A deeply misleading narrative: Answering the claims of Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism

Cedric Robinson’s book Black Marxism has influenced a wide layer of academics and activists. But as the review by Steve Edwards explains, the title is misleading. It is in reality an attack on Marxism. Robinson raises a number of arguments which are false and need to be answered, including his claim that the roots of racism in Europe extend back thousands of years and that Marxism is “Eurocentric.” In the end, this book points those who want to fight racist oppression in the completely wrong direction. It is intended that ISA will publish further material explaining how Marxists fight oppression and how that differs from that of Robinson and those with a similar approach.

In a July 2020 interview on Showtime, hip-hop artist and activist Noname said “We get lost in just talking about capitalism. But there’s a Black radical tradition that really talks about how it’s rooted in racist practice. So, whenever we talk about capitalism, it’s beneficial to us to talk about racial capitalism.”

The book Black Marxism: The Making Of The Black Radical Tradition by the late Professor Cedric Robinson was originally published in 1983 during the first term of the right-wing Reagan administration, when the Cold War was renewed and the movements of the 1960’s and 70’s were in retreat. Republished in 2000 with a new foreword by history professor Robin D G Kelley, it is now known amongst a wide layer of activists. Its use of the phrase “racial capitalism” seems to echo Malcolm X’s “you can’t have capitalism without racism.”

In 2020, more than 25 million people took the streets against racism and police violence. Professor Kelley boasts that every organization involved in that has been influenced by this book, but as the movement has receded with negligible gains, the nonprofits he’s talking about continue to support Democrat politicians even as they busily assure their corporate sponsors that they never, ever said “defund the police”.

It has never been more important to find a political analysis that arms us to fight racism and capitalism. From its title, many might expect to find it in “Black Marxism”; but the book is actually an all-out attack on Marxism while Robinson’s “Black Radical Tradition” turns out to be a mystical concept offering no way forward.

A Mystical Concept

Readers who skip the forewords and introductions won’t find the Black Radical Tradition explained until halfway through the book, but its other-worldliness is immediately apparent: “This was a revolutionary consciousness that proceeded from the whole historical experience of Black people and not merely from the social formations of capitalist slavery or the relations of production of colonialism… always, its focus was on the structures of the mind. Its epistemology granted supremacy to metaphysics not the material… After all it had been as an emergent African people and not as slaves that Black men and women had opposed enslavement.” (Black Marxism pp. 169–170, our emphasis)

In the same vein, Robinson frames early slave revolts as “The renunciation of actual being for historical being; the preservation of the ontological totality granted by a metaphysical system” in which “defeat or victory was an internal affair.” (BM p. 168)

This seems more like an escapist dream than a plan for freedom, and in 2012 Robinson said this to an audience of students:

“It is about a kind of resistance that does not promise triumph or victory at the end, only liberation. No nice package at the end, only that you would be free. . . . Only the promise of liberation, only the promise of liberation!”

This would surely have baffled anti-slavery fighters like Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman or Frederick Douglass — or Dr. King, who pointed out that the right to sit at an integrated lunch counter does you no good if you can’t afford to eat.

The Bible Endorses Slavery: Why Bring Up Aristotle?

The first half of the book is not about Africa or the Americas; it’s about Europe. Cedric Robinson, says Professor Kelley, “rewrites the history of the rise of the West from ancient times to the mid-twentieth century… providing a withering critique of Western Marxism and its inability to comprehend either the racial character of capitalism and the civilization in which it was born, or mass movements outside Europe.” The rewrite turns out to be an all-but unrecognizable reworking of European history, built around the assertion that Western society has been racially ordered since the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. It contains no original research, but strings together quotations from a multitude of sources, from past debates between historians to college-level texts, many long out of date or context, some just bad.

Robinson’s source for tracing racism back to Aristotle was likely a 1974 paper by Black educator Mavis Campbell, who showed how certain passages in Aristotle’s “Politics” were used by late medieval and early Renaissance writers, and then 19th century Southern slave-owners to justify slavery. Neither Campbell nor Robinson investigate the 1500 year gap between Aristotle and the Renaissance. Campbell follows the Southern planters in projecting modern racist ideas onto ancient Greece, but Robinson makes a giant leap over all of this by claiming that because Marx respected Aristotle as a thinker, therefore Marx must also have been a racist who didn’t care about slaves.

“There was an obvious genealogy and a striking parallel between Aristotle’s treatments of slaves and slavery and those of Marx…. Their role in capitalist production, Marx believed, was an embarrassing residue of a precapitalist, ancient mode of production, which disqualified them from historical and political agency in the modern world. And this is not the only evidence that Marx had been substantially influenced by Aristotle.” (BM p. xxix).

“Embarrassing residue” refers to Robinson’s bizarre claim that Marx saw capitalism as a rational system: “Marx imagined a coherent ordering of things… For Marx, capitalism consisted of a geometric whole whose elementary and often hidden characteristics (price, value, accumulation, and profit) could be discovered with arithmetic means and certainty.” (from Robinson’s 2000 preface, BM p. xxviii) and “capitalists, as the architects of this system, never achieved the coherence of structure and organization that had been the promise of capitalism as an objective system.” (BM p. 2)

No Marxist has ever claimed that capitalism was an “objective system” planned by capitalist “architects.” On the contrary, Marx shows that the capitalists themselves don’t understand their system and can’t control it. It is because this uncontrollably exploitative, irrational system is putting all of our lives at risk that Marxists fight to replace it with a rational, democratically planned socialist world.

In Chapter 6, Robinson continues to paint Marx as an apologist for capitalism who “assigned slavery to that stage of capitalism’s development that he characterized as ‘primitive accumulation’…to…emphasize that the dominant capitalist mode of production bore little responsibility for the production and reproduction of the human materials it commanded in this aspect.” (BM p. 121).

But Marx, who studied slavery extensively, explicitly characterized the slaveholders of the US South as capitalists. As for “primitive accumulation”, early capitalist apologists had used the expression to avoid explaining the origins of their system; in the passage footnoted by Robinson, Marx was filling in the blanks with savage irony:

“The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalized the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation.

Marx’s Role in Fighting Slavery

Marx greeted John Brown’s seizure of Harper’s Ferry and a subsequent slave revolt in Missouri as “the most momentous thing happening in the world today”. He wanted Lincoln to make the civil war a revolutionary war by freeing the slaves and creating Black regiments, well before the Emancipation Proclamation.

Marx and his comrade Frederick Engels also played a leading role in the campaign to win British workers to support the North and stop Britain from helping the Confederacy. The North was blockading Southern ports to prevent the export of slave-produced cotton. Marx, Engels, and others built mass meetings of workers which opposed any British intervention on the side of the Confederacy, despite the fact that workers in the textile industry were starving for lack of work which was blamed on the blockade. This self-sacrificing and internationalist stand was a major factor in stopping the Royal Navy from intervening.

To report these movements, and Marx’s role in them would undermine Robinson’s false and reactionary claim that Europeans are innately racist — a claim which shifts the blame for the evils of capitalism onto its victims and implies that working-class unity is impossible.

What’s the Origin of Racism?

Robinson never defines what he means by racism. Instead he assumes that his readers will go along with the assumption that any and all differences or prejudices based on language, religion, or ethnicity are racist; in other words, he projects cultural markers from racist, capitalist 20th century America onto previous periods in history as though they have always had the same meanings.

In Chapter 1, Robinson asserts: “Racial Capitalism: the nonobjective character of capitalist development.

The historical development of world capitalism was influenced in a most fundamental way by the particularistic forces of racism and nationalism. This could only be true if the social, psychological, and cultural origins of racism and nationalism both anticipated capitalism in time and formed a piece with those events that contributed directly to its organization of production and exchange.” (BM p. 9)

Everything about this paragraph is wrong, but it needs to be said that racism and nationalism aren’t twins. Marxists don’t defend racism under any circumstances, nor are we nationalists, but we defend the right of nations to self determination, and we distinguish between the nationalism of the oppressor and that of oppressed peoples. As for Robinson’s insistence that systemic racism existed as a developed ideology before capitalism, this conflicts with the opinions of a very long list of anti-racist scholars and activists, including C.L.R. James, Walter Rodney, Oliver Cromwell Cox, Eric Williams, Lerone Bennett Jr, St Clair Drake, Frank M Snowden Jr and many more.

Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton said it well:

“We never negated the fact that there was racism in America, but we said that the by-product, what comes of capitalism, that happens to be racism. That capitalism comes first and next is racism. That when they brought slaves over here, it was to make money. So first the idea came that we want to make money, then the slaves came in order to make that money. That means, through historical fact, that racism had to come from capitalism. It had to be capitalism first and racism was a byproduct of that.”

If evidence existed that medieval Europe was governed by a racial order, surely other researchers would have found it. Robinson’s mentor Norman Cohn, who specialized in the study of medieval mass movements, made no such claims about racism despite his keen interest in its origins. (BM p. 45) In reality, the medieval ruling class didn’t need racism. They had the Catholic Church, to which everyone had to belong and which enforced a unifying, top-down ideology in the interests of the feudal ruling class.

Robinson’s claim that racism always dominated Europe is repeated for slavery: “slave labor as a critical basis of production would continue without any significant interruption into the twentieth century… Neither feudal serfdom, nor capitalism had as their result the elimination or curtailment of slavery.” (BM pp. 11–12, our emphasis)

This simply isn’t true. The slave-based Roman economy was replaced by feudalism in which the work was done by serfs, who had to pay tribute to their feudal lords but were not bought or sold. Serfs weren’t seized in slave raids; most lived in the same communities for generations. It’s entirely wrong to call this slavery.

The Invention of the “White Race”

Just as feudalism represented a revolutionary change from the slave-based Roman Empire, so capitalism in turn required a revolution that overthrew feudalism and the anti-scientific ideology of the Catholic Church. The new technologies of production demanded workers who could be dismissed whenever they weren’t needed. In Europe this new class of laborers was created by driving the previously enserfed peasantry off the land, leaving them no choice but to work for capitalists.

The exploitation of the Americas also required huge numbers of laborers. In Capitalism and Slavery, Trinidadian scholar Eric Williams shows how colonial landowners turned to the Atlantic slave trade after experimenting with indigenous labor and then British and Irish emigrants. As Walter Rodney explains, Africans were brought to the New World not because they were Black, but because they were the cheapest way to extract surplus labor from the colonies. Pioneering Black writer Lerone Bennett and later, Theodore Allen, showed that in the English speaking colonies, racist laws had to be created in order to allow for their status as slaves, and to incentivize poor whites to side with the slave-owners when slaves rose up in revolt. In his book The Invention Of The White Race, Allen made an intensive study of the records to show that the first time the word “White” was used in a legal description of a person was in colonial Virginia, after Black and white indentured servants had united to rebel against their colonial masters in 1676. No such study supports Robinson’s ahistorical claims about a precapitalist racial order.

Robinson’s ahistorical claims include assertions that capitalism was a continuation of feudalism, and that the Industrial Revolution was a “legend” invented by historians (BM p. 30). He writes that “a world revolutionary Black intelligentsia” is not bound by what he calls “conventions in Western historiography” and its “framing of events, especially among scholars and ideologues accustomed to assuming the existence of qualitatively distinct stages of human development” — by which he means Marxists. (BM p. 175) But what Black revolutionaries have rejected the idea of “qualitatively distinct stages of human development”? These mystical, anti-historical arguments were developed by ex-Marxist professors in elite European universities, known as the “postmodernists”, whose misdirections do not serve the interests of anyone seeking to overthrow capitalism.

Who was Cedric Robinson?

Robin Kelley, the academic mainly responsible for reclaiming Robinson from obscurity, is a historian by profession. He claims that Robinson’s “ideas evolved directly out of the social movements in which he took part and the key social and political struggles that have come to define our era.” (BM p. xv). But a new biography by Howard University’s Joshua Myers, Cedric Robinson: The Time of the Black Radical Tradition shows that Robinson’s part in social movements was actually quite small. (Myers pp. 64–65, 80–83, 87)

Cedric Robinson enrolled at UC Berkeley in 1959. He was initially very active in politics, becoming Vice President of the campus branch of the NAACP where he organized visits by Black self-defense advocate Robert Williams and Malcolm X and a protest against the Bay of Pigs invasion. He was also involved in a study group, the Afro-American Association. In 1962 he went on a visit to Southern Rhodesia where he met with leaders of the independence movement ZAPU. But sometime during that year he dropped out of the study group, and there’s no record of any further political activity. (Myers, p. 64).

After graduation, Robinson was drafted into the army and in his letters home his biographer has found some surprising statements. For example, when the NAACP organized militant sit-ins involving hundreds of arrests that won jobs for Black workers at Bay Area auto dealers, Robinson criticized it for implying “to white folks that we want something which only they can give us” (Myers p. 79). Other letters make it clear that Robinson was rejecting more than just the tactic: “If I attach my future to the people who I have been taught to love and understand, I must stand, as they, inextricably bound to their own sensuous nihilism, we all die building our pathetically ethereal towers” (letter to a friend dated 6/1/1964, quoted in Myers, p. 80).

In 1966, Robinson signed up for a Master’s in political science at San Francisco State, but “as the student movement gained momentum, Cedric did not participate… By the time the events of 1967 were taking place, Cedric had made a decision to lay low, to “get his political worldview together.” (Myers p. 87)

These were the most tumultuous years of the Black revolt. In 1966 the Black Panther Party was founded in Oakland, Robinson’s hometown. 1967 saw Black rebellions in 150 cities. In 1967 Dr. King spoke out against the Vietnam War. The following year, King was assassinated while leading a Black general strike in Memphis. At Robinson’s college, San Francisco State, students in the Third World Liberation Front went on strike in 1968–9 with hundreds arrested demanding a department of Ethnic Studies with African-American, Asian-American and Chicano faculty. Robinson was not involved. (Myers p. 87)

Before finishing his Masters degree, Robinson was recruited into a PhD program at Stanford University. (Myers p. 88) His first published paper, “Malcolm Little as Charismatic Leader” (1969) is a pseudo-psychological study that ignores Malcolm’s politics, reducing the “Autobiography of Malcolm X” to a “psychoanalytic interview” (Myers, Chapter 3).

In 1971 Robinson went to England for a year at the privately-funded Institute for the Study of Collective Psychopathology which was founded to study Fascism and Communism. (Myers, p. 95–96) Its director Norman Cohn is cited in “Black Marxism” and taught that mass movements result from mass psychological delusions. The Institute’s founders included an adviser to the Anglo-Dutch corporation Unilever, notorious for its use of forced labor in the Congo. Unilever paid for Robinson’s study year through its nonprofit Leverhulme Foundation.

Robinson’s PhD thesis, “Leadership: A mythic paradigm,” later published as The Terms of Order was written while in England and leans heavily on Cohn’s theories as well as the postmodern cynicism of the Euro ex-Marxists mentioned above. (Myers p.105) Back in the USA, Robinson was hired by Black conservative Harold Cruse to teach at the newly created Department of Black Studies in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His career took off from there.

During a second study year in England, funded by the Ford Foundation, Robinson completed “Black Marxism”. The first chapter had already been published, but without using the phrase “racial capitalism”. This was coined by exiled South African Trotskyists in “Foreign Investment and the Reproduction of Racial Capitalism in South Africa which was published in England by the Anti-Apartheid Movement in 1976. Robinson never acknowledged the connection; in an interview in 2015, Robinson and his wife Elizabeth claimed that the anti-apartheid movement was “a ghost in the world” when they were living in England, although while they were there, numerous British cities had made headlines by renaming streets after Nelson Mandela, and the British Labour Party had invited the imprisoned Mandela to their annual conference in Brighton.

How can we end racism and capitalism?

The South African Trotskyists argued that South Africa’s foreign investors were fully behind apartheid. They warned that a diplomatic solution brokered by Anglo-American imperialism would not bring an end to racist, capitalist exploitation, arguing instead for South African workers to link up with workers internationally and fight for a Socialist world. The ANC leadership ignored these warnings with tragic results.

With Robinson the phrase has a completely different meaning. He had already decided that racism, not capitalism, was the problem. In this world view, international solidarity is made impossible by an innate European and Euro-American racism.

It’s clear from his writings in the 1960’s that Robinson had long regarded social movements as futile. Sit-ins for jobs were “sensuous nihilism” building “pathetically ethereal towers.” No doubt he met many radical Black thinkers in the course of his career, but his attacks on Marxism don’t come from Walter Rodney or C.L.R. James. On the contrary, he relied on conservative academics like Norman Cohn, post-modernist professors like Foucault, Althusser, and Baudrillard, and flagrant anti-Communists like Cornelius Castoriadis and Franz Borkenau.

Robinson is a defeatist and a forerunner of Afro-Pessimism. His arguments for the Black Radical Tradition celebrate defeated rebellions, yet he never mentions Frederick Douglass or Harriet Tubman.

In the last section of the book Robinson tries to connect the Tradition to three real-life African-American authors who he says rejected Marxism: W.E.B. Du Bois, C.L.R. James, and the novelist Richard Wright. None of them fits his description.

Robinson claims that Du Bois, after having embraced Marxism, rejected it later in life. But it was precisely at the end of his life that Du Bois joined the Communist Party, writing, aged 93, that “Capitalism cannot reform itself… Communism is the only way of human life.” C.L.R. James, although he undoubtedly moved away from building a revolutionary party, never repudiated Marxism.

As for Richard Wright, socialist scholar Joseph Ramsey has published a detailed critique showing that Robinson used doctored quotations to make Wright, famously an integrationist, appear to support Black nationalism. Cornel West wrote in 1988 that he found Robinson’s version of Wright “unintelligible”.

Having rendered his hand-picked subjects unrecognizable, Robinson then ignores other Black activists who identified as Marxist. No Hubert Harrison, no Manning Marable, no James Boggs, no Detroit Revolutionary Union Movement; Angela Davis and Walter Rodney are mentioned once, Assata Shakur, Fred Hampton, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale not at all.

Marxism is about class struggle to defeat capitalism. Robinson, clearly, saw this as a futile project. His boosters need to explain why they have greeted and promoted his work when it so obviously provides no answers to the existential crises facing the multi racial, multi ethnic, multi gendered working class. These can only be resolved through a united, democratically organized struggle based on the power of the working class.

Books referenced:

Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, (UNC 2nd edition, 2000).

Cedric Robinson, The Terms of Order (UNC 1980).

Joshua Myers, Cedric Robinson, The Time of the Black Radical Tradition (Polity, 2021).

Further reading:

William I Robinson, Salvador Rangel and Hilbourne A Watson, The Cult of Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism: A Proletarian Critique (The Philosophical Salon online, October 2022).

John Bellamy Foster, Hannah Holleman and Brett Clark, Marx and Slavery (Monthly Review online, July 2020).

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Jared Diamond is a materialist. For him, historical and cultural development is rooted in environment, geography and technology. Technological and environmental transformations give rise to differing social organisation and changing values and culture.