SOCIO-ECONOMIC HISTORICAL ROOTS OF RACISM

By  Franz J. T. Lee.

 

1. Introduction

"Race", "racial prejudice", "racial discrimination" and "racism" are very vague, unscientific and polydimensional conceptions, which have caused ideological confusion and social disaster over the last three centuries. Although Arthur J. de Gobineau published a manifesto, The Inequality of the Races (1), and Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels made their manifesto (2) public at about the same time, yet none of them dealt with the crucial question, namely, the relation of the so-called "race struggle" and the "class struggle", especially in the "Third World" context.

However, these authors cannot be dissociated from their intellectual environment; they are products of their epoch, no matter how critical and revolutionary they may have been. Western Europe had experienced an unprecedented development in technology and science, which was accompanied by a strong feeling of "white race superiority". The social sciences bore the imprint of this arrogance, and anthropology, ethnology or sociology attempted to legitimize scientifically the hegemony of Europe and the supremacy of the "Aryan race". Already prior to the French Revolution, great philosophical thinkers like Montesquieu and Voltaire had paved the road for a scientific "racist" thought (3).

Although Karl Marx spoke about "barbarian and semi-barbarian countries dependent on the civilized ones" (4), and found a subject of derision in Lasalle's "negroid" features (5), there is no reason whatsoever to define scientific socialism, as developed by these authors, as being a "racist ideology". However, we must see our socialist teachers within their historic context, and criticize them according to the limitations of their personal and historic knowledge; above all, one realizes how deeply "racism" has penetrated the very "soul" of human beings, living under capitalism, colonialism and imperialism.

De Gobineau was of the opinion that all ancient and modern "civilizations" and cultures were "the creation of white men, the only history being white history" (6). Thus, because all history of "non-white" cultures were practically unknown before 1847 in Europe, we find the controversial statement in the Manifesto: "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle" (7). In a letter to A. H. Starkenburg, Engels even went so far as to state: "We regard economic conditions as the factor which ultimately determines historical development. But race is itself an economic factor" (8).

These examples raise the crucial question: not whether "races" should be treated equally, not whether "races" are equal, but whether the category of "race", which is the base of "racial prejudice" or "racism", is scientifically a valid one. Now, "ghosts", "angels" or "demons" have not been proved to exist in physical reality, but nevertheless they exist intellectually and spiritually in the minds of millions of human beings. Similarly, "races" and "racism" are social realities of our epoch. The problem is not to show that they really exist, but that they are pseudo-concepts, part and parcel of bourgeois ideology, which operates with categories which are scientifically invalid.

These are all necessary to rationalize class rule, economic exploitation and to maintain the status quo of "white" hegemony - and nowadays, even "black" supremacy as well. Only when this point is clear can we analyze "racism" in South Africa or Guyana, or anywhere else on the globe.

The first section of our essay will deal with the historical genesis of such concepts in their socio-economic context. The second and third sections will deal with South Africa and Guyana, respectively, tracing the history of "racism" from the "discoveries" to "colonization" and to the "republics" of the present day. The conclusion will briefly attempt to show similarities and differences between the dominant ideologies practiced in these two countries, which are falsely generally defined as "racism".

 

2. "Race", "Racial Prejudice" and Racism

2.1. The Concept "Race"

The concept "race", in its current use, appeared for the first time in 1684. The French medical doctor and traveler Francois Bernier, wrote about "four or five races of people, whose differences are so obvious, that by right these should be used as the basis for a new division of the world" (9). The real founder of the "race" doctrine, later developed as an ideology, was the Swedish natural scientist, Carl Von Linné. In the tenth revised edition of his famous book, "Systema Naturae", in 1758, he divided the human species into four major "races", according to physical, psychological and social features: Indians, Europeans, Asiatics, and Negroes (10).

Due to the contributions of Houston Chamberlain, G. V. de Lapouge and de Gobineau, eventually the "racist" ideologues settled for three major "race" groups: Caucasoid, Mongoloid and Negroid. These were again sub-divided into various groups, including, for example, the famous "'Aryan race” (11). Scientific knowledge was harnessed in support of the theory of "white race superiority". Charles Darwin's book, "The Origin of the Species. The Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life" (1859) , gave a great impetus to "race" doctrines; in fact, even Marx was fascinated by Darwin's book, obviously for other reasons, and he even wanted to dedicate the second volume of Capital to Darwin. Darwin had connected evolutionary theory to the "race" theory, creating "Social Darwinism ", a tendency which had applied the biological selection theory to the historical social process. (This eventually found its application in Nazism and apartheid, in ideas like the "Herrenvolk" and "Aryan race"). The genetic laws of J. G. Mendel demolished the anthropological criteria for defining "race", and the biological/genetic "racist" scientists had to seek refuge in the field of sociology. From discovering "gene pools", the term "sociological races" was developed (12), for the mechanism of biological heredity made the anthropological concept of "race" meaningless. From "sociological races", ''race prejudice" was inferred, especially by the German Nazi scientists, and later by their pupils, the "Afrikaner" (Boer) scientists.

As No Sizwe, a South African revolutionary, has pointed out, the "race" concept of the South African apartheid adherents is "merely a subjective rendering of the old and discredited anthropological conception of “race" (13). From "racial prejudice", which is a reality in South Africa, they even infer the concept "race". We see no logical reason for this; the concept "racial prejudice" itself implies that the basis of such a belief is erroneous. Inter alia, if ''race" is not genetic, it is an invalid scientific concept, and has to be eliminated from the vocabulary of emancipatory movements.

 

2.2. "Group Antipathy" in Ancient Civilizations

"Civilization" is a concept created at the same time as "race'", and presupposing as it does "civilized" and "uncivilized" peoples, it has many "racial" connotations. We need just to read the works of Marx, Engels, de Gobineau or Darwin to see how this term was used against what were in fact culturally highly developed peoples. In the case of Ancient Egypt, for instance, about a third of the population was composed of "Negroid" peoples, some pharaohs were of "Negro" origin, and at a time an Ethiopian dynasty reigned (14). The Egyptian rulers had enslaved peoples from many countries, among them Africans, especially from Nubia and Ethiopia. The ruling classes spoke scornfully about these groups, but social relations in the slave-owning society of Egypt had nothing to do with "race prejudice".

We have many accounts of how the Egyptians mixed freely with their neighbors, whether slave or free.

In the ancient Greek civilization we find similar social patterns. For Plato, Heracleitus or Aristotle slaves were not considered as citizens, and throughout their works we find scornful remarks about them. This also applied, however, to the white slaves from the North; "race prejudice" was not a relevant factor. The Hellenic Greeks had a cultural bond, and the basic division was simply Greeks and barbarians. The latter were simply peoples who did not speak Greek or possess Greek culture. But the Greeks founded colonies, encouraged the ''barbarians'' to participate in Greek culture, married them freely, and once they had acquired a working knowledge of Greek culture, all the Europeans, Asians and Africans were included in the sonorous concept "Hellas".

At the Time of the Empire of Alexander the Great, a new Greco-Oriental ruling class and culture came into existence, on the basis of all the civilizations within the empire. The class distinction between the ruling class and the un-Hellenized natives was a property, an estate one, not a "sociological race'' division.

In the great Roman empire which followed, similarly, the slaves did not differ in outward appearance from their masters, or from "free men". The norm for superiority in Rome was a cultural/class attribute, and as the empire grew, the basic distinction of Roman citizenship was extended to all freeborn persons in the various municipalities.

In his famous book: "Caste, Class and Race", Oliver Cromwell Cox concluded: "There seems to be no basis for imputing racial antagonism to the Egyptians, Babylonians, or Persians" (15). As Ina Corinne Brown stated, "it is important to emphasize the fact that race prejudice such as we know it did not exist before the modern age" (16).

 

2.3. Slavery And "Racism"

From the Roman Empire, to the "barbarian" invasions of Europe, the reign of the Moslems, and until the era of domination of Roman Catholicism, the rationalization given for slavery was not slaves' color, but culture or religion. Even as late as the 15th century, when the Transatlantic Slave Trade began, Africans were not enslaved because they were black, but because they were not-Christian, and for economic reasons.

"Slavery in the Caribbean has been too narrowly identified with the Negro. A racial twist has thereby been given to what is basically an economic phenomenon. Slavery was not born of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery. Unfree labor in the New World was brown white, black and yellow; Catholic, Protestant and Pagan" (17).

Before slavery became "big business", the readiness of an African slave to become a Christian was sufficient to gain his emancipation. Later, after the "race" ideology was developed, he had no possibility to change his genes, and slave status was identical with black, and later with "colored" or yellow.

During the "age of discovery" and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the very European languages became vehicles of emerging "racism"; it entered into children's stories, rhymes and songs. The "Ten Little Black Niggers", the "Struwwelpeter" , the "Bimbos" , etc., all came into existence. The word "negro" never was used in Africa before the 15th century, especially not in "Black Africa", but ever since then "negro" and "negrero" became household words. Tackling our theme in medias res, let us look at the meaning of "black". Of the synonyms for "black" in Roget's Thesaurus, the majority, over 60, have a negative connotation. The concept "white", on the other hand, in Webster's World Dictionary of the American Language, designates something "angelic, godly , divine, morally or spiritually pure, honorable, decent, etc." So, deeply, colonial languages express "anti-Negro prejudice"; and a study of language, (for example, English), will tell us all about the development of "racism" in the British Empire (18).

"Racism" in the English language can be traced back to the reign of Elizabeth I (1558 - 1603), especially after she decreed that "Negroes and Blackamoors" had to be expelled from her realm. The beginning of "race relations" dates back to 1493/94, when the Pope granted Catholic Spain and Portugal jurisdictional control over the "heathen" peoples of the New World and their resources; later, this also applied to the African and Asian continents.

The "Negro", as his colonial designation indicates, was distinguished from his white slave-master by his skin color - black. Over the decades the invidious connotations of the slave status were transferred to anyone who was black, and eventually to anyone who was "non-white". We have seen already how Bernier, de Gobineau or Linné had then elevated "Europeans" with a white skin color to "superiority" and "Negroes" to "inferiority", using these as pseudo-categories in their "race doctrines". However, "racism", like capitalism itself, had a long historic process of development; only in the 19th century, when capitalism had captured economic and political power, could "racism" reach maturity as part of the general Ideology which gave rationalizations for colonial, social discrimination, and for the division of labor on an international scale (19).

 

2.4. Capitalism and "Racism"

Concerning the genesis of "racism" and its relation to capitalism, we might quote from a lecture held by the author at various universities in Germany, in October 1976:

" 'Race hatred' ... as a derivative of 'underdevelopment' of Africa and the 'development' of Europe came into existence and became the distinguishing mark of social relations between men of different pigmentations. The concept 'Neger' (Negro) thus acquired its historic discriminatory content ....

'Racism' ... is very closely knitted with the genesis of world capitalism; it functions as a disguise, as rationalization for the barbaric crimes of the colonial epoch .... But it also has a function at home in the metropolitan countries; the common members of the 'master race' stand high up on the rungs of the social ladder of the world, higher than the 'aborigines', 'Bushmen' 'Negroes', 'Red-skins', 'Coolies', 'camel-drivers', etc." (20).

"Racism" and "capitalism" have a similar genesis. There can be no "racism" without capitalism, and no world capitalism without international "racism". "Racism" is a direct product of the evolution of colonialism and imperialism; it is either openly present or potentially latent in all capitalist countries. Wherever capitalism is flourishing as "neocolonialism" in the so-called "developing world", "racism" in modern forms, with new faces, and new masks, is virulent and contagious.  

 

                                               

FOOTNOTES

1. Los Angeles, Noontide Press, 1966.

2. Manifesto of the Communist Party. Moscow, Progress Publishers, 1969.

3. See Carlos Moore, Were Marx and Engels White Racists?; Chicago, IPE, 1972, p.12; W.F. Fleming, ed., The Works of Voltaire. New York, 1901 , pp. 240-41 .

4. Manifesto, op. cit., p. 47.

5. See Moore, op. cit., p. 23.

6. De Gobineau, op. cit., pp. 210-12.

7. Marx and Engels, op. cit., p. 40.

8. Marx and Engels, Oeuvres Choisies. Moscow, Editions de Progres, 1955, Vol. II, p. 554.

9. Cited in Michael Traber, Rassismus und weisse Vorherrschaft. Niirnberg (Freiburg i. Ve., Lactare/Imba, pp. 11 -15 (our translation).

10. Ibid., p. 15.

11. Anthropologie, Frankfurt/M., Das Fischer Lexikon, Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1973, pp. 187-215.

12. No Sizwe, One Azania, One Nation. London, Zed Press, 1979, pr. 132-36.

13. Ibid., p. 135.

14. See George Breitman, "When Race Prejudice Began", Fourth

International, Spring 1954.

15. Cited, ibid.

16. Ibid.  

17. Eric Williams Capitalism and Slavery. London, André Deutsch, 1975 P. 7.  

18. Alem Mizgebe, "Language as a Tool of Racist Attitudes," New African, No. 169 (October, 1981), p. 14.

19. See Breitman, op. cit.  

20. Franz J.T. Lee, "Das Südliche Afrika auf dem Weg zur Befreiung," ASTA- Brochure, Technische Universität Hannover, 1976, p. 6.