During a July 2020 interview with Showtime’s late-night hosts, Desus & Mero, hip-hop activist and Chicago native, Noname told the TV personalities, “We get lost in just talking about capitalism. But there’s a Black radical tradition that really talks about how it’s rooted in racist practice. So, whenever we talk about capitalism, it’s beneficial to us to talk about racial capitalism.” These two terms – ‘racial capitalism’ and ‘Black radical tradition’ – have emerged as part of the popular leftist discourse, especially in the wake of the mass protests that swept the US after the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020. The popularization of these ideas is due in no small part to the renowned historian Robin DG Kelley and the pioneering abolitionist-geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore. Robin DG Kelley and Ruth Wilson Gilmore were students of the late political theorist, Cedric Robinson, who theorized ‘racial capitalism’ and ‘Black radical tradition’ in his now-classic text, Black Marxism (1983). Robinson’s ideas were so provocative that Robin DG Kelley wrote in the foreword of Black Marxism that they “would have compelled even the great Du Bois to take a seat and listen.”
Black Marxism is experiencing a well-deserved resurgence of interest, and the popularity of Robinson’s ideas is showing no sign of slowing down, as NoName’s interview and a newly published third edition of Black Marxism demonstrates. Political theology can learn a lot from Robinsonian thought. However, capturing ‘Robinsonian thought’ in a single essay is as impossible as it is immodest. Robinson’s corpus covered a plethora of topics, from internationalism to the status and meaning of political science as a discipline. I will focus on three Robinsonian concepts that are useful for political theology: racial capitalism, Black radical tradition, and African metaphysics. I’ve alluded to the first two above, and the third will become clearer after I explicate what Robinson meant by the first two.
What did Cedric Robinson mean by ‘racial capitalism’? Robinson was not the first to use the term. It had been circulating among activists in South Africa during the 1970s to describe the apartheid regime. Robinson, however, theorized racial capitalism to define the European origins and racial character of the capitalist mode of production. For Robinson, capitalism’s racial aspect was clear because racism “was not simply a convention for ordering the relations of European to non-European peoples but has its genesis in the ‘internal’ relations of European peoples” (2). This is why Robinson begins Black Marxism with Europe – because Europe, not the coast of Africa in the 15th century, is where he claims the story of race begins. Robinson believed that although the Atlantic slave trade and the system of slavery that emerged in the New World were crucial to the foundation and growth of capitalism, the processes of racialization existed before it. Therefore, the capitalist transformation of feudalism did not entirely negate the latter’s racialist components; for Robinson, the racialist elements of European civilization persisted in this new, global economy to justify the (racial) inequalities it would produce.
In other words, Robinson believed that capitalism relied on the same techniques of racialization that were deployed in feudal Europe. Under capitalism, however, the racial ideas were transformed from myths and legends about Slavic and other European tribal workers into racial ideas about people of African descent. Robinson believed that racial ideas were necessary to justify the inequality inherent to the organization of labor. This is significant for political theology because it complicates our ready-made assumptions about the relationship between race and capitalism. For Robinson, capitalism is not simply the midwife of race or a scheme devised by the capitalist class to divide the workers. Rather, racial capitalism is capitalism. Race as a mode of social organization preceded capitalism and significantly shaped its emergence and direction.
Many contemporary political theorists have challenged the seemingly static nature that race/racial seems to operate in Robinson’s work. Others, like Michael Dawson, contend that slavery radically ruptured former conceptions of race that existed in Europe and that we are now experiencing radically new, modern forms of racism. Conversations in political theology should take seriously Robinson’s argument even if some disagree with it because it offers an alternative to both “race-first” and “class-first” analyses of resistance. Especially today, when “antiracism” is now a consumable brand that doesn’t challenge the capitalist order and popular (predominantly white) leftist movements believe that Bernie Sanders’ class-first policies inevitably tackle racism, Robinson beckons us to slow down and consider their links more carefully.
Marxism and The Black Radical Tradition
Robinson rejected the notion that Marxism is the only sufficient rubric for capitalist critique. He claimed that a “Black radical tradition” preceded Marxism and inspired anticapitalist and anticolonial resistance across the Atlantic World where the enslaved rebelled and built maroon communities. For Robinson, the Black radical tradition is an “ideologically based” and “epistemologically coherent” tradition of radicalism rooted in African religious beliefs and practices. He argued that Black radicalism:
is not a variant of Western radicalism whose proponents happen to be Black. Rather, it is 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.Black Marxism, 72-73.
In other words, Black radicalism is not a “Blackified” version of Marxism; indeed, Black radicalism challenges the very civilization that gave birth to Western Marxism. Robinson believed that Western civilization created the conditions for African rebellion but was not its inspiration. African resistance that emerged across the Atlantic World – against enslavers and colonizers – were inspired by and replete with “supra-rational” elements and a religious/spiritual consciousness. He contended that metaphysics, not materialism, provided the seedbed for African resistance against oppression. Perhaps his most controversial claim was that the Black radical tradition generated nonviolent resistance. He maintained that among the rebellions that occurred, “there was violence of course, but in this tradition it most often turned inward: the active against the passive” (168).
Just as Robinson’s theorization of capitalism’s relationship to race (i.e., ‘racial capitalism’) was and is controversial, his normative claims about “the” Black radical tradition are also debated and contested among historians and theorists alike. Some are reticent to speak of a single, unified “African religion” that inspires rebellion against oppression. Furthermore, some worry that Robinson draws too stark of a divide between religion and materiality. Nevertheless, Robinson’s insights prove to be rich for political theology since he insists that radicals do not need either approval or permission from Marxists to wed religious claims to radical analysis. Moreover, he disabuses his readers of the idea that religion is inherently conservative or that radical critique must begin in or go through Europe to be taken seriously.
Robinson believed that radicals did not need Marx to critique capitalism. Perhaps more surprising, he argued that Western Marxism necessarily inherited the same racial character that persisted from the Middle Ages to modernity. For example, he believed that Marx was unable to theorize the racial divisions that existed between the Irish and English factory workers (i.e., the proletariat) he and Engels studied during the rise of European industrial capitalism. Anglo chauvinist myths the English workers believed about the Irish blocked solidarity between the two worker groups. Robinson challenged the notion of a universal proletariat, claiming that capitalism had differentiated, not homogenized, the proletariat. Indeed, differentiation is a necessary component of racial capitalism. Even today, one can discern how race (and gender) mediates ‘worker’ experiences across labor markets, for example, in wages, gainful employment opportunities, or hostile work environments.
Robinson also challenges standard accounts of orthodox Marxism. In An Anthropology of Marxism (2001), he claims, based on readings of Engels and Lenin, that Marxism was merely a secularist expression of socialism whose fundamental utopian impulses appeared earlier. Indeed, Marx was neither the first socialist, nor the first materialist, nor the first critic of bourgeois culture, nor the first to unveil the tensions between classes that capitalism amplified. Marx and Engels, Robinson argued, had selected and deselected previous intellectual strands to construct a scientific, radical idiom that would be intelligible for their modern, European contemporaries.
But Robinson’s critique of Marxism should not be read as anti-Marxist. Robin Kelley writes that Black Marxism (and I would add later Robinsonian thought) should be read as “a critique of Marxism — but not a hostile critique. He wasn’t rejecting all of Marx and Engels’ ideas, but he felt like Marxism was a window to understanding forms of radicalism that neither Marx nor Engels, nor Lenin, and others, could really grasp.” This is important for political theology because it challenges the notion that Marxist methodology is the only mode of radical critique available for activists, theologians, or scholars of religion. At the same time, Robinsonian thought respects the long tradition of Black radical, anticolonial thinkers who have relied on Marxism as a method for critical analysis and resistance.
NoName’s interview, the growing crescendo calling for the abolition of racial capitalism, and the surge of literature on racial capitalism suggests that Robinsonian thought is a force to be reckoned with. The need for political theology to take seriously Robinsonian thought goes far beyond a vain need to remain relevant. Debates among liberation theologians about whether Marxism should be a privileged source of theological method would be enriched by engaging with Robinson’s ideas. Similarly, theologians and scholars of religion inspired by Robinson’s ideas might return to pre-Marxist, spiritual sources within their traditions as inspiration for resistance. Lastly, Robinson models how to approach Marxism at once respectfully and critically, as a mode of analysis that is worth examining, not discarding. Robinsonian thought challenges scholars of religion to reexamine the sources that lie within their own histories that could fuse with Marxist thought to create an energizing, soul-inspiring force to challenge regimes of race, class, gender, and all forms of consolidated power.
Black Marxism is Robinson’s most notable work. It is organized into three parts: the first part explores the European radical tradition and its limitations. The second part explores what Robinson dubs the ‘Black Radical tradition.’ The third part explores three Black Marxists – CLR James, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Richard Wright –and how they idiosyncratically synchronized the two radical traditions.
An Anthropology of Marxism situates Marx within his social, political and intellectual heritage by investigating the ingredients of scientific Marxism. Robinson critiques the standard accounts of orthodox Marxism by exploring the traditions of materialism, European socialism, German idealism, and British political economy which were assumed to be the unique contributions and tributaries constituting orthodox Marxism as we know it.
Cedric J. Robinson: On Racial Capitalism, Black Internationalism, and Cultures of Resistance is a collection of Robinson’s unpublished essays on topics ranging from Black internationalism to racial capitalism and film. The breadth of the topics covered in this collection of essays will quickly cue the reader to Robinson’s polymathic scholarship.
Futures of Black Radicalism (2017), edited by Gaye Theresa Johnson and Alex Lubin, is a series of essays dedicated to Cedric Robinson. Authors such as Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Robin D.G. Kelley take Robinson’s ideas and connect them with the contemporary post-Ferguson moment. For those interested in learning more about Cedric Robinson’s personal influences, I highly recommend Kelley’s final essay, “Winston Whiteside and the Politics of the Possible.”