In this piece, George Breitman, a leader of the US Socialist Workers’ Party, provides a materialist account of the origins of racism as an ideology used to justify slavery in the 17th-19th centuries, and how it was utilized by capitalists during and after Reconstruction in the late 19th century to continue to exploit Black people even after the end of chattel slavery. In doing so, Breitman demonstrates how modern racism is directly linked to modern capitalism, distinguishing racist chattel slavery from previous historical forms of slavery. Also included here is a revised conclusion written by Breitman in 1971, where he further elaborates that while a socialist transformation is necessary to end racism, it is not sufficient, in doing so identifying that the Black liberation struggle and anti-racist organizing needs to be a defining feature of our political approach.
Why Racism Began and How to End It
By George Breitman, 1954
Racism was originated to justify and preserve a slave-labor system that operated in the interests of capitalism in its pre-industrialist stages, and it was retained in slightly modified form by industrial capitalism after slavery became an obstacle to the further development of capitalism and had to be abolished. Few things in the world are more distinctly stamped with the mark of capitalism.
It is now common knowledge even among conservative circles in the labor movement that racism benefits the interests of the capitalist class and injures the interests of the working class. What is not well known — it still comes as a surprise to many Marxists — and should be made better known is the fact that racism is a uniquely capitalist phenomenon, which either did not exist or had no perceptible influence in pre-capitalist society (that is, before the sixteenth century).
Hundreds of modern scholars have traced racism back to the African slave trade and the slave system that was introduced into the Americas. Those who profited from the enslavement of the Blacks — the slave traders and merchant capitalists, first of Europe and then of America, and the slaveholders — required a rationalization and a moral justification for an archaic social institution that obviously flouted the relatively enlightened principles proclaimed by capitalist society in its struggle against feudalism.
Rationalizations always become available when powerful economic interests need them (that is how most politicians and preachers, editors and teachers earn their living) and in this case the theory that Blacks are “inferior” followed close on the discovery that Black slavery was exceptionally profitable.
This theory was embraced, fitted out with pseudo-scientific trappings and Biblical quotations, and trumpeted forth as a truth so self-evident that only madmen or subversives could doubt or deny it. Its influence on the minds of white people was great at all levels of society, and undoubtedly aided the slaveholders in retarding the abolition of slavery. But the ensuing class struggles resulted in the destruction of the slave system.
But if anti-Black prejudices and ideas arose out of the need to justify and maintain slavery, why didn’t they wither away after slavery was abolished? In the first place, ideas, although they must reflect broad material interests before they can achieve wide circulation, can live lives of their own once they are set into motion, and can survive for a time after the disappearance of the conditions that produced them.
This is a generalization, however, and does not provide the main explanation for the survival of racism after the Civil War. For the striking thing about the Reconstruction period (1863-1877) which followed the abolition of slavery was the speed with which old ideas and customs began to change and break up. In the course of a few short years millions of whites began to recover from the racist poisons to which they had been subjected from their birth, to regard Blacks as equals and to work together with them amicably, under the protection of the federal government, in the solution of joint problems. The obliteration of racism was started in the social revolution that we know by the name of Reconstruction, and it would have been completed if Reconstruction had been permitted to develop further.
But Reconstruction was halted and then strangled – by the capitalists, acting now in alliance with the former slaveholders. No exploiting class lightly discards weapons that can help maintain its rule, and racism had already demonstrated its potency as a force to divide, disrupt and disorient oppressed classes in an exploitative society. After some vacillation and internal struggle that lasted through most of Reconstruction, the capitalist class decided it could make use of racial oppression for its own purposes. The capitalists adopted it, nursed it, fed it, gave it new clothing, and infused it with a vigor and an influence it had never commanded before.
Racism today operates in a different social setting and therefore in a somewhat different form than a century ago, but it was retained after slavery for essentially the same reason that it was introduced under the slave system that developed from the sixteenth century on — for its convenience as an instrument of exploitation; and for that same reason it will not be abandoned by the ruling class of any exploitative society in this country.
But why do we speak of the introduction of racism in the slave system, whose spread coincided with the birth of capitalism? Wasn’t there slavery long centuries before capitalism? Didn’t racism exist in the earlier slave societies? Why designate racism as a uniquely capitalist phenomenon? A brief look at slavery of both the capitalist and pre-capitalist periods can lead us to the answers.
Capitalism, the social system that followed and replaced feudalism, owed its rise to world dominance in part to its revival or expansion of forms of exploitation originally developed in the pre-feudal slave societies, and to its adaptation and integration of those forms into the framework of capitalist productive relations.
As “the chief moment of primitive accumulation” through which the early capitalists gathered together the capital necessary to establish and spread the new system, Marx listed “the discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black skins.” The African slave trade and slavery produced fortunes that laid the foundations for the most important of the early industries of capitalism, which in turn served to revolutionize the economy of the whole world.
This was not a mere repetition of the slavery of ancient times: one basic economic difference was that the slave system of the Americas produced commodities for the world capitalist market, and was therefore subordinate to and dependent on that market. There were other differences, but here we confine ourselves to the one most relevant to the subject of this article – race relations in the early slave societies.
For the information that follows we are indebted to the writings of an Ina Corinne Brown, Socio-Economic Approach to Educational Problems (1942). This is she writes about the ancient Egyptians:
“So many persons assume that racial antipathy is a natural or instinctive reaction that it is important to emphasize the fact that racism such as we know did not exist before the modern age. To be sure there was group antipathy which those who read history backwards take to be racism, but actually this antipathy had little or nothing to do with color or the other physical differences by which races are distinguished. For example, the ancient Egyptians looked down upon the Blacks to the south of them. They enslaved these Blacks and spoke scornfully of them.
“Many writers, reading later racial attitudes into the situation, have seen in this scorn a color prejudice. But the Egyptians were just as scornful of the Asiatic sand dwellers, or Troglodytes as Herodotus called them, and of their other neighbors who were as light or lighter than the Egyptians. That the Egyptians mixed freely with their southern neighbors, either in slavery or out of it, is evidenced by the fact that some of the Pharaohs were obviously Black and eventually Egypt was ruled by an Ethiopian dynasty.”
On the Greeks:
“The slave population was enormous, but the slave and the master in Greece were commonly of the same race and there was no occasion to associate any given physical type with the slave status. An opponent of Athenian democracy complained that it was impossible in Athens to distinguish slaves and aliens from citizens because all classes dressed alike and lived in the same way.”
On the Romans:
“In Rome, as in Greece, the slaves did not differ in outward appearance from free men. R.H. Barrow in his study of the Roman slave says that ‘neither color nor clothing revealed his condition.’ Slaves of different nationalities intermarried. There was no color barrier. A woman might be despised as a wife because she came from a despised group or because she practiced barbaric rites but not because her skin was darker. Furthermore, as W.W. Buckland points out, ‘Any citizen might conceivably become a slave; almost any slave might become a citizen.’”
There is really no need to go on quoting. The same general picture is true of all the societies, slave and non-slave, from the Roman empire down to the discovery of America – in the barbarian invasions into Europe, which led to enslavement of whites, in the reign of the Muslims, in the era of political domination by the Catholic Church. There were divisions, discriminations and antagonisms of class, cultural, political and religious character, but none along race or color lines, at least none that have left any serious trace in the historical materials now available.
As late as the middle of the fifteenth century, when the West African slave trade to Portugal first began, the rationalization for the enslavement of Blacks was not that they were Black but that they were not Christian. Those who became Christians were freed, intermarried with the Portuguese and were accepted as equals in Portugal. Afterward, of course, when the slave trade became a big business, the readiness of a slave to convert to Christianity no longer sufficed to gain his or her emancipation.
Why did racism develop in the capitalist era when it did not under the earlier slave systems? Without thinking we have in any way exhausted the subject, we make the following suggestion: In previous times the slaves were usually of the same color as their masters; both whites and Blacks were masters and slaves; in the European countries the Blacks formed a minority of the slave population. The invidious connotations of slavery were attached to all slaves, white and Black. If under these conditions the notion of Black “inferiority” occurred to anyone, it would have seemed ridiculous on the face of it; at any rate, it could never have received any social acceptance.
Slavery was not confined to Blacks at the beginning. Before the Black slave on the plantations, there was the Indian slave and the white indentured servant. But Black slave labor was more plentiful than either of these, and eventually they were abandoned. The most satisfactory study of this question is in the excellent book by Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (1944). Williams writes:
“Here, then, is the origin of Black slavery. The reason was economic, not racial; it had to do not with the color of the laborer, but the cheapness of the labor. The colonies needed labor and resorted to Black labor. The (slaveholders) would have gone to the moon, if necessary, for labor. Africa was nearer than the moon, nearer too than the more populous countries of India and China. But their turn was to come.”
Slavery in the Americas became confined exclusively to Blacks. In this context, it was inevitable that the theory of Black “inferiority” should be created, that they should be extended to other non-white people who offered the possibility of exploitation, and that they should be spread around the globe.
The point is this: Racism was originated to justify and preserve a slave-labor system that operated in the interests of capitalism in its pre-industrialist stages, and it was retained in slightly modified form by industrial capitalism after slavery became an obstacle to the further development of capitalism and had to be abolished. Few things in the world are more distinctly stamped with the mark of capitalism.
Racism arose out of the needs of capitalism, it is a product of capitalism, it belongs to capitalism, and it will die when capitalism dies. Unlike the capitalist system that has dominated this country since the Civil War, the socialist society will have no conceivable use for racial oppression, and it will consciously seek to eradicate it along with all the other props of the old system.
(The following text consists of excerpts of the afterword written in 1971 by U.S. Trotskyist leader George Breitman to his 1954 article “Race Prejudice: How it Began and When It Will End.” In his 1971 afterword Breitman seeks to correct some of the limitations of his earlier text, which gave the impression that racism would automatically disappear after a workers’ revolution.)
Seventeen years late, Pathfinder Press has asked for permission to reprint the article [“Race Prejudice: How it Began and When It Will End.”] Reading it again, I now find, that what I want to change is not so much the language and style (although they could stand improvement), as the conclusion of the article — the part that deals with when race prejudice will be ended.
From Marxism we learned a long time ago that socialism (or communism) is by definition a society whose economic and cultural level is so high that there is abundance for everyone and all social inequalities and their consequences, such as poverty, racism, and sexism, have been uprooted. There are no social classes because everybody enjoys the same conditions of life and work and has equal access to all the means of individual development. It is impossible — by definition, I repeat — to call any society socialist if evils such as racism exist within it. Neither in 1954 nor today can any country properly be designated as socialist, even though many countries have overthrown capitalism and started to build the foundations of socialism.
In that concluding paragraph, I was talking not about a fully achieved socialist society, but what is popularly referred to as “the first stages of socialism.” This is the system set up after the capitalist class has been removed from power, serving as the bridge or transition from capitalism during the period when the economic and cultural foundations of socialism are being constructed, but before socialism has been achieved. Since the establishment of the Russian postcapitalist regime in 1917, this transitional system has been called a “workers’ state” — a term that distinguishes it both from the capitalist state that preceded it and the socialist society that will follow it when the state (the workers’ state) will have withered away because coercion will no longer be socially necessary.
My point then was that after the capitalists had been removed from power and a workers’ state installed, we wouldn’t have to “fear … the possibility of an extended lag with respect to racial prejudice.” (I had previously mentioned the “lag” that followed the abolition of slavery.) In support of this assurance, I asserted that a postcapitalist system will — unlike the capitalist system — be “free of all exploitative features, will have no use for race prejudice, and will consciously seek to eradicate it along with other props of the old system.”
I still stand by that general assessment — that a workers’ state by its very nature and dynamic will be hostile to racism and driven to oppose it. But even though I stand by that assessment, I now find it inadequate for the purpose I used it for in 1954, which was to argue that these characteristics of a workers’ state are, in effect, some kind of guarantee against any extended survival of race prejudice once a workers’ state has come to power. My error in 1954 came from an idealization of the workers state, and an underestimation of the immensity of the problems it has to solve.
A recently translated letter written by Trotsky before the Russian Revolution provides an example of the correct approach. Disagreeing with Henrietta Roland Holst’s views on self-determination, he wrote her from France in 1916:
“You say that this right is unobtainable under capitalism and superfluous under socialism. I find it incomprehensible why it should be superfluous under socialism. One might think that our politics nowadays proceed from the conviction that we are entering a period of social revolution. It follows that we require a program for the social revolution, the program for a proletarian state and regime in Europe. Is it really superfluous to tell the Poles, Serbs, and Alsatians what kind of regime would be secured for them by a European proletariat which has taken power? Do you really believe that all national frictions and problems disappear from sight when the proletariat comes to power? I think the contrary is the case: these problems will only then become acute to their fullest extent and sharpness and will demand complete answers” (The Spokesman, London, June 19170, emphasis added)
A workers’ state is necessary to eradicate racism, poverty and similar evils, but that doesn’t mean it is sufficient, or that the eradication process will be automatic.
A workers’ state will make it possible to solve such problems — for the first time in history — but the possibility will still have to be transformed into reality. That will require hard work and struggle, and correct policies to ensure that the work and struggle will not be wasted.
When we talk about the problems of a workers’ state in the United States, including the problem of ending racism, we are assuming that an alliance between revolutionary white workers and the Blacks and other minorities has been achieved before or during the revolution; that means assuming that a decisive section of the white workers has overcome the worst aspects of the racism with which capitalism indoctrinated them. We have to assume this because unless it happens, and until it happens, there will be no revolution and there will be no workers’ state. (We also expect it to happen: when white workers revolutionize, they will see that they cannot obtain their own goals unless they help the oppressed to obtain theirs.)
But even if large numbers of white workers begin to abandon enough of their prejudices to make the revolution and workers’ state possible, that won’t signify the complete abolition of the racist heritage.
The workers’ state, in which all national and racial minorities will be represented, will of course outlaw all racist practices, and it will enforce such laws. It will recognize the democratic rights of the oppressed minorities, up to and including their right to separate and form nations of their own if they desire. It will make full use of its resources to educate the new generation and reeducate the salvageable elements among the old. Those who cling to racism will be thrown onto the defensive, will become isolated and discredited, and will be increasingly unable to act out their prejudices through resistance or sabotage. But problems will remain.
How acute they will be, how long they will last, will depend on the general development of the workers’ state, on its capacity to meet economic, social, and cultural needs, extend democracy and make progress towards socialism. But it will also depend, we repeat, on the level of consciousness, awareness, and determination on the part of the revolutionary forces and their leadership. The better they understand the nature of evils like racism, the more determined they are to attack them head-on, the shorter the time it will take to eradicate them.
In this connection nothing in the last seventeen years has been more encouraging that the rise and growth of revolutionary Black nationalism. Its contribution to the making of the revolution is understood by everyone whose Marxism consists of anything more than words; but perhaps its contribution to keeping the revolution on an undeviating and permanent course toward socialism will prove to be equally great.
Revolutionary Blacks will not accept words for deeds after the creation of a workers’ state any more than they will before. As a vanguard of the most oppressed, and as part of the revolutionary leadership, they will be sensitive to any delaying or vacillating tendencies on the part of the new state, and they will be in a position to exert strong pressure against such tendencies.
In general, it is not possible to provide guarantees against the retrogression even in a workers’ state, although it can be shown that a workers’ state in an industrially advanced country will be able to avoid some of the problems and hardships imposed on workers’ states in underdeveloped countries. But the existence of a mass revolutionary Black movement before, during, and after the revolution will be a much better bulwark than any guarantee. Another revolutionary aspect of Black nationalism is that it offers Afro-Americans a form of organization and struggle right now, through the revolution, and until the point in the development of the workers’ state when Black people will feel no need for further independent organization and struggle because they will have become convinced that racism is dead and beyond revival.
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