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The radical tradition of African self-liberation

ROGER McKENZIE discusses the different Marxist traditions of thought about race and racism in the first in a four-part serialisation of his new book, African Uhuru

THERE is an African radical tradition of resistance to racism that stretches from beyond the continent of Africa to include the entire African diaspora. The very notion of a radical African tradition of resistance — as distinct from any general forms of radicalism — raises two fundamental objections from its critics. 

Firstly, there is the (arguably racist) contention that Africans are simply incapable of creating distinct philosophical or theoretical works comparable to anything derived from a European tradition. And secondly, there is the very sophisticated argument that engaging in a distinct tradition based on “blackness” only serves to legitimise false theories of race.

The problem is that the mere ending of the British empire did not end the racist ideology that had been manufactured over many years. Racism in Britain, by the state and in the workplace must be seen as a legacy of colonialism where centuries of white supremacist beliefs and actions have left a network of stereotypes and prejudices.

Put simply, imperialism was sustained by notions of superiority which it is impossible, if they so desired, to wipe out overnight. These beliefs, having had so much invested in them, still seep through every layer of British society today.

The justification for the racial discrimination that can still be seen in the British jobs market, where black workers are around three times as likely to be unemployed as compared to their white counterparts, also finds its heritage in the empire.

Racism is a relatively modern invention while slavery, as an institution, has been well documented since the biblical times. But racism was never an established doctrine. Rather, gender, religion and culture, as well as, of course, class, seemed to be the dominant reasons for discrimination in the ancient Greek and Roman times. Marxism is an indispensable tool in grasping the complexity of racism and African self-liberation as a form of resistance.

It is indispensable because it highlights the relation of racism to capitalist modes of production and it also recognises and illustrates the crucial role played by racism in the capitalist economy. There are at least four basic views of racism in the Marxist tradition.

The first attempts to subsume racism within a catch-all of working-class exploitation. Those who argue this rather fundamentalist view of life tend to ignore racism not determined by the workplace and not a purely economic relationship.

The second view acknowledges the importance of racism within the workplace (for example, job discrimination and wage differences between black and white workers) but remains silent about these operations outside of the workplace.

The third view is the so-called “black nation thesis.” This is a view that has been most influential among black Marxists, particularly in the United States.

This view claims that the operation of racism is best understood as relating to specific working-class exploitation alongside national oppression.

The fourth view in the Marxist tradition suggests racism results not only from working-class exploitation but also from xenophobic attitudes that cannot be simplistically reduced to class exploitation.

Here, racist attitudes have a life and logic of their own although heavily influenced by psychological factors and cultural practices. The primary motivation for those arguing this line was an opposition to the influence that the black nation thesis was having on the white and African left internationally.

These conceptions of racism reveal the importance of a clear understanding of the relationship between race and class.

The Eurocentric nature of the class narrative is a major problem. I am not suggesting for a moment that the basic construct of historical materialism is anything other than sound and, indeed, a vital tool for us to utilise. It is still clearly the best scientific method of understanding the society in which we live. However, to merely subsume the life, experiences and traditions of African workers under the class narrative only provides a very partial picture. The Pan-African Congress was an example of a successful early 20th century transnational black radical movement.

If Du Bois could be credited with being the father of the transnational African radical tradition, then James can be assigned the role of family elder, particularly for his influence on Caribbean African radicalism. Pan-Africanism will be key to the development of the new multipolar world. 

But what is Pan-Africanism and how can it help us today?

Like so many philosophies it is far too often lazily portrayed as a singular approach and if we are to decentre or decolonise the European view of the socialist and labour movement then we must understand more about this central foundation of African thought.

Pan-Africanism is a movement by and for people of African descent. Its aim has always been to create a unity of thought and action between Africans, whether they are on the continent or anywhere in the diaspora.

Rooted in the anti-slavery and anti-colonial movements, Pan-Africanism dates back to the 19th century.

Pan-Africanism has never been just a male pastime — although it is clear there are some black men who would have you believe otherwise in their mistaken belief in a dominant African patriarchy. 

There is plenty of evidence to confirm the matriarchal dominance in many African societies. Women also played a key role in the early development of Pan-Africanism. Alice Kinloch and Jeanne Nardal played foundational roles as did the work later of Amy Ashwood, Amy Jacques Garvey and Alma La Badie. Their work acted as a solid base for a new generation of Pan-Africanists at the turn of the 20th century, including JE Casely Hayford and Martin Robinson Delany.

Aside from the black workers who helped to found the British trade union movement, black immigrants to the country from 1919 did not arrive as blank slates. They were, in the same way that Kelley describes black communists in Alabama “born and reared in communities with a rich culture of opposition.” The resistance to racism by black workers in the workplace, is a well-concealed yet central part of the history of the British working class.

Read part two of this book extract series in tomorrow’s paper.

African Uhuru by Roger McKenzie is out now, published by Manifesto Press. The book is available via the Morning Star shop and every order made gives a slice of the cover price to our daily paper of working-class power and liberation.

Manifesto Press authors Roger McKenzie and Nigel Flanagan will be taking part in an event, Decolonising the Trade Union Movement, on June 15 at The Venue, Oxford, 2.30-5.30pm. For more information visit www.manifestopress.coop.

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