Those of us familiar with Western socialist perspectives have heard phrases such as “the capitalist elites use race to divide the working class.” The premise of this argument is that racism is yet another mechanism to keep a perceived universal working class from joining together to combat capitalism. This argument is complemented with the dismissal of racism as a product of ignorance and superimposed nationalist views.
But what if we take into account the concrete material privilege of white, working class people under capitalism? Could it be argued that white working class racism is, in fact, a defense mechanism of their privileges under this system? If this is the case, we have to stop treating it like a disease of ignorance that can be merely educated away or, even worse, that can be pushed under the rug for the sake of class unity.
In no way are we trying to introduce this as a new insight or hot take either. Black and brown radicals have understood this for hundreds of years, even before Karl Marx’s detailed outline of this system’s inner workings.
In Latin America, there’s a long tradition going as far back as the colonial era in which Black, Indigenous and Mestizo leaders fought against whites of all classes who they saw as one oppressor. Túpac Katari, Bartolina Sisa, José Antonio Galán and Manuel Piar are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to revolutionary leaders understanding the concrete material interests that whites of all classes have in this ongoing colonial-capitalist system.
José Carlos Mariátegui, the great Latin American communist thinker and activist, had this clear in the 1920s, when he described sections of the European working class as beneficiaries of the global capitalist system. Ernesto “Che” Guevara, a student of Mariátegui’s work, also elaborated on this point when he reminded the European working class movement that their advances were possible due to the ongoing oppression of their colonies and imperialist policies. In fact, the Third Worldist communist movement, which the mainstream Western socialist and communist movement conveniently label “revisionists,” has its roots in these theoretical contributions of Latin American revolutionary intellectuals.
If the revolutionary analysis and experiences of non-white revolutionaries are not convincing enough then we can point to Marx and Friedrich Engels themselves, who described a layer of privileged workers in the highly-industrialized Western nations. Granted, at the time they were writing they were referring to a particular section of the working class in imperialist nations like England, which they saw as pacifying the worker’s movement as a whole. They were too invested in colonial capitalism to be interested in revolution.
Had Marx and Engels witnessed the generalized material benefits extended to workers across the West throughout the 20th Century thanks to imperialist policies, they would have no doubt come to the same conclusion as the Latin American revolutionaries and the Third Worldist communists. Furthermore, the recent work of Western authors, notably Zak Cope and Torkil Lauesen, continue this thread of widespread material privilege that impedes the white and Western working class from taking a revolutionary approach to the dismantling of capitalism-imperialism and instead defend it from its enemies.
To conclude, the continued intense racist behavior in the United States and across the Western world is not due to misplaced attitudes or thoughts. It is also misleading to explain it as a capitalist elite’s strategy to divide the working class. White racism is not a mere attitude, thought, or strategy. White racism’s concrete function is to defend the gains of both the capitalist elites and the Western masses, including large parts of its working-class, who have become willing beneficiaries of the system’s colonial parasitism.
Only when we as a diaspora understand that we need to eliminate the material foundation of racial injustice will we be in a position to join the ranks of the revolutionary movements that lead the charge from the Global South. It would benefit the white/Western socialist movement to betray their race and class privileges and join us as this is the surest way to accelerate the dismantling of this parasitic system.