An examination of black Marxism—the marriage between Marxism and “black radicalism”—illuminates the theoretical gaps in the Marxist canon as it relates to non-Western movements and non-Western liberation struggles that speak in the idioms of culture, nationalism, and race. Black Marxists have grappled with the contradictions that emerge when Marxist paradigms are the medium for the articulation of a path to transformation. While theorists have noted the “anti-bourgeois tendencies in black cultures” (Duran 2005, p. 1), many of the Eurocentric assumptions that pervade Marxism are a challenge to the formulation of a black Marxist theory (see Robinson 1983). Whereas Marxism focuses heavily on the activism of a vanguard proletariat, black freedom struggles have revolved around a collective, albeit contested identity shaped by racism. In reaction, black Marxist thinkers have argued for a position that emphasizes “materialism over idealism” and acknowledges the centrality of race in the black experience (Campbell 1995, p. 420).
Marxism is a method of analysis and a theoretical critique that sees capitalism as a system which fosters social divisions. A powerful class-consciousness, specifically among the working class, is considered vital to the oppositional upsurge that Marxism contends is essential to revolution. Cedric Robinson (1983) argued against the Marxist position that the “European proletariat” is the “revolutionary subject of history” (p. 4). He criticized Marxism’s “dismissal of culture” and its theoretical myopia on the issue of race (p. 78). Furthermore, as A. Sivanandan (1977) explained, “Blacks are a class apart, an underclass, a subproleteriat” (p. 339). Thus, for many black intellectuals, race, rather than being an incidental dimension of class, provides a significant subtext for the theorizing of radical change.
Collaborations between Marxists and black radicals in the United States began in the 1920s and 1930s when African Americans became a focus of organizing by the Communist Party. Early black Communists like Harry Haywood helped to elucidate the “Negro Question” and struggled against the assignment of blacks to a “subsidiary position in the revolutionary movement” (Haywood 1978, p. 234). At the Sixth World Congress of the American Communist Party in 1928, resolutions were passed on the American “Negro Question.” They concluded that African Americans were an “oppressed nation which had the right to self-determination,” and that the Southern “Black Belt” was prime for revolutionary activity (Haywood 1978, p. 268).
Robin Kelley (1990) charted the history of the connections between southern black resistance and the organizing of the Communist Party in 1930s Alabama. According to Kelley, historically black working-class resistance occupied the “margins of struggle,” and even without a specific organizational context, southern African Americans always possessed a “rich culture of opposition” (p. 99). Communist organizers focused their recruitment on agricultural workers and sharecroppers in Birmingham, making the Communist Party in Alabama a “Southern working class black organization” (p. xii). Communists formed sharecropping unions, neighborhood relief committees, and unemployment councils for the city’s poor. In Alabama, Communists “opposed race and class oppression as a totality under the banner of ‘bread and freedom,’ and through the newspaper, The Southern Worker” (Kelley 1990, p. xii).
Later, the Communist Party chose Harlem, New York, as another “concentration point” because it was the epicenter of black protest (Naison 1983, p. xvii). Early black radicalism in 1930s Harlem aligned itself with the traditions of black nationalism and black militancy. Some Communists considered “narrow nationalism” and “back to Africa” ideologies to be reactionary, although others viewed nationalism as a “legitimate trend in the Black Freedom Movement” (Haywood 229, p. 1978). Mark Naison (1983) documented Communist Party activism in Harlem and described how early black Communists were “race men and women” drawn from the ranks of nationalist organizations. In Harlem, Communists organized workers alliances, tenant unions, cultural groups, and legal defense organizations. Harlem was a rich political landscape, with organizations like the Urban League and the NAACP, and the ultranationalism of Marcus Garvey. Within Harlem, socialist ideas were spread through the work of A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union. His magazine, the Messenger, was accused by the U.S. government of promoting “Bolsheviki activities among Negroes” (Kornweibel 1998, p. 21). While in socialist and Communist circles the dominant view, shared by Randolph, was that “race was a strategic weapon to dissipate working class coherence,” convergent race and class struggles dominated mass protests of this time (Henderson 1978, p. 148). Even at the height of the black power discourse of the 1970s, African American activists like Angela Davis—a member of the Communist Party also affiliated with the Black Panthers—continued to forge connections between class struggle and antiracism.
Within the African Diaspora, the dialectical method of Marxism proved a useful source of insights for those engaged in anticolonial and postcolonial struggles. Afro Caribbean intellectuals and activists such as Trinidadians C. L. R. James and George Padmore, Guyana native Walter Rodney, and Martinique-born Aime Cesaire merged the tenets of Pan-Africanism, nationalism, “Negritude,” and Marxism. Padmore, a unionist and founder of the Pan-African Federation, remarked, “labour in white skin cannot free itself while labour in dark skin is branded” (Padmore 1945, p. 3). Cesaire, however, eventually became disillusioned and resigned from the French Communist Party, saying, “What I desire is that Marxism and communism should serve Black people, and not that Black people should serve Marxism” (Caute 1964, p. 211). C. L. R. James, a Trotskyite, lauded the independent and dynamic trajectory of black struggles in the United States. He believed that “the Negro people based on their own experiences approach the conclusions of Marxism” (Grimshaw 1992, p. 187). In the 1970s the historian Walter Rodney extolled “a working class oriented definition of Black Power” and contended that the extraction of labor from black people was a cornerstone of capitalism (Fontaine 1982, p. 16). Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Marxism was an instrumental theory in African-based liberation movements in Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea Bissau. Amilcar Cabral, the revolutionary leader of Guinea Bissau, linked class struggle to anti-imperialism, demonstrating the necessity of “incorporating the proletarian project into the project of national liberation” (Magubane 1983, p. 25). Also, antiapartheid ideologists in South Africa adopted aspects of Marxist dictum even as they emphasized national and racial identities (see Marx 1992).
Marxism continues to inform the spectrum of black progressive politics, even as Afro-Diasporic intellectuals argue for the autonomy of black liberation struggles and their “organic political perspectives” (James 1992, p. 183). Contemporary black intellectuals urge that a tripartite analysis, stemming from “the nexus of three crucial sites of struggles, community, class and gender, be at the center of Black liberatory projects” (Marable 1997, p. 8). If they adhere to this perspective, social justice movements constituted by black people can remain “avant-garde” formations of contiguous race and class struggles (Duran 2005, p. 3).
SEE ALSO Black Nationalism; Black Panthers; Black Power; Marx, Karl; Marxism; Politics, Black
Campbell, Horace G. 1995. C. L. R. James, Walter Rodney, and the Caribbean Intellectual. In C. L. R. James: His Intellectual Legacies, ed. Selwyn R. Cudjoe and William E. Cain, 405–431. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.
Caute, David. 1964. Communism and the French Intellectuals, 1914–1960. New York: Macmillan.
Duran, Jane. 2005. C. L. R. James, Social Identity, and the Black Rebellion. Philosophia Africana 8 (1): 1–10.
Haywood, Harry. 1978. Black Bolshevik: Autobiography of an Afro-American Communist. Chicago: Liberator Press.
Henderson, Jeff. 1978. A. Philip Randolph and the Dilemmas of Socialism and Black Nationalism in the United States, 1917–1941. Race and Class 20 (2): 143–160.
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Magubane, Bernard. 1983. Toward a Sociology of National Liberation from Colonialism: Cabral’s Legacy. Contemporary Marxism 7 (Fall): 5–27.
Marable, Manning. 1997. Rethinking Black Liberation: Towards a New Protest Paradigm. Race and Class 38 (4): 1–13.
Marx, Anthony W. 1992. Lessons of Struggle: South African Internal Opposition, 1960–1990. New York: Oxford University Press.
Naison, Mark. 1983. Communists in Harlem during the Depression. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Padmore, George. 1945. The Voice of Coloured Labour. Manchester, U.K.: Panaf Service. Reprint, London: African Publication Society, 1970.
Robinson, Cedric J. 1978. The Emergent Marxism of Richard Wright’s Ideology. Race and Class 19 (3): 221–237.
Robinson, Cedric J. 1983. Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. London: Zed.
Sivanandan, A. 1977. The Liberation of the Black Intellectual. Race and Class 18 (4): 329–342.
Sayida L. Self
"Marxism, Black." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 15, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/marxism-black
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