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Racial Capitalism and the Dark Proletariat

OUR IDEA OF RACIAL CAPITALISM, as Walter Johnson explains, comes from Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism (1983). But it has another lineage, one that predates Robinson even as it emerges from the same tradition of black radical thought to which he belonged.

In October 1979 an unsigned essay titled “Neo-Marxism and the Bogus Theory of ‘Racial Capitalism’” appeared in Ikwezi: A Black Liberation Journal of South African and Southern African Political Analysis. Published in London, the journal offered a radical alternative to the politics of both the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party. Ikwezi’s take on racial capitalism is clear from the title: the concept is not to be celebrated and embraced as a critical counterweight to European Marxism. Instead it is a product of European Marxists’ attempts to co-opt and condition black liberation struggles in southern Africa.

The essay argues, in particular, that the theory is a flawed “revisionist” strain of the South African Communist Party’s clunky attempts to build on the models of “internal colonialism” and “colonialism of a special type” that were deployed to understand the South African situation. The journal saw racial capitalism as “counter-revolutionary clap-trap” espoused by “opportunistic” white leftists seeking to play a leading role in the Azanian liberation struggles. Ikwezi located the origins of the concept in the “revisionist” thought of “dubious, white” South African Marxists, in European “Neo-Marxists” and “euro-communist” philosophers such as Nicos Poulantzas and Ernest Mandel, in the “Trotskyite” analyses of the New Left Review, and in the pages of the Review of African Political Economy—especially its 1979 special issue on “The South African Situation,” edited by Ruth First and Gavin Williams.

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Walter Johnson, Harvard historian and author of the acclaimed River of Dark Dreams, urges us to embrace a vision of justice attentive to the history of slavery—not through the lens of human rights, but instead through an honest accounting of how slavery was the foundation of capitalism, a legacy that continues to afflict people of color and the poor. Inspired by Cedric J. Robinson’s work on racial capitalism, as well as Black Lives Matter and its forebears—including the black radical tradition, the Black Panthers, South African anti-apartheid struggles, and organized labor—contributors to this volume offer a critical handbook to racial justice in the age of Trump.