Karl Marx, Scientific Socialism and Black Liberation
Chicago, IL – Karl Marx was born May 5, 1818 in the town of Trier, Prussia. He was not born into a revolutionary family but he was born in revolutionary times, in the wake of the French Revolution and the decline of the Prussian Empire. The French Revolution came to Trier during the Napoleonic wars. It tore the city out of the Holy Roman Empire and for two decades before the birth of Marx, it replaced the feudal society, with its chartered privileges, with a government in which all citizens were equal under the law. It was a turbulent period in which all the old, feudal orders of Europe were trembling in the face of bourgeois led popular revolutions.
As we begin to celebrate the bicentennial of the birth of Karl Marx, we can anticipate that much will be written about the personal life and times of this great revolutionary scientist, who history has proven to be one of the greatest revolutionary strategists and tacticians ever.
What I want to do in this brief essay commemorating the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx is lift up Marx’s scientific contribution to the working-class movement in general and the Black Liberation movement in particular.
Marx’s scientific contribution
Marx was born right at the time when the Industrial Revolution (initiated by the invention of the steam engine) was blossoming but not yet in full bloom. The Age of Reason was in full bloom, however, particularly in France, where, as Engels points out, “They recognized no external authority of any kind whatever. Religion, natural science, society, political institutions, everything was subjected to the most unsparing criticism; everything must justify its existence before the judgement-seat of reason or give up existence….” This kingdom of reason was nothing other than the idealized kingdom of the bourgeoisie where superstition, injustice, privilege and oppression were to be superseded by eternal Truth, eternal Rights based on Nature and the inalienable Rights of Man.
Marx realized even at a young age that the industrial revolution had ushered in a new era with the creation of a new class of workers, the proletariat. And that the very class, the capitalists, who claimed to represent the whole of suffering humanity were also the ones responsible for the enslavement and exploitation of the working class and the slaves and toilers in the colonies. Marx realized that his mission was to give the working class the theoretical tools and scientific understanding of their oppression that would enable them to emancipate themselves. So, he proceeded to critically study bourgeois political economy in order to develop the foundations of scientific socialism.
In studying political economy Marx did not concern himself with the laws of nature – to investigate them is the business of physics, chemistry, geology and biology. Also, Marx was not preoccupied with investigating the modes of production which are common to all peoples, as such an investigation could, for the most part, only result in acknowledging such obvious things as man always needs tools, land and food in order to be able to produce at all. At best arriving at general laws of social development common to all historical periods, Marx investigated the laws of movement of capitalism as a definite form of social production peculiar to a definite historical period and to particular European nations.
Capitalism, slavery and Black liberation
Karl Marx was also the first to show how modern capitalism as a system of political economy was a consequence of the phenomenal growth of merchant capital during that period when direct slavery in European colonies and African slavery became the basis for worldwide commerce based on the commoditization of labor and the exportation of commodities. During this period of commercial warfare between the colonial powers, slavery played a key role in bringing about the advent of the industrial capitalist, i.e., slavery provided the financial basis for the industrial revolution.
Long before he wrote Capital, Marx had, as early as 1847, come to an understanding of how capitalism and slavery were fundamentally related. He sets forth these propositions with remarkable clarity in his polemic against Pierre Proudhon in the Poverty of Philosophy. Here is how Marx stated it:
“Slavery is an economic category like any other…Needless to say we are dealing only with direct slavery, with Negro slavery in Surinam, in Brazil, in the Southern States of North America.
Direct slavery is the pivot of our industrialism today as much as machinery, credit, etc. Without slavery you have no cotton, without cotton you have no modern industry. It is slavery that has given value to the colonies; it is the colonies that created world trade; it is world trade that is the necessary condition for large-scale machine industry. Thus slavery is an economic category of the greatest importance.
“Without slavery, North America, the most progressive of countries, would be transformed into a patriarchal country. Wipe North America off the map of the world, and you will have anarchy – the complete decay of modern commerce and civilization. Cause slavery to disappear and you will have wiped America off the map of nations.” (See Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels The Civil War in the United States, International Publishers, p.3).
We believe that from the very beginning Marx saw that the proletarian class movement was inextricably linked to the struggle for Black liberation. In the words of Marx, labor in a white skin could not be free so long as labor was branded and sold in a black skin. Marx understood the necessity of capitalism abolishing chattel slavery (i.e. slavery pure and simple) but he also understood how this slavery became a pedestal for what he called wage-slavery. He saw that Black people were that part of the working class which did not have the freedom to sell itself into slavery.
Hellish conditions of capitalist exploitation during the height of the industrial revolution sometimes made wage-slavery and chattel slavery look like a distinction without a difference. In fact, some of the early pre-Marxian socialists and trade unionists in the U.S. argued that white workers were more ruthlessly exploited because they were not property and were therefore left to fend for themselves with respect to food and shelter.
Marx understood the special, super-exploitation character of Black labor and the need for socialists to address this in order to build a united working- class struggle against the capitalist bosses.
The revolutionary essence of Marxism is that it sees the necessity of all workers of all races and nations being united in the fight for democracy and socialism. There is no path to socialism without this multi-racial, multi-national, working class unity.