It has been over four decades since Cedric Robinson published his widely-acclaimed study, Black Marxism.[1] In recent years the work has enjoyed a celebratory renaissance.  It has become increasingly influential among the liberal and race-centric academic establishment and beyond, with a second edition published in 2000, followed by a third edition released in 2020.  It is not surprising that the work has gained so much acclaim among academics.  After all, Robinson provides these liberal academics with an outstanding affirmation of their hostility towards class analysis.[2] What is surprising is the seeming embrace of Black Marxism by much of the socialist left, given that the book is above all a broadside attack on Marxism.[3] In the 40 plus years since its publication, there has been a remarkable dearth of critical reviews of the book.[4] The notion of “racial capitalism” that Robinson advances as the underlying scaffolding of his historical and theoretical edifice has become a sort of master narrative held as common sense among much of the left.  The text, it seems, has come to achieve a virtual cult status, its core assumptions defended as sacrosanct on U.S. university campuses, while its critics are shunned as heretics.  This is all the more remarkable, as we shall argue, given that behind a seemingly radical critique – indeed, the book’s subtitle is The Making of the Black Radical Tradition – is an essentially conservative political essence.

What are the core underlying claims of Black Marxism?  In a nutshell, Robinson argues that Marxism or historical materialism is a European ideology that that has proven to be blind to racialism; that the epistemology of historical materialism, along with the political premium it places on proletarian struggle, does not apply to Africans and other non-European peoples. “It is still fair to say that at base, that is at its epistemological substratum, Marxism is a Western construction – a conceptualization of human affairs and historical development which is emergent from the historical experiences of European peoples mediated, in turn, through their civilization, their social orders, and their cultures.”[5] Robinson’s follow-up work, published in 2001, An Anthropology of Marxism,[6] consummates the diatribe against Marxism.   In place of the alleged “grand narrative” of Marxism, Robinson gives us a “grand narrative” of the “Black Radical Tradition.” “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,” notes approvingly Robin Kelly in his oft-cited Foreword to the 2000 edition of Black Marxism, “and providing a withering critique of Western Marxism and its inability to comprehend either the racial character of capitalism and the civilizations in which it was born or mass movements outside of Europe.”[7]

But Robinson never provides evidence of this “shared epistemology among diverse African people.”  This notion of Africans as some mega ethno-nation seems to simply be true by fiat, that is, by his assertion that it is true.  It is this “truth” that forms the basis for the claim to a pan- “Black Radical Tradition” that compresses hundreds of millions of Africans in and outside of the continent into an undifferentiated category, and conversely collapses hundreds of millions of Europeans.  As we will discuss below, this conception of an undifferentiated category of oppressed humanity defined by ahistoric essentialized identities is a hallmark of the identitarian paradigm.  This paradigm, which posits some shared interests of a group of people made organic by an essential ascribed identity, generally racial or ethnic, often premised as well on some singular cultural tradition, has come in recent decades to eclipse the language of class – nay, to contrapose class to ethnic, cultural, or national identity.  Yet, this view of the African past and present as made up of such an undifferentiated mass that shares a single epistemology and “Black Radical Tradition” misreads the African past as much as it does the present.

While it is easy to become seduced by the literary brilliance of the text, the sheer power of its prose, and the vast sweep of history and literature that it covers, we maintain here that more is at work in explaining the left’s embrace of Black Marxism, namely the conservative retrenchment of the late twentieth century.  As world capitalism entered a deep structural crisis in the 1970s, capitalists and bureaucratic elites from around the world strove to beat back the power that organized labor, radical social movements, and Third World liberation struggles had accumulated in the preceding period of mass struggle.  Capitalist globalization and the neoliberal counterrevolution brought about a change in the worldwide correlation of class and social forces in favor of emergent transnational capital.[8]  As proletarian power eroded and the left and socialist movements lost influence around the world in the fin de siècle, the chronic gap between theory and practice, thought and action, showed up as a degeneration of intellectual criticism as well.  Rather than seek renewal, much of the left withdrew into post-modern identity politics and other forms of accommodation with the emerging neoliberal social order.  The left intelligentsia retreated into the academy, abandoning the commitment to a universal emancipatory project as it turned to celebrating the fragmented particularisms postulated by post-narratives – post-structuralism, post-modernism, post-colonialism, and so on.  The target of condemnation became Marxism, which it claimed was unable to explain racial inequality.[9] The causal explanation of racism now shifted from the political-economy critique of capitalism to psychology and culture.  It was in this context that Black Marxism, an Afrocentric and proto-Afro-pessimistic text par excellence, found such resonance in U.S. academia, and increasingly, beyond.

A Transhistoric Racialism

In his quest to explain racism and subjugation of peoples of African descent, Robinson takes us back to what he sees as its origins in “European” antiquity.  For Robinson, capitalism is not the progenitor of racism but its offshoot in a construct that, as Jason W. Moore has noted in a different context, takes flight from world history, from the real movement of capitalism.  “The pretext for this flight typically rests on two major claims.  One is an empiricist assertion that world history is diverse and therefore cannot be grasped in its combined and uneven patterns.  The second is an ideological claim that any attempt to narrate capitalism’s differentiated unity is irremediably Eurocentric.” While both these claims hold for Black Marxism, what concerns us most here is the second.  The result, observes Moore, “is a descent into amalgamation of regional particularisms with assertions that the problem of modern world history is Europe – rather than capitalism.”[10]

By “racial capitalism,” Robinson tells us, he means a commitment to racialism among Europeans that first sprung from the slave societies of antiquity – a transhistoric original sin that marks millennia of Western history.  Let us put aside that “Europe” didn’t exist before 1492: the same historical forces at work that produced capitalism and propelled it to outward expansion also produced “Europe” that became the core of an expanding world capitalist system understood as a differentiated unity, or totality.  This theme of a Greek and allegedly therefore European origin to modern racism is not new; it has become a trope among Afro-pessimists and other “race” scholars.[11] Robinson claims that Greek slavery was an “uncompromising racial construct” that was reiterated and embellished throughout European history: “Race was its epistemology, its ordering principle, its organizing structure, its moral authority, its economy of justice, commerce, and power…. from the twelfth century on, one European ruling order after another, one cohort of clerical or secular protagonists following another, reiterated and embellished this racial calculus.”[12] Ironically, one of the very authors whom Robinson includes as a case study in Black Marxism, C.L.R. James, insisted that “historically it is pretty well proven now that the ancient Greeks and Romans knew nothing about race.  They had another standard – civilized and barbarian – and you could have white skin and be a barbarian and you could be black and civilized.”[13]

At the same time, Robinson asserts that “racialism” is “hardly unique to European peoples” but does not explain what, then, would have separated the European case from civilizations the world over.  For Robinson, Greek slavery is the prototype of modern-day racism, some mysterious particularity of “Europe” that wound its way through millennia to the contemporary era.  We know that all the ancient empires as class systems also differentiated groups according to cultural or territorial criteria and involved differentiated relationships to the state or political statuses.  So, there must have been something else that arose in Europe to explain why this region became the generator of systems of modern-day racial inequality and the colonizer of the world.  That something, of course, is capitalism.  We have a vast literature showing how systems of race-based slavery, exclusion, and oppression arose as part and parcel of the rise of capitalism as a world system (we cannot explain the antinomy whereby Robinson discusses much of this literature approvingly even though it refutes his thesis).

Racialism, he goes on, “was not simply a convention for ordering the relations of Europeans to non-European peoples but has its genesis in the ‘internal’ relations of European peoples.”[14] These internal relations involved ideological conceptions of inferiority and superiority based on cultural (he singles out linguistic) and class distinctions, often adduced to be biological, which organized ancient and feudal domains that later became Europe.  Beyond these “ordering ideas” of inferiority and superiority, we can find in Black Marxism no precise explanation of what Robinson understands racism to be, that is, no further conceptual specificity.  It is not, in his construct, that these ordering ideas became specified along racialist lines as capitalism evolved, but that they sui generis constituted “racialism.” By conflating these ordering ideas of class rule with “racialism,” Robinson is able to claim that racism originates in “European” antiquity.

Remarkably, Robinson gives no explanation as to why we should conflate slavery with “race.” We have no historical evidence of “race” and racialization prior to the modern era, if by this we mean something other than the “ordering ideas” of inferiority and superiority, or anything resembling the scientific racism that reached its apogee from the 18th to the early 20th centuries.  Yet, at the same time, to reiterate, he asserts that “racialism” is “hardly unique to European peoples.”[15] If so, it begs the question – unanswered by Robinson – what makes the European case different from civilizations the world over?

Since the dawn of class society, ruling groups have legitimated their rule through ideologies of biological and/or cultural superiority and inferiority and of natural providence and have instituted slavery legitimated by such ideologies.  Black Marxism here appears abstracted from world history.  Slavery has been a universal class relation, present everywhere from the Chinese to the Aztec, Arab, West African and other civilizations of ancient and pre-capitalist times.[16] This is a case not of the particular masquerading as the universal, but the universal masquerading as the particular.  Slavery is known to have existed in China as far back as the Shang Dynasty (18th-12th century BCE).  It is estimated to have comprised some five percent of the population in ensuing centuries and continued to exist as an institution down to the twentieth century.  In Korea, estimates place the slave population, at up to a third or a half of the entire population during the successive Silla kingdoms.  Slavery was also widely practiced elsewhere in Asia, from Thailand to Burma, Philippines, Nepal, Indonesia, Japan, and among the Turkic populations.

As in Europe and elsewhere around the world prior to capitalism, slavery in India existed in the interstices of the dominant class relations, although in Malabar slaves constituted up to 15 percent of the population.  Slavery also existed in successive Andean and Mesoamerican civilizations as well as in some Amerindian societies in North America, although slavery remained relatively minor, as conquered populations were subjugated generally through the extraction of tribute rather than slave labor.  Slavery was practiced throughout Europe during the medieval period, particularly notable in Byzantium and in Russia – indeed, this later country was a creation of Viking slave raiding and trade routes from Scandinavia to Byzantium.  If we take the story back further, slavery is recorded for thousands of years in what is today the Middle East, from Babylonia to Egypt.  Slaves were owned in Africa throughout recorded history, and in some instances, such as in Ghana from the ninth to the fifteenth centuries, involved anywhere from one-third to two-thirds of the entire population.

In most of these pre-capitalist cases, slave populations were drawn from historic “population reservoirs” that could be demarcated culturally, such as the Slavic periphery of the Islamic and European kingdoms and empires.  Slavery achieved a prominent role in Islamic societies in the Middle East, where the slave trade happened on a large scale from the seventh to the nineteenth centuries.  Robinson suggests of this slavery, the single instance in which he acknowledges the institution outside of Europe, that it was somehow more benign than European slavery, since “Muslim slavery was characteristically associated with unlimited potential for social mobility and much less racialism.”[17] In this tale of more and less benign slaveries, and consistent with his historical idealism, Robinson goes on to quote the Koran to explain what he claims were “great differences between slavery in Western and Christian societies and slavery in Islam.”[18] We do not know why Robinson would so egregiously choose not to discuss the presence of slavery as a class relation around the world throughout much of recorded history apart from its presence in the Islamic societies of the Middle East.

But Robinson does not present any evidence that slavery in Europe prior to capitalism was significantly different from slavery in the Islamic societies – in fact, the historical evidence indicates that slavery was a much more powerful and widespread institution in the Islamic world than it ever was in feudal Europe.  Rather, what would later on, from the sixteenth century and onward, distinguish European from Middle Eastern slavery was not mystical cultural, psychological or religious proclivities but the contrast between pre-capitalist and capitalist slavery.  Slaves were generated in the pre-capitalist era, from ancient Greece and Rome, to Asia, the Islamic and Amerindian empires and elsewhere, by capture in warfare and slave raiding.  An abundance of non-slave labor in tributary and feudal societies meant that slavery never developed into the primary mode of labor exploitation after antiquity.  Just as in feudal Europe, the social relations of production were such that the ruling groups could not make use of, nor had the need for, large quantities of slaves.  Eric Wolf notes in his classic study, Europe and the People Without History, that a few thousand slaves were brought in to the Iberian Peninsula per year in the fifteenth century,[19] which proved to be the upper limit since the prevailing feudal mode of production had no need for such a distinct mass of laborers.  At this time as well, the Islamic world was also importing “white” slaves from Europe under similar relations of production.  The relations of production proved to be the determining factor in the ontology of slavery as an institution.[20]

Indeed, in Europe and the Islamic world, as elsewhere in the slave-owning feudal and tributary civilizations outside of the full-blown slave mode of production of ancient Greece and Rome, slaves were for luxury consumption that constituted an economic drain.  This would only change under the imperative of capital accumulation, that is, expanded reproduction, and in circumstances in which the most expedient method for securing a tightly controlled mass of labor power for the emerging trans-Atlantic economy became slavery.  Surplus would now be extracted on a large scale through the institution of capitalist slavery and its hallmark commodification of the human body (“chattel slavery”).  This surplus, in distinction to pre-capitalist slavery, would be pumped back into the emerging circuits of capital in a process of expanded reproduction so that slavery, rather than an economic drain, became a lynchpin of world capitalist development.  As Marx observed in this regard:

“Slavery is an economic category like any other…Needless to say we are dealing only with direct slavery, with Negro slavery in Surinam, in Brazil, in the Southern States of North America.  Direct slavery is just as much the pivot of bourgeois industry as machinery, credits, etc.  Without slavery you have no cotton; without cotton you have no modern industry.  It is slavery that gave the colonies their value; it is the colonies that created world trade, and it is world trade that is the precondition of large-scale industry.  Thus slavery is an economic category of the greatest importance.”[21]

There is a wealth of historical research that we cannot revisit here on the creation of “race” in the formative years of the world capitalist system.  Linebaugh and Rediker, among others, show in The Many Headed Hydra how the American planter classes backed by European capitalists and states created “race” as a mechanism to differentiate the mass of exploited labor drawn into the emerging circuits of global capital.  Eric Williams has noted in his classic Capitalism and Slavery that the indentured servitude of hundreds of thousands of Europeans in the early years of the colonial project in the Americas – and in some cases the outright slavery of Europeans, such as the fate suffered by thousands of Irish victims of Cromwell’s 1649 conquest of Ireland, many of whom were shipped out to slave plantations in Barbados – provided the “historic base” upon which American slavery was founded.  “Slavery in the Caribbean has been too narrowly identified with the Negro,” observed Williams.  “A racial twist has thereby been given to what is basically an economic phenomenon.  Slavery was not born of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery.  Unfree labor in the New World was brown, white, black, and yellow; Catholic, Protestant and pagan.”[22]

Robinson argues that “[F]rom its very beginning, this European civilization, containing racial, tribal, linguistic, and regional particularities, was constructed on antagonistic differences.”[23] Putting aside “racial” differences – to reiterate, Robinson never specifies exactly what he means by “racial,” although it seems he means it as a stand-in for cultural/ethnic distinctions – there is nothing historically specific to Europe of “tribal, linguistic, and regional [and cultural/ethnic] particularities” being exploited by ruling groups around the world in function of their rule.  If “barbarians” was an established component of European ideology to categorize the “other,” as Robinson observes, so too was it established in civilizations around the world.  The Aztec rulers referred derogatorily to those groups outside of its urban empire, especially to the less developed tribes and ethnic groups to the north of their realm, as Chichimecas, a Nahuatl term for barbarian (and also for dog), to be enslaved or sacrificed should they be captured.  The Han Chinese rulers referred to Mongol tribes and indeed all outside groups, Europeans included, as “barbarians.”

Let us focus on the dialectic of the universal and the particular – without, as Robinson does, collapsing universalism sui generis into bourgeois universalism.  The universal is always and only manifest in the particular.  We want to focus on how the endless accumulation of capital played out – and still plays out – in a world of concrete differentiation.  In this first instance, difference is objectively historical, grounded in the uneven material and cultural development of human societies and civilizations across the globe and their particular histories.  The notion that these societies were somehow isolated from one another for the great sweep of world history, however, is a myth.  Difference – that is, particular processes of historical development – is always in the larger picture an outcome of historical processes of material and social differentiation within a matrix of interconnections to a larger whole.  But key to the discussion of the creation of “race” and modern racism is differentiation as an act, an intentionality of capitalism: the agents of capitalism operating out of its European core appropriated and in fact produced differentiation in function of accumulation and control – in this case, they produced “races” in order to differentiate laboring masses.  “Race” and white supremacy were two of capitalism’s world-historic productions vital to the organization of its worldwide circuits of exploitation and accumulation.

While Robinson asserts that Europeans developed a “racial consciousness” as far back as antiquity, Linebaugh and Rediker tell a different story.  Africans and Europeans conspired together in numerous plots and uprisings.  The multitude of multinational, multiracial sailors and their land-based brethren had no racial consciousness; such a consciousness had to be created, not out of some European Nietzschean will to (racial) power but as a class project of the slavers and the bourgeoisie.  Ongoing rebellion throughout the Greater Caribbean Basin by Africans and Europeans who had been forced into labor led the planters and colonial states to create juridical distinctions that would legally and socially differentiate slave from servant, assigning each to a distinct insertion into the division of labor.[24] In this way, the ruling groups responded to class struggles from below by the multiethnic exploited classes with a racialist recomposing of global class relations – that is, the constitution of “race” took place through the world historic process of capitalist class formation.  “Race” now became, as Stuart Hall put it, “the modality in which class is lived.”[25]

Racialized class relations and white supremacy would henceforth become a centerpiece of capitalist colonialism and imperialism, a mechanism for producing a more intensive and repressive control over racialized labor, a more complete appropriation of the wealth that labor has produced in the history of the world capitalist system.  Racism, as Allen has shown in his exhaustive study, The Invention of the White Race, would have a dual function: as a mechanism of social control over all of the working classes and as a mechanism ensuring the super-exploitation and super (including juridical and extra-legal) control over the racialized portions of the laboring masses.[26] Moreover, this racial division of the working masses involved generating and reproducing a racial consciousness and a “psychological wage” among the mass of exploited whites – a consciousness that had to be constantly recreated by the ruling groups each time the laboring masses came together in multiracial struggles.[27]  The New York City waterfront, Linebaugh and Rediker show, became a staging ground for ongoing multiracial uprisings among white and black laborers, enslaved and free, throughout the 1700s:

“The authorities approached the solidarity with trident in hand, each of its points carefully sharpened to puncture the prevailing multiracial practices and bonds of proletarian life in Atlantic New York.  First they went after the taverns and other settings where ‘cabals’ of poor whites and blacks could be formed and subversive plans disseminated.  Next they self-consciously recomposed the proletariat of New York to make it more difficult for workers along the waterfront to find among themselves sources of unity.  And finally, they endeavored to teach racial lessons to New York’s people of European descent, promoting a white identity that would transcend and unify the city’s fractious ethnic divisions.”[28]

Robinson objects in Black Marxism and later on in The Anthropology of Marxism to the Marxist claim that racism is “derivative” of capitalism.  For him it is the reverse: capitalism is epiphenomenal to a racialism that originated in “European” antiquity, a moment in the development of European racialism.[29] The current celebratory renaissance of Black Marxism among academics and activists is matched by a parallel nostalgic celebration of the U.S. Black Panther Party.[30] Yet, these acolytes want to have their cake and eat it too.  There is a clear tension in how they understand the interrelation of “race” and capitalism that they appear oblivious to.

The Black Panther Party was an avowedly Marxist organization that explicitly considered racism to be a derivation of capitalism.  Here is the party’s Deputy National Chair and Chair of the Chicago chapter, Fred Hampton:

“We never negated the fact that there was racism in America, but we said that the by-product, what comes off 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.”[31]

It is no small irony that of Robinson’s three case studies of black Marxists, two were themselves Marxists (the third, Richard Wright expressed reservations about Marxism after his experience confronting racism among white communists).  C.L.R. James was a lifelong Trotskyist active in the Fourth International and W.E.B Dubois identified as a socialist for much of his life and was a member of the Communist Party at the time of his death.  Were James and Dubois – along with thousands of African Marxists – perched outside of the purported “Black Radical Tradition” because they were Marxists?  How could it be otherwise once Robinson asserts that this tradition is “incommensurate” with Marxism?  Remarkably, apart from these three, Robinson simply ignores the Third World Marxists, or otherwise disregards their Marxism as if it did not stand in contradiction with his “Black Radical Tradition” construct premised explicitly on its incommensurability with Marxism.  These Third World Marxists – from Che Guevara and Jose Mariátegui in the Americas, to Amílcar Cabral, Walter Rodney, Chris Hani, Samir Amin, Claude Ake, and Abdulrahman Babu in Africa, to Mao Zedong and Kamekichi Takahashi in Asia, among countless others – saw in Marxism a theoretical and political tool for liberation from colonialism, from imperialism, and from capitalism.  They put forth theoretical contributions, an implacable defense of Marxism, an application of historical materialism to histories and realities distinct from Europe and left rich legacies of Marxist revolutionary praxis.

Marx and Engels, charges Robinson, insisted that the European proletariat was the predilect agent of revolution and underestimated the importance of anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles.  We will not repeat here the work that others have done with extensive reference to Marx and Engel’s writings to belie Robinson’s claim.[32] Marx applauded the Taiping rebellion in China and Indian revolts in the 1850s.  Marx speculated that the Chinese uprising might even spark revolutionary upheavals in Europe, and that the European proletariat could learn much from the Indian anti-colonial revolts.  And Marx would write in 1860 that “in my opinion, the biggest things that are happening in the world today are on the one hand the movement of slaves in America, started by the death of John Brown, and on the other the movement of the slaves in Russia.”[33] Contrast this to Robinson’s insistence that Marx saw slaves as an “embarrassing residue” of an old mode of production “which disqualified them from historical agency in the modern world.”[34] It was, let us recall, Marx and Engels, followed by European Marxists, from Lenin to Luxembourg, and Marxists from the Third World, who in the first place gave us the theories of colonialism and imperialism, and who argued that only an alliance of proletarian and anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles the world over could liberate the oppressed.

Historical Materialism and Historical Idealism

On the one hand, Robinson conflates historical materialism with the particular application that Marx undertook of historical materialism as method to the reality of his time as he saw it, while simultaneously conflating class and class analysis with capitalism and also, as Moore notes, collapsing “the significant differences between world-historical class analysis and Eurocentric class formalism.”[35] On the other, he conflates Marxism as an epistemology and ontology of human society with how it was applied and practiced in its particular history by Marxists or in the name of Marxism.  If the fundamental premises of historical materialism and human universals have appeared in Marxism as dogmatic or Eurocentric, let us fault the Marxists who applied them in their intellectual and political practices.  European Marxists may have been Eurocentric.  They may have exhibited a blind spot to racism or suppressed the struggle against it in the name of class struggle.  Indeed, they may even have been racist and chauvinistic.  But none of this invalidates the fundamental tenets of Marxism.  Indeed, Marxists have been at the forefront of critiquing Eurocentrism.  It is not clear how the Eurocentrism or the racial chauvinism of Europeans who considered themselves Marxists invalidates historical materialism that, along with the dialectical approach, forms the epistemological core of Marxism that Robinson claims is incommensurate with the struggles of African peoples.

The fundamental premise of historical materialism – at once a method, an epistemology, and an ontology – is based on the assumption that human existence along with all other life forms is organized in the first instance around survival, and that this survival depends on complex and structured forms of cooperation and cultural creations that we call society.[36] While Robinson, in a caricatured reading of Marx, claims that historical materialism is limited to nineteenth century Europe, the world historical evidence demonstrates that there are human universals and that these are grounded in the deep history of our species.  The quest for survival is universal.  That this survival involves a social labor process around which social organization is structured is universal.  States and social classes throughout the world did emerge around new forces of production and the surpluses they generated long before capitalism and the rise of Europe.  These classes have struggled over the surplus for millennia, in the process generating the social dynamics that are the object of inquiry of Marxist historiography and social science.  The basic Marxist categories of analysis – classes and class struggle, surpluses, exploitation, forces and relations of production, and so on – are observed around the world and show to be universally applicable.  These fundamental tenets of historical materialism are the core of Marxist epistemology, and all of this applies to the African past as much as it does to the European past.

In his explicitly Marxist essay “The Weapon of Theory,” a veritable primer in historical materialism, Amílcar Cabral analyzes the historical class structure and mode of production in Guinea Bissau and how it was altered by colonialism:

“[W]e refuse to accept that various human groups in Africa, Asia and Latin America were living without history, or outside history, at the time when they were subjected to the yoke of imperialism… if class struggle is the motor force of history, it is so only in a specific historical period.  It is not difficult to see that this factor in the history of each human group is the mode of production – the level of productive forces and the pattern of ownership – characteristic of that group…. Classes themselves, class struggle and their subsequent definition, are the result of the development of the productive forces in conjunction with the pattern of ownership of the means of production.  It therefore seems correct to conclude that the level of productive forces, the essential determining element in the content and form of class struggle, is the true and permanent motive force of history.”[37]

In Robinson’s essentialist metaphysics, there is something beyond material relations that have led Europeans to practice racial oppression and something beyond real historical experience in the material world that produces a mystical African consciousness.  “Some knowledge, some aspect of Black consciousness was unaccounted for in the Marxist explication of the historical processes and sources of the motives in which were attributed the social formation of the modern world.” Robinson goes on to adduce an “Africanity of our consciousness – some epistemological measure culturally embedded in our minds that deemed that racial capitalism we have been witness to was an unacceptable standard of human conduct.”[38]

Africans and Europeans are endowed with distinct metaphysical essences, with innate and presumably inverted cultural sensibilities.  Robinson tells us that there is a resistance in Western radicalism (read: Marxism) that leads it to take “flight from the recognition that something more than objective material forces were responsible” for the destruction wrought on African peoples. In a fantastical and romanticized misreading of African history, we are told that a clash of civilizations between Europe and Africa “had always to be an unequal contest, not because of the superiority of weapons or the preponderance of numbers but because such violence did not come naturally to African peoples.”[39] Let us put aside Robinson’s misreading of African history: that state and empire formation in Africa prior to the European arrival in the fifteenth century were violent, often bloody, affairs; that the notion of a European antiquity is a myth as is the notion of an aboriginal and irreducible African antiquity.  For Robinson, the violent “mechanisms of self-destruction inherent in Western civilization” were a function not of class struggle and class rule but of Western culture, an expression of an underlying civilizational logic stretching back millennia.[40] Robinson here seems to update Leopold Senghor’s mid-twentieth century Negritude, whereby Africans and Europeans are endowed with distinct metaphysical essences:  the African soul, Senghor claimed, is essentially spiritual, whereas the European soul is endowed with a scientific rational essence.  Indeed, the linear cultural logic that Robinson claims to discern in Marxism, warts and all, is alive and well in the “Black Radical Tradition,” viz, the ideological notion of an irreducible white European essence has its parallel in a black African essence.

What are we to make of Robinson’s culturalist explanations for how Europe rose up to constitute the core of world capitalism while Africa and Africans were pushed to the peripheral margins?  If only Africans had a cultural repertoire that involved the practice of violence, they could have resisted the European onslaught.  If only Europeans had a different cultural makeup, they would not have undertaken that onslaught.  If we accept that there is something intrinsic in European culture prior to capitalism that led Europeans to conquer and enslave, then we fall back on the very assumptions of modernization and cultural deficit theory, according to which it was not capitalism but culture (“modern” over “traditional”) that caused the development of some peoples and backwardness of others.  In the logic of this account, the vanquishing of the world’s colonized peoples is the result of their cultural deficit.  Africans were averse to violence.  Not so Europeans.  A clash of civilizations, of cultures: the one facilitating conquest, the other leading to enslavement.

For Robinson, the European conquest of Africa lies not in superior material capabilities made possible by capitalism but in cultures rendered essentialist, in antagonistic cultural drives.  Yet, the conquest of Africa was very much a matter of material superiority.  In one bloody afternoon on September 2, 1898, one British regiment lined up on the Eastern shore of the Nile River, not far from Khartoum.  They faced 100,000 Nubian soldiers on the other side defending the Mahdist State, the one side armed with machine guns, invented just a decade earlier and not at the disposal of the Sudanese soldiers, who were armed with an earlier generation of weapons.  By the end of the battle, 27 British soldiers had died, while every Sudanese soldier perished.  The battle was won, opening the way for British colonization and control of the Nile, not by cultural proclivities, but precisely by superior material force. West Africans fought British colonial forces bitterly for decades before they were finally subdued, not because they were averse to violence or had other cultural proclivities that prohibited resistance, but because they simply did not have the same material means, including the military hardware, at the disposal of the invaders (the existence of these material means is explained, in turn, by the productive powers of capitalism in its European core).[41] The contradiction in Robinson’s construct should not go unnoticed.  On the one hand, we are told explicitly that Africans were conquered not because of “objective material forces” but because “violence did not come naturally” to them.  On the other hand, one of Robinson’s core claims is a history of resistance as part of the “Black Radical Tradition” that involved quite decidedly violent slave uprisings.

But let us assume Robinson is correct – that Africa was conquered because the conquerors exhibited a violent racist culture, while the vanquished exhibited a culture averse to violence.  Where does that leave us theoretically and politically? Robinson’s account ultimately boils down to the antagonism between two fundamentally opposed psyches.  Racism is in the first instance a state of European consciousness, while Africans, averse to violence, exhibited an “epistemology [that] granted supremacy to metaphysics not the material.”[42] An “Africanity of our consciousness” allowed African peoples “to conserve their native consciousness of the world from alien intrusion.”[43] Haider aptly calls this approach a “Black Hegelianism”:

“Hegel explains world history as the succession of particular national spirits, the spirit of a people as it is built up objectively by the state, and which depends on the cultural formation of its self-consciousness…Robinson presents a relativist philosophy of history, in the sense that there are different spiritual principles of different peoples, whose relations to one another are not progressive.  However, Robinson seeks not to correct Hegel’s false universalism with a real universalism, but rather to oppose the White Absolute Spirit with a unitary Black Radical Tradition, which aspires not to Universal History but to the internal consistency of its own community.”[44]

The Political Implications of the Black Marxism Thesis

What kind of a political project comes out of Black Marxism?  We do not know what vision Robinson has of an emancipatory program for African peoples beyond an ahistorical “Black Radical Tradition,” as Black Marxism does not provide any clues.  However, there is no ambiguity in Robinson’s view that Marxism is not just insufficient, but antagonistic to black liberation: “Marxism and Black radicalism [are] two programs for revolutionary change” that “may be so distinct as to be incommensurable” (our emphasis).[45] “Black radicalism,” we have seen, is predicated on a radically distinct African metaphysic.  Beyond the history of slave revolts in the diaspora, what is the particularity of African resistance compared to that of other peoples’ resistance in both pre-capitalist and capitalist settings?  Should we posit a Brown Radical Tradition, an Asian Radical Tradition, and so on?  Even if we accept Robinson’s claim at face value, a “Black Radical Tradition” is not an emancipatory program for the reorganization of society.

The idea of “racial capitalism” may appear as a critique of capitalism.  But Robinson makes clear from the start that racism “anticipated capitalism in time” and that racialism as a psychic phenomenon of Europeans, not the laws of capital accumulation, drive its dynamics.[46] Racial capitalism, notes Haider, is a category “specifically articulated from the vantage point of the ‘Black Radical Tradition.” Even “the most superficial interpretation of the term implies the existence of a non-racial capitalism – that is, a capitalism which did not emerge and develop within a world market that incorporated racial slavery.  There is no such capitalism, except as a fictitious a posteriori construct.”[47] Robinson did not coin the phrase racial capitalism.  It dates to at least the 1970s, when South African Marxists told a very different story in applying the concept in reference to the particular racialized form of capitalism that developed during the apartheid era.  In his classic study, The Political Economy of Race and Class in South Africa, Bernard Magubane referred to racial capitalism as a form of capitalist organization that facilitated the transfer to wealth from black workers to white capitalists.  “An economic system must not only produce and transfer wealth,” he said, “but must produce political and ideological systems that facilitate this transfer.”[48]

Robinson’s notion of some cohesive worldwide black community unitarily engaged in the “Black Radical Tradition” insinuates its opposite, some cohesive and unitary white/European community that shares an interest in the reproduction of a racialism etched into its psyche over millennia.  Again, Robinson is unambiguous: racism runs so “deep in the bowels of Western thought” that Europeans are “unprepared for anything else.”[49] At best, then, proletarian struggle is replaced by ethnonational struggle; a civilizational conflict among meta-ethnonations or meta- identity groups that obliterates the class antagonisms within each ethnonation and the shared class interests among the exploited across each ethnonation.  There can be no possibility of a universal emancipatory program, a class project of the exploited against the exploiters, as that would require, in Meyerson’s words, “abandoning the racial architectonic paradigm for class struggle paradigm.”[50]

The appeal of Black Marxism in academia must be placed in the historical moment of its publication in the 1980s, namely the worldwide defeat of proletarian forces and revolutionary struggles of the preceding two decades and capital’s globalizing and neoliberal offensive, which would culminate in the late twentieth century “There Is No Alternative” and “End of History” theses.  In was in the context of a radical shift in the worldwide correlation of class and social forces in favor of emergent transnational capital that an era of cynical post-Marxism flourished.  As we noted in the introduction, the triumph of neoliberalism found its philosophical alter-ego in a post-modernism/post-structuralism that undermined ideas of broad solidarity, working class struggle, and socialist projects.  In place of a universalism of the oppressed was a universe of particulars and the celebration of “differences” and fragmentation, so that there was no underlying principle of human social existence, no collective subject capable of social transformation, indeed no emancipatory project that could unite a majority of humanity.  In the face of the attack on Marxism and radical politics, many intellectuals who previously identified with anti-capitalist movements and emancipatory projects withdrew into an identitarian politics of reform and inclusion, a set of political and cultural practices, radical only in appearance, that are at best liberal and that end up shoring up the hegemony of capital.

It was the mass struggles of the 1960s and 1970s themselves that helped representatives from the oppressed groups to join the ranks of the professional strata and of the elite.  In academia, it opened up space for a new intellectual petty-bourgeoisie, whose class aspirations became expressed in post-modern narratives and the race reductionism of identitarian politics, while in the larger society it found resonance among aspiring middle-class and professional/managerial elements that sprung from the mass movements.  The identitarian approach eschews class and the critique of capitalism at the level of theory and analysis, notwithstanding its often radical-sounding language, while advancing the class politics of the petty bourgeoisie, especially the petty-bourgeois intelligentsia.  If radical ideas only become an historical force when they are channeled into political organization, into a vision of a new world and a revolutionary project to bring it about, the same is true for all ideas, revolutionary or otherwise; they become material forces when they influence mass consciousness and action.  As identitarian narratives became hegemonic in the academy and in the broader society, they shaped the commonsense understanding of racial, gender and other forms of oppression.  Ethnic, racial, gender and sexual oppression are not tangential, but constitutive of capitalism.  There can be no general emancipation without liberation from these forms of oppression.  But the inverse is just as critical: all the particular forms of oppression are grounded in the larger social order of global capitalism that perpetually regenerates these oppressions.  Considering that culture is porous and is therefore migratory, dynamic, dialectical in construction and process, our challenge is to discover our universal humanity in the context of the cultural differences that are not given but produced, a production that can never have an end point.

If Robinson’s treatise were a mere academic broadside against Marxism, we would not deem it necessary to engage in this critique, limited as it has been.  But as we noted at the onset, Black Marxism has evolved into something akin to a cult, in which its adherents are prepared to jettison history and critical inquiry in reverent defense of the cult orthodoxy.  As its influence grows, so do does its political significance in undermining the type of global class analysis and politics necessary to advance the proletarian internationalism – or transnationalism – that is more urgent than ever as global capitalism spirals into intractable crisis and as far-right and neofascist forces gain ground.[51] Black Marxism has become a favored text with which to badger radical intellectuals and activists who place a premium on proletarian struggle.  This has led some among left organizers to fear they may be condemned as Eurocentric, as “class reductionists,” and as “ignoring race” should they place a premium on class analysis, should they insist that racism is an outcome of class exploitation and that its eradication involves a transnational and pan-ethnic proletarian struggle against capitalism.  No struggle of the oppressed can be without its organic intellectuals, and the battles to come are as much theoretical and ideological as they are political.  At a time when global capital is on an all-out rampage against the global working and popular classes and when our very survival is under threat, we need more than ever a transnational revolutionary proletarian politics.  We won’t find that in Black Marxism.



[1] Cedric J. Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), henceforth cited as BM.  The original publisher is Zed Press, 1983.  All references here are from the 2000 edition.

[2] On race reductionism, see Toure Reed, Toward Freedom: The Case Against Race Reductionism (London: Verso, 2020).

[3] In 2017, for instance, the socialist publishing house Verso Press published Futures of Black Radicalism as a tribute to Black Marxism.  The contributors include Angela Davis, Nikhil Pal Singh, and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, among others.  Gaye Theresa Johnson and Alex Lubin (eds), Futures of Black Radicalism (London: Verso, 2017).

[4] We could only find a handful of critical reviews, among them: August H. Nimtz, Jr., “Marxism and the Black Struggle: The ‘Class v. Race’ Debate Revisited,” Journal of African Studies, No. 7, 1985; Bill V. Mullen, “Notes on Black Marxism,” Cultural Logic: A Journal of Marxist Theory and Practice, Vol. 8, 2001, available at; Asad Haider, “The Shadow of the Plantation,” Viewpoint Magazine, 17 February 2017, available at; Joseph G. Ramsey, “Sifting the ‘Stony Soil’ of Black Marxism: Cedric Robinson, Richard Right, and Ellipses of the Black Radical Tradition,” Socialism and Democracy, 34(2-3), 2020; Ken Olende, “Cedric Robinson, Racial Capitalism and the Return of Black Radicalism,” International Socialism, No. 169, 6 January 2021, available at  The most exhaustive critical review we are aware of is Gregory Meyerson, “Rethinking Black Marxism: Reflections on Cedric Robinson and Others,” Cultural Logic: A Journal of Marxist Theory and Practice, Vol. 6, 2000, available at

[5] BM, pp. 2.

[6] Cedric J. Robinson, An Anthropology of Marxism (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2001).

[7] BM, pp. xii.

[8] See, inter-alia, William I Robinson, Global Capitalism and the Crisis of Humanity (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

[9] See Zine Magubane’s excellent critique of the current trope of race theory, “Contemporary Race Theory and the Problem of History: A Critique,” NonSite, Issue 39, 11 May 2022, available at

[10] Jason W. Moore, “Anthropocene, Capitalocene & the Flight from World History: Dialectical Universalism & the Geographies of Class Power in the Capitalist World-Ecology,” Nordia Geographic Publications, 51:2, pp. 123, available at

[11] See, e.g., Michael G. Hanchard, The Spectre of Race: How Discrimination Haunts Western Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018).

[12] BM, pp. xxxi.

[13] C.L.R. James, Modern Politics (Oakland: PM Press, 2013), pp. 127.

[14] BM, pp. 2

[15] BM, pp. 2

[16] Unless otherwise specified, references to instances of pre-capitalist slavery around the world is from Craig Perry, David Eltis, Stanley L. Engerman, and David Richardson (eds), The Cambridge World History of Slavery, Volume 2, AD 500 – AD 1420 (Cambridge: Cambridge University press, 2021, new edition).

[17] BM, pp. 95.

[18] BM, pp. 95

[19] Eric Wolf, Europe and the People Without History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982).

[20] Karl Marx writes: “[I]n any given economic formation of society, where not the exchange-value but the use-value set of the product predominates, surplus-labor will be limited by a given set of wants which may be greater or less, and that here no boundless thirst for surplus-labor arises from the nature of the production itself….But as soon as people, whose production still moves within the lower forms of slave-labor, etc., are drawn into the whirlpool of an international market dominated by the capitalistic mode of production, the sale of their products for export becoming their principal interest, the civilized horrors of over-work are grafted on the barbaric horrors of slavery, serfdom, etc.”  Capital, Vol. I (New York: International Publishers, 1967[1867]), pp, 226.

[21] Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, Chapter Two, “The Metaphysics of Political Economy.” This chapter is reproduced in archives here:  Marx goes on: “Thus slavery, because it is an economic category, has always existed among the institutions of the peoples.  Modern nations have been able only to disguise slavery in their own countries, but they have imposed it without disguise upon the New World.” Robinson sets up a series of strawmen to support his claims.  One of these is that Marx (and Marxists) relegated slavery to “primitive accumulation” (BM, pp. 4).  This is simply untrue, as these quotes – and an abundant of writings by Marx and Marxists, make clear.

[22] Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (New York: Capricorn Books, 1966).

[23] BM, PP. 10

[24] Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, The Many Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000).

[25] As Moore notes, the disconnection of capitalism from colonialism and imperialism “tends to present any account foregrounding class and capital as ‘reductionist’ – a view that collapses the significant differences between world-historical class analysis and Eurocentric class formalism.”  Moore, pp. 4.

[26] Theodore W. Allen, The Invention of the White Race (London: Verso, Vol. I, 1994, Vol I, 1997I).

[27] As Allen put it, “it was only because ‘race’ consciousness superceded class consciousness that the continental plantation bourgeoisie was able to achieve and maintain the degree of social control necessary to proceeding with capital accumulation on the basis of chattel bond-labor.” Allen, Vol. II, pp. 240.

[28] The Many Headed Hydra, pp. 207-208.

[29] Meyerson notes in his critique of Black Marxism that “the ‘relative autonomy’ of ‘race’ has been enabled by a reduction and distortion of class analysis. The essence of the reduction and distortion involves equating class analysis with some version of economic determinism.”, pp. 1.

[30] Noteworthy here is Cedric Johnson’s critical discussion of this nostalgia, The Panthers Can’t Save Us Now,” Catalyst, 1(1), 2017.


[32] But see, inter-alia, the sources in endnote 3.

[33] As quoted in Nimtz, pp. 82.

[34] These are Kelley’s words in the Preface to the 2000 edition, summarizing Robinson’s argument.

[35] Moore, pp. 4.

[36] Let us recall that for Laclau and Mouffe “society” is not a valid object of discourse, as Munck notes (approvingly?…it is not clear).  Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (London: Verso, 1985).

[37] Amilcar Cabral, Return to the Source (New York: Monthly Review, 1973), pp. 95.

[38] BM, 308.

[39] For these citations, see BM, pp. 308.

[40] BM, pp. 71.

[41] There is a vast historiography we cannot reference here on Africa’s pre-modern and modern past, including the violence of state and empire building over millennia prior to the modern capitalist era, and the fierce resistance Africans wages against colonialism in their face of the superior material power of the colonialists. The eminent historian of Africa, Basil Davidson, who could hardly be accused of racism or Eurocentrism, popularized this history in his prolific late twentieth century publications, among them: Africa in History (New York: Touchstone Books, 1995); Modern Africa: A Social and Political History (New York: Routledge, 3rd edition, 1994).

[42] BM, pp. 169

[43] BM, pp. 308, 309

[44] Haider, pp. 5.

[45] BM, pp. 1.

[46] BM, pp. 9.  While Robinson does not ever give us a precise definition of “racial capitalism,” Magubane cites the definition put forth by one prominent racial capitalism scholar: “the process of deriving social and economic value from the racial identity of another person.” Nancy Leong, “Racial Capitalism,” Harvard Law Review, as cited by Magubane.

[47] Haider, pp. 4-5.

[48] Bernard Magubane, The Political Economy of Race and Class in South Africa (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1979), pp. 4.

[49] BM, pp. 76.

[50] Meyerson, pp. 11. Meanwhile, even if we reduce class analysis to a quantitative measure of wealth distribution, the very idea of racial wealth, a favorite trope of liberals and anti-racists in the United States, observe Michaels and Reed, “is an empty one”: “If you look at how white and black wealth are distributed in the U.S., you see right away that the very idea of racial wealth is an empty one.  The top 10 percent of white people have 75 percent of white wealth; the top 20 percent have virtually all of it.  And the same is true for black wealth.  The top 10 percent of black households hold 75 percent of black wealth….97 percent of the racial wealth gap exists among the wealthiest half of each population.  And more tellingly, more than three-fourths of it is concentrated in the top 10 percent of each.  If you say to those white people in the bottom 50 percent (people who have basically no wealth at all) that the basic inequality in the U.S. is between black and white, they know you are wrong.  More tellingly, if you say the same thing to the black people in the bottom 50 percent (people who have even less than no wealth at all), they also know you are wrong.  The wealth gap among all but the wealthiest blacks and whites is dwarfed by the class gap, the difference between the wealthiest and everyone else across the board.” Walter Benn Michaels and Adolph Reed, Jr, “The Trouble with Disparity,” NonSite, Issue 32, 10 September 2020, available at

[51] On this crisis, see inter-alia, William I. Robinson, Can Global Capitalism Endure? (Atlanta: Clarity, 2022).