Karl Marx - the racist?

Karl Marx - the racist?

A comment piece by a certain Professor Walter Williams, has been doing the rounds on the internet. This is part of what he wrote, which was published on 21 june 2006:

Karl Marx is the hero of some labor union leaders and civil rights organizations, including those who organized the recent protest against proposed immigration legislation. It's easy to be a Marxist if you haven't read his writings. Most people agree that Marx's predictions about capitalism turned out to be dead wrong.

What most people don't know is that Marx was an out and out racist and anti-Semite. He didn't think much of Mexicans. Concerning the annexation of California after the Mexican-American War, Marx wrote: "Without violence nothing is ever accomplished in history." Then he asks, "Is it a misfortune that magnificent California was seized from the lazy Mexicans who did not know what to do with it?" Friedrich Engels, Marx's co-author of the "Manifesto of the Communist Party," added, "In America we have witnessed the conquest of Mexico and have rejoiced at it. It is to the interest of its own development that Mexico will be placed under the tutelage of the United States." Much of Marx's ideas can be found in a book written by former communist Nathaniel Weyl, titled "Karl Marx, Racist" (1979).

In a July 1862 letter to Engels, in reference to his socialist political competitor, Ferdinand Lassalle, Marx wrote, ". . . it is now completely clear to me that he, as is proved by his cranial formation and his hair, descends from the Negroes from Egypt, assuming that his mother or grandmother had not interbred with a nigger. Now this union of Judaism and Germanism with a basic Negro substance must produce a peculiar product. The obtrusiveness of the fellow is also nigger-like."

Engels shared much of Marx's racial philosophy. In 1887, Paul Lafargue, who was Marx's son-in-law, was a candidate for a council seat in a Paris district that contained a zoo. Engels claimed that Paul had "one eighth or one twelfth nigger blood." In an April 1887 letter to Paul's wife, Engels wrote, "Being in his quality as a nigger, a degree nearer to the rest of the animal kingdom than the rest of us, he is undoubtedly the most appropriate representative of that district."

I had never read the letters mentioned by Williams. A quick search of the Marxists Internet Archive will retrieve the full texts. It is indeed very surprising to see the two reds write in such terms. So what is the truth of the matter?

Firstly, Williams is wrong to regard Marx as an anti-semite. This claim, be it from Nazis or Zionists alike, is based on the early On the Jewish Question piece by Marx.

This was written at a time when Marx was beginning to develop his communist thinking, so the piece does not discuss Capital or wage labour and is heavily laced with philosophical vernacular. When read carefully, Marx was not being an anti-semite; he was making a call for human emancipation - an emancipation that could be arrived at through the establishment of a moneyless society. More detailed rebuttals of the anti-semite charge are to be found by Hal Draper and Adam Buick.

A point worth remembering is the position of Jews in 1800s Germany. They were considered outcasts and did not own land like the peasants. An option open to them for making a living, usury, was considered sinful by the Christian Church. It becomes easy to see how the Jews became stereotyped. Despite the fact that usury became a way of making money for everyone later on, the Nazis still employed this socio-economic aspect of German history in their racist propaganda.

The "lazy Mexicans" remark is also easily disposed of. The only piece I could find with this exact phrase is Engels article in Neue Rheinische Zeitung from February 1849 dealing with Bakunin and (the article's name) "Democratic Pan-Slavism."

In an earlier post, I linked to the article "Marx In His Time." That article remarked that capitalism was only beginning to develop and for Marx and Engels that meant that the system still had a progressive role to play in breaking down the political and economic structures of feudalism and developing the material basis for socialism.

Williams doesn't deal with the entire quote:

Just a word about "universal fraternal union of peoples" and the drawing of "boundaries established by the sovereign will of the peoples themselves on the basis of their national characteristics". The United States and Mexico are two republics, in both of which the people is sovereign.

How did it happen that over Texas a war broke out between these two republics, which, according to the moral theory, ought to have been "fraternally united" and "federated", and that, owing to "geographical, commercial and strategical necessities", the "sovereign will" of the American people, supported by the bravery of the American volunteers, shifted the boundaries drawn by nature some hundreds of miles further south? And will Bakunin accuse the Americans of a "war of conquest", which, although it deals with a severe blow to his theory based on "justice and humanity", was nevertheless waged wholly and solely in the interest of civilization? Or is it perhaps unfortunate that splendid California has been taken away from the lazy Mexicans, who could not do anything with it? That the energetic Yankees by rapid exploitation of the California gold mines will increase the means of circulation, in a few years will concentrate a dense population and extensive trade at the most suitable places on the coast of the Pacific Ocean, create large cities, open up communications by steamship, construct a railway from New York to San Francisco, for the first time really open the Pacific Ocean to civilization, and for the third time in history give the world trade a new direction? The "independence" of a few Spanish Californians and Texans may suffer because of it, in someplaces "justice" and other moral principles may be violated; but what does that matter to such facts of world-historic significance?

The Marxist Internet Archive commentary is worth reading here:

The reference is to the war of 1846-48 between the United States of America and Mexico, as a result of which the USA seized almost half of Mexico’s territory, including the whole of Texas, Upper California, New Mexico and other regions. In assessing these events in the article Engels proceeded from the general conception that it was progressive for patriarchal and feudal countries to be drawn into the orbit of bourgeois relations because, he thought, this accelerated the creation of preconditions for a proletarian revolution. In subsequent years, however, he and Marx fully understood the deplorable consequences of colonial conquests and the subjugation of backward countries by large states. In particular, having made a thorough study of the history of US aggression in Mexico and other countries of the American continent, Marx in his article “The Civil War in North America” (1861) described it as expansion in the interests of the then dominant slave-owning oligarchy in the Southern States and of the bourgeois elements in the North which supported it, as a policy aimed at seizing new territories to spread slavery.

It isn't a rareity in Marx and Engels to see them describe groups of people as lazy or cowardly. This is not a slur of a racial nature but a description of their actions in an historical context.

The Socialist Party uses race as a singular noun. There is only one race: the Human Race (Homo sapiens). Looking back to 1904, when the party wrote its founding object and declaration of principles it is easy to see that race was considered a plural noun:

That as in the order of social evolution the working class is the last class to achieve its freedom, the emancipation of the working class will involve the emancipation of all mankind, without distinction of race or sex.

A sample clip from the "Socialist Standard" (an article called "The Next Great War," from November 1914) will also reveal a use of the word "race" in a way we wouldn't use today:

We know that, so far was it from being true that the devlopment of the instruments of destruction had rendered war too awful for advanced peoples to contemplate, that among the teeming millions of the most advanced races of the earth the greatest triumphs of the engines of butchery were received with the greatest joy. (My emphasis.)

This plural use of race is still in general use today, despite the best efforts of the SPGB. Obviously, it was held back in 1904 and back into the 1800s. You'll see many a work where Marx and Engels will discuss races, even among white Europeans.

The "advanced" bit also needs an explanation. The marxian way of thinking looks at the means of production. Capitalism, as we have seen above, develops the productive forces of society to a higher level - instead of small scale and isolated, subsistance production, the factory system and interconnected large-scale production becomes the norm. The advanced nations (or races in this 1914 context) were Europe and the USA because the capitalist system was well developed. This aspect of marxian thinking was to receive much criticism later on as being Eurocentric.

[addition: it was quite common to regard Europe as a centre of civilisation in the 1800s; just look at the way Engels describes Austria as barbarous in this piece: "Hence the House of Austria was invincible as long as the barbarous character of its subjects remained untouched. Hence it was threatened by only one danger — the penetration of bourgeois civilisation."]

Now for the hard part.

"Nigger" did not, it seem, have the pejorative meaning that it does today; there are contradictory accounts on the word's history on the net, here and here . Even now, the word is full of contradiction: a white would be castigated for using it, whereas "the brothers and sisters" - especially in the rap scene, e.g. the famous group NWA - use it quite alot.

Even so, Marx's use of it in his letter to Engels, in reference to Lassalle, does raise an eyebrow. As does Engels reference to Paul Lafargue being closer to the animal kingdom than others. The latter reference becomes even more mysterious given that Engels was writing to Laura, Paul's wife! Were those lines written in anger or jest? It is no secret that Marx was not particularly fond of Lassalle.

Marx was against slavery: "Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded."

The blurb to August Nimtz's book "Marx, Tocqueville, and Race in America : The Absolute Democracy or Defiled Republic" states:

While Alexis de Tocqueville described America as the absolute democracy, Karl Marx saw the nation as a defiled republic so long as it permitted the enslavement of blacks. August J. Nimtz argues that Marx, unlike Tocqueville, not only recognized that the overthrow of slavery and the cessation of racial oppression were central to democracy's realization but was willing to act on these convictions. This potent and insightful investigation into the approaches of two major thinkers provides fresh insight into past and present debates about race and democracy in America.

Chapter One of the book is online and worth reading because it discusses the Jewish Question too.

This should also be compared to a letter from Engels to Marx, from 1865:

Mr Johnson’s policy is less and less to, my liking, too. Nigger -hatred is coming out more and more violently, and he is relinquishing all his power vis-à-vis the old lords in the South. If this should continue, all the old secessionist scoundrels will be in Congress in Washington in 6 months time. Without coloured suffrage nothing can be done, and Johnson is leaving it up to the defeated, the ex-slaveowners, to decide on that. It is absurd. Nevertheless, one must still reckon on things turning out differently from what these barons imagined. After all, the majority of them have been completely ruined and will be glad to sell land to immigrants and speculators from the North. The latter will arrive soon enough and make a good number of changes. I think the mean whites will gradually die out. Nothing more will become of this race; those who are left after 2 generations will merge with the immigrants to make a completely different race.

The niggers will probably turn into small squatters as in Jamaica. Thus ultimately the oligarchy will go to pot after all, but the process could be accomplished immediately at one fell swoop, whereas it is now being drawn out.

What becomes readily apparant from all this is the way Marx and Engels applied a view of race that was of their time. Darwin had only just postulated the origin of the species through natural selection, which was to be refined further by Mendel and inheritence. The whole spectrum of thought on human evolution, anthropology, genetics, "genethics" and psychology that we have today was obviously unheard of then.

When Engels, above, speaks of "Nigger" blood he is using a phrase still found to this day, whereas "everyone" knows that biological characteristics are passed on through chromosomes and the DNA they contain. Incidentally, racists would attribute unchanging social characteristics to people based on biology, whereas social conditions and relationships for Marx and Engels derived from the means of production, the basis for the reproduction of life, and these are always subject to change.

That said, there is more baffling stuff on race. This time, Engels to Marx, from 1864:

Schleswig is a curious country — the cast coast very pretty and prosperous, the west coast also prosperous, heath and moors in the middle. All the bays extremely beautiful. The people are decidedly one of the biggest and heaviest of all the human races on Earth, especially the Frisians on the west coast. One only needs to travel across the country to be convinced that the main stock of the English comes from Schleswig. You know the Dutch Frisians, in particular those colossal Frisian women with their delicate white and fresh red complexions (which also predominate in Schleswig). They are the ancestral types of the northern English, and in particular those colossal women, who are also found here in England, all are of decidedly Frisian type. There is no doubt in my mind that the ‘Jutes’ (Anglo-Saxon eotena cyn), who migrated to England with the Angles and Saxons, were Frisians, and that the Danish migration to Jutland, as to Schleswig, dates only from the 7th or 8th century. The present Jutland dialect is proof enough of this.

These fellows are great fanatics and, for that reason, really took my fancy. You must have read something by that extraordinary ‘Dr K. J. Clement of North Friesland’. The man is typical of the whole race. These fellows are in deadly earnest about their struggle against the Danes, which is their whole purpose in life, and the Schleswig-Holstein theory is not an end but a means for them. They regard themselves as a physically and morally superior race to the Danes, and indeed they are. Bismarck was really kidding himself when he thought he could get the measure of such people by his own methods. We have held out against the Danes for fifteen years and became consolidated on our territory, and are we supposed to let these Prussian bureaucrats get us down? — that’s what these fellows were saying.

"...and indeed they are." Is this Engels paraphrasing or making a genuine comparison between the Danes and Schleswig-Holstein Germans? (You can almost begin to see opponents comparing this to the nazis.)

This is by no means an exhaustive coverage of the issue. I shall have to get hold of Nimtz's and Weyl's books - I haven't read either. The whole issue has raised alot of interesting questions; time to read and research to answer them!

Going back to the Williams article, it is obvious that there is an effort to discredit the theories of Marx by going for the man, but this isn't surprising coming as it does from a Libertarian Professor of Economics. Simon W. of the Socialist Party made an interesting point on the issue:

There is a philosophical fallacy known as the 'expert fallacy'. The best recent example of this is Einstein, who was a lovely little physicist but whose opinions on world affairs were considered haphazard. You don't have to agree with Einstein's opinions to agree with his physics. In the same way, you don't have to like someone's personal utterances to agree with their ideas. So, despite what Marx may have said in unguarded moments, his ideas remain worthy of consideration. The irony is that 'philosophers' who are all too keen to prosecute Marx would subscribe to the expert fallacy - for everyone apart from those they have a beef with in terms of their ideas. Can a philosopher recuse themselves?

Marx wasn't a god or an infallible source. He was a man and is open to criticism. The Socialist party doesn't hero worship Marx or engage in a cult of personality. Whilst indebted to ideas developed by Marx, such as the Labour theory of value and his analysis of Capitalism in "Das Kapital", our case rests on its own merits.

Let's see what Professor Williams has to say against the SPGB case that capitalism cannot work in the interests of the working class.