“At the heart of Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told is the claim that the profits and accumulations of slavery contributed to the formation of contemporary capitalism. Like Beckert, he turns to the history of the cotton industry, though he focuses on the United States from the colonial era to the end of the Civil War. Yet if Beckert’s story is the world the slave owners made, Baptist’s is the world made by the slave. “Enslaved African Americans built the modern United States,” he declares, “and indeed the entire modern world, in ways both obvious and hidden.” We know the claim that enslaved African Americans built the modern United States is not new. This “half” has, in fact, been told—multiple times and more often than not by black writers, some of whom are fleetingly mentioned in Baptist’s footnotes. But the claim that African Americans built the world is simply wrong. Baptist’s book is marked by such rhetorical excesses, which lend themselves to a blinkered and narcissistic American exceptionalism. The result is an oversimplified view of capitalism and slavery that ignores the historical contributions to modernity of Africans in the Caribbean and in Africa itself.”
What Did Cedric Robinson Mean by Racial Capitalism?
This essay is the introduction to Boston Review’s print issue, Race Capitalism Justice. Inspired by Cedric Robinson’s work on racial capitalism, this themed issue is a critical handbook for racial justice in the age of Trump.
“Robinson’s critique of political order and the authority of leadership anticipated the political currents in contemporary movements such as Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter—movements organized horizontally rather than vertically. His monumental Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (1983) takes Karl Marx to task for failing to comprehend radical movements outside of Europe. He rewrites the history of the West from ancient times to the mid-twentieth century, scrutinizing the idea that Marx’s categories of class can be universally applied outside of Europe. Instead he characterized black rebellions as expressions of what he called the “Black Radical Tradition,” movements whose objectives and aspirations confounded Western social analysis. Marxism also failed to account for the racial character of capitalism. Having written much of the book during a sabbatical year in England, Robinson encountered intellectuals who used the phrase “racial capitalism” to refer to South Africa’s economy under apartheid. He developed it from a description of a specific system to a way of understanding the general history of modern capitalism . . .
Robinson was a challenging thinker who understood that the deepest, most profound truths tend to bewilder, breaking with inherited paradigms and “common sense.” When asked to define his political commitments, he replied, “There are some realms in which names, nomination, is premature. My only loyalties are to the morally just world; and my happiest and most stunning opportunity for raising hell with corruption and deceit are with other Black people.”