The Shadow of the Plantation

W.E.B. Du Bois, City and Rural Population, 1890.
W.E.B. Du Bois, City and Rural Population, 1890.

There is a story we tell ourselves about history which presents it as the eternal progress towards greater freedom. Capitalism is seen as a chapter in this story, by liberals and Marxists alike, since it is understood to revolve around the category of free wage labor – the juridically free and mobile worker who enters into a voluntary contract with the owner of the means of production on the marketplace.

But this story, as Heide Gerstenberger has pointed out, is based on a false premise. "The actual history of capitalism," she writes, "does not support the assumption that the full legal and political autonomy of laborers is a fundamental requirement for capitalist forms of exploitation.”1 In fact, during the period of capitalism’s emergence and initial rapid growth, free wage labor only encompassed a marginal portion of the populations incorporated into the capitalist world market. Various forms of forced labor were widespread throughout the colonial world, meeting the demand for cotton, coffee, and sugar in Industrial Revolution England.2

How does this recognition, supported by contemporary research into the history of capitalism, affect our conceptual categories?3 The term “racial capitalism,” the most frequently invoked formulation of Cedric Robinson’s famous book Black Marxism, has become more and more prominent. At first glance, it appears to accurately represent the history of capitalist development, which, as Marx himself vividly described, was characterized by the plunder of the colonies and the brutality of slavery.

The term also holds considerable political appeal. In the place of formalist debates on “race and class,” it points us towards a unified politics of anti-racism and anti-capitalism. Perhaps it even allows for a certain theoretical hybridization between Marxism and what Robinson calls the “Black Radical Tradition.”

Of course, a unified politics of anti-racism and anti-capitalism would not be a new invention. The black communist Harry Haywood, for example, wrote in 1933:

In the present epoch of imperialism and proletarian revolution the Negro question in the United States must be considered as part of the national colonial problem, or, in other words, it is part of the general world-wide problem of freedom of the oppressed and dependent peoples from the shackles of imperialism.4

On the basis of this analysis, the Communist Party USA engaged in a sustained attack on white supremacy, laying the groundwork for the black freedom movement.5 However, like many other commentators, Robinson sees the underlying theory as unfortunate and archaic Euro-Marxist baggage, if not a foreign imposition by Russian agents. This is because Haywood had proposed that the global centrality of the black struggle lay in its character as a part of the national question.6 The “Black Belt Thesis,” canonized by the Communist International in 1928, proposed that the soil stretching from East Texas to Virginia, with its heartland in the prairies of Alabama and Mississippi, constituted a black nation which had the right to demand self-determination.

It remains to be seen what kind of politics can be built on the foundation of the notion of racial capitalism. To determine what organizational and practical activity can be derived from this analysis, we should turn to the comparison we have in front of us: the work of the communists of the early 20th century, who began with the now widely discredited and ridiculed Black Belt thesis. At stake is not only the Marxist analysis of history, but also the practical and organizational legacy of international revolution. Today, that legacy runs the risk of being reduced to an arcane mythology. Its preservation will require us to revisit languages new and old, in order to discover what unexpected meanings may be revealed in the notions of “racial capitalism” and the “black nation."

The Black Radical Tradition

First it is essential to recognize that in Black Marxism Robinson has not merely modified a Marxian account of capitalism with an indication that racial oppression was one of its developmental determinants. Rather, “racial capitalism” is a category that is specifically articulated from the vantage point of the “Black Radical Tradition.” In order to define the Black Radical Tradition, Robinson has to trace an astonishing sweep of world history. He proposes that the Black Radical Tradition has its roots in the collective resistance of New World slaves, a resistance which, according to Robinson, was based on an epistemology that “granted supremacy to metaphysics not the material.”7

According to this epistemology, the force which the Black Radical Tradition opposes can be identified as “racial capitalism.” Black resistance was based, Robinson writes, on “the Africanity of our consciousness—some epistemological measure culturally embedded in our minds that deemed that the racial capitalism we have been witness to was an unacceptable standard of human conduct.”8

From this vantage point, one which privileges the cultural and metaphysical, the confrontation of an African consciousness with racial capitalism is a kind of clash of civilizations, since racial capitalism expresses the character of Western Civilization itself. What, then, characterizes Western civilization, and how can its expression as racial capitalism be explained by cultural and metaphysical causes rather than material ones? Robinson explains this in terms of a system of “racialism,” which precedes capitalism and categorizes the diverse populations of Europe, distinguished by regional, cultural, and linguistic differences. The nation is an illusory category; it confuses the structure of the bureaucratic state with the real history of particular identities and and social structures that constituted European society. Robinson understands capitalism as the deepening of racialism: “The tendency of European civilization through capitalism was thus not to homogenize but to differentiate—to exaggerate regional, subcultural, and dialectical differences into ‘racial’ ones.”9

“Racialism” allows Robinson to provide a metaphysical and cultural explanation for the emergence of capitalism. Against the reduction of historical explanation to material factors, he argues: “Racialism insinuated not only medieval, feudal, and capitalist social structures, forms of property, and modes of production, but as well the very values and traditions of consciousness through which the peoples of these ages came to understand their worlds and their experiences.”10 Capitalism is then a moment in the development of European racialism.

Black Hegelianism

Hegel explains world history as the succession of particular national spirits, the spirit of a people as it is built up objectively in the state, and which depends on the cultural formation of its self-consciousness.11 But while for Hegel the particularity of a culture and its national expression joins the development of a universal history, 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.

Robinson shows us the racial character of Hegel’s Absolute Spirit, which is ultimately the constitution of the history of Europe as a spiritual unity. 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.

At a political level, Robinson’s book leads us to a repudiation of Marxism – it is a post-Marxism. However, there is a contradictory temporality at play, because theoretically Robinson’s problematic is pre-Marxist. He has proposed a Black Hegelianism which attempts to supersede mechanical materialism, as Hegel did with the philosophy of the European Enlightenment.

But Marx’s materialism was not simply a return from Hegel’s idealism to the materialism of the 18th century. It was an entirely new invention, based on a careful and original critique of idealism. While Robinson’s elaboration of the term “racial capitalism” identifies profoundly important characteristics of the historical development of the world market and its recomposition of the global population (nations, migration, slavery), it remains, like Hegel’s “civil society,” an ideological notion. 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.

If we examine the term more deeply we encounter a serious historiographical problem. By explaining capitalism as the expression of an underlying civilizational logic, the notion of racial capitalism obscures the contingent origins of capitalist social relations – the crux of the difference which separates Marx from Adam Smith. In this light it is easier to understand Robinson’s inability to present a coherent interpretation of Marx. What appears to be a critique of Marx is at best a critique of Hegel, from the vantage point of a Hegel relocated to Africa.

Thus Robinson’s account of figures who could accurately be described as “Black Marxists” relies on idiosyncratic readings, since he tries to incorporate these figures into the Black Hegelian Tradition, implying that from this vantage point they came to see Marxism as inadequate. This can only apply, to some extent, to Richard Wright, while Robinson’s other examples, W.E.B. Du Bois and C.L.R. James, could be considered some of the best refutations of Robinson’s thesis, since they demonstrate that Marxism is a far more diverse and fertile field than Robinson indicates. In order to represent Du Bois and James as critics of Marxism, rather than some of its most brilliant and significant representatives, Robinson presents a reductive caricature of Marxist theory, and engages in dubious interpretations of Du Bois’s and James’s work which are not remotely justified by his own citations.12

The Shadow of the Plantation

The limits of this caricature are obvious. But does the communist analysis underlying the Black Belt thesis propose a substantive alternative to Robinson's Smithian assumption that capitalism was the natural outgrowth of European values?

Let us turn to Harry Haywood’s 1948 Negro Liberation. The 19th century American slave plantation, Haywood wrote, was

a hybrid of two systems, classic slave economy and modern capitalism, combining the worst features of both. It was sired by a capitalist commodity-producing society, developed under its wing and subjected to its market relationships. Then, as now, the nature of the planter’s crop, its price and his returns were determined by the capitalist market. His supplies and finances came from outside. During slavery, the plantation was financed by big banking and commercial institutions in the North as well as in England.13

The so-called “race” problem, Haywood argued, was the result of “the social strictures imposed upon the Negro under the economic survivals of slavery, with the extra-economic element of racial coercion.”14 Its continued existence was manifested in the “curious anomaly of a virtual serfdom in the very heart of the most highly industrialized country in the world.”15 Jim Crow, lynching, Klan terror, sharecropping, and debt peonage allowed “the former slaveholders to maintain the old slave relations under the new conditions of legal emancipation.”16

The Great Migration, which tipped the balance of the black population towards cities and the North, was a form of resistance to these survivals of slavery, a line of flight which deprived capital of an artificially cheapened labor force.17 As its ability to use extra-economic coercion to increase productivity declined, capital had no choice but to rely on the mechanization of agriculture, which in its turn dispossessed black sharecroppers, driving even greater populations to Northern cities where they were followed by what Haywood called “the shadow of the plantation.”18

In the North, black wage labor encountered the same dynamics on the factory floor and in the city streets. One is reminded of the famous line of Malcolm X: “As long as you’re South of the Canadian border, you’re South.” A single black industrial worker would be compelled by racist management to do the work of several white workers, in increasingly unsafe conditions. Factory automation usually meant black unemployment, leading to the close connection of class struggle in the factories to the urban rebellions of the outsiders.19 These ongoing struggles showed that the juridical freedom of wage labor is not the product of a guaranteed historical evolution; it only appears when the market-dependent working class resists the force and coercion imposed upon it.

The Ideology of Race

How did capitalist force and coercion come to be exerted along racial lines? A 1930 polemic by Harry Haywood with the extraordinary title, “Against Bourgeois-Liberal Distortions of Leninism on the Negro Question in the United States” attempts to answer the question.20 He declared: “Race, as a social question, exist[s] only for the ideologists of the bourgeoisie and in the minds of those deluded by them.” The basic move of this ideology was to imbue “differences within the human species, such as color of skin, texture of hair, etc.” with “a social meaning,” and on this basis claim “the existence in nature of master and slave races.”21

This did not mean, however, that race was simply an illusion. Race theories arose to provide a moral justification for colonial policies, and thereby took on real political forms which perpetuated the underlying relation of exploitation.22 By cultivating hatred and resentment between the populations of the oppressed and oppressor nations, the ideology of race prevented the emergence of a unified global challenge to imperialism.

This ideology took a specific form in the history of the United States, due to two demographic factors. The first was migration. Recently arrived immigrants were subjected to special exploitation, while native-born American workers enjoyed greater privileges and were organized in exclusionary, chauvinist craft unions. But this differentiation tended to disappear as European immigrants were integrated over the course of generations. The second factor was African slavery, which made it possible to root labor market differentiation in visible physical difference. Haywood wrote: “The peculiar historical development of American capitalism bound up as it was with the development of cotton production and the necessary utilization of Negro slave labor, contributed to the early rise of racial theories. The moral sanctioning of the brutal system of slavery necessitated the exclusion of the Negro slave from the human category.”23

Since black people and white people lived side by side in the United States, without the rigid geographical, cultural, and linguistic divisions that characterized the relations of European colonialism, the race factor became a central pillar of the dominant ideology. The American nation came to be defined in terms of whiteness, with physical difference in color transcending intra-European hierarchies among immigrants, carried by oppressed nationalities from Ireland, Southern Italy, and the Russian Empire.

It was no surprise, then, that the black nationalist response of Marcus Garvey would also root itself in racial ideology. Even reformist integrationism was susceptible to this trap. By viewing the problem of racism as a matter of prejudice, due to instinctive hatred on the part of whites, it reduced the entire economic and social structure of racism to its ideological representation. The liberal reformist theory was thus unable to recognize the political antagonism between black self-determination and the shadow of the plantation – it could only see the elimination of prejudice, through education and philanthropy.

The Fantasies of Separatism

For the black communists, the Garvey movement represented a grassroots alternative to reformist integrationism; it resonated with the nationalist undercurrent of the black masses, which Haywood described as “an indigenous product, arising from the soil of Black super-exploitation and oppression in the United States.”24 Because Garveyism opened the way to a rejection of white society as it existed, rather than inclusion within it, it attracted a rank and file from the “submerged Black peasantry” that had recently migrated. But it also attracted the businessmen of the ghetto, looking to protect their “meager markets” from the “encroachments of predatory white corporate interests.” Because this mass movement included “various classes and social groupings with conflicting interests, tendencies and motives, all gathered under the unifying banner of national liberation,” it had a fundamentally contradictory character.25 While the rank and file saw the black nationalist state as “the fulfillment of their yearnings for land and freedom,” the elite leadership sought to establish a “Black controlled economy” within which they could “exploit their own masses free from the overwhelming competition of dominant white capital.”26

Garveyism attempted to resolve these class contradictions with an ideology of race, and this ideology represented an organizational practice of separatism. The utopian projection of exodus to Africa gave separatism a basis in the fantasy of an organic community that preceded American history. In this way black separatism inverted the ideology of race that had accompanied white domination. The concept of national oppression was an attempt to break out of the quagmire: race could not be taken as a pre-given category, a real, substantial attribute which then became the object of racial prejudice. A theory of racial oppression had to explain the constitution of the very phenomenon of race, rather than assuming its existence.27

For this reason it was crucial not to reduce the problem of racism to a matter of prejudice, due to instinctive hatred on the part of whites. In contrast, when the problem of race was reframed in terms of the history of the territory in which racism emerged, as a differentiation of forms of labor and their juridical freedom, it became clear that white supremacy could also exert its violence against white workers, farmers, sharecroppers, and migrants, whose exploitation was underpinned and reproduced by the survivals of slavery. A section called “Degradation of Whites” in Negro Liberation spells this out in detail:

It is not accidental… that where the Negroes are most oppressed, the position of the whites is also most degraded. Facts unearthed and widely publicized… have thrown vivid light on the “paradise” of racial bigotry below the Mason-Dixon Line. They expose the staggering price of “white supremacy” in terms of health, living and cultural standards of the great masses of southern whites. They show “white supremacy”… to be synonymous with the most outrageous poverty and misery of the southern white people. They show that “keeping the Negro down” spells for the entire South the nation’s lowest wage and living standards. “White supremacy” means the nation’s greatest proportion of tenants and sharecroppers, its highest rate of child labor, its most degrading and widespread exploitation of women, its poorest health and housing record, its highest illiteracy and lowest proportion of students in high schools and colleges, its highest death and disease rates, its lowest level of union organization and its least democracy.28

It followed that the demand for black self-determination was not the special interest of a racial group. As Haywood wrote, it “represents the basic interests of the impoverished white minority of the region whose backwardness and distress are anchored in the oppression of the Negro masses, since they can be freed only through uncompromising support for the full rights of the Negro people.”29

Towards Clarity and Unity

It has not been my intention to argue, as certain groupuscules may still do today, that the the persistence of racist violence and exploitation today should be explained as “national oppression,” still less that it would be reasonable to call for a black nation in the American South. But let us recall that the communist analysis of the national question understood the struggle for self-determination as an attack on the foundations of imperialism, rather than the abstract right of an organic community.30 Nations were understood as historically constituted phenomena, which composed a given community rather than naming a pre-existing one. The subjugation of minorities in the form of national oppression gave rise to the demand to be able to speak their own language, to learn their own history in school, to move freely through their native lands. But the justice of these demands could not be used to rationalize an essentialist and separatist politics, in the manner of Garveyism, which would cut off each national community from the struggle against the common imperialist enemy. The demand for self-determination had to be taken up by a multi-national organization agitating for international revolution.

We should pause for a moment to appreciate the complexity and subtlety of this argument. It completely rejects the notion that there is a cohesive and unitary interest of an organic black community, because this notion is itself based on an inversion of the white supremacist ideology of race, and because it obscures the objective conflict between the majority of black people and the black elite. Yet it is just as vehement in rejecting the economistic and social-democratic view that by advancing the interests of white workers, the problem of black oppression will automatically be solved. In fact, not even the economic interests of white workers can possibly be represented outside of a struggle for black liberation. In Haywood’s words, “the slogan of self-determination is a slogan of unity. Its overriding purpose was and still is to unite the white and Black exploited masses, working and oppressed people of all nationalities.”31

This emancipatory project lies outside the boundaries of the metaphysical “Black Radical Tradition.” And we will certainly get no closer to that project by invoking “racial capitalism.” “Capitalism” is sufficient to name our enemy; let us confront it directly, without shame or hesitation.


  1. Heide Gerstenberger, “The Political Economy of Capitalist Labor,” Viewpoint 4 (September 2014). Note that this comment follows an overview of the persistence of extra-economic coercion in England and France – indicating that the analysis of extra-economic coercion produced by theorists of slavery and colonialism is not of marginal import, but rather of universal significance in the theory of capitalist labor regimes. 

  2. On some theoretical implications of this point see Sandro Mezzadra, “How Many Histories of Labor? Towards a Theory of Postcolonial Capitalism,” January 2012, transversal; and Massimiliano Tomba, “Historical Temporalities of Capital: An Anti-Historicist Perspective,” Historical Materialism, 17:4 (2009): 44-65. See also Yann Moulier-Boutang, De l’esclavage au salariat: économie historique du salariat bridé (Paris: PUF, 1998), 89-270.  

  3. For a valuable review of this recent empirical literature and its conceptual gaps, see John Clegg, “Capitalism and Slavery,” Critical Historical Studies (Fall 2015). 

  4. Harry Haywood, “The Struggle for the Leninist Position on the Negro Question in the United States,” The Communist, September 1933. 

  5. See Erin Gray’s excellent introduction to Harry Haywood and Milton Howard’s Lynching: A Weapon of National Oppression, reprinted on Viewpoint

  6. For a vital conceptual analysis of the national question see Gavin Walker (2011), “Postcoloniality and the National Question in Marxist Historiography,” Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies, 13:1, 120-137. 

  7. Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 169. Robinson’s book has been criticized from the vantage point of a certain Marxism in Gregory Meyerson, “Rethinking Black Marxism: Reflections on Cedric Robinson and Others,” Cultural Logic 3:2 (Spring 2001). Meyerson’s article provides some useful empirical and interpretive correctives, though it does not take the approach we employ here of identifying Robinson’s problematic. 

  8. Robinson, Black Marxism, 308. 

  9. Robinson, Black Marxism, 26. 

  10. Robinson, Black Marxism, 66. 

  11. See G.W.F Hegel, The Philosophy of History, trans. J. Sibree (New York: The Colonial Press, 1899), 71; Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Geschichte, ed. Eduard Gans (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 1848), 89. 

  12. For correctives see Matthieu Renault, “Toward a Counter-Genealogy of Race: On C.L.R. James” and Ferruccio Gambino, “W.E.B. Du Bois and the Proletariat in Black Reconstruction.”  

  13. Harry Haywood, Negro Liberation (New York: International Publishers, 1948), 49-60. 

  14. Haywood, Negro Liberation, 44. 

  15. Haywood, Negro Liberation, 11. 

  16. Haywood, Negro Liberation, 37. 

  17. Harry Haywood, “For a Revolutionary Position on the Negro Question.” See also Negro Liberation, 16-20. 

  18. Haywood, Negro Liberation, 113-4. 

  19. The term is James Boggs’s in The American Revolution; see Patrick King’s introduction to “Black Power: A Scientific Concept Whose Time Has Come” in e-flux

  20. Harry Haywood, "Against Bourgeois-Liberal Distortions of Leninism on the Negro Question in the United States," The Communist, August 1930. 

  21. Haywood, "Against Bourgeois-Liberal Distortions,” 695-6. 

  22. Haywood, "Against Bourgeois-Liberal Distortions,” 696. 

  23. Haywood, "Against Bourgeois-Liberal Distortions,” 698. 

  24. Haywood, Black Bolshevik, 230. 

  25. The mass character of the Garveyite movement should not be underestimated: there was strong support for Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association in both the cities and the rural South. Mary G. Rolinson has written a remarkable account of the popularity of the UNIA among Black Belt sharecroppers over the course of the 1920s, leaving a profound influence on later protest movements and appeals for self-determination in the region: Grassroots Garveyism: The United Negro Improvement Association in the Rural South, 1920-1927 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2007). Robin D.G. Kelley has probed the ongoing effects of earlier forms of black nationalism, including Garveyism, on Communist activists in “‘Afric’s Sons with Banner Red’”: African-American Communists and the Politics of Culture, 1919-1934,” in Imagining Home: Class, Culture, and Nationalism in the African Diaspora, ed. Sidney J. Lemelle and Robin D.G. Kelley (New York: Verso, 1994), 35-54.  

  26. Haywood, Black Bolshevik, 109-110; see also Negro Liberation, 197-204. 

  27. See the effective summary, in another context, of Étienne Balibar: “The object (the target) of current European racism is not by any means just the black, the Arab or the Muslim, though they doubtless bear the main brunt. This point is also important because it forces us once again to go beyond abstract interpretations in terms of conflicts of identity, or rejection of the Other and of ‘otherness’ as such – as though otherness were something constituted a priori: explanations which, in reality, merely reproduce part of the racist discourse itself.” Politics and the Other Scene, trans. Christine Jones, James Swenson, Chris Turner (New York: Verso, 2002), 44. 

  28. Haywood, Negro Liberation, 66-7. 

  29. Haywood, Negro Liberation, 166. 

  30. On the theme of “community” see Jean-Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community, ed. Peter Connor and trans. Peter Connor, Lisa Garbus, Michael Holland, and Simona Sawhney (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1991); and Étienne Balibar, “Citizenship without Community” in We, the People of Europe? Reflections on Transnational Citizenship, trans. James Swenson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004). 

  31. Haywood, Black Bolshevik, 279. 

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