Marxism has been a threat to the ruling class since Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto in 1848. This means that over the past 170 years, Marxism has been subjected to numerous attacks. These attacks often take the form of attacks on Marx himself, because it is much easier to attack the man than his theories.
One of the most common attacks is the assertion that Marx was a racist. In fact, there is an entire book released in 1979 by Nathaniel Weyl entitled “Karl Marx, Racist.” In this book, Weyl quotes a passage from an Engels’ article in Neue Rheinische Zeitung, February 1849. This single passage has made its way into modern-day attacks on Marxism.
In a poorly researched article for the Daily Signal in 2017, Walter E. Williams wrote:
For those who see Marx as their hero, there are a few historical tidbits they might find interesting. Nathaniel Weyl, himself a former communist, dug them up for his 1979 book, “Karl Marx: Racist.”
For example, Marx didn’t think much of Mexicans. When the United States annexed California after the Mexican War, Marx sarcastically asked, “Is it a misfortune that magnificent California was seized from the lazy Mexicans who did not know what to do with it?”
This was picked up by Andrew Neil, the Chairman of Spectator Magazine UK, US, Australia and Sky TV.
This tweet combines two quotes that are actually from Engels and taken out of context and out of chronological order.
The second quote by Engels was from an article written in 1847. This out-of-context quote has been used by anarchists as well as right-wingers, attempting to paint Marxism as pro imperialism. And in conjunction with the “Lazy Mexicans” quote has been used to push the narrative that Marxism is racist.
The full 1847 Engels quote is as follows:
It is to the interest of its own development that Mexico will in future be placed under the tutelage of the United States. The evolution of the whole of America will profit by the fact that the United States, by the possession of California, obtains command of the Pacific. But again we ask: “Who is going to profit immediately by the war?” The bourgeoisie alone. The North Americans acquire new regions in California and New Mexico for the creation of fresh capital, that is, for calling new bourgeois into being, and enriching those already in existence; for all capital created today flows into the hands of the bourgeoisie. And what about the proposed cut through the Tehuantepec isthmus? Who is likely to gain by that? Who else but the American shipping owners? Rule over the Pacific, who will gain by that but these same shipping owners? The new customers for the products of industry, customers who will come into being in the newly acquired territories — who will supply their needs? None other than the American manufacturers.– Friedrich Engels, The Movements of 1847, Deutsche-Brüsseler-Zeitung
As can be seen, Engels is not arguing that the United States winning the war is a good thing. He states that it would benefit the ruling class. So much for the assertion that Engels (mis-referenced as Marx) was defending the United States in the war with Mexico.
To address the next quote and whether Marx and Engels’ stance on Mexico was racist, it is necessary to understand that this assertion was taken from an article by Engels entitled Democratic-Pan Slavism. This article was written as a polemic against Bakunin’s pamphlet on the same topic, Aufruf an die Slaven. Essentially, Engels is arguing that Bakunin’s proposal that borders be based on friendship and unity is an idealist notion that does not take into account the material conditions of the time.
The entire passage that has been used in the attacks on Marx and Engels reads as follows:
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?
So yes, Engels does call Mexicans lazy, but only in comparison to the Yankees who are exploiting land and gold. Was he drawing this contrast to make a point about Mexicans, or about Yankees? Engels is also clearly referring to the ruling class in Mexico at the time. They were of Spanish descent – an elite caste of Europeans, born in Mexico, but segregated by race. The assertion that this was a racial slur against all Mexicans is misleading. The commonly-known racial slur of the “lazy Mexican,” invented by US imperialists, was first used in the New York Times in 1879. Engels’ use of “lazy Mexicans” pre-dates that racial slur by three decades.
To say that Engels was justifying the war is also a misreading of the article. Engels is in fact arguing that there can be no societal advance without a communist revolution and that Bakunin’s call for fraternal unification ignores the existing situation. For earlier in the article Engels wrote:
People have learned by bitter experience that the “European fraternal union of peoples” cannot be achieved by mere phrases and pious wishes, but only by profound revolutions and bloody struggles; they have learned that the question is not that of a fraternal union of all European peoples under a single republican flag, but of an alliance of the revolutionary peoples against the counter-revolutionary peoples, an alliance which comes into being not on paper, but only on the battlefield.
Here he is arguing for proletarian unity to overthrow the capitalist system – a common theme within Marx and Engels’ writings. The entire point of this article is that revolutionaries must recognize the material conditions and not speak in abstract terms like “justice,” “fraternity,” and “freedom.” Engels compares these to the “empty figment of a dream” if they are not possible due to current historical and political conditions. While on an abstract level, the fraternal unity of all peoples sounds great – it is not possible in the real material world. The example of the war between Mexico and the US is simply used to illustrate this point. It is not an argument for United States imperialism – it is rather a description of historical reality.
Another assertion that is related to these attacks is that Marxism excuses the brutal nature of capitalism because it developed the productive forces. This misleading statement that portrays Marx as productivist has even been reproduced by Jacobin Magazine:
Marx did not simply dismiss capitalism. He was impressed by it. He argued that it has been the most productive system that the world has seen.– Mitchell Aboulafia, Eight Marxist Claims That May Surprise You, Jacobin Magazine
This is a strange statement for a socialist magazine and is along the same lines as the attacks on the Mexico question. This is easily refuted, for Marx and Engels argued in The German Ideology that under the capitalist system, the development of productive forces became destructive in nature:
(1) In the development of productive forces there comes a stage when productive forces and means of intercourse are brought into being, which, under the existing relationships, only cause mischief, and are no longer productive but destructive forces (machinery and money); and connected with this a class is called forth, which has to bear all the burdens of society without enjoying its advantages, which, ousted from society, is forced into the most decided antagonism to all other classes; a class which forms the majority of all members of society, and from which emanates the consciousness of the necessity of a fundamental revolution, the communist consciousness, which may, of course, arise among the other classes too through the contemplation of the situation of this class.
It can be seen that Marx and Engels were in fact arguing the opposite of what has been asserted about the “productivist” nature of his work. Marx and Engels were not apologists for capitalism. They realized that capitalism represented the development of productivity, but in a destructive manner.
They never justified the massacre of indigenous people and the colonization of the Americas. It was quite the opposite, as Marx wrote:
The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.– Karl Marx, Capital Vol 1, Chapter 31
Capitalism was born in blood and Marx recognized this fact. He did not apologize for it, but rather pointed it out that “capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.” He was in no way justifying the system – he was explaining the history of it. He recognized that capitalism created the material conditions through expanding the productive forces that opened up the possibility for a communist society, but this was in no way an apology for the system which his life’s work was spent harshly criticizing.
And although he focused on industrial England, he did not discount questions of race:
In a letter to Paul LaFargue in 1866, Marx wrote:
The workers in the North have at last fully understood that white labour will never be emancipated so long as black labour is still stigmatised.
This goes against any theory that Marxism is inherently racist for being created in Europe by a white man.
However, it is important to recognize that Marx and Engels both did make racist statements in their private correspondence. It is even reasonable to assume that as individuals, they were racists. Black Panther co-founder Huey P. Newton has a response to this attack:
If you are a dialectical materialist, however, Marx’s racism does not matter. You do not believe in the conclusions of one person but in the validity of a mode of thought; and we in the Party, as dialectical materialists, recognize Karl Marx as one of the great contributors to that mode of thought. Whether or not Marx was a racist is irrelevant and immaterial to whether or not the system of thinking he helped to develop delivers truths about processes in the material world. And this is true in all disciplines. In every discipline you find people who have distorted visions and are at a low state of consciousness who nonetheless have flashes of insight and produce ideas worth considering.– Huey P. Newton, Intercommunalism, 1974
As Newton argued, the theory and method of Marxism are not in any way racist, no matter the personal views of the individuals who developed these theories. If Marxism were truly racist, it would not make sense that so many Marxist-inspired movements have been anti-racist in nature.
Martin Luther King Jr. criticized Marx’s view on religion but agreed with Marx’s analysis of capitalism:
Again, according to David J. Garrow, King in private conversation “made it clear to close friends that economically speaking he considered himself what he termed a Marxist, largely because he believed with increasing strength that American society needed a radical redistribution of wealth and economic power to achieve even a rough form of social justice.”– Douglas Sturm, Martin Luther King Jr., as Democratic Socialist
MLK Jr. was assassinated not long after he began organizing a class-based, anti-imperialist movement. The same was true of the Chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, Fred Hampton. Not long after he helped to form the first Rainbow Coalition that included the Young Lords and Young Patriots, he was assassinated, alongside Mark Clark, by the FBI.
Why is Marxism under attack?
These attacks do not exist in a vacuum. They are calculated attempts to discredit Marxism as a theory of revolutionary change. The ruling class is terrified of a united working class that organizes across racial and gender identities. This is why FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover said in 1969 “the Black Panther party, without question, represents the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.” The FBI would go on to target the Panthers and other movements, such as the American Indian Movement (AIM) and the Young Lords, with their highly effective COINTELPRO operations.
Walter Williams and others have attacked Marx repeatedly. As Williams wrote:
Few people who call themselves Marxists have ever even bothered to read “Das Kapital.” If one did read it, he would see that people who call themselves Marxists have little in common with Marx.– Walter Williams, What do leftists celebrate in Marx, Engels?
It is clear that it was Walter Williams who failed to actually read “Das Kapital.” Attacks like his – and there are many – are part of an agenda to discredit and break up revolutionary movements for change. These attacks are so unserious that bad actors such as Williams fail to properly identify quotations and take them completely out of context.
Such attacks on Marxism are not limited to conservatives like Williams; they also come from anarchists and liberals. Ibram X. Kendi admits in his book “How to Be an Antiracist” that in order to be antiracist, it is necessary to be anti-capitalist. But in the same chapter, he attacks the socialist party that was founded by Eugene V. Debs and applauds Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren who described herself as “capitalist to her bones.” Warren is a white woman who has for years identified as Native American for her own personal and economic gain, much to the public complaint of the Cherokee Nation. Warren is neither antiracist nor anticapitalist.
One reason why I became a Socialist was because I was opposed to this cruel discrimination against human beings on account of the color of their skin. I never could understand it. When I traveled over the Southern States thirty-five years ago organizing the workers, oh, what a desolate, unpromising situation it was! I made my appeal to them wherever I went, to open their doors to the colored workers upon equal terms with the white workers, but they refused. Poor as most of them were, they still felt themselves superior to the colored people.– Eugene V Debs, Harlem, 1923
No matter where the attacks are coming from, these bad faith attacks on Marxism only serve the capitalist class. Marxism represents the single greatest threat to the capitalist system. It has faced attacks of all sorts from every direction. But these attacks, much like the one about Mexico, are empty of substance. Critics cannot prove the fundamentals of Marxism to be wrong. One of the most important fundamentals being, as Engels describes in the 1888 Preface to the Communist Manifesto:
That in every historical epoch, the prevailing mode of economic production and exchange, and the social organization necessarily following from it, form the basis upon which is built up, and from which alone can be explained the political and intellectual history of that epoch; that consequently the whole history of mankind (since the dissolution of primitive tribal society, holding land in common ownership) has been a history of class struggles, contests between exploiting and exploited, ruling and oppressed classes; That the history of these class struggles forms a series of evolutions in which, nowadays, a stage has been reached where the exploited and oppressed class — the proletariat — cannot attain its emancipation from the sway of the exploiting and ruling class — the bourgeoisie — without, at the same time, and once and for all, emancipating society at large from all exploitation, oppression, class distinction, and class struggles.
The methods of Marxism provide a blueprint for revolutionary struggles across the world. They have proven effective because they focus on the class struggle and not on identity politics. Marxism has since its inception been embraced by many indigenous groups, women, racially-oppressed groups, colonized peoples throughout the global south, artists, activists, abolitionists, and people from every walk of life. Any attack on Marxism or its followers should be viewed with skepticism. These attacks serve as tools of the ruling class to discredit movements that threaten their power.
Contributing editor: Erin McCarley
Image: Creative Commons 3.0