IT'S ONE of the oldest truisms around. Racism, it's said, is as old as human society itself. As long as human beings have been around, the argument goes, they have always hated or feared people of a different nation or skin color. In other words, racism is just part of human nature.
If racism is part of human nature, then socialists have a real challenge on their hands. If racism is hard-wired into human biology, then we should despair of workers ever overcoming the divisions between them to fight for a socialist society free of racial inequality.
Fortunately, racism isn't part of human nature. The best evidence for this assertion is the fact that racism has not always existed.
Racism is a particular form of oppression. It stems from discrimination against a group of people based on the idea that some inherited characteristic, such as skin color, makes them inferior to their oppressors. Yet the concepts of "race" and "racism" are modern inventions. They arose and became part of the dominant ideology of society in the context of the African slave trade at the dawn of capitalism in the 1500s and 1600s.
Although it is a commonplace for academics and opponents of socialism to claim that Karl Marx ignored racism, Marx in fact described 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. InCapital, 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. InWage 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.
From time immemorial?
The classical empires of Greece and Rome were based on slave labor. But ancient slavery was not viewed in racial terms. Slaves were most often captives in wars or conquered peoples. If we understand white people as originating in what is today Europe, then most slaves in ancient Greece and Rome were white. Roman law made slaves the property of their owners, while maintaining a "formal lack of interest in the slave's ethnic or racial provenance," wrote Robin Blackburn in The Making of New World Slavery.
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