The best things about Arun Kundnani’s new book, What Is Anti‑Racism And Why It Means Anti‑Capitalism, are the way it tears into the system—and the liberal excuses that surround it. Here liberal anti-racism is cast as a way of shifting the blame for racism away from institutions and structures towards individual moral failure.
Beginning in the 1930s as the Nazis rose to power, it asked us to focus on “wrong thinking” and “wrongdoing” people, and the task of re‑educating them. Kundnani attacks the way liberalism normalises the exploitation and oppression intrinsic to capitalism. And he describes the way its form of anti-racism deliberately avoids discussing connections between the mass racist violence of colonialism and contemporary racism.
“In these ideas from the 1930s lie the origin of how liberals think about anti-racism today, from the enthusiasm for diversity training to the hope that better representation in Hollywood movies can educate us out of our racist attitudes,” he writes.
Kundnani’s alternative is to say that racism is a function of the system, and the system must go. And that’s where things really start to get interesting.
Only rarely does an anti-racist book written by someone rooted in the academic world make a point of going back to Vladimir Lenin, the early years of the Communist International, and the era of revolutions that followed the First World War.
The author’s motivation is to establish a cornerstone for Marxist thinking on colonialism in the early 20th century. We learn, for example, how Indian revolutionary MN Roy changed Lenin’s thinking on how to relate to the mass freedom movement growing on the subcontinent—and how important the colonial question was to the Bolsheviks.
More importantly Lenin is shown to have backed two interconnecting ideas that have continued relevance—the first of which Kundnani seems to strongly agree with.
First, is Lenin’s insistence that there was in the West an “aristocracy of labour” that derived from “super profits” made from Empire. This layer of workers enjoyed a standard of living far higher than those in the colonies. If the theory is correct, it meant that at least a section of workers in imperial countries had a vested interest in empire loyalism—and would not likely make common cause with their colonised siblings.
They would also act as defenders of the system rather than help to bring it down. This weakened Karl Marx’s phrase, “Workers of the world unite!”
Second, is that Lenin believed countries that broke from colonialism would necessarily have to go through a “bourgeois democratic” stage before a transition to socialism could occur. This “stages theory” would come to dominate the left in many of the countries that broke from Empire in the period after the Second World War.
Lenin did, at points, indeed support these theories. But then there is the test of history itself and the role that Lenin played in undermining both ideas in practice.
Skilled munitions workers were seen as the archetypal labour aristocrats. They were highly paid, were most in demand in times of imperialist war, and enjoyed a style of living alien to that of the poorest casual workers. According to the theory, they were “bought off” and would never act as internationalists.
But at the close of the First World War, it was precisely these workers that led the revolutions in both Germany and Russia that brought an end to the slaughter. It was they that coined the popular slogans against war, against Tsars and Kaisers, and against empires.
And, contrary to predictions, it was munitions workers that were to form part of the backbone of the Bolshevik party’s base. Lenin’s 1917 appeal for “All power to the soviets”—as workers’ councils were known—was in the first instance addressed to the war factories.
Russia in 1917 also clarified Lenin’s attitude to revolution in the “backward countries”, as they were known. Russia was itself a backward country, with a relatively small industrial economy surrounded by a mass of peasant agriculture.
Most Marxists at the time believed revolution would first occur in England or Germany. For Russia to come to socialism it would first have to be shifted from Tsarist dictatorship to democracy, they insisted. But the Russian revolutions when they came confounded them.
The October Revolution saw workers skipping the bourgeois democratic stage and instead, as Lenin said, proceeding “to construct the socialist order”. The implication was that all colonial countries had the potential to move directly from the fight for freedom from imperialism to the struggle for socialism.
Here Kundnani’s omission of Leon Trotsky’s thinking on revolution and the uneven nature of capitalism is a major mistake. Trotsky sought to assimilate the lessons of backward Russia into a strategy applicable to colonised countries in revolt.
His theory of permanent revolution made clear that only an international revolution, occurring in both economically the most and least advanced countries could succeed. Uniquely, he pointed out that even a small working class had the political weight and economic power to lead an overwhelmingly peasant country towards socialism.
There was no need to wait for industrialisation, he said.
“Successes for the liberation movement in India presuppose a revolutionary movement in Britain and vice versa. Neither in India, nor in England is it possible to build an independent socialist society,” he wrote. “Both of them will have to enter as parts into a higher whole. Upon this and only upon this rests the unshakable foundation of Marxist internationalism.”
But the use of Trotsky’s theory would upset Kundnani’s coming points. He uses Lenin’s evocation of labour aristocracy and his stages theory as points of departure for the many black revolutionaries that followed. They tasked themselves with “stretching Marxism” to fit colonial and post-colonial circumstances. From this point onwards, the left in the book is described as either the “White Left” or the “Black Left”.
Kundnani’s deployment of the term “White Left” is designed to raise hackles. It is described as if it were a form of Marxism suited only to white revolutionaries in the West that largely ignore the suffering, struggles and differentiated forms of capitalism that dominate the Global South. Kundnani deliberately doesn’t accuse Marxism itself of Eurocentrism because he thinks a reformed version of it remains key to societal change.
As such he celebrates as most authentic those revolutionaries that broke from Communism, or from Marxism altogether. Those who did not are overlooked. In the case of WEB Du Bois, who Kundnani rightly lauds, his decision to join the US Communist Party in 1961, aged 93, wasn’t deemed worthy of mention—I suspect because it didn’t fit the pattern.
Nevertheless, the descriptions of the lives, struggles and ideas of a variety of black revolutionaries is a pleasure to read and be reminded of.
Having dismissed classical Marxism’s stress on workers in both the Global South and North as the potential force to bring a new society, the book must lay out its own theory as to what constitutes the agency of change. Here Kundnani is uncharacteristically vague. For instance, he summarises Frantz Fanon’s thoughts on the component forces of an African revolution as the “lumpenproletariat”.
That, Kundnani says, would today include, “the peddlers, day workers, sex workers, hustlers, all the shack-dwellers of the cities without access to a regular wage—together with the peasant masses.” We can agree that a revolution without the millions of people in these categories would be no revolution at all.
Yet deliberately off his list are Africa’s workers, not just the industrial workers widely‑assumed to be central to a “White Left” vision of revolution, but also the agricultural workers, as well as the teachers, civil servants, transportation workers and many others.
But these are the very people that hold the power that can really hurt capitalism, in the form of both the multinational ruling class, and its local clientist regimes. Instead, for Kundnani it seems it is those people who are “surplus to the system”, North and South, that are the real agency of change. Only they are without a vested interest in the system.
This makes his book somewhat frustrating. One moment Socialist Worker readers will find themselves nodding furiously in agreement, the next shaking their head in disapproval.
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