Karl Marx remains one of the most influential philosophers of all time, theorizing the exploitative nature of capitalism that would require an uprising by the proletariat (working class) against the bourgeoisie (the “owners” of the means of production). However, Marxism suffers from a similar problem to its historical counterparts: the question of race. Thus, Marxism requires an update to account for the racialized aspects of the economy and exploitation in the first place.
For Marx, there is a heavy emphasis on economic relations rather than race, stating that racism is not structurally induced but more about prejudice. Yet, an analysis of racism and class is not mutually exclusive. In fact, the two areas are very much connected to one another and help determine the trajectory of the other. It’s dangerous to say one is the “root cause” to the other because we desperately need a theory that examines both in detail. That is where Black Marxism comes in.
Black Marxism is a theory that takes into account blackness in the study of Marxism. When theorizing about capitalism in a traditional Marx perspective, race does not fundamentally change capitalism. Black Marxism talks about how race or blackness alters capitalisms. One example we have talk about previously is the prison, a capitalist device that is filtered through carcerality and policing in which Black people are affected disproportionately.
Nevertheless, there still remains some similarities between the two. Marxists and Black Marxists are materialists, which means the institutional structures (such as the government) come before the ideas. Problems can be traced back to a material base, not simply an ideology. The question of slavery is very important to both. Black Marxism doesn’t simply attribute slavery as a question of economic or material gain. Instead, slavery was additionally grounded in antiblackness as well, which Marx often leaves out in his studies.
One prominent example of the deployment of a Black Marxist analysis is the Black Panther Party that began in 1966. This political organization instituted a variety of survival programs such as free-breakfast programs to counteract the pervasive economic equality. They concluded that black people were affected differently by capitalism, which requires an analysis of how whiteness propagated these values within capitalism.
However, the Black Panther Party wasn’t perfect either. They missed out in another crucial area: gender. There was rampant sexism and misogyny within the party that hampered their efforts and fractured the community. Thus, it’s important to understand the multitude of factors and modes of discrimination by not overlooking aspects of identity such as race, gender, class, religion, sexual orientation, etc.
If you want to learn more about Black Marxism, be sure to read about our blog post about Cornel West, an influential Black Marxist that adds new perspectives about religion as well! Additionally, check out Cedric J. Robinson, a pioneer for this line of theory!