(10/24) ERIC LOTT

[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.


  1. 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?
  2. 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?

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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?

9 thoughts on “(10/24) ERIC LOTT

  1. Aus Mil

    It is worthwhile to think about question number 3 and how slavery under capitalism is different than other types of slavery. We should think of this in light of one of our colleagues insights that slavery is a dynamic part of the economic process and develops along with it. Given the variety of forms of capitalism, we should also be differentiating between wildly different conditions of enslavement under different moments of capitalism and modes of production.

    Chattel slavery was specifically horrendous for, among other things, its denial of humanity and its role instituting a global racial hierarchy. While slavery in the United States is extralegal, and typically involves moving people across nation-state borders. Removing someone from their social context is a common way to enslave them. In chattel slavery, because people were born slaves, an entire racial system was needed to continue to define people of African descent as out of context in the Americas.

    Something else to consider is that slavery, indentured servitude and wage labor were in the process of disaagregation for a long time, and still today, these boundaries may be blurrier than we realize. Enslaved people of African descent often worked as wage laborers forfeiting all or some of their wages to their masters. Fires in Indonesia and flooded mining barracks in Chile where workers were literally padlocked in reveal the thin line between forced and waged labor. During the height of the abolitionist movement, Harriet Beecher Stowe compared conditions of British wage workers to slavery and Frederick Douglass worked against capitalism as a whole. Indeed, much of he radical critiques against slavery included critiques against the whole economic system. In other words, their relation, and potential for shared struggle, may have been more evident to activists 160 years ago, and may still be for people living nearer that blurry line.

    1. Emily Holloway

      I think it’s also important to bear in mind the political and cultural determinants that predicated bondage slavery during the earliest days of colonial settlement. Namely, that the English Civil War and a recurring outbreak of the Plague divested a tremendous amount of eligible, single male labor (English) from settlement and cultivation in the Americas. Various trade companies were already excavating profit in commodities, and in desperate need of labor sources. British nationalist identity was still coalescing, but was largely premised on military and commercial hegemony vis-a-vis the declining power of the Holy Roman Empire, the Hapsburgs, the Spanish, Dutch, etc, etc. Although I think it’s crucial to consider race and class as mutually influential in material history, it’s also clear that social arrangements of capitalism are temporally and geographically specific–noted in the most recent lecture by Prof. Robotham.

  2. Karen

    Thank you, lead bloggers, for the great summary. I’ve been thinking about the insistence on using Marx’s Capital as the seminal text to look at class relations. As the lead bloggers have said, “thinking through the entanglement of race and class without distinguishing one from the other or making part of the contradiction primary” is part of the existing and further task we should take as academics and activists.

    I’m not sure how to word this question properly, but why do we have to read Marx as inherently engaged with questions of race? While I find Professor Lott’s point on Marx’s interest and personal ties to American politics (and perhaps the Abolitionist movement) compelling– especially the point on Marx’s funding being tied to Engel’s family textile factory and, therefore, slave labor– is there any real value in reading/imagining Marx’s theories of class struggle as originally involved in racial politics? I am struggling with this question myself, especially since there have been so many prominent thinkers and activists who are explicitly engaging in questions of racial class politics, such as W.E.B Du Bois.

  3. Anna Rebrii

    I would like to share some thoughts in regards to the question #1. Indeed, looking at the origins of racism in the US brings to the fore the question of class as the determinant in the creation of the American racism. I like the way the lead bloggers formulated the implications if we start our analysis even earlier than chattel slavery (as suggested by Lott in the lecture) with indebted servitude to understand how race became the defining feature of the slavery in the US (in this respect, I would also recommend Barbara J. Fields’ “Slavery, Race and Ideology in the United States of America”). If the class determines the race in its origins in the US, how can we analyze the two categories dialectically and as mutually determining? In my view, to see their co-determinacy –while admitting the class origins of racism– we need to trace how race came to override class in certain respects in the further historical development: the fact that being black has entailed, most of the time, limited opportunities for moving up, compared to the opportunities of the whites in the US, thus confining people of color to the lower class. One can find an analysis along these lines in Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction, where he argues that black people were the ultimate exploited due to racial prejudice that prevented them from ascending the class ladder (in this case in point, during the reconstruction): “To be sure, the black mass developed again and again, here and there, capitalistic groups in New Orleans, in Charleston and in Philadelphia; groups willing to join white capital in exploiting labour; but they were driven back into the mass by racial prejudice before they had reached a permanent foothold […]” (15).
    Racial prejudice (and racial hatred in its extreme form) –in conjunction with the systematic exclusion of African Americans, and people of color in general, from economic, social and political life since the defeat of reconstruction– limits economic opportunities and social mobility of people of color regardless their class. Racial prejudice –at least in the form of blindness towards the importance of racial oppression for those affected by it– has tainted the history of the left movement in the US as well, probably most notoriously in the beginning of the 20th c. As much as it makes sense that whites and people of color should unite under the common class interests, the reality has to be faced that race too has played a role in the failure to realize this unity. As much as we want to insist on the universal liberation through the class-based struggle, the neglect of double oppression (and triple oppression for women and non-heterosexual communities of color) will only serve to alienate the most oppressed and force them to organize along the lines of race/ethnicity and gender in order to address their most urgent concerns (and here I would like to refer back to Erik who suggested in class that we should investigate the primacy of these categories in people’s everyday experience through ethnographic research).

    Finally, an interesting debate on the class/race motivations of Trump voters brought up by Prof. Maskovsky in the class: https://theintercept.com/2018/11/01/the-midterms-are-days-away-what-will-drive-trump-voters-race-or-class/

    Fields, Barbara J. “Slavery, Race and Ideology in the United States of America.” New Left Review, I/181: May-June 1990.
    DuBois, W.E.B. Black Reconstruction: An Essay toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1935.

  4. Patrick

    Following up on question 4, I think there are some serious limits to purely symptomatic readings of Volume I—i.e., reading for Marx’s “omissions” in what he explicitly presented as a highly stylized model for how a purely capitalist mode of production would operate in a one-country world with no international trade or problems of effective demand/realization, etc.—conditions he knew did not exist anywhere in history, not even England or Texas, but which nonetheless help to illustrate fundamental laws of motion. His overall plan for Capital included so, so many topics he never got to before his death (like the state, to name one major victim of this level of abstraction), and one can indeed come across some moving comments on the moral necessity of the abolition of the institution of private property in human beings, tucked away in his discussion of the dynamics of capitalist ground rent of all things—itself an abstract conceptual tool some today are concretizing and repurposing precisely to understand land dispossession and settler colonialism, and the motors for different kinds of racialization from those often discussed relative to Marx’s work (Hall 2015; Murray 1978).

    I almost wish, if only for the sake of concretizing up from the abstract, Prof. Lott’s paper proceeded in the reverse direction that it did, from the relative absence of discussions of chattel slavery in Volume I to Marx’s impressive active support for British workers to enjoin their future to that of enslaved people, and to support with all their might (and against perceived immediate interests as cotton spinners) the forces of abolition in the US Civil War. We may wish Marx wrote a different book, or indeed finished it, but sometimes literary analysis of the work can freeze what was meant to be an evolving tool of struggle.

    So many revolutionary anti-imperialist movements indeed found something powerful about this abstract representation, and concretized it up to their circumstances impressively, in ways that a symptomatic close reading can sometimes obscure. I’m very glad that the authors of this post bring up Kevin Anderson’s book, as it troubles a lot of simplistic interpretations of isolated comments by Marx on imperialism, nationalism, and racism (who knew Engels so hated the Southern Slavs!). See also Aijaz Ahmad’s book In Theory, particularly the two chapters on Edward Said, for a striking if ungenerous complication of some received wisdom. We should link our thoughts of the strategic implications of a reading of only Volume I (which was not meant to be the final word in a dialectical presentation of an extended argument) with those of the many, many anti-colonial, anti-imperial, anti-racist, and explicitly Marxist movements (the vast majority of which, it bears clarifying, are not white-majority) that have seen in Marx’s abstractions a tool that can be repurposed through concrete application to a concrete situation, rather than an immorally incomplete statement of fact (e.g. Cabral 1979).

    Ahmad, Aijaz. 1992. In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures. London & New York: Verso.
    Cabral, Amilcar. 1979. Unity & Struggle. New York: Monthly Review Press.
    Hall, Rebecca. 2015. “Divide and Conquer: Privatizing Indigenous Land Ownership as Capital Accumulation.” Studies in Political Economy 96.1: 23–46.
    Murray, Robin. 1976. “Value and Theory of Rent, Part Two.” Capital & Class 2.1: 11–33.

  5. Kathryn Alessi

    Question 2 seems to be forming the basis for a debate on intersectionality and whether the application of that theory can be effective in combating oppression from the ultimate controlling class (wealthy, white men in positions of power). Understanding issues of race, class, gender and sexuality separately are important as they can give needed empathy and support for those oppressed through those forms of social stratification. Solely thinking of these issues lumped together would seemingly harm the goal of commonality in a practical social sense as would treating them completely separate from one another. Acknowledging each form as a separate struggle, but, at the same time, as a combination used to maintain a certain status quo by the ultimate controlling class, although an important concept of intersectionality, is something that current activists have been struggling to implement as a successful call for unity. Successfully combating oppression at the highest level through the lens of intersectionality is not practical because everyone carries personal biases that keep them from uniting with people from every form of social stratification.

  6. Megan Michalak

    Thank you lead bloggers for your excellent analysis and questions, and classmates for thoughtful responses to the questions proposed by our lead bloggers! I thoroughly enjoyed Eric Lott´s presentation for the speculative possibilities that arise from his rereading of critical correspondences of Marx in relation to the American context. It opened rich territory for imagining possibilities lying dormant within the unpublished volumes of the end of Marx´s life. Towards a similar objective of imagining political possibilities within these volumes:

    I wanted to pose a 4th question that pertains to the work of Enrique Dussel who likewise presents the possibility of the existence of an ¨Unknown Decolonial Marx¨ through his rereading of all of the unpublished volumes of the last 19 years of Marx´s work in German. To this end I wanted to share two links for anyone wanting to continue these questions or line of inquiry.

    Enrique Dussel´s Towards an Unknown Marx, text can be downloaded here in English: https://enriquedussel.com/txt/Textos_Libros/43.Towards_an_Unknown_Marx.pdf

    A review by Ramon Grosfoguel in Spanish of Dussel´s presentation of an Unknown Decolonial Marx can be found here:

    Ramon Grosfoguel in the above interview coinciding with the bicentennial, reviews the prospect presented by Dussel of an unknown decolonial Marx within Marx´s critique of the limits of western modernity. According to Dussel and Grosfoguel, Marx learned Russian and began corresponding with the Russian populists, who invited him to publish Capital Vol. 1 in Russian, whereupon Marx responds that volume 1 did not make sense to translate and publish into Russian, as he had realized that the analysis of Capital made sense in the context of Western Europe upon which it was modelled, but not outside of Europe, particularly in Russia. Dussel and Grosfoguel believe that this represents critical perspectives to the limits to the application of Eurocentric models of thought to other contexts, but the beginnings of a decolonial Marx as he begins to critique Western modernity as a project itself. Evidence of this can be found within this correspondence where Marx realized that within the Russian commune as it existed, can be developed a more egalitarian society; and it was not necessary to move through the historical phase of Capitalism, and the compulsory accelerated modernization projects that have since been implemented Russia, China, and other parts of the world in order to implement communism. In short, in these later unpublished volumes Marx realizes the limits of European modernity, embedded within Capital Vol 1; that a European local history should not be applied to the rest of the world.

  7. Anthony Ramos

    One of the more provocative questions that arose during our discussion pertained to Stuart Hall’s following idea: that “race is the modality through which class is lived.” First, there was question as to what Stuart Hall meant by “modality”? and, secondly, we were asked to consider the reverse was “class the modality through which race was lived”? and, finally, and this question sparked the most interesting series of discussions, can we think of race outside of class?

    I would like to gesture to suggest that Stuart Hall’s notion of modality might have been linked to a key field in philosophy “modal logic.” Since my own undertanding of modal logic remains cursory, I will refer to wikipedia here: “The semantics for modal logic are usually given as follows: First we define a frame, which consists of a non-empty set, G, whose members are generally called possible worlds, and a binary relation, R, that holds (or not) between the possible worlds of G. This binary relation is called the accessibility relation.” Thus, key to modal logic is the framing device and as well what world makes accessible the facts inhered in another. And thus, Hall would be suggesting by modality that race was constitutive political economic relationship which made accessible relations of Capital. As always Stuart Hall was historical, this relationship is not one derived through abstraction but to radical historicism. Gramsci was a key figure in how Hall conceived his ideas.

    Hall argues,

    “One must start, then, from the concrete historical ‘work’ which racism accomplishes under specific historical conditions—as a set of economic, political and ideological practices, of a distinctive kind, concretely articulated with other practices in a social formation. These practices ascribe the positioning of different social groups in relation to one another with respect to the elementary structures of society; they fix and ascribe those positionings in on-going social practices; they legitimate the positions so ascribed. In short, they are practices which secure the hegemony of a dominant group over a series of subordinate ones, in such a way as to dominate the whole social formation in a form favourable to the long-term development of the economic productive base….

    This requires us, in turn, to show its articulation with the different structures of the social formation. For example, the position of the slave in preemancipaiion plantation society was not secured exclusively through race. It was predominantly secured by the quite specific and distinctive productive relations of slave-based agriculture, and through the distinctive property status of the slave (as a commodity) and of slave labour-power (as united with its exerciser, who was not however its ‘owner’), coupled with legal, political and ideological systems which anchored this relation by racial ascription. This coupling may have provided the ready-made rationale and framework for those structures of ‘informal racism’ which became operative when ‘freed’ black labour migrated northwards in the United States or into the Tree village’ system in the post-emacipation Caribbean. Yet the ‘coupling’ operated in new ways, and required their own ideological work:—as in the “Jim Crow’ legislation of the 1880s and 1890s (Van Woodward: 1957). The reproduction of the low and ascribed status of black labour, as a specific fraction of the ‘free labouring’ classes of industrial capitalism, was secured—with the assistance of a transformed racism, to be sure: but also through other mechanisms, which accomplished their structured positioning with respect to new forms of capital in new ways” (p. 339).

    With this in mind, we might return to the full statement in which Hall argued that race was the modality through which class is lived. Here he connects it to the reproduction of class division:

    ” the structures through which black labour is reproduced—structures which may be general to capital at a certain stage of development, whatever the racial composition of labour—are not simply ‘coloured’ by race: they work through race. The relations of capitalism can be thought of as articulating classes in distinct ways at each of the levels or instances of the social formation—economic, political, ideological. These levels are the ‘effects’ of the structures of modern capitalist production, with the necessary displacement of relative autonomy operating between them. Each level of the social formation requires its own independent ‘means of representation’—the means by which the class-structured mode of production appears, and acquires effectiviry at the level of the economic, the political, the ideological class struggle. Race is intrinsic to the manner in which the black labouring classes are complexly constituted at each of these levels. It enters into the way black labour, male and female, is distributed as economic agents at the level of economic practices, and the class struggles which, result from it; and into the way the fractions of the black labouring classes are reconstituted, through the means of political representation (parties, organizations, community action centres, publications and campaigns) as
    political forces in the ‘theatre of polities’—and the political struggles which result; and the manner in which the class is articulated as the collective and individual ‘subjects’ of emergent ideologies—and the struggles over ideology, culture and consciousness which result. This gives the matter or dimension of race, and racism, a practical as well as theoretical centrality to all the relations which affect black labour. The constitution of this fraction as a class, and the class relations which ascribe it, function as race relations. Race is thus, also, the modality in which class is ‘lived’, the medium through which class relations are experienced, the form in which it is appropriated and ‘fought through’. This has consequences for the whole class, not specifically for its ‘racially defined’ segment.” (p. 340-341).

    If we agree with Hall, which I do, then colorblindness is not an effective basis for radical politics, and this extends to the histories we acknowledge and incorporate in our politics. It seems that scholarship is continuing to bear out that racism was a constitutive feature of Capital formation (in the Caribbean/Europe complex, or to the industrialization of the US) while working-class politics, and organization, have never fully grappled with racism.




    Which is why I look forward to following Eric Lott’s lead, by re-reading Karl Marx’s volume I while looking closely at Marx’s thinking about relationships between chattel slavery to the primitive stages of accumulation (by dispossession) by the US state. Though, I will in conjunction be asking myself: are the ideas put forth by Karl Marx, in Vol. 1, a sufficient basis from which to understand processes of race, racialism, and racism? and to what extent, should a radical, transformative politics look to other addendum sources for equal leadership?

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