[Marxism] Free thinker?

Rakesh Bhandari bhandari at berkeley.edu
Thu Nov 2 07:40:16 MST 2006

Free thinker, Andrew? In our weekend exchange you declared yourself 
free of any interest in speaking directly to criticism of your 
inflated definition of racism. And in the exchange with Gregory 
Meyerson you have made yourself free of actually understanding  what 
Theodore Allen was saying about John Punch and others in sections 

Racism had certainly not yet taken hold in 17th Chesapeake: Africans 
were manumitted, the children of even lifetime bonded workers were 
free, they mated and rebelled with 'whites', they won in courts, 
'whites' testified on their behalf,  they owned property.

About this in Allen's account you say nothing! This is not the 
practice of  a free thinker but a thinker free of charity for his 
critics. In other words, a cherry picker.

Yes, a prejudice against Negroes for their heathenism and the radical 
foreignness of their language. You are collapsing ethnocentrism with 
racism. Whites were not enslaved simply because they were white or 
thought yet to be racially superior. They were more importantly 
Christians, and Englishmen for whom even serfdom was no longer 
institutionally acceptable.

Given the abundance of New World land and the misery of plantation 
work and European urban opportunities, slavery recommended itself as 
the only long term solution to rendering New World capitalist 
agriculture profitable. And as Domar put it, with free land, free 
labor and an aristocracy you can only have two. The New World had 
free land and an 'aristocracy'; it could not have had free labor 
which would have had to have been paid  high wages to discourage 
seeking of its own land. The capital investment costs of the 
plantations were too high to allow for that. Slavery was not selected 
because God thought someone had to be cursed with permanent servitude.

And the choice then to enslave Africans was not borne of racism or 
the idea that the cursed Ham's children were black.  African slaves 
were not chosen to man the plantations as slaves because they were 
biblically condemned or thought to be racially inferior others but 
because African slaves were alone plentiful, healthy, cheap enough. 
They were a superior source of labor in cultural, physical and 
economic terms.

Material interests go much further than you think in explaining what 
we now see as the racial character of slavery. The exclusive 
enslavement of Africans followed upon many unsuccessful attempts to 
use indentured servants and preceded the indentured labor of Indian 
and Chinese workers in a new kind of slavery. Anti black racism was 
obviously not so powerful an ideology that it dictated from the start 
and until the end only the unfreedom of African labor.

You seem to think that you have to give racism an equal footing with 
economic profiteering in explaining the origins of New World 
capitalism if anti racism is to have the same importance today as 
simple labor organizing. For the struggle is not simply against 
capitalism but racial capitalism, in your estimation. It's simply a 
non sequitur that the importance of anti racism is diminished by 
skepticism about the existence of premodern racism! Indeed the 
transhistoricization of racism only creates unnecessary pessimism 
about the possibility of its eradication.

And even if because of the medieval Arabic racialization of the Curse 
of Ham, the English, following on the Portuguese and Spanish who had 
presumably assimilated knowledge of Islamic practice, had divine 
sanction to reintroduce slavery and condemn dark skinned Africans 
alone to it, there is still miles  to go before this racial curse 
becomes a racism in which the previous regulations on slaveowners and 
slaves (as codified for example in Las Sieta Partidas) are eliminated 
and a sense of the natural inferiority of blacks as a whole is 

At any rate, neither Y.K. nor I am convinced by David Brion Davis' 
argument that medieval Islam invented racism or the kind of 
exclusively racial and rampantly commercial slavery which the Anglo 
Americans in particular developed over time in the New World. 
Confirming Y.K.'s worries, Davis goes so far as to read contemporary 
Arab racism in the Sudan as proof of the depths of anti black 
sentiment in the medieval Arabic world!

Certainly you seem to be unaware of any reasons for skepticism of such claims.

Your paper simply repeats Davis' account:

>David Brion Davis notes that medieval Muslims popularized the divine 
>curse and used it to
>justify Arab and Muslim trade of "black Africans."80 It is 
>well-established that Muslims were
>deeply involved in the slave trade and that they created many racial 
>stereotypes, describing
>Africans as subhuman, ugly, deformed, licentious, and cannibals.81 
>However, given the early
>origins of the story of the curse (around 1500 b.c.e. in its 
>Talmudic form), "there is no denying
>that the Babylonian Talmud was the first source to read a 
>Negrophobic content into the episode
>by stressing Canaan's fraternal connection with Cush."82 Whatever 
>the precise origins of the
>myth, anti-black prejudice was formed into a comprehensive ideology 
>by the Iberians who took
>over the slave trade in the mid-15th century.83 These prejudices not 
>only justified the
>enslavement of Africans and provided an explanation for why they 
>were being enslaved, but also
>guided Iberians in their selection of slaves. As time passed, 
>combining with class-based forms of
>color prejudice developing in medieval society, anti-black prejudice 
>gathered momentum
>throughout the emerging European world-system.84

I also thought Winthrop Jordan's arguments about premodern color 
symbolism had been heavily qualified, but you cite none of this 
criticism here either. Not St. Clair Drake or Audrey Smedley, two 
rather well known African American academics.

It's troubling that an anti racist activist who presumably wishes the 
end of racism cannot see that it is not in fact all but primordial.

Now on this question of the Democrats, I think you have made it too 
easy on yourself. The question is not simply whether to cast a ballot 
but whether the possible benefits of Democratic victories justify the 
real time and energy which the Democrats must command to have a 
reasonable chance of electoral success. They are selling a product 
and it has a cost.  I just don't see how you have been speaking to 
this hard question. Perhaps you believe that there is no tradeoff 
involved in supporting the Democrats so that it's costless to vote 
for them? That may be true from your perspective but it does not hold 
at a social level, the level at which your critics are thinking. 
There is a social cost to make the Democrats electorally viable so 
that you can urge people that their vote may tip the balance in the 
Democrats' favor. Have you justified that social cost in terms of the 
possible benefits?


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