Race and Class

Only when we see the working-class as a class-for-itself may we say anything concrete about its supposed “racism.”

Race and Class

Conceivably, any group of individuals may be called a class provided there is some well known rule of classification, e.g., those with an annual income of $10,000 to $15,000 (“middle-income class”), those who live in suburban houses with three or more bedrooms, those whose work demands “blue-collar” work uniforms, those who have “independent wealth” so that they need not work (“leisure class”), etc. In general, this kind of “class” depends only on the existence of classification rules and, as such, tells us little more than that human beings are taxonomizing animals. In this tautological sense, there can be no serious objection to conceiving of a race (or a racial group in a country) as a “class.” We classify, therefore there are classes.

Classes so conceived have an utter lack of content, with nothing to say about the next moment in class formations—class struggle. At best, such a view may vulgarize class interest as being the sum-total of individual interests of those in the same classification—the poor class has a natural gripe against the rich class, the class of the powerless has an eternal motive to resist the powerful, etc. In sum, classes become mysterious social entities of uncanny consensus, and class struggle becomes the manifestation of what Marx called “generalized envy.” Theoretically speaking, such class-analysis amounts to no more than the non-sequitur that there is a difference, hence there is a conflict of difference. Never mind that sometimes the class struggle may not show up as observable social conflict and, conversely, that many a social conflict may not be related to the class struggle. It knows how to do a post-mortem, but is incapable of therapeutic diagnosis.

According to Marx, classes appear as polar types within certain socioeconomic relations, which are often codified into socioeconomic categories. A case of the unity of opposites, so to speak. The mode of production in general, and certain basic relations of the mode of production in particular, is the unity in which classes are opposites. Within the capitalist mode of production the production relation of capital generates the polar types of capitalists and workers. Classes are no ordinary demographic entities—they are characters in a play called the mode of production. They are the molders of even the most abstract philosophical outlooks and the most concrete economic interests. Only after classes are so formulated can we say with Marx that the class struggle is the motive force of history.

A race or a racial group cannot be a class in the strictly economic-relational sense of classes. There is no known economic relation whose workings generate polar types of Blacks on the one hand and Whites on the other. Even during the pre-Civil War period of slavery, the economic relation of slavery generated the dialectic of the owned vs. the owner, the exploited vs. the exploiter, etc.; and this dialectic did not translate directly into that of Blacks and Whites. What was true in United States slavery was that all slaves should be Blacks and all slave-owners should be Whites; what was not true was that all Blacks should be slaves and that all Whites should be slave-owners.

In other words, the class polarization is not directly translatable into the racial polarization and the racial dichotomy is not directly translatable into the class distinction. In fact, the characteristic difference distinguishing a racial from a caste regime (stamping racism as modern and castes as ancient) is this absence of direct identity of racial attributes and economic-relational attributes in racism. The simple racial fact of being a Black tells little about whether a person is a worker or a capitalist. All one can say is that a Black is more likely to be a worker and less likely to be a capitalist than a White, i.e., a case of statistical correlation rather than a categorical certainty.

This lack of a direct identity between the racial and the economic-relational does not, of course, imply that there is no connection whatsoever between racial formation and class formations. All it says is that something must enter into this dialectic as a mediating agent. That racism has certain undeniable economic consequences (and causes), and that the economic structure of a racial regime has a strong racial stamp are part of common sense. But common sense merely recognizes the existence of a connection; theory must develop the character of this connection. So the question is what is the nature of this mediation between the racial and the economic-relational. In other words, even though races are not classes, racial formations and class formations seem to be linked together, and this demands an explanation.

There is a good theoretical precedent for analyzing this kind of dialectic (of indirect identity). The differentia specifica of class formation in capitalism vis-à-vis pre-capitalist eras has already been spelled out by Marx. In pre-capitalist times, class relations were also immediately personal relations, i.e., relations of personal domination. Bourgeois relations break these asunder. Socioeconomic relations themselves have become alienated (or reified) and they strike us as a “fate” of law without a law-giver—what Marx calls the birth of political economy.

A bourgeois is not always a direct bourgeois of certain specific proletarians—he may be an “absentee” capitalist collecting dividends from the stock market. A proletarian is not always a direct proletarian of a certain specific bourgeois—he may be an unemployed worker. Thus, there is a mediation between the employed-employer dialectic and the bourgeois-proletarian dialectic. To put it simply, what Marx called “civil society” (as opposed to households in ancient slavery and estates in feudalism) is the mediation. An “absentee” capitalist is still a bourgeois by dint of his connection with “civil society,” with its stock-exchange and money market. An unemployed worker is still a proletarian by dint of his connection with “civil society,” as its propertyless “citizen.” Even the employer-employed dialectic is determined by this general social condition of capitalist production.

This is in sharp contrast to the slave-master dialectic and the lord-serf dialectic. A slave is always a personal slave of a slave-owner, and a serf is always a personal “inferior” of a lord. Whereas the classical class-relations of pre-civil society are immediately personal, the class relation in civil society is mediated through certain society-at-large determinations (like value, money, and capital).

Likewise, racial categories are “peculiar” in the sense that they are not polar categories of personal relations; a White is not somebody’s White and a Black is not somebody’s Black. This is an indication that racism is not generated by the meeting of a particular Black person and a particular White person. Rather, Blacks and Whites constitute social blocks in a developed setting of “mass society” in which social types (instead of persons) figure as basic units of economic and political management. If racism can be called a scheme of stratification, it is not personally efficacious but socially mediated. Social mediation as a supra-individual and historically developed condition is a necessary step in the distinction of Whites and Blacks, and this mediation can only be provided by civil society.

The crucial intervention of objectification, i.e., relational poles conceived as the intrinsic quality of objects in relation, must not be neglected here. Racial formation in a country is an aspect of class formation, but the reason races are not classes lies in this objectification process (or fetishization) which is crucial for race relations but is more or less absent in class relations in the abstract. A servicable analogy is provided by the “analogous” question of whether gold is money or money is gold. As Marx has analyzed it, the process by which gold becomes money, or money embodies itself in gold, has to do with the peculiar mode of thought in commodity production, i.e. fetishism of commodities. Money, of course, is a relation; but common sense in bourgeois society sees money as the intrinsic quality of gold, independent of the exchange relation. In other words, racial formation is analogous to money formation in that both
relations embody themselves, or objectify themselves, as the quality of objects in relation.

This will go a long way in explaining the meaning of what was said before: a slave must necessarily be a Black, but a Black need not necessarily be a slave. Gold used as money does not necessarily rule out the non-money use of gold (as in the industrial production of plating). Enslavability of Blacks does not necessarily rule out non-slave Blacks.

In common sense, it appears that persons were enslaved because they were Black, i.e. slavery as the consequence of Blackness. But the possibility is much greater that the need for slavery was the premise, and “enslavability” in the capitalist setting had to be objectified in some non-economic objects like physiognomy. It was not that Blacks should be enslaved without exception, i.e., with the force of categorical imperative; it was rather that enslavability would be socially acceptable if its application was limited to persons with certain objectifiable “marks” of enslavability.

Racism, then, does not aim at reducing a racial group to a class slot—not all Blacks are required to be slaves. It does not aim at an air-tight predictable outcome when it comes to the question of who shall be in what class; the rule has to work itself out actuarially. Instead of the personal despotism of the pre-capitalist era, we now have an elaborate system of gambling-house odds. Tokenism is, therefore, correctly perceived as a swan-song; what is a gambling mentality if there are no winners occasionally? Nonetheless, the abstract need of class relations (e. g., there shall be slaves) demands some concrete demographic solution (e.g., Blacks as “candidates” for slaves). The racial rule of slavery did not aim at reducing all Blacks to slaves; it did, however, try to assure the demographic viability of slavery through racism. Racial groups are not classes, but racial formations are very important episodes in the drama of class formations.

In summary, then, the mediation between the racial and the economic-relational is provided by the reality of certain historically developed conditions of social production and the peculiar form of thought which goes with it (the dialectic in the bourgeois era). Races are not classes and the source of the absence of direct identity is the crucial intervention of an objectification process in racial distinction. But this objectification has a particular historical stamp, characteristic of the mode of thought in the bourgeois era. Hence the racial formation has to do with the concrete shape of abstractly conceived class formation. This concreteness is vaguely expressive as the political culture or the economic culture of bourgeois development (in the analogous sense of gold being the “cultural aspect” of the objective relation of money).

In practice, the political economic raison d’être of racial categories lies in the iron-clad social validity which is possible if relations are objectified as the intrinsic quality of “racial features.” Slavery is normally incompatible with bourgeois development, but the intervention of an objectifying process can render sustainability to certain “anomalous arrangements.” Blacks as the absence of the minimum guarantee of bourgeois rights (against enslavement and bondage) presupposes White as a guarantee of immunity from such social degradation. If this is “privilege,” it is not a “privilege” in interpersonal transactions, but a differential privilege in a bourgeois regime.

Racism outside of slavery works in a similar way. If independent trade pursuits and independent farming vocations constitute the “minimal” economic pursuit of happiness in young bourgeoisdom, it is highly significant that racism in the United States also takes on the economic content of dispossession and disinheritance, enforced via the political culture of the racial terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan, Populist bigotry, and the syndicalist outlook of organized labor. This aspect is also reproduced in the secondary racial situation of the West Coast Asians. The Chinese Exclusion Acts began as a movement to drive independent Chinese tradesmen out of urban trades, and the Alien Land Acts began as a movement to drive independent Japanese farmers out of intensive agriculture. Nationally, the tool of racism is most eloquently expressed in the complete racial tum-around in the nineteenth century. In 1800, skilled labor in the United States meant Black labor, with Blacks occupying 75–100 percent of trades. In 1900, Blacks were allowed only in such “trades” as household servitude. Racism is primarily a struggle of the petty-bourgeois, which its more advanced cousin, the bourgeois, also finds quite useful. Recall that such a “champion of labor” as Jack London insisted that he was a whiteman first and a worker second.

The myth that the working-class in the United States is racist also arises from the petty-bourgeois conception of the working-class. The fact that many members of the working-class may be characterized as Archie Bunker types is only a demographic commentary. This commentary is then raised to a categorical premise. As Marx repeatedly pointed out, workers in capitalist production harbor two economic aspects. As the “lower class” citizenry of a bourgeois regime, they are sellers of the (peculiar) commodity of labor-power and buyers of commodities of capitalist production. But as the possessor of the “economic resource” of labor-power (which precludes absentee ownership of this peculiar resource) they are slaves of wage delimitation. Thus, if the working-class is conceived only as the sum total of workers, then this class becomes no more than “crude” bourgeois, and their labor unions become no more than chambers of commerce, plugging their particular interest in the political culture of bourgeoisdom. They also become rabid racists.

But if the working-class is recognized in the richness of its historical imperative, then one will come away with the awareness that, in spite of the virulency of racism in its ranks, this class will eventually pursue its own historical interest and “overcome” the racism in its ranks in spite of itself. If the working-class struggles only as lower bourgeois, its ranks will be festered with racial prejudice and bigotry, its struggle slogans will be limited to “equal distribution of wealth,” “proceeds of labor,” “seniority,” “scab” (to characterize fellow class members in a temporarily opposed side of a particular strife), etc.

This all shows the importance of mediation between racial distinction and class alignment. To the extent that White workers make use of this mediation by fashioning their struggles as lower bourgeois, they become partners in the political culture of racism. To the extent that the lower-bourgeois mode of class struggle is transcended, the working-class will show its revolutionary potential and will bury racism and all of its categorical premises. The story of the working-class in the United States is hardly begun. The question of racism in general, and the question of race and class in particular, are no more than production problems of a dress rehearsal for the “final conflict.” Only then, when we see the working-class as a class-for-itself, may we say anything concrete about the supposed “racism” of the working-class.

Harry Chang worked with the Racism Research Project in Berkeley in the 1970s. A brief biography can be found here.

Originally Published in Paul Liem and Eric Montague, “Toward a Marxist Theory of Racism: Two Essays by Harry Chang,” Review of Radical Political Economics 17(3), pp. 34–45, copyright 1985 by SAGE Publications, Inc. Reprinted by Permission of SAGE Publications, Inc.