Marx and 19th century racism
Source Louis Proyect
Date 99/07/02/02:39

>ps: It is not at all obvious to me that Marx' central ideas can be
>separated from their racist and sexist context. His grand historical
>teleology is, in my opinion, deeply intertwined with a type of
>Eurocentrism -- one that he obviously shares with Hegel.

This is certainly true, but Marx was only the first in a line of thinkers.
Some Marxists have emphasized the Eurocentric tendencies, while others have
challenged them. Jim Blaut, whose Antipode piece on racism was crossposted
here a couple of days ago, has been challenging Eurocentrism in the Marxist
movement for a number of years now. I recommend his "Colonizer's Model of
the World" to everybody. He is just finishing up his latest book, which is
part two in a sense of "Colonizer". It takes a close look at Marxist
historians who make concessions to Eurocentrism. My own analysis, based on
the work of George Comninel and Ronald Meek, proceeds from the same basis.
Here is something I posted a while back:

Most of us probably assume that the following passage from the Communist
Manifesto reflects some special new insight from Marx and Engels:

"The bourgeoisie has disclosed how it came to pass that the brutal display
of vigor in the Middle Ages, which reactionaries so much admire, found its
fitting complement in the most slothful indolence. It has been the first to
show what man's activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far
surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it
has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former exoduses of
nations and crusades."

In the chapter "Bourgeois Revolution: A Liberal Concept" (Rethinking the
French Revolution, Verso, 1987), George Comninel argues that nothing could
be further from the truth. Marx and Engels were simply repeating what
liberal historians had been saying all along. The notion of a "bourgeois
revolution" was commonplace in France (Thierry, Mignet, Guizot) as well as
England (David Hume).

Thierry, for example, wrote, "One could say that the rallying cry of the
two armies were, on one side, idleness and power, and on the other,
industry and liberty: because the idlers, those who wanted no other
occupation in life than pleasure without pains, of whichever caste,
enlisted with the royalist troops, to defend interests conforming to their
own; whereas those families from the caste of the former conquerors that
had been won over to industry joined the party of the commons."

The notion that the French Revolution was the outcome of a protracted
struggle over conflicting property relations is not an innovation either.
Three decades prior to the Communist Manifesto, Guizot wrote, "In order to
understand political institutions, we must study the various strata
existing in society and their mutual relationships. In order to understand
these various social strata, we must know the nature and the relations of
landed property."

Engels openly acknowledged the debt to the liberals in an 1894 letter to H.

"While Marx discovered the materialist conception of history, Thierry,
Mignet, Guizot and all the English historians up to 1850 are evidence that
it was being striven for, and the discovery of the same conception by
Morgan proves that the time was ripe for it and that it simply *had* to be

Marx said the same thing more or less in a famous letter to Joseph

"And now as to myself, no credit is due to me for discovering the existence
of classes in modern society or the struggle between them. Long before me
bourgeois historians had described the historical development of the class
struggle and bourgeois economists the economic anatomy of the classes."

Even on the question of materialist conception of history, there is
evidence that the bourgeois liberals had a similar approach. An important
chapter of Plekhanov's "In Defense of Materialism" deals with the subject
of materialism in bourgeois historians such as Guizot.

I suspect that most of us are more familiar with Marx's debt to bourgeois
economists such as Ricardo, but the connection to bourgeois historians
deserves wider familiarity, as is clearly Comninel's goal. There are
important political consequences as well, some that might possibly explain
Marxism's failure to adequately theorize capitalism's onslaught against
precapitalist formations such as the American Indian tribes.

What Marxism and bourgeois liberal historians share is a notion of "stages"
of history based on contending modes of production. Common to many of
Marx's predecessors was a 4-stage theory that begins with hunting and which
gives rise the subsequent stages of pasturage, agriculture and commerce.
They also believed that different sets of institutions related to law and
government, customs and morals were connected to the various stages. So the
base/superstructure model is not particularly Marxist.

Lord Kames, one such subscriber to the theory, wrote in 1758:

"The life of a fisher or hunter is averse to society, except among the
members of simple families. The shepherd life promotes larger societies, if
that can be called a society, which hath scarce any other than a local
connection. But the true spirit of society, which consists in mutual
benefits, and in making the industry of individuals profitable to others as
well as themselves, was not known till agriculture was invented.
Agriculture requires the aid of many other arts. The carpenter, the
blacksmith, the mason, and other artificiers, contribute to it. This
circumstance connects individuals in an intimate society of mutual support,
which again compacts them within a narrow space."

Who can not make the connection between this statement and the war against
the American Indian? The life of a fisher or hunter is averse to society. A
higher stage comes in the form of agriculture, which compacts all these
admirable, industrious tradesmen in a "narrow space." Obviously, anybody
who stands in the way of such compacting progress has to be eliminated.

Comninel's verdict on the "stages" theory is worth repeating verbatim:

"The four stages theory is liberal ideology in classic form. Situated in
Lockean materialism; taking 'utility'--or the pursuit of pleasure and
avoidance of pain--as a social principle; presuming that human arts develop
in response to necessity; seeing progress in individual capacities as more
significant than the disruption of the social whole: the four stages theory
could be carried so far as to become the very embodiment of Pangloss's
world unfolding as it must, in this best of all possible worlds."

While Marx integrated the theory of the bourgeois revolution into an
all-encompassing political system that transcended it, there are still
traces of the undigested muck that rise to the surface from time to time.
The Communist Manifesto gives open expression to it, as does volume one of
Capital. It took him an entire lifetime to digest this theory and put it in
its proper place, as nothing but a specific event that capped off
historical developments in specific European countries. In his letters to
the Russian populists, he made it crystal-clear that the "stagist" approach
was not something that he endorsed. Proof of this was his clarion call to
prevent capitalist development in the Russian countryside at all costs. The
zemstvos would provide the basis for socialism; waiting for an urban
proletariat to develop was Plekhanov's "contribution." Unfortunately, the
"productivist" and "stagist" model of Marxism with its bourgeois liberal
roots lingers to this day. The only explanation is that bourgeois power is
so enormous as to cloud the thinking of those who struggle to overthrow it.
Working class militancy is what's required, not cheer-leading for a
"revolutionary" bourgeoisie that never really existed.

Louis Proyect

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