The Roots of Racism

By Martin Gregory

Racism is not age-old, a trait of humanity, or an outgrowth of any metaphysical ideology. On the scale of human history racism is a recent, modern phenomenon. Its origins can be precisely dated and associated with actual, material, historical developments in human society. The nature of racism has been contingent on actual historical processes. The origins of racism correlate precisely with the rise of the Atlantic slave trade in the Sixteenth Century and the nature of racism was further formed in justification of European imperialism. As Marx said, capitalism came into existence “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.”

The dominant form that racism has taken and still takes, born as it was to justify the slave trade and imperialist conquest, is that of white supremacism: the belief that Whites, by genetic characteristics, are superior to any other supposed race, justifying domination by the supposed white race. White supremacist ideology reached its zenith as European imperialism reached its own climax with the Scramble for Africa, 1881-1914.

Racism has not been limited to white supremacism. For example, in Victorian Britain racism was whipped up against Irish immigrants, people who were not physically “distinct” from whites in Britain. Fake racial “science” created differences to suit the ideology, rather than being a result of any natural difference. In this instance the motive force is the material interests of the capitalist class in sowing division in the working class. In 1870 Marx wrote of anti-Irish hostility:

This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organisation. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this.

In Nazi Germany, that frustrated and Versailles-constrained imperialist power, racism reached its ultimate, but far from last, barbarity with the Holocaust. Jews were expelled from England in 1290, from France in 1394, and from other European states through to the Sixteenth Century. Until the Nineteenth Century anti-semitism was not grounded in racism but in the economic role of Jews as a “people-class” of merchants and usurers. For a thorough discussion of this question I refer readers to The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation by Abram Leon. Leon was an heroic figure in his own right and deserves a separate article: he was a revolutionary, a leader of the Belgian Trotskyists during the Nazi occupation. Captured in 1944, he was gassed, murdered in a camp in 1944. Leon gave his brief life over to fighting racism and capitalism and to understanding their connection. In his book Racism, resistance and revolution Peter Alexander says:

Leon’s central thesis is that the survival of the Jewish people could only be explained by the distinct socio-economic role which they played within particular societies. In the process of presenting his argument he establishes two distinct periods and types of anti-semitism. One he links to ‘decaying feudalism’, the other to ‘rotting capitalism’. He associates the latter with the racism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Leon’s analysis is important because it establishes that anti-semitism, like racism, is variable in nature and degree. It can only be understood if it is placed in its correct and specific historical context.

Slavery existed in Ancient Greece and Rome, and in the Islamic world, but these were not racist societies. Slaves were not taken from one “race” exclusively, but were taken from within and the reach of these empires.

The rise of racist ideology in the Seventeenth Century is a product of the specific development of the Atlantic slave trade, the triangular trade of exclusively black West- and Central-African slaves sold in the Americas by firstly Portuguese and Spanish merchants, then latterly French, British and Dutch merchants. Racism was developed to justify slavery in Christian minds. For this to work, the ideology had to be as horrible as the practice of slavery was barbaric.

In his great work, Capital, Marx describes in ironic terms the various violent elements of the “primitive accumulation of capital”, the prelude to the establishment of industrial capitalism in Britain.

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, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation. On their heels treads the commercial war of the European nations, with the globe for a theatre. It begins with the revolt of the Netherlands from Spain, assumes giant dimensions in England’s Anti-Jacobin War, and is still going on in the opium wars against China, Etc.

Racism is inextricably linked with the genesis of capitalism. The end of the British and United States slave trades in 1810 did not lead to any respite from racist ideology for imperialism only intensified in the nineteenth Century. Racism continued to be deployed to justify the British and French empires until they receded after the Suez debacle.

Today’s conditions of mature capitalism are quite different from earlier phases. Slavery has been long banished and European empires have dissolved. With these dissolutions went the worst of white supremacist racism. Anti-colonial movements and the rise of Black resistance, particularly in the United States, played their part in undermining white supremacism. Furthermore, the world-wide working class has expanded massively and is evermore multicultural. Yet despite the advance of anti-racism, racism more than lingers and is a powerful force in the world today. Not only does the “muck of the ages” impinge on the present, but bourgeois ideology for consumption by the masses never ceases to stoke racism. As seen in the example of the Irish in England, the continued propagation of racism, in Western capitalist states at least, rests largely on anti-immigration politics preached by the bourgeois media and political parties.

Rightwing anti-immigration movements are the main bearers of racism today. In Europe the far-right are in governments in Hungary and Austria, the Alternative Für Deutschland makes electoral gains. In France the Front National have twice made the run-off vote in presidential elections. In Britain anti-immigration sentiment in depressed areas scuppered the referendum called to confirm participation in the EU. Trump plays on immigration across the border with Mexico, etc.

The racism propounded in our times is not necessarily overt. Racism is often shrouded in cultural nationalism. But despite the cloak of purported cultural identification, crude genetic racism lies barely concealed. This applies in the case of anti-immigration politics, but the most important contemporary case is that of islamophobia. Western military interventions in Afghanistan, and Iraq and support for the Israeli ethno-state, created political Islam. Islamophobia has been stirred up by torrents of scare-mongering media pieces and commentary by both reactionary and “liberal” figures. The success of Western ruling classes in infusing Islamophobia into their populations has provided another way in for the racist far right to gain a following.

Racism today is a political weapon in the hands of the capitalist class to divide workers and to agitate far right movements. Conversely, the world-wide working class has a material interest in anti-racism, in unity. This is true for anything from a simple strike over terms and conditions to revolutionary action. Racism is inextricably bound up with the struggle between classes. Socialists must be consistent advocates for inclusivity. We can only be consistent anti-racists by standing on our ground of thorough-going internationalism, making no concessions to anti-immigration politics.

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