[lead bloggers: Jason and Pere]
During his talk, Eric Lott addressed the profound imbrication of race, class and revolution, making the case that as categories for analysis, race and class should never be separated. In this regard, Lott pushed back against class fundamentalists, like Adolph Reed Jr., who position race and racism as epiphenomenal to the class structure of societies with capitalist economies—particularly attending to an American context. Furthermore, Lott challenged the notion that race/racism can be understood outside of the scope of economics, cautious to avoid economic determinism by establishing a dialectical relationship between the two categories that is both causal and correlative, each mutually determining the other.
Lott based his thesis, if you will, on a reading of Capital Vol. 1 that described the issue of chattel slavery in America as a specter that continues to haunt the analysis of the “classical” capitalist economic formation (i.e. 19th century industrialized England) the volume presents. For Lott, the ample amount of times in which Marx refers to American slavery within the book counters popular claims that the issue is only addressed briefly in the volume’s final chapter on the working day; it also complicates a reading of capital accumulation that relegates chattel slavery to a primitive stage, making way for free labor once capitalist economic relations are fully developed: an undialectical “error” that Marx is consistently accused of making. Lott raised the following question with regard to how Capital Vol. 1 is read: How can chattel slavery be both an analogy for wage labor and its buttress? Lott suggests that the categories of chattel slavery and wage slavery may not have been clearly distinguished for Marx, each dependent on and interpenetrating the other in Marx’s developing understanding of capital. Lott notes that the issues of chattel slavery and racism in America go undertheorized in the volume, but insists that a close reading of the book shows that these problems and how they are imbricated throughout the burgeoning global capitalist system were never far from Marx’s mind.
Lott referred to what he called an “American Marx” to indicate just how interested Marx was in American affairs at the time of his writing, pointing to his dispatches in American newspapers as the New York Daily Tribune, his interest and correspondence with Lincoln, and his desire to immigrate to Texas in the latter years of his life. Lott emphasized the fact that the first volume of Capital was published shortly after the end of the American Civil War, claiming that this period in American history had a great impact on Marx’s growing understanding capital economic relations as well as that of revolutionary change.
Marx’s enthusiasm for Lincoln’s prosecuting of the war, as well as Marx’s reading of Lincoln’s role in US political and economic history, provide possibilities for an expansion of his theory of revolution. Eric Lott read an excerpt of an article published in Die Presse in 1862 in which Marx wrote, “things are taking a revolutionary turn. Lincoln knows what Europe does not know… New England and the Northwest, which have provided the main body of the army, are determined to force on the government a revolutionary kind of warfare and to inscribe the battle-slogan of ‘Abolition of Slavery!’… So far, we have only witnessed the first act of the Civil War — the constitutional waging of war. The second act, the revolutionary waging of war, is at hand.”
For Marx, the American Civil War was nothing less than a world-transforming step due to what emancipation might mean for the development of a revolutionary proletariat, although he recognized that the slave question was less urgent for Lincoln than the maintenance of the Union—that after the war there could be a consolidation of capitalism. Nevertheless, the Civil War was the manifestation of a whole class, in that of the pseudo-aristocracy of southern planters, losing its privileges, a decisive victory in the class struggle and the history of the construction of a world proletariat.
In sum, Lott argued that Marx was not simply referring to chattel slavery for rhetorical effect to pierce the veil of freedom in wage slavery in Capital Vol. 1. Instead, the issue of chattel slavery in America as well as its racist component were essential to the continuing development of Marx’s understanding of capital. Therefore, contemporary claims that suggest that Marx had little to say about racial oppression as a system of domination are problematic; and here, Lott echoes elements of Kevin Anderson’s work in Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies.
On top of this, we, as young scholars and activists, were charged with the task of thinking through the entanglement of race and class without distinguishing one from the other or making one part of the contradiction primary. That said, we also have to consider what we think about this charge. Thus, we have prepared the following set of questions.
- In The Invention of the White Race, Ted Allen performs extensive archival research to demonstrate how race was created in America via legislation as a divide and conquer strategy, pitting newly labeled “white” indentured servants against their “black” counterparts in the late 1600s in Virginia. This strategy constructed poor “whites” as a buffer between the wealthy planter class and “black” slaves in order to prevent what would now be considered multiracial unity between the two oppressed groups, which had resulted in a series of revolts that threatened the then class-based system of dominance. When considering the relationship between race and class in America, might only focusing on chattel slavery as a starting point, and not the system of indentured servitude that gave rise to it historically, lend itself to readings of the race/class dialectic that see both sides of the contradiction as mutually determining without recognizing that the latter does seem to have given rise to the former? How might seeing the invention of race as a “divide and conquer” strategy either challenge or complicate the ways in which we are trying to think race and class together?
- With regard to practical application, thinking race and class together in the way that Lott proposed, suggests that to be anti-capitalist is to also be anti-racist and vice versa. The examples Lott provided to illustrate the problems associated with thinking one without the other, which he acknowledged were poor, were Berny Sanders, whose program for reform was class-based without much acknowledgement of racial disparity, and Hillary Clinton, who lacked a class analysis, but at least in her rhetoric and television spots, appeared (big difference between appearance and essence: #dialectics) to pay attention to the interests of “black” voters.
Of course, we know that the relationship between anti-capitalist and anti-racist programs cuts much deeper throughout the history of left activism than the example of the contradictions between two bourgeois politicians offers. A couple of things that immediately come to mind are the old CP USA’s Black Belt thesis and Black Nationalist politics. Does ensuring that we always think race and class together immediately call forth a critique of nationalism in favor of multiracial working class unity against a common oppressor and an exploitative economic system? What do we gain when we stress commonality between workers of all races in America in our theory and our political practice? What do we lose?
- Marx recognized that slavery “existed among all nations since the beginning of the world” (Marx, “From letter written in French to Pavel Vassilyevich Annenkov”) but the slavery that paved the way for the emergence of Western capitalism had a unique quality that differentiated it from other slave systems in other societies of the past. Why slavery under capitalism is different to slavery in other societies and periods? What are the racial and economic new conceptions?
- As Marx’s writings on the American Civil War show, his political agenda and his theory were not limited on the emancipation of the white working class from factory work. Marx’s priority was a large-scale human emancipation, nevertheless, he used the concept of the class because of its relational character with the means of production and because he thought that it could bring together the greatest number of individuals to struggle against capitalism. What can we learn from the misunderstanding of the class concept? How can we reduce the tensions and disagreements in the left?
- As show works as Sidney W. Mintz’s Sweetness and Power, the plantation and the factory encompassed a single economic system. Global commerce in slaves and the commodities produced the rise of new industries and to wage-labor in the eighteenth century. Could you show the relationship between the slave trade and the creation of the modern finance system? What are the differences on both sides of the Atlantic?