The title of Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism is misleading. Shelving it under ‘Marxism’ never seems right for a book that questions the compatibility of Black radicalism and Marxist politics, as well as considering aspects of history, sociology and political theory. Robinson’s reluctance to be classified hasn’t always worked in his favour. When Black Marxism was first published by Zed Press in London in 1983 it was met with silence from academics. It didn’t sell well and soon went out of print, but second-hand copies and scans circulated, passed around by graduate students and adjuncts working on the margins of the university. When apartheid ended in South Africa in 1994, the new government unexpectedly included the book in its curriculum for Black students. In 2000, the historian Robin D.G. Kelley, who knew Robinson (he was on Kelley’s dissertation committee), oversaw an American reissue, introducing Black Marxism to a wider audience. Since then, it has become an unlikely handbook for a new generation of radicals and activists.
Robinson grew up in Oakland and attended Berkeley High, a school known for its political radicalism and academic success, but also for its racism. He enrolled at UC Berkeley in 1959 and led the university’s NAACP chapter alongside J. Herman Blake: they invited Malcolm X to speak, only for the event to be shut down by the university. Following the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, Robinson organised Cuban solidarity demonstrations, for which he was suspended. He and Blake also held political meetings for Black students, setting the scene for the emergence of Black Studies at the end of the 1960s. The Afro-American Association – a Berkeley student reading group which included Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale – envisioned Black Studies as more than just an academic discipline. For Robinson, a few years their senior, it meant a revolutionary politics of Black liberation.
Robinson started writing Black Marxism in 1973, shortly after taking a job teaching political science at the University of Binghamton (then SUNY Binghamton). A brief spell at the University of Michigan between 1971 and 1973 had laid the groundwork: at the time, academics at Michigan were doing important work in anthropology (Michael Taussig and Marshall Sahlins), political science (Archie Singham) and African American studies (Harold Cruse). Robinson’s wife and intellectual partner, Elizabeth, began graduate studies in anthropology there, while Robinson joined the politics department, teaching on the new Black Studies programme, where the visiting speakers included Sylvia Wynter, C.L.R. James, Walter Rodney and James and Grace Lee Boggs.
Cruse had been recruited in response to increasing discontent among Black students at the university. The publication of The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual in 1967 had turned him into a campus celebrity. (‘Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s,’ according to Stanley Crouch, ‘one could see the signal bright red cover almost everywhere that young people were gathered.’) The book was Cruse’s response to the failures of the civil rights movement, and his sharp criticism of Black intellectuals, and their timid integrationism, appealed to student activists. But he also found Marxism and Black nationalism wanting. Black people didn’t need their own nation within the US or incorporation into white-dominated (liberal or communist) movements and institutions, but independent spaces where they could create an emancipatory culture.
Cruse’s critique featured prominently in Robinson’s work, but he objected to the narrow focus of The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (it is structured around discussions of James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, Paul Robeson and Richard Wright). All the same, it ‘opened an extraordinary space of recalling that there had been a radical black intellectual past’, Robinson explained in an interview in 2013. ‘As a participant, he had every right to recall it in the terms that he did. But in doing so he, in a sense, succumbed to the conceit that I was addressing – that radicalism is dependent upon an intelligentsia.’ Cruse also relied on a political idea that legitimised the basic institutions of Western society (disciplines, political parties, state bureaucracies and the scientific establishment): humans tend to disagree or engage in conflict, and harmonious societies therefore require a presiding authority, responsible for the exercise of power. The institutions of these societies were where hierarchies were founded and difference constructed. Because he had failed to move beyond the constraints of Western epistemology, Robinson argued, Cruse couldn’t offer a full account of Black radicalism, which resided not in the few but in the many.
Robinson developed his argument about what he called Western ‘terms of order’ in his doctoral thesis, which he submitted in 1971, but only published in 1980. His disagreement with Cruse centred on the notion of the political, which he thought functioned both as ‘an instrument for ordering society and that order itself’. Like authority, the political was a social fantasy, constructed not just to maintain order, but also to enforce class rule. This meant it was historically contingent and could be challenged. But, Robinson claimed, radical movements such as European anarchism were too attached to the idea to do so. Resistance must come from elsewhere. The expansion of the political to the Americas through imperial conquest, and the incorporation of Asian and African peoples into the modern world through slavery and colonisation, had created the conditions for anti-political challenges. His examples of ‘stateless’ societies such as that of the Tonga people of Zambia and Zimbabwe were intended to demonstrate the alternative societies that might be imagined.
Western terms of order could also be contested by oppressed people in the West. In 1972, Robinson published an article exploring what he called ‘the charismatic situation’, which traced ‘the interrupted dénouement of the man Malcolm Little’ through the psychosocial stages of ‘nigger child’, ‘Detroit Red’, ‘Satan’, ‘Malcolm X’ and ‘El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz’. Little’s youth, he suggested, was characterised by ‘strong ambivalence, expressive emotional deprivation, abandonment, fear of and anger towards love-objects’. The charismatic situation arose when his ‘search for resolution of this identity crisis’ converged with ‘his community’s search for another meaning system’. By taking responsibility for a movement, the charismatic leader ‘displaces their private dramas into universalistic ones’. But he stressed that the charismatic situation was not a form of political authority, as Max Weber had claimed. Rather, leadership was derived from the masses: ‘It is … the charismatic figure who has been selected by social circumstances, psychodynamic peculiarities and tradition … not his followers by him.’ Unlike traditional or rational-legal forms of leadership, the charismatic situation couldn’t be contained by order and its leader had to be – as Malcolm was – an organic intellectual of the Black masses.
Black Marxism’s current popularity – and the reason for its new status as a Penguin Classic – can be attributed to a concept that appears in its first chapter: racial capitalism. The ‘promise of the term’, Arun Kundani said in a lecture in 2020, ‘lies in its apparent bridging of the economic and the cultural, of the class struggle and the struggle against white supremacy, allowing us to understand police and plantation violence as linked to capital accumulation’. Robinson is frequently associated with theories of racial capitalism, but he didn’t coin the term, which dates from a 1976 pamphlet, ‘Foreign Investment and the Reproduction of Racial Capitalism in South Africa’, by the South African historians Martin Legassick and David Hemson. In the late 1970s, the official position of the UN’s International Labour Organisation was that the policy of apartheid was in direct conflict with economic growth, and that growth would eventually undermine and force an end to apartheid. According to the ILO, there was no need for mass anti-racist struggle – capital itself would do the work.
Legassick and Hemson disagreed. They showed that racism in South Africa had intensified as the country’s economy became more advanced. Indirect rule had created a Black migrant workforce, whose members travelled to the cities for employment, returning to the Bantustans (tribal homelands) when they were no longer required in the factories. This in turn resulted in a two-tier system: a majority white, urban, industrialised economy and a mostly Black, rural, non-capitalist economy, where workers were paid below subsistence wages. The significant antagonism, Legassick and Hemson argued, was not between industrial capital and a waged working class, but between the Black majority and the white minority. ‘The creation of the contemporary forms of racist ideology, and the political form of racial discrimination in South Africa,’ they wrote, ‘is a consequence of capitalist development.’ While orthodox Marxists had long argued that the purpose of racism was to divide workers, Black and white workers in South Africa already had different relations to capital. Apartheid racism was essential to capital accumulation in the country.
For Robinson, this exception was the rule: all capitalism, he argued, was racialised. (Robinson said he wasn’t familiar with the work of Hemson and Legassick when he wrote Black Marxism, but their ideas seem to have reached him.) He wanted to show that capitalism preserved hierarchies rather than eradicating them, and that racism was its preferred code: ‘As a material force … it could be expected that racialism would inevitably permeate the social structures emergent from capitalism.’
He completed much of the archival research for Black Marxism while on research leave in Radwinter, an Essex village, in the early 1980s. A few years earlier, he had started publishing articles in Race and Class, the London-based journal of the Institute of Race Relations, and those involved with the journal, Colin Prescod, Hazel Waters and its founding editor, A. Sivanandan, helped him find an intellectual and political home in England. Robinson saw that race worked differently in a predominantly white setting. As Elizabeth put it,
we had encounters where, for example, we were each identified as Pakistanis – whereas most people in the US would rarely put us in the same racial category. In that context, I discovered Arabs were not considered white. With the conflict between the British and the Irish in the 1970s, we also encountered very negative reactions to Irish people … even among progressives.
Robinson found that the development of Anglo-Saxon chauvinism (or English nationalism) and the racism that resulted from it had shaped working-class consciousness. The Irish – whom he viewed as one of the first racialised populations of modern Europe – had long been excluded from a whiteness considered synonymous with Englishness. ‘The Irish worker having descended from an inferior race, so his English employers believed, the cheap market value of his labour was but its most rational form.’ This also limited the revolutionary potential of the English working class. Apart from Chartism – ‘the high point of co-operation between the Irish and English elements of the working classes in England’ – there had been little solidarity between English and Irish workers. ‘By the end of the 19th century,’ Robinson claimed, ‘the English people were at one with respect to the Irish Question.’ This was a gross simplification: many English workers had in fact supported Ireland’s claim for unity and independence. The point, however, was to show the way capitalism incorporated existing social divisions, whether racial, ethnic, national, regional or occupational, to assert its dominance over the working classes.
But the origins of racial capitalism in Europe were to be found even further back. In the opening chapter of Black Marxism, Robinson writes that
the historical development of world capitalism was influenced in a most fundamental way by the particular forces of racism and nationalism. This could only be true if the social, psychological and cultural origins of racism and nationalism both anticipated capitalism in time and formed a piece with those events that contributed directly to its organisation of production and exchange. Feudalism is the key.
He argued that medieval rulers immersed ‘themselves and their power in fictional histories, positing distinct racial origins for rulers and the dominated’. These feudal forms of racism later mapped onto nascent class formations: the bourgeoisie, proletariat, peasantry and slaves each corresponded to particular ethnic and cultural groups. Racial difference became the justification for the exploitation or extermination of non-white (or ‘non-European’) peoples, whether Jewish, Irish or Slav. European civilisation hadn’t homogenised, Robinson argued, but differentiated, creating a hierarchy of minor variations in dialect, region and culture.
In ‘White Signs in Black Times’, an essay from 1989, Robinson claims that the form of racism that emerged in the Americas
did not replace nor displace its European antecedents … Rather it embellished the inventory of Western racism, extending its shape, and re-substantiating its force and authority by providing simultaneously a cruder and more defensible access to whichever of its forms the occasion demanded. This new racism, initially coincident with a slave social order, by the end of the 19th century was being adapted to the two most urgent ideological impulses of industrial capital: the uncertain amalgamation of a white working class and the more enduring fabrication of an imperial national identity. It was in place as a social discipline when European immigrant labour flooded the factory gates of industrial America; and it was there as an historical justification when American imperialists smashed the Spanish Empire in the Philippines and the Caribbean.
In Capitalism and Slavery (1944), the historian and future prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Eric Williams, had broken with orthodoxy by arguing that racism was a product of slavery, not its cause. A variety of peoples had, he argued, been employed as unfree labour in the Americas, from indentured European peasants to ‘disreputable’ women and Indigenous peoples. But, as Gerald Horne puts it, pace Williams, the dire need for workers ‘promoted the use of enslaved African labour’, particularly West African enslaved labour, and this in turn produced a ‘new culture of racism … as slavery became encoded with “race” and rationalised in this way’.
Because profits from the slave trade made a significant contribution to the Industrial Revolution as well as to later colonial expansion, slavery wasn’t just essential to 18th-century British capitalism, Williams argued, but to capitalism as a world system. Robinson agreed. He also defended Williams against attacks by bourgeois scholars who had tried to obscure the exploitative historical relationship between the Western metropoles and non-Western peoples. ‘In a 1987 article for History Workshop Journal,’ Joshua Myers writes in his new biography of Robinson, ‘Cedric maintained that “Williams struck a vital nerve at the ideological core of Western historiography.”’
Williams’s account implied that slavery in the Americas would inevitably disappear (or at least diminish) once its material basis had eroded. Robinson showed that this wasn’t the case. Instead of abolishing slavery, capitalism integrated its logic: even after formal abolition the coercion of racialised labour continued in the guise of wage slavery, debt peonage, sharecropping and forced or penal labour. Planters simply looked for other sources of unfree labour to fill gaps left by abolition. The plantocracy survived its predicted demise.
Black Marxism was Robinson’s attempt to connect feudalism, the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism by arguing that each represented a specifically European term of order which had been employed to exploit racialised peoples. This had also had the result, he thought, of endowing Black people with a more radical, working-class consciousness, and it was this consciousness that could be seen in Black cultures of resistance as diverse as slave ship mutineers, maroon communities in Florida or Jamaica, revolutionaries in Haiti and 20th-century anti-colonial activists.
Robinson is best known for his theory of racial capitalism, but as Kelley points out, ‘Black Marxism was primarily about Black revolt’; racial capitalism was simply the context from which this spirit emerged. Robinson wanted to show that capitalism created racial and colonial categories to preserve hierarchies, for instance the differentiation of waged and unwaged (surplus) labour. Because capitalism had failed to universalise the wage relation, it had also failed to create the universal class – the revolutionary industrial proletariat – that would bring about its demise. Robinson believed that racial capitalism didn’t result in the development of a rational and organised opposition; instead, it engendered disorderly resistance which stood outside capitalism’s terms of order and was thus better positioned to challenge its hegemony.
Why had Marxists failed to take note of the revolutionary potential of the Black radical tradition? Robinson argued that Western thought had historically dismissed the significance of slavery: the treatment of slave labour in Plato and Aristotle anticipated the later disregard for other forms of unfree or non-industrial labour – women’s unpaid labour, or that carried out by indentured workers and peasants – in Marxism. Marx and Engels had failed to break with bourgeois epistemology and the systems of differentiation that preserved its social and political order. Robinson was more interested in socialist traditions that he believed had preceded or superseded Marxism. In An Anthropology of Marxism (2001), he traces the rise of heretical sects such as the Cathars and the Waldensians and connects them to the urban and peasant rebellions of the same period. In response to the discontent, the Church institutionalised the quasi-socialist Franciscan, Dominican, Carmelite and Augustinian orders. For Robinson, these were the true beginnings of Western socialism.
Robinson’s thinking on Marxism owed a huge debt to the Trinidad-born American sociologist Oliver Cox, one of the first academics to ground his theory of racism in a historical study of the emergence of capitalism. Cox’s trilogy – Foundations of Capitalism (1959), Capitalism and American Leadership (1962) and Capitalism as a System (1964) – features prominently in Black Marxism. In his final volume, Cox broke with Marx, arguing that he had relied too heavily on the idea of a national economy as a closed society. For Cox, capitalism was the product of a world system. One had to look beyond national centres to the periphery – where labour and resources were extracted – to understand the workings of capitalism, and who might revolt against it.
Robinson wasn’t the only one inspired by Cox’s trilogy: Terence Hopkins and Immanuel Wallerstein, professors at Binghamton’s Fernand Braudel Centre in the 1970s, also took Cox’s work as their starting point. Their world systems theory emerged out of two developments: the anti-colonial revolts that followed the Second World War and the debates of the French Annales school in the early part of the 20th century. Like Robinson, Cox and the world systems theorists were interested in studying how capitalism had integrated different forms of labour into the world economy as it expanded beyond Europe.
Robinson didn’t always see eye to eye with the world systems theorists, and frequently challenged their ‘economistic’ view of world history. At Binghamton, Elizabeth had worked as an assistant at the Braudel Centre and thought it in need of ‘dire vitalisation’. She passed Robinson’s research proposals to the group, including a note in which he outlined his criticisms of their theory. In his biography, Myers reconstructs some of the debates. ‘In this proposal,’ he writes,
Cedric began by declaring that the idea of the ‘relational pair’ of core and periphery so germinal to world systems theory could not provide the authority to understand the ‘totalities’ of the peripheries and those ‘contemporaneous structures’ not yet subsumed by the system. In other words, as a method for understanding the world historical processes, the modern world system was somewhat well equipped, but there was more to be understood. Cedric argued that there were ‘critical social phenomena’ such as ‘cultures, languages, historical and social consciousnesses’ to which the formation of the world system is an external dynamic.
In a sense, then, Black Marxism’s underlying essentialism (Robinson implies that the Black radical tradition constitutes an ‘ontological totality’) can be read as an attempt to inject a dose of dialect into the Marxian dialectic, to borrow a phrase from the Bajan poet Edward Kamau Brathwaite. World systems theory had stuck too closely to the traditional critique of political economy and inherited its disregard for culture. It had therefore failed to comprehend the peripheries in their totality, and their peoples in their humanity.
Like the Bissau-Guinean and Cape Verdean revolutionary Amílcar Cabral, Robinson believed that culture contained the seeds of opposition to both neo-colonialism and racial capitalism. But cultures of resistance didn’t just spring up from the internal contradictions of capitalism; instead, they emerged from the collision of pre-capitalist (or even pre-modern) cultures with Western civilisation’s terms of order. ‘The peoples of Africa and the African diaspora,’ he wrote, ‘had endured an integrating experience that left them not only with a common task but a shared vision.’ Cultures of resistance were fluid, constantly adapting and posing new challenges to the prevailing order. Oppression could never be total: the cultures of the oppressed were alive, waiting to be discovered by Black revolutionary movements.
The break with Marxism, as Robinson saw it, was also a break with a linear conception of time. Marxism promised that history would end once the class struggle was complete. But for both Cabral and Robinson, history didn’t begin with the advent of classes: there had been examples of classless societies before colonialism, and subscribing to the Marxist view of history implied that these societies had lived outside history until they were ‘subjected to the yoke of imperialism’. In place of historical materialism, Robinson proposed an open dialectic that favoured improvisation over linearity. Although he disliked the word ‘utopian’ (Avery F. Gordon writes that he felt it had a ‘connotation of naivety and impossibility’), utopianism is central to his conception of the Black radical tradition.
Robinson’s work helpfully points to the tension in Marxism between the march towards progress and the spontaneous character of revolution. But Robinson at times ignores the second, constructivist tendency in Marx, attributing to him only a rigid determinism. In fact, Marx revised his position on the role of the peasantry and rural communes in the transition to socialism in later life. In draft letters to Vera Zasulich he conceded that it wasn’t necessary to pass through the capitalist stage in the transition to socialism. In his later writings on non-Western and pre-capitalist societies he also took note of the revolutionary potential of class formations other than the Western industrial proletariat. It might be tempting to dismiss his conception of time as ‘teleological’, as Robinson does. But, as Enzo Traverso has argued, there is a third dimension of time in Marx’s writing, beyond the Hegelian view of history or the abstract time of capital: the disruptive time of revolution, a ‘self-regulated time of human emancipation and agency’. It is surprising not to find this Marx – one whose view of revolutionary time more closely resembled Robinson’s own – in Black Marxism.
In the early 1930s, the Great Depression and the emergence of fascism had convinced Black radicals such as Richard Wright to join the US Communist Party. But, weakened by a mass exodus of Black radicals during the Popular Front period, and then by McCarthyism, the Soviet invasion of Hungary and the revelations of Khrushchev’s ‘secret speech’, communism gradually lost its influence on American workers. In 1982, the year before the publication of Black Marxism, the Black Panther Party was dissolved, its formerly Marxist-Leninist vanguard dispersed or killed. In Western Europe, Eurocommunism had taken hold of the communist parties of Italy, France and Spain. Robinson was sure Marxism had failed to deliver on its promises. The turn to the Black radical tradition would, he thought, inspire radicals disillusioned with both the Soviet Union and the communist parties of the West.
Part of the political attractiveness of a Black radical tradition, according to David Scott, is that it offers Black radicals a sense of belonging and a means of imagining a common future. But what constitutes and who owns this tradition isn’t fixed: it can be contested, picked apart and reassembled. In what relation to this tradition are Black radicals (such as Walter Rodney) whose commitment to Marxism never wavered? Or those who called for a creative application of Marxist theory to suit their own circumstances (Cabral)? What about the tradition of Marxism – developed by Mao, adapted by Ho Chi Minh, applied by Latin American guerrilla struggles and formalised by the anti-colonial revolts – that put the peasantry at the forefront of the struggle? What about the Umma Party, a multiethnic Marxist party which formed a left opposition in Abeid Karume’s post-revolutionary government in Zanzibar? It’s not clear whether Robinson intended us to ignore their self-identification as Marxist or to treat them as unconscious participants in a still unfolding tradition.
In the closing chapters of Black Marxism, Robinson turns to the work of W.E.B. Du Bois, C.L.R. James and Richard Wright, whose work he thought heralded a new Black radical tradition. Robinson suggests that their critiques of Marxism and their departures from the Communist Party showed they had rejected Marxism. But he also acknowledges that James ‘seemed willing to challenge Marx and Engels on the very grounds they had laid for the sociological and political significance of early capitalism’ and that he was ‘insisting that the sphere be broadened’. Similarly, Wright ‘was not entirely rejecting [Marxism] but was attempting to locate it’: he felt that Marxism had never transcended its origins, remaining ‘an ideology for the working classes rather than an ideology of the working classes’, but believed in its usefulness as a method of social analysis. If, as Wright suggested, we see the Marxist critique of political economy as only the beginning of the struggle for liberation then we might reach a different conclusion from Robinson. For Du Bois, James and Wright, Marxism was an unfinished project, one that required revision, but shouldn’t be abandoned. Robinson’s uncompromising belief in a Black radical tradition unconstrained by the metaphysics or epistemology of Western civilisation comes at the cost of reading the history of Black radicalism on its own terms. For many Black radicals, identifying as both Black and Marxist was not a contradiction.
For more than thirty years, Robinson reported for the Santa Barbara TV programme Third World News Review. Its first iteration was as a university radio show in which Robinson and a student called Corey Dubin, both of them critical of mainstream reporting on the global South, described the struggles of ordinary people from Nicaragua and Lebanon to South Africa and Rwanda. In many of these countries, Marxism had played an important role in the ideological formation of national liberation movements as well as in debates about the rights of women, workers and peasants. Its legacy, Robinson conceded, was ‘abundantly fertile’. Yet he never engaged with the Marxism of those who had adapted its theoretical tools and ensured its political relevance beyond 19th-century Europe. As Rodney complained in ‘Marxism and African Liberation’ (1975), the critique of Marxism as Eurocentric did not take into account that the methodology and ideology had already been ‘utilised, internalised, domesticated in large parts of the world that are not European’.
There is a tension throughout Black Marxism between the abstract metaphysics of struggle in the unfolding of the Black radical tradition and the reality of racial capitalism. Robinson overcame this tension in his journalism, which placed the fight for Black liberation in its political context. In ‘Ferguson, Gaza, Iraq’, co-authored with Elizabeth in 2013, three years before his death, he wrote that Ferguson was not just about racism, but ‘about poverty and the lengths to which the state and its local tributaries’ – not least the news media – had gone to control the global poor. Just weeks before the shooting, American newspapers had endorsed Israeli justifications for civilian deaths in Gaza, to predictably little public outrage. Brown’s murder was partly the outcome of aggressive imperialism abroad. Robinson recognised this when in Black Marxism he gestured towards a solidarity of the oppressed:
A Black radical tradition formed in opposition to that civilisation and conscious of itself is one part of the solution. Whether the other oppositions generated from within Western society and without will mature remains problematical. But for now we must be as one.
Exactly how these conflicting forms of resistance might work towards a common objective remains to be seen.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.