. Said follows a similar argument in Orientalism, although his timeline is a lot more vague, sometimes talking ahistorically of Eurocentrism in the works of ancient Greek writers.6 The question of why the West came to dominate was not only the concern of Europeans—answering it was seen as an urgent issue to thinkers in the Ottoman Empire and beyond, as Ron Margulies recently argued in this journal.7 Enlightenment thinkers’ attempts to understand Europe’s position coloured their attitudes to slavery and colonialism.

Georg Hegel, an Enlightenment philosopher, heavily influenced the young Marx. Engels wrote that Hegel “was the first to try to demonstrate that there is an evolution, an intrinsic coherence in history”.8 Hegel saw ancient Greece as the originator of “freedom”, arguing that no society without an idea of freedom has a “proper history as such”.9 He opposed slavery, but thought colonialism would spread ideas of freedom.10 Amin argues that Marxism “inherits a certain evolutionist perspective that prevents it tearing down the Eurocentric veil of the bourgeois evolutionism against which it revolts”.11 I believe he is wrong here, partly because he does not see the development within Marx’s writings, a point I will return to later. However, it is also the case that even at this stage Marx talked about society changing through struggle, not through a predetermined series of stages.

When Marx and Engels set out systematically to understand the new and rapidly expanding capitalist system they concentrated on where it existed at their time, almost exclusively in Britain and northern Europe. In the Communist Manifesto they state:

The bourgeoisie…has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has…left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”…for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.12

Furthermore, capitalism “has made barbarian and semi-barbarian countries dependent on the civilised ones, nations of peasants on nations of bourgeois, the East on the West”.13 Here they are making a contrast between capitalist and non-capitalist forms rather than European and non-European. Later, in his key work Capital, Marx writes that in the colonial epoch, “the capitalist regime everywhere comes into collision with the resistance of the producer, who, as owner of his own conditions of labour, employs that labour to enrich himself, instead of the capitalist. The contradiction of these two diametrically opposed economic systems manifests itself here practically in a struggle between them”.14 This is the Marxist view of a world both brought together and driven into new social conflicts by the growth of capitalism, but it is in a slightly different aspect of the argument that Said identifies a problem.

Early Marx and Orientalism

Said’s Orientalism is not primarily about Marx, but is an extended polemic accusing Western thinkers of “othering” non-Western civilisations and ways of thought. To differing degrees “Orientalist” attitudes see peoples from outside the West as less capable, less human and less deserving of respect.15 The section devoted to Marx places him firmly in this tradition. Said develops his criticism from four newspaper articles on the British colonisation of India that Marx wrote in 1853. In one Marx said:

We must not forget that these idyllic village-communities, inoffensive though they may appear, had always been the solid foundation of Oriental despotism, that they restrained the human mind within the smallest possible compass…depriving it of all grandeur and historical energies… England, it is true, in causing a social revolution in Hindostan, was actuated only by the vilest interests… But that is not the question. The question is, can mankind fulfil its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia? If not, whatever may have been the crimes of England she was the unconscious tool of history in bringing about that revolution.16

Said comments that this is a variation on the standard Orientalist model, seeing no advance as possible without a European lead, “even though Marx’s humanity, his sympathy for the misery of people, are clearly engaged”.17 He continues: “In article after article he returned with increasing conviction to the idea that even in destroying Asia, Britain was making possible there a real social revolution”.18

There are two connected questions raised here. First, did Marx see the British invasion as progressive? Second, is Marx dismissing development outside Europe with his talk of “Oriental Despotism”? On the first, there is an assumption that British rule will provide the circumstances that make social progress possible through class struggle. So the same year he wrote: “You cannot maintain a net of railways over an immense country without introducing all those industrial processes necessary to meet the immediate and current wants of railway locomotion, and out of which there must grow the application of machinery to those branches of industry not immediately connected with railways”.19 It is not true that he is agreeing with the imperialists, who saw British rule as progressive in itself, instead he is putting the Indian poor on a par with British workers, who also have to rise up and overthrow their oppressors. Marx predicted that the situation would change either when British capitalists are “supplanted by the industrial proletariat” or when the Indians “themselves shall have grown strong enough to throw off the English yoke altogether”.20 Observation of the development of the British Empire rapidly showed Marx and Engels that colonial occupation does not lead to economic development for the colonised. Said presents the few articles he examines as Marx’s mature understanding. In fact, just four years later, during the Indian Uprising in 1857, Marx was unequivocally on the side of the rebels. He asked “whether a people are not justified in attempting to expel the foreign conquerors who have so abused their subjects”.21 As the rebellion continued in 1858 he wrote to Engels: “India is now our best ally”.22

This shift was part of a process of Marx and Engels coming to see the importance of anti-colonial struggles. Marx wrote to Engels in 1869: “For a long time, I believed it would be possible to overthrow the Irish regime by English working class ascendency… Deeper study has now convinced me of the opposite. The English working class will never accomplish anything before it has got rid of Ireland”.23 Marx had come to see how effectively the promotion of ethnic division hamstrung attempts to challenge capitalist exploitation. As he noted in Capital, in the United States: “Every independent workers’ movement was paralysed so long as slavery disfigured a part of the republic. Labour in a white skin cannot emancipate itself where it is branded in a black skin”.24 Marx saw the fight against racial oppression as absolutely key to the struggle of the working class against capitalism. During the US Civil War he called for “a slave revolution”, seeing the slaves as having an active role in their own liberation.25 At the end of the war in 1865 he wrote: “While the workingmen…allowed slavery to defile their own republic, while before the Negro, mastered and sold without his concurrence, they boasted it the highest prerogative of the white-skinned labourer to sell himself and choose his own master, they were unable to attain the true freedom of labour”.26

In Capital he made the connection between slavery and capitalism explicit: “The veiled slavery of the wage workers in Europe needed, for its pedestal, slavery pure and simple in the new world”.27 So US slavery was an essential ingredient of the Industrial Revolution, because cotton was the basis of modern industry. And the rise of the cotton industry in England transformed slavery in the US into a form of commercial exploitation. So while Said is not wrong about the tendencies in the articles he considers, his wider argument does not hold water. Marx’s mature writings from at least 1857 and explicitly in Capital do not look on European colonialism as progressive, even in providing the context for leading a rising against the colonialists.

The second issue Said identifies is Marx’s references to “Oriental despotism” or the “Asiatic mode of production”. In 1853 Marx wrongly believed that India and China were particularly static societies and looked for ways to understand this. However, even here his talk of “Oriental despotism” is about trying to understand societies developing in a way that is different from what happened in Western Europe, and the progression through slavery and feudalism to capitalism. But there is truth in the accusation that he saw India as needing a boost from outside. In the same year he wrote, “Indian society has no history at all, at least no known history”.28 Indian Marxist Aijaz Ahmad points out that, “Marx’s denunciation of pre-colonial society in India is no more strident than his denunciations of Europe’s own feudal past, or of the absolutist monarchies or of the German burghers”.29 Marx had previously argued that before the development of capitalism in Germany, history “stopped happening”.30 At this point Marx talked of history only as a drive towards capitalism, and that could lead him to a certain reductivism. There are other kinds of history, even in the growth of class society—as had happened with the development of the Zulu and other states in Southern Africa at the time during the period known as the Mfecane in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.31 His concern, specifically in the case of India, was in providing an explanation of how capitalism would arise allowing the rise of the working class and therefore the possibility of universal liberation.

In Marx at the Margins Anderson argues that Marx had a more unilinear view of the development of society in the 1840s, seeing only one path to political and social advancement.32 However, Lucia Pradella, who has examined previously unpublished notebooks, writes that even in 1845: “Contrary to a dominant interpretation…in the early 1840s Marx did not have a stageist, unilinear vision of development and revolution”.33 Unsurprisingly, Marx’s early research focused on the parts of Europe where capitalism emerged. Pradella rightly accepts the limitations in Marx’s early theory on this point, stating, his “use of the concept of civilisation, albeit critical, reflected a still incomplete understanding of capitalist uneven and combined development, and was to disappear from his main work”.34

Marx developed in the 1840s what Hal Draper calls a “primitive theory of permanent revolution”, adding that he “proceeded to go through a complex course of rethinking in the course of experience, first circling away from this view, before coming squarely back to it in a more sophisticated form, as the outcome of the revolution of 1848-9”.35 This theory, later refined by Leon Trotsky, argues that in a world characterised by combined and uneven development of societies it is not necessary for each to go through all the stages that the first capitalist powers had followed. Pradella concludes that London notebooks from the 1850s show Marx’s “awareness of the complexity of social structure in Indian society; his attention…to the democratic forms related to the common ownership of the land, and his research into a unitary scheme of human development… This allowed Marx to overcome the dualistic view of a democratic West and a despotic East, elaborating a unitary scheme of human development in which non-European people appear as active historical agents”.36

Said shows no interest in the growth and development of Marx’s thought. While Orientalism discusses shifts in imperialism, the rise of empires and the First and Second World Wars, there is nothing on later developments in Marx or Marxism—no mention of Lenin, Leon Trotsky or Nikolai Bukharin. Orientalism is a powerful polemic, but Karl Marx and Marxism are side-stepped rather than beaten.

Said set out to expand Orientalism’s arguments in his 1993 book Culture and Imperialism.37 This says nothing new about Marx, but adds a quotation from Engels to show his apparent orientalism. Said says that when Engels described “the Moors of Algeria as a ‘timid race’ because they were repressed, but ‘reserving nevertheless their cruelty and vindictiveness while in moral character they stand very low,’ he was merely echoing French colonial doctrine”.38 He doesn’t explain that this passage is from an encyclopedia entry, which Marx and Engels contributed under the instruction that their articles, “should show not the slightest party tendency regarding questions of politics, religion and philosophy”.39 Nevertheless, the editors toned down Engels’s attacks on French colonial policy.40

Culture and Imperialism is not in the main concerned with Marx or Marxism, but with seeing how orientalism is reflected in cultural artefacts such as novels. Said warns that he is “temperamentally and philosophically opposed to…totalistic theories of human history”41 including Marxism. However, there is a significant difference from Orientalism in that here he refers to a number of thinkers in the Marxist tradition. For instance, he discusses the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, the Hungarian philosopher Georg Lukács and at some length the Trinidadian CLR James. But he tends to refer to them as individual thinkers, rather than people whose understanding of anti-imperialism came out of their Marxism. For instance, Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness is described as “insurgent and heretical” Marxism.42 Said notes: “Although James was an anti-Stalinist dialectician…his critical attitude to the West as imperial centre never kept him from understanding its cultural achievements or from criticising the failings of the black partisans (like Nkrumah) he supported”.43 But far from distancing James from his Marxist roots this appears to emphasise the best of Marx’s method.

Capitalism, Marx and Engels argue in the Communist Manifesto, “compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst…it creates a world after its own image”.44 This remains true of post-colonial states in a post-colonial world still dominated by imperialism.

In his early writings Marx tends to see the population of other parts of the world in relation to what was occurring in the West. Later Marx would actively study social development elsewhere. As time passed he no longer saw the “Asiatic mode” as specifically associated with Asia. Pradella notes that it is “not limited either geographically or temporally to Asia, but also refers to pre-Columbian societies and to European societies as well, including Slavic societies and Moorish Spain”.45

By the time of Capital in 1867, he attempts to show the effects of capitalism around the world. Look at this comparison between the effects of mechanisation in Britain and India:

History discloses no tragedy more horrible than the gradual extinction of the English hand-loom weavers, an extinction that was spread over several decades, and finally sealed in 1838. Many of them died of starvation, many with families vegetated for a long time on 2½d. a day. On the other hand, the English cotton machinery produced an acute effect in India. The Governor General reported 1834-35: “The misery hardly finds a parallel in the history of commerce. The bones of the cotton-weavers are bleaching the plains of India”.46

His political developments do not just occur in the abstract but are responses to the events of the day—the revolutions of 1848; the Indian Uprising of 1857; the Taiping rebellion in China (1850-64); the US Civil War (1861-5); the Paris Commune in France in 1871. One thing that Marx became increasingly certain about was the nature of the capitalist state. It was only in The Civil War in France written after the suppression of the Paris Commune that he declared that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes”.47 Instead the existing, capitalist state had to be smashed and replaced with a workers’ state. This has implications for resistance across the world. When looking at his shifting view of peasant communes, he is not moving away from the working class, but seeing more firmly how these struggles relate to those of the working class. His early belief that Eastern societies were unusually static was not maintained, particularly in the later notebooks discussed below.

Shifts in Marx’s mature and late writings

One feature of Marx’s writing that is not always obvious when reading extracts is his extensive use of quotations and clippings. Throughout Capital there are footnotes, giving examples of the arguments he is engaging with. Marx hardly published anything in the last years of his life. This was not because he had run out of ideas, but because he was a perfectionist.48 He was making notes on a range of ideas, including pre-capitalist societies. As capitalist influence spread throughout the world he became more interested in the structure of various societies. The late 19th century was a period of rapid growth in the field of anthropology so there were also new studies of existing peoples—such as those of Lewis H Morgan—and theories on how long humanity had existed. When Marx and Engels referred to “primitive communism” they were often talking about the virtues of a society. This is developed in The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884), which was written by Engels after Marx’s death, but incorporated material from notes Marx had made on Morgan.

Anderson explains how Marx’s views on communal property moved away from seeing it “as a major foundation for ‘Oriental despotism’ in Russia and India, or for authoritarian clan chieftains in Scotland”.49 So, he now argues that certain Welsh Celtic laws were “entirely communist”.

Kolja Lindner, who tries to show postcolonial theorists the value in Marx, noted in 2010:

In his notes [on India], Marx underscores “the variety of forms of property relations” and the fact that the disintegration of communal property forms was already well under way: “arable fields and, often, threshing floors are the private property of different members of the commune, and only the ‘appurtenances’ (ugoda) remain their common property”. About the Mongol Empire, Marx notes: “Four centuries later, the principle of private property was…solidly anchored in Indian society”.50

In 1881 Russian Marxist Vera Zasulich wrote to Marx, asking if he thought it might be possible to pass straight from the obshchina (peasant commune), with no private ownership of land, to socialism, rather than going through all the intervening stages he had described. Marx replied saying that his analysis of how capitalism developed through expropriating peasants had followed the first experience in England. He had noted that “all the other countries of Western Europe are following the same course”. So, “the ‘historical inevitability’ of this course is therefore expressly restricted to the countries of Western Europe… The analysis in Capital therefore provides no reasons either for or against the vitality of the Russian commune”.51

In the preface to the second Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto (1882) Marx and Engels wrote: “Can the Russian obshchina…pass directly into the higher, communist form of communal ownership? Or must it first go through the same process of dissolution which marks the West’s historical development?… If the Russian revolution becomes the signal for proletarian revolution in the West, so that the two complement each other, then Russia’s peasant communal land ownership may serve as the point of departure for a communist development”.52

This gives a far more progressive role to peasant communal practices, and shows that Marx sees benefits in pre-capitalist forms of society. Marx made clear that when he described the development of capitalism in Western Europe he was not saying that that was the only way to develop or that other modes were not possible. It is evident from his reply to Zasulich that he thinks that the peasant oschchina can only bypass stages because of combined and uneven development. So workers’ revolution is still necessary.

Marx’s heirs

Marx and Engels did not write systematically on racism, gender oppression or the growth of empires—though they did touch on each of these. However, all these subjects have been major issues of debate for subsequent generations of Marxists. There is not room here to examine all the conflicting and contradictory versions of Marxism that emerged through the 20th century. However, it is worth raising a few arguments that specifically talk about whether Marxism is relevant or necessary for people who face racism or who live in the Global South.

In 1911 the US black Marxist Hubert Harrison wrote on racism, saying its origins lay in Atlantic slavery: “Since the Negroes were brought here as chattels, their social status was fixed by that fact. To the credit of our common human nature, it was found necessary to reconcile the public mind to the system of slavery. This was effected by building up the belief that the slaves were not really human”.53 He concluded: “It is therefore to the interests of the capitalists in America to preserve the inferior economic status of the coloured race, because they can always use it as a club for the other workers. They are interested in keeping the average wage as low as possible so they pit the workers, white against black, to keep the lowest wage level as low as possible”.54 This theory was later developed and expanded on by two Caribbean anti-colonialists, the Marxist CLR James and the historian Eric Williams—particularly in their respective books The Black Jacobins (1938) and Capitalism and Slavery (1944).

Harrison was a member of the Socialist Party of America, which was affiliated to the Second International. He eventually left the party because its leaders did not see fighting racism as a necessary priority in the struggle against capitalism. The Second International was supposedly Marxist, but as it established mass legal or semi-legal parties in several Western countries many of its leaders came to accept Eurocentric arguments. Russian revolutionary leader Lenin had complained that at the International’s 1907 Stuttgart Congress, sections of the organisation were coming to support the aims and colonial policies of their own national governments: “Speaking for the majority of the German delegation [Eduard] Bernstein and [Eduard] David urged acceptance of a ‘socialist colonial policy’ and fulminated against the radicals for their barren, negative attitude, their failure to appreciate the importance of reforms, their lack of a practical colonial programme, etc”.55 To Lenin it seemed obvious as it had to the mature Marx that revolutionaries should support anti-colonial movements and independence for the colonised countries. The ideological drift in the Second International would continue until they supported their own imperial governments in the bloodbath of the First World War—effectively destroying the International.

After the 1917 October Revolution in Russia the Communists called for immediate independence for all colonies. Lenin said: “The socialist revolution will not be solely or chiefly a struggle of the revolutionary proletarians in each country against their bourgeoisie. No, it will be a struggle of all the colonies and countries oppressed by imperialism”.56 As a practical step the victorious Bolsheviks established the communist Third International in 1919. Its methods included the centrality of class struggle, thoroughgoing internationalism and an unwavering commitment to anti-racism. In the lands they controlled, the communists declared an end to discrimination against Muslims: “Henceforth your beliefs and customs, your national and cultural institutions are declared free and inviolable”.57 This attitude was one reason why so many Muslims came to support them during the Russian Civil War. The communists hosted the First Congress of the Peoples of the East in 1920 in Baku, in part to show that communism was not merely concerned with workers in industrialised countries. It attracted peoples from the Russian Empire, but also from the colonised and semi-colonised parts of the world.

The inspirational impact of October can be seen in the speech that the Jamaican Pan-Africanist leader Marcus Garvey gave after Lenin’s death in 1924: “The revolution…took out of the hands of the privileged class the destiny of Russia’s government… For over five years Lenin and Trotsky were able to hold the Russian peasantry together and established for the first time in modern days…a government wherein the people ruled… Russia promised great hope not only for negroes but for the weaker people of the world”.58 Garvey was no leftist, but for a significant period after the Russian Revolution Marxism was widely seen by many black radicals as a potent and powerful anti-colonial and anti-imperialist ideology. Grace Campbell, the first black woman to join the US Communist Party, said her interest “was inspired by the national policy of the Russian Bolsheviks and the anti-imperialist orientation of the Soviet state”.59

The rise of Stalinism and the shift of “mainstream” Marxism from ­revolutionary internationalism to talk of a stageist model of national development from the late 1920s affected the whole of the movement and its attitude to Europe and non-capitalist societies. It led to the dissolution of the Third International in 1943, and the marginalisation of Trotskyist writers such as James who resisted this process.60

In his book Marx and the Third World, Umberto Melotti rightly says of the Second International and the social democratic (Labour) parties that they have used a caricatured, simplified, unilinear version of Marx:

They have used [this interpretation of Marxism] as a starting point for Europe-centred ideologies which in practice have enabled them to pass off imperialist and racist ideas, even in working class circles, by dressing them up as orthodox Marxism. The Stalinist and Maoist models also tend to recreate that interpretation. The resulting void is papered over by largely arbitrary extension of the other precapitalist forms—the primitive commune, slavery and, above all, feudalism.61

Draper argues that one of the reasons that the evolution of Marx’s views on the “Asiatic mode of production” discussed above are not widely known is that it suited Stalin’s foreign policy to argue that China was feudal and “the enemy in China was ‘the remnants of feudalism’ and imperialism—at any rate, social forces familiar to European political thought… The party line was later amended by 1934 to make the Asiatic societies slavery-based instead of feudal”.62 Nevertheless, black and colonised people were still drawn to Marxism and to Communist Parties internationally, which continued to talk of liberation when liberals either accepted the status quo or insisted that change should “go slow”.

Black radicals and Marxism

Robinson’s Black Marxism (1983) critiques Marxism as a system of ideas from a black nationalist viewpoint. It sets out to show why so many black radicals were drawn to Marxist ideas, so in part it is a history of black activism. As such it covers people drawn into activity up until the great upsurge of radicalism around the Civil Rights movement and Black Power. A recent discussion on Robinson summarised the book’s argument: “The Black radical tradition is the ‘negation of the negation in the world system’… It was only when Marxist ideologies confronted African revolutionary thought that Marxism became radical enough to act as what it mistakenly believed itself to be: a totalising theory of revolution”.63 So Marxism is apparently at its most radical when it is furthest from its origins in the European working class and utilised by colonised peoples.

Robinson argued that black figures, including WEB Du Bois, moved away from Marxism because, “it appeared to them that Western Marxists, unconsciously bound by a Eurocentric perspective, could not account for nor correctly assess the revolutionary forces emerging from the Third World. The racial metaphysics of Western consciousness…shielded their fellow socialists from the recognition of racialism’s influence on the development and structures of the capitalist system”.64

It is true that many leading black figures moved away from Marxism, or at least the Communist Parties, in the period Robinson covers. But others, like James, went on considering themselves Marxists. Conversely, Du Bois only joined the Communist Party in 1961—something he had not done in the period when he used the creative Marxism that defined his book Black Reconstruction (1935). What these figures have in common is the enthusiasm they felt over anti-colonial struggles and the newly independent countries in Africa and across the rest of the Global South. Du Bois, for example, lived in Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana.

Robinson engaged with Marx’s ideas, and the book discusses how Marx’s writings and those of his followers talk about ending racism. He states that in saying “direct slavery is as much the pivot upon which our present-day industrialism turns as are machinery, credit, etc.” Marx made a “point that has not only endured but to some extent dominated attempts to characterise the relationship of slave labour to industrialisation: the creation of the Negro, the fiction of a dumb beast of burden fit only for slavery, was closely associated with the economic, technical and financial requirements of Western development from the 16th century on”.65

There has been a shift away from Marxism among intellectuals in the period following the collapse of the movements of 1968. This became a tidal movement after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc at the end of the 1980s. Robinson himself had become more hostile by the time he wrote his preface to the 2000 edition, which includes the unsupportable statement:

The “masses” whom Marx presumed would be “seized” by theory were European male wage labourers and artisans in the metropoles of western Europe, Britain, and the United States. Here both theory and Marx’s casting of historical materialism betrayed him. Instead of the anarchic globalism of modern capitalist production and exchange, Marx imagined a coherent ordering of things.66

Marx makes clear in Capital that: “The labour of women and children was…the first thing sought for by capitalists who used machinery”,67 he talked about how the new system created workers across the world and he specifically talked about how the spread of capitalist order also engendered the growth of disorder around the world. So what Robinson is criticising here is not Marx himself, but his later followers.

In contrast to workers’ solidarity, Robinson sees an international solidarity among people of African descent forged by resistance to European oppression: “The making of one Black collective identity suffuses nationalisms. Harboured in the African diaspora there is a single historical identity that is in opposition to the systemic privations of racial capitalism. Ideologically it cements pain to purpose, experience to expectation, consciousness to collective action”.68 Unfortunately, with this Robinson moves from an attempt at a materialist understanding of the world to metaphysics. The idea of a unified black radicalism is much harder to sustain in the 21st century: black president Barack Obama did not oversee an end to US imperialism, or indeed an improvement in the lot of ethnic minorities in the US; the ANC government in South Africa has long since made its peace with neoliberalism, as its ministers make links to the boards of international capitalist companies and the rise of China and India as major capitalist states makes the idea of imperial oppression as simply European harder to sustain. Robinson’s book is a powerful history of Black radicalism and its relation to the left, but it is flawed in its analysis of Marx and Marxism. Indeed, by getting caught in a ­dogmatic idea of a unified black struggle, it does what it accuses Marx of.

However, Robinson remains a touchstone for contemporary black nationalists like Kehinde Andrews, whose recent book Back to Black attempts to update it without any of the respect Robinson showed for Marxist ideas. For the most part it is not about Marxism, but the section that does relate to Marx presents a garbled version of his categories and analysis that suggests someone who has read Robinson but not referred to Marx. Andrews says: “In the same way as you could not have capitalism without feudalism, colonialism was seen as a necessary precursor. But importantly they both lay outside capitalism, which was seen to be more advanced and dominated by industrial relations”.69 He does not attempt to show where Marx might have argued such a thing. In the end he is open that his project is about rejecting Marxism for suggesting that white workers might be allies with an interest in fighting racism, rather than “collaborators in the history of oppression”.70

More widely, thinkers associated with the field of postcolonial studies frequently reject Marxism as Eurocentric. Postcolonial studies started with culture, getting writers from Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o to Gabriel García Márquez on syllabuses, so it relates directly to the decolonisation project. But as Vivek Chibber says, by the time postcolonial studies emerged, “the New Left’s brief flirtation with Marxist materialism had…largely dissipated; in its wake came an abiding interest in culture and ideology, not merely as an object of study but as an explanatory principle”.71 Out of this has developed Subaltern Studies, whose thinkers tend to contrast the development of European capitalism with capitalisms in other parts of the world and emphasise the difference and therefore the different forces required for resistance. The term subaltern is a reference to Gramsci, but often it fits directly with postmodern ideas of resistance often linked to Michel Foucault’s concept of decentred power and the rejection of the idea of any kind of centralised progress. In a different context Lukács argued: “It is very fashionable today to laugh condescendingly at ideas of progress, and to make use of the contradictions that necessarily arise with every development in order to render any idea of progress, ie any development from an ontologically lower stage to a higher one, scientifically disreputable as a subjective value judgement”.72

In his book Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital Chibber defends Marxist ideas. In a review that goes through his arguments at length, Talat Ahmed notes:

Chibber reminds the reader that capitalism does not universalise social organisation based on the consent of the governed. Rather, what is universalised is “the compulsion to produce in order to sell—production for exchange value, not for use”. Capitalists…will fight for “a narrower, more exclusionary regime”. In fact the rising European bourgeoisie was focused on capitalist production but quite willing to allow earlier relations of power to remain so long as they could capitalise on newly developing methods of production.73

Many of those who critique Marx as Eurocentric reject his evolving view of centralised power for a postmodern view that rejects the idea that there is any one centre of power. This can appear as a path to liberation since it removes the privileging of a specific class (the bourgeoisie), or area (Western Europe) where capitalism developed. But it can also remove any understanding of why these things happened and in some cases say that such an understanding is not possible. For instance Subaltern Studies separates capital and power in a Foucauldian, postmodern way.74

Both Robinson and Subaltern Studies thinkers are responding to a crisis in resistance to imperialism, which leads them to look for a problem in Marx. In the period after the Second World War, some form of Marxism seemed the obvious path to resistance. But since the late 1970s there has been a retreat from such ideas. This relates more to how national governments behaved in the name of Marx than anything inherent in Marx’s ideas or Marxism. But it also fitted with an idea that there was no alternative to capitalism and that politics was about rearranging things on a micro level.

In the past decade there has been a revival in the idea of generalised resistance to capitalism, and a realisation that history did not stop with the end of the Cold War. This has led to a return to looking at Marx and previous revolutionary movements. However, an earlier context of assuming a respect for Marx and Marxism is removed. This does not necessarily provide fresh ideas for radical activists. Instead it can remove a tradition of understanding. The historian Arif Dirlik argued: “Postcoloniality is the condition of the intelligentsia of global capitalism”.75 The danger is that this can become a case not of replacing one narrative with another more radical one, but of crushing the idea that radical change is possible.


Would India, China or various African states have seen the indigenous development of capitalism without Western intervention? Probably, but the truth is that this was not on the agenda because once capitalism became established in the West it was going to influence societies across the world. We can only look at the modern world as capitalist and imperialist. The final chapter of Capital, volume 1 concerns colonialism, though Marx is mainly concerned with how peasants are expropriated from the land, something he compares with events in Britain. He explains: “The profound hypocrisy and inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilisation lies unveiled before our eyes, turning from its home, where it assumes respectable forms, to the colonies, where it goes naked”.76

Marx set out to understand capitalism so that it would be possible to abolish it. He saw the struggle against capitalism and colonialism as a self-emancipatory project that would liberate the world. Early in their careers Marx and Engels argued how people would be changed in the process of fighting for their own liberation: “An alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution; this revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew”.77

Marx wrote at the very beginning of colonialism. He died in 1883, the year before the Berlin conference at which the European powers carved up Africa. In the end the question is not just whether Marx presented workers and peasants outside Europe as the agents of change in their own lives, but if Marxism allows them to find that role. The tradition of Marxism from below always looks to people as actors in their own story, whether they are protesting in Tahrir Square, Cairo in 2011; Syrian refugees pushing through the Macedonian border having crossed the Mediterranean in 2015 or West Indian migrants fighting for justice amid the Windrush Scandal in 2018.78 Marxism is a tool that can bring these ­different strands together in a way that other interpretations have not.

Ken Olende is researching a PhD on “Rethinking ‘blackness’ as a racial identity” at Brighton University. He has previously worked as a tutor for the Workers’ Educational Association, a journalist on Socialist Worker and editor of UAF’s Unity magazine.


1 This article originates in a talk given at the Marx@200 event held in London on 19 May 2018. Thanks to Esme Choonara, Christian Høgsbjerg and Talat Ahmed for commenting on a draft and to Richard Donnelly, Terry Sullivan and Einde O’Callaghan for helping with queries.

2 For example this open letter from students at Cambridge University: “For too long, teaching English at Cambridge has encouraged a ‘traditional’ and ‘canonical’ approach that elevates white male authors at the expense of all others. Whilst some have argued that this approach has its merits…we can no longer ignore…the fact that the curriculum, taken as a whole, risks perpetuating institutional racism”—

3 Richardson, 2018, p234.

4 Selwyn, 2013, p212.

5 Amin, 1988, p105.

6 Said, 2003, p56.

7 Margulies, 2018, p109.

8 Engels, 1859.

9 Stone, 2017, p5.

10 See Stone, 2017.

11 Amin, 1988, p77.

12 Marx and Engels, 1848, chapter 1.

13 Marx and Engels, 1848, chapter 1.

14 Marx, 1976, p931.

15 For a more general understanding of Said’s position see Habib, 2005.

16 Marx, 1972a, p40.

17 Said, 2003, p154.

18 Said, 2003, p153.

19 Marx, 1972b, p84.

20 Marx, 1972b, p84.

21 Marx, 1972c, p167.

22 Marx, 1972d, p321.

23 Quoted in Anderson, 2010, p144.

24 Marx, 1976, p414.

25 Anderson, 2010, p86.

26 Marx, 1865.

27 Marx, 1976, p925.

28 Marx, 1972b, p81.

29 Ahmad, 1992, p224.

30 Marx and Engels, 1970, p50.

31 Ajayi, 1998, pp39-49.

32 Anderson, 2010, p2.

33 Pradella, 2015, p77.

34 Pradella, 2015, p140.

35 Draper, 1978, p174.

36 Pradella, 2015, p170.

37 Said, 1994, pxiii.

38 Said, 1994, p215.

39 Draper, 1969, p14.

40 Draper, 1969, p16.

41 Said, 1994, p4.

42 Said, 1994, p346.

43 Said, 1994, p24.

44 Marx and Engels, 1848, chapter 1.

45 Pradella, 2015, p138.

46 Marx, 1976, p557.

47 Marx, 1871.

48 David Riazanov, who compiled the first collections of Marx’s notebooks in the 1920s was dismissive of the late commentaries. See Anderson, 2010, p248.

49 Anderson, 2010, p138.

50 Lindner, 2010, p14.

51 Quoted in Shanin, 2018, p124.

52 Quoted in Shanin, 2018, p139.

53 Harrison, 2001, p53.

54 Harrison, 2001, p56.

55 Lenin, 1907.

56 Lenin, 1919.

57 Riddell, 1993, p13.

58 Hill, 1987, p550.

59 McDuffie, 2011, p34.

60 For more on James, see Høgsbjerg, 2006.

61 Melotti, 1977, p9.

62 Draper, 1977, p629.

63 Hébert, 2016.

64 Robinson, 1983, p447.

65 Robinson, 1983, p106.

66 Robinson, 2000, pxxviii.

67 Marx, 1976, p517.

68 Robinson, 1983, p451.

69 Andrews, 2018, p185.

70 Andrews, 2018, p201.

71 Chibber, 2013, p1.

72 Lukács, 1978, p45.

73 Ahmed, 2014.

74 Chibber, 2013, p15.

75 Quoted in Loomba, 2005, p206.

76 Marx, 1972b, p86.

77 Marx and Engels, 1970, p94.

78 See Orr, 2011; Olende, 2015; Tengely-Evans, 2018.


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