Race and the Communist Manifesto

Against the Current, No. 72, January/February 1998

Robin D.G. Kelley

“The bourgeoisie . . . has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural, and has thus rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life. Just as it has made the country dependent on the towns, so it has made barbarian and semi-barbarian countries dependent on the civilized ones, nations of peasants on nations of bourgeois, the East on the West.”

THE QUESTION OF Marx and Engel’s Eurocentrism is always a red herring, if you can forgive the pun. How could Marxism not have been Eurocentric at its inception? After all, it emerged in Western Europe as a critique of the industrial order in the era of the birth of modern nationalism and imperialism. We need to bury that question once and for all and constantly remind ourselves that “Marxism” is a manifestation of its time and place; it is a discourse about (and a product of) class struggle during the era of capitalism’s emergence–a history firmly rooted in the very ground that produced racism, patriarchy, imperialism, colonialism, and the idea of modernity and all that comes with it.

Marxism’s roots can be traced to several sources, from petit bourgeois utopian socialists to working class members of the Chartist movement, from young Hegelian philosophers to the proponents of a new “science” called political economy, from Social Darwinism to the emerging field of modern anthropology. Western Europe was Marxism’s womb, the 1848 Revolutions its midwife.

The Communist Manifesto, therefore, can only be understood as an historical document, a product of a revolutionary era a century and a half ago. It is a brilliant indictment of bourgeois society even if it underestimated the ruling class’s longevity, and it offers an inspiring vision of what the future might hold if the revolutionary proletariat (according to Marx and Engels) had its way. And it is startling that young Marx recognized the interdependency of “barbarian and semi-barbarian countries” with Western Europe–though perhaps I’m making too much of this since anyone with a passing knowledge of the sugar industry must have taken this relationship for granted in 1848, the same year France abolished slavery in its colonies once and for all.

Even more remarkable was Marx’s understanding of what the West’s “civilizing Mission” was all about. In the August 8, 1853 issue of the New York Daily Tribune, Marx wryly pointed out:

“The profound hypocrisy and inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilization lies unveiled before our eyes, turning from its home, where it assumes respectable forms, to the colonies, where it goes naked.

Naked, raw, brutal. He and his friend Engels were well familiar with conquest, genocide, slavery and slavery’s demise, and various forms of coercive labor that only escaped the slavery label by semantic sleight of hand. All this they knew, and placed under the ledger marked Primitive Accumulation. They had a materialist conception of history to make sense of the brutality, but lacked the tools to understand the psychological dimensions of exploitation and domination; they knew all too well the Accumulation part and what it meant but had little understanding of the “Primitives.”

The Manifesto was, after all, published thirteen years before the American Civil War; thirty-six years before the Berlin Conference; a half century before the imperialist wars in Cuba and the Philippines and the formal imposition of the color line on a global scale; sixty-five years before the Russian Revolution; a century and a year before the Chinese Revolution; and a century and a decade before the modern Civil Rights movement, the end of formal colonialism in much of Africa and the Caribbean, and the risings of the urban poor in metropolitan centers like Los Angeles, Detroit, Sharpeville (South Africa), Mexico City, and Brixton (England).

None of this could have been predicted in 1848. And had they tried to write the Manifesto from New Delhi or Bejing or Jackson, Mississippi in 1948, their proletariat and their bourgeoisie would have looked entirely different. Indeed, they might have abandoned the concept of a single proletariat or bourgeoisie and they might have even cited Oliver Cox’s magnum opus Caste, Class, and Race which was published in 1948.

I doubt that as displaced Germans living in 19th century England they fully grasped the nature of barbarism in the West. The barbarism of which Marx speaks is hardly hypocritical or inconsistent; the respectability bourgeois “civilization” achieved in the metropole depended on its nakedness in the colonies.

This is the Janus-faced nature of liberal humanism. As Jean Paul Sartre put it: “There is nothing more consistent than a racist humanism since the European has only been able to become a man through creating slaves and monsters.” Sartre, of course, is really repeating Frantz Fanon, whose brilliant treatise The Wretched of the Earth he was prefacing.

My invocation of Fanon here is deliberate: if we want to understand how the Marxist tradition deals with racism and colonialism, with forms of alienation that cannot be understood simply in terms of social relations of production, with the vicious brutality of global white supremacy and its consequences for all of us, then we need to look to Other Marxist traditions.

We need to pay attention to the Marxist traditions that rose out of anti-imperialist and anti-colonial struggles of the 20th century. Let’s look to the era of the First World War, the Mexican Revolution, the Bolshevik seizure of power, that produced the writings of Cyril Briggs and Hubert Harrison in Harlem, M.N. Roy in India, Japan’s Sen Katayama; to Depression-era radicalism that gave us W.E.B. DuBois’ magnificent Black Reconstruction, C.L.R. James’ equally brilliant The Black Jacobins, and various writings by the indefatigable George Padmore; and of course to the postwar era thinking of Fanon, Richard Wright, Amilcar Cabral, Claudia Jones, Oliver Cox, Walter Rodney, Grace Lee Boggs, Carlos Bulosan, to name but a few.

I’m not saying anything new. Fifteen years ago Cedric Robinson invited us to rethink the Marxist tradition before the fall of the Berlin Wall. His profoundly important book Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition challenged the dominant history of the world-wide left from the 1848 revolutions to the present. It shifted the center of radical thought and revolution from Europe to the so-called “periphery”–the colonial territories, the colored/marginal people of the metropolitan centers of capital. He documents how nationalism and pre-modern conceptions of racialism have stifled European Marxism, explains why we cannot rely on the logic of capitalist exploitation to explain revolt in the colored world, and explores the contributions of various Black thinkers to a critique and transformation of Western Marxism.

Indeed, the kind of radical thought and practice that emerged in the sites of colonial/racial capitalist exploitation were also products of the cultural logics and epistemologies of the oppressed as well as the specific racial and cultural forms of domination. Thus Robinson not only decenters Marxist history but decenters the “eye of the storm” sort of speak.

For all of its brilliant insights, the Manifesto has the shortcomings of its time, place, authors, even the character of the revolutions that spawned it. But the Marxist tradition continues to live, its richest insights coming from the most unlikely places. Of course we could use an updated Manifesto for 1998 but there have been many a manifesto over the course of the last century and a half. What we really need are the historical circumstances that compelled Marx and Engels to write the Communist Manifesto in the first place: in other words, we need the movement.

—Robin D.G. Kelley is the author of Yo’ Mamma’s DisFUNKtional! Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America (1997), Into the Fire: African Americans Since 1970 (1995), Race Rebels (1994) and Hammer and Hoe (1990.

ATC 72, January-February 1998