Cedric Robinson and the Origins of Race
As more of Robinson’s books come back into print, reading them with Black Marxism can enrich our understanding of racial capitalism and offer additional tools for fighting our political impasse.
February 2, 2021
Feb 2, 2021
16 Min read time
As more of Robinson’s books come back into print, reading them with Black Marxism can enrich our understanding of racial capitalism and offer additional tools for fighting our political impasse.
When Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition first appeared in 1983, it was far from an instant classic. Aside from a couple of extended reviews that focused on Robinson’s critique of Marxism, most academic mentions were cursory, hardly bothering with the more challenging aspects of his argument. Coming as it did on the heels of Black Power–era debates over whether Marxism was appropriate for Black struggle, movement intellectuals did engage and debate the book. However, its reception among this crowd was complicated by the fact that it didn’t wholly validate the competing claims of either Black Marxists or Black nationalists—despite some in both camps who argued that the book supported their views.
Our concern should not be whether Robinson was right when he called into question the political and theoretical tools of Marxism, but rather how he can serve as a resource for thinking through our current fraught politics.
Ultimately it would be graduate students in the 1990s who would rediscover the work and bring it to a wider audience. Notably, in 1998 a group of graduate student–activists at Temple University (including Erik McDuffie) organized the Afric’s Sons and Daughters with Banners Red conference in Philadelphia, where Black Marxism was discussed extensively. This is all the more remarkable considering that, by then, bookstores rarely carried the original Zed Books edition, and it was never referenced in the popular Black press.
Robin D. G. Kelley’s work with the University of North Carolina Press to reissue Black Marxism in 2000 ensured that newer generations of scholars would know of Robinson’s landmark study. This not only brought the book increased attention within Black Studies, but a new generation of activist-intellectuals outside the academy increasingly took up Robinson’s ideas, most pointedly in the Black Lives Matter movement.
Over the past five years, UNC Press has gone on to reissue many of Robinson’s lesser-known works. In 2016 it republished his first book, The Terms of Order: Political Science and the Myth of Leadership (originally published in 1980). And in 2019 the press reprinted his nearly impossible to find 2001 work, An Anthropology of Marxism. The same year, Pluto Press’s Black Critique series published a new collection of his essays, Cedric J. Robinson: On Racial Capitalism, Black Internationalism, and Cultures of Resistance.
A benefit of now having easy access to a range of Robinson’s work is that it offers the opportunity think with and engage his most important ideas, not as we encounter them in a single text, but as he elaborated them over a lifetime. This entails an attention to how he approached problems and elaborated his ideas, while being clear that we do not have, in his work, any sort of catechism containing all the necessary questions, conceptual frames, and answers adequate to our current moment. Robinson seemed to warn against just such an approach when he remarked in his preface to the 2000 edition of Black Marxism, “It was never my purpose to exhaust the subject, only to suggest that it was there.”
Our concern should not be, as it has often been for so many, whether Robinson was right or wrong when he called into question the political and theoretical tools of Marxism, but rather how he can serve as a useful intellectual resource for thinking through our current fraught politics. Since the 1980s, we have witnessed a hard right turn in U.S. politics that would seem to have left us, in the face of Trump’s proto-fascism, capable only of mustering the anemic liberalism of a Biden-Harris administration. That rightward turn has been accompanied by a decline in the formerly vibrant, polyvalent Black public sphere and the rise of a Black political elite who consider their own officeholding to be the fulfillment of the civil rights and Black Power movements. Robinson’s work, like that of Robert Allen, Audre Lorde, M. Jacqui Alexander, Angela Davis, Robin D. G. Kelley, Cathy Cohen, and Richard Iton, explores a vibrant alternative to the diminishing returns of formal political participation.
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Some argue that what we have today is only a variant of capitalism, whose “objective” form would have proceeded without colonial expansion, the slave trade, and plantation slavery. The flaw in this argument is that it ignores the only history of capitalism we have.
A distinguishing feature of Cedric Robinson as a thinker is that, in charting the Black Radical Tradition, he has raised fundamental questions about its presumed motivations, orientations, and tendencies. Yet engagement with Robinson continues to focus almost entirely on the concept of racial capitalism that he introduces early in Black Marxism. Few grapple with the concept that underpinned his thinking about racial capitalism, what he called racialism.
As an analytical frame, racial capitalism’s appeal (as one might gauge from the books and projects that have embraced it over the past decade) is that it offers a way to think about the relationship between capitalism and racial oppression that departs from the view that they are distinct and successive historical phenomena. Racial capitalism’s genealogy, as Peter Hudson writes, extends back to debates in the 1970s among South African radicals, which may have informed Robinson’s thinking, but it is Kelley who captures best what Robinson was after:
Capitalism and racism . . . did not break from the old order but rather evolved from it to produce a modern world system of ‘racial capitalism’ dependent on slavery, violence, imperialism, and genocide. Capitalism was ‘racial’ not because of some conspiracy to divide workers or justify slavery and dispossession, but because racialism had already permeated Western feudal society. The first European proletarians were racial subjects (Irish, Jews, Roma or Gypsies, Slavs, etc.) and they were victims of dispossession (enclosure), colonialism, and slavery within Europe. Indeed, Robinson suggested that racialization within Europe was very much a colonial process involving invasion, settlement, expropriation, and racial hierarchy.
As Kelley suggests, Robinson departs from the view of capitalism that would render racialization and racial oppression mere consequences of historical contingency. This is positioned against the argument that what we have today is only a variant of capitalism, whose “objective” form would have proceeded without colonial expansion, the slave trade, plantation slavery, or its attendant phenomena (the Negro, free labor, the extraction of resources, racial violence, etc.). The flaw in this argument is that, as Olúfémi O. Táíwò and Liam Kofi Bright point out, it ignores the only history of capitalism we have. To obscure how deeply implicated capitalism is in racial subjugation, it posits a theoretical model that abstracts away precisely how racial oppression structured the production of value and social reproduction in ways that are hardly limited to the precapitalist phenomena that Karl Marx called primitive (or original) accumulation. Recent work on racial capitalism has provided a far more sophisticated understanding of how race structures the very nature of value production and capitalist social relations, making it clear that one thinks properly about capitalism only when thinking about racial capitalism. These insights notwithstanding, one limitation of this work is its focus on value: in seeking to explain how race is constitutive of capitalism, something Marx failed to grasp, they leave the broad strokes of his account unchanged.
It is for this reason that we may receive few additional benefits from continuing to query Robinson’s thinking about racial capitalism if, in doing so, we continue to set aside his thinking about racialism. Deeply informed by Oliver Cox’s trilogy on capitalism as a system (Foundations of Capitalism, 1959; Capitalism and American Leadership, 1962; and Capitalism as System, 1964), Robinson’s focus is not value but the epistemic frames, ordering principles, and conceptualizations of human association that elaborated modes of differentiation within European political, economic, and social life from the ninth century forward. Rather than the nature of value production within capitalism, Robinson is concerned with “an oppression emergent from the immediate determinants of European development in the modern era,” which he identifies as racialism: “the legitimation and corroboration of social organization as natural by reference to the ‘racial’ components of its elements.”
Though hardly unique to Europe, it was racialism’s “appearance and codification, during the feudal period, into Western conceptions of society that was to have important and enduring consequences.” Racialism was not an ideological apparatus but “a material force” in feudal Europe that saturated the social world in which capitalism emerged, its cultural logics, and the intellectual repertoire that explained human affairs, which in turn came to “permeate the social structures emergent from capitalism.” Racial capitalism thus captures the historical elaboration of racialism in the modern era—a particular racial regime quite distinct from, say, the racial regime of ancient Athens (as Robinson explores in Forgeries of Memory and Meaning).
That Robinson’s concept of racialism receives relatively little attention is possibly owing to the tendency by many, myself included, to misread racialism as a neologism for racialization. For example, in my 2011 book In the Cause of Freedom, I took issue with Robinson’s discussion of racialism permeating Western cultural and political life:
Whether Venice was a racialized society that exported racialism to the rest of Europe is doubtful. What seems more important, however, is Robinson’s conception of racialism as an idea that renders race an eternal feature of European social life—an idea always present—rather than specific social relationships whose determinants grew out of specific historical contexts and were thus constitutive of the very structures of modernity. . . . Consequently, I would not employ Robinson’s notion of Black radicalism as a negation of Western civilization.
The specter of race is certainly present in racialism, but what I missed was Robinson’s attention to the manner in which European societies legitimized hierarchical relationships as natural, just as the language and structures of race would do after 1492. As one of Europe’s “most profound terms of order,” racialism suffused not only Europe’s social consciousness and identities, but its “social structures, forms of property, and modes of production.”
Robinson’s account of the early European origins of racialism captures how Western societies have understood and made sense of social stratification and differentiation, a logic that today appears to us as race and racial oppression.
Indeed, Robinson begins Black Marxism with what he identifies as the first moment of European racialism, which he describes as “the racial ordering of European society from its formative period, which extends into the medieval and feudal ages as ‘blood’ and racial beliefs and legends.” In this era of the absolute state, societies drew on and elaborated standing hierarchical structures as they integrated “the lower classes—wage laborers, peasants, serfs, slaves, vagabonds, and beggars—into the social, political, and economic orders” in ways that enabled the state and the elite to consolidate power and wealth. These processes were identical to those which enslaved African peoples in the Americas. Robinson writes, “The effects of racialism were bound to appear in the social expression of every strata of every European society no matter the structures upon which they were formed.” Racialism captures how Western societies have understood and made sense of social stratification and differentiation, a logic that today appears to us as race and racial oppression—the constituting and situating of political groupings within a system of domination that benefits the dominant racial group in that system.
By reading Black Marxism and The Terms of Order together, Robinson’s attempt to grapple with the consequences of the West’s rationalization of social hierarchies as natural comes fully into view. Particularly striking is the relay between his conception of racialism and his treatment of the political in The Terms of Order. In this earlier work, Robinson defines “the political as an ordering principle arranging the relationship of things and of people within society.” He argues that the political came to dominate Western thought as the “primary vehicle for the organization and ordering of the mass society produced by capitalism,” which, again according to Cox, occurred with the transition from feudalism to capitalism in ninth-century Venice.
As the paradigm that guides how we think about authority, power, and order, for Robinson the political is both “an instrument for ordering society and that order itself.” Indeed, whether viewed, per Aristotle, as the arena where the parameters of ruling and being ruled are established; or, per Sheldon Wolin, as the arena in which groups struggle over scarce resources; or, after Hannah Arendt, as the realm where, through action, human beings enjoy freedom, the political is taken to be the necessary, immutable form of human association, and necessarily a realm of conflict and contention. Robinson departs from this apparent consensus, insisting that the political rests upon a mythology of political order as a natural feature of human association requiring authority, power, and the mechanisms of leadership necessary to exercise such power. Its historical contingency, he suggests, also involves the possibility of replacing it, of elaborating an alternative form of human association.
What distinguishes Robinson’s discussion of the political is his insistence that it does not merely involve an ensemble of customs, logics, and social relations that presumably maintain political order, which in turn requires certain norms of authority that also involve power as force and violence. Rather, it is his attention to how the political arranges those relationships, “distinguishing the lawful or authorized order of things while itself being the origin of the regulation.” The importance of leadership in the shift from agrarian to market societies, the transition to manufacturing and industrial labor, lies in the bourgeoisie presenting itself as uniquely possessed of the requisite skills for scientific management, which in turn is believed to provide the bases for ordering society. Here, Robinson seems to follow both Marx and Cox. Following Marx, Robinson argues that the bourgeois ordering of capitalist relations stripped away personal autonomy “by the envelopment of the individual by a rationalized social order and organization.” Yet he also builds on Cox, who in Foundations of Capitalism describes the ordering of mercantilist labor markets in such a way that workers constituted a national resource with “a patriotic duty to work under direction” of employers who had “a right to the services of the worker in industrial production.” Robinson extends the point, noting that in bourgeois civil society, distinctions in the organization of labor are seen to reflect presumed natural qualities and require the ranking of human differences. The resulting “hierarchical stratification is therefore assumed to be a natural and inevitable condition of human organization.” This is not the consequence of those groups competing over scarce resources or, through deliberation, arriving at a moment of agreement on a form of association. Rather, by “giving differences a specific meaning,” those in the position to rule impose order, which they maintain through various modes of violence.
The similarity between Robinson’s views on the political and on racialism suggests they are two interrelated features of a single socio-political history. Put differently, it may be that we can only fully understand Robinson’s thinking about racialism by taking account of his thinking about the political. For Robinson, the political is the realm in which hierarchical social order is constituted through practices of difference-making; racialism is the process justifying that order by marking those differences as natural—a process that, in his 1995 article “Slavery and the Platonic Origins of Anti-Democracy,” Robinson identified as at work as early as Plato’s Republic. Where the political has traditionally framed the history of intra-European racialism, we can see the third period of racialism—“the incorporation of African, Asian, and peoples of the New World into the world system emerging from late feudalism and merchant capitalism”—as extending the operations of the political beyond the West through what we think of as coloniality.
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For Robinson, the political is the realm in which hierarchical social order is constituted through practices of difference-making. Racialism is the process justifying that order by marking those differences as natural.
With this in mind, I want to reconsider Robinson’s claim that “Black radicalism is a negation of Western civilization.” Robinson is careful to note that he does not mean negation in the Hegelian sense of a dialectical negation. In his 1984 article “An Inventory of Contemporary Black Politics,” Robinson draws out what he considers the methodological flaw in Western radical thought’s practice of viewing revolutionary movements as “the consequences of processes which mature by producing contradictory fruits.” Such an approach makes it appear like common sense that the prevailing order naturally contains the source for resolving its own contradictions, as though historical processes of their own will generate revolutionary agents who only need recognize their historical role:
The ultimate measure of social resistance is presumed to be the character and the historical development of the offending structure itself. The logic of resistance suggests that dictatorships produce liberalism; colonialism generated national liberation; imperialism would inevitably be confronted with anti-imperialism; capitalism could only be defeated by an aroused proletariat. . . . In brief, those social masses which mobilise in order to transform their lives are best understood by understanding whatever it is that has mobilised them.
Such an approach precludes the possibility of alternative sources that marginalized groups might draw on to challenge the dominant order. In directing our attention to racialism, Robinson suggests that the pursuit of an alternative requires a repertoire whose sources do not issue from the contradictions inherent to capitalism itself. If racialism is one of the immediate determinants of European development, it is in thinking with Robinson that we might consider the political as the realm where racialism orders and ranks human difference. Thus, if Black radicalism constitutes “a specifically African response to an oppression emergent from the immediate determinants of European development in the modern era and framed by orders of human exploitation woven into the interstices of European social life from the inception of Western civilization,” it is a response that draws on a range of experiences and ways of seeing that are normally discounted as premodern, without (or before) reason. These are, however, the modes of thought wherein we discover possibilities unavailable to us if we constrict ourselves to what is imaginable, to that which seems reasonable, proper, and rational.
I have noted elsewhere the curious paradox that political imaginaries, “in pursuing new futures, rely on the theoretical tools, language, and premises available to them, that are constitutive of the context in which they operate.” Indeed, it would seem we are incapable of escaping such a paradox given that what we are able to imagine, even the historical examples we draw upon, limit our sense of possibility. The broader reading of Robinson I am after, especially his thinking about racialism and the political, offers the possibility of thinking beyond such a horizon. In this view, the Black radical tradition’s negation of the political is not a self-generated resolution of the political’s internal contradictions, but rather the product of a separate, and perhaps prior, imaginary colliding with the West.
Black radicalism suggests a poetics that can be found in the generative potential of human interaction, with all its historical contingencies and unpredictability.
Robinson does not reject the political (and certainly not politics), as he believes it provides tools with which we might defend ourselves, so long as we keep in mind its contingency, that the political is “one temporarily convenient [historical] illusion.” If, as Robinson once remarked, “one of the weaknesses of Black radicalism . . . is that it lacks the promise of a certain future,” we might suggest that it is only if one believes that in order to proceed we must know the shape and cadence of any political future. Unlike a formal Black politics centered on rights, access, obligations, and adjustments to the prevailing order, Black radicalism suggests a poetics that can be found in the generative potential of human interaction, with all its historical contingencies and unpredictability. This involves a range of uncertainties that, if we can experience them as something other than anxiety, might unravel modes of sociality that appear deviant, fantastical or nonsensical, habits of thought that may not register as thought, but which might help us broach a reality we are presently unable to conceptualize. I believe this is what Robinson is after in his conclusion to Black Marxism when he offers that “physically and ideologically, and for rather unique historical reasons, African peoples bridge the decline of one world order and the eruption (we may surmise) of another.” It is a proposal full of uncertainties, and as such represents a “frightful and uncertain space of being,” but one full of possibilities.
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February 02, 2021
16 Min read time