Like in their earlier text on the site Ill Will , “Theses on the George Floyd rebellion” , in their more recent essay “The Return of John Brown: White Race-Traitors in the 2020 Uprising “, Shemon and Arturo describe the social unrest of this year as a big step forward towards revolution. Less because of the mostly peaceful daytime mass protests than because of the nighttime violent insurgency. “Riots, looting, and arson have accomplished more in one summer than what activists have been able to accomplish in decades”, they write. And: “Experiencing this has been unlike anything we’ve experienced before. In the nerve-centers of the American empire, disparate fractions of the proletariat came together to attack the police and storm the commercial corridors of dozens of cities. In the “Theses,” we argued that the self-activity of the Black proletariat is the driving force of this revolutionary trajectory. In this essay, we explore the role of the white proletariat in this process.”
The authors are apologetic for even addressing this subject. They expect resistance from non-white proletarians “who cannot, on principle, stand any discussion of poor and working class whites”, who “think that it [the white proletariat] is eternally lost to racism”. They find this “an understandable position to have in this racist country” and think there is no point in trying to convince those folks otherwise, but they point to the fact that 60.1% of the US population is white, and only 13.4% is black. In short: black proletarians can’t make a revolution on their own. “A revolutionary alliance must develop between all sections of the proletariat”, they insist. Otherwise, there is no path to overthrow the present racial capitalist order.
“There is nothing more dangerous to the American bourgeoisie than a multi-racial proletarian struggle”, they rightly assert. They give several examples of such struggles and state, “if there is any group that has fought and died alongside Black people in this country, it is white people”. And on the present struggles, they observe that “majority white cities have witnessed the most militant rebellions of this cycle so far”. Most big cities in the US are majority white of course, yet it’s a fact that no social mass struggle in this country was as multi-racial as the movement of this year.
Yet in the same breath they assert: “there is nothing more dangerous to the class struggle in the US than the treachery of the white proletariat, which, over the course of its history, has forged an alliance with capital and the state. While the material basis of this alliance is deteriorating, and fissures are emerging, whiteness continues to be the glue that holds bourgeois society together in the U.S.”
So what to do? “Black Marxism positions itself in relation to whites in a strategic manner”, they profess. Non-white insurgents use the divisions between whites to their own advantage and welcome white “race traitors” to their side. Examples include the Haitian war of independence against France, in which “ an insurgent army of ex-slaves played different (European) colonial powers against one another”, and the Algerian National Liberation Front, which welcomed the support of whites. In all the examples, no distinction is made between European workers and capitalists. They’re all white. No distinction is made between black proletarians and black bourgeois and would-be bourgeois either. So no words are spilled on the fact that Haitian and Algerian proletarians are still ruthlessly exploited and repressed, albeit now by a bourgeoisie with the same skin color as they have.
A contradiction runs throughout this text: on the one hand, they are clear that systemic racism and capitalism are inseparable, that capitalism and equality exclude each other, that only the working class as a whole can abolish exploitation and discrimination. On the other, they often seem to reduce the very goal of the struggle against capitalism to black liberation. They warn that, if you might think they are “arguing for some essential class unity, nothing could be further from the truth”. Not essential class unity, but a strategic alliance between the black and white proletariats is what they propose, so that each can achieve its own goals. Their destinies are sealed together, they write. “This is the paradox of Black liberation in the United States.” (as opposed to liberated South-Africa or Nigeria, where black proletarians, as I’m writing, have the solace that those who kill them are black?)
They treat the black and the white proletariat as two different classes, accepting the division that capitalism imposes on the working class. “As a class, the white proletariat is slow to learn”, they write.
And: “As long as the Black proletariat is convinced that the white proletariat isn’t willing to fight racism to the finish, the horizon and possibilities of struggle will remain limited. The white proletariat has much to prove on this front.”
But as long as the white proletariat is convinced that the black proletariat’s struggle is about black liberation alone, the horizon and possibilities of struggle will remain limited as well. These are not two classes, they are segments of one huge class, the vast majority of humanity, whose interests are irreconcilable with those of capitalism. That is what purveyors of identity politics (white and black) are trying to hide.
Shemon and Arturo emphasize the divisions. The white proletariat, they write, “is a stubborn class that must be dragged into learning the truth.” “It has a lot of work to do to convince other workers that it is committed to revolution”.
“Historically, the white proletariat has only figured things out when objective circumstances dragged it through mud and blood. The US Civil War forced it to fight against slavery; the Great Depression forced it to join black proletarians in the CIO; World War II forced it to shoot fascists in Europe; the Vietnam war taught it the cruel lessons of American imperialism. The pattern is the same. Left to its own devices, the white proletariat will not figure out the riddle of America. Only crisis educates it.”
The examples aside – obeying capitalism’s order to go fight and die in its wars is hardly an advance in consciousness in our opinion – it is undoubtedly true, as the authors claim, that “it is only through the bitter experience of more crisis and more struggle that the white proletariat will succeed in becoming revolutionary”. But isn’t that true for all segments of the working class? There isn’t any that, “left to its own devices”, will figure out “the riddle of America” (or shouldn’t we say: the riddle of capitalism) without being pushed to do so by objective circumstances.
But it seems that, for Shemon and Arturo, the black proletariat1 has already figured out the riddle. It’s true that black proletarians have been dragged through more mud and blood than white ones, so that their collective memory and experience can give them a clearer view of the enemy. But have they collectively figured out the riddle? Churches and other reformist black institutions still wield enormous influence. The belief that the existing social order can be improved by participating in the democratic state to impose better laws and money allocations is still very strong across the board. Even among participants in the riots. Some of them saw their actions as pressure to obtain reforms like “defunding” the police. We explained before why this is a dead-end . Black Lives Matter (BLM), arguably the most influential organization in the “George Floyd rebellion” (which was mostly spontaneous) has recently been focusing on elections. It has launched a political action committee to support candidates, campaigns and legislation. It has been hosting pandemic-safe rallies, text-banking voters and running ads to increase the Black vote. That is a vote of confidence in the system. Do you think that the billionaires and corporations who gave BLM many millions of dollars did so out of the goodness of their hearts?
It’s true that BLM does more than election campaigning, and that its reformist illusions are shared by many millions of proletarians, black and white and in between. We’re still at that point. What Shemon and Arturo wrote about the white proletariat, that “only the bitter experience of more crisis and more struggle” will educate it, fits all segments of the working class. None of them is homogeneous in its understanding of the world. In any case, it is not their ideas which define them as a class. As long as the system retains credibility, the dominant ideas will be the ideas of the dominant class. What constitutes the proletariat is its objective position. As a class, it collectively reproduces human society, but for the needs and goals of capital. When capitalism generates crisis after crisis and starts to break down, the proletariat can see, and realize, the possibility to ground the reproduction of human society on another base than the despotic capital – labor relation. There’s no guarantee that it will, and it won’t if the recognition doesn’t grow that it is indeed the collective worker, connected despite all the differences in culture and skin color. There’s no guarantee but only the proletariat has, potentially, the power to save itself and, thereby, all of humanity. It has nothing to lose but its chains. But not all chains are equal, the ruling class made sure of that.
Let’s be clear: Race does not exist. Racism exist, but race does not. The classification of human beings based on the presence of a chemical compound in their skin is patently absurd. We’re all descendants of the same tiny group of homo sapiens in Africa, with only minor genetic differences, none of which is saying anything about who we are as a person.2 No “race” can claim a moral superiority. All of them have practiced war, genocide, torture, cannibalism, slavery, patriarchy, xenophobia. But not racism. That has been a modern invention, introduced by emerging capitalism. It found out it could make fabulous profits selling sugar, tobacco and cotton by establishing plantations in the newly discovered continent, if only it had the necessary labor power to do so. Indigenous people were no solution, in the first place because they were dying in great numbers from the germs the Europeans brought with them. And there was little surplus labor power available in Europe. The vast majority of the population still consisted of serfs, tied to the land. Famines and epidemics had created a shortage of hands in the farms. So the only solution was forced labor, captured from elsewhere. The prior existing slave trade in Africa provided the opportunity. Emerging African states made the capture of human commodities the driving force of their development. It was a win-win situation in the eyes of the ruling classes on both sides of the transaction and millions of captured humans were shipped across the Atlantic for commodity production. The fact that they were so tightly packed that scores of them died (which could not be done with white passengers, not even with indentured servants, making their transport more costly) testifies to the abundant supply and thus cheapness of African human commodities.
The reintroduction of slavery required ideological justification. Slavery, which had its apogy in Roman times, had become marginal or non-existent in most of Europe. Not in the least because the feudal serf had more incentive to raise productivity than a slave: the more he produced, the more he could keep for himself. Central state power was expanding, not yet conquered by the bourgeoisie but finding a commonality of interests with it. Its wars and conquests promoted loyalty to the nation. That was a relatively new ideology as well, based on the idea that the community of people is defined by the borders of their competing rulers’ possessions. That defined their identity as citizens of the nation. Slavery was not acceptable in that framework. But exploitation was. Religion was another ideological tool, merging with nationalism to tie the oppressed to their oppressors, to divide the former and to provide a scapegoat when one was needed. So that the Jews could be persecuted because they were not catholic and the Irish could be starved because they were catholic and so on. But the reintroduction of slavery required another herculean ideological effort.3 Because of the need for African forced labor, skin color was introduced as the criterion of human essence, to dehumanize blacks so they could be enslaved. Again, religious institutions played an important role in spreading this myth. There was resistance against this horrible innovation. But at every step, the drive for profit won.
Not everyone agrees on the modernity of the race myth. Cedric Robinson argued in his influential book “Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition” (1983) that capitalism was not racist because of its need to divide workers and justify slavery and dispossession, but because racism had already permeated European feudal society. Western European civilization was already thoroughly infused with it before capitalism emerged. His evidence includes the persecution of Jews and Roma and the contempt of English feudal lords for their Irish serfs. However, persecution of minorities and oppression of the ruled by their rulers were hardly unique to Europe. All “races” have a bloody past (and present). While it’s true that racism had roots in the violence, ethnocentrism and xenophobia that existed prior to capitalism, there are no examples of other societies where humanity was measured by melanin content in the skin.
Robinson challenged Marx’s concept of class struggle as the motor of history. In his view, the categories of class can’t be universally applied outside of Europe. Instead he characterized black rebellions as expressions of what he called the “Black Radical Tradition” which, in contrast to the European legacy, is infused with empathy for all the down trodden, regardless of race. Robinson wrote: “Blacks have seldom employed the level of violence that they (the Westerners) have understood the situation required.” Shemon and Arturo quote this approvingly and give several examples that show a “deep ethical commitment that, in opposition to the pathology of race, orients itself instead around the transformation of humanity”. The examples they give are real but there are also many of solidarity of whites with black victims. They all show an implicit recognition of a common humanity, of a class bond against oppression, which is is our only hope.
In the next part of this text, I will examine the racial caste system.
1 Or should I write “the Black proletariat”? It gets a capital B in their texts, while the melanine-deprived proletariat must do with a small w. Like in the New York Times. This is one concession that was easy to make for the political correct bourgeois media.
2As the historian Dante A. Puzzo wrote: Racism rests on two basic assumptions: that a correlation exists between physical characteristics and moral qualities; that mankind is divisible into superior and inferior stocks. Racism, thus defined, is a modern conception, for prior to the XVIth century there was virtually nothing in the life and thought of the West that can be described as racist. To prevent misunderstanding a clear distinction must be made between racism and ethnocentrism … The Ancient Hebrews, in referring to all who were not Hebrews as Gentiles, were indulging in ethnocentrism, not in racism. … So it was with the Hellenes who denominated all non-Hellenes—whether the wild Scythians or the Egyptians whom they acknowledged as their mentors in the arts of civilization—Barbarians, the term denoting that which was strange or foreign.[ Dante A. Puzzo, “Racism and the Western Tradition”. Journal of the History of Ideas. (1964) ]
3On the role of the Enlightenment in the creation of race, see Loren Goldner: Race and the Enlightenment From Anti-Semitism to White Supremacy Part 1 -1492-1676 and part 2:The Anglo-French Enlightenment and Beyond