A Marxist Humanist Perspective

Peter Hudis
race and capital 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.

This piece is being made available as a preprint edition of the Race and Capital special issue of Historical Materialism. The final published version of this text will be made available on the Brill website in the coming months, we ask that citations refer to the Brill edition.

Issue 32(2&3): Race and Capital

To grasp the Black Dimension is to learn a new language, the language of thought, Black thought. For many, this new language will be difficult because they are hard of hearing. Hard of hearing because they are not used to this type of thought, a language which is both a struggle for freedom and the thought of freedom.

                                                                                  – Raya Dunayevskaya[1]

Marxism’s Contradictory Legacy on Race and Class

Few issues in radical theory are more contentious than the relation of race and class. It remains a largely unsettled one: some claim that prioritising issues of race diverts from building an anti-capitalist alternative, some contend it is inconceivable for such an alternative to arise without doing so, and others adopt positions that do not neatly fall into either view. But given the adage that history does not pose problems that are incapable of being solved, it is worth recalling that Marxists are not exactly new-comers to this debate.

This includes the work of Hubert Harrison, who challenged early twentieth century socialists to prioritise the fight against racism while encouraging the Garvey movement to embrace the class struggle; W.E.B. Du Bois, whose magisterial Black Reconstruction was deeply impacted by his engagement with Marx; Oliver Cromwell Cox, who held that ‘racial exploitation and race prejudice developed among Europeans with the rise of capitalism’[2] in the trans-Atlantic slave trade; and C.L.R. James, who argued for the independent validity of Black freedom struggles while upholding the perspective of proletarian revolution.

Nonetheless, efforts to overcome the binary of race and class have a fraught history.[3] While the U.S. Communist Party did important work in fighting racism, its slavish subservience to Moscow led it to oppose the Harlem and Detroit rebellions of 1943 on the grounds that ‘Negro rights should be considered secondary’ to the war effort. Nor was this an isolated case: the Stalinist denigration of anyone and anything that got in the way of the defence of the USSR led many Blacks to leave the communist movement, from Richard Wright and Harold Cruse to Aimé Césaire and George Padmore. True, some went in the other direction, like Claudia Jones and later Du Bois. But the Stalinists were not the only ones to be put to the test when it came to race: James faced intense opposition within the Trotskyist U.S. Workers’ Party because of its position that ‘Race consciousness is a reactionary doctrine…the general class oppression to which Negroes are subjected is identical with the exploitation of the white workers’.[4]

In the decades that followed, controversies over race and class engulfed virtually every tendency in the Western Left (for better or worse). The Civil Rights, Black Power, Feminist and LGBTQ movements inspired a series of important works on the relation of race, class and gender by such figures as Huey Newton, Angela Davis, and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, the development of whiteness studies by Theodore Allen, Noel Ignatiev, and Alexander Saxton, and writings by Cornell West, Manning Marble, Robin D. K. Kelly, and many others.

The consensus among most Marxists prior to the 1980s was that anti-Black racism arose with the birth of capitalism in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. This view has the virtue of countering ahistorical or biological explanations that ignore the economic and political formations responsible for the social construction of race and racism. But it hardly settles the question as to what explains the persistence of anti-Black racism after the abolition of slavery. Du Bois addressed this in pointing to job competition between white and Black workers as a factor in fostering white racism. But despite recent claims to the contrary, Du Bois was reluctant to commit to monocausal explanations of racism; he was even unconvinced that the ‘psychological’ wage gained by white workers at the expense of Blacks could explain the depth of race hatred that drove many of them to commit lynching and mass murder.[5]

The publication of Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism in 1983 marked a kind of watershed: his invocation of an often-neglected Black radical tradition and his discussion of the difficulty many Marxists face in incorporating an anti-racist agenda into a political tradition that prioritises class led many (including Robinson himself) to turn away from Marxism, even as others were inspired to turn anew to figures in the Black Marxist tradition that he discusses. Robinson’s argument that white racism precedes the birth of capitalism by many centuries helps explain this ambiguous legacy:[6] if racism and capitalism are not concomitants, why presume that the abolition of the latter will ever lead to the annulment of the former?

The outstanding decolonial theorist Sylvia Wynter addressed this as follows:

Both before and during the post-World War II global anticolonial and antiapartheid uprising […] Marx’s then prophetic-poetic emancipatory project had been, for so long, the only ostensibly ecumenically human emancipatory project around […] The result was that many of us had thought that what first had to be transformed, was, above all, our present free-market/free-trade mode of capitalist economic production exploitation system into a new socialist mode of production. The idea was that once this was done, everything else would follow [… including] our still ongoing, status-ordered hierarchically structured, world-systemic order of domination/subordination. This change was to automatically follow. It didn’t of course.[7]

Wynter makes an important point. There have been many efforts to create ‘a new socialist mode of production’ by transforming or abolishing the ‘free market’, but it would be hard to argue that they put an end to racial discrimination. Neither the Social Democratic welfare states, which sought to restrain the free market, nor ‘revolutionary’ regimes in the USSR, China or Cuba which got rid of it, can claim to have abrogated discrimination based on race and gender. The history of the past 100 years indicates that there is no assurance that targeting the ills of a market economy based on private ownership of the means of production translates into overcoming racialised ways of seeing and relating to others – especially since those who imbibe the norms of a racist society often includes progressive whites.

It can be argued that neither the Social Democratic nor Stalinist regimes created ‘a new socialist mode of production’ – and if they had, the changes that Wynter refers to would have ‘automatically followed’. But that begs the question – what must be done to create ‘a new socialist mode of production’ if restricting or abolishing ‘our present free-market/free-trade mode’ doesn’t suffice? This question is rarely asked: despite the growth of interest in socialist ideas in recent years, it is still generally taken for granted that ‘socialism’ equals public ownership of property and planned production and/or an enhanced welfare state that ‘fairly’ redistributes surplus value. Achieving this would surely be an advance worth fighting for, but it would not require uprooting the capitalist mode of production. Why then assume that racism would be seriously undermined on the basis of so narrow a vision of socialism?

Wynter’s comment raises the question: do the new means of production create the new humanity, or does the new humanity create the new means of production? If it is the latter, can a new humanity emerge without making the struggle against racism an absolute priority? And if so, how can antiracist perspectives be integrated into a rejuvenated Marxism that targets not merely capitalism’s inequitable forms of distribution but the logic of capital itself?

These questions are by no means alien to today’s social movements: they are called forth by them. This is evident from the massive protests against police abuse and for Black lives following the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, which brought over 20 million into the streets in the U.S. and hundreds of thousands in Latin America, Africa, and Europe. What was remarkable was not just the size but the form of the protests. Inspired (and often organised) by Blacks, Latinx, and Native Americans, they were multiracial and provided a forum for a host of voices – women speaking out against discrimination, immigrants opposing deportation, frontline workers deploring the lack of protection from COVID-19, transgendered activists opposing sexual violence, youth deploying lack of adequate education, etc. Most of all, it reshaped political discourse in the U.S. by bringing long-suppressed demands for police and prison abolition to the forefront of public discussion and debate.

What has played a huge in these developments has been mutual aid, which many assert is crucial in helping to prefigure human relations that point beyond the horizon of capitalism. One activist reports,

While the term ‘mutual aid’ is now used by many leftists as shorthand for (re)distributive activities, there is value in critically thinking through the term. Mutual aid can certainly address communities’ survival needs, but it should serve another purpose, i.e., to undermine the reification of transactional human relations under capitalism. As the desire for capital returns subsumes all aspects of our lives, the very institutions of care which this system relies upon begin to decay. This presents an opportunity for new forms of care-taking institutions to emerge, including those not based in patriarchal social relations.[8]

Another participant in mutual aid work states,

A common slogan amongst community organisers now is ‘mutual aid is solidarity not charity’. Non-profits and the state do not engage in mutual aid because mutual aid is necessarily about working outside the state and is anticapitalist […] Thus, mutual aid, abolition of police and militarism, abolition of capitalism, and decolonisation go hand in hand.[9]

Advocates of defunding police and prison abolition clearly have a tough road ahead, as witnessed by the pushback against such demands not only from the far-Right and neoliberals but also some sections of the radical Left.[10] Nevertheless, it is clear that those involved in these campaigns make no secret of their hostility to capitalism or that they identify as workers. Yet it is not the general class struggle that motivates them as much as capitalism’s thoroughly racialised nature. Mariama Kaba writes,

As a society, we have been so indoctrinated with the idea that we solve problems by policing and caging people that many cannot imagine anything other than prisons and the police as solutions to violence and harm. People like me who want to abolish prisons and police, however, have a vision of a different society, built on cooperation instead of individualism, on mutual aid instead of self-preservation. What would the country look like if it had billions of extra dollars to spend on housing, food and education for all? This change in society wouldn’t happen immediately, but the protests show that many people are ready to embrace a different vision of safety and justice.[11]

These voices pose a challenge to develop a rejuvenated Marxism that targets not merely capitalism’s forms of distribution but the logic of capital itself. But what might that involve?

Rethinking Marxism in Light of Racial Capitalism

An issue that is repeatedly raised in today’s anti-racist struggles is the notion that people of color have been written out of the social contract that grounds modern society. The expression ‘The Social Contract is Broken!’ has appeared in innumerable posters and graffiti and voiced in street protests and public assemblies. As Kimberly Jones stated in response to criticism of the riots that accompanied some of antiracist protests,

When they say, ‘Why do you burn down your own neighborhood?’, we say it’s not ours! We don’t own anything! There’s a social contact that we all have, that if you steal or if I steal, then the person who is the authority comes in and they fix the situation, but the person who is ‘fixing’ the situation is killing us. So, the social contract is broken! You broke the contract when you killed us in the streets, you broke the contract when for over 400 years we played your game, and built your wealth. They broke the contract.[12]

Such views were was hardly new; the conception that racism exposes the pretentions of the liberal social contract gores back to the work of Charles Mills and others.[13] It is worth re-examining such critiques in light of the challenges they pose to contemporary Marxist theory.

Contractual relations are integral to capitalism – especially wage labour. It takes the form of appearance of a contract. Mutual recognition takes place insofar as each party agrees to formally acknowledge the claims of the other. Such recognition is limited and superficial, since capitalists extend recognition to workers only insofar as they augment profit, while workers extend recognition to capitalists only insofar as they continue to employ them. But the seemingly contractual nature of wage labour is dispelled when we leave the market and enter the ‘hidden abode’ of production, where the despotic plan of capital reigns supreme.

What defines this despotic plan is the domination of ‘dead labour’ over ‘living labour’.  It is personified in the capitalist lording over the worker. But the capitalist is no more a self-acting agent than the worker, since he must bring commodities to market that are produced in accordance with the average amount of time in which it is necessary to do so. If the productive output fails to adhere to this time differential, he will fail to match the rate of profit of his competitors and risk being forced out of business. The despotic plan of capital, which appears as the domination of the capitalist over the worker, turns out to be governed by an impersonal force, abstract universal labor time.

What grounds and makes possible the ‘free market’ is therefore despotism in which individuals are subjected to a time-determination over which they have no control. Simply altering the terms of the contract (as by obtaining higher wages or a modification of working conditions), while surely beneficial, does not by itself point toward an exit from capitalism. The annulment of ‘market anarchy’ leads to a new society only if freely-associated relations are established in and outside the workplace in which ‘time becomes the space for human development’.[14] To be sure, the law of value is enforced by the personifications of capital – but they need not be private owners of labour power; state functionaries can perform the task as well. Marx’s critique of class society goes further than targeting property forms and exchange relations because his critique of alienated labour goes further than the economic structure of society. It targets its human relations.

To be sure, the Communist Manifesto states, ‘the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property’.[15] Abolishing bourgeois property right is the immediate object of critique since it is the precondition for a free association of the producers. However, an abolition of private property that leaves alienated labour intact brings forth not a new mode of production but a different variant of capitalism. Marx attacked the ‘crude and unthinking communists’ of his day because their ‘community is only a community of labour, and equality of wages paid out by communal capital – by the community as the universal capitalist’.[16] This identification of the community as the ‘universal’ or ‘abstract capitalist’,[17] following the elimination of individual capitalists is a remarkable anticipation of twentieth-century Social Democracy and Stalinism, as well as of non-statist cooperatives that fail to thoroughly transform alienated labour. Marx contends, ‘The relationship of the worker to labour creates the relation of it to the capitalist (or whatever one chooses to call the master of labour). Private property is thus the product, the result, the necessary consequence, of alienated labour, of the external relation of the workers to nature and to himself’.[18]

What holds for property is true of the ‘free’ market. Marx opposed the modern market economy because the condition of its possibility is a peculiar form of social labour. Concrete products of labour can be universally exchanged only if they contain a commensurate substance that is itself not concrete. This is not supplied by ‘labour,’ but by a specific kind of labour – abstract labour. Each moment of laboring involves performing concrete, differentiated tasks, but in capitalism labor has a dual character, since value is generated by physiological activity that assumes an abstract form in conforming to socially necessary labor time. The labor time that counts as socially necessary constantly shifts in response to contingencies, such as technological innovations that enable more to be made in less time. This is the basis of the dictatorship of capital, which defines even the most ‘democratic’ of capitalisms. As Marx put it, ‘The various proportions in which different kinds of labour are reduced to simple labour as their unit of measurement is established by a social process that goes on behind the backs of the producers’.[19]

It may seem that this has nothing to do with race. It may even appear that Marx’s theory of value contravenes any notion that race or racism is integral to the logic of capital, since the latter effaces difference and contingency in favor of abstraction and homogenisation. For example, while David Roediger takes issue with the claim of David Harvey and others that ‘race sits outside of the logic of capital’, he contends that Marx’s Capital falls short of ‘placing racial and national division within as well as outside’ its logic.[20] This does not mean that Roediger (and others who make similar criticisms) denies that Marx had important things to say about the connection between racism and capitalism. Like earlier twentieth-century Marxists, he highlights the importance of the section on ‘so-called primitive accumulation’ at the end of Capital, in which Marx calls ‘the conversion of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of Black skins’ one of the ‘chief moments of primitive accumulation’ of capital.[21] However, it is one thing to make the empirical claim (hardly controversial among most Marxists[22]) that the historical reflections found in the final section of Capital ties the birth of capitalism to the racism that defined the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and quite another to demonstrate that the delineation of the  value-theoretic categories in its earlier parts account for racial difference. The standard narrative – ranging from postcolonial theorists to Marxist capital-logic and value-form theorists – is that Marx’s presentation of the law of value in Capital completely abstracts from such concrete issues as race or gender.[23] Such claims cannot be dismissed out of hand; after all, the opening chapters of Volume One of Capital are written at a high level of abstraction. Yet if such claims are left unchallenged, it is hard to see how a new generation of antiracist activists and theorists will feel impelled to discover the wealth of insights found for today in Marx’s critique of political economy.

However, if instead of remaining at the phenomenal level of property forms and market relations Capital is approached in terms of its delineation of the time-determination that grounds capitalism, the relation between racism and the logic of capital appears in a different light. Central to this is chapter 10 of Volume One of Capital on ‘The Working Day.’ Here we find Marx’s famous declaration, ‘Labour in a white skin cannot emancipate itself where it is branded in a black skin.’[24] The statement has been heralded by many Marxists as a sign of Marx’s sensitivity to anti-Black racism while being downplayed by critics of Marxism as a rhetorical flourish that is undermined by his privileging the industrial proletariat as the ‘universal’ class that leads everyone else to liberation. What tends to be overlooked by many on either side of the debate is that the chapter on the Working Day was not composed until 1866, shortly before the publication of Volume One; no version of it appears in the earlier drafts of Capital.[25] This indicates that the impact of the U.S. Civil War, climaxed by Blacks fleeing the plantations in what Du Bois called nothing less than a ‘mass general strike’,[26] finally led Marx to devote a chapter of his greatest theoretical work to the question ‘when does my working day begin and when does it end?’

In documenting that Marx restructured Capital on the basis of the impact of the events during in the U.S. during the Civil War, Dunayevskaya noted,

It sounds fantastic to say that until 1866 Marx had not worked out the seventy pages on the Working Day […] That Ricardo didn’t concern himself with the working day is understandable because he evaded the whole problem of the origin of surplus value. That the socialists, from the utopians through Proudhon and Lassalle, were not weighted down by this problem is explained easily enough since they were too busy with their plans to ever study the real workers’ movement. But for Marx, who had never once taken his eyes off the proletarian movement, not to have a section on the Working Day in his major theoretical work seems incomprehensible.[27]

Marx himself argued that ‘so long as the determination of value by working time is itself left “undetermined”, as it is with Ricardo, it does not make people shaky. But as soon as it is brought exactly into connection with the working day and its variations, a very unpleasant new light dawns upon them’.[28] Marx explicitly states in chapter 10 that the freedom struggles of former Black slaves is such a new stage in the fight for freedom that it inspired white workers to take up the fight for an eight-hour workday, as witnessed by the formation of the General Congress of Labour in August 1866 in Baltimore. It wasn’t the struggles of the industrial proletariat that paved the way for the emancipation of Black slaves; on the contrary, it was the self-activity of former Black slaves that breathed new life into a previously dormant class struggle.[29]

This had Marx’s ear, and it led him to incorporate issues of race and racism into his critique of capital on a level that is not found in his earlier work.[30] He calls attention to,

Time for education, for intellectual development, for the fulfillment of social functions, for social intercourse, for the free play of the vital forces of his body and his mind […] in its blind and measureless drive [capital] usurps the time for growth, development and healthy maintenance of the body…. Capital asks no questions about the length of life of labor power. What interests it is purely and simply the maximum of labor power that it can set into motion in a working day. It attains this objective by shortening the life of labor power, in the same way as a greedy farmer snatches more produce from the soil by robbing it of its fertility’.[31]

A page later he writes,

It is accordingly a maxim of slave management, in slave-importing countries, that the most effective economy is that which takes out of the human chattel in the shortest space of time the utmost exertion it is capable of putting forth. It is in then tropical culture, where annual profits often equal the whole capital of plantations, that Negro life is most recklessly sacrificed. It is the agriculture of the West Indies, which has been for centuries prolific of fabulous wealth, that has engulfed millions of the African race.[32]

Marx here poses race-based slavery in the Americas as internal to the dynamics of capital accumulation, which hinges on extracting the greatest amount of surplus value in the fewest hours of time. And he is indeed referring to surplus value – not simply a surplus product of use-values, since he invokes ‘annual profits’ based on ‘the capital of plantations.’ Moreover, Marx infers that the American system of race-based slavey is not an archaic hangover of a precapitalist past that impedes the development of a ‘higher’ and ‘more efficient’ mode of production, since he calls it ‘the most effective economy’ when it comes to maximising profits. If this is often overlooked, it is because it is easy to conflate Marx’s discussion of precapitalist slave modes of production – in which labour power is not commodified and production is aimed at augmenting use-values instead of exchange value – with the form assumed by slavery in the Americas, which was integral to the accumulation of capital based on a global division of labor.

This conflation defines an otherwise engaging essay by Walter Johnson, in which he asks, ‘What does Marx say about capitalism and slavery? – there can only be on answer: slavery in Marx is not properly speaking, “capitalist”’.[33] Johnson invokes as his authority the outdated and much criticised work of Eugene and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, who tended to conflate race-based slavery in the Americas with generic slave modes of production.[34] Yet in the 1863-64 draft of Capital – by no accident penned in the midst of the U.S. Civil War – Marx writes,

In the second type of colonies – plantations – where commercial speculations figure from the start and production is intended for the world market, the capitalist mode of production exists, although only in a formal sense, since the slavery of Negroes precludes free wage-labour, which is the basis of capitalist production. But the business in which slaves are used is conducted by capitalists. The method of production which they introduce has not arisen out of slavery but is grafted on to it. In this case the same person is capitalist and landowner. And the elemental existence of the land confronting capital and labour does not offer any resistance to capital investment, hence none to the competition between capitals.’[35]

Johnson rightly asks, ‘If slavery was not capitalist how do we explain its commercial character’.[36] Clearly, if American slavery was not capitalist we could not account for its commercial character. But Marx never denied that capitalism existed prior to industrial capitalism, even though the latter was the focus of his critique.[37] The ‘excrescence of money changers and cotton factors in southern cities who yearly handled millions and millions of pounds of foreign exchange’ and ‘the thriving slave markets at the centre of their cities where prices tracked those that were being paid for cotton thousands of miles away’,[38] which Johnson says demonstrates the commercial character of U.S. slavery, did not signify for Marx (unlike Fox-Genovese) that U.S. slavery was exogenous to capitalism. To be sure, there is no capital without wage labour, and no wage labour without capital; a society exclusively defined by slave labour is not and cannot be capitalist. However, nothing prevents slave labour, especially in its most racialised forms, from augmenting capital in a society whose ‘general creative basis’[39] is wage labour. Roman slavery could neither create nor augment capital because the conditions of generalised wage labour did not exist. American slavery could and did augment capital since it operated in the context of a capitalist world market in which wage labour generally prevailed as its ‘creative basis’.[40] The same goes for racialised forms of violent social control that followed the end of chattel slavery.

Curiously, neither critics of Marxism such as Johnson, nor Marxists like Roediger – both of which have done vital work in recording and analysing the pivotal role played by racial classification and differentiation in the development of U.S. society – single out that Marx restructured Capital on the basis of Black freedom struggles during the Civil War which informed the writing of the chapter on the Working Day. Could this result from not considering the chapter as part of the essence of Marx’s analysis of capital? But if so, why not? Why consider Marx’s effort to theorise from the standpoint of the lived experience of the worker who lacks ‘time for education, for intellectual development, for the fulfillment of social functions, for social intercourse, for the free play of the vital forces of his body and his mind’ to be less important than his more ‘abstract’ discussion of the relative and equivalent forms of value, the relation surplus value and profit, and the difference between absolute and differential ground rent? If Marxism is a theory of liberation – and what is it if it is not – then Capital’s most outstanding characteristic is that Marx analyses the most abstract forms of domination without taking his fingers off of the pulse of human relations.[41]

The Czech Marxist Humanist Karel Kosik spoke to this when he stated that Marxism is not merely a theory of class struggle but a ‘philosophy of everyday life, a philosophy of ordinary relationships among people […] It not only analyses the movements of large historical entities, such as classes and nations, but also provides answers to the individual’s questions – about the meaning of life, and the contents and prospects of his efforts’.[42] And what is more meaningful to human life than whether or not we have control of our time? Kosik writes, ‘Man knows his mortality only because he organises time, on the basis of labor as objective doing and as the process of forming socio-human reality. Without this objective doing in which man organises time into a future, a present, and a past, man could not know his totality’.[43] Kosik held that achieving the socialisation of the means of production requires developing new human capacities attained in the struggle against dehumanisation. Du Bois and others in the Black radical tradition were attentive to such a notion in singling out the political and philosophical significance of the ‘simple’ act of tens of thousands of Black slaves walking off the plantations in the 1860s.

Yet the question remains – can the defining concepts of Marx’s theory of value, especially the ever-increasing domination of concrete labor by abstract labor, account for social differentiations that are integral to racial oppression? Roediger doubts that it can, based on Lisa Lowe’s view that, ‘In the U.S., capital has maximised its profits not through rendering labor ‘abstract’ but precisely through the social productions of difference […] marked by race, nation, geographical regions, and gender.’[44] Roediger concludes from this (as does Michael Lebowitz) that ‘divisions among the working class, specifically racism and sexism, do not appear as part of the essence of capital in Marx’s Capital’.[45] But this appears to rest on a misunderstanding of the concept of abstract labor. What ‘makes labor abstract’ is adhering to socially necessary time: labor becomes ‘homogenous’ insofar as it conforms to a universal time determination, as represented by the ticking of the factory clock. And it is precisely this which accentuates differences between workers: some adhere to the average, others do not; the latter are sooner or later dispensed with and/or deprived of the benefits that others possess, since in capital’s view any hour of labor performed in excess of the social average (which is communicated to the agents of social production through the laws of competition) creates no value. There are many reasons why some enterprises conform to the dictates of socially necessary labor time better than others: it could be the quantity and quality of labor-saving devices, the skill or education of the workers, the level of social cohesion among workers that enables them to resist overwork and speed-up, etc. Although an array of contingencies determines whether or not enterprises follow the law of value, they are compelled to follow this singular law.

Race and gender play a critical role in this. If making use of socially-inscribed differences can pump out greater output in less relative units of time, so much the better from capital’s standpoint. The utilisation and reproduction of difference poses no barrier to the homogenising power of abstract labor, so long as they meet the requirements of value production. It is one reason that the majority of factory workers in the world today are young women – gender discrimination tends to lower wage rates while expending the bodies and lives of young women boosts profit rates. It is also why capital sees to it that Blacks are the last hired and first fired – racial discrimination acts as a disciplinary agent in forcing greater output from the most marginalised while enabling many white workers to feel relatively privileged even as they come under increasing pressure from capital’s time constraints. Capital relies no less on the reproduction of national and ethnic difference – as in employing immigrant workers speaking over a dozen different languages in a single enterprise (as in many meatpacking plants in the U.S.) in order to make it harder for them to come together to fight for better conditions. There is nothing in Marx’s concept of abstract labor that suggests that all concrete laboring activities become the same or that social differentiations become washed away. On the contrary, abstract labor in Marx’s theory as well as in life is productive of difference. In this sense, Roediger is correct in writing, ‘we have too often forgotten [John R.] Common’s suggestion that the hurrying and pushing could be chronically infected by playing races against each other.’[46] We need only add that this ‘hurrying and pushing’ is part and parcel of the disciplinary power of socially necessary labor time, which serves as the inner core of Marx’s theory of value and surplus value.

Claims that Marx’s concept of abstract labor fails to account for racial differentiation may be due, in part, to a passage in the Communist Manifesto that states with the progressive development of capitalism ‘national differences and antagonisms between peoples are daily more and more vanishing […] the supremacy of the proletariat will cause them to vanish still further’.[47] This naïve modernist optimism was clearly unjustified, as Marx himself came to realise in subsequent years as he paid greater attention to the persistence of national antagonisms, both in Europe and the Americas.[48] Yet his discussion of this issue in the Manifesto has nothing to do with the concept of abstract labor, which he did not even begin to formulate until a decade later.

To be sure, the chapter on the Working Day has a limited scope – it comes under the discussion of absolute surplus value. Hence, the struggles for a shorter working day involve ‘demand[ing] the value of my commodity;[49] they do not in and of themselves lead to the abolition of commodity production. But since bringing ‘the productive process under their common control by their associated reason’ depends upon workers having the time for ‘intellectual development [and] sociable intercourse’, for Marx struggles over the working day are on a much higher level than ‘the pompous catalogue of the ‘inalienable rights of man’.[50]

This is not to suggest that Marx’s delineation of the logic of capital does our work for us: he only occasionally makes explicit the relation of race and gender to capital accumulation and never developed a specifically Marxian theory of racialisation. Doing so is a task that falls to our generation. Hence, the critical issue is not what Marx said at a certain point of time as much as whether the concepts found in his critique of the capitalist mode of production can help make sense of the realities of our time – if, that is, we take the trouble of thinking them out to their logical conclusion. The task is hardly facilitated by the a priori assumption that concepts like abstract labor and socially necessary labor time efface difference and contingency.[51]

In critiquing the dehumanisation involved in being subjected to an abstract time determination, Marx’s critique of political economy takes issue with the form of social praxis which defines modern life. This is what enables his body of thought, when ‘stretched’ to deal with the realities of our time, to address the dialectical relation between race and class. As Sekyi-Otu argues,

Marx’s call for the transcendence of alienation would therefore not call for the liberation of humanity from time […] as Herbert Marcuse once envisioned, but the liberation of time, ‘time set free’, is the only goal consistent with Marx’s social ontology […] Would Fanon question the prominence here assigned to time in the poetics of human existence? Quite likely not’.[52]

Indeed! As Fanon himself put it, ‘every human problem must be considered from the standpoint of time’.[53]

Race, Class and Recognition Today

The work of Frantz Fanon continues to be a beacon because of the depth of his grasp of the psychological as well as economic-political impact of racism and colonialism.[54] This is evident from his discussion of the ‘zone of non-being’ that grounds his critical encounter with Hegel’s dialectic of self-consciousness in Black Skin, White Masks. It has much to say to efforts to pose an alternative to the racist social contract that defines much of modern life.

Elsewhere I have detailed Fanon’s critique of Hegel’s so-called ‘master/slave’ dialectic in Black Skin, White Masks.[55] ‘So-called’, since strictly speaking there is no ‘master/slave’ dialectic in Hegel. The German terms are Herrschaft and Knechtschaft, which translate as Lordship and Bondage; this is how it is rendered in most English translations of the Phenomenology of Spirit (the German term for slave, Sklave, appears nowhere in the book).[56] It became known as ‘Master’ and ‘Slave’ due to the French translation by Jean Hyppolite, which rendered Herr and Knecht[57] as ‘maître’ and ‘esclave’. Alexandre Kojève, a major influence in post-war French thought, historicised this ‘master/slave’ dialectic and claimed it as the central theme of Hegel’s Phenomenology as a whole. His interpretation has been widely challenged,[58] since for Hegel ‘Lordship and Bondage’ refers to a particular stage of self-consciousness in which one side gains superiority over the other in a battle for recognition. It does not refer to a stage of actual history, let alone the slavery of his time. This is no scholastic matter: if Hegel is referring to actual masters and slaves, the fact he never mentions Black slavery would suggest that his racist writing of Africans out of history in his Philosophy of History[59] defines his delineation of the stages of consciousness in the Phenomenology. Achille Mbembe reads Hegel along these lines:

Hegel’s reasoning proceeds as follows: my life is particularity; my particularity is totality; my totality is consciousness; and my consciousness is life. Self-consciousness, the knowing of itself, self-identity: all this is raised up to the status of ‘native realm of truth’. Difference has no being, or, if it has, then only as the reverse of everything that I am, as error, folly – in short, the ‘objective negative’. All that counts is the motionless tautology of ‘I am I’.[60]

The ‘my’ here obviously refers to the standpoint of whites. But this hardly does justice to Hegel’s text. Dialectical movement in Hegel proceeds through difference, not at its expense; identity for Hegel is the identity of identity and non-identity. The notion that ‘my consciousness is the totality of consciousness’ is refuted from the initial chapter on sense-certainty, which shows that apprehension of particulars depends upon universal categories that are not reducible to the individual. And ‘the motionless tautology of ‘I am I’ is not Hegel’s position but rather Fichte’s, which is critiqued throughout the Phenomenology.

There is no question of Hegel’s racism and Eurocentrism: his banishing of Africa from history expresses a racist mindset that places Europe at the apex of human development.[61] But it is not his delineation of the stages of consciousness in the Phenomenology of Spirit that explains his racism, but rather his uncritical acceptance of racist stereotypes which prevents him from positing Black experience and reason as part of its dialectical movement.[62]

Fanon did not read German, so he accessed the Phenomenology through the lens provided by Hyppolite and Kojève. But unlike Kojève, he did not try to apply the ‘master/slave’ dialectic to contemporary realities. On the contrary, he denied any such application.[63] This is because Hegel asserts that the bondsman obtains a ‘mind of his own’ in the struggle for recognition. In contrast, Fanon holds that in the real world of racial capitalism no such recognition is granted to people of color. As a result, the Black slave ‘is less independent than the Hegelian slave… Here the slave turns toward the master and abandons the object’.[64]

Fanon’s critique of Hegel’s ‘master/slave’ dialectic did not lead him to reject Hegel tout court. At several junctures he defends Hegel against Jean-Paul Sartre, who called the anti-racist struggle a ‘minor term’ that must eventually give way to the ‘universal’ class struggle. Fanon writes, ‘For once this friend, this born Hegelian, had forgotten that consciousness needs to lose itself in the might of the absolute, the only condition for attaining self-consciousness’.[65] Despite Fanon’s critique of Hegel, he affirms Hegel’s dialectical conception that ‘negativity draws its value from a virtually substantial absoluity’.[66] Much like Marx, Fanon attacks Hegel’s failure to affirm the subjective forces that can uproot alienation while adhering to Hegel’s notion that freedom is attained through a dialectic of negativity.

When Hegel is read through the eyes of Fanon, an often-overlooked aspect of Hegel comes to light – namely, no sooner does Hegel say the bondsman gains ‘a mind of his own’ than he says this constitutes ‘only stubbornness’ since it has not overcome the gap between its subjectivity and an unfree objective world.[67] Misrecognition, not recognition, is the outcome of the dialectic of self-consciousness. Genuine recognition only begins to be reached much later in the Phenomenology, in the section ‘Spirit Certain of Itself’.

Fanon did not comment further on the Phenomenology, so it is unclear how familiar he was with the rest of the book. But his work after the publication of Black Skin, White Masks has some fascinating parallels with later parts of the Phenomenology. In ‘Spirit Certain of itself’, Hegel goes beyond an encounter between two individual self-consciousnesses by posing recognition in terms of a political community based on a social contract. Through the latter, the universal becomes united with individual existence. In entering into contract, I ‘externalise’ myself in relation to others, and thereby ‘establish’ myself as an objective being.

Hegel proceeds to show that what binds the individual to the political community is confession. Catherine Malabou writes, “Confession, according to Hegel, is nothing private, secluded from the political sphere. On the contrary, it is a political achievement. Confession is the postcontractual expression of the will.”[68] Although I accept the social contract, the general will confronts me as an external imposition. This produces a sense of unease which is part of the alienation that defines modern life. Malabou adds, “In modern society…the individual does not recognise itself in the community that it is nevertheless supposed to have wanted. She is nonrecognised by her own recognition; she is outside herself, in an alien spirit. The individual is ‘alienated from itself.’”[69] Confession is way to resolve this contradiction. Confessing to a transgression of the social contract and asking forgiveness for doing so reconciles the individual to the spiritual community. Recognition now seems possible.[70] However, what happens if you are not considered part of the social contract to begin with? If that is the case, you do not exist, strictly speaking, as a social being: you are a non-person, who inhabits a ‘zone of nonbeing’.

Hegel’s discussion may seem to have little to do with Fanon – and even less with the relation between race and class. Nevertheless, in The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon writes,

The question of truth must also be taken into consideration. For the people, only fellow nationals are ever owed the truth. No absolute truth, no discourse on the transparency of the soul can erode this position. In answer to the lie of the colonial situation, the colonised responds with a lie. Behavior toward fellow nationalists is open and honest, but strained and indecipherable toward the colonists. Truth is what hastens the dislocation of the colonial regime.[71]

The lie of the colonial situation is the claim to treat the colonised as human by ‘including them in civilisation’, even though the colonised knows they are not treated that way at all. Yet no confession or guilt is expressed on the part of the colonised: they respond to the lie of the colonist with one of their own. In a psychiatric paper that has recently become available, ‘Conducts of Confession in North Africa’, Fanon explores why victims of colonialism often refuse to confess to crimes they are guilty of. The reason, he says, is that confession depends on a contractual relation – which is absent in a colonial context. He writes, “I confess as a man and am sincere. I also confess as a citizen and I validate the social contract.”[72] Confession depends upon prior recognition: “There can be no reintegration if here has been no integration.”[73] In remaining silent and refusing to confess, it seems that the colonised submits to authority, but they are actually expressing resistance to a society that leaves them out of the social contract.[74]

Those who seek to gain recognition by refraining from such resistance fall victim to an inferiority complex – expressed in the colonised trying to ‘become white’. But since this proves ultimately futile, the only way out is to tarry with the negativity inherent in racial discrimination by reaching for what Fanon called a ‘new Humanism’.[75] Since victims of racism have weaker ties to juridical relations, they can go beyond calls for a fairer distribution of the products of labour by questioning the dehumanised character of life itself. Working-class Blacks experience dehumanisation in its starkest form and therefore have less of a stake in its continuance.[76] In this spirit, Fanon addressed himself to the ‘wretched of the earth’ who truly have nothing to lose but their chains.

This does not mean that he overlooked class.[77] He states in another psychiatric paper,

Labour was conceived as forced labor in the colonies, and even if there is no whipping, the colonial situation itself is a whipping: what the colonised does nothing is normal, since labor, for him, leads to nothing. Labour must be recovered as the humanisation of man. Man, when he throws himself into work, fecundates nature, but he fecundates himself also.[78]

Fanon’s treatment of these issues speaks directly to contemporary realities. Today the relentless pressure of socially necessary labour time is reducing the proportion of living to dead labour as never before through labor-saving devices. This does not make the working class superfluous, since expanded reproduction depends not just on the production but also the realisation of surplus value. A host of new occupations open up to ensure the latter (information technology, multiple forms of service work, etc.). At the same time, whole arenas of the economy (such as teachers and government workers) are becoming increasingly proletarianised.

While claims that capitalism will ‘abolish’ labour have long been specious, capital will continue to displace workers. What are its ultimate consequences? Surely not the ‘annulment’ of the law of value, which is driving the process. Surely not the collapse of capitalism due to over-investment in technology. Dead labour cannot serve as the emancipatory alternative; only live human beings can uproot a system based on abstract forms of domination. But what forces might they be, and do they have the potential to overcome capital’s march to self-destruction?

This is addressed in one of Fanon’s last psychiatric writings, which explores the difference between the relaxed attitude toward time on the part of North Africans versus the objectified notion of time that prevails in Western societies:

Being a good worker means you have had no trouble with the time clock. The workers’ relations with the apparatus are strict, timed. For the worker, to be on time means being at peace with the time clock. The moral notion of guilt is introduced here. The time clock prevents and limits the endemic guilt of the worker. For the boss, the time clock is indispensable. As the time clock is continually present, it introduces a number of specific conducts into the worker. It represents the overall apparatus that employs the worker. Before the time clock, the worker had the possibility to apologise; from now on, the worker is constantly rejected in the solitude with the impossibility of persuading the employer about his good faith.[79]

The worker felt guilt, and ‘apologised’ – she confessed – for not keeping pace with the clock. Guilt arises from broken contract – from a debt that remains to be paid. As a wage labourer, the worker is part of the social contract, but it still confronts her as an ‘alien spirit’. She tries to transcend this alienation by confessing to not keeping pace with the clock. But what sets the pace of the clock? Not the boss. Not even the company. The clock is set according to the dictates of value production – the drive to conform to the socially necessary labour time that it takes to produce a commodity on the world market. No matter who you are, worker or capitalist, the law of value confronts you as a person apart, as an ‘alien spirit’.

As a result, the effort to achieve reconciliation with the political community breaks down – as does the quest for recognition in the earlier section on self-consciousness in the Phenomenology of Spirit. This is because capitalism is governed by an abstract form of domination, abstract universal labour time, which can hear no apology. There can be no recognition between an individual and an impersonal time determination that employs them. The more abstract becomes capital’s dominance, as all aspects of work and everyday life are compelled to conform to socially necessary labour time, the harder it is to achieve even the pretense of formal recognition. In a word, the logic of capital ultimately undermines its contractual form of appearance.

We are living in an era defined by this phenomenon. It has serious consequences for class politics and identity politics. No longer can workers obtain even the pretense of recognition on the basis of their job, career, or place of employment, which constantly shifts as labour becomes less secure and more precarious. At the same time, today’s concentration and centralisation of capital tends to produce not a compact and unified working class but a highly differentiated and variegated one employed (or underemployed) in multiple arenas. Atomisation and isolation become ever more ingrained, producing a deep sense of loss and anxiety in the body politic.

However, many who experience these increasingly precarious conditions but are not invested in blaming other oppressed people for their distress tend to become energised by anti-racist struggles. As recognition based on class relations is undermined, it is only to be expected that it will be sought in other sources – such as race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, etc. As capitalism deprives recognition to those who once received it on a minimal level, some become moved to identify with those to whom recognition has long been denied on any level.[80] This is reflected in the large numbers of white youth who were galvanised for the first time into political activism by the Black Lives Matters protests of the past several years. Battles over race, gender, and sexuality increasingly serve as the catalyst for bringing a differentiated and dispersed working class onto the streets. We may be witnessing something like this today, with the emergence of new kinds of multiracial working-class struggles.

In sum, while the proletariat remains the universal class, insofar as no other class is capable of resolving the contradictions of civil society, it is not the universal subject. There are multiple forces of revolution, and which one plays the decisive role at any point depends on an array of conditions that cannot known in advance. What we do know is that around the world today it is not the general class struggle but the specificity of battles around gender, race and sexuality in the class struggle that are increasingly at the leading edge of mass resistance.

Overcoming the binary of race and class depends on developing a critique of capitalism that focuses on resistance to the dehumanisation that defines modern society.[81] Marxism is a revolutionary humanism or it is nothing. The point is not to argue over whose oppression is more or less important than another’s, but to hear how each force contains within itself the capacity to reach for a new society freed from a lifeworld in which human relations take on the form of relations between things. As Louis Lavelle wrote long ago,Philosophy and life only have a serious character on the condition that the Absolute is not before me and outside of me as an inescapable goal, but on the contrary is in me and that in that I trace my furrow’.[82]


Adamson, Alyssa 2020. ‘Mutual Aid is Abolition Work’, Workshop of Defund Chicago Police, 25 November.

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

Banaji, Jairus 2020, A Brief History of Commercial Capitalism, Chicago: Haymarket.

Bernasconi, Robert 2020, ‘Fanon’s French Hegel’ in Violence, Slavery and Freedom Between Hegel and Fanon, edited by Ulrike Kistner and Philippe Van Haute, Johannesburg: Witts University Press.

Cox, Oliver Cromwell 1970 [1948], Caste, Race, and Class: A Study in Society Dynamics, New York: Modern Reader.

Dawson, Michael C. 2013. Blacks In and Out of the Left. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Denby, Charles 1989, Indignant Heart: A Black Workers’ Journal, Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Du Bois, W.E.B. 1992 [1935], Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880, New York: The Free Press.

Dunayevskaya, Raya 1985. ‘The Black Dimension in Women’s Liberation’ in Women’s Liberation and the Dialectics of Revolution: Reaching for the Future. Atlantic Highlands NJ: Humanities Press, pp. 49-52.

Dunayevskaya, Raya 2000 [1958], Marxism and Freedom, from 1776 Until Today, Amherst, NY: Humanity Books.

Fanon, Frantz 2004 [1961], Wretched of the Earth, translated by Richard Philcox. New York: Grove Press.

Fanon, Frantz 2008 [1952], Black Skin, White Masks, translated by Richard Philcox. New York: Grove Press.

Fanon, Frantz 2018a [1955], ‘Conducts of Confession in North Africa (I)’ in Alienation and Freedom, edited by Jean Khalfa and Robert L.C. Young. London: Bloomsbury.

Fanon, Frantz 2018b [1955], ‘Conducts of Confession in North Africa (II)’ in Alienation and Freedom, edited by Jean Khalfa and Robert L.C. Young. London: Bloomsbury.

Fanon, Frantz 2018c [1959], ‘The Meeting Between Society and Psychiatry’ in Alienation and Freedom, edited by Jean Khalfa and Robert L.C. Young. London: Bloomsbury.

Frost, Amber A’Lee 2021. ‘The Trouble with Mutual Aid’, Jacobin Show, 3 February, available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mZLKYG2DgPM.

Genovese, Eugene 1974, Roll, Jordon, Roll, New York: Pantheon Books.

Gibson, Nigel C. and Robert Beneduce 2017, Frantz Fanon, Psychiatry and Politics. London: Rowman & Littlefield.

Gilroy, Paul 1993, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, London and New York: Verso.

Goodwin, Jeff, ‘Black Reconstruction as Class War’, Catalyst 6 (1), pp. 53-98.

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

Hegel, G.W.F. 1956 [1837], The Philosophy of History, translated by J. Sibree, New York: Dover.

Hegel, G.W.F. 1977. Phenomenology of Mind, translated by A.V. Miller. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Hegel, G.W.F. 2018, Phenomenology of Spirit, translated by Terry Pinkard, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hogan, Brandon 2018, ‘Frantz Fanon’s Engagement with Hegel’s Master-Slave Dialectic’ in Africology: The Journal of Pan African Studies, 11, 8: 16-32.

Hudis, Peter 2013. Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism. Chicago: Haymarket.

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

Hudis, Peter 2018. ‘Racism and the Logic of Capital: A Fanonian Reconsideration’, Historical Materialism, 26, 2: 199-220.

Hudis, Peter 2021. ‘A Troubled Legacy: Rosa Luxemburg and the Non-Western World’ in Creolizing Rosa Luxemburg, edited by Drucilla Cornell and Jane Anna Gordon. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Issar, Siddhant, Brown, Rachel H., and McMahon, John 2021, ‘Rosa Luxemburg and the Primitive Accumulation of Whiteness’ in Creolizing Rosa Luxemburg, edited by Jane Anna Gordon and Drucilla Cornell, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Jeong, Seong, 2020, ‘Engels’ Concept of Alternatives to Capitalism’, paper presented to Conference on ‘Friedrich Engels – Die Aktualität eines Klassikers’, Wuppertal, Germany.

Johnson, Walter 2004, ‘The Pedestal and the Veil: Rethinking the Capitalism/Slavery Question’, Journal of the Early Republic, 24, 2: 299-308.

Johnson, Walter 2013, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom, Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2013.

Johnson, Walter 2018, ‘’”To Remake the World”: Slavery, Racial Capitalism, and Justice’, Boston Review Online, 20 February, https://bostonreview.net/forum/walter-johnson-to-remake-the-world.

Jones, Kimberly 2020, ‘The Social Contract is Broken’, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xmCmdM5HCTc

Kaba, Mariame 2020. ‘Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police’, The New York Times, June 12.

Kitonga, Ndindi 2022, ‘In a Post-Floyd Era? Race, Gender, Class, and Black Movements’, unpublished manuscript quoted with permission of author.

Kosik, Karel 1976 [1964], Dialectics of the Concrete: A Study on Problems of Man and World, Dordrecht-Holland: D. Reidel.

Kosik, Karel 2019 [1957], ‘Přeludy a socialismus’, in Dialektika, Kultura a Politika: Eseje a články z let 1955–1969, Sebrané spisy Karla Kosíka, Vol. 4, edited by Jan Mervart, Prague: Filosofia.

Lavelle, Louis 1946.  De l’acte. Paris: Montaigne.

Malabou, Catherine 2011. ‘Is Confession the Accomplishment of Recognition? Rousseau and the Unthought of Religion in the Phenomenology of Spirit’ in Hegel and the Infinite: Religion, Politics, and Dialectic, edited by Slavoj Zizek, Clayton Crockett, and Creston Davis. New York: Columbia University Press.

Marx, Karl 1971 [1861-63], Theories of Surplus Value, Part 3. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Marx, Karl 1973 [1857-58], Grundrisse, translated by Martin Nicholas. New York: Penguin.

Marx, Karl 1975 [1844], Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 in Marx-Engels Collected Works [MECW], Vol. 3, New York: International Publishers.

Marx, Karl 1976a [1847], Manifesto of the Communist Party in MECW, Vol. 6.

Marx, Karl 1976b [1846], The German Ideology in MECW, Vol. 5.

Marx, Karl 1976c [1867], Capital, Vol. 1, translated by Ben Fowkes. New York: Penguin.

Marx, Karl 1981 [1895], Capital, Vol. 3, translated by David Fernbach, New York: Penguin.

Marx, Karl 1985a [1866]. Wages, Price, and Profit in MECW, Vol. 20.

Marx, Karl 1985b [1866], ‘Instructions for the Delegates of the Provisional General Council’ in MECW, Vol. 20.

Marx, Karl 1987a [1866], ‘Letter to Engels of 10 February 1866’ in MECW, Vol. 42.

Marx, Karl 1987b [1866], ‘Letter to Engels of 8 January 1868’ in MECW, Vol. 42.

Marx, Karl 1989, Economic Manuscript of 1861-63, in MECW, Vol. 31.

McKinney, Ernest Rice 1945, ‘Abstract of Comrade Coolidge’s Document on the Negro Question’ in The Raya Dunayevskaya Collection, Detroit: Wayne State University Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs.

Membwe, Achille 2001, On the Postcolony, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Mills, Charles 1998, Blackness Invisible: Essays on Philosophy and Race, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.

Mills, Charles 1999, The Racial Contract, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.

Mills, Charles 2016, ‘Philosophy and the Social Contract’, in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Race, edited by Naomi Zack, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ogungbure, Adebayo A. 2018, ‘Dialectics of Oppression: Fanon’s Anticolonial Critique of Hegelian Dialectics’, in Afriocology: The Journal of Pan African Studies, 12, 7: 216-30.

Pateman, Carole and Mills, Charles 2007, Contract and Domination, Cambridge: Polity.

Roediger, David 2017, Class, Race, and Marxism, London and New York: Verso Books.

Robinson, Cedric J. 1983, Black Marxism: The Making of a Black Radical Tradition, London: Zed Press.

Rosenthal, Caitlin R 2018, ‘Abolition as Market Regulation’, Boston Review Online, 20 February, https://bostonreview.net/forum_response/caitlin-c-rosenthal-abolition-m….

Salem, Sarah 2017, ‘A Revolutionary Lifeline: Teaching Fanon in a Postcolonial World’, Historical Materialism Online, 16 August https://www.historicalmaterialism.org/blog/revolutionary-lifeline-teach…

Sekyi-Otu, Ato 1996, Fanon’s Dialectic of Experience, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Singh, Nikhil Pal 2016. ‘On Race, Violence, and So-Called Primitive Accumulation’, Social Text 34, 3: 27-48.

Smith, David Norman, 2022. ‘Accumulation and Its Discontents: Migration and Nativism in Marx’s Capital and Late Manuscripts’, Rethinking Alternatives with Marx, edited by Marcello Musto, Basingate: Palgrave Macmillan.

Smith, Preston H. II 2021, ‘Which Black Lives Matter?’, Catalyst 4 (3), pp. 123-44.

Tembo, Josias 2020, ‘Hegel’s Lord-Bondsman Dialectic and the African: A Critical Appraisal of Achille Mbembe’s Colonial Subjects, in Violence, Slavery and Freedom between Hegel and Fanon, edited by Ulrike Kistner and Philippe Van Haute, Johannesburg: Witts University Press.

Van Haute, Philippe 2020, ‘Through Alexandre Kojève’s Lens: Violence and the Dialectic of Lordship and Bondage in Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks’, in Violence, Slavery and Freedom between Hegel and Fanon, edited by Ulrike Kistner and Philippe Van Haute, Johannesburg: Witts University Press.

Williams, Robert R. 1997, Hegel’s Ethics of Recognition, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Wynter, Sylvia (2015) “Unparalleled Catastrophe for Our Species? Or, to Give Humanness a Different Future,” in On Being Human as Praxis, edited by Katherine McKittrick. Durham and London: Duke University Press.





[1] Dunayevskaya 1985, p. 49.

[2] Cox 1970, p. 322.

[3] See Dawson 2013 for a valuable discussion of these developments.

[4] See McKinney 1945, document no. 296. The Workers Party rejected James’ views on race and class: his ‘Resolution on the Negro Question’ was later adopted by the Socialist Workers Party, though James and his colleagues in the Johnson-Forest Tendency left the SWP after a bitter dispute several years later. For a discussion by a Black worker who participated in these debates, see Denby 1989, pp. 172-4.

[5] Goodwin 2022, p. 55 draws from Black Reconstruction the conclusion that ‘capitalists’ competition for labour and workers’ competition for jobs are the root cause of conflicts that seem to be driven by racism’ (my emphasis). But as Du Bois makes clear, these conflicts are driven by racism; at issue is what explains the racism. Simply asserting that white workers falsely believe that people of color are responsible for their problems in finding gainful employment begs the question as to why they don’t blame the system instead.

[6] The problem with Robinson’s claim is that substantiating it requires singing out the specific social formations of European feudalism that necessitated the birth of white racism. Robinson makes no attempt to do so in Black Marxism, and his later turn to Foucault and discourse theory became a way to avoid doing so. See Robinson 1983, pp. 9-37.

[7] Wynter 2015, pp. 40-1.

[8] Kitonga 2022.

[9] Adamson 2020.

[10] See Frost 2021.

[11] Kaba 2020.

[12] Jones 2020.

[13] See Mills 1999 and Pateman and Mills 2007.

[14] Marx 1985a, p. 142.

[15] Marx 1976a, p. 498.

[16] Marx 1975, p. 205.  

[17] Marx 1975, p. 280.

[18] Marx 1975, p. 279.

[19] Marx 1976c, p. 135.

[20] Roediger 2017, p. 121.

[21] Marx 1976c, p. 915.

[22] At least it used to be uncontroversial: see Issar, Brown, and McMahon 2021 for the rather bizarre claim that the origins of ‘whiteness’ and ‘the primitive accumulation of capital’ is to be found in the Europe of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. ‘Whiteness must be consolidated in medieval Europe’, they claim, in ‘the mercantile’s imaginary description/fantasy of the Mongol Empire’ (pp. 350-1). Why they do not consider the Mongols as part of this consolidation is left unexplained – even though they engaged in systematic genocide that slaughtered at least five percent of the world’s population at the time. Nor is it explained how ‘whiteness’ could exist as a social category centuries before the social construction of ‘blackness’ – or how the accumulation of capital could occur in agrarian societies that lacked capital, whose producers were not separated from the land, and which extracted the surplus product in the form of use-values instead of exchange value. Such is what is what happens when concepts are turned into mere words to justify the problematical claims (of Cedric Robinson and others) that white racism preceded capitalism.

[23] According to many capital-logic theorists, from Backhaus to Postone, the delineation of the theory of value in Capital excludes class, which is supposedly exogenous to it. It is therefore ironic that some who criticise ‘identity politics’ from a class reductionist perspective draw upon Postone’s ‘reinterpretation’ of Marx’s value-theoretic categories. For more on this, see Hudis 2013, pp. 9-36.

[24] Marx 1976c, p. 414.

[25] See Marx 1987a, p. 224: ‘I therefore elaborated the section on the “Working Day” from the historical point of view, which was not part of my original plan’.

[26] See Du Bois, pp. 81-117.

[27] Dunayevskaya 2000, p. 88.

[28] Marx 1987b, p. 514.

[29] Six months after drafting the chapter on ‘The Working Day’, Marx wrote, ‘The limitation of the working day is needed to restore the health and physical energies of the working class […] as well as to secure them the possibility of intellectual development, sociable intercourse, social and political action’ (Marx 1985b, p. 187). Since surmounting the logic of capital entails workers ‘bringing the productive process under their common control by their associated reason’, a shorter working day that allows for greater ‘intellectual development [and] sociable intercourse’ is indispensable. The phrase ‘under their common control by their associated reason’ is in the 1863-64 draft of what later became Volume 3 of Capital, but was left out of version edited by Engels as well as the 1976 translation by David Fernbach. See Jeong 2019.

[30] I am not only referring to the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (which is silent on these issues) but also the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy of 1859, which had virtually nothing to say about race-based slavery.

[31] Marx 1967c, pp. 375-6.

[32] Marx 1976c, p. 377.

[33] Johnson 2004, p. 303.

[34] See Genovese 1974.

[35] Marx 1971, pp. 302-3.

[36] Johnson 2004, p. 303. Although Johnson errs in his estimation of Marx, his work makes a valuable contribution in highlighting the links between U.S. slavery and capitalism. See especially Johnson 2013, p. 199: ‘‘Under the dominion of cotton, reproduction (childbearing, motherhood, fatherhood) was labor (care given, love spent) in the service of capital: the conversion of living humanity into dead labor.’

[37] For more on this, see Banaji 2020, pp. 8-28.

[38] Johnson 2004, p. 303.

[39] Marx 1973, p. 278.

[40] The same could be said of the Soviet Union in the 1930s, whose drive for rapid industrialisation was termed by its architects ‘primitive socialist accumulation’. The state-capitalist character of this form of ‘primitive accumulation’ was not contradicted by the widespread use of slave labour in the Gulag, since wage labour served as the ‘general creative basis’ of the USSR.

[41] See Marx 1976c, p. 343: ‘I therefore demand a working day of normal length, and I demand it, without any appeal to your heart […] the thing you represent when you come face to face with me has no heart in its breast. What seems to throb there is my own heartbeat’.

[42] See Kosík, 2019, p. 47. I wish to thank Jan Mervart for bringing this text to my attention.

[43] Kosik 1976, p. 123.

[44] Quoted in Roediger 2017, p. 119.

[45] Roediger 2017, p. 122.

[46] Roediger, p. 155.

[47] Marx 1976a, p. 503.

[48] For more on this, see Anderson and 2010, which discusses his changing views concerning Ireland, and Norman Smith 2022, which discusses Marx’s notes on racism among white workers in California who supported the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

[49] Marx 1976c, p. 343.

[50] Marx 1976c, p. 416.

[51] Singh (2016, p. 34) wrongly claims that Marx’s category of abstract labor necessitates ‘indifference to any prior social condition, status, or standing’ while failing to mention the one thing it is ‘indifferent’ to – time that is not governed by socially necessary labor time.

[52] Sekyi-Out 1996, p. 75-6.

[53] Fanon 2008, p. xvi.

[54] See Salem 2017: ‘Fanon’s analysis goes even deeper because of his focus on both the material and subjective – culture, identity and the psychology of colonialism are as important as economic and political structures – and in fact cannot be easily separated from them’.

[55] See Hudis 2015.

[56] Baille, Miller, and Inwood all give it as ‘Lordship and Bondage’, while Pinkard renders it as ‘Mastery and Servitude’.

[57] Literally, one who kneels; the English term ‘knight’ derives from it.

[58] See especially Williams 1997, pp. 366-71, Bernasconi 2020, Van Haute 2020, and Tembo 2020.

[59] There is hardly a single white-racist stereotype that Hegel fails to regurgitate in his Lectures on the Philosophy of History (lecture notes published after his death, in 1837): ‘The Negro exists in a wild and untamed state’, they ‘lack moral faith’ and ‘regard tyranny as no wrong’, ‘cannibalism is looked upon [by them] as quite customary’, they ‘manifest a lack of self-control’ and are incapable of forming a ‘political constitution’, etc. See Hegel 1967, pp. 93-7.

[60] Mbembe 2001, p. 192. For an excellent critique of Mbembe’s misreading, see Tembo 2020.

[61] For critiques of Hegel on this score, see Gilroy 1993, pp. 75ff and Gordon 2015, pp. 114-7.

[62] For an illustration of how reading Hegel’s Phenomenology from the vantage point of his Philosophy of History idstory Historycan be profoundly misleading, see Ogungbure 2018.

[63] See Hogan 2018, p. 27.

[64] Fanon 2008, p. 19

[65] Fanon 2008, p. 112.

[66] Fanon 2008, p. 113.

[67] See Hegel 2018, p. 118: ‘Stubbornness is the freedom that hitches itself to a singular individuality standing within the bounds of servitude’.

[68] Malabou 2011, p. 21.

[69] Malabou 2011, p. 24.

[70] Hegel shows that the effort to achieve mutual recognition in ‘Spirit Certain of Itself’ likewise fails, since the contradictions of civil society ultimately thwart its realisation. The dialectic of negativity, not ‘synthesis’, pervades all stages of the Phenomenology. In this sense, Hegel’s critique of liberal contract theory goes much further than Charles Mills, who held, ‘Some of the master’s tools, like racism, are intrinsically oppressive and morally tainted, but others, like contractarianism and liberalism, are not problematic in themselves but only contingently racialised, and are flexible enough to be adopted to different and progressive usages’ (Mills 2016, p. 74).

[71] Fanon 2004, p. 19.

[72] Fanon 2018b, p. 415.

[73] Fanon 2018a, p. 412.

[74] See Gibson and Beneduce 2017 for a discussion of Fanon’s psychiatric writings on confession and the social contract. They do not connect it to Hegel’s discussion of these issues in the Phenomenology.

[75] Fanon 2004, p. 178.

[76] Fanon 2008, pp. 198-9 underlines this in noting that for the Black professional ‘alienation is almost intellectual in nature’, whereas ‘for the Antillean working on the sugarcane plantations in Le Robert, to fight is the only solution’.

[77] This is also reflected in the lectures Fanon gave at University of Tunis in 1959 on conditions of workers in colonised societies and the effect of production methods on workers’ mental health. See Gibson and Beneduce, 2017, p. 169.

[78] Fanon 2018c, p. 530.

[79] Fanon 2018c, p. 522.

[80] This is also reflected in the increased support for transgender rights expressed by today’s movements against police abuse and for Black lives.

[81] See Caitlin Rosenthal’s response to Walter Johnson’s criticism of the language of ‘dehumanisation’: ‘To speak of dehumanisation can be a way of acknowledging what is lost in the language of capital […] Humanisation and dehumanisation characterise processes of representation, and they can be used to explore the ways the language of capital pushes toward the commodification, securitisation, instrumentalisation, and alienation of everything – even lives, if our laws allow it to do so’ (Rosenthal 2018).

[82] Lavelle 1946, p. 49.