A Facebook discussion of a particular aspect of so-called cultural appropriation led quite naturally—perhaps inevitably—to an underlying difference in method that has vital ramifications for those of us who fight for a more just, egalitarian world.
Here is the remark that, in my opinion, expresses it best: “Lack of respect as people for black people is the root cause of police assassination of black people”. And, lest anyone think this just sloppy or careless expression, not really meant, the commenter goes on to say explicitly, “economic issues are a thin veneer — a cover — for implicit prejudices that are then built into the society.” She only neglects to explain why prejudices are implicit—presumably because of Original Sin.
The root cause is seen as lack of respect as people for black people. Not a contributing factor, not an expression of a deeper problem, not an effect of conditions, but the “root cause.” “Respect” is an idea, or a set of ideas—the word describes a relationship between the thoughts in one person’s head, and another person. Thus, the root cause, is, to the commenter, an idea. This is a perfect example of the philosophical method called idealism—a method that sees conditions as a reflection of ideas, rather than the reverse. The materialist believes that, as Marx said, being determines consciousness, something recognized at least in a limited and confused way by those who say, “You just believe that because you’re white.”
“Race” as we understand it today (it previously meant nationality or ethnicity, eg, the “French race,” the “English race”) is a creation of the 18th Century, and only became popular in the United States in the early 19th when it was found useful for justifying African slavery and stealing the land of the American Indian–and speaking of, I believe the argument that tribalism is the same as racism, and is part of the human make-up, is refuted by, if nothing else, the generally friendly reception the American Indian gave the first Europeans.
The continued existence of racism—its promotion by the political Right, its acceptance as permanent by sections of the pseudo-Left—are just as much products of actual, material needs and wants as its use two hundred years ago. Then, it justified slavery and theft. Today, for the Right, it interferes with the working class unity that would challenge their property rights. For the pseudo-Leftist, it permits them to advance claims that will benefit themselves—a tiny, privileged section of the upper middle class—and ignore the genuine suffering of the masses.
Behind the idea, always look for the conditions that produced it. This, by the way, applies to the materialist method itself: materialism, emerging in the 16th Century, is the result of improvements in the technology of discovery spurred by improved lens-grinding techniques (telescope, microscope) as well as by the needs of the newly emerging bourgeoisie to break free of the rigidity of the Church regarding social status and political power.
And here’s the rub: The two differing methods produce tremendously different results. If we are to fight oppression in all its myriad forms, we must, above all, understand it scientifically. The belief that racism is “innate” leads to whole groups that stop after pointing it out—they have no program for, or hope of, actually ending it. Their activity is confined to calling working class white women racists if they wear dreadlocks. To understand racism as a product of class society is the key to developing a program both for attacking the cause—that is, the destruction of capitalist property relations and the ending of social privilege—and also a guide for battling racism itself as part of that fight:
1. The continued killing of African-Americans is an attack on the entire working class, and the working class must unite under a socialist program to destroy the system the police are using violence to defend. The fight against police violence and other forms of systemic racism has to be part of the fight against capitalism—not by (as some have accused me of advocating) “waiting until the revolution fixes everything,” but exactly the reverse: taking on the mechanisms that oppress our brothers and sisters is part of building a movement that can carry the revolution to victory.
2. Problems of racism within the working class have to be fought as part of the struggle for class unity: we must tirelessly point out, not how the white worker “benefits” from racism, but, on the contrary, how he is harmed by it—how it works in the favor of the class enemy.
This is a materialist approach to addressing the problem. What has the idealist approach to offer?