It is a very common thing to hear someone say, “Socialism will not fix racism.” This is of course partially true at least. The changing of the relations of the means of production to a socialist relation opposed to a capitalist one won’t end racism and other forms of bigotry overnight. However, is this observation anything new, or is it even that profound? Maybe it was genuinely something that not everyone was aware in the 19th or early 20th centuries. I recall a biographer of Eugene V. Debs discussing Debs’s downplaying of the problems of racism in America and how Debs thought the class struggle on its own would solve the problem. This is probably a fair criticism, but in the modern times I don’t think this is really a profound statement anymore. It is also not exactly something that was left out of orthodox Marxism even in the beginning.
I decided it would be worthwhile writing on this after seeing two tweets by Tim Wise on Twitter:
Tim’s tweets in my opinion seem to be a simple rehashing of this age-old argument in a particularly stupid way. It is especially odd since he seems to think that identifying as a socialist and understanding how white supremacy works in America are mutually exclusive positions. Ending this with the statement that he is anti-capitalist as well throws another curveball as what system other than capitalism does he support if not socialism? The last part seems to show how very shallow his tweets. I seriously don’t think any modern day socialists are even suggesting not opposing racism. This seems to be nothing more than excuses.
For starters I think virtually every American socialist nowadays is quite aware of how capitalism in America was built on the backs of African slaves and stealing the land of the American Indians through the process of colonization. The history of this is no longer a mystery to most of the left, and if anything there is a current trend in leftist circles to oppose most of the history of American progress as having actually been bad. However, we don’t need to talk too much about that because the point is that deep entrenched racism being part of American capitalist history is very much common knowledge on the left.
I do however insist that we don’t take the idealist framework that America was built entirely on the ideology of white supremacy and instead apply a materialist analysis which shows that economic forces of capitalism were the large drivers in building the economic class system which we now have today. Starting with the American Revolution we had the first of the “Great Bourgeois Revolutions” that sparked a revolutionary era around the world to throw off the shackles of feudalism. The American Revolutionaries would gain their independence and create a new nation. This would largely inspire the French Revolution and climax in the Haitian Revolution which was the most notable successful slave rebellion in history. The original economic relations in America however were still quite primitive in that they were that of an agrarian slave society. This would last until the Civil War when Lincoln freed the slaves. However, this is an oversimplified analysis itself. It wasn’t just Lincoln freeing the slaves, but it was the process of capitalist industrialization in the north which was making slavery no longer an appropriate mode of production and would have to be abolished with the times. The Civil War would end chattel slavery as we know it, and Karl Marx would suggest it was the finishing of the American Revolution.
This is what built American capitalism and its class system, but there is one thing which should be noted is that capitalist industrialization played an extremely crucial role with the abolition of slavery. This is frankly undeniable. There of course were abolitionist movements of the time and many people which found the institution immoral, but this came with the times. The moral position against slavery did not initiate the abolitionist movement, but rather the movement to industrialize in the north did influence the moral position against slavery. Even Lincoln himself seemed moved more by the material conditions around him than his own moral concerns. Could this also hold true for a transition from capitalism to socialism?
Before we answer that question I would like to explain a basic Marxist concept that Marx and Engels formulate in The German Ideology: the base and the superstructure.
The idea is that the base is the material conditions of a society and the prime mover of history. It is as the diagram shows the economics and relations to production in the society. It also helps shape what is known as the superstructure. The superstructure is where things such as ideology, politics, religion and more come into play. These are reflections of the base and they often reinforce and legitimize the base. If we look back at American slavery the base was the slave system and rampant racism was used to justify maintaining the slave system. This included almost all walks of life as the political and the religious also maintained the slave system. For the most part the Bible was always used to maintain slavery citing pro slavery verses such as Luke 12:47. This however would change in the north as capitalist industrialization came into being. Many Christians in the north actually became abolitionists and started to reinterpret the Bible in favor of their abolitionist views. The most notable example is probably John Brown. This however is an excellent example of how the base helps to shape the superstructure and it took the base progressing through capitalist industrialization to change the way Christians interpreted the Bible.
Now, back to that question about whether a transition from capitalism to socialism could improve race relations in America. I think that answer is unanimously, YES! The goals of socialism being to end the private ownership of the means of production and to bring the ownership to the workers and end commodity production absolutely should do wonders for race relations and most other forms of bigotry in America. The main reason being is that it would end the majority of hierarchies that exist in society that allow the oppression of peoples. In American history and really world history under capitalism that is how most forms of racisms and discrimination against minorities has worked. Those which hold the majority of ownership of capital in a society use that power and both intentionally and unintentionally at times discriminate against those minorities. Without such hierarchies and with most people on relatively equal playing fields I don’t think racism will be anywhere near as big of a problem. Will people still hold racial prejudices? Probably yes, and this is probably even more so the case for in the beginning. It will take time as the material conditions transition from capitalism to socialism for the superstructure to catch up, but it will happen.
This of course doesn’t mean we don’t have to worry about combating racism directly. Of course we should! Acknowledging the base and superstructure we still must engage with the superstructure. It is just secondary to the base. In any socialist movement we cannot have racism and bigotry within our movement, and we should actively try to stamp it out through various methods, most of which educational. I would prioritize two things which are the history of racism in America and the biological and genetic scientific evidence which shows that race is just an arbitrary social construct that is scientifically meaningless. If we know both of these we will know the harm that it has done, and we will also be aware that this outdated social construct is just another obstacle in our way for progress towards socialism.
This gets to the other point I would like to make. Why do people make this statement, especially if it’s not particularly profound? Well, I honestly think it is in many cases an excuse or even class politics to protect the status quo. A very good example is how the Bernie Sanders campaign has been regularly attacked for not giving enough attention to race and gender issues and focusing too much on class issues. This of course ignores that Bernie has been involved in those since the Civil Rights Movement and the fact that people of all races and genders also benefit from all his class based policies as well. That brings us back to our friend, Tim Wise whom made a follow up tweet:
“Fetishization of the white working class” whatever that means…. I honestly don’t know what it means, but I have come to notice that only two groups really use the term seriously. The first is the one Tim belongs, bourgeois white liberals which ultimately want to protect the status quo of capitalism. The second are outright white supremacists that use socialist rhetoric to organized based on race. It seems that Tim thinks that Bernie supporters are closer to the latter when in reality they are a rejection of both. That leads me to the joke response I gave Tim:
The truth is this “white working class” thing is bullshit. There is only one working class and that working class consists of proles from all racial and ethnic backgrounds. We don’t need these unnecessary efforts to divide the working class into smaller and smaller categories that must be dealt with separately. It suggests that we have different overall needs, and this is just not true. We all have bills to pay, and we all probably would benefit from having better access to healthcare and education. It also is worrisome as it suggests that people like Tim might even believe that there are genuine biological differences between the races that will not allow us to work for common goals. This is something all socialists should reject on principle and instead embrace solidarity as united working class.
Ultimately, it seems people like Tim have a goal, and that goal isn’t so much to end racism. That goal is to protect the status quo of liberal capitalism. As Tim himself is not explicitly racist at least he doesn’t do so by the classic racist ways of dividing the working class. He instead takes a new intersectional way of dividing the working class and suggesting these different struggles are too unique to fit under one umbrella. As a Marxist and a humanist I ultimately reject this notion and stand behind the position we are very much capable of working together for common goals. Yes, many people in the movement will hold unfortunate prejudices and even bigotries of the type. However, part of that is just being human. We are not perfect and our brains are pattern seeking machines. They pick up patterns from our culture and media which lead to having such prejudices, most of them harmless, but the others can be very harmful. This is true for whites, blacks, Latinos, Asians, Middle Easterners, etc. We all have this problem. However, it has been improving greatly over time. If we look back just a couple decades ago what we saw as acceptable would be deemed entirely unacceptable today. That is going to continue in the future, and I think the more we can improve our economic conditions the faster that will improve. Maybe even one day we can reach a communist society and all of our stupid bigotries will cease to be. For that I will leave you with a favorite Youtube clip of mine by Fred Hampton explaining how we can beat racism with solidarity.