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Cedric Robinson's Black Marxism: a critique

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The killing of George Floyd by racist cop Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis on 26 May 2020 revealed how far the liberation of the USA’s Black citizens still had to go. Donald Trump’s presidency had been marked by his repeated praise for the killer cops as heroes and his white supremacist supporters as “good people.” But the response to the video of George Floyd’s murder was on an unprecedented scale, not just in the USA but also in many countries around the world.

The re-emergence of the mass antiracist and Black struggle in the USA over the past six or seven years has reignited an interest in the whole range of Black history not only in the States, but in Europe, the Caribbean and Africa. This has posed fundamental questions, such as how the struggle can be won, what constitutes a victory and the relationship between the prevalent racist ideology and capitalism itself.

This is taking place at a time when the reforms of the last great Black struggle, the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s–60s, have unravelled before the eyes of millions, revealing systemic racism in the police, courts and prison-industrial system, not to mention education, jobs, wealth distribution, housing, health, etc.

Equally Trump’s ‘movement’ revealed the poisoning of millions of poor and working class whites with the prejudices, myths and tropes of racism. And the long decades of tolerance of systemic oppression by white progressives, their hesitation to recognise its reality and to speak out against it — has led a new generation of activists, Black and white, to say “silence is violence”.

As in previous periods, this is provoking a debate over race and class. If whatever reforms are passed end up strengthening systemic racism, if the white working class is endemically racist, at least in its large majority, if, as Derrick Bell puts it, racism is permanent, then should not the struggle against racism and for Black liberation take precedence over all others — at least for Black people?

This of course is not a new argument. Black nationalism has been a constant political trend within the Black anti-racist movement from Marcus Garvey through Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party to today. On the left of that movement, more and more activists and intellectuals have openly identified with socialism and the ideas of Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin and to a lesser extent Leon Trotsky. This has increased over the century since Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association, as a Black middle class and small ruling class have emerged and developed in the US and a corrupt clientele capitalist ruling elite despoiled the hopes of successive African anti-colonial revolutionary masses.

But in the 1980s as the Soviet Union went into terminal decline and China abandoned the radical Stalinism of Mao Zedong for the market, the prestige of Marxism as the key to liberation began to decline. Third Wordlists, like the Palestinian exile Edward Said in his 1978 book Orientalism and the Egyptian Samir Amin in in his 1988 book Eurocentrism, accused Marx and most Marxists of the title of Amin’s book.

Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism: the making of the Black radical tradition (1983) is an early protagonist in that tradition and one of the most radical in that it rejects Marxism’s analysis of exploitation, class formation and the agency of the working class in a socialist revolution. In short it is a pioneer work in the academy’s desertion of Stalinised Marxism for postmodernism and poststructuralism. On this methodological base were founded departments devoted to new disciplines of Postcolonial and then Subaltern Studies.

What Robinson hails and promotes is that Black activists and intellectuals break from Marxism to a supposedly classless Black radicalism. Unfortunately what he was obliged to do is to steal the fruits of the work of real Black Marxists, who, for all their clashes and difficulties with specific socialist and communist organisations, never themselves denied their debt or even their adherence to Marxism.

He argues that, although Marxism offers “a superior grammar for synthetizing the degradation of labour with the growing destabilization of capitalist production and accelerating technical development,” he rejects historical materialism, based on the development of the forces of production, a scientific and objective analysis of capital as accumulated surplus value, and the class struggles within the relations of production. He claims that this analysis is intrinsically Eurocentric.

Instead Robinson claims that, underlying historical development, there are deep-rooted ideologies, spanning whole continents of people, i.e. “races”, whose values, symbols and cultures permeate and ultimately transcend successive modes of production; even liberation movements and theories are conditioned ultimately by these “spirits”. Europe’s is predominantly a racist, violent and antagonistic ideology whilst that of Africa and its diaspora is a unitary, collective and peaceful one.

This identity is strongest among the diaspora and especially former slave colonies, so that its nationalism, Black nationalism can, Cedric Robinson claims, “transcend nationalism” once it has broken free of all Western trappings, especially Marxism.

While other peoples, “races” can find their own way to freedom and Black workers and peasants can give solidarity, a united struggle with the white, European and North American working class is barred, both from without, by white workers’ racism, and from within, by Black workers’ different conception of struggle and liberation. In fact Robinson conjures up a concoction of Black nationalism, utopian socialism and anarchist spontaneity to replace the Marxist arsenal of tactics and strategy. So what is this Marxism that Robinson fears so?

Scientific socialism
We will argue that it is completely wrong to see Marx’s political economy as essentially applying only to Europe. Certainly capitalism could only develop when certain material preconditions were in place, namely the concentration of capital by Europeans first in a merchant capitalist phase when the plunder of the Americas and the beginnings of the slave trade — events outside of Europe — played a necessary role, allied to the expropriation of the peasantry and the small producers inside Europe. Marx deals with this phase, that he calls primitive accumulation, in the Grundrisse and Capital.

He shows how the penetration of capital into production, aided for hundreds of years by exploiting black slaves, first on tobacco and sugar and then on cotton plantations, led to the formation of a modern bourgeoisie and a proletariat. Their accumulated wealth and the need for political conditions for its remorseless growth propelled the capitalist class into a struggle with the old order, mobilising the peasant, artisan and working classes with revolutionary democratic and nationalist ideology. But scarcely had the bourgeoisie achieved victories in a handful of European countries and in North America, when the working class began to engage in a class struggle against it. Out of this emerged trade unionism, socialism and communism.

The proletariat would be forced into a conflict with the ruling class, some times revolutionary, sometimes reformist, and this was on a local, national, regional and ultimately on world scale. And alongside it too emerged, thanks to the work of Marx and Engels, scientific socialism. Based on a critique of bourgeois political economy, various utopian socialisms and historical materialism, what this meant was that a socialist society, one that abolished exploitation and oppression had to be based on real existing social forces and their struggles, not by creating utopian communes outside of capitalist society.

Yes indeed, Marx and Engels claimed that capital was a product of developments in Western Europe, and that it was destined to spread worldwide, in the process transforming different pre-capitalist economies into parts of a world capitalist economy. Events in the last 30 years should have proved this beyond all contradiction for those who have eyes to see. That this would not be an even or a uniform process would be discovered by a future generation of Marxists — and indeed by Marx himself in his latter years — when developments made this clear.

They also maintained that, overall, capitalism’s emergence was progressive, not in its culturally destructive and inhuman consequences which anyone who reads Capital will know Marx fully recognised, but because (a) its productive capacity created the possibility of ending poverty and establishing equality on a world scale and (b) it created a property-less working class whose interest it was to limit and abolish private property. And it would do so not in order to return to earlier forms of production or ownership but to plan the new means of production and exchange to fulfil human needs.

As their work progressed in the 1860–80s, Marx in particular studied the economic systems into which capital was erupting: in Tsarist Russia, India, China, etc. Nor was this simply an economic analysis since they hailed the resistance of American slaves, Russian serfs, Indian sepoys, Chinese peasants and Irish Republicans as fully worthy of support against British colonialism. Engaged in building the world’s first international working class organisation they pledged it to support these struggles. That their studies of Africa — the last continent to be “opened up” to capital investment (rather than just plundered for human labour) — were much less developed does not indicate Eurocentrism, let alone German nationalism and racism; rather the “scramble for Africa” started after Marx’s death. It is true that there were socialists in the Second International (1889–1914), especially in the colonising countries and the settler colonies, who defended this seizure and exploitation but these were generally the bitterest opponents of Marxism.

Marxists, like Kautsky, Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky, denounced this and called for European and North American workers to aid the liberation struggles of the colonial masses. They and the militants drawn to the Communist International analysed this as a new epoch of capitalism now truly on a world scale — imperialism. They recognised that this made Europe no longer the exclusive centre of the class struggle. Lenin also showed how the development of a labour aristocracy in the advanced (imperialist) economies had led to reformism and the complicity of an upper layer of the working class in the colonial acquisitions of their bosses and the inter-imperialist wars over its spoils. With such complicity came absorption by sections of the working class of the racist ideology manufactured by the ruling class to justify brutal exploitation and oppression of what they deemed “lower races”.

Lenin also realised how central in the new epoch were the nationalist struggles of oppressed peoples both in Europe (Russian minorities, Ireland) and increasingly in Europe’s colonies, African and Asian. Nor did Lenin forget the black former slaves in the USA, suffering and fighting against the horrific racism of Jim Crow, arguing for special measures to win Black workers and intellectuals to communism. Lenin criticised white American communists for ignoring the oppression of their black class sisters and brothers in the supposed interests of class unity. He insisted that such unity could only be lastingly achieved on the basis of the relatively privileged white workers supporting and aiding the struggles of black workers — indeed all black people- against racism.

Trotsky too had to do the same with his American followers in the 1930s. He also added an important element for understanding world developments — with his linked theories of uneven and combined development and permanent revolution. In these so-called backwards countries the workers and peasants did not have to await for some pre-ordained stages of capitalist development to unfold, but could have agency in a continuous revolution that would not only fulfil democratic and economic tasks that capitalism had not accomplished, because it was plundering the resources of these countries for the benefit of imperialist metropoles, but go on uninterruptedly to implement socialist measures.

This brief outline of the revolutionary Marxist tradition regarding historical materialism, the class struggle, national and racial oppression and the role of national liberation struggles in the epoch of imperialism is important, because it is not elucidated in 400 pages of Robinson’s book. Instead he takes swipes, sometimes merited, at the Stalinist degenerate tradition, while ignoring or misunderstanding the theoretical breakthroughs in Marxist theory.
Robinson structures his argument in three main strands: a history of Western Europe from antiquity to capitalism; a history of slavery and slave revolts; and the emergence of a Black radical tradition, which replaces class with race as the fundamental contradiction of modern capitalism. Let us now look at his analysis.

Europe’s racialist essence
Robinson contends that the Western radical tradition, principally today Marxism, “is a Western construction — a conceptualisation of human affairs and historical development that is emergent from the historical experiences of European peoples mediated, in turn, through their civilisation, their social orders and their cultures”.

Antiquity is his starting point. The Greeks had a racial hierarchy (Aristotle argued that barbarians were natural slaves), though Robinson admits they had “no doctrines of white supremacy” and the “intense color prejudice of the modern world was lacking”. With the Romans he has more trouble, as they clearly did not adopt a racial hierarchy, despite having more encounters with Africans, e.g. Hannibal. Nevertheless the Roman army boasted several black generals. The enslavement of war prisoners did not generate a justification based on skin colour. Not only were there white slaves aplenty but there were also African Emperors, notably Septimius Severus (193–211 CE), who some modern writers have claimed was “black” but was certainly not “white”. The problem with categorizing according to this modern “racial” binary is that skin colour simply did not exist as an important social differentiation in the later Roman world.

Nevertheless Robinson contends that the Roman concept of the “barbarian” introduced an “other”, feared and demonised outsiders, bent on destruction of their civilisation. In reality, Rome’s term “Barbarian” served only to exclude all others in Europe; it was both diverse and in fact obscured the small threat that they posed (e.g. there were only 100,000 Visigoths against 50-70 million in the Empire). Some discriminatory laws were passed, mostly against the Goths and the Germanic tribes but these were closely related to military objectives, which changed over time. In fact there was very little discrimination of Black Africans.

But for Robinson, it is after the “fall” of the Western Roman Empire that the fog of racism really descended on Europe’s backward, warring peoples. Charlemagne’s attempt to restore a Frankish-Roman Western Roman Empire in Europe failed, leaving behind the warring feudal states of “Christendom” and the Roman Catholic Church acting as a weak substitute thereafter. The concept of Christendom was built, Robinson claims, on the older concept of the Barbarian “other” and directed it fearfully and resentfully at Islam.

Islam clearly involved a rejection of Christ’s divinity and was at best regarded as a dangerous heresy, at worst as a form of pagan “devil worship”. Moreover the Muslim caliphates and sultanates were a serious military threat that overthrew Orthodox Christian rule in the Iberian peninsular and then the Balkans.

All this excited fear and loathing from the Europeans but anti-Muslim racism — Islamophobia — can hardly be said to be the dominant, all-pervading ideology of Europe at the time. For the ruling class, internecine wars within and between medieval Christian kingdoms literally pitted brother against brother, mother against son, king against bishop, etc. For the peasantry, their enemy was the (often foreign, but European) feudal hierarchy and corrupt, land-owning Church.

Between the eighth and 13th centuries the Islamic world developed on the basis of an agricultural revolution, richer in scientific knowledge and more technically accomplished than the European states at this time. It brought sugar, coffee and cotton crops, the spinning wheel, mathematics, chemistry and astronomy, arts, literature and music to the West. Positioned along the Silk Road, Islam also transmitted technologies, like gunpowder and paper, as well as lost texts from Greek and Roman antiquity, from East to West.

Translations of Ancient Greek texts were made available once again through trade with the Islamic empire, and brought the writings of Aristotle into Europe. Robinson seizes upon the fact that during the crusades western Europeans came across black people of sub-Saharan origin, and as a result “blackamoors” were portrayed in frescoes of the last judgement as devils. But he then tries to link this to descriptions of the “Negro”, centuries later as “a different sort of beast: dumb, animal labor, the benighted recipient of the benefits of slavery.” The latter, he contends, has roots in the former and this proves the inherent racism of Europeans.

In his search for the roots of European racism, Robinson next turns to the merchant capitalists, particularly around the Italian city-states, whose trade focused on wool, textiles and luxury items, but a large part being in slaves (mainly Slavs and other East Europeans, but also Black north Africans).

Robinson treats medieval Islam as a fundamentally more humanitarian and less racialised tradition than Europe in the Middle Ages but this is simply not true. Yes, — as in the classical world, domestic and administrative slaves were treated more humanely, given more independence, more important roles and manumission was encouraged. In contrast plantation slavery, slavery in the mines was brutal as long as there was a readily available source of slaves. But these did not come primarily or mainly from Africa.

But there were far more slaves across the Muslim empires than in Europe. Religious injunctions against enslaving Muslims led to a slave trade from both Europe and Africa. Some were worked to death on plantations with a low birth rate and therefore in need of replenishment, foreshadowing conditions in the American colonies, while many more were employed in handicraft industries or as soldiers.

In Europe, however, the primary form of value extraction derived from peasant labour or serfdom, where the outsourcing of the costs of social reproduction to the peasant family, with its own small plot of land, was more economic. As a result slavery died out in Europe around 1000 CE, whereas it continued into the Ottoman Empire until its collapse 900 years later.

Were the bourgeoisie revolutionary?
In his attempt to deny European any role in developing the ideals of human liberation and at the same time to strike at a class analysis of what has led to the great advances that have marked human history Robinson downplays the European bourgeois revolutions. Claiming the bourgeoisie was neither unified, nor particularly fit to rule; the conditions for its global expansion just fell into its lap. Many bourgeoisies rose and fell historically with different actors and different methods of accumulating capital (merchant, manufacturing, venture, i.e. colonial capital, etc).

According to Robinson’s historiography, between the 17th and 19th centuries, a divided and warring Europe was rescued in part by its integration into the world market but remained essentially parochial, increasingly reliant on the feudal absolutist monarchies for its preservation and expansion, frequently engaged in internecine wars and both benefiting from and ideologically reinforcing a racialised view of the world.

Nationalism — or national chauvinism, as Robinson often reduces it to — is portrayed as a trick to deceive the working class and peasantry but one that works in Europe because it builds on a tradition of racism, nourished by privileges for the dominant “race”.

Robinson attacks Marx’s historical materialism for heralding the European bourgeoisie’s “inevitable” victory of over feudalism: “They were not the ‘germ’ of a new order diametrically posited in an increasingly hostile host, feudalism — but an opportunistic strata, wilfully adapted to the new conditions and possibility offered by the times.”

But what were these new conditions other than the development of capitalism itself, first in a mercantile, manufacturing, slave trading and colonising forms — before a massively transformational industrial revolution ensued? And who developed it if not the capitalist class — the bourgeoisie- in the various stages of its development. It is nonsensical to describe the class that accomplished this as simply “opportunistic”. Through its economic power in its infancy it forced the absolute monarchies to centralise power, as Marx said, “as a mighty weapon in its struggle against feudalism”, just as, as it approached adulthood, it “swept away all these relics of bygone times,” such as the divine right of kings and bishops.

The fact that different European and north American capitalist classes did this under the banner of anti-Catholic reformed religion (Holland and England), whilst a century later it adopted Enlightenment philosophy, culminating in the French revolution, where “Liberté, Fraternité, Egalité” was its battle-cry, is quite frankly incontestable. Marx and Engels also pointed out that these revolutionary explosions in consciousness and decisive action were preceded by decades, even centuries of fractious but often mutually beneficial relations with the absolutist state.

This is one of Robinson’s methodological problems; he sees the development of alliances — and consciousness — as linear and gradual, rather than by leaps and bounds, followed by slow, stagnant and even backward movement. As Marx noted in a letter to Engels “in developments of such magnitude 20 years are no more than a day, though later on there may come days in which 20 years are embodied.” This insight was based on historical materialism, which showed that the development of the forces of production, including human beings, who confront each other as classes, is able to take society forward until there is a clash between them that can only be resolved through a fundamental reorganisation of society and the relationship between the contending classes.

Robinson rejects this, on the one hand claiming that classes and the class struggle are impersonal categories, which cannot explain real history made by real people, and on the other by supplanting historical materialism with a view of European history as a loop, with racism at its gravitational centre, drawing it frenetically into ever more extreme forms of racist violence.

In fact Marx’s materialism put human activity — “practical, human-sensuous activity” — at the heart of his method. They may make history “under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past” but within those restrictions, they make choices. But those choices were not, indeed could not be, fully conscious of their meaning- certainly not for other classes or peoples that they were exploiting. Those choices largely coincide with their class interests. The development of colonial capitalism, plantation slavery and a racialised division of labour in the new world market was the “choice” of the bourgeoisie but it was imposed in a bitter struggle against the plebeian layers, workers, artisans, etc.

It was all part and parcel as we have seen of what Marx called the primitive (i.e. original) accumulation of capital and was accompanied in Britain by the expropriation of the peasantry by capitalist landlords, many of whom were also engaging in the slave trade and merchant ventures in the East Indies. It was not racist consciousness that drove them to this but rather the latter was a product or justification for what they were doing. And not all the social forces involved in this bourgeois revolution accepted this racism.

Recent studies have revealed how the Levellers supported the abolition of slavery in the Putney debates and resisted being sent to colonise Ireland. Cromwell defeated them. The French Jacobins abolished slavery in Saint-Domingue and then in all its colonies. But when the popular forces, the sans culottes, were defeated and sent to the guillotine, Napoleon restored slavery (though he failed in Saint-Domingue/Haiti). Later the Manchester cotton mill workers refused to handle cotton smuggled from the South during the civil war, because despite the hardship the “cotton famine” caused they demanded the abolition of slavery.

By writing these events and countless other anti-racist struggles out of history, it is Robinson, not Marxism that is guilty of presenting an impersonal, monolithic view of history, where the outcome is preordained. For Marxists, it is the class struggle, where class is understood as a social relation between real people, not an impersonal category, that determines history.

Racial capitalism
As early as the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels were clear, however, that capitalist development was not confined to Western Europe or North America but was spreading to all the other continents. Marx and Engels’ voluminous research notes and writings on Turkey, India, Russia, China, etc. followed this development more than any contemporary economist or politician.

But none of this is to diminish the fact that capitalism was infused with racism at its birth as a world system. The English merchant plantocracy financed Cromwell’s army in the English Civil War and the American founding fathers were slave owners. The rights of man did not apply to 85 percent of the population, as Robinson points out, and Cromwell colonised Jamaica, whose plantations were the jewel in the crown of the early British Empire. The sharp contradiction of democratic rights of all against foreign or domestic tyrants, enshrined in the words of Rule Britannia (“Britons never shall be slaves”) had to be reconciled with the right to own other human beings as property, both necessary for the bourgeoisie to triumph and thrive. This could only be done with the rapid expansion and elevation of racism from the realm of theology and fear of the unknown to the pseudo-race science of eugenics and psychological “types”.

It is true that capitalism, from the very birth of the world market, with the consumer commodities, first of tobacco, sugar, needed to introduce mass slavery from outside Europe. In the form of indentured labour they tried to use European unfree labour but this was soon eclipsed by the African slave trade. The production of cotton as an input into textile factory production created the final stage of chattel slavery in the USA. This in turn produced resistance and revolts by the slaves and the abolitionist movement in Europe and North America.

It is also true that, as capitalism consolidated itself as a world system, and after its hypocritically congratulated itself for liberating the slaves, with colonialism and imperialism, in Africa and Asia, it racialised the world in order to justify its right to rule over less capitalistically developed countries, economically, politically, militarily, and profit from cheap labour in the semi-colonies and later though immigration to the mother countries. But is this what Robinson means by “racial capitalism”?

Taking the term from South African communists, who used it to analyse apartheid capitalism in the 1920s, Robinson develops racial capitalism as a uniquely Western European development, which, because of the supposedly racist, aggressive character of its people over millennia, finally engulfed the world. The white working class too has these privileges, and even if not directly it benefits more from racism (at least in their minds) than it loses from capitalist exploitation. The Black people are therefore the only revolutionary subject, led by the most oppressed (though not necessarily workers) but eventually encompassing all classes.

We have to reject this. Empirically it is clear that capitalism is an international system. While European and North American great powers still dominate the world, the rise of China is the biggest threat to US/EU/Nato dominance today. Likewise the global working class today is multiracial, with a non-white majority and joined together by working practices, trade and a common enemy.

It is as Marx said a propertyless class in the sense that compared with the peasants and artisans and small traders who formed the majority of humanity in past ages, they do not own the means of production and exchange. By selling their labour power for only small proportion of what their labour produces for the capitalist, what Marx called surplus value, realised through its sale as profit, they are an exploited and an oppressed class and they are now an absolute majority of humanity.

But class oppression is far from the only form of oppression, although it is the deep root of these other forms. These include people of colour subject to racism, women subjected to misogyny and sexism, nationalities denied their own independent states, people persecuted discriminated against on the basis of religion, gender identity, disabilities and other factors.

These inequalities exist within the working class based on these oppressions and are used by the capitalist class to divide and weaken the unity of the working class in its struggle against exploitation. The most enlightened and militant sections of the working class, whose viewpoint Marxism embodies, have thus always seen it as essential that the working class includes in its class straggle the fight against all forms of oppression and that socialism, communism, i.e. a classless an stateless society, will at last end all traces of these; including of course racism.

For this reason, as well as its numbers and worldwide character, the working class is a universal class that by emancipating itself emancipates the whole of humanity. Black people’s struggle alone cannot do that both because they are divided into classes with opposing interests and because they cannot destroy racial capitalism in its heartlands without becoming part of a ‘multiracial’, internationalist working class struggle. Robinson’s theory of racial capitalism tends rather to soften the class struggle between Black workers and Black rulers, while denigrating attempts at class unity.

Marxism and nationalism
According to Robinson Marx was wrong to suggest that national differences would dissipate under the universal conditions of wage labour under capitalism, because it was built into “racial capitalism” and reproduced unwittingly by the European radical tradition:

Racialism and its permutations persisted, rooted not in a particular era but in the civilisation itself [...] the effects of racialism were bound to appear in the social expression of every strata of every European society no matter the structures on which they were formed.

Robinson — like many other writers — argues that “Nationalism defeated socialism.” He claims that Marx and Engels were simply German nationalists themselves for urging workers to support Austria against the French in the Italian War of 1859. Lenin and Trotsky were “‘intellectual opportunists” for signing the treaty with the Germans at Brest-Litvosk. The Comintern exported Russian nationalism by demanding defence of the USSR above all else. “Communist” regimes from Angola to Cuba to China all took on national characteristics. He sums up his critique in this way:

"What the Marxists did not understand about the political and ideological phenomenon of nationalism is that it was not (and is not) a historical aberration (of proletarian internationalism). Nor is it necessarily the contrary: a developmental stage of internationalism. Nationalism defeated the Marxism of the Second International (World War I), but ironically, was a basis of the Marxism of the Third International (the Russian revolutions; Stalin’s socialism in one country; the conditions for membership in the Comintern), yet its primary world-historical significance was denied."

Of course some of the targets of his criticism are justified. Some leaders in the Second International (e.g. the British Fabians) supported the “civilising mission” of colonial rule, some US Socialists opposed the “peril” of Chinese immigration and nearly all sections its defended the “Fatherland” in August 1914. The degenerate Comintern under Stalin increasingly abandoned world revolution and determined policy on the basis of the priorities of the USSR. But these criticisms and exposures did not wait for him to make. They were made long ago by the very Marxist figures he traduces. Other criticisms are misdirected and Robinson’s conclusions are thus false.

His major methodological failing is to treat the national question each time outside of its historical context. Nationalism in Europe is bad because it is European. Black nationalism is good because it is African (and or from that continent’s diaspora. Marx considered the national revolutions historically progressive because, whatever their crimes against humanity, which the founders of scientific socialism were among the first to expose, they were fundamentally for sovereignty, democracy and large national economies within a world system.

But the creation of first national and then a world economy world and the working class, opened the road to fully human history and freedom. Thus Marx and Engels supported German national unity from the 1830s through to 1870, particularly if it was created by a revolution from below. Because they thought France under Napoleon III in 1859, was intervening in Italy as a pretext for seizing the Rhineland and this impeding German unification it was the immediate foe. But his immediate object was to encourage revolutionary forces, including petty bourgeois nationalist forces to combat Prussia as well as France. But in no sense was Marx such a German nationalist himself:

"The relationship of the revolutionary workers’ party to the petit-bourgeois democrats [nationalists] is this: it co-operates with them against the party they aim to overthrow; it opposes them wherever they wish to secure their own position."

He continues:

"While the democratic petty bourgeois want to bring the revolution to an end as quickly as possible [it is] our task to make the revolution permanent until all the more or less propertied classes have been driven from their ruling positions, until the proletariat has conquered state power and until the association of the proletarians has progressed sufficiently far — not only in one country but in all the leading countries of the world — that competition between the proletarians of these countries ceases and at least the decisive forces of production are concentrated in the hands of the workers."

Marx never succumbed even to the limited progressive nationalism of the democrats because he had seen how they betrayed their own revolution in 1848. He insisted that the workers needed their own independent party and political and economic goals. Marx and Engels did not tail the nationalists but used the united front tactic to expose how shallow their commitment was to radical democracy and workers’ rights.

Historical context is also needed when it comes to another instance Robinson cites of Marx and Engels nationalism, their comments on the “non-historic” peoples, “remnants of nations” during the 1848–51 revolutions which swept Europe. In the nineteenth century it contained many different languages and communities, many of which have now virtually disappeared, absorbed into the larger states. If all of them had attained statehood, with national borders and tariffs, then the productive forces, including the working class, would have been stunted from birth.

The process of assimilation, providing it could be accomplished without discrimination and oppression, was in itself progressive. Marx and Engels saw the larger peoples who were still divided (Germany, Italy, Poland, Hungary) as progressive in their fight for unity and independence. Because in the course of the 1848 revolution the rulers of Austria and Russia used some of the smaller peoples (the Croats and the Czechs) against the Polish and Hungarian revolutionaries, Engels used the term non-historic or doomed peoples, to describe them. However this was an incorrect distinction, one he and Marx never applied to another small nation, the Irish, where both recognised that English prejudices against the Irish were reactionary and which they sought to combat during the period of the First International (1864–1874). It was a term he later dropped and one that Marxists like Karl Kautsky and Roman Rosdolsky criticised.

However it is true that not all the demands national movements are progressive in their given historical context, especially if their demands entail the oppression of another people (e.g. Israel-Palestine). But in none of these cases were Marx and Engels motivated by “German nationalism”. Indeed when a newly unified German Empire seized the French provinces of Alsace and Lorraine they condemned it and predicted this as the future seed of a pan-European war.

The distinction between oppressor and oppressed nations was taken up and developed by Lenin to deal with the national question in the epoch of imperialism. Unfortunately Robinson dismisses “the complex and rather voluminous character of [Lenin’s] writings on the national question” and turns (conveniently) to Stalin to provide “the most simple and authoritative proclamations on the national question.” However, Lenin’s writings on the subject (neither particularly “complex” nor especially “voluminous”) deal with questions of assimilation and national self-determination in detail and centre on the right of small nations to secede. In addition they are of a piece with Marx and Engels’ support for the Irish and Indian struggles against Britain.

Lenin defined imperialism as the last stage of capitalism, when a handful of robber nations, “Great Powers”, have divided up the less developed parts of the world between them and finance capital and great monopolies dominate the economy. At this point there are “two historical tendencies… first the awakening of national life and national movements, the struggle against all national oppression, and the creation of nation states [and second] the breakdown of national barriers, the creation of international unity of capital, of economic life in general”. From this Lenin concludes two principles: “the equality of nations and languages and the impermissibility of all privileges [and second] the principle of internationalism” alongside the struggle against “bourgeois nationalism, even of the most refined [i.e. oppressed] kind.”

In short Marxism provided the programmatic basis for fighting oppressive European states with oppressed national minorities and for independence struggles in the colonies. Bolshevism supported the oppressed poles and ‘races’ not just in words but also as the agency of their own liberation, and the Third International began the task of building revolutionary parties in the colonies whilst the CPs in the imperialist countries fought imperialism from within. Later in the 1930s Trotsky, in correspondence with his South African co-thinkers, heavily stressed the fact of racial and national oppression exercised by the whites; “The South African possessions of Great Britain form a dominion only from the point of view of the white minority. From the point of the black majority, South Africa is a slave colony”.

The revolution in South Africa is, Trotsky says, “unthinkable without the awakening of the native masses” without them gaining “confidence in their strength, a heightened personal consciousness, a cultural growth.” Trotsky concludes; “Under these conditions, the South African republic will emerge first of all as a ‘black republic.’”

Black Belt
Lenin and Trotsky played an important role, partially acknowledged by Robinson, in ensuring the CPUSA and the Commenter took the Black struggle in the USA seriously. As a counter-balance to the US comrades and the tradition of the American Socialist Party (Eugene Debs infamously remarked “We have nothing special to offer the Negro”), they invited Claude McKay to the Fourth Congress.
This Congress adopted the Theses on the Black Question, which recognised that the “history of Blacks in the United States has prepared them to play an important role in the liberation struggle of the entire African race”. Slaves were “not docile”, as the struggles against slavery proved, but in the aftermath of World War I it was the disillusioned demobbed soldiers and the Black workers in the industrial North who were “in the vanguard of the struggle for black liberation”.

It concluded by calling on Communists to:

"support all forms of the black movement [...] [fighting for] equal wages and equal social and political rights [...] to force the trade unions to admit black workers [or, if unsuccessful, to] organize blacks into their own unions and then make special use of the united front tactic to force the general union to admit them."

Robinson gets himself tangled up when he suggests Marxists should have considered Black Americans a nationality, not a nation; therefore calling for a separate nation in the Southern Black Belt was “political opportunism searching for theoretical justifications.” Here we cannot go into the issue of whether a state for black people in the USA was possible or desirable in the 1920s and 1930s. Certainly Jim Crow in the former states of the Confederacy was a brutal racial oppression. And the fight against it was one that revolutionaries, black and white, should have thrown themselves into and many did. But the large numbers of black workers who had moved to the northern cities (attracted by jobs and driven to escape the violence of the white supremacists) meant that a contiguous Black Republic could not in all likelihood have solved the question of racial oppression. Nor could the Back to Africa movement of Marcus Garvey.

With reference to the Black Belt state thesis, Trotsky provides the most nuanced guide. “An abstract criterion is not decisive in this question,” he warns, “but much more decisive is the historical consciousness, their feelings and their impulses.” That is, one cannot decide this question except through struggle for equal democratic and social rights, amongst which is the right to self-determination and secession. Anticipating Robinson’s (and Richard Wright’s) objections that the Communist Party is using Black Americans for their own agenda, he says:

"As a party we can remain absolutely neutral on this [whether Blacks should form a separate nation]. We cannot say it will be reactionary. It is not reactionary. We cannot tell them to set up a state because that will weaken imperialism and so will be good for us, the white workers. That would be against internationalism itself. We cannot say to them, ‘Stay here, even at the price of [Black people’s] economic progress’. We can say, ‘It is for you to decide. If you wish to take a part of the country, it is all right, but we do not wish to make the decision for you."

The one social phenomenon Trotsky insisted there could be no concessions to white workers’ racism, which he condemned in the clearest terms, denouncing them as “beasts” and “indescribably reactionary.”

Permanent revolution
Unfortunately Robinson refuses to engage with Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. Like a vulgar pragmatist he simply dismisses it because Stalinism created facts on the ground:

"Trotsky had been committed to the end to winning the debate with Stalin over the permanent revolution versus socialism in one country. While the Stalinists were practical and went about seizing and then preserving their power (and, incidentally, state property), Trotsky continued to defend himself in the most fixed terms: contending with his ghosts over who was closer to Lenin."

This shows contempt not just for Trotsky, but also for the intelligence of the reader. Trotsky was not shy in analysing of why Stalin was able to “seize state property” — it was because the Russian revolution was isolated and failed to draw the more advanced Western European workers in its revolutionary wake. In an analysis that he confined first to Russia but later generalised, he wrote:

"With regard to countries with a belated bourgeois development, especially the colonial and semi-colonial countries, the theory of the permanent revolution signifies that the complete and genuine solution of their tasks of achieving democracy and national emancipation is conceivable only through the dictatorship of the proletariat as the leader of the subjugated nation, above all of its peasant masses [...] The democratic revolution grows over directly into the socialist revolution and thereby becomes a permanent revolution....

The completion of the socialist revolution within national limits is unthinkable [...] The socialist revolution begins on the national arena; it unfolds on the international arena, and is completed on the world arena. Thus, the socialist revolution becomes a permanent revolution in a newer and broader sense of the word; it attains completion, only in the final victory of the new society on our entire planet."

Robinson is completely wrong to caste Stalin as the practitioner and Trotsky as the theorist. It was Trotsky who organised the insurrection in 1917 and who built from scratch the Red Army that won the civil war, actions which allowed the revolution to survive. Stalin was against the seizure of power in October. His bureaucratic regime was only “successful” because a) Lenin and Trotsky had made and defended the revolution, and b) the failure to internationalise the revolution led to the growth of a bureaucratic caste which took over the Communist Party and established a totalitarian dictatorship. Trotsky’s defeat was the defeat of the revolutionary proletariat. But despite this “practical” defeat, Trotsky’s “theory” was proved correct positively because the Bolsheviks to seize power in a socialist revolution, and negatively by the failure to spread the revolution globally. Stalin’s “success” was in blocking off the road to socialism — via a bureaucratic dictatorship over the working class.

Trotsky’s elaboration of Marxism solved a problem that had been gripping Marxists for 50 years. If capitalism was drawing every corner of the globe, including pre- and non-capitalist countries, into its orbit via world trade and war, engendering class struggle by proletarians and the peasantry against imperialism and domestic capital, do they have to first transition to capitalism before they can strive for socialism?

The answer to this question obviously has huge implications for the struggles in Africa and for the diaspora. Stalin’s theory dogmatically states that it is impossible to “leap over stages” of development and therefore the working class should follow the bourgeoisie, who should lead. This has led not only to countless missed opportunities over the past 90 years, but also to outright massacring of the revolutionary forces. It limited the Black Belt strategy to a “democratic” stage, rather than a fight for Black working class power. In Africa, Asia and South America, it counselled liberation movements to postpone socialist tasks and hand power to the bourgeoisie.

Nor was Trotsky the one out of step with classical Marxist thinking, as the Stalinists and Robinson claim. Towards the end of his life, Marx prefaced the Russian edition of Capital by asking whether the obshchina, “a form of primeval common ownership” would have to be dissolved into private property by the coming bourgeois revolution or could they “pass directly to the higher form of communist common ownership”. His answer was clear: “If the Russian Revolution becomes the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that the two complement each other, the present Russian form of common ownership of land may serve as the starting point for communist development.”

Black radical tradition — slavery
In his search for a Black radical tradition, Robinson necessarily starts with Africa. He spends surprisingly little time, however, discussing African civilisation before the arrival of European slave traders and colonisers. He mentions the trading ports along the east coast but not much about the feudal cities, like Timbukto and Benin, or the kingdoms, like Kongo and Greater Zimbabwe, further inland or the great kings, like Mansa Musa of Mali.

Robinson alludes to “an intricate system of class and family distinctions” in the dwellings and places of worship in these civilisations but says no more. In fact class society had emerged in Africa a thousand years before Europeans arrived. Successful groups had expanded their territory, displacing or absorbing other peoples, and were divided into various classes, creating divisions of labour and gathering wealth and power for dynastic kings and emperors, probably on a par with Europe up until the development of capitalism.

However, this is not Robinson’s concern. Europe’s interruption of African development not only wiped out those specific histories but replaced them with a unitary history and historic mission in dialectical opposition to Europe: “Black radicalism is a negation of Western civilisation [because it] owes its peculiar moment to the historical interdiction of African life by European agents [...] its genesis”. Walter Rodney’s observation of “the essential oneness of African culture” is due to the tribal, specific origins of the slave being obliterated:

"The ‘Negro’, that is the colour black, was both a negation of African and a unity of opposition to white. The construct of Negro, unlike the term ‘African’, ‘Moor’, or ‘Ethiope’ suggested no situatedness in time, that is history [...] The Negro had no civilization, no cultures, no religions, no history, no place and finally no humanity [...] The ‘Negro’ was a wholly distinct ideological construct from those images of Africans that had preceded it."

This powerful passage exposes the dehumanising factor in modern anti-Black racism. It is also a tacit recognition that modern racism, i.e. from the 17th Century onwards, was “distinct” from any form of racialism “that had preceded it”. It was a construct formed to justify the constant forced exodus over a period of nearly 400 years of 15–50 million Africans to the New World, a considerable number dying en route. Fresh captives, made necessary by the low birth rate, the high sickness and mortality rates, the torture and beatings, but mainly the overworking of the slaves, kept alive the feelings of degradation and dehumanisation for those already on the plantations.

Robinson does not deny that Marx showed that slavery was central to the process of primitive accumulation of capital and that the development of European capitalism into a world system could not have occurred without the value it created. As Marx said as early as 1847:

"Direct slavery is just as much a pivot of bourgeois industry as machinery, credits, etc. Without slavery you have no cotton; without cotton you have no modern industry. It is slavery that gives the colonies their value; it is the colonies that have created world trade, and it is world trade that is the pre-condition of large-scale industry. This slavery is an economic category of the greatest importance."

But it is not true that Marx overlooked plantation slavery beyond this role. He recognised that this modern form of mass slavery marked a “second type of colonialism”, distinct from the first kind, which involved mainly subsistence farming and handicraft, local trade and free labour, i.e. simple reproduction. The second type was based on plantations financed by capital and producing for the world market using slave labour, which itself created new needs and greater means of production, i.e. expanded reproduction.

This poses two theoretical questions: how can the world market absorb products where labour power is not directly paid for by the capitalist; and what is the actual relation of the slave to her/his capitalist master? Marx answered the first question quite simply:

"slavery is possible at individual points within the bourgeois system of production [...] only because it does not exist at other points; and appears as an anomaly [...] The fact that we now not only call the plantation owners in America capitalists, but they are capitalists, is based on their existence as anomalies within a world market based on free labour."

Therefore it was necessary for the world working class to fight to abolish slavery or face the future degradation of their own position.

Marx did not dismiss the difference between free labour and slavery but analysed it. He started by analysing the production of surplus value: “The price that is paid for the slave is no more than the anticipated and capitalised surplus-value or profit that is to be wrung out of the slave.” While the free worker has no value, i.e. s/he cannot be bought and sold as a commodity, only their labour power for a certain duration at a certain price, the slave has a value or exchange-value, based on a future stream of profit and can therefore be traded, rented out or even used as security against loans, i.e. fictitious capital.

The effect this had on the conditions and use of the slave was immense. It quickly became clear to planters that it was more profitable to use up the value of the slave through arduous overwork, 12 hours in the field and another six processing the cotton, etc. so that their working life was as short as seven years, rather than 20 or 30. “What can be thought of a town [in Virginia] which holds a public meeting to petition that the period of labour for men [slaves] shall be diminished to 18 hours?” Marx asked ironically.

Similar considerations encouraged the capitalists to reduce the costs of reproduction in terms of food, housing, periods of replenishment. That this persisted even after the abolition of the slave trade proves how resistant to change the whole system was.

This “relation of domination”, as Marx called it, could “never create general industriousness” but on the contrary a permanent state of rebellion on behalf of the slaves, making them particularly reluctant to improve their productivity, since this always enriched their tormenters, never themselves. Not only did this make slavery quite unsuitable to factory production, because capital was invested in slaves rather than machinery, it also kept the slaves in a perpetual condition of a “beast of burden” like a “dumb animal”. The overworking of the slaves, the resistance to modernisation and the degrading of the land through monoculture all pointed to the crisis of the system in the 19th century, which could only be solved, from the planters’ point of view, by the acquisition of new lands and more slaves.

Despite its longevity, therefore, capitalist plantation slavery was a system wracked by crisis, which could only develop in contradiction to the system, industrial capitalism, that it fed. Moreover, unlike industrial capitalism, slavery was inimical to the raising of productivity or revolutionising the means of production, not least because of the heroic and persistent revolt of the slaves. Marx was a staunch abolitionist, both in theory and in practice. In the conflict between capitalist plantation slavery and industrial capitalism, he advocated full-blooded support for the latter.

Slave revolts
Robinson covers slave rebellions comprehensibly and across the Americas, including the Caribbean. Not surprisingly African slaves considered plantations as “unnatural” and runaways would revert to more traditional African agricultural methods, even “retained and developed concepts of family and kin [...] of land tenure that was in contradiction to the dominant European culture [and wanted] to be free to develop their own culture [...] These were the basic aspirations, which varied according to different conditions in each of the colonies affected [by rebellion].”

This is entirely as one might expect. Slaves would have no other recourse but to build maroon or palenque settlements and federations based on small-scale agriculture and marauding, i.e. stealing onto plantations to take food, implements, including weapons, and more Black slaves to join them. Given they were highly militarised societies on account of the constant threat of invasion and recapture, centralisation (e.g. Kingship) and religion played inevitably important roles.

The first recorded uprising took place in 1537 in New Spain. Once armed, from the 1560s onwards, runaways formed mocambos, palenques, quilombos, maroon towns. The longest lasting and most famous was the Quilombo dos Palmares in Brazil, which resisted capture from 1605 to 1695. It consisted of two towns of 5–6,000 inhabitants each and numerous villages, ranging in size from 11,000 to 30,000 at its height comprising of escaped slaves and a smaller number of mixed-race, indigenous and poor white inhabitants, including fugitive Portuguese soldiers.

The Palmares were ruled by a king, Ganga-Zumba, who first fought the Dutch, then sided with them against the Portuguese. After the Dutch were driven out, the Portuguese intensified attacks until 1678, when Ganga-Zumba signed a peace treaty, promising to return African-born slaves to their masters and relocating closer to Portuguese property. The colonialists reneged on the deal, provoking a coup during which Ganga-Zumba’s captain (and possibly nephew) Zumbi poisoned the king and continued the war as the new monarch until 1694, when he was captured and killed.

Other slave revolts followed a similar pattern, though on a shorter and smaller scale. Robinson highlights the role of maroon armies, recruited by the Spanish to fight the British in Jamaica in 1655–60 (and the “great traitor” Juan de Bola, who swapped sides and wiped out the other maroons), the raids of “King Benkos” in Colombia in the 1610s and the “Bush Negros” of Suriname. What they reveal is that the slave plantations in all territories faced constant revolts and armed conflict with palenques, quilombos and maroon settlements.

While this is an important legacy of struggle that for many decades was deliberately underestimated or ignored, Robinson accentuates certain aspects of their character, namely their adoption of African customs and beliefs, to the detriment of others, which contradict this. But to understand the nature of the slave revolts, it is important to analyse the full picture.

Firstly the quilombos were far more multi-racial than Robinson acknowledges; Palmares’ inhabitants included “crioulos, mulattoes, Indians, and even some renegade whites, or mestiços, as well as Africans”. Although African traditions were predominant, the quilombos would develop religions and languages that were a mixture of European, Indian and African sources.

In most there were clear class divisions, with “subordinate chiefs in outlying settlements”, while “those taken in raids were enslaved”. However, the quilombo do Mola famously was a republic with democratic voting, led by two women, Felipa Maria Aranha and Maria Luiza Piriá. In another fugitive settlement the maroons allowed one magistrate to live there so that he could administer the Spanish Civil Code to help them keep order.

Likewise racial solidarity seemed to be very low on their list of priorities. Some fugitives focused their attacks mainly on freed African farmers, while being prepared to attack other quilombos in the service of the colonialists and offer recent fugitives or captives to the slavers in return for peace, or trading with Indian and white villages to obtain what they could not grow or make.

But if racial solidarity was low on display, inter-racial class solidarity was very visible in the English colonies in the second half of the 17th Century. Indentured English and Irish “servants” began to arrive in the colonies from 1627 onwards, reaching a crescendo of 2,000 per year in the 1640s and 3,000 per year in the 1650s. While Christian (i.e. white) servants could typically earn manumission after four or five years and Indians after 10, they were set to work in the fields alongside Africans and endured beatings, malnourishment and captivity with them too. The fact that they were “sometimes sold according to their weight” indicates that their capitalist buyers regarded them primarily as chattel.

Here radicalisation was brought mainly from Europe: exiles from the Levellers and Diggers after their defeat at the hands of Cromwell in the English Civil War and from Ireland after England’s conquest of the island. The New Model Army had debated slavery in 1647 and called for its abolition: “Ye may be free if ye will, be free now or never, this is the seventh year of the jubilee.”

Undoubtedly this referred as much to indentured labour and the apprentice system, which continued well into the 19th Century, where the children of paupers would be sold to industrialists and bound over typically to the age of 21 or 24 for boys, at least as it did to African slaves. In some cases lots were drawn to decide which children would be taken and families fined £10 for refusing to hand them over.

For European radicals the similarities between the servant or apprentice and chattel slave were far greater than their differences; many apprentices were not paid for their labour power. Moreover this great dispossession of the commons and the impoverishment, enslavement of children and eviction of the peasantry that followed was just as crucial an element of the primitive accumulation of capital necessary for the industrial revolution as the triangular slave trade. Robinson’s one-sided account, focusing solely on African slavery, is not accurate.

Two serious multiracial uprisings — in Barbados in 1649 and in Virginia in 1676 —united these forces in their thousands, threatening the colonies’ survival. Nathaniel Bacon led the latter revolt “having first proclaimed liberty to all servants and Negroes”. These two rebellions frightened the planters and authorities so much that they immediately put in place new codes for servants and slaves, granting the former freedom from routine corporal punishment, regularising the length of service before their freedom and giving them “skilled supervisory and policing positions”, while condemning Blacks to perpetual slavery — even if they converted to Christianity. These codes were generalised to cover all the English colonies between 1661 and 1705.

Inter-racial marriage was banned and the doors opened for pseudo-biological theories of race to proliferate, in which “Europeans do not only differ from the [...] Africans in colour [...] but also [...] in natural manners and the internal workings of their minds.” White supremacy was promoted as a direct response to the multi-racial rebellions of the 17th Century from Brazil and the Spanish colonies to the Caribbean and American colonies. Racism was used first to justify the enslavement of Africans, second to prevent white labour from joining forces with Black labour.

But the Haitian revolution changed everything. Here a slave rebellion achieved state power. Their leader Toussaint L’Ouverture could read and had access to a library and military doctrine, was trusted to carry out fairly important transactions for his master and through his dealings with French merchants and familiarity with their newspapers learned about the unfolding drama of the French revolution and the machinations of rival colonial powers. This was no doomed rebellion. The question was, could the Black Jacobins seize, then retain state power?

For all his diplomatic skills and military prowess, Toussaint could not escape the conclusion that the only way to defend the revolution against French, Spanish, English and American colonial powers was to retain the plantations, preferably with the white managers and owners, and therefore in some form or another a disciplined workforce, i.e. wage slavery or peasant serfdom.

Toussaint was a bourgeois revolutionary, inspired by the French revolution. What James’ Black Jacobins brilliantly shows is that this great bourgeois revolution, led by slaves, mulattoes and freed persons, had just as many twists and turns, great leaders and political strategies as the French or any other bourgeois revolution.
For this reason, Toussaint remains a problematic figure: a leader of slaves, yet himself an owner of slaves; a fearless critic and opponent of European colonialism, yet committed to joining the French republic and continuing the plantation system; a brilliant military leader, yet one who gave himself up without a struggle to the French authorities, to die in a Paris jail.

Robinson takes aim at James, when, referring to Toussaint’s surrender and Dessaline’s continuation of the struggle to its victory, he writes “If Dessalines could see so clearly and simply, it was because the ties that bound this uneducated soldier to French civilisation were of the slenderest. He saw what was under his nose so well because he saw no further. Toussaint’s failure was the failure of enlightenment, not of darkness.”

Analysing this passage, Robinson claims that James was wrong to suggest breaking with the French republic was “a limit beyond which he could not go” and this was down to his “submission to ‘scientific socialism’ by denying the material force of ideology”. In order to break through this limit, “the revolutionary masses must preserve to themselves the direction of the revolutionary movement, never deferring to professional revolutionists, parties, or the intelligentsia.

This is grossly unfair to James. He did put forward “an alternative course” — essentially a version of permanent revolution. Toussaint should have “rigidly excluded the bourgeoisie from political power”, while retaining their expertise in running plantations and in military officer roles for a period during which the black masses could learn how to run society without them. If this had been necessary in Russia, with the New Economic Policy, “the black Jacobins, relatively speaking, were far worse off culturally than the Russian Bolsheviks”. Yet the Haitian revolution met the same roadblock as the Russians — “the defeat of the revolution in Europe. Had the [French] Jacobins been able to consolidate the democratic republic in 1794, Haiti would have remained a French colony, but any attempt to restore slavery would have been most unlikely”.

There is an element of fantasy about James’ scenario, it is true, but the fact that the Haitian revolution was bound up in the fate of the French revolution is undeniable. Robinson’s appeal to vague anti-slavery ideology, on the other hand, is pure fantasy: why was the Haitian revolution able to abolish slavery when no other slave rebellion got anywhere near doing so? Or was the army expected to follow their leaders thus far, then cast them aside, all at once, and defeat the French on their own? It is remarkable that Robinson, in order to defend his interpretation of the Black radical tradition, should dismiss every single Black leader — Toussaint, Dessalines, Moïse, Christophe — involved in its success as deficient.

US Civil War and Black Reconstruction
This mightiest of all the slave revolts had enormous implications for colonial rule. From this point all future slave movements aimed at abolition. Samuel Sharpe called for a peaceful protest on Christmas Day 1831, refusing to work until they were paid “half the going rate.” Their demand was to become proletarians; their preferred method of struggle was a form of strike.

But no less important was the political abolitionist movement, which though led in parliaments by the liberal bourgeoisie was proletarian at its base, and in which Marx participated enthusiastically. Robinson barely mentions this movement, even though Black activists and intellectuals, like Olaudah Equiano and Frederick Douglass, were central figures, presumably because it contradicts his thesis that Black liberation can only come from purely Black activity.

The mounting pressure, coupled with the declining stability, profitability and importance of the plantations, persuaded the British to move towards ending the slave trade sooner, which in turn intensified the crisis in the international system, leading inevitably to the US Civil War, which Marx predicted. However, his contribution and the full history of the Civil War lay buried for 70 years, as it was turned into a white American endeavour with no Black agency at all.

In this context Du Bois’ masterpiece Black Reconstruction in America played a huge role in restoring historical facts about the Southern slaves’ active and at times decisive role in the civil war, first in deserting the Southern plantations, then in forcing the Union to give them work and to join the army and finally in radicalising the Republican state governments in the Reconstruction era.

Du Bois was clearly influenced by Marx and attempted to apply a materialist class analysis to the period, calling the mass escape from the South a “general strike” and the regime in South Carolina as a sort of “dictatorship of the Black proletariat”. Between 1868 and 1877, “among Negroes, and particularly in the South, there was being put into force one of the most extraordinary experiments in Marxism […] backed by the military power of the United States, a dictatorship of labor.” Meanwhile the white worker was hostile, “not willing, after it reached America, to regard itself as a permanent labouring class”, aspired to property or at least a labour aristocracy and participated in the “subordination of colored labor […] which ruined democracy and showed its perfect fruit in World War and Depression”.

It is this despair at class unity at the moment of advance that Robinson latches onto to portray Du Bois as a Black radical, who attempts a Marxist analysis, only to find it wanting and instead discovers that race trumps class in the end. In offering this critique, Robinson contends, Du Bois was offering, perhaps unwittingly, “both a critique of the ideologies of American socialist movements and a revision of Marx’s theory of revolution and class struggle.”

But Du Bois’ “revision” of Marxism was to lump the industrial proletariat, peasants, small farmers, soldiers and slaves into one big labouring class. This downplays the importance of the Black slaves’ self-emancipation. If this wasn’t strictly speaking a “general strike”, it was, as Marx would call it, a “slave revolution”. Likewise the radical democracy based on universal (male) suffrage in the reconstruction era may not have been the “dictatorship of labor” but it did represent the high tide of the revolutionary movement, where the petit- bourgeoisie and labouring classes dominated legislatures in the guise of a transformed Republican Party and pushed through a series of egalitarian reforms.

These are minor blemishes, it must not be forgotten. Coming in defence of Du Bois’ work against Stalinist deprecations, CLR James wrote:

"Far from doing harm, the conception that lay behind the mistaken formula was the strength of Du Bois’ book: he recognized that the Negroes in particular had tried to carry out ideas that went beyond the prevailing conceptions of bourgeois democracy. Precisely this was aimed at the heart of the whole Stalinist popular front conception. Hence their hostility to Du Bois."

Again Robinson turns a conflict with degenerate Stalinism into a conflict with revolutionary Marxism.

Moreover Black Reconstruction followed a close study of Marx’s writings on the civil war, in which he was not shy of occasional rhetorical flourishes himself. In January 1865 on behalf of the First International, Marx drafted a letter to Lincoln, which concluded: “The workingmen of Europe feel sure that, as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American anti-slavery war will do for the working classes.” But by September, Marx felt the need to issue a stark warning to the American workers in another open letter:

"As injustice to a section of your people has produced such direful results, let that cease. Let your citizens of to-day be declared free and equal, without reserve. If you fail to give them citizens’ rights, while you demand citizens’ duties, there will yet remain a struggle for the future which may again stain your country with your people’s blood.

The eyes of Europe and of the world are fixed upon your efforts at re-construction, and enemies are ever ready to sound the knell of the downfall of republican institutions when the slightest chance is given. We warn you then, as brothers in the common cause, to remove every shackle from freedom’s limb, and your victory will be complete."

Du Bois’ history of reconstruction bears out the correctness of Marx’s stark warning on its eve. A strange “revision of Marx’s theory of revolution and class struggle” that concurs with Marx’s own strategic vision that working class power in America cannot be achieved without Black liberation: this is no economistic view of class.

While Robinson urges Black writers and activists to break from the Marxist theory of historical materialism and class analysis, he does not replace it with any theory of his own, Rather he claims theory itself is a product of Western epistemology and puts forward a project based on rejecting all theoretical thinking.

He starts by turning to James’ Notes on Dialectics (1948), in which he argues that Stalinism is the form of the revolutionary proletariat, in which all the class conscious workers are to be found. In this situation, James argues:

"There is nothing more to organize. You can organize workers as workers [trade unionism]. You can create a special organization of revolutionary workers [Stalinism]. But once you have those two you have reached an end. Organization as we have known it is at an end. The task is to abolish organization. The task today is to call for, to teach, to illustrate, to develop spontaneity-the free creative activity of the proletariat."

But the idea that conscious political organisation has somehow reached its limits with Stalinism and trade unionism is itself absurdly non-dialectical. Why did the Bolsheviks forge new organisations in opposition to the Second International after 1914? Secondly James’ arguments on organisation are neither new nor insights brought to European tradition from outside, a Black perspective. They are a hallmark of another 19th Century European tradition, anarchism. However, organisation is an essential part of social life, social being. It is never “at an end” because life, events tear it apart and it has to be rebuilt and strengthened. By “developing spontaneity”, one develops consciousness; organisation based on “developing consciousness” is conscious organisation.

Robinson leaves James there because he never fully broke with Marxism and turns to his final subject American novelist Richard Wright, a committed CPUSA activist from 1934 to 1942, who came from a poor, rural proletarian background. For Robinson the novel is raised higher than theory because they are “much more authentic documents than the conventional forms of history [because they] weav[e] living consciousness into the impress of social theory and ideology.” He is the only one of Robinson’s trilogy who actually broke from Marxism.

For Wright, Marxism’s weakness was that it “implied that it was a peculiar privilege of the revolutionary intellectual to comprehend this deeper extra-existential order”, i.e. the class struggle. The Black writer had a duty to give voice to the Black worker’s “deep, informed, and complex consciousness” and “create myths and symbols that inspire a faith in life.”

In Native Son Bigger Thomas’ “lack of class consciousness” is seen as a critique of Marxism, which has become lost in abstraction and does not see the working class as it really is; it was necessary for Wright to explore “the dark and hidden places of the personality”. There was a more primordial “world that existed on a plane of animal sensation alone”. Wright concluded that “the more total the degradation of the human being, the more total the reaction.”

Therefore the development of Black people in the United States constituted the “most total contradiction to Western capitalist society.”

This, according to Wright, afforded Black nationalism a unique role in world history:

"a nationalism carrying the highest possible pitch of social consciousness. It means a nationalism that knows its origins, its limitations, that is aware of the dangers of its position, that knows its ultimate aims are unrealizable within the framework of capitalist America; a nationalism whose reason for being lies in the simple fact of self-possession and in the consciousness of the interdependence of people in modern society.”

This is another version, in fact an inversion of American exceptionalism. In this case the Black worker finds her/his position so alienated from dominant bourgeois (white) culture, that nationalism becomes “the highest possible pitch of social consciousness”, embodying an anti-capitalist dynamic. This is to repeat the mistake of James Connolly who, lowering the red flag for the green, declared, “the cause of labour is the cause of Ireland, the cause of Ireland is the cause of labour”. This is not so much fusing nationalism with socialism as confusing it.

Unfortunately “self-possession” and “consciousness of the interdependence of people” are no guarantors of Black freedom. All three of Robinson’s Black radicals visited and praised the Ghanaian revolution of Kwame Nkrumah, a pan-Africanist, who oriented to the Stalinist bloc, in the 1950s and 60s while George Padmore and Stokely Carmichael went to play more political roles. But despite Nkrumah’s authoritarian rule — one-party state, control of media, president for life, etc. — criticism is mild or absent.

But this “fact of self-perception” that underpins Black nationalism is key for Robinson; his appeal to the consciousness of the interdependence of people” is an idealised utopia of equality between (capitalist) nations. By it he means both the belief in Black people’s separateness from white (and other) “races” and that this is generated from within Black people’s experiences and nowhere else. Marxism goes from being an inadequate theory to a negation of Black “self-perception”.

Both Wright and Robinson view the Marxist party as the cynical vehicle for radical whites, who realize they are on the wrong side of history and want to control the Black movement in order to save their own white skins — and privileges. In The Outsider, a later novel, which Robinson acclaims as a “critique of class”, Sarah Hunter, the wife of a Black communist, says,

"Don’t tell me about the nobility of labor, the glorious future. You don’t believe in that. That’s for others, and you damn well know it [...]. You Jealous Rebels are intellectuals who know your history and you are anxious not to make the mistakes of your predecessors in rebellious undertaking."

Conclusion: why class?
The fundamental problem with Black Marxism is its failure to understand Marx’s concept of class. For Robinson it describes a set of characteristics or properties, an identity, which is thrust on real people and ultimately breaks down under the pressure of events. For Marxists, class is a social relationship based on private property of the means of production, which as they develop produce antagonisms between the classes and ultimately revolutions. Classes are therefore fluid, constantly being made and remade, the correlation of forces shifting.

Marx also believed that the proletariat was a universal class, that is a class that can liberate the other subordinate classes and remake society in its own image; because it is a property-less class that society would abolish private property and therefore class society. But this does not equate to the idea that the working class is homogenous. It is not. Racialised, gendered and child labour exists not just as arbitrary divisions but arise from the form of bourgeois rule: the nation state, the family, imperialism. Hence the bourgeoisie has developed and constantly reinforces ideological underpinnings, racism, sexism, etc., for these forms of super-exploitation, undermining class solidarity with material privileges for the “dominant” race, sex.

Marxism provides a theory in which race (which is in fact a social construct) can be explained through class. Those like Robinson who insist on the primacy of race over class in the struggle cannot explain the emergence of a Black bourgeoisie and Black autocrats like Nkrumah. Instead they end up apologising and hence delegitimising their opponents among the working class and peasantry, while throwing up warnings and barriers against class solidarity.

In the end Robinson resorts to identity politics:

"The distinctions of political space and historical time have fallen away so that the making of one Black collective identity suffuses nationalisms. Harbored in the African diaspora there is a single historical identity that is in opposition to systemic privations of racial capitalism."

All Black people, all classes of the oppressed group have this same identity, which enables them to understand their oppression and route to liberation, which is unavailable to any other group. They can sympathise, solidarise even, but they cannot experience racism so they cannot fully understand it or therefore criticise the Black radical tradition. Robinson therefore essentialises Black oppression as a truth that can only be seen from within the group, not from outside of truth.

As we write elsewhere,

"essentialising oppression, and in its extreme forms turns into a reactionary relativism. If identity springs directly from common experience, then it is not a historically constituted social relation, but rather a “characteristic” of a certain group of people, which is produced biologically, naturally or spontaneously through shared culture or location. Thus identity appears as an unquestionable absolute."

It is true that Robinson provides a 500 year historiography of the Black radical tradition but this is only achieved, as we have shown, by being very selective and either ignoring the elements of collective struggle by black people with poor whites, Indians, etc. or declaring that they veered away from the Black radical tradition. The unchanging characteristics — collectivism, egalitarianism, pacifism and mysticism — are in his mind absolutes. This too is problematic; why is Robinson’s Black radical tradition true and not, say, Franz Fanon’s, who agreed with the former on the transcendent power of Black nationalism but not on pacifism?

Relativism comes into play when Robinson offers different absolute truths for the different “races”. As Gregory Myerson has pointed out, Robinson asserts that, “Nationalism secures class rule for the Europeans but not for Africans. For the latter, nationalism is self-knowledge not ideology.” The countless nationalisms that have scarred the African continent over the four decades since Black Marxism was written, from Rwanda to the ANC’s South Africa, cannot be judged by material losses, genocides, etc., only by spiritual gains in self-knowledge. Shunning all outside measures of success or failure, Robinson claims, Black nationalism “deepens with each disappointment at false mediation and reconciliation, and is crystallized into ever-increasing cores by betrayal and repression”.

None of this is to discount the importance of individual and collective experience of oppression, without which there could be no revolutionary movement. For millions of Black workers in the US and elsewhere, racism is the burning issue facing them and demanding their attention. The consciousness arising from an understanding of this oppression is however only partial, just as the consciousness arising spontaneously from wage labour is partial. Both operate within the framework of bourgeois ideology: full racial equality; a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay.

As Lenin wrote:

"the spontaneous development of the working-class movement leads to its subordination to bourgeois ideology [...] our task, the task of Social-Democracy [the revolutionary party], is to combat spontaneity, to divert the working-class movement from this spontaneous, trade-unionist striving to come under the wing of the bourgeoisie, and to bring it under the wing of revolutionary Social Democracy."

Because of the truly atrocious tradition of the main forces inside the working class movement — social democracy, Stalinism, the trade union bureaucracy — on combatting racism in society at large or even within its own ranks, that task in relation to Black workers can only be achieved with special measure: work among Black communities; Black papers and media; Black caucuses and fighting organisations; the promotion of Black leaders. If economism — the failure to see racist oppression as key to the Black experience or to place the fight against it as central to the socialist programme — is the main problem facing the socialist and workers’ movement, then offering empty platitudes, which are not backed up with theory and action designed to divert the struggle in a socialist direction is surely another.

If a socialist organisation, such as the DSA, took such an approach, attentively listening to Black comrades and collectively working out a programme of action linking the struggles for Black liberation to the struggle for socialism, then in the current period this could yield big steps forward for the movement. This will necessarily involve intense discussions between black and white communists engaged in common struggles alongside Black nationalists and radicals.


1 Derrick Bell, Faces at the Bottom of the Well (New York: Basic Books, 1993).
2 Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism (London: Penguin Classics, 2021), 288.
3 Robinson, Black Marxism, 2.
4 Robinson, Black Marxism, 85.
5 Robinson, Black Marxism, 4.
6 Robinson, Black Marxism, 19.
7 Karl Marx, The Civil War in France (New York: International Publishers, 1985).
8 Quoted in Vladimir Lenin, “Karl Marx,” Collected Works vol.21 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1974), 43.
9 Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach,” Marx-Engels Selected Works vol.1 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1969), 6.
10 Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra (London: Verso, 2012).
11 See Marcello Musto, The Last Years of Karl Marx (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2020) ch. 1 and 2; and Kevin B. Anderson, Marx at the Margins (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).
12 Robinson, Black Marxism, 65.
13 Robinson, Black Marxism, 63–64.
14 Most famously, Marx observes that capital comes into this world “dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt.” Capital, vol. 1, (London: Penguin, 1974), 926.
15 Marx, “Address to the Central Committee of the Communist League”, Marx-Engels Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers), 278.
16 Roman Rosdolsky, Engels and the ‘Nonhistoric’ Peoples: the National Question in the Revolution of 1848 (Glasgow: Critique, 1987).
17 Robinson, Black Marxism, 63.
18 Lenin, “Critical Remarks on the National Question”, Collected Works vol. 20 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1972), 17.
19 Leon Trotsky, “On the South African Theses”, Writings 1934–5 (New York: Pathfinder, 1974).
20 Quoted in James P Cannon, The First Ten Years of American Communism, (New York: Pathfinder, 1973), 230-31.
21 John Riddell, Towards the United Front (Chicago: Haymarket, 2012), 947–51.
22 Riddell, Towards the United Front, 226.
23 Trotsky, On Black Nationalism,
24 Trotsky, On Black Nationalism.
25 Trotsky, On Black Nationalism.
26 Robinson, Black Marxism, 322.
27 Trotsky, The Permanent Revolution (New York: Pathfinder, 1970).
28 Musto, The Last Years of Karl Marx, 71.
29 Robinson, Black Marxism, 73.
30 Robinson, Black Marxism, 81–82.
31 Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1955).
32 John Bellamy Foster, “Marx and Slavery,” Monthly Review 72, no. 3 (2020):
33 Marx, Grundrisse (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1973), ch. 9.
35 Marx, Capital vol. 3, 809.
36 Quoted in Foster, “Marx and Slavery”.
37 Foster, “Marx and Slavery”.
38 Robinson, Black Marxism, 150.
39 Robinson, Black Marxism, 135.
40 Robinson, Black Marxism, 137.
41 Robinson, Black Marxism, 138.
42 Stuart B Schwartz, Slaves, Peasants, and Rebels: Reconsidering Brazilian Slavery (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992), 125.
43 Stuart B Schwartz, Slaves, Peasants, and Rebels, 124.
44 Linebaugh and Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra, 125.
45 Linebaugh and Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra.
46 Linebaugh and Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra, 105.
47 John Simkin, Spartacus, 2020,
48 Marx, Capital vol. 1, 877–895.
49 Quoted in Linebaugh and Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra.
50 Linebaugh and Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra, 138.
51 Linebaugh and Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra, 127, 138.
52 Quoted in Linebaugh and Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra, 139.
53 Robinson, Black Marxism, 287.
54 Robinson, Black Marxism, 364.
55 Robinson, Black Marxism, 278.
56 Robinson, Black Marxism, 282.
57 Robinson, Black Marxism.
58 WEB Du Bois, Black Reconstruction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 44–68.
59 Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, 313.
60 Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, 294.
61 Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, 196.
62 Marx and Engels, Collected Works vol. 41, 277.
63 James, “Stalinism and Negro History,” Fourth International 10, no. 10 (1949)
64 Marx, “To Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States of America,” The Bee-Hive Newspaper, no. 169 (1865),
65 Marx, “To the People of the USA,” The Workmen’s Advocate, no. 136 (1865),
66 James, Notes on Dialectics (London: Allison & Busby, 1980), 117.
67 James wrote Notes in collaboration with his Russian co-thinker Raya Dunayevskaya.
68 In James’ last interview he restated his belief that “Marxist theory is a scientific, intellectual theory such as the world has never seen before, and properly used, properly thought of” can serve as a guide to action,
69 Robinson, Black Marxism, 292.
70 Robinson, Black Marxism, 293.
71 Robinson, Black Marxism, 296–99.
72 Robinson, Black Marxism, 299–300.
73 James Connolly, “The Irish Flag,” Workers’ Republic, 8 April 1916,
74 Du Bois went and died there, working on a Ghanaian encyclopaedia; James wrote a book, Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution,; Wright wrote Black Power after his visits in 1954 and 1957.
75 Robinson, Black Marxism, 317.
76 Martin Suchanek, “A Critique of Identity as a Political Programme”, League for the Fifth International, 12 March, 2021,
78 Martin Suchanek, “A Critique of Identity as a Political Programme”, for a more detailed account of Fanon as a precursor of identity politics.
79 Gregory Myerson, “Rethinking Black Marxism: Reflections on Cedric Robinson and Others,” Cultural Logic, no. 6 (2000).
80 Robinson, Black Marxism, 317.
81 Lenin, What Is to Be Done?, (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1978), 41.
82 Within the “Trotskyist” tradition the ICL (Spartacists) and the IST (SWP GB) are certainly guilty of minimising Black oppression or white privilege.
83 Angela Davis and Ken Olende (SWP-GB) have both sought to fudge the differences between Robinson’s Black Marxism and authentic revolutionary Marxism.