A Racial Theory of Labour

Racial Capitalism from Colonial Slavery to Postcolonial Migration

Nicholas De Genova
A reconsideration of the crucial historical role of slavery in the consolidation of the global regime of capital accumulation provides a vital source of Marxian critique for our postcolonial present.  The Atlantic slave trade literally transformed African men and women into human commodities.  The reduction of human beings into human commodities, or ‘human capital’ — indeed, into labour and nothing but labour — which was the very essence of modern slavery, served as a necessary predicate for the consolidation and perfecting of what Marx called ‘labour in the abstract,’ and requires us to re-situate enslaved labour as the defining and constitutive limit for how we comprehend labour as such under capitalism.  The production of labour in the abstract, or labour ‘in general,’ depended nonetheless upon concrete productions of sociopolitical difference, particularly the branding of race.  The term ‘Black,’ which was devised to literally and figuratively brand the flesh of enslaved people, was also contrived to signify their particular sociopolitical condition of brutal degradation as the ultimate limit for the subjugation of labour.  Blackness names that limit.  Thus, Blackness is in fact necessary for apprehending labour as such under capitalism.  Marx’s scathing critique of wage labour is always haunted by the long shadow of slavery as its limit figure.  If we comprehend labour to be the antithesis of capital, then to the extent that Blackness names the ultimate condition of labour's subordination and subjection to capital, we need to recognize the tendency forall labour under capital to be pressed toward a sociopolitical condition of Blackness (or approximating Blackness), where Blackness does not name any kind of essential identity but the racialised sociopolitical condition of that subordination/subjection.  Consequently, the labour theory of value — which has always been in fact, more accurately, a value theory of labour — must be complemented with what we might posit to be a racial theory of labour.  Such an ostensibly historical perspective on the foundational role of slavery in the genesis of capitalism is no mere scholastic exercise in the historiography of ‘primitive accumulation,’ however, but rather must be re-purposed toward the ends of elaborating what has remained an as-yet underdeveloped Marxian theory of migrant labour. Extrapolating key insights from Marx’s corpus for the formulation of a racial theory of labour, this essay is ultimately concerned with the ways that slavery supplies capitalism with a defining horizon forall labour, and thus how this insight might instructively serve to comprehend the racialised subordination of migrant labour within our global/ postcolonial sociopolitical order.

Revisiting the Plantation Society

The New World Group and the Critique of Capitalism

Scott Timcke
This paper examines the critique of capitalism provided by the New World Group. Emerging from the West Indian Society for the Study of Social Issues at The University of The West Indies, Mona, the Group was formed in 1963 specifically to address the reformation of social and political forces in the wake of Caribbean territories gaining formal independence from European colonial powers. This reformation was broader than the political-economy, it included psychological and ideological reworkings, all items necessary to evaluate the kinds societies West Indians could strive for. Set within intra-Marxist debates on early capitalist development, this paper focuses on the collaboration and creative tensions between Norman Girvan, George Beckford, and Lloyd Best as they helped one another construct their respective political philosophy, social theory, and economic analysis of the logic of plantation societies, which while incomplete from our vantage, did mostly capture the historical dynamics found in the Caribbean.

Did Marx Defend Black Slavery?

On Jamaica and Labour in a Black Skin

Gregory Slack
Over the past 40 years a tradition of Marx interpretation has built up around a single passage concerning black slavery in an 1853 letter from Marx to Engels, in order to demonstrate that Marx’s support for emancipation was conditional on the level of ‘civilization’ attained by black slaves. I will argue that this interpretation, which attempts to prove Marx’s racist defense of slavery, is overdetermined by an inattention to historical context and a hypersensitivity to Marx’s nineteenth-century epithets. This is important because the alleged anti-black racism of Marx and the place black workers occupy in his historical materialist vision of class struggle are of the utmost significance for properly conceptualizing the relationship between Marxism and black liberation.

Race and Reification

Matthew Dimick
This article uses Marx’s idea of commodity fetishism and subsequent theories of reification to understand the social-construction of race. Race is typically defined as a socially-constituted category that is misattributed as a natural one. The goal of this article, in contrast, is to explain how this misattribution arises. In addition to this main objective, the article uses this explanation of race to contest recent attempts that locate the ‘persistent entanglement’ of race and capital in their functional relationship. Finally, the article engages with related, commodity-based theories of race and racism and concludes with thoughts on what the socially-constructed category of race can teach us about the nature of value and capitalism.

Misperceptions of the Border

Migration, Race, and Class Today

Rafeef Ziadah and Adam Hanieh
This paper addresses the role of global migration and the nature of national borders within the co-constitution of class and race. We begin with Marx’s critique of the value-form – a critique that rests upon a distinction between the ‘essence’ of social reality and its immediate appearances. The paper elaborates how Marx’s understanding of the emergence of a society based upon generalised commodity production leads to a certain conception of the ‘political state’ and citizenship – and thus borders and national belonging. This reveals the distinctive territorial forms of capitalism vis-à-vis those found in pre-capitalist societies, and moves us away from transhistorical conceptions of borders and the nation-state.  In the second half, the paper turns to look at what this conception of borders and migration might mean concretely for how we think about the co-constitution of race and class today. Here the focus is on three crucial aspects of the contemporary world market: (1) the relationship between the cross-border movements of labour and processes of class formation (2) migration and the determination of the value of labour power, and (3) coercive and unfree labour.

Steam and Stokehold

Steamship labour, colonial racecraft and Bombay’s Sidi jamAt

Tania Bhattacharyya
In the late nineteenth century freedpeople rescued from slaving boats on the Indian Ocean by British anti-slavery cruisers were sent to Bombay, where many of the young men found employment as stokers in the stokehold of P&O steamships. British administrators discussed the future of freed “Africans” strictly as profitable sources of labour. Freedpeople however went on to form their own Muslim communities or jamãt in Bombay known as Sidis or Habshis. While colonial “liberation” was bound up with ideas of race, Sidis rejected ideas of singular racial biological origin with their itinerant notion of a community descending from the Prophet. This article is a historical critique of the terms of the colonial racecraft that gives us the category of “African” and the natural division of humans into races, and an effort to read the colonial archive against the grain for the explication of a subaltern Sidi or Habshi notion of jamãt.

Where Does Caste Fit in A Global History of Racial Capitalism?

Sheetal Chhabria
This paper asks how whether and how caste fits into a global history of racial capitalism? The misidentification of caste as custom has long misled analysts and thwarted solidarities. Drawing on the insights of two important literatures, this paper seeks to remedy that misdiagnosis and show that 1) caste abolition must be central to any effective anti-capitalist politics in South Asia, 2) a focus on ‘local’ systems of racialization like caste is necessary in any history of global racial capitalism. The two literatures I engaged with to achieve these aims are: scholarship on racial capitalism and scholarship on the Indian transition to capitalism. The result is an expanding of the geography of racial capitalism and the centering of caste-based unfreedoms as central to the history of capitalism in the Indian subcontinent.

Racism and Capitalism

A Contingent or Necessary Relationship

Charlie Post
Anti-racist debate today remains polarized between “class reductionist” (any attempt to address racial disparities reinforces capitalist class relations) and “liberal identity” (disparities in racial representation can be resolved without questioning class inequality) politics. Both positions share a common perspective—racial oppression and class exploitation are the products of distinctive social dynamics whose relationship is historically contingent. This essay is an initial step toward astructurally necessary relationship between capitalism and racial oppression. The essay draws upon on Anwar Shaikh and Howard Botwinick’s elaboration of Marx’s political economy; and Ellen Wood’s analysis of the specificity of capitalism imperialism.

Beyond the Binary of Race and Class

A Marxist Humanist Perspective

Peter Hudis
The emergence of a new generation of antiracist activists and theorists seeking to advance an anticapitalist agenda creates a new vantage point of reexamining how racism relates to the logic of capital. This essay explores sources in the work of Marx, twentieth century Marxists, and Frantz Fanon that can provide direction for overcoming the binary of class and race.

Reexamining Race and Capitalism in the Marxist Tradition

Ashok Kumar, Robert Knox
This introduction cannot encapsulate the diversity and breadth of Marxist writing about race and racism. Yet it does attempt, at the very least, to give an idea of the seriousness with which Marxists have historically taken these issues. Far from just an ‘epiphenomenon’, many in the Marxist tradition have sought to significantly extend historical materialist theory in order to specifically understand race and racism. In some ways, however, the mature neoliberal period saw something of a retreat from these positions: with greater emphasis placed on the category of race as one simply opposed to Marxist analysis.The articles in this special issue need to be understood against this wider context. Eschewing overly binary discussions about the ‘competition’ between ‘race’ and ‘class’, they instead represent more specific interventions – on both the theoretical and historical level – into these questions. Whilst the contributions are of course varied, we can understand them as responding directly to many of the questions we post in this introduction. These interventions are multifaceted and intertwined. And yet, despite their interconnectedness, it was necessary to place these interventions into themes, to provide some structure and coherence to the discussion. Some themes were more bounded than others, but even those that were more narrowly defined were often overlapping and interconnected. It was a delicate balancing act that required careful consideration. Given the sheer size of this special issue, it will be covered over two physical issues. The first will contain the articles under the theme of Race and Capital and Colony, while the second issue will look the areas of Ideology, Chains, and Labour.

Racism and the Logic of Capitalism

A Fanonion Reconsideration
Peter Hudis


The emergence of a new generation of anti-racist activists and thinkers battling police abuse, the prison-industrial complex and entrenched racism in the US, alongside the crisis over immigration and growth of right-wing populism in Europe and elsewhere, makes this a crucial moment to develop theoretical perspectives that conceptualise race and racism as integral to capitalism while going beyond identity politics that treat such issues primarily in cultural and discursive terms. The last several decades have produced a slew of important studies by Marxists of the logic of capital as well as numerous explorations by postcolonial theorists of the narratives that structure racial and ethnic discrimination. Far too often, however, these two currents have assumed different or even opposed trajectories, making it all the harder to transcend one-sided class-reductionist analyses and equally one-sided affirmations of identity that bypass or ignore class. In light of the new reality produced by the deepening crisis of neoliberalism and the looming disintegration of the political order that has defined global capitalism since the end of the Cold War, the time has come to revisit theoretical approaches that can help delineate the integrality of race, class and capitalism.

Few thinkers are more important in this regard than Frantz Fanon, widely considered one of the most creative thinkers on race, racism and national consciousness of the twentieth century. Fanon’s effort to ‘slightly stretch’ (as he put it) ‘the Marxian analysis … when it comes to addressing the colonial issue’[1] represented an important attempt to work out the dialectic of race and class through a coherent theoretical framework that does not dissolve one into the other. This may help explain the resurgence of interest in his work that is now underway. At least five new books on Fanon have appeared in English over the past two years[2] – in addition to a new 600-page collection in French of his previously-unpublished or unavailable writings on psychiatry, politics and literature.[3] Although Fanon has remained a commanding presence for decades, the extent of this veritable renaissance of interest in his thought is striking. It is no less reflected in the many times his words have appeared on posters, flyers and social media over the past year by those protesting police abuse, the criminal-injustice system, and racism on and off college campuses.[4]

These ongoing rediscoveries of Fanon’s work mark a radical departure from the tenor of debates among postcolonial theorists over the past several decades – when the prevailing issue seemed to be whether or not he was a ‘premature poststructuralist’.[5] If one were to limit oneself to such academic discussions, one might come away thinking that the validity of Fanon’s body of work rests on the extent to which he succeeded in deconstructing the unity of the colonial subject in the name of alterity and difference.[6] Yet these approaches – some of which went so far as to sanction even the discussion of capitalism or its unitary logic as representing a capitulation to epistemic imperialism – could not be further from what drives the renewal of interest in Fanon’s legacy today.[7]

What makes Fanon’s work especially cogent is that contemporary capitalism is manifesting some of the most egregious expressions of racial animosity that we have seen in decades. One need only note the attacks on immigrants of colour in the US and Europe, the revival of right-wing populism, and most of all, the ascendancy of Donald Trump to the US presidency. This raises the question of why there is such a resurgence of racial animus atthis point in time. At least part of the answer is the work of groups like Black Lives Matter, Black Youth Project 100 and many others, which, in engaging politics from a ‘black-feminist-queer lens’, has put the spotlight on issues of race in as creative a manner as the Occupy movement did for economic inequality.[8] In reaction, a section of bourgeois society has decided to drop the mask of civility and openly reassert the prerogatives of white male domination. ‘Whitelash’ is in the driver’s seat – and not only in the US. This should come as no surprise, since the forces of the old always rear their heads when a new challenge to their dominance begins to emerge.

Not unconnected to this is the growth of reactionary challenges to neoliberalism. This calls for a serious reorganisation of thought, since many have focused so much attention on critiquing neoliberalism that they have had rather little to say about the logic of capital as a whole. It is often overlooked that neoliberalism is but one strategy employed by capitalism at a particular point in time – as was Keynesianism at an earlier point. And just as Keynesianism was jettisoned when it no longer served its purpose, the same may be true of neoliberalism today. What brought down the Keynesian project was the crisis in profitability faced by global capital in the 1970s. Capitalists responded by embracing the neoliberal stratagem as a means to restore profitability. This made perfect sense from their point of view, since it is profitability – not effective demand – that in the final analysis determines the course of the development of capitalist society.[9] Profit-rates did go up from the early 1980s to 2000 as the forces of global competition, free trade, and privatisation were unleashed, but most of these gains were in real estate and finance – whereas manufacturing profitability remained at historically low levels. And since much of the profit from real estate and financialisation has not been invested in the real economy, there has been a decline in recent decades in the rate of growth in the productivity of labour.[10] This at least partly explains the anaemic rate of growth in today’s world economy, which is causing so much distress – not only among those most negatively impacted by it, but also to sections of the ruling class that increasingly recognise that the neoliberal ‘miracle’ has proven to be something of a mirage.

In many respects, this established the ground for Trump. His electoral victory (pyrrhic as it may well turn out to be) is a sign that a significant section of the Right has found a way to speak to disaffected segments of the working class by draping criticism of neoliberalism in racist and misogynist terms – while ensuring that capitalism goes unquestioned. Hence, opposition to such tendencies must begin and end with a firm and uncompromising rejection of any programme, tendency or initiative that in any way, shape or form is part of, or dovetails – no matter how indirectly – with racist and/or anti-immigrant sentiment. Any other approach will make it harder to distinguish a genuine critique of class inequality, free trade, and globalisation from reactionary ones.

For this reason, holding to the critique of neoliberalism as the crux of anti-capitalist opposition no longer makes much sense. Needed instead is an explicit attack on the inner core of capitalism – its logic of accumulation and alienation that is inextricably tied to augmenting value as an end in itself. And racism has long been integral to capital’s drive for self-expansion.

Capitalism first emerged as a world system through the anti-black racism generated by the transatlantic slave trade, and it has depended on racism to ensure its perpetration and reproduction ever since.[11] Marx argued,

Slavery is an economic category like any other … Needless to say we are dealing only with direct slavery, with Negro slavery in Surinam, in Brazil, in the Southern States of North America. Direct slavery is just as much the pivot of bourgeois industry as machinery, credits, etc. Without slavery you have no cotton; without cotton you have no modern industry. It is slavery that gave the colonies their value; it is the colonies that created world trade, and it is world trade that is the precondition of large-scale industry. Thus slavery is an economic category of the greatest importance.[12]

Marx was clearly cognisant of the peculiar role played by race in American slavery – and he was no less aware of how integral race-based slavery was to capitalism’s origins and development as a world system. But does this mean that racism is integral to the logic of capital? Might racism be a mere exogenous factor that is only built into specific moments of capitalism’s contingent history? To be sure, it is possible to conceive of the possibility that capitalism could have emerged and developed as a world system without its utilising race and racism. But historical materialism does not concern itself with what could have occurred, but with whatdid occur andcontinues to occur. According to Marx, without race-based slavery ‘you have no modern industry’ and no ‘world trade’ – and no modern capitalism. Hence, thelogic of capital is in many respects inseparable from itshistorical development. I am referring not only to the factors that led to the formation of the world market but to the role played by race and racism in impeding proletarian class consciousness, which has functioned as an essential component in enabling capital accumulation to be actualised. Marx was keenly aware of this, as seen in his writings on the US Civil War and the impact of anti-Irish prejudice upon the English workers’ movement.[13] He took the trouble to address these issues in Capital itself, which famously declared ‘labour in a white skin cannot emancipate itself where it is branded in a black skin.’[14]

Racism is not and never has been an epiphenomenal characteristic of capitalism. It is integral to its very development. The time is therefore long past for holding onto such notions as ‘there is no race question outside the class question’[15] or ‘the race issue, while important, is secondary to class’. Since capitalism was shaped, from its inception, by racial factors, it is not possible to effectively oppose it without making the struggle against racism a priority. And for this very reason, the present situation also makes it increasingly anachronistic to hold onto forms of identity politics that elide issues of class and a critique of capital. The effort to elevate ethnic identity and solidarity at the expense of a direct confrontation with capitalism is inherently self-defeating, since the latter is responsible for the perpetration of racism and the marginalisation of peoples of colour in the first place. Since race and racism help create, reproduce and reinforce an array of hierarchies that are rooted in class domination, subjective affirmations of identity that are divorced from directly challenging capital will inevitably lose their critical edge and impact over the course of time.

Class struggle and anti-racist struggle have a common aim – at least from a Fanonian perspective. It is to overcome the alienation and dehumanisation that define modern society by creating new human relations – termed by Fanon a ‘new humanism’.[16] But the path to that lofty goal is not one of rushing to the absolute like a shot out of the pistol. It can be reached only through ‘the seriousness, the suffering, the patience, and the labor of the negative’.[17] Re-engaging Fanon on this level can speak to us in new ways.



Fanon repeatedly emphasises that anti-Black racism is not natural but is rooted in theeconomic imperatives ofcapitalism – beginning with the transatlantic slave trade and extending to the neo-colonialism of today. As he writes inBlack Skin, White Masks, ‘First, economic. Then, internalization or rather epidermalization of his inferiority.’[18] At the same time, he held that racism cannot be combatted on economic or class-terms alone, since racialised ways of ‘seeing’ and being take on a life of their own and drastically impact the psychic, inner-life of the individual. Both the black and the white subject are impacted and shaped by class domination, but they experience it in radically different ways. Any effort to ignore or downplay these crucial differences for the sake of a fictive ‘unity’ that abstracts from them is bound to fall on deaf ears when it comes to a significant portion of the dispossessed. On these grounds, Fanon insisted that both sides – the economic and the cultural/psychic – have to be foughtin tandem. As he put it, ‘The black man must wage the struggle on two levels: whereas historically these levels are mutually dependent, any unilateral liberation is flawed, and the worst mistake would be to believe their mutual dependence automatic … An answer must be found on the objective as well as the subjective level.’[19]

For Fanon, what makes racism especially deadly is that it denies recognition of the dignity and humanity of the colonised subject. As a result, the latter experiences a ‘zone of nonbeing’ – a negation of their very humanity. He calls this ‘an extraordinary sterile and arid region, an incline stripped bare of every essential form from which a genuine new departure can emerge.’[20] It is a zone of depravity that renders implausible any ‘ontology of Blackness’. The black is not seen as human precisely bybeing seen’ – not once, but repeatedly –as black. The colonial mind does not ‘see’ what it thinks it sees; it fixes its gaze not on the actual person but on a reified image that obscures them. For the coloniser, the black is indeednothing.However, this zone of non-being in no way succeeds in erasing the humanity of the oppressed. The denial of the subject’s subjectivity can never be completely consummated. This is because, as Fanon never ceases to remind us, ‘Man is a “yes” resonating from cosmic harmonies.’[21]

On this issue, there are striking parallels between Fanon’s works and Marx’s – even if it is rarely acknowledged. In the first essay in which he proclaimed the proletariat as the revolutionary class, Marx defined it as ‘the class in Civil Society that is notof Civil Society’.[22] The proletariat lives in civil society, but unlike the bourgeoisie its substantiality is notconfirmed in it. Since workers are robbed of any organic connection to the means of production in their being reduced to a mere seller of labour-power, they find themselves alienated from thesubstance of civil society. This is because what matters to capital is not the subjectivity of the living labourers but rather their ability to augment wealth in abstract, monetary terms. There is only one ‘self-sufficient end’ in capitalism – and that is the augmentation of (abstract) value at the expense of the labourer. Insofar as the worker’s subjectivity becomes completely subsumed by the dictates of value production, theworker inhabits a zone of negativity. He isdehumanised is insofar as his ‘activity [is] not his spontaneous activity. It belongs to another; it is the loss of his self.’[23]Self-estrangement is therefore integral to the domination of capital. This makes for a living hell, but it is also what makes the proletariat potentially revolutionary, since ithas nothing to lose but its chains. But what does it have togain? The answer iscommunism, defined by Marx as ‘thepositive transcendence ofhuman self-estrangement … the complete return of man to himself as asocial (i.e., human) being – a return accomplished consciously and embracing the entire wealth of previous development.’ Since capitalismdehumanises the labourer, the alternative to capitalism is nothing less than anew humanism: ‘This communism, as fully developed naturalism, equals humanism, and as fully developed humanism equals naturalism.’[24]

This is a far cry from any classless, abstract humanism, since for Marx only the proletariat ‘has the consistency, the severity, the courage or the ruthlessness that could mark it out as the negative representative of society.’ It alone possesses ‘the genius that inspires material might to political violence, or that revolutionary audacity which flings at the adversary the defiant words: “I am nothing and I should be everything.”’[25]

But how could everything arise fromnothing? It is only possible if it is not labour that takes the form of a commodity but rather thecapacity for labour – labour-power. As Luca Basso puts it, ‘the capitalist buys something that only exists as a possibility, which is, however, inseparable from the living personality of theArbeiter.’[26] If labour were the commodity, the worker’s subjectivity would be completely absorbed by the value-form and any internal resistance to it would be implausible. Marx’s entire critique of value production – rooted in the contradiction between concrete and abstract labour – proceeds from recognition of the irreducible tension between the subject and the continuous effort to subsume its subjectivity by abstract forms of domination. Here is where the so-called ‘esoteric’ and ‘exoteric’ converge in Marx’s work.

There is more than an echo of this in Fanon’s declaration in Black Skin, White Masks that, ‘Genuine disalienation will have been achieved only when things, in the most materialist sense, have resumed their rightful place.’[27] But Fanon also points to a key difference between racial and class oppression, in that the former cuts deeper than the traditional class struggle insofar as people of colour are denied even a modicum of recognition when structures of domination are over-determined by racial considerations.

Fanon’s insights on this issue are most profoundly posed in his discussion of Hegel’s master/slave dialectic in Black Skin, White Masks. Hegel maintains that the master wants to be recognised by the slave, for without it he is unable to obtain a sense of self-certainty and selfhood. Hegel acknowledges, of course, that what the master mainly wants from the slave iswork. Yet the master still aspires to be recognised by his subordinates, since he, like all human beings, wants to obtain a substantive sense of self – and that is something that can only be provided by the gaze of the other. So what happens when the master/slave dialectic is structured along racial lines – something that Hegel does not consider? Fanon argues that the situation becomes radically altered. The master is no longer interested in being recognised by the slave, just as the slave is no longer interested in recognising him.This is because when the master is white he does not see the black as even potentially human.[28] Like all masters, he wants work from his slave; but when race enters the picture, that is all he wants – he denies the slave even the most primordial degree of recognition.

To be sure, matters are hardly pristine when race does not inform the class relation. The capitalist ‘cares’ about the worker only to the extent that she provides work – and if the latter can be attained without her, the capitalist will gladly lay her off and employ a machine. However, the capitalist knows that a worker, like any human being, cannot be worked to the point of extinction – otherwise there is no source of profit. And as much as the worker detests the capitalist, she knows that she may well be out of a job if the capitalist is unable to earn any profit. The two antagonists recognise each other’s existence, even as they battle against each another. But when class relations are structured along racial lines even the most basic level of recognition is blocked, since when the other is seen as black it is not ‘seen’ at all.

Since consciousness of self and identity-formation depend on recognition by the other, its absence produces an existential crisis. In Hegel’s text, the slave obtains ‘a mind of his own’;[29] but when the slave is black the lack of recognition blocks the formation of an independent self-consciousness. The general class struggle does not lead immediately to consciousness of self when the slave is black. Instead, the slave aspires for ‘values secreted by the masters’.[30] Denied recognition, but hungering for it all the same, the slave tries to mimic the white. She has an inferiority complex. But her efforts are futile, since no recognition will be forthcoming so long as the class relation is configured along racial lines. This is a veritable hell, since her veryconsciousness is dependent on the will of the master. We have reached a level of reification of consciousness that would startle even Lukács. There seems to be no way out if the master totally dominates the verymind of the oppressed. So what is to be done? The black slave must turn away from the master andface her own kind. She makes use of the socially constructed attributes of race to forge bonds of solidarity with others like her.Only then does the master’s dominance begin to be seriously challenged. Through social solidarity born from taking pride in the very attributes that are denigrated by existing society, she gains ‘a mind of one’s own’.

However, as Hegel notes at the conclusion of the master/slave dialectic, the slave’s independent self-consciousness does not overcome the diremption between subjective and objective. The achievement of subjective self-certainty brings to view the enormity of an objective world that it has not yet mastered. Hegel says that unless the subject confronts objectivity and overcomes this diremption, ‘a mind of one’s own’ turns out to be ‘little more than a piece of cleverness’.[31] Fanon’s argument in Black Skin, White Masks follows a similar trajectory. Fanon views Negritude – at least initially – as the pathway by which the black subject affirms pride in themselves as part of reclaiming their dignity. However, Fanon is wary of aspects of Negritude inBlack Skin, White Masks, since it tends to essentialise the racial characteristics forged by colonial domination. This is evident in Senghor’s statement that ‘emotion is Negro as reason is Greek’[32] – which, as Lewis Gordon has shown, is actually a phrase from Gobineau![33] Negritude runs the risk of becoming so enamoured of its independent consciousness that it turns away from confronting the social realities of the objective world. Identity-formation is a vital moment of the dialectic that cannot be subsumed or skipped over, but it also carries within itself the possibility of becoming fixated on its subjective self-certainty.

The struggle against racism is therefore not reducible to the class struggle; nor is it a mere ancillary or ally of it. The class relation is fundamentally reconfigured once it presents itself through the ‘mask’ of race. Like any good Hegelian, Fanon points to the positive in the negative of this two-fold alienation in which class and racial oppression overlap. Thrown into a ‘zone of non-being’, yet retaining their basic humanity, the colonised are compelled to ask what does it mean to be human in the very course of the struggle. To be sure, they do so by taking pride in the racial attributes created by a racist society. But since it is society, and not nature or ‘being’ that creates these attributes, the subject can cast them off once it obtains the recognition it is striving for. However, this result is by no means predetermined. There is always a risk that the subject will treat socially constructed attributes as ontological verities. Fixation is a serious risk. It is easy to get trapped in the particular, but there is no way to the universal without it.

The nuances of this position are addressed in a striking manner in Fanon’s critique of Sartre’s view of Negritude. Although Sartre praised Negritude in Black Orpheus, he referred to it as a ‘weak stage’ of the dialectic that must give way to the ‘concrete’ and ‘universal’ fight of the proletariat. Fanon is extremely dismayed by Sartre’s position, stating, ‘The generation of young Black poets has just been dealt a fatal blow.’[34] Fanon rejects the claim that racial pride is a mere way station on the road to confronting the ‘real’ issue – proletarian revolution. He credits Sartre for ‘recalling the negative side’ of the Black predicament, ‘but he forgot that this negativity draws its value from a virtually substantial absoluity’.[35] As against Sartre’s effort to relativise the moment of black consciousness, Fanon contends, ‘this born Hegelian, had forgotten that consciousness needs to get lost in the night of the absolute.’[36] Claims to liberation cannot find their voice if they are treated as arbitrary; they must present themselves in absolute terms (‘I am nothing and I should be everything!’). But since the black subject inhabits a ‘zone of non-being’, its absolute is imbued withnegativity. Hence, consciousness of selfin this context contains the potential to reach out beyond itself, toward universal human emancipation.

It is not just that negativity is the font from which the individual is impelled toward the positive. It is that upon being subjected to absolute denial and lack of recognition, the individual finds it necessary to draw upon the substantial reservoir of hidden meaning that it possess as a human subject. ‘That which has been shattered is rebuilt and constructed by the intuitive lianas of my hands.’[37]

Sartre’s problem was not in viewing Negritude as a particular, but in rushing too fast to get past it. By the time he writes The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon is long past it as well. But he does not leap there like a shot out of a pistol. Heendures the labour of the negative – by dwelling on the specific ways in which the colonised subject can make its subjectivity known in a world that has become totally indifferent to it. Fanon never takes his eyes off the creation of the positive from out of the negative, of absolute positivity from out of absolute negation, of a new humanism from out of total dehumanisation. As Alice Cherki has noted, he was an incurable humanist.[38]

Given the aborted and unfinished revolutions of his time and since, Fanon’s insistence on neither getting stuck in the particular – that is, pride in one’s race and ethnicity (the mark of identity politics) – nor skipping over it in the name of affirming an abstract, colour-blind advocacy of ‘proletarian revolution’, takes on new significance. Hubert Harrison’s conception (voiced in the 1920s) that struggles of African-Americans against racism represent the ‘touchstone’ of American society[39] – later re-cast in Raya Dunayevskaya’s Marxist-Humanist conception of Black masses as the vanguard of US freedom struggles[40] – reflects a similar understanding of the relation of race and class to that which we find within Fanon’s lifelong effort to grasp their dialectical interconnection.

In some respects, the debate between Fanon and Sartre is being replayed today, as seen in the impatience of some on the left who urge anti-racist activists to ‘get to the real issue’ – as if that were the state of the economy. This is not to deny that the economy is of central importance. But so is the psychic impact of racism and discrimination upon the inner-life of the individual. It is only by approaching those struggling for freedom from the particular nexus-point that defines their lived experience as potentially revolutionary subjects that we can work out the difficult question of how to surmount the matrix of contradictions that define modern capitalism. Just as there is no road to the universal that gets stuck in the particular, there is no reaching-it that rushes over the particular.



The fullest expression of these insights is found in The Wretched of the Earth, whose focus is the actual dialectics of revolution – the struggle for national culture and independence against colonialism. One of its central themes is the ‘Manichean divide’ that defines the colonial experience. So great is this divide between coloniser and colonised that Fanon speaks of them as if they were two ‘species’. It would appear that the racial divide is decisive, replacing class dominance as the deciding factor. For some commentators, Fanon’s discussion of the Manichean divide indicates that he has rejected or supplanted the Marxian view of class.[41] However, the appearance is deceptive. First, Fanon is not endorsing this divide; he is describing it. Second, he does not pose this divide as stable or impermeable. As the revolutionary struggle progresses, he shows, it begins to fall apart. He writes,

The people then realize that national independence brings to light multiple realities that in some cases are divergent and conflicting … it leads the people to replace an overall undifferentiated nationalism with social and economic consciousness. The people who in the early days of the struggle had adopted the primitive Manicheanism of the colonizer – Black versus White, Arab versus Infidel – realize en route that some blacks can be whiter than the whites … The species is splitting up before their very eyes … Some members of the colonialist population prove to be closer, infinitely closer, to the nationalist struggle than certain native sons. The racial and racist dimension is transcended on both sides.[42]

We see here how the struggle for national liberation unites the people and breaks apart the racial dichotomies that define colonialism, thereby pointing the way to the death of race and racialism as socially defining features.

Clearly, Fanon does not set aside class relations in his critique of colonialism. James Yaki Sayles, a New Afrikan political prisoner who spent 33 years in a maximum-security prison and wrote what I consider to be one of the most profound studies of The Wretched of the Earth, put it this way: ‘The existence of Manichean thinking doesn’t make economic relationships secondary to “racial” ones – it does exactly what it’s supposed to do: It masks and mystifies the economic relationships … but doesn’t undermine their primacy.’[43] He adds, ‘When Fanon talks about the “species” breaking up before our eyes … he’s talking about the breakup of “races” themselves – the “races” which were constructed as part of the construction of world capitalism, and which must first be deconstructed along with the deconstruction of capitalism.’[44]

Does this mean that Fanon adopts Sartre’s position in Black Orpheus that class is primary and race a ‘minor term’ by the time of writingTheWretched of the Earth?[45] That may seem to be the case, since racial identity is not its guiding or central theme; it is instead the struggle for national liberation and the need to transcend its confines. Yet this is precisely what undermines any claim that he has changed the position outlined inBlack Skin, White Masks. In it Fanon also connects racism to class relations by pointing to the economic factors that drive its social construction. And in that work he also poses the deconstruction of race as the essential precondition of a new humanism. As he so poignantly put it, ‘Because it is a systematic negation of the other person, and a furious determination to deny the other person all attributes of humanity, colonialism forces the people it dominates to ask themselves the question constantly: “In reality, who am I?”’[46]

Most important, Fanon held that while race is a product of class relations, which serves as their mask, it is not a secondary factor. While racereflects class formations, the reflection is not a one-way mirror image. The reflection is taken up in consciousness and performs a sort of doubling bymirroring its origin at the same time asreshaping it. Determinations of reflection are not passive butactively reconstructive. And since racial determinations are often not superstructural but integral to the logic of capital accumulation, efforts by people of colour to challenge them can serve as the catalyst for targeting and challenging class relations.

Whereas racial identity is the major focus in Black Skin, White Masks, national identity takes centre stage inThe Wretched of the Earth. But thestructure of Fanon’s argument remains very much the same. In both works, the path to the universal – a world of mutual recognitions – proceedsthrough the particular struggles of those battling racial, ethnic or national discrimination. This separates Fanon’snew humanism from an abstract humanism that skips over the lived experience of actual subjects of revolt.

As Fanon sees it, this humanism can emerge only if the colonial revolutions transcend the bourgeois phase of development. He writes, ‘The theoretical question, which has been posed for the last 50 years when addressing the history of the underdeveloped countries, i.e., whether the bourgeois phase can be effectively skipped, must be resolved through revolutionary action and not through reasoning.’[47] Fanon is directly referring to the debates in the Second International prior to World War I and the congresses of the Third International in the early 1920s as to whether revolutions in technologically underdeveloped societies must endure the vicissitudes of a prolonged stage of capitalism. Building on the work of previous Marxists,[48] he emphatically rejects the two-stage theory of revolution, arguing, ‘In the underdeveloped countries a bourgeois phase is out of the question. A police dictatorship or a caste of profiteers may very well be the case but a bourgeois society is doomed to failure.’[49] This advocacy of permanent revolution was a very radical position. It was not put forth by any of the political tendencies leading the African revolutions, Algeria included. Even Kwame Nkrumah and Sékou Touré refrained from such wholesome condemnations of the national bourgeoisie. Fanon was nevertheless insistent on this point in prophetically arguing that if they did not ‘skip’ the phase of bourgeois nationalism, the African revolutions would revert to intra-state conflict, tribalism and religious fundamentalism.

How, then, did he envision bypassing the capitalist stage? Central to this was his view of the peasantry. The peasants tend to be neglected by the national bourgeoisie, which is based in the cities. They constitute the majority of the populace, vastly outnumbering the working class and petty-bourgeoisie. Although they are not included in the agenda of the nationalist parties, they turn out to be the most revolutionary. Fanon insists, ‘But it is obvious that in the colonial countries only the peasantry is revolutionary.’[50] This is surely an exaggeration, which does not take into account the pivotal role of the Nigerian labour movement in the struggle for national independence, let alone the situation in countries like South Africa (where the labour movement later proved instrumental in forcing the elimination of apartheid). Although Fanon is painting with all-too-broad a brush, his view of the peasantry is not without merit. He argued that since most of the newly independent states in Africa had not undergone industrialisation on a large scale, the working class could not present itself as a cohesive and compact force. It has not been socialised by the concentration and centralisation of capital. The working class is dispersed, divided and relatively weak. The peasantry, on the other hand, is socialised and relatively strong precisely because it has been largely untouched by capitalist development. Their communal traditions and social formations remain intact. They think and act like a cohesive group. Theylive the Manichaean divide that separates them from the coloniser. Hence, the message of the revolution ‘always finds a response among them’.[51] They are therefore unlikely to put their guns away and enable the bourgeoisie to lord over them.

This issue of permanent revolution is also the context for understanding Fanon’s view of revolutionary violence. He did not subscribe (contra Arendt and others) to any ‘metaphysics of violence’. His advocacy of violence washistorically specific. He argued that a people armed would not only be better equipped to evict the colonialists; most importantly, it is needed to help push the revolution beyond the boundaries set by the national bourgeoisie after the achievement of independence. It is no accident that one of the first demands of the leaders of the newly independent states was for the masses to give up their arms – the presence of which could impede their embrace of neocolonialism. Fanon also emphasised the need for adecentralised as against a centralised political and economic apparatus that could succeed in directly drawing the masses into running the affairs of society – including the most downtrodden among them, like the peasantry. He warned against adopting the model of statist Five-Year Plans and advocated support for cooperatives and other autonomous ventures. No less significantly, he argued strenuously against a single-party state on the grounds that, ‘The single party is the modern form of the bourgeois dictatorship – stripped of mask, makeup, and scruples, cynical in every respect.’[52] He conceived of parties in terms of ‘an organism through which the people exercise their authority and express their will’ and not as a hierarchical, stratified force standing above them. Most importantly, he emphasised the critical role of consciousness and revolutionary education in providing the most indispensable condition of socialist transformation – overcoming the depersonalisation of the colonised subject. He wrote,

It is commonly thought with criminal flippancy that to politicize the masses means from time to time haranguing them with a major political speech … But political education means opening up the mind, awakening the mind, and introducing it to the world. It is, as Césaire said, ‘To invent the souls of men.’[53]

Needless to say, Fanon’s strictures were not followed by the leaders of the national independence struggles, who found a comfortable place for themselves within the framework of the bourgeois phase of development – even when (indeed especially when!) they anointed their rule as some form of ‘socialism’. But were there  the material conditions present at that time which could have enabled the African revolutions to bypass the bourgeois phase? I am not referring solely to conditions of economic backwardness or underdevelopment, since these would not be decisive barriers if the newly independent nations were in the position to receive aid and support from the workers of the technologically developed world. Marx, after all, held at the end of his life that economically backward Russia could bypass a capitalist stage of development if a revolution centred on the peasantry linked up with proletarian revolutions in the West.[54] Yet in the context of the African revolutions of the 1950s and ’60s, such aid could not be expected – in large measure because forces like the French Communist and Socialist parties disgracefully supported French imperialism’s war against the Algerian Revolution (something that major left-intellectuals inside and outside the French CP at the time, such as Althusser and Foucault, never managed to find time to condemn).

This problem consumed Fanon’s attention in the final years of his life, and marks one of the most controversial aspects of his legacy. In the face of the failure of the established French leftist parties to support Algeria’s struggle for independence (with which he became openly identified by 1955), he issued a series of sharp critiques of the working class for failing to fulfil its historic mission. He writes,

The generalized and sometimes truly bloody enthusiasm that has marked the participation of French workers and peasants in the war against the Algerian people has shaken to its foundations the myth of an effective opposition between the people and the government … The war in Algeria is being waged conscientiously by all Frenchmen and the few criticisms expressed up to the present time by a few individuals mention only certain methods which ‘are precipitating the loss of Algeria.’[55]

In a colonial country, it used to be said, there is a community of interests between the colonized people and the working class of the colonialist country. The history of the wars of liberation waged by the colonized peoples is the history of the non-verification of this thesis.[56]

These statements are often taken as proof that Fanon dismissed the revolutionary potential of the working class tout court. However, only a year later Fanon stated in another piece forEl Moudjahid, ‘the dialectical strengthening that occurs between the movement of liberation of the colonized peoples and the emancipatory struggle of the exploited working class of the imperialist countries is sometimes neglected, and indeed forgotten.’[57] Might he have had himself in mind? He now considerably revises his earlier position, as he speaks of ‘the internal relation … that unites the oppressed peoples to the exploited masses of the colonialist countries’.[58] And as The Wretched of the Earth (written a few years later) clearly shows, he did not close the door to the possibility that the working classmight fulfil its historic mission even while criticising it for not yet having done so:

The colossal task, which consists of reintroducing man into the world, man in his totality, will be achieved with the crucial help of the European masses who would do well to confess that they have rallied behind the position of our common masters on colonial issues. In order to do this, the European masses must first of all decide to wake up, put on their thinking caps and stop playing the irresponsible game of Sleeping Beauty.[59]

Nevertheless, the hoped-for aid from the workers of the industrially-developed West never arrived – notwithstanding the heroic efforts of numerous individuals in France and elsewhere who spoke out in favour of the independence of the African colonies. In lieu of any significant support from the industrially-developed West, how were the African Revolutions going to obtain the resources needed to sustain genuine independence, let alone move further towards the creation of a socialist society?

Fanon responded by turning his energies to Africa as a whole. This is reflected in his decision to become a roving ambassador for Algeria’s FLN, travelling to over a dozen countries pushing for an ‘African Legion’ to come to the aid of the Algerian struggle and revolutions elsewhere on the continent. It is also reflected in his effort to create a ‘southern front’ of the Algerian struggle by procuring a route for the shipment of arms and other materiel from Ghana, Guinea, Mali and Niger. Concerned that the French might strike a rotten compromise with the FLN to keep it within its neocolonial orbit, he was trying to radicalise both the Algerian and sub-Saharan struggles by cementing closer relations between them.

It may be true, as Adam Shatz has recently argued, that Fanon’s efforts were rather quixotic, since ‘the southern Sahara had never been an important combat zone for the FLN, and there was little trust between the Algerians and the desert tribes.’[60] However, this should not cause us to lose sight of his broader effort to convey the militancy of the Algerian struggle ‘to the four corners of Africa’ as part of rejecting any compromise with capitalism. As Fanon put it, the task is ‘To turn the absurd and the impossible inside out and hurl a continent against the last ramparts of colonial power.’[61] This was no mere rhetorical declaration, since he spent the last several years of his life working incessantly to coordinate activity between the various revolutionary movements in Africa. He forthrightly stated, ‘For nearly three years I have been trying to bring the misty idea of African unity out of the subjectivist bog of the majority of its supporters. African Unity is a principle on the basis of which it is proposed to achieve the United States of Africa without passing through the middle-class chauvinistic phase…’ In case there is any doubt about the provenance of this embrace of permanent revolution, he states on the same page: ‘We must once again come back to the Marxist formula. The triumphant middle classes are the most impetuous, the most enterprising, the most annexationist in the world.’[62]

For Fanon ‘it is no longer possible to advance by regions … [Africa] must advance in totality.’ The key to that, he held, was Congo – since ‘a unified Congo having at its head a militant anticolonialist [Patrice Lumumba] constituted a real danger for South Africa’.[63] For if South Africa, the most industrially-developed country in Africa, was brought into the orbit of revolution, the material conditions might be at hand to push the continent as a whole beyond the confines of capitalist development.

Despite their verbal commitment to Pan-Africanism, virtually all the leaders of the newly independent states – including the most radical among them – were more interested in gaining acceptance and aid from the major world powers than in promoting pan-African unity. Close as he was in many respects to Nkrumah, Fanon was embittered at Ghana’s failure to provide material aid to Lumumba in the Congo, and he grew increasingly embittered at the failure of the African Legion to get off the ground. It became clear that for the new leaders of independent Africa, the way forward was to ally with one or another pole of global capital – either the imperialist West or the so-called ‘communist’ East. Fanon was opposed to this approach.

It [is] commonly thought that the time has come for the world, and particularly for the Third World, to choose between the capitalist system and the socialist system. The underdeveloped countries … must, however, refuse to get involved in such rivalry. The Third World must not be content to define itself in relation to values that preceded it. On the contrary, the underdeveloped countries must endeavor to focus on their very own values as well as methods and style specific to them. The basic issue with which we are faced is not the unequivocal choice between socialism and capitalism such as they have been defined by men from different continents and different periods of time.[64]

Fanon was clearly not satisfied with existing ‘socialist’ societies ‘as they have been defined’. He was aware of their deficiencies. But this does not mean that he conducted a thorough analysis of them or acknowledged their class basis and thoroughly oppressive character. This is unfortunate, since it has led some followers of Fanon to whitewash their crimes, which has only fed into the general discrediting of the Left for supporting regimes which were as exploitative of their working class as imperialist ones. No less importantly, the lack of a thoroughgoing critique of ‘Soviet-type’ societies on Fanon’s part rendered his effort to conceive of the transcendence of the bourgeois phase somewhat abstract and even quixotic, since it was left unclear how technologically underdeveloped societies might skip the bourgeois phase if they could not depend on the beneficence of the purportedly ‘socialist’ regimes.

Fanon cannot be blamed for his rather inconclusive discussion of how to surmount the bourgeois phase of development in The Wretched of the Earth, since he was only beginning to explore the issue of permanent revolution and he passed from the scene only days after the book came off the press. However, we who today face the task of developing an alternative toall forms of capitalism – whether the ‘free market’ capitalism of the West or its state-capitalist variants – do not have that excuse. Fanon’s work may not provide the answer to the question, but it does provide resources that (in conjunction with the work of many others) can aid our effort to do so.

Today’s realities are of course far different than those that defined Fanon’s life and times – on an assortment of levels. But they also provide new possibilities for coming to grips with the problems he was addressing, especially at the end of his life. Fanon departed from the scene declaring, ‘Let us leave this Europe which never stops talking of man yet murders him at every one of its street corners, at every corner of the world.’[65] These words are hardly rendered obsolete by the fact that today many from the global South are trying to find their way into Europe, as is seen from the response of the European powers to an influx of refugees which is transforming the continent. It may turn out that the growing presence of the global Southinside the global North provides a material basis for thinking out new pathways to the transcendence of neocolonialism and class society, just as the racist resurgence that has accompanied it gives new urgency to working out the dialectical relation of race, class and gender anew. Fanon’s work will live on so long as these problems continue to concern us.



Anderson, Kevin B. 2010, Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Basso, Luca 2015, Marx and the Common: From ‘Capital’ to the Late Writings,Historical Materialism Book Series, Leiden: Brill.

Bhabha, Homi K. 1999, ‘Remembering Fanon: Self, Psyche, and the Colonial Condition’, in Rethinking Fanon: The Continuing Dialogue, edited by Nigel Gibson, New York: Humanity Books.

Bird-Pollan, Stefan 2015, Hegel, Freud and Fanon: The Dialectic of Emancipation, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Cherki, Alice 2006, Frantz Fanon: A Portrait, translated by Nadia Benabid, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Coulthard, Glenn Sean 2014, Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Cox, Oliver Cromwell 1948, Race, Caste and Class: A Study in Social Dynamics, New York: Doubleday.

Debs, Eugene V. 1903, ‘The Negro in the Class Struggle’, International Socialist Review, 4, 5: 257–60.

Dunayevskaya, Raya 2003, Philosophy and Revolution: From Hegel to Sartre, and from Marx to Mao, Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Fanon, Frantz 1967, Toward the African Revolution, translated by Haakon Chevalier, New York: Grove Press

Fanon, Frantz 2004, The Wretched of the Earth, translated by Richard Philcox, New York: Grove Press.

Fanon, Frantz 2008, Black Skin, White Masks, translated by Richard Philcox, New York: Grove Press.

Fanon, Frantz 2016, Écrits sur l’aliénation et la liberté, edited by Jean Khalfa and Robert J.C. Young, Paris: La Découverte.

Gordon, Lewis R. 2015,What Fanon Said: A Philosophical Introduction to His Life and Thought, New York: Fordham University Press.

Harrison, Hubert 2001, ‘The Negro and Socialism: 1 – The Negro Problem Stated’, in A Hubert Harrison Reader, edited by Jeffrey P. Perry, Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich 1977, Phenomenology of Spirit, translated by A.V. Miller, Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Books.

Hudis, Peter 2012, Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism,Historical Materialism Book Series, Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Hudis, Peter 2015, Frantz Fanon, Philosopher of the Barricades, London: Pluto Press.

JanMohamed, Abdul 1986, ‘The Economy of Manichean Allegory: The Function of Racial Difference in Colonial Literature’, in ‘Race’, Writing, and Difference, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Kwame Anthony Appiah, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lee, Christopher J. 2015, Frantz Fanon: Toward a Revolutionary Humanism, Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.

Marx, Karl 1975a, ‘Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Introduction’, in Marx–Engels Collected Works, Volume 3, New York: International Publishers.

Marx, Karl 1975b, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, inMarx–Engels Collected Works, Volume 3, New York: International Publishers.

Marx, Karl 1976, ThePoverty of Philosophy, inMarx–Engels Collected Works, Volume 6, New York: International Publishers.

Marx, Karl 1977, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Volume One, translated by Ben Fowkes, New York: Penguin.

Marx, Karl and Frederick Engels 1983, ‘Preface to Russian Edition of the Communist Manifesto’, in Late Marx and the Russian Road: Marx and ‘The Peripheries of Capitalism’, edited by Teodor Shanin, New York: Monthly Review Books.

Parry, Benita 1987, ‘Problems in Current Theories of Colonial Discourse’, Oxford Literary Review, 9, 1: 27–58.

Roberts, Michael 2016, The Long Depression: How It Happened, Why It Happened, and What Happens Next, Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Shatz, Adam 2017, ‘Where Life Is Seized’, London Review of Books, 39, 2: 19–27, available at: <https://www.lrb.co.uk/v39/n02/adam-shatz/where-life-is-seized&gt;.

Wyrick, Deborah 1998, Fanon for Beginners, New York: Writers and Readers Publishing.

Yaki Sayles, James 2010, Meditations on Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, Chicago: Spear and Shield Publications.

Zeilig, Leo 2016, Frantz Fanon: The Militant Philosopher of Third World Revolution, London: I.B. Tauris & Co.



[1] Fanon 2004, p. 5.

[2] See Gordon 2015, Lee 2015, Bird-Pollan 2015, Hudis 2015, Zeilig 2016. See also Coulthard 2014.

[3] See Fanon 2016.

[4] For specific expressions of this, see Hudis 2015, p. 1.

[5] See Parry 1987, p. 33.

[6] See especially JanMohamed 1986 and Bhabha 1999.

[7] Of course, vital appropriations of Fanon’s work occurred in recent decades that were outside the purview of most postcolonial theorists – as by South African youth during and after the Soweto Uprising in 1978. The impetus for this came from the Black Consciousness Movement and not the ANC – which adhered (as it still does) to the two-stage theory of revolution, which calls for a prolonged stage of national capitalist development while pushing a socialist transformation off to the distant horizon.

[8] For a fuller discussion of these developments, see Taylor 2016.

[9] For more on this, see Hudis 2012, pp. 169–82.

[10] For a substantiation of these claims, see Roberts 2016.

[11] For a pathbreaking study that put forward this thesis, see Cox 1948.

[12] Marx 1976, p. 167.

[13] See Anderson 2010, pp. 79–153.

[14] Marx 1977, p. 414.

[15] See Debs 1903 for a classic formulation of this position.

[16] Fanon 2008, p. xi.

[17] Hegel 1977, p. 10.

[18] Fanon 2008, p. xv.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Fanon 2008, p. xii.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Marx 1975a, p. 186.

[23] Marx 1975b, p. 274.

[24] Marx 1975b, p. 296.

[25] Marx 1975a, p. 185.

[26] Basso 2015, p. 4.

[27] Fanon 2008, p. xiv.

[28] It is therefore no accident that one of the most commonly circulated posters during the US Civil Rights Movement was the simple – albeit enormously profound – statement, ‘I am a Man.’ Curiously, thousands of virtually the same posters resurfaced, in a new form, during the street protests against police abuse in Chicago, New York, and other cities in 2015 and 2016 – although many of them also read, ‘I am a Woman.’

[29] Hegel 1977, p. 119.

[30] Fanon 2008, p. 195.

[31] See Hegel 1977, p. 119: ‘Having a “mind of one’s own” is self-will, a freedom which is still enmeshed in servitude.’

[32] Fanon 2008, p. 106.

[33] Gordon 2015, p. 54.

[34] Fanon 2008, p. 112.

[35] Fanon 2008, pp. 112–13.

[36] Fanon 2008, p. 112.

[37] Fanon 2008, p. 117.

[38] Cherki 2006, p. 64.

[39] See Harrison 2001, p. 54.

[40] See Dunayevskaya 2003, pp. 267–73.

[41] See Wyrick 1998, p. 132: ‘In fact, Fanon believes that colonialism causes the Marxist model of base and superstructure to collapse altogether because economic relationships are secondary to racial ones. That is, the Manichean thinking on which colonialism depends blots out other distinctions, hierarchies, logical patterns.’

[42] Fanon 2004, pp. 93–5.

[43] Yaki Sayles 2010, p. 304.

[44] Yaki Sayles 2010, p. 181.

[45] Shatz thinks that Fanon had already reached this position by the end of Black Skin, White Masks (Shatz 2017, p. 20). However, Fanon’s emphasis on ‘reaching out for the universal’ and creating ‘a new human world’ is better seen as a concretisation of his insistence (in critiquing Sartre) that black consciousness is the mediating term in the movement from the individual to the universal.

[46] Fanon 2004, p. 182.

[47] Fanon 2004, p. 119.

[48] Alice Cherki, who knew Fanon very well, reports that the transcripts of the proceedings of the first four Congresses of the Third International, which debated this issue, held ‘a great fascination for Fanon’. See Cherki 2006, p. 93.

[49] Fanon 2004, p. 118.

[50] Fanon 2004, p. 23.

[51] Fanon 2004, p. 69.

[52] Fanon 2004, p. 111.

[53] Fanon 2004, p. 138.

[54] See Marx and Engels 1983, p. 139.

[55] Fanon 1967, p. 65.

[56] Fanon 1967, p. 74.

[57] Fanon 1967, p. 144.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Fanon 2004, p. 62.

[60] Shatz 2017, p. 26.

[61] Fanon 1967, pp. 180–1.

[62] Fanon 1967, p. 187.

[63] Fanon 1967, p. 192.

[64] Fanon 2004, p. 55.

[65] Fanon 2004, p. 235.

Marxist Interventions into Contemporary Debates

Ashok Kumar, Dalia Gebrial, Adam Elliott-Cooper, Shruti Iyer

For journal subscription and purchasing details, please go here. The special issue 26(2) is currently being printed, and will be available in July 2018. Individual copies will be available to purchase directly from Central Brooks (sasha@centralbooks.com).


2017 was, in many ways, the year debates around identity politics came to a head. No longer exclusively the stuff of intra-Leftist mudslinging, the contrived opposition between ‘class politics’ and ‘identity politics’ resurfaced in mainstream political and media parlance. After having spectacularly misjudged two of the West’s most significant political shocks of the decade – Brexit and the election of Donald Trump – talking heads were quick to blame the rise of the far-right on the crushing hegemony of ‘political correctness’. This discursive framework purportedly side-lined the so-called ‘white working class’ in its desperate, emasculating attempts to appeal to women, people of colour and other marginalised communities.

Despite the categorically bourgeois interests behind the UK ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ campaigns, and the fact that, for example, lower-income Americans were less likely to vote for Trump than the upper classes,[1] both moments were prematurely framed as cries of revenge from white, working-class men: a category defined by class as well as race, and yet dispossessed not by capitalism but by a multiracial metropolitan elite preoccupied with showing superficial tolerance towards minority identities. White nationalist and former Chief Strategist in Trump’s White House, Steve Bannon, neatly summarised this framework – and its efficacy for his project of the so-called ‘alt-right’:

"The Democrats – the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em. … I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats."[2]

Indeed, the set-up here becomes untenable for any serious, comprehensive Left project. The struggles of raced, gendered, sexual marginalities are situated in opposition to economic dispossession – which in turn, is experienced exclusively by white people, specifically white men, who curiously are not themselves implicated in a politics of identity-formation. In a further stretch of the imagination, the root of this economic dispossession is not located in the structural conditions of capital, but in the unjust squandering of resources on the less deserving – on migrants, people of colour and queer people. As such, resistance to this economic dispossession lies not in the dismantling of capitalism, but in the intensification of its racial and gendered violence: more incarceration, more detention and more jingoistic grandstanding. The implicit logic here is that the greater the dispossession of the racial and gendered Other, the higher the pile of scraps under the table of the capitalist class. Such a strategy effectively destroys all grounds for mass, anti-capitalist solidarity and resistance.

The original impetus for this Special Issue, which seeks to explicitly intervene in this contradictory discursive context, came in late 2015 – before the aforementioned political upheavals. It came in response to the Left’s ongoing internalisation of these terms, and the cycle of self-defeat it was leading to. Indeed, just as all identity categories are spatially and temporally contingent – socially constructed, yet naturalised – so too is this current bifurcation between ‘class politics’ and ‘identity politics’. This opposition is itself a constructed, naturalised, and – crucially – effective innovation of the Right’s many incarnations. It was clear to us that the Left’s failure to articulate a compelling, rigorous history of identity-formation and, by extension, identity-oppression as rooted in capitalist dynamics left a dangerous explanatory vacuum. Furthermore, it created an organisational culture of individualised, positionality politics that precluded the possibility of broad-based co-operation – a necessity in the fight against capital in its contemporary form. If only the personal can be political, then solidarity ceases to be desirable – let alone achievable.

Tackling this mystification of the politics of identity-formation, the politics of capital and their mutual constitution, is an urgent site of intervention for Marxists today. As many of the contributions to this Special Issue show, there has been a fundamental ideological concession in the discourse regarding the role and nature of identity: of what we are talking about when we talk about identity. Chapters by Chi Chi Shi and Annie Olaloku in particular elegantly demonstrate how the Left has abrogated the notion of identity as being materially rooted, and contingent on historical and geographical context. In its place, we see the hegemonic acceptance of an inherently reactionary alternative: one which perceives race, gender and sexuality as dearly-held, self-fashioning and self-justifying essences. Such a concession has not only reinforced the class/identity binary, but led to a stifled political imagination in which identity-based politics can only be conceptualised within a liberal-capitalist logic. The acceptance and valorisation of one’s identity as the both the start and end-point of politics leaves us with diversification within contemporary power structures as the only conceivable goal. Identity-based organising spaces have become an end in themselves, rather than being seen as part of the labour of building meaningful, constructive solidarity between oppressed groups. In turn, exploring one’s personal identity is no longer the beginning of a deeper, theoretical exploration of oppression and resistance strategies, but the political project tout court.

A form of identity politics that has always strained resistance-movements – one that conceals its roots in historical power-dynamics behind a fog of contradiction and homogenisation – has therefore emerged as dominant. This Special Issue aims to unpack this phenomenon, and begin to carve out alternative understandings of identity and its relationship to political economy. Specifically, the aim is to do this in a way that can effectively rise to the challenges of the contemporary world. It asks: how can we begin to understand identities such as race as not just – to extend Stuart Hall’s formulation – a ‘modality’ in which class, and therefore capitalism, is ‘lived’, but also one through which its power is continually made and remade? Most importantly, how can we use such theoretical formulations as the guiding principle of our organisational strategies?

Identity Politics and Neoliberalism

Marxists have long made a case for the analytical connection between the rise of a particular kind of dematerialised identity-politics and neoliberal hegemony. It is within this academic trajectory that this intervention sits.

The story goes as such: in the West, the late 1960s and ’70s saw the demise of a dominant form of capitalist production (‘Fordism’) – associated with high levels of employment, rising wages and increased welfare spending – all of which fed into a culture of mass consumption. The Fordist years are widely understood as a concordat between capital and labour, where the latter was allowed a minor share in the former’s gains. Neoliberal measures championed by Reagan and Thatcher, however, brought this ‘virtuous spiral’ to an end, and a new kind of political organising grew. Surin identifies two popular positions concerning the rise of this new politics – one is that spreading prosperity under Fordism rendered a class-based politics less indispensable for working people, allowing new forms of collectivity to emerge (the civil-rights movement, and feminist, peace, ecology, and gay-liberation movements).[3] The second prefers to see the growth of identity politics alongside neoliberalism as a quintessentially post-World War II American phenomenon, whereby a new multiculturalism emerged that was linked to the implementation of structural adjustment and Western-led humanitarian interventions. This operated as part of the US’s need to assert itself within a context of newly-emerging independent states in Africa and Asia, along with the internationalisation of the world economy.[4] In both interpretations, the identitarian conjuncture of the 1970s is situated as distinct from any iteration that may have prefigured it; it is a historical break in which the predominant political articulations dethroned a more conventional idea of class-based politics. This reading sees identity politics as emerging from a historical moment that opposes the development of a mass anti-capitalist politics, and, being symptomatic of this failure, cannot possibly generate resistance to it.

Many of these assumptions are reflected in the debate between Axel Honneth and Nancy Fraser, where the two competing goods are those of ‘recognition’ and ‘redistribution’. Recognition is the demand by oppressed groups that their distinctiveness be recognised, and the predominance of this vocabulary is occurring alongside the ‘decline in claims for egalitarian redistribution’ of material resources and goods.[5] The demand for recognition is seen as the only viable demand that can be made, in a world where a credible ‘feasible socialism’ does not seem possible, and there remain doubts about the viability of the erstwhile Keynesian social-democratic order.[6] Fraser identifies two problems with a politics of recognition – the first being that it displaces struggles for redistribution by remaining silent on economic inequality, and secondly that it reifies group identities in a manner that freezes them and offers no possibility of overcoming them. In this way, ‘cultural proponents of identity politics simply reverse the claims of an earlier form of vulgar Marxist economism: they allow the politics of recognition to displace the politics of redistribution’.[7]Fraser sees recognition as offering a valuable path for liberation, in that it can map-out a way to overcome the institutional misrecognition of oppressed groups (the status model), (i.e. racial profiling, homophobia, the stigma attached to single mothers, etc.) without valorising the specificity of the group itself (the identity model). In confronting institutionalised discrimination, politics centred around recognition offer the possibility of seeing economic inequalities as barriers to full citizenship and participation in social life, tying the oppression of identity groups into questions around the distribution of and access to resources.

In this sense, identity politics is positioned in a variety of Marxist frameworks as ineffectual; as a politics founded on difference, it is inherently incapable of building the broad-based movement needed to destabilise capitalism. These arguments rely on seeing identity politics as not just historically linked to the neoliberal moment, but a manifestation of a neoliberal logic itself. Under the thesis that neoliberalism is not simply an economic moment, or set of economic policies, but a logic unto itself – turning ‘all conduct into economic conduct’[8] – identity politics has been understood as a configuration of this neoliberal rationality. Where neoliberalism economises previously non-economic spheres and practices, the human being now becomes human capital, and ‘is both a member of a firm, and itself a firm’.[9] Indeed, according to Feher, the primary distinction between the neoliberal subject and the subjects that preceded her is that homo economicus is now concerned with enhancing its portfolio value in all domains of life.

So how might identity politics figure into this idea of neoliberal rationality? For one, as the Foucauldian narrative goes, the hallmark of neoliberal reason is competition, the market’s root principle. Political collectivities formed around insular, demarcated (albeit frequently-changing) identities might therefore be conceived as groups competing for representative primacy and limited resources. As Adolph Reed[10] and Walter Benn Michaels[11] put it, on this model of identitarian liberation, capitalist society is faultless for as long as, within the 1% that controls 90% of all resources, there is a proportional representation of women, racial minorities, and LGBT people. Touré Reed’s interpretation identifies discourses which lead to groups like Black Lives Matter presenting racism in policing and prisons as somehow separate from capitalism.[12] While he chooses a media interview from a BLM activist, rather than the material the movement itself produces (which is quite explicit about the links between capitalism and prisons), his critique speaks to a wider trend in categorising prisons as a ‘race’ problem, and universal healthcare and free education as offering a class-reductionist approach to social injustice. Much of this critique, articulated by both Adolph Reed and Touré Reed, is linked to their frustration with anti-racism overlooking the ways in which the Bernie Sanders campaign disrupts neoliberal hegemony. While groups like BLM are dissatisfied with Sanders’s position on policing and prisons, their aforementioned critics consider the commitments to healthcare, education and other social-democratic policies as a fundamentally positive contribution to struggles for social, economic and racial justice. This conception of identity politics also opens it up to critique on the lines of strategy – whereby collectives organised around the principle of difference will be reduced to trying to win concessions under capitalism for the groups that they represent. Therefore, since political affiliations organised around differential identity brackets cannot confront capital or class, it ought to be dispensed with.

Brown identifies this sort of despair as part of a neoliberal logic, that market institutions are unassailable and that there is no prospect of change.[13] Rather, these critics see identity politics as itself a manifestation of class politics: the class politics of a‘professional-managerial class’ which does not seek to dismantle class structures – considering this either impossible, or perhaps even undesirable – but seeks instead to ensure the representation of minorities among the capitalist class. Replacing an analysis that situates capitalism at its heart, the root of systemic injustice in popular discourse is then increasingly relegated to the ahistorical and individualising domain of ‘intolerance’ and ‘prejudice’. It is then no surprise that the rise of this mode of political organisation and, most crucially, political imagination, happens through and alongside the dismantling of unions and of the possibility of envisioning an alternative to a world thoroughly marketised.

This is not to reject all forms of identity-based movements as unfortunate mistakes – or worse, ‘false consciousness’. Indeed, even these critics admit to there being a utility to identity politics when leveraged against the state for legal remedies – but the contestation is that this strategic, or operational, essentialism must be only that – it cannot contribute to a political vision of liberation, or even one that sees anti-racism and women’s liberation as part of a programme for social justice. In part the claim is that ascriptive identities (like race, gender, or sexual orientation) shift from being understood as, to extend Stuart Hall’s formulation, modalities through which class is ‘lived’ and experienced,[14] to attributes of individuals that attach to them. It becomes part of their ‘portfolio’, categorising individuals on the basis of what they are rather than what they do. In this sense, identity operates as a commodity, whereby the historical specificity of racism and sexism’s emergence through and alongside a capitalist mode of production is mystified.

The emergence of identity politics is therefore also embedded in the liberal-democratic state, and the ability to mobilise around gaining concessions or formal rights from it. These are, in the liberal-democratic framework, intended to translate into material and symbolic equality. The precondition for this collectivisation, however, is the claim that the collective group is oppressed and has been injured in some way. Brown cautions that this approach politicises identity by re-entrenching its own pain, and its continued success is contingent on not overcoming this pain; in other words, the collective identification is premised on a past exclusion rather than the capacity to imagine future liberation.[15] Nair goes further, saying that the ideal subject of neoliberalism is a subject of trauma, and that the corollary, in movements, is a culture of confessing one’s individual trauma, necessitating a certain personal experience and fulfilling a demand for authenticity that is seen to stifle organising rather than creating the conditions for solidarity and effective resistance.[16]

The question remains, however: given their predominance in the contemporary moment, can identitarian movements be a viable part of anti-capitalist political formations? What character would they take, if so? Can identity collectives be predicated on their own eventual destruction, or do they necessarily solidify the formations they seek redress for? It remains unclear whether they offer no meaningful interim reparation, or that the moment of their emergence necessarily precludes these movements from taking on an anti-capitalist character. Of course, a politics of identity that is simply an extension of liberal democracy, and only conceives of itself in those terms, ought to be dismissed outright as having any revolutionary prospect (and, it must be added, they have no pretensions of having any). And as Surin points out, there have been a number of historical struggles that confronted economic dispossession in a way that has centred gender- and race-analysis as core modes through which such dispossession has been made possible (such as the Zapatista movement in the Chiapas, or the Wages for Housework movement). Perhaps it remains most useful not to see identity movements as having supplanted class-based organising, but as a development that is itself structured by a continuing class conflict, regenerated by the financial crisis of 2008 and continued through the political crises of 2016. But if identity movements are to have anti-capitalist energy, the abolition of class and identity distinctions will have to be part of their vision for the future, the society that they struggle for.

The Identity Politics of Whiteness

The critique of identity politics in recent years has been shouted loudest by the Right. Reducing a range of struggles which decentre the West, or overtly problematise whiteness, to matters of ‘identity’ is used to dismiss critiques of European imperialism and its legacies. Yet, it is the identity politics mobilised by the Right which has seen Empire recaptured in the minds of Europe’s citizens most effectively. Take the UK referendum to remain or leave the European Union, as a case-in-point: we witnessed the evocation of Britishness, and by extension whiteness, as an identity, mobilised through a range of signifiers and symbols.

While Britain’s political establishment was somewhat divided on the issue, those in the Leave camp seized the moment, in an unmasking of their tacit racism which was shocking to some. When Barack Obama made a presidential visit to Britain, urging it to remain in the European Union, Boris Johnson, future Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, remarked that Obama holds Britain in contempt due to his Kenyan roots. Combining an acknowledgement of imperial crimes with the ongoing nostalgia for Empire itself was perhaps only shocking as far as it was directed at the head of the old Empire’s most successful legacy. Yet it is Brexit which provided the antidote to both Britain’s post-imperial melancholia and the political correctness (now apparently thrusted upon Britain from a European, rather than a darker outsider) which dampens its proud legacies. The popularity of this white identitarianism was not missed by the press, hoisting the far-right politician Nigel Farage to public stardom. Even the often-liberal Channel 4 News invited Farage into the studio to discuss Empire, as the living survivors of Britain’s gulags in 1950s Kenya forced their old colonial masters to publicly acknowledge their crimes. Neither lawyer nor historian, Nigel Farage’s sole purpose was to posit an identitarian position, reassuring viewers that ‘white British’ was an identity of which to be proud, and importantly, an identity under attack. Flip-flopping between post-colonial immigration threats and those from Continental Europe was, and remains, a seamless transition. Farage’s UKIP demonstrated this with their flagship advertising campaign, which identified the apparent failings of EU migration policy with an image of darker-skinned migrants who have come from beyond Europe’s borders, falsely implying that it is EU membership which leads to migrants from beyond Europe entering the UK.

But, of course, herein lies the power of identity politics – even the most basic level of consistency can be explained away, with Leave voters citing a range of xeno-racist explanations from their position. From the threat of ‘radical Islam’ or the job-seeking Europeans, to the ominous slogan ‘Take Back Control’, with clear echoes to the equally nostalgic ‘Make America Great Again’ being sung across the Atlantic. Interestingly, both Brexit and Trump were interpreted by many on the liberal-Left as being part of a working-class (read: white working-class) revolt. The conceit that the xeno-racist bigotry of Brexit/Trump is the preserve of the (white) working class is not particularly new to the common sense of the liberal establishment. But the platforms afforded to the extreme-Right by the liberal press, as citizens in both the US and Europe went to the ballot box, points towards an encouragement of such a (white) uprising (in times of working-class dissent, the liberal media affirmed a dangerous historical precedent that it is the Right which has the knowledge and the answers). While the complementary relationship between liberalism and white racism has long been documented,[17] it is within this political moment that far-right and fascist forces, emerging from Europe and North America’s capitalist class, were presented as something quite different. Studies following the election of Trump and the British referendum on Europe clearly indicate that working-class people, racialised as white, were not the primary demographic driving these reactionary electoral outcomes.[18] A complex mesh of educational attainment, property-ownership, public/private-sector work, age and, of course, race, appear to be stronger determinants as to the position taken in these battles over identity.

Further-cementing of the white politics of identity became apparent with Prime Minister Theresa May’s post-Brexit international tour. Visiting Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States, the Conservative government enthusiastically championed more migration between these historically aligned white-settler colonies. No longer a colonial favourite, South Africa was left off the list of former colonies with which Britain wished to maintain such close ties. And while Modi’s India has been widely praised by Britain’s political class, his proposal for skilled migrants to be afforded more-open access to a post-Brexit Britain was swiftly rejected. Consistent with the rhetoric around international migration, the greatest indicator of how the identity politics of whiteness remains wrapped up in establishment politics is perhaps its foreign policy. While some commentators speculated that Trump’s election could lead to isolationism on the part of America, US aggression in Syria and towards North Korea suggests otherwise. As Sai Englert points out in his analysis of identification with Israel and the Trump campaign in this special feature, even the rampant antisemitism of these white nationalisms has done little to deter white identities globally, which continue to mark the international fault-lines which facilitate the settler-colonial project taking place in what was formerly Palestine. Indeed, the violence of white nationalisms which have emerged across Anglo-America since the Trump–Brexit alliance began to take hold may well be reproduced on the international scale. This should perhaps come as little surprise, for a movement which relies so heavily on a whitened version of an imperial past.

Identity Politics and the International

Beyond the Anglo-American context within which the editors of this special feature are situated, identity politics has also been mobilised across the post-colonial world. Two key examples are the principal regional powers in Southern Africa and South Asia: South Africa and India. In India, the identity politics of Hindu nationalism has gone further in strengthening neo-colonial capitalism and repressing the darker masses. While the BJP espouses a nationalism that, it often argues, is anti-colonial, in its harking-back to a pre-colonial Hindu culture it has in fact re-entrenched neoliberalism. Constructing an identity politics, it has imposed a school curriculum promoting Sanskrit, but also the literature of the Hindu-nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh organisation and a patriotic ‘Defence Studies’ used to legitimise BJP reforms. Like the far-Right in Europe and North America, the BJP has blamed the inequalities of neoliberal capitalism on liberal elites which favour national minorities, such as Muslims.[19] Thus, neoliberalism continues to shape the political economy of the subcontinent, with its reproduction cemented, and resistance to it repressed, through a populist party defined by identity.

In South Africa, on which Richard Pithouse writes, identity politics is continually mobilised to promote a black capitalism which has left the vast majority of black South Africans as impoverished as they were during apartheid. The ANC’s shift towards a neo-colonial capitalism has been masked with a rhetoric championing a black capitalism. The rhetoric of the latter is demonstrated through BEE, the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Act of 2003, the promotion of economic transformation to ‘enable meaningful participation of black people in the economy’ (Section 2(a)). It has, however, only reached a thin layer of South Africa’s black population,[20] particularly those with close links to the ANC government.[21] For example, the ANC-aligned owners of the wine industry have used BEE to avoid land redistribution and improvements in worker conditions.[22] Moreover, a BEE deal involving state forests in Komatiland had to be cancelled after the recipient, Mcebisi Mlonzi, was accused of paying R55,000 to Andile Nkuhlu, chief-director of the Department of Public Enterprises, before the deal was sealed.[23]

Frantz Fanon grappled with the pitfalls of the post-colonial state, as the black bourgeoisie serviced the former colonial masters, manifested in the enduring presence of white monopoly-capital in South Africa. As Paul Gilroy puts it, anti-racism prescribes us the pious ritual in which we always agree that ‘race’ is invented but are then required to defer to its embeddedness in the world and to accept that the demand for justice nevertheless requires us to enter the political arenas that it helps to mark out.[24]

Yet, in attempting to overcome such a contradiction, he affirms that identity should be the basis for our politics, not our politics in-itself. Thus, it is being racialised as black, and all that it brings, that provides the basis for the radical anti-racist, anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist politics of social movements in South Africa, and many other post-colonial contexts. Navigating this strategic deployment of identity is urgent in both the under and over-developed worlds. But rather than making clear divisions between them, this Special Issue instead focuses on the genealogies of identities, their relationship with the state and the extent to which they can help or hindersolidarities.


This Special Issue is organised into three sections: genealogies, the state, and solidarity.


We begin with Marie Moran’s ‘Identity and Identity Politics: A Cultural-Materialist History’. Moran analyses the relationship between economic transformation and political struggle by following the changing meaning and application of the word ‘identity’ throughout the twentieth century. Moran argues that the emergence of the central role of identity in social and political practice is an outgrowth of particular social forces and pressures. In this context, prior to the 1950s identity was discussed only by a small group of philosophers and in a fundamentally different way to how it has emerged in popular culture since the 1950s. Identity politics in its more contemporary form arose in the second half of the twentieth century as a direct response to the inequalities of the postwar consumer boom. In short, through the changing articulation of ‘identity’ and its move, over time, from the political periphery to its core, ‘identity’ in its current expression is both specific to advanced capitalism and a historical novelty.

In March 2016, at the height of her campaign for the White House, Hillary Clinton effusively tweeted about the ‘complex, intersectional set of challenges’ faced by the United States. Whether it was Clinton herself or a high-priced social media strategist behind the tweet is neither here nor there; what is clear is that intersectionality is now part of popular parlance and hegemonic discourse. In ‘Intersectionality and Marxism: A Critical Historiography’, Ashley Bohrer situates the emergence and proliferation of intersectionality against and within a Marxist-Feminist framework. These debates have rested on the antagonism between Marxism, which tends to cast gender and race as secondary or epiphenomenal to class, and intersectionality, in which class remains underdeveloped or absent altogether. Ultimately, Bohrer locates capitalism as the source of modern class, gender, sexuality, and race-based systems of oppression but does not position class as the primary or privileged axis of oppression. As such, an intersectional Marxism is necessary to both understand capitalist exploitation and oppression and mobilise to overthrow it.

Hannah Proctor’s ‘History from Within: Identity and Interiority’ is best read as a critique of the critiques of identity politics. It aims to break with some of the conditional reflexes in debates over identity politics, in particular the assumption that considerations of subjective experience somehow invariably reify liberal individualism. In this kaleidoscopic approach, Proctor delves into twentieth-century psychological texts that preceded the ‘age of identity politics’, drawing on seemingly disparate experiences to draw out the distinction between identification, recognition, integration and subjectivity. Proctor argues against Fraser and others that individual psychology is indeed interwoven with identity – and thus social relations – suggesting that cognitive capacities correspond to externally-manifest social attributes and material conditions. Finally, Proctor critiques a normative impulse in Fanon via Moten, explaining this latter’s politics of non-identity, non-recognition and non-‘framing’ (as against identity politics through a demand for recognition). Ultimately, Proctor helps complicate the contemporary formations of identity by exploring the political importance of interiority. In doing so she breaks with the linear understanding of the relationship between the social and the psychological – asking how the social informs the psychic and how the psychic informs the social.

In ‘Afro-pessimism and the (Un)Logic of Anti-Blackness’ Annie Olaloku examines the formation and limitations of ‘anti-Blackness’ as a theory and a practice. Olaloku understands ‘Anti-Blackness’ in its Afro-pessimistic formulation. In this dominant variant, the basis for ‘anti-blackness’ is a uniform, transhistorical and universal racial hierarchy, and static categories with white people at the top and black people at the bottom. In this social order, proximity to whiteness determines one’s place on the ladder. Consequently, the charge of ‘anti-blackness’ is mobilised against non-black people of colour. The theory and its practice, Olaloku argues, emerged due to number of factors including the collapse of diverse political traditions represented in the black-liberation struggles of the 1960s and the separation between domestic (anti-racist) and international (anti-imperialist) resistance. Through historical analysis, Olaloku wrenches back the Black Panther Party and Franz Fanon from the pessimists, reclaiming them for revolutionaries. She uses Huey P. Newton’s concept of intercommunalism, with its conception of race as historically contingent and its aim to abolish race altogether, as a rejoinder to theories of Afro-pessimism. Ultimately, Olaloku intervenes in contemporary debates through a critique of the growing Afro-pessimism literature, in an attempt to revive the idea of racial solidarity and the possibility of revolutionary politics.

The State

In ‘Feminism Against Crime Control’ Koshka Duff addresses the tension between the struggle against sexual violence and seeking justice through the criminalising state. How can the power of the state – perhaps the biggest single perpetrator of sexual violence – be wielded against perpetrators of sexual violence? Are we condemned to be either rape apologists or state apologists? To answer this, Duff disrupts these entrenched battle-lines by exploring the work of Catharine MacKinnon – known as the most important theorist and advocate of ‘Governance Feminism’. Duff, in a similar vein to Chi Chi Shi’s paper, situates these debates within the current of ‘identity thinking’, whereby a critique of the carceral state can reproduce its logic– which relies on a clear victim/perpetrator binary – outside the state, leading Duff to highlight the need for a more complicated engagement with a multifaceted and contradictory state.

In ‘The State, Zionism and the Nazi Genocide’, Sai Englert interrogates the relationship between Jewish identity, Zionism and official Holocaust memory, as shaped by contemporary identity-politics discourse. Englert describes two distinct but overlapping formations of Jewish identity, one shaped by and for the needs of the settler-colonial state and another constructed through political contestation. Englert argues that despite the rationale of preventing antisemitism, state-led antisemitism has resulted in the Jewish community’s identification with Israel and Zionism and a whitewashed reading of the Nazi genocide that obscures the role of Western states and capital.

Richard Pithouse’s ‘Forging New Political Identities in the Shanty Towns of Durban, South Africa’ sets up two conflicting paths to political power in South Africa – accumulation via the state (authoritarian nationalism organised around forms of clientelism) and accumulation via the market (racial capitalism). However, notwithstanding this conflict between elites, the mandarins of the state and the proprietors of capital found common ground against popular movements. To support this claim, Pithouse takes us through a political history of post-apartheid South Africa and the discursive disjuncture between the articulation of ‘identity politics’ by political elites and the exercise of popular politics by counter-elites or ‘ordinary citizens’. The result has been a deepening fissure between party politics and popular politics, and between established trade-unions and social movements.


Peter Hudis’s ‘Racism and the Logic of Capital’ speaks to Fanon’s understanding of the production of race-class, and race taking on a life of its own. Rather than abandoning class analysis, Fanon expands it into a more relational understanding of society and change. The thesis that racism is ‘at the inner core of the dialectic of capital accumulation’ rests on two lines of argument: that capitalism emerged on the basis of the Atlantic slave-trade, and that the ensuing racism has had a unique impact on its victims by reaching down into a psychic level deeper than anything found in the relation between capital and labour. If the slave-trade is proof that racism is at the inner-core of capital, then the key question remains: can there be capitalism without racism, or was racism built into modern capitalism through certain historical events? Is racism truly essential to the operations of capital (on a par with the extraction of surplus-value), or rather is it a matter of contingent history? Alongside interrogating Fanon’s understanding of these questions, Hudis delves into Fanon’s critiques of the fixed and essentialising tendency of Negritude. Critically, Hudis’s article is an implicit argument against Afro-pessimist misreadings of Fanon and its relation to Marxism, and should be read as a companion to Annie Olaloku’s paper.

Lucy Freedman’s ‘A “Beautiful Half Hour of Being a Mere Woman”: The Feminist Subject and Temporary Solidarity’ observes the role of gender identity in addressing the contentious and seemingly-intractable debate over womanhood. Drawing on the poetry of Loy and experiences of gender-based activist groups, Freedman describes a world in which solidarity and identity have become antagonistic. Borrowing the concept of ‘soft abolitionism’, Freedman argues for a deeper analysis of temporality to find an alternative to the binarity of identity and identity-abolition. Freedman explores the relationship between class formation and gender-oppressed people, asking: when do women and others oppressed by gender move from being a mere collection of individuals sharing a common experience, toward a collective acting with shared interests to challenge and even abolish these categories? Freedman argues that a more malleable and temporary gender-identification could enable solidarity among women and gender-queer people. To Freedman, temporary gender-identification provides an answer to an impasse arising from long-standing contradictions in feminist politics – the tension involved in a choice between reifying gender or an undermining of its own basis for connecting subjects.

In recent years, debates over the political relevance of cultural appropriation have often served as a heated dividing-line between radicals and radical-liberals. In ‘Cultural Formation and Appropriation in the Era of Merchant Capitalism’, William Crane situates this question within the transition-to-capitalism literature to identify a place and time when the discourse of cultural appropriation went wrong. Crane historicises the emergence of cultural signifiers, taking the spice and textile trade of the Dutch United East India Company (VOC) and the slaves and sailors recruited by the VOC as early examples of cultural formation as a process of the appropriation of human labour. In this context, Crane argues, cultural appropriation is more appropriately understood as the cosmopolitanism of capital and labour.

Chi Chi Shi’s paper, ‘Defining My Own Oppression: Neoliberalism and the Demands of Victimhood’, addresses a central paradox of the form of identity politics that has grown out of neoliberalism, positing the question: ‘why do we look for recognition from the very institutions we reject as oppressive?’ To Shi, contemporary activist-circles maintain a contradictory position in their praxis. While ‘identity politics’ itself is derided, in practice identity, with its emphasis on experiential accounts of oppression, has become a barometer of legitimacy. ‘The collective’ conceived through intentional construction, as a product of agency and with a final aim towards dismantling the oppressions themselves, is now congealed through experiences of trauma produced by the structures of domination. From this, Shi unpacks how frameworks of ‘intersectionality’ – once introduced as a rejoinder to identity politics – have come to function as its new iteration. Here, differential identities are continually multiplied, flattened-out and naturalised in the name of representation and recognition – a process that sacrifices analytical depth for an unavailing form of breadth. The result of this political culture, organised ostensibly in opposition to these systems of oppression, is to make these social relations more durable.

At its core, the aim of this Special Issue is to intervene in what are make-or-break questions for the Left today. Specifically, we hope to provoke further interrogative but comradely conversation that works towards breaking down the wedge between vulgar economism and vulgar culturalism. We call for an intellectual and organisational embracing of the complexity of identity as it figures in contemporary conditions; being a core organising-principle of capitalism as it functions today, a paradigm that Leftist struggle can be organised through and around – and yet all with a recognition of the necessity of historicising, and ultimately abolishing, these categories along with capitalism itself.

Critically, this work is not new. Looking back at the legacies of our strongest points in history – from the Black Panthers, to Fanon, to radical queer interrogations of gender – we stand in a long tradition of reconciling the material and the symbolic as inextricable components of oppression today. We invite scholars and activists to review this history, and re-orient its questions to the present day. In particular, we invite people to engage with areas that we did not cover – particularly around the pressing issues of Islamophobia, sexuality and debates around digital technology and subjectivity.

Finally, this volume would not have been possible without the (often thankless) labour of dozens of scholars who served as blind peer-reviewers – we extend gratitude for their work.



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[1] Gould and Harrington 2016.

[2] Steve Bannon, quoted in Egan 2017.

[3] Surin 2009, p. 141.

[4] Surin 2009, pp. 142–6.

[5] Fraser 2000.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Brown 2015, p.10.

[9] Brown 2015, p. 34.

[10] Reed 2016.

[11] Benn Michaels 2008.

[12]Reed 2015.

[13] Brown 2015.

[14] Hall and du Gay (eds.) 1996, p. 51.

[15] Brown 2015.

[16] Kinnucan 2014.

[17] Césaire 2000.

[18] Bhambra 2018.

[19] Vanaik 2001, p. 55.

[20] Nattras and Seekings 2001, p. 66.

[21] Bond 2004.

[22] See Du Toit, Kruger and Ponte 2008.

[23] Gumede 2005, p. 296.

[24] Gilroy 1998, p. 842.