The Roots of Racism

Although it is a commonplace for academics and opponents of socialism to claim that Karl Marx ignored racism, Marx in fact describes the processes that created modern racism. His explanation of the rise of capitalism placed the African slave trade, the European extermination of indigenous people in the Americas and colonialism at its heart.

 

In ‘Capital’, Marx writes:

”The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the indigenous population of the continent, the beginnings of the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of black skins are all things that characterize the dawn of the era of capitalist production…”

 

Marx connected his explanation of the role of the slave trade in the rise of capitalism to the social relations that produced racism against Africans. In ’Wage Labor and Capital’, written 12 years before the American Civil War, he explains:

”What is a Negro slave? A man of the black race. The one explanation is as good as the other. A Negro is a Negro. He only becomes a slave in certain relations. A cotton spinning jenny is a machine for spinning cotton. It only becomes capital in certain relations. Torn away from these conditions, it is as little capital as gold by itself is money, or as sugar is the price of sugar…”

 

In this passage, Marx shows no prejudice to Blacks (“a man of the black race,” “a Negro is a Negro”), but he mocks society’s equation of “Black” and “slave” (“one explanation is as good as another”). He shows how the economic and social relations of emerging capitalism thrust Blacks into slavery (“he only becomes a slave in certain relations”), which produce the dominant ideology that equates being African with being a slave.

 

These fragments of Marx’s writing give us a good start in understanding the Marxist explanation of the origins of racism. As the Trinidadian historian of slavery Eric Williams put it: “Slavery was not born of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery.” And, one should add, the consequence of modern slavery at the dawn of capitalism. While slavery existed as an economic system for thousands of years before the conquest of America, racism as we understand it today did not exist.

 

Lance Selfa

Socialist Worker

October 21, 2010

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