The term ‘Black Marxism’ is growing in popularity but is generally used in a way that is diametrically opposed to the intentions of its originator, Cedric Robinson. The central claim of Robinson’s Black Marxism (1983) is the existence of a ‘Black Radical Tradition’ in opposition to Marxism, which at times can be read as simply the opposition between being black or Marxist. Robinson focuses on the evolution of the thought of W.E.B. Du Bois, C.L.R. James, and Richard Wright from a Marxist approach into one which he calls the ‘black radical tradition’ via their rejection of the working class as an agent of change.
The ‘black radical tradition’ is characterised by a desire to recreate an African culture with a focus on self-consciousness over material reality. Rejecting approaches based on an abstract understanding of overthrowing a system, it is more often characterised by a flight from the system. For Robinson, this is highlighted by the widespread practice of slaves known as Marronage, that is, the escape from slavery and subsequent setting up of alternative societies based on the African culture from which they were torn. In contrast Marx is portrayed as essentially a Eurocentric thinker.
Robinson describes Marx’s opposition to Tsarism as the centre of reaction in Europe in the 1840s and 1850s as an expression of leniency towards German nationalism. Marx is said to support the independence of oppressed countries in limited cases: for example, Robinson falsely claims that Marx did not support Indian independence. Du Bois and James are described as going through a Marxist phase which is then surpassed by their adherence to the ‘black radical tradition’.
Du Bois’ (1935) most famous work Black Reconstruction is described by Robinson as demonstrating “the revolutionary force of slave and peasant labourers – this in opposition to a reactionary industrial working class” (Robinson 1983, 312) and thus breaking with orthodox Marxism. The book is rightly seen as a classic, highlighting the centrality of slaves in the Northern victory: The economic impact of the “general strike” of slaves leaving the South, and spying for the North, And the psychological impact of former slaves having their own battalion and fighting those who believed them to be inferior.
Du Bois’ argument is that the radical potential of the reconstruction period after the American civil war is not realised due to a lack of leadership resulting in the successful use of racism for dividing the oppressed and exploited groups. As Du Bois (1935, 216) puts it, “the proletariat is usually portrayed as united, but their real interests were represented by four sets of people: the freed Negro, the Southern poor white, and the Northern skilled and common labourer. These groups never came to see their common interests.” Du Bois (1935, 634) discusses in a similar fashion to Lenin the formation of a labour aristocracy of skilled workers and the mass of migrant workers in making up most of the working class of the North. This does not constitute the idea of a “reactionary industrial working class”. Du Bois’ later views on the working class are more supportive of Robinson’s claim. In his last autobiography, Du Bois (1968, 17) portrays the workers of the global North in a zero-sum game with the Global South, a rise in the living standards of the latter requiring a decrease in the living standards of the former. This is not however an abandonment of the working class for another.
With James’ work Robinson’s argument is even less convincing. James highlights the centrality of slave agency in the Haitian revolution in his most famous work Black Jacobins (1938), pointing out their similarity with the working class in terms of their concentration and organisation. In A History of Pan-African Revolt (1937) he focuses on a mixture of peasant and working-class revolt in Africa, the Caribbean, and the United States. Read today the book stands out for its focus on the working class of the Global South, a disappearing concept in the over-correction many academic works make today in their search for the true ‘subaltern’. Replacing an exclusive focus on working class struggle for an approach that ignores it completely is another form of reductionism. After James’ work as a central organiser in a ‘Leninist’ group (Socialist Workers Party USA) ended in 1950, he still retained faith in the potential power of the working class, writing a celebratory account of the Hungarian revolution against the Stalinist regime in 1956 with its formation of workers’ councils called Facing Reality in1958 (Bruhle 1988). Often overlooked is James’ ‘correspondence’ group’s involvement with the League of Revolutionary Black Workers who focused on fighting racism and capitalism through harnessing the power of black industrial workers, most successfully in Detroit car factories. Bruhle (1988, 170) remembers asking James a question about the decline of the Western working class in 1981, to which James responded that, “workers and peasants must realize that their emancipation lies in their own hands and in the hands of nobody else.”
Richard Wright is portrayed as the most apt representative of the Black Radical Tradition due to his working-class roots, but much of his argument revolves around the literary interpretation of characters in his later novels. By its very nature, this is a more difficult way to work out an author’s political beliefs than direct statements.
Despite the criticisms of Black Marxism outlined in this work , can we make use of the term Black Marxism today?
Robinson’s use of the term implies an inherent conflict between being black or Marxist, and he argues that this conflict plays out in James himself and his position on fascist Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia. Robinson (1983, 381) states that James, as an ‘International Socialist’, opposed British and French intervention in the conflict as furthering their own imperialist aims, but, as a ‘black man’, he wanted to go and fight in Ethiopia. In fact, James’ position is a consistent one: he called for global solidarity in which workers would boycott Italian goods rather than rely on colonialist governments, and he was central to organising solidarity for Ethiopia.
The term is also used in Black Marxism to imply black activists correcting Marxism. This undoubtedly happened, although the example used by Robinson of black activist Harry Haywood convincing the Comintern to support the ‘Black Belt thesis’, in which black people would constitute a nation within specific southern states of America, is a poor one. The Black Belt thesis was seen by many black activists as inverted segregation as James (1939) points out. This is more an example of a top-down imposition of a slogan based on a simplified version of the Russian experience of national self-determination.
Black Marxism as a term should be used to highlight the fact that figures of black liberation are organically part of the Marxist tradition and, like Du Bois and James, have contributed to its development rather than its replacement.