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Friday, 11 November 2016

Kenan Malik's Marxist Theory of Racism

It's strange that such a independent writer – albeit one who's been very active against racism – adheres almost completely to the Marxist history and theory of racism. Or, more correctly, to the Marxist history and theory of scientific racism. As if a Marxist himself , Malik says that scientific racism “justified the superiority of the capitalist class to rule over the black” (130). (Malik, in his excellent From Fatwa to Jihad, says he was once an active member of the Socialist Workers Party.) It's this delicate distinction between racism and scientific racism that under-girds much of what Malik and Marxists say about racism. More concretely, when a Marxist says that “racism is a European and capitalist invention” (as many do), what they should really say is: Scientific racism is a European and capitalist invention. However, even this can't be completely accepted. (Marx also said that prostitution, amongst many other things, was intrinsic to – or even invented by – capitalism; and, here again, he did so simply by focussing on those aspects of prostitution which were indeed specific to capitalist society.)

It's simply false that “the idea of race is a modern one” (i.e., post 18th century, according to Malik). Scientific racism can be said to have begun in the 19th century; though not racism itself. However, even this isn't entirely true; and that's according to Malik's own account.

Thus it can even be questioned whether the “science of race” (as it's called) did begin in the early or mid-19th century. Malik himself makes much of the distinction between what went on before and what went on during the 19th century. Yet even some of the examples he himself cites show us that a science of race did exist in the 18th century. (Thus before the industrial “capitalist hegemony” over-wise dated to the 19th century.) Of course all this depends on when one places the beginnings of capitalism. Nonetheless, according to Malik and Marxist theory, talk of “scientific racism” refers to something peculiarly 19th century and capitalist in nature.

It can safely be said (as Malik himself does) that just as evolutionary theories existed before Darwin, so racism existed without science – or, at the least, without much science.

According to Malik, racism can't exist without “any concept of permanent hereditary differences between human groups” (119). That depends on how the words “hereditary differences” are cashed out because it needn't be seen in strictly 19th-century scientific terms. If it is seen in strictly 19th-century terms, then, by definition, racism didn't exist in earlier times. Thus we have this added reality (made much of by Marxists):

If racial science is a truly 19th century phenomenon,
and modern (industrial) capitalism also largely began in the 19th century,
then we can forge a tight link between capitalism and racism (as many Marxists, as well as Malik, have done).

This resulted in a conclusion that's summed-up in an often-quoted phrase spoken by Malcolm X. Thus: “You cannot have capitalism without racism.”

Racism and Prejudice

Again, there are two different things here: racism and scientific racism. Secondly, there's the implicit belief that non-scientific racism isn't, well, racism. It is, instead (as many Marxists also have it), “prejudice”. The problem is that you must accept a hell of a lot of Marxist theory before you can accept that non-scientific racism (as it were) is simply prejudice. One must also have read a lot of Marxist theory in order to believe that racism can only be scientific.

At one point Malik himself makes this classic Marxist distinction between racism and prejudice. The vast majority of times I've heard that, say, “Blacks can't be racist, only prejudiced”, it's never explained why that's the case. It's simply stated as some kind of diktat. And, yes, Malik does exactly the same thing when he writes the following:

... today's Darwinists often claim that racial discrimination is universal and innate. In fact... the idea of race is a modern one. Certainly, in most human cultures there is prejudice against, and often fear of, certain types of outsiders. But it would be wrong to lump all such prejudices and fears together as 'racial'.” (116)

Of course semantically the words “racism” and “prejudice” are different and I'm not arguing that they're the same. The Marxist idea, however, is something different and something extremely theoretical. It usually goes along the lines of the idea that prejudice alongside political and economic power is – or can be - racism; without it such power, it's mere “prejudice”. Thus, when a black man says that he “hates honkies”, or even when he says that “whites are evil and subhuman” (sometimes heard from the Black Panthers, the Nation of Islam, etc.), that, according to Marxists, isn't racism. It isn't racism because Marxists must literally believe that all blacks lack political and economic power. (In their eyes, even the blacks who do have economic and/or political power... don't.) Having said that, Malik doesn't make explicit that Marxist point; though he clearly accepts the Marxist distinction.

To repeat, the Marxist theory exists to tell us why blacks can never be racist. Nonetheless, most people who accept the racism/prejudice distinction don't know the theory behind it. (Though they may be aware of the tiny little bit about social and economic power; which also has the flavour of a diktat.) And even when the theory is known, that theory still has the flavour of a stipulation. In other words, the counter-argument could very easily be that a black person with zero economic and/or social power could still be racist simply because he accepts the existence of, well, inferior races (if in a rudimentary form). In addition, it can also be argued that just as many blacks believe in the existence of races as whites do.

18th-Century Racism

It's just been said that Kenan Malik makes a lot of the idea that scientific racism began in the 19th century. (Not, racism – scientific racism.) Yet he too acknowledges the work of the French naturalist, Georges-Louis Buffon(Buffon died in 1788.) Malik says that Buffon “is often portrayed as the founder of racial science” (123). What's more, Malik quotes Tzvetan Todorov as saying that “'the racialist theory in its entirety is found in Buffon's writings'” (123).

Malik has a problem with this description of Buffon. Why is that? He does so simply because Buffon's racial science isn't exactly the same as 19th-century racial science. Of course it isn't! Then again, the racial sciences of two 19th-century racial scientists wouldn't have been identical either. This, to me, is simply an attempt to tie racism to 19th-century capitalism; which is, of course, a long-running and vitally important Marxist theme.

In order to justify his point about Buffon, Malik says that that “[h]uman differences, including physical differences, were, [Buffon] asserted, the product of environmental or cultural factors” (123). I don't understand this at all. Why would any 19th century racial scientist have had a problem with this specific position of Buffon's? Assuming that all 19th-century racial scientists believed in evolution of some description, then why would they have had a problem with Buffon's idea that different races were “the product of environmental or cultural factors”? Doesn't this describe the nature of evolution - at least Lamarckian and Darwinian evolution - to a T? Of course racial differences, from an evolutionary perspective, would have been the result of environmental factors. As for cultural factors, things aren't quite so clear. Nonetheless, there's also the argument that cultural factors themselves are ultimately a consequence of biological factors (the “sociobiological" position?). Or, at the least, that the culture/biology opposition is often hard to unfold in evolutionary or genetic terms.

Just to stay on this theme of 19th century racial science versus 18th century racism. In this case Malik simply puts the German naturalist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach's position, rather than his own.

According to Malik, Blumenbach's “'varieties' were very different from modern “'races'” (122). Again, the fact that 19th century racial science (or racism) is different to 19th century century racial science (or racism) almost amounts to atruism.

The following technical detail is also problematic. According to Malik's Blumenbach, the “differences in body structure and skin colour were not immutable” (122). A few pages later, Malik speaks for himself (rather than for another thinker or scientist) by saying something similar. He states that “[e]very measure of racial type used by racial science, from the shape of the head to the type of blood, was shown to be changeable” (131).

No 19th-century racial scientist would have contradicted this, surely. If such a scientist believed in evolution, then how could he have believed that racial characteristics were “immutable” (or not “changeable”)? The very essence of evolutionary theory, in the majority of cases, stresses mutability, not immutability. Take this scenario. A theoretical human race could be at an extremely low level of physical and cognitive development - yet there's still no reason for a racial scientist (or plain racist) to believe that this particular race should stay at that low level for all time. The racial scientist - in this respect - deals with the racialhere and now and has no need to believe in eternal racial immutability.

Finally, one underlying theme of Malik's (hinted at rather than stated) is that because racial science is itself mutable or changeable, then its theories are suspect (or simply false). Strange. Nearly all the theories of every science - from physics to biology - are mutable or changeable. Indeed that's a hallmark of science. So why point the finger specifically at racial science; especially when Malik himself (elsewhere) stresses this mutability of other areas of science?

On a similar theme, Malik states that “[r]ace was a social category, not a scientific one” (132). Malik here is discussing sociologist Ludwig Gumplowicz. It's clear that this is Malik's position too (in relation to all science/scientific theories). However, I doubt that Malik would be so explicit as to say, for example, that evolution is a social category, not a scientific one (or that a specific genetic theory is a social category, not a scientific one). Yet this is one of Malik's important themes (specifically in the last two chapters of Man, Beast and Zombie).

Malik also states that the “prejudice” (not racism!) of Sir Thomas Herbert (a traveller and historian) towards Africans “should not be confused with modern racism”. Indeed to “do so would be like viewing medieval Europe with modern eyes” (119). That sounds fairly convincing, prima facie. But is it? Is it any more subtle than the following rewrite? -

Palestrina's music shouldn't be confused with modern music. To do so would be like viewing renaissance Europe with modern eyes (or ears).

In other words, of course 19th and 20th-century racism was different from 18th-century - and earlier - racism in the simple way that, say, 20th-century cutlery is different from earlier kinds of cutlery. Nonetheless, cutlery remains cutlery; just as racism (even without much - or any - science) remains racism.

*) All quotes are from Kenan Malik's Man, Beast and Zombie.

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