A recurrent theme in Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (1980) is how the prospect of a coalition between poor blacks and poor whites has often struck fear in the hearts of the wealthy classes in American history. Not surprisingly, Zinn longed for the emergence of an interracial coalition that, in his view, would bring about a more humane and just America for all. As a traditional Marxist, he equated injustice with class oppression and justice with socialism.
Such an interracial coalition had emerged for a short time in conjunction with the populist movement of the late 19th century. Today, we may be witnessing the emergence of another such alliance—ironically, perhaps, on the populist right—in part because the left has largely abandoned Marxist concerns with class struggle.
In a chapter on the prevalence of racism in pre-revolutionary America, Zinn writes:
Only one fear was greater than the fear of black rebellion in the new American colonies. That was the fear that discontented whites would join black slaves to overthrow the existing order. In the early years of slavery, especially before racism as a way of thinking was firmly ingrained, while white indentured servants were often treated as badly as black slaves, there was a possibility of cooperation.
Zinn adds that plutocratic interests had a stake in pitting these poor groups against each other by encouraging “the temptation of superior status for whites,” as well as enshrining “legal and social punishment of black and white collaboration.” Despite these measures, the primal fear of an alliance only intensified in the antebellum South. “It was the potential combination of poor whites and blacks that caused the most fear among the wealthy white planters,” he wrote.
Although the Civil War ended slavery, it did not end the oppression of blacks in the South, nor did Zinn believe it improved the lives of northern whites who “were not economically favored” any more than those of most Southern whites who “were poor farmers, not decisionmakers.” According to Zinn, the Civil War was a clash between “elites”—Northern industrialists versus Southern planters—not “of peoples.” He believed that various divide-and-conquer strategies in postbellum America have worked to distract poor blacks and whites from uniting against a common enemy that exploits both groups to this day.
The first edition of A People’s History appeared at a time when leftists often still desired the unification of all poor Americans against the class system. In the decades since, many prominent leftists have rejected this traditional vision of an interracial class-based alliance as the wrong kind of unity to build. Instead, they insist that the focus on class obscured the need to zero in on white supremacy as the real dragon to be slain. This shift from class to race has led to some curious results that should interest observers on the left and the right.
One of these results is the growing suspicion among leftists that Marxism is a species of white supremacy, precisely because it devotes more attention to class than to race. To be sure, Marx did privilege the importance of class oppression over racism, even going so far as to compare the hostility between exploited English and Irish workers in England with the hatred that poor whites and emancipated slaves felt towards each other in America. Although this analogy does not sound like an endorsement of white racial superiority, the Caribbean professor of philosophy Charles W. Mills, in his work From Class to Race: Essays in White Marxism and Black Radicalism (2003), urges readers of Marx and Engels to read racial prejudice between the lines:
…[A]t best there was no perception on their part that the peculiar situation of people of color required any conceptual modifications of their theory. And if we are less charitable, we must ask whether their contemptuous attitude toward people of color does not raise the question whether they too, like the leading liberal theorists cited above, should not be indicted for racism…
Mills coined the term “White Marxism” in order to highlight what he took to be the racist blind spot of subordinating racial injustice to the “white” preoccupation with class. Nor is he the only leftist to equate a focus on class injustice with white racism. George Ciccariello-Maher, in his book Decolonizing Dialectics (2017) also attacks the Marxian version of “dialectics” for exhibiting Eurocentric tendencies that, at best, ignore colonial oppression of nonwhite races and, at worst, condone them.