The origins of racism

The following article was first published in 1994 in the August-September edition, No.58, of Militant International Review, the predecessor magazine of Socialism Today. The author was ANDREA ENISUOH, who in 1989 had become the first black woman elected to the National Union of Students national executive committee – as a proud Militant supporter. Andrea sadly died in February this year, at the far too early age of 49.

The early 1990s have seen the issue of race and nationality to the fore in both political and social life. The last few years have been marked by the growth of racism, the re-emergence of fascist parties on a Europe-wide scale, and the development of nationalist wars.

Equally significant, however, has been the development of a fightback against racism and fascism. Many young people in particular, repulsed by increasing racial attacks and murders, are joining the anti-fascist movement.

Yet while the far-right have provided some focus for anti-racist activity they remain a small factor in the development of racism in society. The racist sentiments that the fascists and far-right have been able to play on have to varying extents already existed in many white communities. Far more than any of their more overtly anti-working class policies it is racist rhetoric that has provided them with a platform. While not being the direct cause of racism in society they have used the growth of racism to their advantage.

Undoubtedly, overtly racist sentiments surface and gain a broader echo when social conditions worsen. A lack of decent jobs, homes and health facilities, etc, does create an atmosphere of division. In a search for scapegoats blacks are targeted. Yet can the existence of racist ideas in society merely be attributed to the lack of a job or a home? Or do appalling social conditions simply bring to the surface and inflame already deep-rooted prejudices?

To explain last year’s council seat election victory of the British National Party (BNP) in East London’s Isle of Dogs, for example, simply by reference to the social conditions in the area, would be to ignore how deeply racial prejudice can sink into the consciousness of some sections of workers. It would misunderstand the ‘dual consciousness’ that exists amongst the white population there, of on the one hand backward racial prejudices among some sections and, on the other hand, a long history of radical struggle on the docks and in the community, from rent strikes in the 1960s and 1970s to, more recently, the poll tax non-payment campaign. When a clear lead has been given bigoted ideas have not been to the fore. When no authoritative alternative is posed, however, racist ideas once again find a receptive audience.

This is not to say, however, that racism is an inherent part of an individual’s character. The hard-hitting advert by the Commission for Racial Equality is correct when it proclaims that ‘people learn to be racist – no-one is born that way’. This, of course, would be contested by racist ‘theorists’, who would argue that racial antagonisms are an inevitable part of ‘human nature’. It is also by implication refuted by some black activists who believe racism has nothing to do with the type of society that we live in. Lee Jasper of the National Black Caucus, for example, has argued against a class analysis of racism on the grounds that “racism clearly pre- and indeed post-dates class societies”. (Morning Star, 26 October 1992)

It is true that prejudice towards different ethnic groups, ignorance and xenophobia are not peculiar to capitalist society. The initial interaction of different ethnic groups could give rise to various beliefs and prejudices. Yet it was only during the early stages of capitalist society that racial theories were advanced, and then incorporated into the ideology of the ruling class.

The central role of slavery

Central to this process was the development of the black slave trade from the late 16th century. To justify this brutal subjugation of African people racist ideas were developed by those involved in and benefiting from this trade, primarily the new merchant capitalists but also the plantation owners.

These ideas were then systematized and developed into an ideology of race, dividing humans into categories, ascribing ‘unique’ characteristics to each ‘race’, and so on. In any class-based society the ideology of the ruling class becomes dominant. Those that control society have a vested interest in developing concepts and ideas that justify their rule. It was in this context that racial theories developed.

The black slave trade played an enormous role in the development of modern capitalism. British cities such as Liverpool, Bristol, and to a large extent London, were literally built from its profits during the 18th century. Slavery and slave-produced cotton and sugar created boom towns. However, slavery, while important to the development of capitalism at the early stage of accumulation, began to reach its limits. Defending the apparatus of slavery became an obstacle to the development of capitalism, the system of the ‘free’ market and the ‘free’ exchange of labour and capital. Consequently certain sections of the ruling class began to call for abolition.

This call is presented in many of the history text books of today as a moral crusade. Yet in reality economic factors were the real driving force behind the demands of many leading abolitionists. Famous banking families such as Lloyds and Barclays, who had previously made a fortune out of the slave trade, now put their weight behind abolition. In 1787 a major campaign against the slave trade was launched, its ranks filled mainly by sections of the capitalists who argued that free labour and free trade were a much more profitable system. Demands to end the slave trade gained momentum, although the slave traders and planters proved a powerful lobby in defence of the trade.

It was during this debate by sections of the ruling class that the earlier racial theories were ‘refined’. In both social and political circles racial characteristics were discussed and debated. It was argued that blacks were a mere sub-species, that they were lazy, stupid, and ‘a few degrees from an orangutan’ – in fact, being a plantation slave was the best thing for them! In a period of increasing slave rebellions these too were ‘scientifically’ rationalised: some slaves had a disease that made them want to keep on running away.

These ideas were not the rantings of a few uneducated individuals; they permeated deeply into bourgeois thought. Church leaders, writers, and academics, all espoused these views. ‘Scientific’ notions of black inferiority were advanced by established figures. Edward Long, a former judge and planter in Jamaica, was a pioneer in writing ‘scientific’ racist theories, such as his book, History of Jamaica, published in 1774. Western philosophers such as John Locke and David Hume argued that blacks were naturally inferior.

While leading abolitionists argued their case on the grounds of equality they had little real interest in the equality of black people. William Wilberforce, often portrayed as the great emancipator, condemned every slave rebellion that took place. Yet the increasing prevalence of slave uprisings, combined with the fact that the logic of capitalist development lay with the abolitionists, meant that the slave trade was ended in 1807 and slavery abolished in 1833.

Even after the abolition of slavery, however, racist ideas were used to argue that blacks were not capable of looking after themselves. Without the direction of white planters it was argued that they would descend into barbarism. This argument was used to try to keep blacks on the plantations as a source of cheap labour.

An ideological weapon

Racism had now acquired a conscious and generalised character, and became part of the ideological armoury of the ruling class. It was deployed with new refinements to justify the expansion and consolidation of the empire in the 19th century.

Again pseudo-scientific ‘theories’ were advanced. In 1914 the British empire had a population of 431 million, over 370 million of whom were blacks. It became a popular argument that the shape of an African’s skull proved that they were inferior to Europeans. Other theories suggested that blacks needed to be civilized and controlled, hence white domination.

While pseudo-scientists gave a cloak of officialdom to these ideas it was the press that played a key role in popularising these ideas amongst the working class. Moreover, the development of empire also created a material basis for the permutation of racist ideas into the working class, through the medium of a ‘labour aristocracy’ of relatively well-to-do skilled, craft-conscious workers and trade union officials.

It is not just in Britain that racism was used and developed in this way. From slavery to the ‘Scramble for Africa’, where the imperialist powers divided up Africa for themselves, many European countries played a similar role. In the more recent period they too have continued to develop racist ideas.

In the recent period the ruling class continues to use racist ideologies to serve their purpose, to deflect attention from the cause of society’s problems, and to sow divisions in the working class. While more subtle, racist ideas still permeate the education system, popular press and media. The national curriculum in schools, for example, is deliberately designed, among other things, to blind children to the key role blacks have played in the development of society. Bogus ‘immigration sensation’ stories are constantly churned out by the tabloid newspapers, giving the impression that the country is ‘too full’. Racism has moved a long way from the early days of slavery but it is still a key ideological weapon of the ruling class, deeply rooted in society.

How then will racism be overcome? Racial prejudices will primarily be surmounted during the course of workers’ struggles. In the battle against the employers, most workers will recognise that they cannot afford a disunited movement. In a search for unity opportunities will emerge to combat racist ideas.

Yet this will not be automatic nor straightforward. Struggles within the workers’ movement itself will inevitably need to take place if prejudice is to be overcome. Workers’ leaders who tolerate racism will have to be challenged. It is the job of Marxists to consciously intervene in these battles.

Moreover, notwithstanding the experience of united struggle, when the workers’ movement suffers defeats the possibility exists for the old prejudices to resurface. When the working class seized power in Russia in 1917 they made great steps in ending national oppression. But the workers themselves were too weak to hold political power for all but a short period. Stalin headed the usurping of power by the officialdom who bureaucratically ruled for the next 70 years. To maintain their privileged position the bureaucracy controlled society both with a police apparatus and by borrowing the ideological weaponry of feudalism and capitalism, including antisemitism, chauvinism, and Great Russian nationalism.

Only a new society of abundance, free from the economic and ideological control of the capitalists, will allow new generations to finally eradicate the deep rooted ideology of race.

Fighting racism, fighting for socialism – a selection of Socialism Today’s coverage over the years

After the Lawrence report – Socialism Today No.37, April 1999. The McPherson report into the 1993 murder of Stephen Lawrence was published in February 1999, confirming the deep-seated racism persisting in British society – fostered and nurtured by capitalism.

Ali & the struggles of the 1960s – Socialism Today No.72, February 2003. The movement against the Iraq war sparked a new interest in the struggles of the 1960s. One individual who bridged the anti-war and black liberation movements then was the world champion boxer, Muhammad Ali.

Islam and socialism – Socialism Today No.87, October 2004. A socialist approach to how Islamophobia can be fought, drawing out lessons from the policies of the Bolsheviks in the aftermath of the Russian revolution.

Race, class & Katrina – Socialism Today No.95, October 2005. When Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans, the working-class poor, mostly African-Americans, were abandoned to their fate, turning the spotlight on US capitalism’s social disaster of class polarisation, poverty and racism.

The Soweto uprising 1976 – Socialism Today No.101, June 2006. A 1970s Black Consciousness activist looks back at Soweto – and how, faced with the murderous power of the capitalist system and its state, the youth concluded that their anger needed workers’ power to become a material force.

Lessons from the Black Panthers – Socialism Today No.104, October 2006. The Black Panther Party for Self Defense, founded in Oakland, California in 1966, represented the highest point of the rebellion against racism and poverty which swept the US in the 1950s and 1960s.

The end of the slave trade: myth & reality – Socialism Today No.108, April 2007. The British empire was built on the bones of millions of Africans torn from their homes. Its subsequent abolition of the slave trade is shrouded in myths. But it was mighty social forces, especially slave uprisings, which were behind the 1807 act.

Fighting for a promised land – Socialism Today No.118, May 2008. Examining the life and ideas of Martin Luther King, the civil rights leader who inspired millions that fundamental change in US society was possible.

Pan-African pioneer – Socialism Today No.124, Dec-Jan 2008/09. A review of a biography of Marcus Garvey, still an iconic figure.

Unpacking the rucksack – Socialism Today No.192, October 2015. Identity politics can be an important first step to socialism if it leads on to an understanding of the class nature of capitalist society and the need for united, mass struggle.

Understanding the far-right threat – Socialism Today No.220, July-August 2018. Defeating the far-right threat is not separate from the general task of realising the potential for working class action to combat racism and fight for a socialist programme.

Do we really need a new Anti-Nazi League? – Socialism Today No.223, November 2018. The real lesson for today from the 1970s was that working class action, not cross-class unity, was decisive in undercutting the National Front’s attempts to use racism to build a mass base.

All the articles listed are available on the Socialism Today website at