By Weyman Bennett
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Marxism shows how we can uproot racism

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Issue 2495
Slave revolts such as the Haitian revolution struck fear into the ruling classes
Slave revolts such as the Haitian revolution struck fear into the ruling classes (Pic: painting by January Suchodolski)

Fighting racism today involves understanding racism as one of the ways in which capitalism divides people.

We’re confronted all the time by the ways that racist ideas are used to divide and control us, whether it’s Donald Trump in the US or the refugee crisis in Europe.

The common sense view is that racism is just a bad idea—it’s something that is wrong and that people should be equal.

That’s something Marxists embrace. But the question is how to explain where racism comes from, how to understand it and how to fight it.

If each of us lived forever we would understand exactly where racism came from and how it developed. Unfortunately, our lives—and memories—are much shorter and this allows the ruling class to present racism as being eternal.

This is not the case. Racism has a historical origin which we can identify. Ancient societies in Africa and Rome didn’t define people on the basis of skin colour or in terms of a static culture.

But if racism hasn’t been with us forever, where did it come from?

Black and white must unite on the picket line

Black and white must unite on the picket line (Pic: Guy Smallman)

The revolutionary Karl Marx was clear that it emanated from the ruling class. He explained how “the ideas of the ruling class are the ideas which rule and shape societies.”

This means that the way that society is organised shapes the way that people understand the world.


Racism is one of these ideas. This doesn’t mean that individual members of the ruling class necessarily make conscious decisions to be racist—although they often do.

Racism develops through a historical process.

Capitalism developed within the feudal system, and in opposition to it. Early capitalists rebelled against the idea that kings were born to rule—and they won mass support on this basis.

That’s why the US constitution famously says, “All men are created equal under God.”

But capitalism did not create a society of equals. Capitalists needed people to work in order to produce profits.

So its ruling class needed new ways of dividing people in order to disguise the fundamental class division at its heart.

In particular, it needed to reconcile slavery, the private ownership of human beings, within its moral system. This is where racism begins to develop.

In his book Capitalism and Slavery, Eric Williams writes that “racism is a product of the need for labour from Africa in order to go to the ‘New World’.”

Commodities such as sugar and tobacco needed huge amounts of labour to produce them. Robin Blackburn estimates that over 12 million people were transported from Africa to America as slaves.

The slave trade generated huge profits for the owners and bosses of the ships. To justify the horror the ruling class declared that slaves were less than human. Edward Long, a slaver in Jamaica, said, “I’m apt to believe that Africans are like orangutans, that they are biologically inferior.”


Capitalism creates division in society first—then ideas develop as a means of justifying them. Racist ideas thus followed after slavery.

It is not true that racism is a part of human nature. There is no biological basis for it. We can see this in the various forms that racism has taken.

For instance, it’s not based on colour. Irish people and Jews have been victims of horrific racism. Racism is constantly shifting. Movements of resistance mean that particular forms of racism become discredited. But the changing needs of our rulers also play a crucial part.

The end of slavery led to such a change. Capitalists in the US came to the conclusion that slavery was less profitable than paying someone a wage to work.

As historian Manning Marable wrote, “The white North did not wage the Civil War ‘to free the slaves.’ Most Republicans, including Lincoln, expressed absolutely no support for the idea of social and political equality between the races.”

Islamophobia­­—a new kind of racism

Islamophobia­­—a new kind of racism (Pic: Duncan Brown)

It was the slave rebellions, workers in Manchester who supported their struggle, and the international movement against slavery that made the end of slavery about human liberation.

The forms of racism that dominate today have had to become increasingly subtle.

Respectable racism has moved from ideas about the biological inferiority of specific groups to “cultural problems” and the “inability to integrate”.

This process goes right back to the development of colonialism. European states needed to find new markets.

This economic expansion drew Britain into wars across the globe. In order to justify its control of a third of the world it needed new ways of articulating racism.

The British East India Company’s brutal rule in India set the benchmark.

The lie was constructed that Britain was bringing civilisation to uncivilised, childlike, people—rather than introducing capitalism in the most brutal manner imaginable.


National liberation movements against imperial domination, and the fact that military occupation was no longer economically viable, led to the breakdown of empires.

Wars in the Middle East since the 1990s have led to the development of Islamophobia to justify them and to blame people running away from the carnage.

That’s not to say that the other forms of racism have gone away. If one form of racism is allowed to flourish then others can begin to come back to the surface.

We see this today throughout Europe with attacks on migrants in France and on Roma people in Hungary.

People’s ideas are not fixed. The activity we carry out in opposition to the ideas that divide us matters. The refugee crisis is an example of this battle of ideas.

When people see a picture of a dead child washed up on beach, they generally react with disgust. However, the same people can react with hostility to the myth that migrants come to Britain and bring down wages.

This is a result of people being forced to see themselves as individuals rather than as part of an international class. Migrants don’t bring down wages—and when workers struggle together they can drive wages up.

The competition at the heart of capitalist society means that workers are pitted against each other. That’s one reason racist ideas can have a purchase—and solidarity in struggle can undermine them.

Refugees protest in Calais

Refugees protest in Calais (Pic: Guy Smallman)

When workers go on strike, they can’t afford to let racism get in the way of standing together on the picket line.

In 1676, black people and poor whites rose up together in the British colony of Virginia in the US, terrifying the ruling class there.

After the rebellion was defeated the ruling class introduced slave codes to prevent it repeating. White people were given land rights and other perks after they finished fixed periods of indentured labour.


Setting groups of workers against each other is a constant ruling class strategy.

Writing in 1870, Marx described in England “a working class divided into two hostile camps.”

“The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life,” he wrote.

“In relation to the Irish worker he sees himself as a member of the ruling elite and consequently becomes a tool of the English aristocracy… the ruling class is aware of this and spreads their message through the pulpit and the paper.”

This is the same today. When the Daily Mail runs a story about migrants, it’s never about the terrible conditions at refugee camps in Calais.

It’s always about stuff like migrants allegedly attacking truck drivers.

The more and deeper the divisions within the working class, the less chance workers have of uniting and fighting back. Socialists must fight against all of these divisions.

When people fight back they can come to the idea that only those who are themselves oppressed can understand what it really means. People can experience racism, and they can organise on the basis of their shared oppression. Socialists support and celebrate this.

But experience is subjective—we need to explain racism objectively. You can have a heart attack but that doesn’t make you a heart surgeon.

The key thing to understand is that capitalism has produced racism. The flip side to this is that something that was created can be overcome.

Ultimately only the working class has the power to liberate humanity. Capitalism turns on making profit, and profit comes from exploiting workers.

That puts workers in a position of power. The divide at the heart of the system holds the key to overthrowing it. And racism can never be fully defeated until the system which produces it is destroyed.

Weyman is joint national secretary of Stand Up to Racism. He writes in a personal capacity

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