Racial Capitalism II: Race/Class

Continuing our focus on racial capitalism, Understanding Race discussed the relationship between race and class with a focus on Race and the Undeserving Poor by Robbie Shilliam. Using the book Futures of Black Radicalism, and in particular the chapter by Nikhil Pal Singh, we explored the limitations of Marxist interpretations of slavery and primitive accumulation. We also engaged with W.E.B. Du Bois’s approach to racial capitalism in Black Reconstruction in America, via the work of Charisse Burden-Stelly and Gerald Horne whose new book explores the later Du Bois.

The lecture also explores Stuart Hall’s adaptation of Althusser’s idea of articulation to theorise class as working through race. It ends with a video of Robbie Shilliam’s talk on the book which details the evolution of the deserving and the undeserving poor through a reading of English history through a racial-colonial lens.

The following are the notes accompanying each of the slides which you can follow along in the video below.


The lecture deals with the following themes:

  • Slavery, Black labour and world capitalism
  • Marxist oversights
  • The articulation of race and class
  • Deservedness and undeservedness in the articulation of the national race/class divide


Some key thinkers include

W.E.B. Du Bois
Stuart Hall
C.L.R. James
Eric Williams
Claudia Jones
A. Sivanandan
Nikhil Pal Singh
Robbie Shilliam
Combahee River Collective
Keeanga Yamahtta Taylor
Charisse Burden-Stelly


Cedric Robinson on Du Bois:

American slavery was a sub-system of world capitalism not a ‘thing in and of itself’

Because slavery was the institution via which the Black worker became introduced into the modern world system, Black people who were transported from their homes to work should be understood as labour not intrinsically as slaves.

This circuit-breaks the common racist view of Africans as ‘natural slaves’ and also poses a challenge to the left to recognise the world historical significance of enslaved Black people as drivers of the world economy. 


“Black labor became the foundation stone not only of the Southern social structure, but of Northern manufacture and commerce, of the English factory system, of European commerce, of buying and selling on a world-wide scale; new cities were built on the results of black labor, and a new labor problem involving all white labor, arose both in Europe and America..” 

–W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America p. 5


Slavery appears to be like ‘feudal agrarianism’ but is in fact central to the emergence of world capitalism.

So it was not an aberration, as commonly portrayed, but systemic.

So, the problem for organised labour according to Du Bois is that to emancipate all labour means to recognise that the majority of labour is not white.

However, because of the ‘psychological’ status of slavery and the doctrine of racial inferiority which drove the rationale for slavery, then it was difficult to instil the realisation of the fact that the liberation of all workers depended on the liberation of black labour.

Charisse Burden-Stelly (2018): Black Reconstruction in America refuted ‘popular academic myths’ that slavery was insignificant and not really supported by the majority of the South. 

It also refuted the idea that reconstruction was a miscarriage of justice and an abdication of democracy. Du Bois showed how that thesis portrayed the KKK et al as ‘rightfully wresting control from… freedmen’

The Freedmen bureau which was set up to protect the legal rights of freedmen, negotiate labor contracts, and set up schools and churches for them had the potential to enable freed Black people to gain equality with whites and therefore had to be opposed. 

Burden-Stelly: ‘this ‘provided ideological fodder for segregation and anti-black violence’


‘Under extraordinary difficulties, a group of black men, trained in slavery and ignorance, emancipated without land or capital, misled, cheated and despised by thousands of their white fellows, became by the help of other whites and by their own efforts, 12,000,000 Americans with a degree of intelligence and efficiency that gives them the right to stand as average working people comparable with those of any modern white nation; and that thus they are forerunners of the uplift of the majority of mankind; and their complete emancipation means the complete emancipation of the working classes of the world. Unless, moreover, American Negroes succeed in the United States, the masses of the modern world cannot succeed in their effort to emerge into real manhood..’

–Du Bois cited in Burden-Stelly 2018 p. 189

This shows the extent to which the emancipation of black people not by abolitionists but through their own actions in the period of reconstruction (1865-1877) had the potential to establish the terms on which the working class in general could be free.

This idea is fundamental to successive analyses such as the socialist Black feminism of the Combahee River Collective which posited the need for Black women to be free in order for all peoples to be free.

While Du Bois refers to the condition of Black people in the US in Black reconstruction, his developing Marxism/communism/internationalism means that the analysis has wider import as he comes to theorise the colonial world system and its reliance on racialised labour.

For Du Bois, ‘the degree of racialisation of the proletariat was relativised in terms of the colonial system which pitted white against black so that, despite the oppression of the working class in Europe, generally “the white people of Europe had a right to live upon the labour and property of the coloured peoples of the world”’ (Du Bois, 1946: 312; Lentin 2004). 

This fact, as we shall; later see in Shilliam’s analysis is overlooked by analyses of class domination that do not centre race or coloniality. They ignore the fact that white workers in the west benefit from a world system in which black and brown workers are super-exploited to enable the living conditions that white workers gradually accede in the North and west.

As we shall see later, as mass immigration from formerly colonised societies begins in Europe, the conditions established by which white workers benefit from this exploitation continues to shape expectations for what relations between black and white workers should look like (the former should never have equality with the latter).

Robinson adds that Du Bois recognised the role played by American liberalism in obscuring the role played by Black labour in the potential emancipation of all workers. 

American liberalism emphasised individualism and was antagonistic to socialism. 

‘The northern non-black working class movement effectively excluded the freedmen, the slaves and the five million poor whites of the south’ 

(overlap with Lisa Lowe on abolitionism in The intimacies of Four Continents)

This resulted in lynchings and other violence against black people. This period (1860s) is the root of Black people’s sceptical attitude towards the labour movement. 


‘Indeed, the plight of the white working class throughout the world today is directly traceable to Negro slavery in America, on which modern commerce and industry was founded, and which persisted to threaten free labor until it was partially overthrown in 1863. The resulting color caste founded and retained by capitalism was adopted, forwarded and approved by white labor, and resulted in subordination of colored labor to white profits the world over..’

–W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America p. 30

Du Bois makes an important observation that, from the workers’ movement perspective, abolition represented capital. They saw it was mired in ‘mawkish sentimentality and not on the demands of the workers, at least of the white workers’ (Black Marxism loc. 5508).

Self-interest and racist ideology resulted in white and immigrant workers becoming pitted against black workers – for Du Bois, a contradiction in the labour movement. 

So, white labour needs to be seen as playing a fundamental role in the maintenance of what Du Bois calls the colour line which, as he wrote in 1904, remains the ‘the problem of the twentieth century.’


Nikhil Singh: Violence is integral to the development of capitalism given the centrality of the commodity form. Under slavery, humans themselves were commodities and had exchange value (being instruments of credit and capital investment).

Under capitalism whiteness comes to be associated with ‘property, citizenship, wages and credit’ along with ‘the reproduction of surplus and super-exploited populations’ (Singh p. 63).

But Marx separates the violence that is necessary to produce super-exploited populations under slavery for example from full capitalist development, by calling this period one of ‘primitive accumulation’ (preceding capitalism).

So, colonialism and slavery are the sites in which direct violence is necessary to coerce populations into work, but for Marx this is inefficient and so gives way to capital no longer rewiring the use of violence under waged labour, which for Marx is a much more efficient mode of capitalist production. 

For Marx, primitive accumulation is not yet capitalism, but ‘plunder’ (p. 67).

Singh: Marx’s relegation of colonialism and slavery to ‘primitive accumulation’ is a major limitation because it cannot explain the ongoing production of racial categories and the ‘social reproduction of race through ongoing violence, domination, and dependency’ (p. 66).

So, Marx’s focus on ‘developed capitalism’ in English leads to inattention to ‘how capital differentiates between free labour and less-than-free labour according to racial, ethnic and gender hierarchies as a means of both labour discipline and surplus appropriation’ (p. 68).

Marx sees the capitalist relation as an improvement for emancipated slaves. He also sees free labour as a better worker, unlike the slave who ‘needs a master’ (Marx, Capital Vol. I).

In terms of organised labour, coming back to themes introduced by Du Bois, the distinction Marx makes between slavery and capitalism means that there is a gulf between slaves and workers (thus thwarting solidarity). 

This is interesting according to Singh because Marx constantly compares capitalism to slavery, yet he also operates with a distinction between free and unfree labour which seems to concur with the liberal view that capitalism is a better system than slavery. 

Considering that emancipated slaves be it in the US, or the Caribbean were effectively re-enslaved. For example, in the US the introduction of ‘black codes’ after Reconstruction meant that black people could be imprisoned and used as labour in that context (explored by Ava Du Vernay in her documentary 13th). 

Marx also denies Du Bois’ insight into the emancipatory potential of formerly enslaved peoples for all exploited workers by operating with such a strict distinction between free and unfree labour. He also reproduces racist stereotypes about enslaved people as ‘lazy’ because they have no self-motivated reason to work (because they are not paid). In fact, as Du Bois showed, under Reconstruction Black people mobilised to create the conditions of greater equality for all, but this was actively quashed.

C.L.R. James also noted how the Haitian slaves were ‘closer to a modern proletariat than any other group of workers in existence at that time’ and capable of being a mass movement (James, Black Jacobins).

Further, what Marx’s view of capitalism as a superior (not primitive) mode of production does is to separate racial violence from capitalism (that he posits does not require direct force). This contributes to a view of racism as a primitive system that is a hang-over from a less developed time – a commonplace view of racism to this day.

By seeing race as external, rather than immanent to capitalism, there is a failure both to recognise the significance of racial rule as a technology in the arsenal of capitalism, and to view racialised workers as extrinsic to the workers’ movement. In its most extreme form this leads to the view that ‘whining about racism’ thwarts the common struggle or working people.



For Hall there is a tension between a purely economic focus and one which privileges race and ethnicity outside of an understanding of the capitalist system.

What is needed it to see how the two are articulated and how race operates under specific historical conditions, each of which will be distinct. There is no transhistorical epiphenomenon of race that exists in each era with autonomous features. Rather, it is brought into being under these conditions and to understand how it operates, we need ‘deal with the historical specificity of race in the modern world’ (Hall 1980 p. 308).

For Hall, at each level of social formation – ‘economic, political ideological’ – race enters to shape

the ways in which, in the case of his example the ‘black labouring classes’, are ‘complexly

constituted’ (ibid.). 

Race shapes the ways in which these Black workers are treated in the labour market, the forms of political representation and struggles they can engage in, and the tenor of debates over culture, representation, and it is important to add, gender and sexual relations (Hill Collins, 1990). Race

is not chosen as the modality through which these conflicts or confluences take shape;

Hall turns to Gramsci’s concept of hegemony to partially explain the ways in which particular

ideological practices are formed. But, more important, he insists that, although each case is different and demands examination on its own merits, and racial precepts do not underpin all phenomena that later come to be racially imbued – slavery for example – in order to understand why, for example, the Black British working class sees its interests ‘working through’ race, it is necessary to closely observe the historical trajectories that led to it being so.


So, the insights from Du Bois, Singh and Hall (among many others) brings us to Robbie Shilliam’s analysis in Race and the Undeserving Poor that the centrality of race to capitalist production (racial capitalism) provides the context in which workers/people are divided into racialised categories of more or less deserving.

Shilliam demonstrates how, in the UK context, the white working class enters as an actor at a particular historical moment (following large-scale immigration from Britain’s former colonies). It comes to symbolise a ‘deserving’ poor who have the right to benefit from national systems of welfare and opposed to an ‘undeserving poor’ who are always already a drain on finite national resources. 

Shilliam shows how the wwc develops as a category of analysis by Black and antiracist scholars and activists to distinguish white workers from POC, demonstrating the failure of solidarity with migrant workers. However, in more recent times the wwc becomes an ‘indigenous constituency, independent of colonial pasts and unfairly displaced by multicoloured newcomers.’

Shilliam begins in the late 1700s and weaves through the abolition of slavery and poor law reform; empire, eugenics and national insurance; welfare and colonial development; universal welfare, trade unions and commonwealth migration; social conservatism, workfare and the mergence of the white ‘underclass; and the rise of the ‘wwc’ as deserving leading to Brexit.


Black people provide the counterpoint for the wwc. Many of the ideas serving this distinction between deserving and undeserving date back to racialised slavery.

Undeserving characteristics are associated with the slave, and deserving with free labour (overtones of Marx). Slavery is associated with ‘the condition of blackness’, hence undeservedness is associated with being Black. 

Abolitionists played a role in constructing the association of slavery/blackness with deservedness. Being enslaved meant having no incentive to cultivate deserving characteristics, so abolitionists argued for emancipated slaves being given land to cultivate for which they would have to pay rent so as to enhance his rational interest in making the land productive (ch. 1).

Abolitionists did not trust the ‘anarchical propensity of enslaved Africans’ (ch 1.)

Linking this too Du Bois’ discussion of the quashing of Reconstruction, we can see how it was not in the interests of liberals (abolitionists) with capitalist interests to cultivate the revolutionary spirit of free slaves, because that would infect poor whites with whom alliance was possible at this time.

That potential for alliance had to be broken by creating the radicalised division into deserving (white) / undeserving (Black).

Abolitionism was a form of ‘imperial humanism’ which both wished for human equality and believed in the hierarchy of civilizations. Thus it was unable to conceive of Black people and the colonised as on a par with white Europeans. Black people were the ‘youngest children’ of the human family.

Nevertheless, this was more progressive than the ‘anglosaxonism’ that developed thereafter.

Thinkers such as Edmund Burke proposed the notion of the English genus – a ‘heritable root’ (further developed under eugenicism).

Those with the English genus were orderly as opposed to the unruliness of revolutionaries. 

This has to be seen on a global scale (with relevance for Australia) as those settler colonies conceived of as members of the Anglo-Saxon family were seen as more deserving that those conceived of as developmentally backward and thus a drain on English resources. This lays the groundwork for later conceptions of those who migrated to Britain from formerly colonised countries (who were at this time British subjects) as usurping the place of the members of the Anglo-Saxon family.

When we see the introduction of the legal concept of partiality into British law (1981) which garnet rights to citizenship on those who can show a hereditary lineage with Britain (e.g. white Australians), we can see how this divide continues to play out.



In the context of 1830s poor law reform, those poor lumpenproletariat considered undeserving were blackened ‘via the slave analogy’ (loc. 895).

The distinctions between the residuum and the ‘civilised’ among white workers was not spoken of in class terms but in the terms of race.

Areas where the residuum lived were ‘wilds, dens, a dark continent’. They were spoken of as barbarians. 

The undeserving residuum are constituted racially in their imagined proximity to slaves and colonised people.

Galton’s eugenics did not seek to eradicate the residuum but to improve the racial stock by intervening in education, sanitation, housing and food.

Fabians such as Beatrice and Sidney Webb were fans of eugenics as useful in their aim of bringing about socialism through ‘top-down gradual and enlightened reform’.

Eugenics was influential in the move from provincial poor relief to national insurance and welfare. Welfare was a way of ensuring that skilled labourers did not fall back into casual work that ‘bred undeserving attributes’ (Beveridge). It is already possible to see how this is a circle in which those considered to have deserving characteristics are seen as deserving of national insurance while those who are racially conceived as being undeserving (the residuum) are seem as undeserving of welfare.

This translated perfectly into modern-day moral panics of migrants coming to drain the welfare system (e.g. central to Denmark’s anti-migrant policies).

So 19th and 20th c. eugenics sets in motion the possibility for the white undeserving poor to be brought into the Anglo-Saxon family, but Shilliam explains, this is not achieved until after 1948 and the introduction of the national compact (universal welfare).

Arguably this happens with Federation in Australia, where the proximity to the colonised Aboriginal population makes it much more necessary to create a strict demarcation between white (deserving) and black (undeserving). 



Enoch Powell opposed by immigration and welfare.

Shilliam shows how Powell, a conservative, nonetheless builds upon the self-help mantra of collectivists such as G.D.H. Cole why emphasised the idea that the English were autonomous people who did not require the assistance of anyone – what distinguished them from other peoples (central to an English variant of socialist nationalism).

Welfare abrogates ‘orderly independence’. Powell supports means testing – also used to construct the distinction between deserving and undeserving later under austerity. 

Alana Lentin