‘Race’ and Racism Pre-Date Karl Marx


It’s become fashionable for some people to toss about the charge of “Marxism” or “Neo-Marxism” any time “race” and racism are a topic of discussion. It’s become one of those red meat mantras that rally a base and shut down a conversation.

For a long time I’ve just let the phrase and its variants go. But it seems like it’s not dying, and no one seems to be producing any actual writing or research to substantiate the term. If it’s going to be around we should at least put things in their proper order: first came the ideas of “race” and the reality of racism and much, much later comes Karl Marx and any of his heirs.

Marx was born in 1818. That means the earliest possible date on which we could refer to someone as a “Marxist” would be May 5 of that year. Of course, that would mean Marxism began in the delivery room of his birth. But I’m being generous here. Let’s use that earliest possible date to get our timelines right and agree that “neo-Marxism” would be later (the 20th century actually).

Now, when do we get the false construct of biological “races,” and when does racism appear on the scene of world history?

Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840) divided the single human family (biblically speaking; see Gen. 3:21, for example) into five “races” in 1779. His categorization of the five “races” roughly corresponds to how people think of racial groups today.

We could go back a century prior to Blumenbach to German scientist Bernhard Varen (1622-1650) and English scientist John Ray (1627-1705). Where Blumenbach used human skulls to classify the “races,” Varen and Ray used stature, shape, food habits, and skin color.

Of course, we could go back further in time to Italian philosopher Giardano Bruno (1548-1600) and French philosopher Jean Bodin (1530-1596). They tried to classify humanity into “races” using skin color and geography.

We could go back further still for “race” and racist ideas. The Babylonian Talmud gives us the old curse of Ham myth.

So with little more than a Wikipedia entry, we can trace ideas of “race” and racism back to the Middle Ages—well before Karl Marx, Marxism, neo-Marxism, or Gramscian Marxism that come along in the 1800 and 1900s.

Of course, we can do better than a Wikipedia search. We can look to books like The Forging of Races: Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World, 1600-2000 by Colin Kidd for a wonderful and readable piece of research. Or, for the adventurous type with more time on hand, we could pick up American University professor Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America— a National Book Award winner.

It’s not that Marxist thought isn’t anywhere to be found in racial discourse. I think it is. Of course, some people are self-consciously Marxist. But most people writing blogs and engaging the subject either are unaware of Marxist influence or are quite aware of having very different influences on their thought. Tossing about the label does nothing for understanding the person you’re engaging or improving the discourse. And, in a good many instances, tossing about the labels is simply anachronistic.

Let me say one final thing about all this Marxist stuff. Hardly anyone is without some Marxist influence in their lives. The next time you talk about economic classes (say, the “middle class” being under attack) be sure to tip your hat toward good ol’ Mr. Marx. Or the next time you’re tempted to accuse others of being emotional when it comes to “race” and racism, you might suspect that something of Marx’s dialectical method is at work in your appeal to objectivity and reasoned discourse. If we’re feeling cheeky, we might say, “It takes a Marxist to know a Marxist.” Or we might just talk to each other on our own terms. I’m for the second, especially since our problems with “race” and racism were around a long, long time before Mr. Marx and his heirs.