Capitalism and Racism
It is hard for most people to accept that racial prejudice and antagonism, pervasive phenomena of modern life, have not been permanent features of human society. Yet the very concept of “race,” and the ideology and practice of racism are relatively modern.
Racism as an ideology is a form of biological determinism, premised on the idea that different human populations (“races”) have different capacities because of their genetic makeup. Inevitably such categorizations are aimed at rationalizing an existing social hierarchy.
The whole concept of “races” within the human species is not based on physical reality, but is rather a purely ideological construction. Over the past 50 years biologists have come to the conclusion that there is no scientific means of categorizing human beings by “race.” What are taken as distinct “races” (European, African and Asian) are in reality arbitrary divisions of humanity on the basis of skin color and other secondary physical features.
Geneticists have concluded that some 75 percent of genes are identical in every human being. Of the remaining portion, which account for all genetic variation:
“85 percent turns out to be between individuals within the same local population, tribe, or nation; a further 8 percent is between tribes or nations within a major ‘race’; and the remaining 7 percent is between major ‘races.’ That means that the genetic variation between one Spaniard and another, or between one Masai and another, is 85 percent of all human genetic variation….”
—Stephen Rose et al., Not In Our Genes
In this society xenophobia and racism seem to be natural phenomena, yet they are wholly social creations. “Genetics and racism are counterposed,” writes D. Van Arkel:
“The whole concept of a Nordic race, for example, vanishes into thin air if blue-eyedness and fair-hairedness are merely the results of a natural selection in favour of recessive traits. In areas with scarcity of sunlight, given an inadequate diet, the more pigmented stood greater risk of contracting rickets, which in the case of female patients, distorting their pelvic bones, made childbirth impossible. This is a mere case of an evolutionary normal survival of a coincidental mutation, which determines nothing about other genetic traits. Genetically determined blood-groups or the capacity for tasting PTC (phenol-thio-carbamide) …are just as good criteria for classification as skin colour or form of hair, but they would radically change the ‘racial’ distribution of mankind.”
—Racism and Colonialism, Robert Ross ed.
Race: A Social Reality
The absence of any scientific basis for distinguishing one “race” from another makes the whole concept meaningless. Yet biological refutation does not affect the social reality. As Richard Fraser, a veteran American Trotskyist, pointed out in “The Negro Struggle and the Proletarian Revolution,” a document written in the 1950s and recently republished, race remains “a reality in spite of the fact that science reveals that it does not exist.” Fraser wrote that: “The concept of race has now been overthrown in biological science. But race as the keystone of exploitation remains. Race is a social relation and has only a social reality.”
Racism is rooted in the historical development of capitalism as a world system. It has proved through several centuries to be a useful and flexible tool for the possessing classes. It justified the brutal wars of conquest and genocide, which established the European colonial empires. It rationalized the slave trade, which produced the primitive accumulation of capital necessary for the industrial revolution.
Today racism in its various guises remains an important ideological mainstay for the capitalist elites, providing a rationale for the barbaric oppression of minorities. Racism “explains,” for example, why black people in America fail to get a piece of the “American Dream” one generation after another. It can be used to “explain” why Japanese capitalism has been much more successful than its European and North American rivals. The arguments offered by racists, whether the psychotic ravings of a lumpenized skinhead or the “objective,” pseudo-scientific scholarship of a Harvard professor, seek to direct popular anger away from the workings of an irrational and decaying capitalist system to some group of “outsiders.”
Racism has proved integral and necessary for the proper functioning of capitalist society for a variety of reasons. In the first place, it provides one of the essential axes along which the working class can be divided against itself, encouraging one segment of the proletariat to identify with the exploiters. This impedes the development of class consciousness and undermines the unity necessary to challenge capitalist rule. The working class of every imperialist country has been so poisoned with chauvinism and racism (also promoted by pro-capitalist misleaderships within the workers’ movement) that in “normal” periods, workers often identify their interests with those of their “own” oppressors and exploiters rather than with those of workers in other countries.
Secondly, racism, in common with other forms of biological determinism, has an essential ideological function. The bourgeoisie rose to ascendancy under the banner of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” Yet for hundreds of millions of people daily reality in the world capitalist order is misery, oppression and poverty. Even in the so-called advanced capitalist countries there is a growing cynicism about the electoral process, with most adults recognizing that the “equality” of the ballot box is no different from the “equality of the market place—every dollar is equal, and big money takes all. Racists are not burdened with the obligation to prove that capitalist society is egalitarian. Instead, they openly claim that the inequalities of class society are based on natural distinctions.
Racism in History
Racism did not originate from a single source, but rather from a combination of several strands of historical development that came together into an ideology with considerable persuasive power. Racialism drew upon existing cultural and national prejudices, and pre-capitalist notions about nature and hierarchies, which were gradually adapted to new economic and social developments.
It has been widely observed that the Mediterranean civilizations of antiquity were “color blind”:
“The Greeks and Romans attached no special stigma to color, regarding yellow hair or blue eyes a mere geographical accident, and developed no special racial theory about the inferiority of darker peoples qua darker peoples. H.L. Shapiro notes that ‘modern man is race conscious in a way and to a degree certainly not characteristic previously,’ and points out that in earlier societies the ability to see obvious physical differences did not result in ‘an elaborate orientation of human relations within a rigid frame of reference.”
—Frank M. Snowden Jr., Blacks in Antiquity, 1970
The slave societies of the ancients were oppressive and often xenophobic. Yet the entire concept of “race,” as it is now commonly understood, was alien to them. Slavery in these societies was not defined by color, but chiefly by military fortune: conquered peoples were enslaved.
The rulers of medieval Europe were also largely “color blind.” Religion provided the touchstone for the medieval world: the crusades were launched against unbelievers, not against Arabs. Similar wars against “heathens” and heretics were conducted throughout Europe, for example, the campaigns of the Teutonic Knights from the 13th to 15th centuries to crush the Prussians (non-Christian Baltic Slavs), or Pope Innocent III’s crusade against the Albigensians.
Anti-Semitism: Pioneer of Racism
Anti-Semitism, an ideological expression of the economic interests of the nascent capitalist class within medieval society, was the pioneer of racism. In early feudal Europe international trade was largely carried on by Jews who maintained commercial connections with the Near East. By the twelfth century the Jewish merchants were being displaced by Christians and were forced into moneylending (“usury”—something that in theory Christian merchants could not indulge in) and other more marginal activities. Abram Leon (a young Belgian Trotskyist militant who perished in the Holocaust) noted that anti-Semitism developed in tandem with the growth of capitalist activity within feudal society:
“The definitive expulsion of the Jews took place at the end of the Thirteenth Century in England; at the end of the Fourteenth Century in France; at the end of the Fifteenth Century in Spain. These dates reflect the difference in the speed of economic development within these countries….
“Feudalism progressively gives way to a regime of exchange. As a consequence, the field of activity of Jewish usury is constantly contracting. It becomes more and more unbearable because it is less and less necessary.”
“…the Jews were progressively expelled from all the western countries. It was an exodus from the more developed countries to the more backward ones of Eastern Europe. Poland, deeply mired in feudal chaos, became the principal refuge of Jews driven out of every other place.”
—Abram Leon, The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation
Anti-Semitism has proved a persistent form of racism, one that has nurtured (and been nurtured by) almost all subsequent forms. It developed a way of looking at the world which was generalized in the era of European colonial expansion.
In Elizabethan England the ideas and images of racism were only partially developed. This is reflected in Shakespeare’s rather ambivalent attitude toward race. In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock, the Jewish usurer, is treated as a villain. Othello, a black Moor, is portrayed sympathetically as an articulate, intelligent and introspective human being. There is a suggestion that Othello’s downfall may be rooted in his passionate and temperamental Moorish nature, but this tendency is balanced by a presentation of other, more complex aspects of his character:
“When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice: then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely but too well;
Of one not easily jealous, but, being wrought,
Perplex’d in the extreme; of one whose hand,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe….”
—”Othello,” Act V, Scene II
It is difficult to imagine a Victorian writer creating as complex a black character as Othello. Stereotypes could be vehemently derogatory or relatively, if patronisingly, sympathetic, but they all presumed that biology determined destiny, for individuals as for “races.”
Capitalism and Slavery
By the mid-19th century overt racism was mainstream academic orthodoxy. The growth of racialist consciousness in Europe was a direct result of colonial expansion and the resultant demand for cheap labor for the plantations. Chattel slavery, resurrected to exploit the resources of the new world, persisted far into the 19th century in the U.S. The few Europeans who ended up as semi-slaves in the New World had usually lost their citizenship because of convictions for petty crime. The demand for slave labor was not met in the homelands of the colonial powers, largely because the ruling classes feared the resulting social turmoil. The surplus population of European peasants was eventually utilized for wage slavery, whereas the aboriginal peoples of Africa and South America, whose darker skin color was an indelible identifying mark, provided the solution to labor shortages in the New World.
Slavery clearly required an ideological justification, for it was contrary both to the formal teachings of Christian charity and the notions of the inalienable “rights of man” propounded by the ideologues of the market and the Enlightenment:
“The slaves were in an inferior position economically. Gradually, white slaveowning society constructed a wall of color: that it was not the mode of slave production which was to be despised, but the slave: that the reason the black skin was the mark of the slave was that it was first the mark of human inferiority.
“In this manner the class problem of slavery became complicated and confused by the color question. The slaves, besides being an exploited social class, became, in the perverted thinking of the dominant society, an inferior race as well.”
—Richard Fraser, “The Negro Struggle and the Proletarian Revolution”
While it is difficult to date the beginning of this new racial ideology precisely, it is clear that there was an explosion of such notions beginning in the 16th century. Ashley Montagu made the following observation in his book Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race:
“A study of the documents of the English and American slave traders down to the eighteenth century also serves to show that….many of these hardheaded, hardbitten men recorded their belief that their victims were often quite clearly their own mental equals and superior to many at home.
“It was only when voices began to make themselves heard against the inhuman traffic in slaves, and when these voices assumed the shape of influential men and organizations, that, on the defensive, the supporters of slavery were forced to look about them for reasons of a new kind to controvert the dangerous arguments of their opponents.”
The influence, clarity and sophistication of these “reasons” increased over the next several centuries, until by the 19th century, “race” was widely seen as the key determinant of human history. By explaining the success of European colonialism by divine sanction (or, after Darwin, “natural selection”), the ideologues of empire infused the colonialists with confidence and moral conviction. At the same time, missionaries undermined the victim’s will to resist with the gospel of “turning the other cheek” to the conquistadors and slave-drivers.
While it would hardly have occurred to a feudal lord to differentiate among his serfs on the basis of their skin color or type of hair, in the age of vast international empires, racial categorization helped make sense of the world. The belief in racial identity, racial purity and racial mission was a vital part of the “laager mentality” among the isolated and outnumbered colonials. In 1890, for example, 300 million Indians were ruled by a mere 6,000 British administrators, backed by only 70,000 soldiers.
The ideology of empire painted a picture of humane, brave, industrious and intelligent colonialists bringing the benefits of modern civilization to peoples who, for the most part, were portrayed as vicious, cowardly, lazy and stupid. Even when non-Europeans were given some positive characteristics, these were inevitably coupled with fatal flaws and organic weaknesses. Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem of 1899 saluting the American rape of the Philippines called on Uncle Sam to join with John Bull and:
“Take up the White Man’s burden—
Send forth the best ye breed—
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild—
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.”
‘Scientific’ Racism in the 1800s…
By the end of the 19th century, the proposition, “biology determines destiny” was scientific orthodoxy, and prominent scientists such as Louis Agassiz, Samuel Morton, Robert Knox, Herbert Spencer and Ernst Haeckel were busy devising hierarchies of the races in which the “European,” or often more specifically “Anglo-Saxon” (for the English, Germans and Americans), were placed at the top, with the other “inferior” races ranked beneath them. For example, Agassiz, a Harvard professor who was America’s foremost zoologist of the 19th century, claimed that “the brain of the negro is that of the imperfect brain of a seven months infant in the womb of the white.” A whole range of quack sciences such as phrenology and craniometry arose to measure and quantify the differences among individuals as well as races.
Numerous debates about the origin and genesis of humankind raged throughout the 19th century. In the early-mid century, a debate raged between partisans of monogenism and polygenism (i.e., between those who held that all humanity has a common root and those who argued that the different “races” were created separately). The learned associations of the world discussed whether some groups could be classified as human at all, such as the Australian aborigines, who, as late as 1926, were treated as rural pests to be exterminated. By the end of the century, attention had shifted to social-Darwinist theorizing about how the dog-eat-dog ethos of capitalist society (“survival of the fittest”) was beneficial for the species.
The following description of the Hottentots was typical of “science” circa 1862:
“the race called Hottentots [are] a simple, feeble race of men, living in little groups, almost, indeed, in families, tending their fat-tailed sheep and dreaming away their lives. Of a dirty yellow colour, they slightly resemble the Chinese, but are clearly of a different blood. The face is set on like a baboon’s; cranium small but good; jaws very large; feet and hands small; eyes linear in form and of great power; forms generally handsome; hideous when old and never pretty; lazier than an Irishwoman, which is saying much; and of a blood different and totally distinct from all the rest of the world.”
—Robert Knox. The Races of Man: A Philosophical Enquiry into the Influence of Race over the Destinies of Nations
The layering of prejudice is interesting in the above quotation—an Irishwoman, generally considered “white,” is the standard for laziness against which the Hottentot is measured. While there was a definite ordering of “races” among whites, in general the “fairer races” were destined to conquer and supersede the “darker races”: “Before the go-ahead Dutchmen it was easy to see that this puny, pygmy, miserable race [the Hottentot] must retire….” To Knox and his contemporaries it was axiomatic that race was a determining force in history.
The debates that raged in the scientific community a few generations ago about the hierarchy of “racial superiority” and the destiny of “inferior” races—extinction, extermination, servitude or assimilation—were not the province of a lunatic fringe. They represented the mainstream of scientific thinking. Overtly racist ideas pervaded every aspect of intellectual life: literature, the arts, philosophy and history. Even the most militant sectors of the workers’ movement were polluted.
Racism, like other forms of capitalist ideology, reflects the reality of social oppression and exploitation, but it inverts cause and effect. It is bourgeois not only in its historic origins, but also in its social function—providing a rationale for the misery, suffering and injustice which are an inevitable part of the free-market package. Peoples that were enslaved, conquered or dispossessed, are not victims of an irrational social order, but rather doomed by biological predetermination.
Racism is one of the key means by which the economic and social hierarchies of the capitalist world are ideologically “naturalized.” At the top of the pyramid, because of their fitness to rule, sit white, bourgeois men. The rest of the world—whether female, black, Asian or even the white male working class—are to the ruling class as children to parents. There has always been a close connection between racism and male supremacist ideology. “According to the anthropologist McGrigor Allan in 1869, ‘The type of the female skull approaches in many respects that of the infant, and still more that of the lower races.”‘ As an example of the pervasiveness of such attitudes the authors of Not In Our Genes quote Charles Darwin, the greatest scientist of the 19th century, as remarking: “some at least of those mental traits in which women may excel are traits characteristic of the lower races.” Liberals, who dismiss such absurdities as evidence of the scientific backwardness of that age, and comfort themselves with the thought that such vicious ignorance has been transcended, fail to see how, at every stage, science is conditioned by the prejudices of the existing social order.
The experience of Nazism discredited the notions of racial superiority in the eyes of millions around the world. Today mainstream science tends to reject race as anything other than a social construct. Those members of the intellectual community who advance “scientific” racist arguments are usually pretty thoroughly rebutted by their colleagues. Yet while crudely racist academics have been pushed to the periphery for several decades, the same groundless “theories” are regularly revived.
In 1969 the Harvard Educational Review published an article by Prof. Arthur Jensen entitled “How Much Can We Boost IQ and Scholastic Achievement?” Jensen argued that the lower scores of American blacks on IQ tests are evidence of their genetic inferiority. Shortly after this, Richard Hernstein, a Harvard psychology professor, “discovered” that the whole working class was genetically predisposed to low IQs. Hernstein’s conclusions were no doubt gratifying to the assortment of corporate bigwigs and millionaires sitting on Harvard’s governing body:
“The privileged classes of the past were probably not much superior biologically to the downtrodden, which is why revolution had a fair chance of success. By removing artificial barriers between classes, society has encouraged the creation of biological barriers. When people can take their natural level in society, the upper classes will, by definition, have greater capacity than the lower.”
—IQ and the Meritocracy, 1973
Hans Eysenek, a British psychologist whose work ran along the same lines as Jensen and Hernstein, asserted that Asians and blacks were intellectually inferior to whites. Eysenek’s arguments were embraced by the fascists of the National Front in Britain as “scientific” evidence for their campaign against non-white immigration.
In recent years “socio-biology,” which recycles much of the same reductionist mythology, although with a more carefully constructed “objective” cover, has gained wide respectability in the academic community.
The resilience of racism as an ideology stems primarily from its function in preserving and rationalizing the capitalist order. It legitimizes the glaring disparity between the democratic ideology of equal opportunity and the reality of systemic discrimination, prejudice and oppression. Individual capitalists benefit in a direct and immediate fashion by paying some categories of workers (typically non-white, immigrant and female) substandard wages. Such discriminatory practices, in the eyes of the biological determinists, are, if not equitable, evidently “natural” and thus must be accepted.
By splitting the workforce along racial and gender lines, the capitalists create the illusion of privileges for white male workers. Yet even in the short term the cost of these “privileges” far outweighs their minimal benefits for white workers; for by dividing the working class, the price of labor is forced down across the board.
The racism that pervades capitalist society and infects the working class is not a “natural” thing, nor is it simply the product of ignorance or lack of education. Racist attitudes (like homophobia, sexism and nationalism) are fostered within the working class by the myriad educational and ideological processes of bourgeois society, and are passively accepted (when not enthusiastically promoted) by the class-collaborationist parasites who dominate the unions, and other mass organizations of the working class.
Karl Marx once observed that labor in a white skin would never be free while labor in a black skin was branded. For the working class to advance its own interests, it must champion the cause of all the oppressed. Workers who imagine that they benefit from the relatively greater oppression faced by other sectors (blacks, women, immigrants, etc.) forge their own chains.
Racism and nationalism are also used to prepare the working class for new military adventures and slaughters. Racist sentiments are being stirred as the pressure of international inter-imperialist competition heats up. Xenophobia is on the upsurge across the globe, as the supposed leaders of the working class in every nation throw in their lot with “their own” rulers against foreign competitors. The treatment of Japan in the capitalist mass media in both Europe and America is crudely and transparently racist. Japanese workers are dismissed as mindless robots—oblivious to the finer things in life and pathetically loyal to their companies. The Japanese capitalists are no better with their depiction of North American workers as lazy and indigent, and their tendency to attribute the decline of U.S. capitalism to race mixing.
Exposing the idiocy and vileness of racist ideas is both important and necessary. But ultimately racism cannot be eradicated simply through debate or education. The ideology of race is an inextricable component of the historical development of this exploitative economic system. The fight against racism is therefore organically connected to the revolutionary struggle to up root the capitalist social system, which has created and perpetuated it, and to create an egalitarian socialist world order in which cooperation, not competition, is the norm. Only in such a society, based on the rational planned organization of production sufficient to meet the essential needs of all, will every human being, regardless of color, gender, or nationality have the opportunity to develop themselves to the fullest. Only under socialism will racial prejudice and discrimination be eliminated once and for all.