Manning Marable’s “How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America” was a disappointing read, with a disappointing conclusion. Marable concludes that only through a socialist revolution can blacks (and women, and other minorities) achieve “development” on a level comparable to whites in the U.S. Even then, according to Marable, that revolution can only come once white Americans have succeeded in overturning their own racism.1 The likelihood of either one or both of those conditions, being met any time soon seems quite remote; making the situation for African-Americans in the U.S. apparently hopeless.
While Marable is writing from the perspective of a radical critique of the history of race relations and its economic impact on African-Americans (and to a lesser extent, poor whites, women, gays and other minorities), his approach is inconsistent. At times he uses a class perspective to explain how capitalism structurally under-develops the proletariat. At other times, he utilizes a race-based perspective to account for the underdevelopment of minorities.
The confusion is inherent in the subject matter. It is difficult to disentangle to what extent the underdevelopment of economically peripheral groups in the US is due to the racism of the white power structure, and how much is due to the power-structure inherent in capitalist economic systems. It is doubtful that economic equality would lead to an end to non-structural or cultural racism, or that an end to cultural racism would ipso facto lead to more acceptance of a socialist economic order. I think the best one could hope for, realistically, is for the working class to arrive at a consensus that they all have a common economic interest, and to be willing to set aside cultural racism in order to present a unified political front.
The book’s thesis would have been helped if it had incorporated a broader historical perspective on slavery. Slavery pre-dates capitalist economic systems, and in these pre-capitalist systems, slavery was not always based on race. The rather interesting question of whether slavery in capitalist systems is inherently racist was not explored by Marable. Neither does he lay out an argument as to whether cultural racism is caused by or is a cause of economic exploitation. Without cultural racism, do you get structural racism? What is the cause and effect here? Does capitalism simply institutionalize economic exploitation, which has at its core cultural racism? Or is cultural racism a consequence of an alien economic system being imposed on non-capitalist societies from afar? A deeper exploration of the cause and effect relationship between capitalism and cultural racism may have yielded a more persuasive argument for a socialist revolution.
Additionally, in laying down the necessary pre-requisites under which a socialist revolution can take place, Marable’s lays out a classically tautological argument. According to Marable, the capitalist system in the US (and presumably elsewhere) is structurally racist, and only through its overthrow can a non-racist system be established. However, in order to enact this socialist revolution, first, cultural racism has to be overcome. Well, how do you overcome cultural racism in a system which breeds and perpetuates structural racism? On top of that, if the system is inherently structurally racist, why WOULD the people who benefit the most from it, seek to have it overthrown? It seems more likely that the system will have to first collapse on its own accord before a new system can replace it.
Marable is a self-described black socialist, who asserts that only through the overthrow of the capitalist order can blacks achieve, well, achieve exactly what is a little vague. Presumably “development” is what needs to be achieved. Marable lays out the conditions which he believes must be met in order to build, “an alternative to the oppressive state which we seek to overturn.”2 But it remains unclear throughout the book whether it is the economic system alone which must be overthrown; the state and its economic system, or both.
The book could have been so much better than it was.
One of the problems with this particular edition, is that the book is dated, and comes across as slightly dated in several sections. Published in 1983, it interprets events happening in the US in the early 1980s through the long lens of racial and class struggle. That’s not to say that a rewrite in 2005 would change the thesis. Nor would I want to imply that somehow things have gotten better for blacks since 1983, because that is not the case. Things have gotten worse.
As to literary style, it is not entirely clear who Marable’s intended audience is. In an effective presentation of historical fact, he lays out a detailed list of historical atrocities directed against African-Americans throughout U.S. history, some of which are relatively well known among even novice historians. This would seem to indicate that his intended audience may be college freshmen, sympathetic white liberals or black adults. This even seems to be indicated by the quote from C.L.R. James which he closes the book with:
“…If this (book) has stimulated you to pursue the further study of Marxism, we will have struck a blow for…mankind”
However, he also at other times seems to presume the reader already has a working knowledge of Marxist philosophy when he uses terms such as “The Domestic Periphery” and “The Domestic Core” as titles for Sections I and II of the book, and in no way attempts to explain how the theory of “core” and “periphery” works, or how the core and periphery interact.
Marabel also fails to spell out what blacks (and other peripheral groups) would gain in an alternative socialist state. He does a great job of documenting the atrocities perpetuated largely on African-American by whites throughout U.S. history, and he has some rather definite ideas on the desirability of over-throwing the system. But somewhere in-between, something seems to be missing.
It’s a little bit like this old episode of South Park, where tiny gnomes were stealing people’s underwear. When the gnomes were asked why they were stealing the underwear, their response is that they have a 3 part plan. Part one, steal underwear; part three: profit. When asked about part 2, it turns out the gnomes had not yet decided on exactly what part 2 is, or how it works.
Perhaps peripheral groups would gain power in a new socialist order; but power for what purpose? Certainly not power so as to accumulate wealth or material goods. And certainly not power so as to attain status, since status is a function of wealth (you eliminate wealth, you eliminate status). Peripheral groups would not be exercising power to overcome racism, since one of the preconditions Marable lays out for a socialist overthrow of the oppressive state is the elimination of white (presumably cultural) racism.3
Peripheral groups would most probably get better education and health care. They would most likely get more equitable treatment in the criminal justice system. Yet, these goals could, at least theoretically, be achieved within a democratic capitalist economic system, through a more aggressive redistribution of wealth; which could be brought about by a class-based social movement broader in scope than previous race and gender based movements. Integration of more peripheral groups into the political system would be more likely to bring about desired, if incremental, change than withdrawing from the system and waiting it out.