Speaking to the Los Angeles Times last August, the cofounder of Black Lives Matter, Patrisse Cullors, stated that BLM would not sit at the table with President Trump, because he “is literally the epitome of evil, all the evils of this country – be it racism, capitalism, sexism, homophobia”.
Trump’s views and actions aside, calling capitalism evil and conflating it with racism is noteworthy. The same goes for the increasing tendency among racial justice advocates to embrace the left-wing economic agenda.
So much so that Ryan Cooper, a columnist for The Week, wrote a column titled, Is Black Lives Matter turning socialist? As Cooper approvingly noted, BLM has adopted a “hugely aggressive – and firmly leftist – economic program”.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Natalie Jeffers, who cofounded BLM in the United Kingdom, urged her followers to: “Fight racism with solidarity. Fight capitalism with socialism. We must organize – dedicate ourselves to revolutionary politic power.”
The Black Lives Matter Movement, a separate British organisation, was founded by Gary McFarlane, a representative of the Socialist Workers Party, who writes for the Socialist Review and the Socialist Worker, and claims that “Capitalism is racist from the top to the bottom”. His cofounders, including Kate Hurford, Harold Wilson and Naima Omar, have also written for those two publications.
There is, in other words, a growing assumption among racial justice advocates that more socialism would result in less racism and, even, that socialism is, in itself, anti-racist. There is, in fact, no such necessary connection between socialism and anti-racism, as a closer look at early socialist writings amply shows.
To start with, it is important to note that the meaning of the word “race” changed over time. Today, most people think of races in terms of colour, as in “black” and “white.” Historically, however, race was also a synonym for a nation or, even, a family. In his 1933 book, Marlborough: His Life and Times, Winston Churchill noted: “Deep in the heart of the Prussian state and race lay the antagonism to France.” The English artist Mary Granville, in turn, referred to Churchill’s family as the “Marlborough race” in her 1861 book, Autobiography and Correspondence.
But race, whether narrowly (black and white) or broadly (skin colour, nation and family) understood, was always a part of socialist thought. In 1894, for example, Friedrich Engels wrote a letter to the German economist Walther Borgius. In it, Engels noted, “We regard economic conditions as that which ultimately determines historical development, but race is in itself an economic factor.”
In his 1877 Notes to Anti-Dühring, Engels elaborated on the subject of race, observing “that the inheritance of acquired characteristics extended … from the individual to the species.” He went on, “If, for instance, among us mathematical axioms seem self-evident to every eight-year-old child and in no need of proof from evidence that is solely the result of ‘accumulated inheritance.’ It would be difficult to teach them by proof to a bushman or to an Australian Negro.”
It is noteworthy that Engels wrote those words 16 years before Francis Galton, writing in Macmillan’s Magazine, urged humanity to take control its own evolution by means of “good breeding” or eugenics. Speaking of which, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, who were both socialists and eugenicists, bemoaned the falling birthrates among so-called higher races in the New Statesman in 1913. They warned that “a new social order [would be] developed by one or other of the colored races, the Negro, the Kaffir or the Chinese”.
Che Guevara, the Argentine revolutionary and friend of the Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, offered his views on race in his 1952 memoir The Motorcycle Diaries, writing, “The Negro is indolent and lazy and spends his money on frivolities, whereas the European is forward-looking, organized and intelligent.”
In addition to racism, early socialist writings contained explicit calls for genocide of backward peoples. The toxic mix of those two illiberal ideas would result in at least 80 million deaths during the course of the 20th century.
In the New York Tribune in 1853, Karl Marx came close to advocating genocide, writing, “The classes and the races, too weak to master the new conditions of life, must give way.” His friend and collaborator, Engels, was more explicit.
In 1849, Engels published an article in Marx’s newspaper, Neue Rheinische Zeitung. In it, Engels condemned the rural populations of the Austrian Empire for failing enthusiastically to partake in the revolution of 1848. This was a seminal moment, the importance of which cannot be overstated.
“From Engel’s article in 1849 down to the death of Hitler,” George Watson wrote in his 1998 book The Lost Literature of Socialism, “everyone who advocated genocide called himself a socialist.”
So, what did Engels write?
“Among all the large and small nations of Austria, only three standard-bearers of progress took an active part in history, and still retain their vitality – the Germans, the Poles and the Magyars. Hence they are now revolutionary. All the other large and small nationalities and peoples are destined to perish before long in the revolutionary world storm. For that reason they are now counter-revolutionary.
“The Austrian Germans and Magyars will be set free and wreak a bloody revenge on the Slav barbarians,” he continued. “The next world war will result in the disappearance from the face of the earth not only of reactionary classes and dynasties, but also of entire reactionary peoples. And that, too, is a step forward.”
Here Engels clearly foreshadows the genocides of the 20th century totalitarianism in general and Soviet regime in particular. In fact, Joseph Stalin loved Engels’ article and commended it to his followers in The Foundations of Leninism in 1924. He then proceeded to suppress Soviet ethnic minorities, including the Jews, Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians.
Adolf Hitler, who admired Stalin for his ruthlessness and called him a “genius,” was also heavily influenced by Marx. “I have learned a great deal from Marxism,” Hitler said, “as I do not hesitate to admit.” Throughout his youth, Hitler “never shunned the company of Marxists” and believed that while the “petit bourgeois Social Democrat … will never make a National Socialist … the Communist always will.”
Hitler’s “differences with the communists”, argued Watson, “were less ideological than tactical”. Hitler embraced German nationalism so as not to “compete with Marxism on its own ground”, but explicitly acknowledged that “‘the whole of national socialism’ was based on Marx”. It is, therefore, unsurprising that Nazi Germany, with its concentration camps and omnipresent secret police, came so closely to resemble the Soviet Union.
How much did the Nazis learn from the Soviets?
In his 1947 memoir Commandant of Auschwitz: The Autobiography of Rudolf Hoess, Hoess recalled that the Germans knew of the Soviet program of extermination of the enemies of the state through forced labour as early as 1939. “If, for example, in building a canal, the inmates of a [Soviet] camp were used up, thousands of fresh kulaks or other unreliable elements were called in who, in their turn, would be used up.” The Nazis would use the same tactic on the Jewish slave laborers in, for example, munition factories.
Following their invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, wrote Watson, the Germans collected information on the immense scale of the Soviet camp system and were impressed by the “Soviet readiness to destroy whole categories of people through forced labor”.
After the war ended, Stalin was deeply worried about what the Germans knew with regard to the Soviet camp system and the crimes that the Soviets committed in the territories they conquered following the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. He sent Andrey Vyshinsky, the mastermind of Stalin’s Great Purge (1936-1938), to Nuremburg to steer the war crimes tribunal away from inconvenient lines of inquiry.
Today we are familiar with the aggregate numbers of people who died as a result of the socialist experiment, but communist terror continues to be shrouded in ontological fog. As such, the Nazi extermination of the Jews is generally condemned as an example of race hatred. The Soviet extermination of specific groups of people, in contrast, is generally seen as part of a much less toxic “class struggle”.
The Marxist theory of history focused on class struggle and posited that feudalism was destined to be superseded by capitalism. Capitalism, in turn, was destined to give way to communism. Marx saw himself chiefly as a scientist and thought that he had discovered an immutable law of evolution of human institutions, from barbarism at the one end to communism at the other end. (Hence the idea of “scientific socialism” that Engels promoted after Marx’s death.)
Peoples stuck in feudalism, like the Slavs, “as well as Basques, Bretons and Scottish Highlanders”, could not progress straight from feudalism to communism. They would have to be exterminated – so as not to keep everyone else back! Watson noted, “They were racial trash, as Engels called them, and fit only for the dung-heap of history.”
How, then, are we to think of socialism and race, and does the answer to that question have any bearing on the distinction that has been drawn between the Nazi and communist atrocities?
In his 1902 Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress upon Human life and Thought, H.G. Wells wrote, “There is a disposition in the world, which the French share, to grossly undervalue the prospects of all things French, derived, so far as I can gather, from the facts that the French were beaten by the Germans in 1870, and that they do not breed with the abandon of rabbits or negroes.”
“I must confess,” he continued, that “I do not see the Negro and the poor Irishman and all the emigrant sweepings of Europe, which constitute the bulk of the American Abyss, uniting to form that great Socialist party.”
Note the ease with which the socialist author of such best-sellers as The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), and The War of the Worlds (1898), conflates backward whites and backward blacks.
To Wells, both were primitive and, consequently, unsuited to be the torchbearers of socialism. That’s perfectly consonant with Marx’s theory of history, which was, by definition, universal in applicability. Creation of a socialist utopia, therefore, depended on the extermination of all races, broadly understood, who stood in the way of socialist revolution. As such, it included black “Bushmen” and white Bretons.
In contrast to Marx, Hitler’s utopia was not universal. Hitler, the leader of the National Socialist German Worker’s Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei), wanted to create socialism in only one country, Germany. Hitler’s hatred of the Jews, for example, was partly rooted in his belief that capitalism and international Jewry were two sides of the same coin. As he once famously asked, “How, as a socialist, can you not be an anti-Semite?”
To achieve their socialist goals, wrote Götz Aly in his 2008 book Hitler’s Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State, the Germans confiscated gold, food, clothing and machinery throughout the territories they conquered. They also put the conquered peoples to work in German slave labour and extermination camps, and factories.
In conclusion, the old distinction between the crimes of National Socialism (as purely racist) and socialism proper (as lacking a racial component) seems to be untenable. Both, the perpetrators of Nazi atrocities (ie, the Germans) and their victims, including the Jews and the Slavs, were white. As such, Nazi atrocities make little sense on the narrow definition of racism (i.e., black versus white). They do make sense in the broader context – the perceived necessity to exterminate all peoples who stood in the way of achieving Hitler’s utopian ideal.
But, the same can be said of communist atrocities. The early socialists certainly toyed with the idea of racial inferiority of the darker races (i.e., narrow definition of racism), but ultimately embraced a program of genocide that was more encompassing. The best that can be said of the socialists, therefore, is that their victims were, in accordance with the universal aspirations of Marxism, more varied than those of Hitler. Let us hope that’s not the sort of inclusivity that Black Lives Matter on both sides of the Atlantic strives for.