Racial Capitalism and Historical Materialism: Refusing Passivism By: Will WhiteRead Now
The demarcation of monetary value controls the way people act in social settings and can explain much about current social tensions. For instance, it is profitable for employers to suppress a workers’ right to organize, stopping them from demanding higher wages. One way these elites stay in power is by manipulating how people learn about the history of capitalism. George Orwell once wrote that “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” Here, Orwell recognizes that those who have authority over how history is taught can dictate how people perceive capitalists for generations. History is inherently political and cannot be divorced from the present day, because how historical figures are portrayed, paints different narratives for accountability. By portraying history as something that is separate from present-day political and economic issues, capitalists mask the amount of violence that wealthy elites have sanctioned in the past.
The political importance of history is evident in three ways. First, dissecting the way that capitalists aimed to pacify revolutionary figures like Martin Luther King Jr. to encourage other protestors to become passive acceptors of capitalism reveals how history is currently controlled. Additionally, investigating the historical brutality of corporations undercuts the flattering depiction of capitalism and clarifies who is responsible for cruelty against the working class. Analyzing the way that anti-capitalist agitators instigated change through civil disobedience, for example, demonstrates that passive and obedient tactics for change fail. Finally, Karl Marx’s historical materialism spotlights the large role of history and how to deconstruct the violent forces that propel capitalism. Suppressing the violent exploitative power that corporations have historically had over the working class allows capitalist elites to hold on to their authority in shaping debates about workers’ rights and continue their oppressive practices.
Corporations are the enemy of the working class; however, history still portrays them in a positive light. Andrew Carnegie is painted as a philanthropist that ignited the steel mill industry and helped boost local economies. However, the perpetuation of this philanthropist image ignores how Carnegie exploited labor and played a significant role in countering labor movements. Carnegie remained neutral and tolerated wage demands until they threatened his profits. His focus then shifted. Carnegie began eliminating all forms of industrial competition to maximize profits. Once other corporations could not compete with Carnegie, he then denied demands for better-compensated labor. Corporation owners like Carnegie worked with the police and judicial forces to influence legislation and enforcement in ways that would benefit them and only them.
For example, in 1892, the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers (the AA) organized a lockout strike to protest the way Carnegie’s steel business empire treated workers. Carnegie hired counter agitators called the Pinkertons to break up the protest, authorizing them to use violence. By the end of the protest, nothing substantial had changed and a handful of people died. Any lingering support for the AA dissolved because the loss gave them a lousy reputation for making progress and they went bankrupt. Without funding or a robust central organizer, the AA was fractured and couldn’t organize in a meaningful way. However, pro-capitalist history does not spotlight these details. Deliberately obscuring the way that wealthy elites orchestrated the downfall of labor unions allows the system of capitalism to continue functioning as it always has without taking accountability for a history of violence. Additionally, it creates misleading information that these corporations were somehow beneficial for workers and that labor protests often fail.
Capitalist-shaped history falsely suggests that conforming to a form of peaceful protest that is idealized by white society is effective. Leading up to the civil rights movement, there was little progress made until agitational tactics were employed. Prior to the civil rights movement, black people had no institutional allies and gained little from isolated, passive protests. The fact that there were only a few legal victories from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) shows that non-disruptive survival strategies were not enough. Phillip Randolph was a socialist organizer who suggested that people of color should band together to form a labor strike. This was an explicit call for civil disobedience. These strikes included but were not limited to sit-down strikes near white businesses and boycotts. These strategies eventually cornered businesses into accepting hiring agreements that helped put money in the hands of black people who were otherwise unemployed. The tangible success of these strikes had a substantial impact on the momentum for black people in the U.S. to galvanize for civil rights because the protests' successes showed that there was hope to defeat their oppressors.
The civil rights era clearly shows that agitational organizing has been a more effective method for resistance. Another earlier example of anti-capitalist agitation succeeding is found in the stories surrounding the union called the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) around the twentieth century. The union was fractured and lacked organization to apply any pressure to push back against exploitative practices. Vincent Saint John was a miner turned activist who eventually joined the IWW. John was a known socialist who opposed exploitative capitalist practices and saw the electoral process as ineffective and only served as a mechanism to benefit corporations. By leading strikes on mining camps, John was able to push mining conglomerates to adopt a standard minimum wage for miners. John was unfortunately killed a few years later, however, his actions show historic precedent that agitational strategies work to empower those at the fringes of society.
Agitational protests are a productive form of enacting change, however, a common argument is that Martin Luther King Jr. is an example of why protests ought to remain peaceful. Contemporary historical depictions that portray King as a pacifist without mentioning his anti-capitalist upbringing are misleading. For instance, during his academic career, he was primarily influenced by socialists such as Adam Clayton Powell. Powell steered King in the direction of anti-capitalist theory, introducing him to Marx’s critique of capitalism and the idea that money was the root of all evil and fueled racism. King documented his thoughts on these influences, drawing upon personal experiences and addressing education's role in people's lives. King personally experienced how capitalism and money can become mechanisms for anti-black violence during a summer job. King observed that black employees were paid substantially less than their counterparts, preventing them from accessing material luxuries.
After becoming more involved in academia, King wrote essays opposing the idea that education should be a tool to trample on others and instead advocated that education is a tool for critical thinking and understanding the implications of our actions. It was this analysis that put King at the head of the civil rights movement because the fight for civil rights required the willingness to critique anti-black laws that had become normalized. King’s strategy was peaceful at the start of the civil rights movement, but towards the end, he abandoned the strategy in favor of agitational protests. For example, on several occasions, King used guns to protect him and his family from white supremacists. King’s nonviolent resistance was not meant to replace self-defense from the violence incited by white civil society. However, capitalist educators have rewritten history in a way that masks agitational and anti-capitalist ideologies in order to convince marginalized people that they ought to act like pacifists and fight for social improvement in specific ways. However, this modeling relies on false conceptions of agents like King, it also ignores how “ideal” forms of protesting failed.
Every movement has to start somewhere. To resist blindly accepting capitalism which pacifies and obscures historical figures and revolutionaries, one can utilize Marx’s concept of historical materialism. Marx’s historical materialism encourages deep analysis of the way that the material conditions of the oppressed are shaped by historical events. By adopting a critical consciousness of historical trends, people can better understand how capitalism portrays history to reify structures of bourgeois society. However, the working classes’ circumstances change dramatically over time, meaning that experiences from the 19th century and the 20th century cannot necessarily be equated. Historical materialism does not aim to equate every experience but rather create the foundation upon which better movements can be built.
This form of analysis connects the dots between historical events and the social conditions of the present day to better identify the mechanisms of power used by the wealthy—Historical analysis identifies who and what plays a role in suppressing the working class.  Put simply, to try to be politically active in today’s world with only a capitalist view of history would be like taking a midterm without studying. The capitalist understanding of history purposefully aims to dilute class tensions by depicting anti-capitalist agitators as pacifists. By tranquilizing the image of historical figures like Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement, capitalist history turns political subjects into economic subjects in order to exploit vulnerable people. Only by understanding the way that pacifism has historically failed to challenge a system built upon the exploitation of the marginalized people, can activists take meaningful action to dismantle oppression.
Capitalism sets up social systems that exist only for monetary profit, resulting in the exploitation of the working class. The violent effects of capitalism are not just physical, they also involve subtle distortions in how people understand history. By promoting a history informed by capitalist propaganda, corporations can wash away accountability and deceive people into protesting in a certain way that stalls progress. The capitalist lens of history masks how Carnegie enabled violence against unionized workers under the guise that he was a philanthropist, which takes away any accountability.
The stories revolving around agitators like Philip Randolph demonstrate the success of civil disobedience to enact change. Finally, diving into the nature of Martin Luther King Jr.’s upbringing breaks down the pacifism model that capitalist anti-agitators desire to suppress the will of the oppressed. Marx’s work on historical materialism sets the philosophical framework for understanding historical analysis as an instrument to prevent an ever-adapting bourgeois state. Reorienting our education around historical materialism will give a more comprehensive and equitable picture of history which is key for effective engagement to improve the lives of the most vulnerable. Readers and writers alike can become equipped with the knowledge necessary to make progress during dark and turbulent times in politics.
 “CUL - Main Content,” Philanthropy of Andrew Carnegie | Columbia University Libraries, accessed November 12, 2020, https://library.columbia.edu/libraries/rbml/units/carnegie/andrew.html.
 Madeleine Adamson and Seth Borgos, This Mighty Dream: Social Protest Movements in the United States (Boston: Routledge et Paul, 1985), 47
 Ibid., 46
 Adamson and Borgos, This Mighty Dream: Social Protest Movements in the United States, 71
 Ibid., 72
 Ibid., 76
 Ibid., 73
 Dara T. Mathis, “King's Message of Nonviolence Has Been Distorted,” The Atlantic (Atlantic Media Company, April 3, 2018), https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/04/kings-message-of-nonviolence-has-been-distorted/557021/.
 Carson, Clayborne. "Martin Luther King Jr.: The Morehouse Years." The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, no. 15 (1997): 122.
 Ibid., 123
 Mathis, “King's Message of Nonviolence Has Been Distorted,”
 Ellen Meiksins Wood, Democracy against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism (London: Verso, 2016), 3.
 Wood, Democracy against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism, 21
 Ibid., 36
Will White recently received a bachelor of arts in history from UCLA. They spent lots of time in forensics during undergrad dedicated to researching political theory from authors like Bataille, Baudrillard, Nietzsche, and Marx. Will is currently applying to grad programs in hopes to continue investigating how to use Marxism to study rhetoric.
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