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Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism

This is the text from this week’s lecture on Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition by Cedric Robinson. The presentation focuses on Chapter I of the book and some sections of Part II dealing with the invention of ‘The Negro’. This is the merely the tip of the iceberg, and as we go through the rest of this year’s ‘Understanding Race’ course, we will return to Black Marxism, and especially Part III in which Robinson deals with the Black radical tradition as expressed via the work of W.E.B. Du Bois, C.L.R. James and Richard Wright. We will read Robbie Shilliam’s Race and the Undeserving Poor and Gargi Bhattacharyya’s Rethinking Racial Capitalism in light of Robinson’s foundational work. Below are the slides from the lecture which accompany the text.


Cedric Robinson was born November 5, 1940, Robinson grew up in a black working-class neighborhood in West Oakland.

Active in radical student politics during his time at U. Berkeley in the 1960s.

1974: earned his doctorate.

1978: joined the faculty at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and became director of the Center for Black Studies Research.

As Robin Kelley writes in the new preface to Black Marxism, most had not heard of Robinson despite his role. 


Black Marxism (1983, published in the UK), was not taught despite the fact, as Kelley notes, that in it Robinson ‘rewrites the history of the rise of the West from ancient times to the mid-20th C.’ (p. 7).

Key contributing factors to the lack of attention to the book are:

  1. UK publisher
  2. Separation of race and class analyses (on both sides) – this is a key theme currently being addressed by the revival of interest in racial capitalism after Robinson’s death
  3. ‘Withering critique of Western Marxism’ (Kelley)
  4. Centering of Black thought


The Futures of Black Radicalism edited volume – adds to the rationale for why Black Marxism has been elided.


Beyond this, the book does so many things that it is arguably difficult to teach. Though  written in an accessible style, it presupposes knowledge about the history of feudalism, capitalism, European state formation, colonialism, imperialism, etc. that we do not adequately teach (especially in Australia).

Kelley: more than any other book, it ‘shifts the centre of radical thought from Europe to the so-called periphery’


Another reason why Black Marxism is difficult to teach is because it appears disjointed. each part does something quite distinct but the argument is that before you can get to a discussion of Black radicalism in Part III, you need to start the story in Europe where racial thinking develops.

But the titles are a bit misleading because the way Robinson approaches the question of radicalism is via his retelling of the history of capitalism.

In each section, we get a foregrounding which explains why the history of capitalism evolved in a certain way and what was left out. But the focus is on the telling of the history and the critique is interwoven with that. 

The reason for that is made clear when in the Introduction, Robinson writes that he sought to replace ‘aeriform theory and self-serving legend’ with history.

Part I (which we read for class) provides a corrective to the idea that racial thinking and racial rule emerges only after 1492 and completely obliterates the common sense idea that (as we have discussed) race is purely a product of 19th C. biological thinking.

Part II: what are the conditions for the emergence of Black radicalism? Robinson argues that we don’t know about the Black radical tradition because Europe has suppressed ‘Europe’s previous knowledge of the African (and its own) past’ (p. 56).

African people were denied history.

Part III – social and intellectual backgrounds of 3 seminal Black intellectuals: W.E.B. Du Bois, C.L.R. James and Richard Wright.

They are not unique, rather ‘their lives and circumstances were prisms of the events impending on and emanating from the Black radical tradition’ (p. 59).

They were all three dissatisfied Marxists and ‘events and experience drew them toward Black radicalism and the discovery of a collective Black resistance’  (p. 59). 


  1. While the Marxist theories of Marx, Engels and Lenin emerge in a particular European context, they have been generalised to the whole of the globe. This is an epistemological problem because the philosophical and analytical presumptions, as well as its ‘historical perspectives and points of view’ are uniquely European (p. 54). Is it fit for purpose as a global theory/framework?
  2. Marxism has no way to explain ‘racialism’ even though it is a key ordering idea of western civilisation.  

What do we think of CR’s definition? What’s the difference between race, racialism and racism?


In his lecture Robin Kelley mentions Stuart Hall’s 1988 book The Hard Road to Renewal, in which he takes British Marxists to task for dismissing race as false consciousness. 

Stuart Hall talks about race being the modality through which class is lived.

CR argues that a look at the historical conditions of ‘the intensely racial social order’ of England’s industrial era’ shows no objective basis for the universality of class. 


4. Because racial slavery – which originated in Europe but which became fundamental to the exponential expansion of global capitalism – dominated ‘300 years beyond the beginnings of modern capitalism’ (p. 57), it is impossible to argue that the root of revolutionary consciousness was the European working class. Indeed, CR argues that working class consciousness did not even negate bourgeois culture (p. 58).  

African people resisted slavery and – importantly – their resistance is derived from their cultural backgrounds (connections to ‘intrasubstantial connections to land’ of Aboriginal people described by A. M-R which  western derived epistemologies cannot understand).


The concept racial capitalism is associated with CR but it has an earlier antecedent:

The term originates with the book Foreign Investment and the Reproduction of Racial Capitalism in South Africa, written by white South African Marxists Martin Legassick and David Hemson and published by the London-based Anti-Apartheid Movement in 1976. (Peter Hudson, The Boston Review)

‘Legassick and Hemson use the concept of racial capitalism to critique South African liberals who argued that apartheid was a “dysfunctional” aberration of capitalism that could be abolished through the improvement and better organization of South African capitalism—a position shared by many white South African capitalists, by Henry Kissinger and the U.S. State Department, and by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.’

Neville Alexander, an activist and academic from the Eastern Cape involved in the Azanian People’s Organization, the Cape Action League, and the National Forum Committee:

He argued ‘against those who argued for the development of “non-racialism” or “multiracialism” in South Africa without first criticizing the underlying notions of immutable races—and without, at the same time, understanding the political-economic relations that shaped them.’


Very fundamentally, as Robin Kelley says, there is not such thing as non-racial capitalism, all capitalism is racial.

Central theory: European racism and nationalism did not emerge from capitalism but they preceded it. 

According to Nikhil Pal Singh in this talk, racial capitalism calls itself simply ‘capitalism’ at the moment at which it becomes global (until this point there is an implicit understanding of its racial roots).


The story begins with feudalism, rather than as conventional in Marxist thought, with a new era— capitalist modernity—which is seen as a total break from the feudal regime.

The reason why this is important for understanding racial capitalism is that ways of differentiating between groups in European society along what we now think of as racial lines (ethnicity, religion, class, etc.) were already in place.


So, Europe is constructed along antagonistic lines.

From the early division between the Romans and the Barbarians – ‘a function of exclusion’ (p. 10) beyond the realm of Roman civilization.

The equation of Europe with Christendom (defined against non-Christians) slowly emerges out of this definition of insiders and outsiders. 


This is perhaps the most important and unique contribution made by Robinson.

In order to understand racial capitalism and the systems it establishes, such as slavery and indentured servitude (which Kelley argues are ongoing) then we have to understand that they originate in Europe and are a means to stratify Europeans internally.

CR (p. 11): ‘slave labor as a critical basis of production would continue without any significant interruption into the twentieth century. slave labor persisted as an aspect of European agrarian production up to the modern era. Neither feudal serfdom, nor capitalism had as their result the elimination or curtailment of slavery. At the very most (it is argued by some), their organization served to relocate it’


R.D.G. Kelley summarising CR’s stress on Europe as the birthplace of race.

What does this understanding mean for understanding whiteness? (e.g. ‘How the Irish Became White’, etc.)


From the early 12th century on, what becomes known as the bourgeoisie emerges from the merchants (mercati) who dealt in foodstuffs.

As a result of population growth under feudalism, a greater number of people were detached from the land and they became committed to ‘a roving and hazardous existence’ (Pirenne 1966, cited in CR 14). They were therefore seen as foreigners. 

They were often former slaves/unfree labourers.

Eventually they established ports in order to facilitate exchange between ‘the Mediterranean, the East and northern Europe’

Pirenne: ‘Europe colonised herself thanks to the increase of her inhabitants’ 

People are pushed from the land into urban centres. For example the Flemish cloth industry is transformed by the bourgeoisie into an urban manufacture ‘on the basis of capitalistic wage labour’ 

The poor then flock to the urban centres. 

Serfs could become free by moving to the city – which conferred upon you the right of freedom. So the bourgeoisie initially freed serfs in order to later re-enslave them!

International trade begins (different goods from different areas) and products from different areas of Europe (e.g. wine in Italy, Spain and France; wheat from England etc.) become the major basis for international trade along with wool and cloth.


But the most profitable trade was in slaves. 

13-15th C: most slaves were European and most involved in domestic labour.

But African slaves were starting to be used in Spain and Italian colonies of Crete and Palestine, by Genoese and Venetian masters in sugar plantations and work in mines.

So, slavery as a system evolves in Europe and largely retains the same structure; the difference is that ‘the white victims of slavery were replaced by a much greater number of African negroes captured in raids or brought by traders (Verlinden, cited in CR 16).


Period of unrest in the 14th and 15th C. (100 years war, famines, Black Death, peasant rebellions etc.) leads to a massive population decline in the cities and the countryside. 

General economic decline as a result.

Peasant uprisings demanded wage-labour over slavery.

Rise of the Ottman empire enables the re-emergence of the merchant class – new accommodations to Islam and commerce. Italians relocate their business to the Iberian peninsula. 

Modern world capitalism emerges out of the desperation for survival of the bourgeoisie. 

So it is not that capitalism emerge out of the feudal era, but that each era has its capitalism which ebbs and flows (has successes and failures, is forced to regroup and start again). 

CR blames a Darwinist frame of mind for cementing this idea that capitalism is birthed from the ashes of feudalism.

The relationship between the bourgeoisie and the state becomes ever-closer, as the state bureaucratises. The bourgeoisie became ‘political, economic and juridical agents for the state’ (p. 20). 

The bourgeoisie’ power rose because of its ability to bankroll the state – which became more and more important with colonial expansion. 

Later in Chapter 5 when CR explains the roots of the transatlantic slave trade, he emphasises the role played by the Genoese bourgeoisie in the early days of Portuguese colonisation of African and Spanish colonisation of the Americas. 

Interesting to note that in the middle ages according to CR, Italy was the only colonising nation (although Italy largely denies its colonial past, including the more recent one).

Without Italian merchant influence over the Portuguese and Spanish kingdoms, there would have been no money to fund the ‘expeditions’ which resulted in the invasion and colonisation of native lands in Africa and the Americas.


Middle ages: the nobility believed they have ‘better blood’ than peasants who were seen as descendants of Ham (precedent for Gobineau’s 19th c. revival of the superiority of the aristocracy).

Foreign mercenaries were used to fight wars but also to suppress subject peoples (armies were never made of nationals – fundamental change later on with the consolidation of European nationalism).

But migrant labour was important in other spheres too: ‘There has never been a moment in modern European history (if before) that migratory and/or immigrant labor was not a significant aspect of European economies’ (p. 23). 

The fact that this is not widely understood is function of methodological nationalism (i.e. ‘national labour pools) – we can see why this is important for understanding migration and labour today). 

Each class had its different ‘racial’ provenance.

Slavs became the ‘natural slaves’ in the early Middle Ages and the Tartar fulfilled this role in the late Middle Ages in the Italian cities. 

From 12th C. on, the bourgeoisie starts to initiate the ‘myths of egalitarianism while seeking every opportunity to divide people for the purpose of their domination’ (p. 26).

So we have a paradox wherein Europe is based on racial divisions but obscures this through mythical appeals to unity, which grows with the development of myths of European civilisation…

The German idea of Herrenvolk (master race) in the 17the and 18th C. becomes central. 

‘Race became largely the rationalization for the domination, exploitation, and/or extermination of non-“Europeans” (including Slavs and Jews)’ (p. 27). 

In the 19th C. this is attached to science (which is where we get biological race theories).

So, race is about a hierarchy among whites, as well as between whites and Blacks/non-Europeans. This is where the myth of Nordic superiority comes from. 

These are the conditions for the emergence of 19th C nationalism


As a result every European society is affected and concerned by racism.


We tend to think of race as being to do with non-europeans, specifically Black people, but what CR shows us is that it was the conditions of expanding capitalism and the incursion into colonised territories for the enrichment of the European bourgeoisie, the aristocracy and the growing nation-state that brings race to Africans and native people.

‘By the middle of the 19th C. western civilisation had sealed the African past’

The African men and women who went into slavery with their culture and knowledge, were reconstructed as items in a ledger/things.


CR argues against the idea that race difference and subjugation as a result of it is based on/to do with the colour of African skin. 

Too much importance is given to this and not enough to the fact that there was a wilful intention to wipe out knowledge of African civilisation and knowledge etc. which is the real root of their domination – turning people into culture-less, will-less things.

CR’s theory is that western scientific thought was just the ‘latest grammar for the expression of a racial metaphysics’


The turning of Africans into commodities allowed African people to be easily used and/or eradicated.

This was because of the importance of slave labour for capitalist expansion, just as it had been in Europe in an earlier period. In other words, the main aim is profit.

African people began to be used as slaves because of the expansion into sugar which required greater numbers. The numbers of enslaved people in the Caribbean and Brazil (1,988,000 slaves) greatly outnumbered those brought to Nth America.

Chapter 5 provides an account of the beginnings of the transatlantic slave trade, with the Portuguese and their alliance with the English nobility. 

Later the Genoese bankrolling of the Spanish nobility’s incursion into the Americas.


‘The Negro’ has nothing to do with Africa, a point also made by James Baldwin.

CR: ‘the obliteration of the African past from European consciousness was the culmination of a process a thousand years long and one at the root of European historical identity’


African labour = capital. It begins as incidental and is transformed into ‘the very foundations of new world capitalism’ 

The degree to which modern capitalism is founded on slavery is disputed by Marxist scholars. 

For Marx, ‘slavery is one of the chief moments of primitive accumulation’.

It sustains the emergence of an extra-European world economy producing capital for the further development of industrial production. 

The source of all value is labour – slave labour allowed for the money earned to be reinvested in the economies of the ‘mother countries’ 


On Slave Ship accounting and insurance:

Lloyd’s of London monopolized the marine insurance of the slave trade by the early eighteenth century. Lloyd’s Register was established in 1760 as the first classification society in order to provide insurance underwriters information on the quality of vessels. The classification of the ship allows for a more accurate assessment of its risk. Lloyd’s Register and other classification societies continue to survey and certify shipping vessels and their equipment. Lashing equipment physically secures goods to the deck of the ship, while its certification is established to insure the value of the goods regardless of their potential loss.

Cameron Rowland

Alana Lentin