Class Struggle

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Editors: Molefi Kete Asante and Ama Mazama
Date: 2005
Encyclopedia of Black Studies
Publisher: Sage Publications, Inc.
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 2
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Page 187


Historically, global patterns of structured socioeconomic inequality have varied in societies. Class struggle is a central tenet of Marxist analyses. Some scholars examine social stratification as it relates to the experience of African-descended people. They consider class struggle to be a central component in the fight against the social inequalities in modern societies such as those in the United States and the United Kingdom. In such societies, which use capitalism and free market enterprise as a socioeconomic organizing principle, the population is stratified and the distribution of wealth in society is primarily skewed toward benefitting the group that controls and/or owns the means of production (the technology and resources used to produce the goods and services in the society). Black people in the African diaspora most often do not have control over the key resources that maintain the societies in which they live. These resources are fundamentally in the control of the white-led governmental, banking, business, and cultural sectors of these societies.

The key European thinker to have analyzed class struggle in relation to capitalist societies is Karl Marx (1818–1883). Along with his colleague, Friedrich Engels (1820–1895), Marx defined class struggle as fundamentally pertaining to the conflict between the ruling class (the bourgeoisie) and the working class (the proletariat), or the oppressor and the oppressed. In their classic work, The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels maintained that capitalism is an avaricious economic system. They mainly focused in that book on explaining the exploitation inherent in capitalist systems of socioeconomic organization. Moreover, they primarily examined the oppression of those in the white working class, who were seen as nothing more than an exploited commodity in the capitalist system.

A key point in the African-centered critique of Marxism is that Marx and Engels make no mention of the overt oppression and exploitation of those of African descent. Indeed, they say nothing about the millions of Africans in the diaspora who, at the time they were writing, were oppressed under European colonial and imperial dominance in the Caribbean region and on the continent of Africa. In their analysis of capitalism, then, Marx and Engels failed to deal with the oppression of the millions of unpaid laborers who were not only exploited through the use of their labor but also systematically brutalized and dehumanized via racialized oppression.

Some black scholars have used the class struggle paradigm of Marxism to explain the socioeconomic foundation of exploitation ingrained in capitalism. Yet the majority of black Marxists employ a racialized as well as economic analysis of exploitation in relation to class struggle. In How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America (1983), Manning Marable suggests that capitalism is more of a problem than communism for black Americans. The Marxist panacea for race oppression is tied in with that for class oppression. For black Marxists, the root cause of racialized discrimination is the unequal distribution of wealth and power. Discrimination based on race is merely employed by Page 188  |  Top of Article the ruling class to fragment the working class and to set white workers against black workers. This tactic keeps at distance the possibility of unity or class consciousness among the exploited masses. Black Marxists believe that the issue of race is secondary to that of class, and that if the class struggle is won by the working classes, then race will no longer be relevant.

There are a number of problems with the black Marxist perspective on class struggle, and one of them is that it fails to consider that the white ruling class and the white working class have historically joined forces to oppress the black worker. Even the white-led trade unions, which are supposedly grounded in socialist principles, have historically barred blacks from joining their organizations as fellow workers. The white working class has usually viewed blacks collectively as wage-earning rivals and discriminated against them at will. Indeed, there has been little evidence of solidarity among black and white workers throughout the modern industrial and postindustrial eras in Europe and North America. Interestingly, in Introduction to Black Studies (2002), Karenga suggests that race and class are parts of the same issue. Thus, Karenga believes that it is unrealistic to imagine a utopia in which the entire working class unites, especially given the aggression white working class communities have historically meted out to black communities. This aggression cannot simply be regarded as false consciousness, as many enlightened and socialist-orientated trade union organizations actively maintained a color bar in regard to their membership criteria.

Maybe Marxism can explain the mechanism of the capitalist system. Thus Abdul Alkalimat may be correct when he examines the black struggle in the United States within a Marxist framework where workers are urged to join the union movement. However, Alkalimat may be idealistic in his vision, given the historical reality of white trade union behavior toward black workers. In short, the class struggle envisioned by black Marxists has never materialized, and in examining why, scholars have yet to fully consider both the origins of Marxism in mid-19th century Europe and whom it was designed to liberate. The class struggle was designed to free the white working class from its exploitation at the hands of the owners of the means of production; it was not designed to free black enslaved workers and their descendents. In the 21st century, Black Studies scholars may envision more creative solutions to the problem of social inequality if they endeavor to locate themselves inside an intellectual paradigm designed not for others but specifically for black liberation.

— Mark A. Christian


Alkalimat, Abdul. (1986). Introduction to Afro-American Studies: A Peoples College Primer. Chicago: Twenty-First Century Books. This book has a strong chapter on the idea of class struggle within the Marxist context.

Asante, Molefi Kete. (2002). Afrocentricity and the Decline of Western Hegemonic Thought: A Critique of Eurocentric Theory and Practice. In Mark Christian (Ed.), Black Identity in the 20th Century: Expressions of the U.S. and U.K. African Diaspora. London: Hansib. This essay deals with the nature of social and cultural analysis.

Cox, Oliver C. (1970). Caste, Class and Race. New York: Monthly Review Press. (Original work published 1948). This remains one of the best studies of class and race in the literature.

Karenga, Maulana. (2002). Introduction to Black Studies (3rd ed.). Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press. A classic textbook in African American Studies, Karenga's book is a grand survey of the intellectual ideas of modern Africans and includes a chapter dealing with the class struggle.

Marable, Manning. (1983). How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America. London: Pluto. This is the best work on capitalism's response to the African American community.

Marx, Karl, and Engels, Friedrich. (1987). The Communist Manifesto. New York: Pathfinder. (Original work published 1948). This is the complete text of the original The Communist Manifesto.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3439300107