During the comrades’ recent visit, we had a lively discussion triggered by my lectures on black lib of 1953 in which I put a knock on the proposition that blacks are a caste. This would, of course, apply equally to color caste, a view which I still hold. The discussion having been opened, it seems reasonable that I should continue it with you.
First, I must abstract from color caste, which is derivative, to get to the basic caste alone—for if it is admissible to consider blacks as a caste in any way, color caste would, of course, be valid. The opposite would also be true.
I discussed this briefly in Oakland last summer, and when I observed that Oliver Cromwell Cox’s analysis of this question would have to be confronted before a legitimacy for designating blacks as a color caste could be established. It was argued—and this argument continues to surface—that Cox refers to color caste only in an off-hand footnote and that therefore it is not important to confront him. This is a counterfeit argument in which it is attempted to circumvent the fact that Cox spent at least 1/3 of a comprehensive scholarly work demonstrating that blacks in the U.S. are not a caste of any kind. I found Cox’s analysis to be absolutely conclusive, and I cannot see how it can be dismissed.
My view of the race question, first publicly expressed in 1953, derived in large part from a study of the works of the black writers and scholars, principally of the first half of the century, which was a period of a great outpouring of profound thought on race relations from the black community.
I read everything I could get my hands on in the writings of W.E.B. Du Bois, E. Franklin Frazier, Alain Locke, Richard Wright, Ralph Bunche, Charles H. Thompson, James Weldon Johnson, Kelly Miller, Oliver Cromwell Cox, and others whose names escape me.
I sought to take the important basic concepts of race and race relations expressed by these thinkers, many of whom were Socialist/Communist-minded militants, and synthesize them into a scientific Marxist doctrine. In the process, I was able to cull valuable hints from the erudite display of C.L.R. James. Dave Dreiser was very helpful.
If I had found a single hint or suggestion in all that, that the idea of caste could be applied to blacks, I would have investigated it, but that whole body of thought is devoid of any such suggestion. Such a proposition is to be found in the book by Gunnar Myrdal, the Swedish sociologist who was hired by the Carnegie Corporation to solve the “Negro Question” for the ruling class. I had decided from the beginning to be wary of white bourgeois scholars, as well as the Socialist and Communist theoreticians, whom I decided had made a mockery of Marxism with pseudo-theories of black lib.
I claim little originality in my final work (first in a resolution designed for the National Convention written in 1952, then the lectures) except for the synthesis of the key thoughts of the black scholars and the views of the black workers who I was fortunate enough to have as friends. I think that the only original contribution of mine was the end product of the following sequence: 1. The race concept of biological superiority/inferiority has been destroyed: the race concept has no biological reality. 2. Nevertheless the phenomenon race exists. Proof: try to tell black people that there is no such thing. (I went through a period trying that.) 3. The reality of race is that it provides the form for social discrimination. 4. Race, therefore, much like value, is a social relation.
Next, I attempted to demonstrate that the racial structure and race relations in the U.S. are historically unique. That no society has ever been founded upon a division based exclusively upon superficial physical characteristics. There is, of course, a similarity between social relations in the U. S. and South Africa. However, the oppression of blacks there bears a basically national character—the oppression of the Bantu and other African nations by the Afrikaners.
Further, that the fundamental historical tendency of the relationship between black and white is towards mutual assimilation as evidenced by the interactive and reciprocal cultural development which has been an active phenomenon almost from the beginning of black and white populations living side by side during slavery. However, this mutual assimilation, which under any other circumstances would have produced a more or less unified and homogeneous people after a period of time, was thwarted, first by the Anglo-American racist mentality fostered by the slaveowners, and then by the requirements of capitalism for the control of the working class: with a united working class capitalism will not survive. This is demonstrated in the stormy and uneven history of working class struggle.
Mutual assimilation is a powerful social force. Racism is an irrational institutionalized condition—in its extreme form individual or mass insanity. That capitalism must use racism to survive, cutting across and violating this powerful social force towards assimilation, reveals that however imposing its history and however universally it shapes life and social relations, it is fragile. It will be overthrown with the overthrow of the capitalist class, and only by that. (Perhaps this was the original thought.)