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Marxism and Black Reparations

Marcus Otono

First published in Fifth International 22

Making the case for reparations for US citizens who are descended from slaves taken from Africa is easy in a moral sense. Even many on the right wing in the US would probably admit to the racism and economic damage that Black people have suffered through slavery and the Jim Crow laws that followed it.

The right just doesn’t think that it should apply to today’s descendants of slaves. Of course, they’re playing to their racist base by denying and/or ignoring the economic damages caused by racist robbery and discrimination over the centuries. In keeping capitalist property relations sacred, as shown by the return of property to the white plantation owners in the former Confederacy and the reparations paid to the owners for the slaves that were freed, they hamstrung generations of Black people from building wealth and then passing it on to their descendants.

As Hamilton and Darity have pointed out, ‘85 per cent of Black and Latino households have a net worth below the median white household… Black households typically have less than a quarter of the wealth of otherwise comparable white households.’ [1]

And this doesn’t even take into account the various pogroms, like the Tulsa Race Massacre and a multitude of others, that devastated any Black wealth that had been painstakingly accrued in spite of the obstacles put into place by the white supremacist power structure through Jim Crow laws and legal and non-legal blacklisting and redlining in credit and mortgage loans.

The idea of reparations for Black people goes back to the very end of the Civil War in 1865. The proverbial ‘40 acres and a mule’ was partially promised by Union general William T. Sherman, but it only applied to abandoned plantations from the Atlantic coast to 30 miles inland in the former Confederate state of Georgia. And it didn’t include the ‘mule’, just the 40 acres through Field Order 15. The ‘mule’ idea came from one of Sherman’s subordinates, General Rufus Saxton, who gave surplus Army mules to former slave ‘homesteaders’ to work the land that they were given.

Of course, given the racist nature of the US government even in the Union states, this order was rescinded by President Andrew Johnson upon ascending to the presidency after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Any disputed property was returned to the white plantation owners upon their swearing an oath of loyalty to the us government. Basically, five years of treason and 600,000 deaths of us and rebel troops were ‘white’-washed away with an ‘apology’ and a pledge of loyalty.

This left the freed slaves with nothing to rely on for the most part for their livelihood except for ‘sharecropping’, the practice of becoming tenant farmers on the property where they had recently been slaves. Their ‘share’ from the sale of any crops grown was left to the honesty and good will of their former owners, who still looked on them as mere ‘human assets’, only a grudging step up from the actual property that they had been before. Often, these tenant farmers were cheated out of some or most of the promised rewards when the crops were harvested and sold by the property owners.

Nevertheless, there was a brief period, dubbed the Radical Reconstruction, what the great historian of the period W.E.B. Du Bois called ‘seven mystic years’, in which it seemed possible that the former slaves might receive a measure of justice—reparations if you will. A Freedman’s Bureau (1866–1873) did carry out some reforms, including enforcing citizenship rights. However, even by 1874, Lincoln’s Freedmen’s Savings Bank had collapsed, owing $3.3 million mainly to Black depositors, worth as a share of gdp $7.3 billion today, throwing back many into sharecropping dependency. [2]

Lincoln’s Emancipation edict, issued under his wartime powers, had freed only those slaves within the states of the Confederacy. It was the Thirteenth Amendment that abolished slavery (1865), the Fourteenth that gave the former slaves citizenship (1868). The Fifteenth Amendment (1870) afforded these new citizens the explicit right to vote with the words, ‘The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude,’ though Jim Crow laws violated this right for the next century and many states continue to abridge and violate it to this day.

In the early 1870s the Democratic Party—the party of the former slaveholders—and its militia, the Red Shirts, began to take back control of the legislatures of the former Confederate states and deprive Black voters of their right. Lynchings proliferated and the Northern capitalists and their party, the Republicans—increasingly dominated by the so-called robber barons, the capitalist monopolists—were happy to strike a historic compromise with the Southern white supremacists to strengthen their powers against the growing labor movement, the Knights of Labor, who did try to organize Black workers.

The end of Reconstruction put an end to any chance of a level playing field for the aspiring middle class amongst the former slaves, in terms of amassing capital that could be inherited by descendants.

Marxism and slavery

But before we leave the 350-year period of Black slavery in the US, it is worth briefly revisiting Karl Marx’s writings on the subject. Marxists have always argued that the issue of slavery was integrally related to the very origins of capitalism in the Americas, indeed in the whole Atlantic world. Slavery was, as Karl Marx pointed out in Capital (1867), a huge part of what he called the ‘primitive’ or ‘original’ accumulation of capital, whose forced labor on the cotton plantations fed the industrial revolution in England and the Northern states of the Union.

Along with the expropriation of peasant farmers in Europe and the Native American peoples, who lost a whole continent (in the US cynically referred to as a Manifest Destiny for the white settlers), then in the land theft and plunder of the European countries’ colonies, Marx fully realized that these events lay at the very foundations of capitalism as a system preceding and then accompanying the development of the factory system. No wonder that this system’s apologists wish to cover this up and deny any financial responsibility for its legacy of suffering to future generations. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell bluntly expressed this: ‘I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago, for whom none of us currently living are responsible, is a good idea.’

Some historians, like Stephanie Smallwood in Saltwater Slavery, and Walter Johnson author of River of Dark Dreams, have accused Marx of downplaying or ignoring Black slavery. The latter went so far as to say that Marx ‘evaded the whole question of slavery’, claiming he accepted the classical (bourgeois) writers’ logic in excluding it from ‘from the framing of political economy’.

Yet as early as 1846 in the Poverty of Philosophy Marx had written:

“Direct slavery is as much the pivot upon which our present-day industrialism turns, as are machinery, credit, etc. Without slavery there would be no cotton, without cotton there would be no modern industry. It is slavery that has given value to the colonies, it is the colonies that have created world trade, and world trade is the necessary condition for large-scale machine industry. Slavery is therefore an economic category of paramount importance.”

A full-scale response of these misplaced attacks on Marx can be found in Marx and Slavery by John Bellamy Foster, Hannah Hollerman and Brett Clark [3] and in this journal. [4]

Thus Marx was one of the very first to analyze New World slavery, not just as an abhorrent moral outrage, as the powerful abolitionist movement had been doing for half a century before he was born, but as an essential source of capital, first in its mercantile phase (1600s to the 1700s), then in its industrial phase in Europe and the Northern states of the new Union.

He also analyzed the continued exploitation of slavery in a way that exposed its link to capitalist profit: ‘The price that is paid for the slave is no more than the anticipated and capitalized surplus value or profit that is to be wrung out of the slave’ over her/his lifetime. [5] In this sense Senator McConnell is quite right to be wary of the claim for reparations; the exploitation of slave labor goes right to the heart of US capitalism, providing the original accumulation of capital and then its growth over the next 350 years.

Marx therefore made it a political priority for the labor movement to support emancipation from slavery. Indeed in the 1860s there had been a powerful movement of British workers in support of the Union side in the Civil War, calling for the abolition of slavery and Marx, as the most influential figure on the General Council of the International Workingmen’s Association (the First International, 1864 –74), made this the cause of the worldwide movement. As he famously wrote in Capital:

‘Labor in a white skin cannot emancipate itself where it is branded in a black skin.’ (Italics in the original)

Equally he warned the white American workers, as early as 1865, of the dangers of failing to repair the damage caused by centuries of slavery and the implications that would have for their own freedom:

“As injustice to a section of your people [the former slaves] has produced such direful results, let that cease. Let your citizens of today be declared free and equal, without reserve… We warn you then, as brothers in the common cause, to remove every shackle from freedom’s limb, and your victory will be complete.” [6]

Few could deny that had Marx’s warning been heeded, there would be no need to talk of reparations today. As WEB Du Bois pointed out, had the white working class joined with their Black sisters and brothers during the radical reconstruction, the second American revolution could have been made permanent. But there are two other points in Marx’s letter to the American people that are relevant to today’s debate; the act of reparation had to be a political one, in which equal rights were paramount; and it had to be collective, not individual reparation. We will return to these points later.

A turning tide?

In recent years a host of leading Democrats have taken up the issue. Whereas Barack Obama—America’s first Black President—totally rejected it and counterposed ‘a progressive program for lifting up all people’, Joe Biden included support for it amongst his campaign pledges, as did his Vice President Kamala Harris and Senator Elizabeth Warren too. Further on the left spectrum, support comes from the Squad—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Ilhan Omar of Illinois and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts. In addition, Democratic administrations in several cities have discussed measures of reparation, including Amherst, Massachusetts, Providence Rhode Island, Asheville, North Carolina, and Iowa City, plus an entire state—California.

Some on the left however believe that Reparations do not represent a solution to the structural inequalities suffered by all but only for a narrow élite of Black politicians and celebrities. Most notable amongst them is Bernie Sanders, the veteran senator from Vermont. He has stated several times that since there is no realistic chance of a Reparations Bill passing the House or the Senate it would be utopian to pursue this goal:

“I think that right now, our job is to address the crises facing the American people and our communities, and I think there are better ways to do that than just writing out a check.”

True, there is a long road to travel between a Commission and a Reparations Bill passing the House, let alone the Senate. The argument that all these distinct but linked examples of inequality would not be solved by a simple cash payment and that all of them could indeed be addressed by measures which applied to all who suffered them, including all people of color, as well as poor white workers, is a strong one. The alliance of all these forces around a common charter of economic, social and political rights would be a powerful one, especially if its methods went beyond protests and the straitjacket of the US electoral system.

However, Sanders is in danger of simply repeating Eugene Debs’ infamous dictum, ‘We have nothing special to offer the Negro.’ [7] To downplay the effects of racism and generations of discrimination or to say that these social evils will only be resolved by socialism is in effect to brush them aside. In particular it absolves socialists from the duty to combat racism in al its forms in the here and now as an essential precondition for revolution.

The most recent revival of the debate over reparations started with a 15,000-word article in the June 2014, issue of the prestigious magazine The Atlantic. In ‘The Case for Reparations’ Ta-Nehisi Coates presents a powerful case for compensating Black Americans, not just for the nation’s ‘original sin’ of slavery, but for its legacy of brutalizing oppression in policing and incarceration policies. Coates calculates that to truly make up for these depredations would mean distributing $34 billion annually for ‘a decade or two’. [8]

In 2020 appeared From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century by William A. Darity Jr and A. Kirsten Mullen. [9] This provides a carefully researched and powerful account of the century and a half that followed emancipation and how the former slaves were cheated of the promises made in the short period of reconstruction, and many of the oppressive and exploitative features of chattel slavery continued in the so-called Jim Crow era. The authors record not only the oppression, but the continuous resistance to it and the repeated demand for reparations.

The history of reparations

The subject of reparations naturally starts in the era of chattel slavery itself—the estimated 389,000 Black men, women and children captured and forcibly shipped across the Atlantic to the colonies and subsequently the United States from 1619 to 1860. [10] These survivors had expanded in number, despite the horrific mortality rates on the plantations, to the four million slaves working unpaid until 1865 on the plantations, producing cotton, tobacco, sugar and rice, plus the domestic slaves. Ta-Nehisi Coates revealed their importance to the early development of the 13 colonies and then the United States economy with his testimony to the House Judiciary Committee during the 2019 hearing on HR40:

“As historian Ed Baptist has written, enslavement ‘shaped every crucial aspect of the economy and politics of America, so that by 1836 more than $600 million, almost half of the economic activity in the United States, derived directly or indirectly from the cotton produced by the million-odd slaves. By the time the enslaved were emancipated, they comprised the largest single asset in America: $3 billion in 1860 dollars, more than all the other assets in the country combined.” [11]

As the historian Eric Foner writes in his ground-breaking work, Reconstruction:

“Black participation in Southern public life after 1867 was the most radical development of the Reconstruction years, a massive experiment in interracial democracy without precedent in the history of this or any other country that abolished slavery in the nineteenth century.” [12]

But this moment was short-lived. A veritable counter-revolution against the political, social and economic rights of the former slaves took place, which restored dictatorial powers to the white former slave owners. The poor white sharecroppers, who had begun to struggle together with their Black class brother and sisters, were written out of the narrative, to be replaced by a noxious racist myth.

Or as the early historian of reconstruction W.E.B. Du Bois wrote, ‘The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.’ [13]

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, socialist, feminist and Black liberationist, has pointed out that the ‘profound ignorance about slavery and the racism that it produced has left this question: Why are Black people asking for reparations? Because slavery has come to be seen as peripheral to history. It’s come to be seen as almost inconsequential. The Southern Poverty Law Center did an extensive study on the Civil War and how slavery is taught in the United States, and there’s deep ignorance about this issue from American students and from teachers.’ [14]

So yes, the moral case for reparations is unanswerable and the revelation of the real history of slavery (along with the genocide of the continent’s original indigenous inhabitants) is vital not only to justify reparations but to deconstruct the white supremacist history of the nation and its mythological character. This does not in any way mean suppressing the history of the European small farmer settlers or the struggles of workers (who have also been hidden from history for long periods by the academic institutions of the ruling class).

The problem with moral law, however, is that, without statute law enforced by a state and its courts, it can never right the wrongs it identifies when they come up against entrenched material interests. And except in particularly egregious circumstances, those whose property originates in this oppression and exploitation will seldom if ever be persuaded to compensate the descendants of their victims, even if it could be calculated what they ‘owe’ in terms of lost lives, communities uprooted, unpaid labor, devastated families, cultures obliterated, etc. What can be calculated, providing this is done by the oppressed themselves, is the wide range and huge scale of the inequalities created and sustained by the legacy of racism.

Reparations, economics and class

Of course hardline white supremacists will forever continue to challenge the moral arguments of the issue but, in reality, it’s the practicalities involved that present the biggest sticking point: above all the feared negative impact that it would have on a capitalist economy.

Discussion of the case for reparations has been locked out, at least at official political levels, since at least 1989. That was the year that the late Representative John Conyers of Michigan introduced HR40, a bill in the House of Representatives for the establishment of a commission to discuss the issue of reparations. The bill has been introduced in each House session every year since, by Conyers until he retired and then by Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, but it has never been called for debate and a vote. In 2021 however the House did vote to investigate drafting such a proposition.

But let’s clarify this bill a little further. It doesn’t call for actual reparations; it only calls for the establishment of a commission to officially study the issue of reparations for the descendants of slaves. Let’s repeat this because it points out how entrenched white supremacism is in both government and society in the US.

Reparations for slavery is an issue that’s so emotionally triggering for the reactionaries that they won’t even discuss setting up a commission to study it.

On the one hand a majority of white Americans, and an even greater demographic of those who actually vote, ask pollsters, ‘Why should we pay for the sins of our ancestors?’ They point to fact that the estimates of the amount owed to Black people for unpaid slave labor, plus underpaid and stolen labor of the Jim Crow century range from a modest $6 trillion to as much as $97 trillion dollars, as per the 2019 Berkeley Economics Review. [15] Indeed some have pointed out that using more a realistic compound interest rate, say 6%, ‘the numbers explode’ to $6.2 quadrillion or about $151 million per descendant. [16]

With the annual budget of the US set at around $4 trillion, it wouldn’t be possible to pay it in the short term, even were there the political will to do so. Instead it would have to be spread out over years and even decades. And then what effect would it have on current economic and social inequalities?

Then there’s the question of who will pay. Most white workers and middle-class people would resist being taxed to repay for privileges that their skin color has undoubtedly had for them and their ancestors, relative to their Black fellow workers. This resistance would be considerable too since all workers’ standard of living has fallen to the point where they’re no better off now than they were 40 years ago. And those forebears, who came to the US since the abolition of slavery, were also cruelly exploited, by the very same class, owners of the capital. The enormous mass of US capital embodies the wealth expropriated from all forms of labor. Only its restoration in a collective form would thus benefit all workers and would make them firm allies in the struggle to do so. Reparations, no matter how morally justified, would not perform this task but would be used by our class enemies and the enemies of Black people to divide and continue to rule and exploit us.

The obstacle to this unity is that without a class conscious outlook (as opposed to a craft or trade union consciousness) most ‘white’ workers for most of the last two centuries accepted the ideology that despite their sufferings at the hands of their employers they were racially superior and deserved, indeed demanded the exclusion of Black workers from equality in employment and in political rights too. Indeed a ‘pure and simple trade union’ outlook saw people of color (and most immigrants too) as cheap labor rivals to (white) American labor. This outlook was fostered by a bureaucratic caste that ruled the great trade unions, especially the unions of skilled workers who dominated the American Federation of Labor. Samuel Gompers, the founder of the AFL and its president for 37 years once said:

“The Caucasians are not going to let their standard of living be destroyed by Negroes, Chinamen, Japs, or any other… If the colored man continues to lend himself to the work of tearing down what the white man has built up, a race hatred worse than any ever known before will result. Caucasian civilization will serve notice that its uplifting process is not to be interfered with in any such way.” [17]

This continues to be the creed, albeit in less racist language, of pure trade unionism today, which treats the right of capital to make profit as sacred and therefore only negotiates the distribution of crumbs from the bosses’ table among the working class. Only by encroaching on the wealth and power of capital itself can reparations be made at the expense of those who benefitted from capitalist slavery and continue to increase their riches from racist discrimination today.

A militant minority of socialists, anarchists, syndicalists and communists fought hard for racial equality alongside Black workers, but the lack of a mass party of the US working class meant the labor movement remained tied to the Democrats, until the 1960s and ‘70s a party tied to Jim Crow in the Southern states. Breaking finally and irrevocably with the poisonous legacy of white labor racism today means taking up the legacies of the rebels’ martyrs of the battles against slavery and Jim Crow, as well as the heritage of civil rights movement.

But as Taylor has pointed out, this task is huge:

“A 2014 poll found that 60 percent of African Americans believe they are deserving of reparations including cash payments as redress for slavery in the United States. Only 6 percent of whites agreed.” [18]

Clearly such a mountain of racist ignorance can only be climbed through struggle; argument alone will not be enough.

Today it means solidarity with and participation in the mobilizations of the broad movement around the slogan, Black Lives Matter. This resistance movement of Black and white workers—indeed involving all the racially oppressed—must play a crucial role in building a workers party: independent of the Democrats and unceasingly opposed to capitalism. A vital part of its program must be making full political, economic and social reparation for the lasting legacy of slavery and also the crimes against Native Americans.

The logical place to go for the dollars to begin the payback for oppression then would then be where the money actually is held in the US in 2021, in the bank deposits, real estate and shareholdings of the super-wealthy. The infamous 1% has the income and hoarded wealth to pony up for reparations. But in the polarized politics in the US today, raising taxes on wealth for this bracket is extremely difficult, if not impossible.

Every politician or pundit will talk about the racial inequality gap between median Black and median white households because it’s not only glaring, but impossible to refute. Again, according to the Berkeley Economics Review, the median white household (the calculation of which includes that infamous 1%) has 10 times more wealth than the median Black household. And this inequality extends into the next generations as, upon death, the median Black inheritance is only 35% of the median white inheritance.

Ironically for all the anguished cries of the open or disguised white supremacists, in and out of government, it could be argued that closing this racial wealth gap would probably add an estimated 4% to 6% to the GDP within a decade, especially if the funding for the reparations were actually taken from the rich who merely hoard wealth rather than spend it. But of course, the main problem in some minds is, who would receive that increase?

Reparations under capitalism

The idea of reparations for Black Americans (and to an extent all of the super-exploited victims of capitalist imperialism) has become more popular as a result of the movements against police violence and the attention paid to Black history over the past decade. Although certainly not a majority, a solid minority, anywhere from 20% to almost 30% depending on the poll, supports the idea of reparations for Black US citizens. Which of course still leaves 70% to 80% opposed—and, as we have shown, up to 94% of ‘white’ Americans.

The opposition also breaks down on racial and political divides, as you would expect, with proportionally more Democrats than Republicans. This is a rise of anywhere from 7% to 10% since polling in 2002, which shows that the idea is gaining in popularity, albeit slowly. Although improved, these numbers are still daunting for the supporters of reparations in their quest for getting anything done on a national and systemic basis.

On the anti-capitalist and Marxist left, there is a delicate dance being done on the subject. Most would agree with the morality of monies owed to the descendants of enslaved Americans, but they also consider the subject as something of a distraction from the basic idea of a conscious working class overthrowing the entirety of the capitalist system that oppresses everyone. This idea of reparations as a distraction, no matter how sincerely held, also leaves the left open to the dreaded ‘class reductionist’ charge from social justice activists and radical liberals, especially in the Black community. The legitimate question that is asked is, why should the affected communities that would benefit from reparations have to wait for capitalism to be overthrown to be paid for the economic injustices they’ve suffered from for generations? Isn’t it just an excuse for doing nothing?

Coates has been to the fore in pushing this attack on the socialist left. ‘Negro poverty is not white poverty,’ he proclaims before continuing,

“Liberals today mostly view racism not as an active, distinct evil but as a relative of white poverty and inequality. They ignore the long tradition of this country actively punishing Black success.” [19]

Of course Coates has a point; the numbers don’t lie. Generations of Black Americans were and are caught in a trap not of their own making in economic terms and, given the longstanding mass hysteria about socialism and communism, a socialist revolution seems a long time to wait for justice. That said, any reparations made under the capitalist system would be unequally distributed.

The Black working class will get less, per capita, than the Black bourgeoisie and petit bourgeoisie, insofar as these are the present leadership of the ‘Black community’ in all its social, cultural and educational expressions, its churches, NGOs charities, etc.

Indeed Coates’ emphasis on the obstacles put in the way of social mobility, i.e. Black workers rising out of their class, betrays where his real class allegiance lies: with the nascent Black petit-bourgeoisie, not the Black working class as a whole.

It’s also likely that the mostly white, majority shareholders of financial institutions, like banks, hedge funds, venture capitalists and credit unions would also benefit, albeit indirectly, from any government largesse in regard to the distribution of these capitalist reparations. And this is especially true if the reparations mostly take the form (as they likely would) of grants to Black owned businesses and businesspeople for the building of entrepreneurs in the Black ‘community’.

There would also likely be ‘reparations’ paid to governmental structures that, on a state and local level, would funnel these funds into the hands of ‘local’ businesses and their owners. Remember too, the purpose of the government under capitalism is to provide a ‘level playing field’ for capital and capitalists to profit. In spite of what the propaganda has said for centuries now, US ‘democracy’ is not ‘for or by the people’ but is in reality the dictatorship of capital. More ‘for the profiteers’ than ‘for the people’.

The second main issue with capitalist reparations is that they’re likely to be temporary, as were many of the welfare and housing gains of the 1970s. As long as capitalists control the disbursement of any funds earmarked, they would only be made available if the overall system isn’t be harmed by the reality of reparations. In the same way that Bernie Madoff went to prison because he bilked his fellow bourgeois, but the bankers that engineered the Great Recession weren’t even indicted because they only bilked the working class. If Black people spend their reparation dollars on goods and services produced by non-Black people, then they would over time increase the racial wealth divide, not narrow it. [20]

Any laws enacted that cover reparations would be biased in favor of wealth and power. The morality of the issue does not apply when it comes to capitalist reparations. And even the potential economic benefits of reparations are only applicable if they eventually spread out through the whole system. It’s guaranteed that, just like the Great Society programs and even portions of the New Deal, they will come under attack and be whittled away by repeal and ‘amending’ if they prove too great of an impediment to the smooth running of profit making and taking for the (majority white) bourgeoisie.

In fact, the Great Society and War on Poverty programs instituted by Lyndon B. Johnson and Congressional liberals from 1964 to 1968 provide insights into both socialist and capitalist styles of Federal programs akin to reparations. To the extent that these social reforms were material gains for Black people, access to housing, education, social security and the ballot box, the benefits of the general economy were spread more widely and led, by the end of the 1960s and into the 1970s, to poverty in the Black community being cut in half. However it’s important to keep in mind that these programs weren’t really socialist but, like the New Deal programs of Franklin Roosevelt, merely ‘borrowed’ from European social democracy and welfare state capitalism.

They weren’t even fully social democratic in their nature, in that they only attempted to equalize ‘opportunity’ under capitalism. They were not universal, but only provided a modest safety net, while that ‘opportunity’ was put into place. Still, Black people actually did gain from the programs and from the equality that the Civil Rights and Voting Rights laws enabled. Moreover they were the result of mighty movements of the oppressed and their progressive allies, the mass antiwar movement, the urban uprisings, proving that serious reforms are usually the result of a real fear of revolution by the ruling class.

So as Rosa Luxemburg wrote in her classic Reform or Revolution (1899): ‘Between social reforms and revolution there exists for the Social Democracy [i.e. Marxism] an indissoluble tie. The struggle for reforms is its means; the social revolution, its aim.’ [21] In other words revolutionaries are not hostile to the fight for reforms; they are the best fighters for them. They only point out their limits and the fact that reforms alone will never lead to overcoming the most basic evils of capitalism for humanity—and these include racial inequality.

The ‘Stagflation’ of the 1970s showed the end results of ‘New Deal’ type programs under capitalism. Once capital’s rate of profit begins to fall, discretionary spending programs to halt poverty are proclaimed ‘unsustainable’. The programs, rather than the corporations, are then accused of encouraging ‘idleness’ (mass unemployment) which only cutting them to the bone will cure. The results of the ‘Stagflation’ of the 1970s were directly responsible for the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, which began the slow decline of the Great Society programs that had, for a brief span of time, helped somewhat alleviate centuries of economic oppression for the Black community. Capital and profit had to be compensated, not the people.

The issue of capitalist reparations rests on the idea that people who have been especially exploited deserve to be compensated for that super-exploitation. From a Marxist perspective however, this ignores the concept of surplus value as exploitation. Surplus value, the source of profit, is the everyday exploitation under capitalism that we all suffer from. Without a doubt, descendants of slaves and also indigenous peoples, women, Asians, Latinos et al were and are specially exploited to produce super-profits, i.e. they were paid less than the socially accepted (by white communities) minimum wage necessary to reproduce their capacity to work. This historic wrong—which provides the material basis for the racism, so-called white privilege, that is prevalent among large sections of the ‘white’ working class.

The only way to end all exploitation is to end capitalism, not turn it into some sort of Black capitalism, as capitalist reparations would do. However we can wring concessions from capitalism, as we have in the past, but these can be little more than the temporary and reversible gains we saw in the 1960s and 1970s. Between reforms which leave capitalism intact and able to claw them back and the measures we will introduce when the multiracial working class has political power there are transformative or transitional demands that can open up a breach in the power of the capitalist class.

These sorts of ‘reparations’ can strengthen our organization and unity and conversely weaken and divide our enemies. We must demand they paid for by the super-rich billionaires and their mega corporations, the banks, the polluting extractive industries; those employed in these institutions should exercise workers’ control and inspection of their profits to ensure they do not cheat us. We must level up the communities of the oppressed and exploited in terms of jobs, housing, healthcare, education. They themselves must calculate what they need and open the books and the online records of the businesses that exploit them and where necessary expropriate them under workers’ control. Such demands will encroach ever more boldly on the rights of the capitalists first to profit from our labor and finally pose the question, who rules in society.

Since this will benefit many, indeed most ‘white’ working class communities it is not a matter of robbing Peter to pay Paul but of expropriating the wealth of Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, etc. In order to enforce these, a militant class struggle will have to waged, workplace and community committees and councils elected, and defense forces, elected by and answerable to the communities they represent, to protect the movement from the cops, national guards and white supremacist militia. Through this means, abolition of the killer cops will become a realistic objective not just a slogan.

As we have witnessed over the past few years in the Black Lives Matter movement, any serious struggle by the Black communities against racism will draw white workers and youth into their ranks. This will do far more to break asunder the racial solidarity between white workers and their white bosses than any awareness raising, which ultimately is what Coates, and to a lesser extent, what Taylor relegates the struggle for reparations to.


The only serious reparations for racism’s long history of oppression and super-exploitation would be ones transitional to socialism. Only these would continue in perpetuity and lead to maximum economic and social equality because they would be based on people’s needs rather than profit margins. Ideally if wealth and income were eventually completely and equally distributed to everyone, the gap between white and Black wealth and income would disappear in relatively short order. Most white workers would gain, but Black workers, because they’re starting from a lower base, would gain more. Eventually this equal distribution pays back any current inequality of wealth based on past oppression. Most likely it would pay it back quicker than any plan would that’s based on capitalism.

So where to go from here? Obviously, the practicalities of this issue are complicated and would need to be worked out, which means that the first step should be study and discussion. This would mean that the initial step would probably be one that’s already in the pipeline, HR40. The best this will do is to create a forum for exposing the scope and scale of racism, not just in the past but today.

To even discuss the practicalities reparations deserved would mean that Americans and politicians would need to come face to face with highly uncomfortable truths about US history. And every time in the last century that the US seems about to be forced to face these truths, the ruling and the privileged classes and ‘races’ have looked away and refurbished the national myths. We can see this reflected among the plebian layers in the Trump movement and armed resistance to Black Lives Matter protests today.

Much like the idea of ‘races’ based on skin color, the idea of ‘white’ identity and supremacy is a human construct that has no basis in scientific fact. It arose as a rationalization, an ideology justifying African slavery and colonial plunder and settlement in the early centuries of the capitalist epoch, when what Marx called the primitive or original accumulation of capital was underway, and it continued into the era of industrial capitalism and imperialism. With the emergence of militant trade unions, it was discovered to be a powerful weapon to divide that class and cloud its class consciousness so that the powerful and wealthy could maintain their power and wealth. Of course, its artificiality doesn’t make the racism that grows out of the construct of ‘race’ and ‘white supremacy’ any less real or deadly.

Any worker who identifies as ‘white’ over ‘worker’ is doing serious damage, not only to her/his class but also to her/himself.

Exploitation by the wealthy in the name of profit hurts and robs the ‘white’ working class too and can only be overcome by building up class wide solidarity, forged in common struggle and embodied in organization, both trade union and political. It’s undisputed that the robbery perpetrated on oppressed minorities is worse, but it is still a matter of degree rather than kind. When it comes to ‘working class’ this must include white, Black, Latinx, Asian, male, female, trans, non-binary, etc. people who all sell their lives an hour at a time working for those who own the means of production.

Ultimately under capitalism, any reparations for Black people, however meager, will only be granted by the exploiters if they’re forced to by immense social pressure and the fear that they will lose all their wealth and privilege, rather than just some of it. And when this is the case, why should we be satisfied with the leftovers whilst they enjoy the Thanksgiving feast? In the meantime, the propaganda machine of capitalist society will stoke white racism by claiming that even minor concessions are made at the expense of the white working and the middle classes either materially or in terms of political privilege.

In other words, capitalism will fight the idea of reparations until they can’t avoid it, but at that point, you can be assured that they will then use reparations to divide all of us by skin color and prevent any united fightback.

There is no denying that transitional and socialist reparations—real steps to complete equality—also won’t come without a massive, existential struggle, but the difference is that they will build up our strength to go on to pose the need for workers power. And they can begin or develop from class wide issues that affect all workers, decent wages, the right to work, the right to abortion, healthcare and pension rights, and the fight against the capitalist parties’ sabotage or obstruction of reforms.

Take the issue of racism. If ‘white’ workers see Congress make them pay for reparations outside of any mass struggle for equality on the streets, in the workplaces, at schools and colleges, many of them will be drawn towards the racists. But if on the contrary they are involved in joint struggle with their Black sisters and brothers for workers’ control, they will ‘learn’ far more quickly and comprehensively about racial discrimination and how it serves capitalist exploitation. In short, agency for reparation can be found—but only if there is a relentless struggle against racism within the workers’ ranks.

Any reparations that Congress might come up with will keep capitalism in place, even if it’s framed as some sort of ‘community outreach’—read Black capitalism. It would be a last ditch attempt to stave off a revolution, in which Black workers will certainly play a leading role. Reparations are guaranteed to be only a sop to buy off the most militant sector of the working class and set different sectors of workers against one another. If struggle has gotten to the point where capitalist reparations become an option offered by the ruling class, why stop when a little further along the road of struggle lies a truer and fairer democracy for everyone, Black, white and all people of color.



2 Marcus Anthony Hunter, ‘Seven billion reasons for reparations’, Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society, June 2019.

3 Monthly Review vol. 72 issue 03, July–August 2020:

4 Jeremy Dewar, ‘Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism’, Fifth International, issue 21, Summer 2021.

5 Karl Marx, Capital vol.3, p809.

6 Marx, ‘To the People of the United States of America’, The Workman’s Advocate, No. 136, 14 October, 1865.

7 Eugene Debs, The negro in the class struggle, 1903,


9 William A. Darity Jr and A. Kirsten Mullen, From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020).

10 The first slaves to arrive in the English colony of Virginia, ‘some 20 and odd’, were carried there by the White Lion, a privateer arriving in August 1619—preceding the arrival of the Mayflower by a year. The schooner Clotilda is believed to be the last (illegal) slave ship to make landfall with 109 slaves in 1860:…

11 The New York Times, 19 June 2019.

12 Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s unfinished revolution 1863-1877, xxiii.

13 W.E.B Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 24.

14 Taylor and Reed Jr, ‘The Reparations Debate’, [].


16 Craemer, Smith, Harrison, Logan, Bellamy & Darity, ‘Wealth Implications of Slavery and Racial Discrimination for African American Descendants of the Enslaved’, The Review of Black Political Economy, June 2020.

17 The Black Worker: A Documentary History from Colonial Times to the Present. 8 vols. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. 1978–84, volume V), 124.

18 Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, ‘The Consequences of Forgetting’, Jacobin, May 2019,….

19 Coates, ‘The Case for Reparations’.

20 Craemer et al, ‘Wealth Implications of Slavery and Racial Discrimination for African American Descendants of the Enslaved’.



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