Race and the Logic of Capital

Against the Current, No. 192, January/February 2018

Alan Wald

Class, Race, and Marxism
By David Roediger
London: Verso, 2017, 198 pages, $26.95 hardback.

TODAY’S ANT-RACIST LEFT is roiled by at least four absorbing controversies about racism and resistance: “Afro-pessimism,” recurrently taken up in relation to journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates and literary scholar Saidiya Hartman;(1) the “New History of Capitalism,” fostered by Harvard historians Sven Beckert and Walter Johnson;(2) contrasting versions of “Identity Politics,” pitting the burgeoning movement of Black Lives Matter against liberal scolds such as political scientist Mark Lilla;(3) and disagreements as to whether the “Alt-Right” epitomizes a genuine fascist threat to the system or is a populist expression of the racism characteristic of U.S.-style democracy.(4)

David Roediger’s Class, Race, and Marxism, a scintillating compilation of six previously published papers, does not track these directly but is nonetheless essential reading for appraising them all. Roediger can bring to these and other conversations a Marxist grounding in how and why capitalism requires race constructions as constitutive of the deep structure that provides the continuity of our history.

Through his adroit intertwining of race and class as the coordinates of U.S. history, we learn how working people identify as “white” in a manner that sheds light on the logic of capital. This helps us understand why there is no firm division between anti-capitalist struggles and those that are anti-racist.

The essays in Roediger’s collection are divided into two sections, “Interventions: Making Sense of Race and Class” and “Histories: The Past and Present of Race and Class.” This is also a volume that has aspects of a retrospective of his career as a whole, a subject worth reviewing for those who wish to understand how his current activism and theorizing are a continuation of earlier generations of Marxists.

David R. Roediger is a 65-year old Distinguished Professor of American Studies and History at the University of Kansas, who has a gift for discussing complicated theories without becoming pretentiously opaque or hitting his readers over the head with prescriptive admonitions.

Activists of different age groups accurately regard him as the best thing that happened to Marxist race and class theorizing over the past few decades. His life provides a compelling example of the value of the generational transmission of the culture and experiences of the Left.

Class and Race Management

Roediger launched his academic career as a labor historian of the eight-hour day movement with the co-authored Our Own Time: A History of American Labor and the Working Day (with Philip Foner, 1989), but his smashing debut as an authority on race and class came with The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the Working Class (1991).

This consciousness-shifting book changed the academic terrain of the disciplines of American Studies, U.S. History, labor history, race and ethnicity studies, and more. The Wages of Whiteness is today adjudged the key text in “Whiteness Studies,” maintaining that the concept of a “white race” in the United States is a historical phenomenon consciously developed by slave owners to separate out the mostly non-Europeans and non-Christians they exploited.

Ethnic groups under suspicion for not being “white,” such as Irish immigrants, gained acceptance by participating in Draft Riots against Civil War conscription and protests against the right of Blacks to vote in Philadelphia. White working people in the South, too, gained, at the least, a symbolic “wage” by embracing a socially constructed racial category of superiority.

After publishing a half-dozen other books that elaborated and developed this argument, Roediger achieved a second breakthrough when he co-authored The Production of Difference: Race and the Management of Labor in U.S. History (with Elizabeth Esch, 2012). Here the emphasis is on how the logic of capital requires race and gender constructions not as contingencies but as essential in the production of differences that split the labor force into competing segments.

Scholars had previously addressed the “scientific management” of labor starting in the late 19th century, but Roediger and Esch demonstrate that this was long preceded and then shaped by a specific “race management.” As they state in an essay revisiting the topic in Class, Race, and Marxism:

“The practice of race management linked race and work early and powerfully. By the 1830s the kinds of danger, filth, overwork, and subservience that could be particularly demanded of African American workers, free and slave, had spawned a linguistic Americanism, with ’nigger work’ enduringly entering the language…. Specific jobs were connected to the race management practices directed against the vulnerable workers doing them.” (129)

What’s critical in this argument is that really existing capitalism must produce differences among workers to maintain its hegemony; it needs and exploits race and gender distinctions.

Of course, this indispensable point for understanding U.S. history was never substantially put forward by Marx and Engels, who defined capitalism only in regard to divisions by class.

Roediger and Esch, however, don’t see a contradiction when it comes to the actuality of U.S. capitalism; race and gender do not have autonomous existences but neither is epiphenomenal.(5)

With reference to the scholarship of economics professor Michael Lebowitz, Roediger states in the introduction to Class, Race, and Marxism: “racism was part of capitalism, and of capital, but not of Capital, as Marx left the production of difference untheorized in a way that we cannot afford to.” (26) It therefore may be appropriate, following the late political scientist Cedric Robinson (1940-2016), to refer to the U.S. system as “racial capitalism.”

From Within the Marxist Tradition

A unique aspect of this collection is that several essays provide biographical information that helps us understand how Roediger did not emerge magically from the graduate lounge or faculty club, but is the product of a lifelong activism combined with tutelage at the hands of Old Left radicals.

This information is somewhat dispersed in his “Introduction: Thinking Through Race and Class in Hard Times,” “Chapter 2: Accounting for the Wages of Whiteness: U.S. Marxism and the Critical History of Race,” and “Chapter 3: A White Intellectual Among Thinking Black Intellectuals: George Rawick and the Settings of Genius.”

Roediger came from a pro-union family in Columbia, Illinois, and became radicalized while a student at Northern Illinois University, where he graduated in 1975. At that time he became the leader of a maverick chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) that carried on a life of its own after the national SDS exploded in factions in 1968-9.

Next, while a graduate student at Northwestern University until 1980, he blended his academic work (under historians George M. Fredrickson and Sterling Stuckey) with a commitment to additional Chicago radical groups. These include the revolutionary socialist Red Rose Bookstore Collective, the pro-strike and anti-Nazi Workers Defense, and, starting in 1979, the Chicago Surrealist Group led by Franklin Rosemont (1943-2009). In addition, he initiated decades of collaboration with Charles H. Kerr and Company, the oldest socialist publishing house in the world, revived by Franklin and Penelope Rosemont.

Through these experiences Roediger combined a classical Marxist with a libertarian socialist education. From 1985 to 1995 he taught at the University of Missouri, the University of Minnesota until 2000, and then at the University of Illinois at Champaign/Urbana until 2014.

A central preoccupation of Roediger’s autobiographical material aims to establish that Whiteness Studies emerged not — as is sometimes claimed — from cultural studies or postmodernism but from the Marxist tradition in the United States, one to which African-American intellectuals made decisive contributions.

It was, of course, W. E. B. Du Bois’s questioning of why working class whites embraced racism against their own interests that led to research about “wages of whiteness.” Stuckey and C. L. R. James loom large in Roediger’s intellectual development.

Along with these are several white former Communists such as Theodore (“Ted”) Allen (1919-2005), who wrote the two-volume The Invention of the White Race (1994-1997), and Alexander Saxton (1919-2012), author of The Indispensable Enemy: Labor and the Anti-Chinese Movement in California (1975) and The Rise and Fall of the White Republic: Class Politics and Mass Culture in Nineteenth Century America (2003). Even more decisive is the Jewish-American Marxist George Rawick (1929-1990).

Sometimes it seems as if U.S. Trotskyism was a red piñata repeatedly wacked over the decades so as to spill out scores of talented and charismatic anti-Stalinist Marxists along the way. Many went on to become gurus in small circles and occasionally make distinctive contributions to Left culture; not only the above-mentioned James, but also Albert Weisbord, Martin Glaberman, Bert Cochran, Hal Draper, Harry Braverman, Raya Dunayevskaya, Grace Lee Boggs…and George Rawick.

Not only is Rawick the subject of a 25-page section of this book, with numerous other references scattered throughout, but Roediger is editor of Listening to Revolt: The Selected Writings of George Rawick (2010).(6)

Although Rawick was briefly in the Young Communist League in the 1940s, his subsequent political itinerary led in the 1950s to Max Shachtman’s Independent Socialist League (where he wrote as “George Post” or “George Rawlings”) and in the 1960s to Glaberman’s Facing Reality group, which brought him into personal contact with James in London.

In the meantime, after receiving a doctorate in History from the University of Wisconsin, Rawick pursued an itinerant academic career throughout the mid-West and the East Coast.

Rawick left the Facing Reality organization a year before its dissolution in 1970, and almost immediately launched his most important contribution to African-American history. This was a 41-volume set of oral histories by former slaves, titled The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography.

The first volume, From Sundown to Sunup: The Making of the Black Community (1972), contained Rawick’s own analysis. It was translated into 12 languages and is regarded as a major contribution to understanding the slave experience from the perspective of Black subjectivity and African Americans as actors in their own history.

Four Current Debates

For the most part Roediger’s writing seems effortlessly fluent and captivating; but Class, Race, and Marxism is not a primer and the research compiled in Chapters 4 and 5, “Removing Indians, Managing Slaves, and Justifying Slavery: The Case for Intersectionality” and the co-authored “‘One Symptom of Originality’: Race and the Management of Labor in U.S. History,” can be dauntingly dense.

Still, I find that his fine-grained and multifaceted arguments about class formation and the enduring impact of slavery speak immediately to the common theme of the four debates cited at the outset of this review, as well as related ones of socialist militants who aim to reconstruct a revolutionary project in the new context of Trumpworld.

For example, the emerging Afro-pessimists theorize a social universe structured more by an anti-Black solidarity than white supremacist ideology. They demand a full apprehension of the world-historical transformation entailed in the emergence of racial slavery, with a special acknowledgement of the anti-Black fantasies of murderous hatred undergirding the structures of institutions.

Saidiya Hartman famously wrote: “I too live in a time of slavery, because I am living in the future created by it.”(7)

Inasmuch as Roediger is no true believer in the messianic destiny of any class, and is sympathetic to critiques of “easy optimism” by Lauren Berlant, Terry Eagleton and the new journal Salvage (188), there is a place for pessimism (of the type associated with Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, “pessimism of the intellect”) that does not translate into passivity. Sometimes we fight even when we understand that there is little hope of winning a total victory, especially in our lifetime.

Then there are the economically minded new historians of capitalism who launched their work with studies arguing that U.S. capitalism originated in racial slavery. What is most striking is their contention that the slave South was the leading edge of global capitalism, with slaveholders as the quintessential capitalists.

Whether or not one is entirely convinced of this assertion, what is germane for contemporary activists is the manner in which these writers place the bloody horrors of racial slavery in the center as the product of capitalist “reason” — a profound challenge to the moral high ground that U.S. capitalism has tried to claim by hyping avowals of unequaled economic growth and a democratic system dedicated to the pursuit of liberty.(8)

Roediger’s book explains exactly why even the most sickening atavisms of racism are fully compatible with the capitalist order, with ramifications into the 21st century. At present, he notes, white wealth outpaces Black wealth by a factor of 16, double what it was a decade ago.

Next, since our understanding of race and class informs our strategy for actions, the topic of identity politics — mobilizing as distinct collectives with group-related demands — has become an especially impassioned one.

To be sure, Marxists realize that all people possess multiple identities at the same time. This is one reason why “intersectionality” — the interconnected nature of social categorizations — has become a prominent analytical tool for us.

Still, radical identity politics insists that universals must sometimes be constructed on the basis of particular differences. The making of group-specific demands means that there are moments when people must be divided from one another as well as united in a shared cause.

Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs’ claim that “The class struggle is colorless”(9) may have sounded appealing at one time, yet Roediger teaches how the Left has learned repeatedly that race and gender are the modalities through which class is lived. Practically speaking, universalism has served the interests of men more than women and whites more that people of color.

That is why, contrary to recent statements by David Harvey and Paul Gilroy (1, 7), race-based (and gender-based) mobilizations with specific policy solutions are more critical than ever to addressing capitalist inequality as a necessary complement to “universal” race-neutral strategies.

Finally, even though we are in a period of redefinitions and recomposition among currents in the socialist, working class, and other movements of the oppressed, it is a misreading of the historical moment to confuse the electoral success of racist populism with the project of actual fascism. Roediger’s work reminds us that racism and white supremacy have always been essential elements of the dominant form of democracy.

Our task is not to decry Trumpian Republicans as fascists — in order to champion the less offensive and subtler Democratic Party wing of democracy to stave off a fascist revolt — or to license small groups of Leftists to take matters into their own hands regardless of consequences for the rest of us.

Opposition to the minority of fascist elements must occur in the context of building a social movement to dismantle and replace the capitalist system as a whole.

A Politics Not Yet Known

Roediger’s book certainly offers no prescriptions for resolving such recent controversies, and what I have just put forward are my own preliminary thoughts. But what he presents may aid us in catching up with the reality that always seems to be lurching ahead of us — toward “a politics not yet known.” (159)

Recycling the familiar narrative paradigms of the “class-first” Left, which sometimes sound like the advocacy of a race-less anti-racism, isn’t going to do it. His method offers a framework for difficult dialogues with others in diverse locations who are not just outraged by this or that atrocity, but who refuse to support the type of socio-economic order that breeds the very defects we deplore.

A clear instance of Roediger’s attempt to create a bridge from past traditions to the future — much as George Rawick created a bridge from the Old Left to the 1960s Left — is his concluding discussion of the need to address uncomfortable political solidarities.

Here he maintains that we need to take seriously African-Americans’ discomfort with whites who glibly declare “I am Trayvon Martin.” (158) This slogan elides the critical point that Martin was profiled and targeted specifically because he was Black. Moreover, he notes that, after the killing of Mike Brown, Palestinian and Queer solidarity far outdistanced trade union solidarity. (163)

It’s not that Roediger is against political unity or coherent political formations; it is just that he finds “solidarity” too readily invoked even as it is too rarely analyzed. To become regrounded in new collective activisms, we need to become cognizant of the way solidarity slogans and actions can leave things out through easy assimilations and conflations.

It is time to think more about “relationality within solidarity” (159), and also to remember that solidarity is built less by rhetoric than by “first showing up.” (165)

Imagining a politics that articulates anti-racism, class struggle and feminism can be really tough. Nonetheless Class, Race, and Marxism is a book that can help us to expand our theories as we struggle to grasp how the class struggle is actually unfolding before us.

Not every wheel needs re-inventing, but we Marxists cannot remain trapped in old ideas and stale forms well past their sell-by dates; above all, any notion that the particularities of racial (and gender) oppression will be automatically solved by universal class demands.

In theory and practice, we cannot talk of “labor” detached from the specific bodies and histories of those carrying it out. Racism — and not just anti-Black bigotry — has persisted in endlessly vile forms as one of those toxic realities about which we should remain furious. We have tried fighting it before, but this time around we need to do a much better job.


  1. For discussions of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Afro-Pessimism, see: https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/05/ta-nehisi-coates-racism-afro-pessimism-reparations-class-struggle and https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/oct/08/between-the-world-and-me-sukhdev-sandhu-review. For Saidiya Hartman, see Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (1997). A useful introduction to the complexities of Afro-Pessimism can be found online at: http://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/wanderings-slave-black-life-and-social-death.
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  2. See Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (2014) and Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (2013).
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  3. See the Black Lives Matter website https://blacklivesmatter.com/about/ and Mark Lilla, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics (2017).
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  4. A comprehensive guide to readings on this topic has been prepared by the Campus Anti-Fascist Network: campusantifascistnetwork.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/CAFNSyllbus1i.docx
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  5. A symposium on Roediger’s book in Salvage contains a commentary by Charles Post regarding Roediger and Esch’s treatment of this aspect from the perspective of Marx’s theory of value, accumulation and competition, matters far outside my area of expertise. Roediger is expected to reply in a subsequent issue. See: http://salvage.zone/online-exclusive/symposium-on-david-roedigers-class-race-and-marxism/
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  6. For an insightful review, see Paul Buhle, “The Rawick File,” Against the Current #148 (September-October 2010): https://www.solidarity-us.org/node/3027

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  7. See her elaboration of this: http://creatinginterest.blogspot.com/2007/04/visceral-knowledge.html
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  8. A sharp critique of these historians was published by Charles Post in Catalyst 1, no. 1 (Spring 2017): https://catalyst-journal.com/vol1/no1/slavery-capitalism-post

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  9. Cited by Roediger, Class, Race, and Marxism, 33.
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January-February 2018, ATC 192