Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition

Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition

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by Cedric J. Robinson

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Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
I can say, without a trace of hyperbole, that this book changed my life.

Robin D. G. Kelley, from the Foreword

Black Marxism provides a well-documented foundation upon which to build ideological and mass social movements.Phylon

A towering achievement. There is simply nothing like it in the history of black radical thought.

Cornel West, Monthly Review

Reflective and thought-provoking, a welcome contribution to the African/Afro-American studies discipline.

Canadian Review of Studies in Nationalism

Library Journal
Robinson rejects previous studies of black radicalism on the basis that they are founded on European history, which does not include blacks. Although he does trace European Marxism, for him the path of black resistance lies in other areas. A must-have volume for any black studies curriculum, this volume is also something public libraries will want. This edition of the 1983 original sports a new preface by Robinson. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\

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The University of North Carolina Press
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Second Edition
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6.11(w) x 9.19(h) x 1.07(d)

Meet the Author

Cedric J. Robinson is professor of black studies and professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His books include The Terms of Order, Black Movements in America, and Anthropology of Marxism.

Read an Excerpt

From Foreword

When black scholars hear the call to equal opportunity in darkness, they must remember that they do not belong in the darkness of an American culture that refuses to move toward the light. They are not meant to be pliant captives and agents of institutions that deny light all over the world. No, they must speak the truth to themselves and to the community and to all who invite them into the new darkness. They must affirm the light, the light movement of their past, the light movement of their people. They must affirm their capacities to move forward toward new alternatives for light in America.--Vincent Harding, "Responsibilities of the Black Scholar to Community"
I can say, without a trace of hyperbole, that this book changed my life. Like a specter, it has haunted me from the day I pulled it out of its brown padded envelope over sixteen years ago to the moment I agreed to write this foreword. The long hours, weeks, and months I agonized over this essay proved as exhilarating and frustrating and anxiety-ridden as my first encounter with Cedric J. Robinson's magnum opus during my first year in graduate school. It arrived out of the blue in the form of a review copy sent to Ufahamu, a graduate student journal published by UCLA's African Studies Center. The book's appearance caught me off guard; none of my colleagues had mentioned it, and I do not recall seeing any advertisements for it in any of the scholarly journals with which we were familiar. Nevertheless, for me the timing was fortuitous, if not downright cosmic. Just a few months into graduate school, I was toying with the idea of writing a dissertation on the South African Left. The inspiration was hardly academic; I was more interested in becoming a full-time Communist than a full-time scholar. I could not have cared less about historiography or the current academic debates about social movements. I wanted to know how to build a left-wing movement among people of color so that we could get on with the ultimate task of making revolution.

So when I saw the title, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, I could hardly contain myself. I had never heard of Cedric J. Robinson despite the fact that he was a faculty member and director of the Center for Black Studies at the neighboring University of California at Santa Barbara....

Black Marxism is far more ambitious than its modest title implies, for what Cedric Robinson has written extends well beyond the history of the Black Left or Black radical movements. Combining political theory, history, philosophy, cultural analysis, and biography, among other things, Robinson literally rewrites the history of the rise of the West from ancient times to the mid-twentieth century, tracing the roots of Black radical thought to a shared epistemology among diverse African people and 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. At the very least, Black Marxism challenges our "common sense" about the history of modernity, nationalism, capitalism, radical ideology, the origins of Western racism, and the worldwide Left from the 1848 revolutions to the present.

Perhaps more than any other book, Black Marxism shifts the center of radical thought and revolution from Europe to the so-called "periphery"--to the colonial territories, marginalized colored people of the metropolitan centers of capital, and those Frantz Fanon identified as the "wretched of the earth." And it makes a persuasive case that the radical thought and practice which emerged in these sites of colonial and racial capitalist exploitation were produced by cultural logics and epistemologies of the oppressed as well as the specific racial and cultural forms of domination. Thus Robinson not only decenters Marxist history and historiography but also what one might call the "eye of the storm."

Yet for all of Robinson's decentering, he begins his story in Europe. While this might seem odd for a book primarily concerned with African people, it becomes clear very quickly why he must begin there, if only to remove the analytical cataracts from our eyes. This book is, after all, a critique of Western Marxism and its failure to understand the conditions and movements of Black people in Africa and the Diaspora. Robinson not only exposes the limits of historical materialism as a way of understanding Black experience but also reveals that the roots of Western racism took hold in European civilization well before the dawn of capitalism. Thus, several years before the recent explosion in "whiteness studies," Robinson proposed the idea that the racialization of the proletariat and the invention of whiteness began within Europe itself, long before Europe's modern encounter with African and New World labor. Such insights give the "Dark Ages" new meaning. Despite the almost axiomatic tendency in European historiography to speak of early modern working classes in national terms--English, French, and so forth--Robinson argues that the "lower orders" usually were comprised of immigrant workers from territories outside the nations in which they worked. These immigrant workers were placed at the bottom of a racial hierarchy. The Slavs and the Irish, for example, were among Europe's first "niggers," and what appears before us in nineteenth-century U.S. history as their struggle to achieve whiteness is merely the tip of an iceberg several centuries old.[1]

Robinson not only finds racialism firmly rooted in premodern European civilization but locates the origins of capitalism there as well. Building on the work of the Black radical sociologist Oliver Cromwell Cox, Robinson directly challenges the Marxist idea that capitalism was a revolutionary negation of feudalism.[2] Instead, Robinson explains, capitalism emerged within the feudal order and grew in fits and starts, flowering in the cultural soil of the West--most notably in the racialism that has come to characterize European society. Capitalism and racism, in other words, did not break from the old order but rather evolved from it to produce a modern world system of "racial capitalism" dependent on slavery, violence, imperialism, and genocide. So Robinson not only begins in Europe; he also chips away at many of the claims and assertions central to European historiography, particularly of the Marxist and liberal varieties. For instance, Robinson's discussion of the Irish working class enables him to expose the myth of a "universal" proletariat: just as the Irish were products of popular traditions borne and bred under colonialism, the "English" working class of the colonizing British Isles was formed by Anglo-Saxon chauvinism, a racial ideology shared across class lines that allowed the English bourgeoisie to rationalize low wages and mistreatment for the Irish. This particular form of English racialism was not invented by the ruling class to divide and conquer (though it did succeed in that respect); rather, it was there at the outset, shaping the process of proletarianization and the formation of working-class consciousness. Finally, in this living feudal order, socialism was born as an alternative bourgeois strategy to combat social inequality. Directly challenging Marx himself, Robinson declares: "Socialist critiques of society were attempts to further the bourgeois revolutions against feudalism."[3]

There is yet another reason for Robinson to begin in the heart of the West. It was there--not Africa--that the "Negro" was first manufactured. This was no easy task, as Robinson reminds us, since the invention of the Negro--and by extension the fabrication of whiteness and all the policing of racial boundaries that came with it--required "immense expenditures of psychic and intellectual energies of the West" (4). Indeed, a group of European scholars expended enormous energy rewriting of the history of the ancient world. Anticipating Martin Bernal's Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, Vol. I (1987) and building on the pioneering scholarship of Cheikh Anta Diop, George G. M. James, and Frank Snowden, Robinson exposes the efforts of European thinkers to disavow the interdependence between ancient Greece and North Africa. This generation of "enlightened" European scholars worked hard to wipe out the cultural and intellectual contributions of Egypt and Nubia from European history, to whiten the West in order to maintain the purity of the "European" race. They also stripped all of Africa of any semblance of "civilization," using the printed page to eradicate African history and thus reduce a whole continent and its progeny to little more than beasts of burden or brutish heathens. Although efforts to reconnect the ancient West with North Africa have recently come under a new wave of attacks by scholars like Mary Lefkowitz, Robinson shows why these connections and the debates surrounding them are so important.[4] It is not a question of "superiority" or the "theft" of ideas or even a matter of proving that Africans were "civilized." Rather, Black Marxism reminds us again today, as it did sixteen years ago, that the exorcising of the Black Mediterranean is about the fabrication of Europe as a discrete, racially pure entity solely responsible for modernity, on the one hand, and the fabrication of the Negro, on the other. In this respect, Robinson's intervention parallels that of Edward Said's Orientalism, which argues that the European study of and romance with the "East" was primarily about constructing the Occident.[5]

At the very same moment European labor was being thrown off the land and herded into a newly formed industrial order, Robinson argues, African labor was being drawn into the orbit of the world system through the transatlantic slave trade. European civilization, either through feudalism or the nascent industrial order, did not simply penetrate African village culture. To understand the dialectic of African resistance to enslavement and exploitation, in other words, we need to look outside the orbit of capitalism--we need to look West and Central African culture. Robinson observes, "Marx had not realized fully that the cargoes of laborers also contained African cultures, critical mixes and admixtures of language and thought, of cosmology and metaphysics, of habits, beliefs, and morality. These were the actual terms of their humanity. These cargoes, then, did not consist of intellectual isolates or deculturated Blacks--men, women, and children separated from their previous universe. African labor brought the past with it, a past that had produced it and settled on it the first elements of consciousness and comprehension" (121).

Therefore, the first waves of African New World revolts were governed not by a critique of Western society but rather a total rejection of the experience of enslavement and racism. More intent on preserving a past than transforming Western society or overthrowing capitalism, they created maroon settlements, ran away, became outliers, and tried to find a way home, even if it meant death. However, with the advent of formal colonialism and the incorporation of Black labor into a more fully governed social structure, a more direct critique of the West and colonialism emerged--a revolt set on transforming social relations and revolutionizing Western society rather then reproducing African social life. The contradictions of colonialism produced the native bourgeoisie, more intimate with European life and thought, whose assigned task was to help rule. Trained to be junior partners in the colonial state, members of this bourgeoisie experienced both racism from Europeans and a deep sense of alienation from their native lives and cultures. Their contradictory role as victims of racial domination and tools in the empire, as Western educated elites feeling like aliens among the dominant society as well as among the masses, compelled some of these men and women to revolt, thus producing the radical Black intelligentsia. It is no accident that many of these radicals and scholars emerged both during the First World War, when they recognized the vulnerability of Western civilization, and the second world crisis--the international depression and the rise of fascism.

The emergence of this Black radical intelligentsia is the focus of the third and final section of Black Marxism. Examining the lives and selected works of W. E. B. Du Bois, C. L. R. James, and Richard Wright, Robinson's engagement with these three thinkers extends far beyond intellectual biography and critique. Taking us on a journey through two centuries of U.S. and Diaspora history, Robinson revisits the revolutionary processes of emancipation that caught the eyes of these men. He demonstrates how each of these figures came through an apprenticeship with Marxism, was deeply affected by the crisis in world capitalism and the responses of workers' and anticolonial movements, and produced, in the midst of depression and war, important books that challenged Marxism and tried to grapple with the historical consciousness embedded in the Black Radical Tradition. Du Bois, James, and Wright eventually revised their positions on Western Marxism or broke with it altogether and, to differing degrees, embraced Black radicalism. The way they came to the Black radical tradition was more of an act of recognition than invention; they did not create the theory of Black radicalism as much as found it, through their work and study, in the mass movements of Black people.[6]


I have no doubt that the return of Black Marxism will have as great an impact on current and future generations of thinkers as it had on me almost two decades ago. I am also confident that this time around, it will reach a much larger audience and will be widely discussed in classrooms, forums, and publications that take both the past and the future seriously. Why? Because for all of its illuminating insights, bold proclamations, subtle historical correctives, and fascinating detours along paths still unexplored, Black Marxism's entire scaffolding rests on one fundamental question: where do we go from here? It is the question that produced this remarkable book in the first place, and it is the question that will bring the next generation to it.

Robin D. G. Kelley


1. On the construction of "whiteness," see Theodore W. Allen, The Invention of the White Race, vol. 1, Racist Oppression and Social Control (London: Verso, 1994); David R. Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness (London: Verso, 1991), and Toward the Abolition of Whiteness: Essays on Race, Politics, and Working Class History (London: Verso, 1994); Alexander Saxton, The Rise and Fall of the White Republic: Class Politics and Mass Culture in Nineteenth Century America (London: Verso, 1990); Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White (New York: Routledge, 1995); Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993); Matthew Frye Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998).

Two important texts that appeared after Robinson's work and that trace European racialism back at least to the early Enlightenment are George L. Mosse, Toward the Final Solution: A History of European Racism (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985); and David Theo Goldberg, Racist Culture: Philosophy and the Politics of Meaning (London: Basil Blackwell, 1993).

2. In addition to discussing Cox in chapter 1 of Black Marxism, Robinson makes a more explicit connection between his work and Cox's in note 47 of chapter 4, below. Robinson further develops his analysis of Cox's contribution to a critique of Marxist historiography in his essay, "Oliver Cromwell Cox and the Historiography of the West," Cultural Critique 17 (Winter 1990/91): 5-20; also see Oliver C. Cox, Capitalism as a System (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1964).

3. See Robinson, 46, below. Henceforth, references to this edition of Black Marxism are cited parenthetically in the text.

4. Martin Bernal, Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, vol. 1, The Fabrication of Ancient Greece, 1785-1985 (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1987); Mary Lefkowitz, Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History (New York: Basic Books, 1996). For the sources Robinson draws on, see notes 53-129 of chapter 4, below. A recent and insightful intervention on this question is Wilson Jeremiah Moses, Afrotopia: The Roots of African American Popular History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

5. Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon, 1978).

6. Of course, Robinson in no way is saying that these three men are the only ones to have confronted and eventually embraced the Black Radical Tradition. He is merely offering an opening, locating three figures whose lives and works clearly embody these ideas. One can extend his analysis to Amilcar Cabral, Frantz Fanon, Claudia Jones, Aim‚ and Suzanne C‚saire, Wifredo Lam, "Queen Mother" Audley Moore, Martin Delany, the historian Vincent Harding, musician/composer/playwright Archie Shepp, and many others.

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