Marxist theory

Notes on the work of Theodore Allen & Lerone Bennett Jr.



The work of Theodore Allen (The Invention of the White Race, 1994 & 1997) presents a powerful argument for class as the underlying unifier in capitalist society and against ‘race’ as an inherent division amongst working class people. Allen’s work – to which he devoted the majority of his 85 years of life – describes how and why the colonial ruling class in American taught European-Americans workers to love their skin as “whites” and turn against their class brothers and sisters from Africa. Today, says Allen, the capitalist ruling class continues to crush working class movements by appealing to an “all-class” invention of their own making – “white supremacy.” Allen’s work on the creation of “white supremacy” as a social control formation and its use by the ruling class today fits nicely with the work of Lerone Bennett (The Shaping of Black America, 1975).

In 1607 the first European settlement is proclaimed in Jamestown, Virginia. The Europeans were not identified as “white” and the majority were indentured servants who were brutalized by the colonial ruling class – the owners of land, wealth, and the indentured. European indentured servants were maimed, held in shackles, and often tried to run away. George Washington bought white servants and used them as laborers. Says Bennett on the history of white slavery: “Although great care has been taken to hide the fact, black bondsmen inherited their chains from white bondsmen…to understand what happened to blacks…one must first understand what happened to whites…for they ran the first leg of the marathon of American servitude.” In short, African laborers were placed into a preexisting system of social control, complete with all the familiar stereotypes (white indentured servants were described as lazy, stupid, and inherently inferior) and forms of brutality normally associated only with black labor.

The first people from African arrive to North America in 1619. They come with a similar social status as European laborers – “free men and women temporarily bound for service.” They labor alongside Europeans and some Indians and are acutely aware not of skin color but of the differences between classes. Blacks are integrated into a system of labor that has nothing to do with their color until a crisis of authority prompts the colonial ruling class to create a “race problem” and a more robust and expansive social control buffer based on supposed differences between “blacks” and “whites.” Says Bennett: “One of the most striking features of this colony…was the relative absence of color consciousness.” White colonists had “no concept of themselves as white men” and “the word white, with all its burden of guilt and arrogance, did not come into common usage until the later part of the century.”

The first black person in English America dies in 1622-23. A year later there are 20 or so black people in Jamestown, a number of whom have served their years of servitude and are now free. These free blacks buy property, start families, and purchase other servants of African and European origin.

By 1649 there are some 15,000 English and 300 “Negroes” is colonial America. The word “white” has not been attached to Europeans, and Negro is still a national designation that has no connection to skin color. The divisions in society are between masters and servants – and there are blacks and whites in both categories. The majority of Europeans and Negroes are indentured servants. There are numerous examples of comradery and friendship between indentured servants from Europe and Africa: they run away together, sing and dance together, and have children together. There were prejudiced individual, but there was not yet a social structure built on racism and white supremacy – the ruling class didn’t have the need for that yet. Race had not yet been placed over class.

Says Bennett: “Back there, before Jim Crow, before the invention of the . . . white man, and the words or concepts to describe them, the Colonial population consisted largely of a great mass of . . . [European American and African American] bondsmen, who occupied roughly the same economic category and were treated with equal contempt by the lords of the plantation and legislatures. Curiously unconcerned about their color, these people worked together and relaxed together. They had essentially the same interests, the same aspirations, and the same grievances. They conspired together and waged a common struggle against their common enemy – the big planter apparatus and a social system that legalized terror against . . . bondsmen. No one says and no one believes it was a Garden of Eden in Colonial America. But, the available evidence . . . suggests that there were widening bonds of solidarity . . . And the same evidence indicates that it proved very difficult indeed to teach white people to worship their skin.”

Bacon’s Rebellion takes place in 1676. Says Ted Allen: “Bacon’s Rebellion demonstrated beyond question the lack of a sufficient intermediate stratum to stand between the ruling plantation elite and the mass of the European-American and African-American laboring people, free and bond. It began in April 1676 as a difference between the elite and the sub-elite planters over “Indian policy,” but by September it had become a civil war against the social order established by the land-engrossing plantation bourgeoisie. When Bacon’s forces besieged, captured, and burned the colonial capital city of Jamestown and sent Governor Berkeley, scurrying into exile across Chesapeake Bay, the rebel army was composed mainly of European-American and African-American bond-laborers and freedmen recently “out of their time.’” The ruling class at all times seeks to maximize wealth and maintain social control. (The two go hand in hand, as the more wealth is extracted off the backs of the working class, the more social control is necessary to keep them from revolting). The crisis of social control exemplified in Bacon’s rebellion sends a message to the ruling planter class (the owners of land). A new governor appears in Jamestown, who argues: “There must be an alteration though not of the Government yet in the Government.” The ruling planter class, he says, must find a manner of rule that will “agree with the common people.”

The solution is the creation of “white supremacy” in order to fool poor whites into hating their black class comrades and siding with the European planter class on the basis of skin color. Where there is unity there must be disunity. Says historian Philip Alexander Bruce: “toward the end of the seventeenth century” there occurred “a marked tendency to promote a pride of race among the members of every class of white people; to be white gave the distinction of color even to the agricultural [European-American limited-term bond-] servants, whose condition, in some respects was not much removed from that of actual slavery…” Whites are taught to take pride in their skin and blacks are taught the opposite. The entire working class is suddenly split in two – black and white – and the idea of race is invented to replace country of origin and smash class identification. The ruling class creates a race problem where there wasn’t one to begin with, because race did not exist as a social construct. Says Allen: “The white race, and thus a system of racial oppression, did not exist and could not have existed in the 17th-century tobacco colony because of class solidarity between working class European Americans and African Americans, absence of an all-class coalition of European-Americans against African-Americans, and the lack of an intermediate buffer social control stratum.”

How to teach white people to love their skin? Sticks and carrots. A series of laws strips blacks of the right to vote (they had it and exercised it previously), proclaims them servants for life (slaves), strips them of legal protections, and in general dehumanizes them. Poor whites aren’t given much, except the ability to police these new black slaves (the origins of modern police forces) and a few new freedoms. In general the vast majority of whites are still very poor and still bond servants – but at least they aren’t black, goes the new ideology. By and large poor white servants fought against the destruction of class cohesion, and for that they were killed alongside their black comrades. Says Bennett: “The whole system of subordination rested on official state terror. The exigencies of the situation required men to kill some white people to keep them white and to kill many black people to keep them white…The severed heads of black and white rebels were impaled on poles along the road as warnings to black people and white people.” Whites and blacks that resisted the imposition of white supremacy were also branded, castrated, and roasted over open fires.

In this way the ruling class creates what Allen calls a “social control formation” of poor white laborers – a group of people not of the property holding class who are given just enough (and a great deal in comparison to the deteriorating condition of blacks) to think there is something progressive about being white. Once the white ruling class has created a social system capable of conditioning poor whites into seeing race and not class (i.e. a racist society), there is a call to bring more whites to the colonies to strengthen the social control buffer. A 1698 law of South Carolina offered the captains of ships 13 pounds for each white servant imported and required every owner of 6 black slaves buy at least 1 white slave. 1711 South Carolina governor asks Britain to send more whites at public expense.

Once the ruling class had created this social control buffer, they were free to extract even more wealth from the indentured servant population by enslaving blacks (“more money could be made from the employment of lifetime hereditary bond-laborers”). Many white indentured servants continued to labor, but many more found it impossible to survive when put into competition against slave labor. Says Allen: “By the closing third of the eighteenth century this process had produced a situation in which at least 60 percent of the white adult men in Virginia were non-owners of bond-labor. Among that 60 percent were those encountered by the Marquis de Chastellux as he travelled through Virginia in spring 1782. For the first time in his three years in America, “in the midst of those rich plantations,” he often saw “miserable huts … inhabited by whites, whose wan looks and ragged garments bespeak poverty.” It seemed clear to him that the cause of this poverty was the engrossment of land by the plantation bourgeoisie.” For this reason and countless others to come in the future, Allen describes creation of the social control buffer and the subordination of class to race as “ruinous” for blacks and “disastrous” for European-American workers.

Since its creation, the ruling class has used race and white supremacy to destroy class cohesion. The myth of white supremacy – as opposed to class supremacy, which really exists – is reinforced by all levels of the state through “a material basis in the form of deliberate systems of race privileges for white workers” (see the National Housing Act of 1934, in which only 100 of the first 67,000 home mortgages were given to blacks). Certain privileges do exist for white people in America, but ultimately there are no racial privileges under capitalism – only class privileges determined by wealth and ones relationship to the means of production. The south, for example, is supposed to be the home of white supremacy. As such, we’d expect white people of all classes to be doing very well. But that’s not the case, as poor white southerners are among the poorest and sickliest in the country! So where is this “race privilege” for white workers? Where is this great promise that the ruling class promised poor whites all the way back in the late 17th century? Is it in Huntington, WV, where 26 people overdosed in four hours? Maybe it’s in Flint, MI, where poor blacks and whites were knowingly poisoned by the state? Maybe Cody Franklin, who joins the list of over a thousand people killed by the state each year, knows something about white supremacy. The key is that white privilege does not exist because it is counter to white’s class interests. Ultimately white and black workers suffer or rise together. If one can be paid less, so can the other. All workers feel the wrath of the ruling capitalist class. Some – white workers – have just been given just enough to be tricked into thinking they share a connection with the ruling class. The ruling class will always look to blame the problems of capitalism on workers, and tell white workers that those “other” workers are the problem.

Allen says that the capitalist ruling class uses the poison pill of white supremacy each time a crisis in capitalism drives workers together. Each time, white workers are offered just a small leg up over their black comrades – the choice is made by white workers whether or not to take the poison pill; whether or not to sacrifice their class interests for a reward that cannot free them from the bonds of wage slavery and alienated labor. As capitalism’s crisis becomes deeper and more frequent, the ruling class is able to offer white workers increasingly less.

How did the ruling class maintain social control post the rebellion of 1676 in the face of class solidarity? By appealing to the hopes of poor whites to break apart class solidarity. Said Sir Francis Bacon: “[I]t is a certain sign of wise government…when it can hold men’s hearts by hopes, when it cannot by satisfaction.” The rulers must go about “dividing and breaking of all factions and combinations that are adverse to the state, and setting them at distance, or at least distrust among themselves.”

Allen’s understanding of race and white supremacy – as a ruling class social control concepts based off immediate need of maintaining power, that there is no inherent animosity between black and whites, that class unity existed before the advent of race as an intentional tool of obfuscation – runs counter to ideas old and new. One idea is that there is no part of human nature that mandates racial discrimination (see comments made by Carl N. Deglerand). Another is that a non-historical, and thus unbreakable, barrier exists between a “white America” and “black America” (see the work of Michael Eric Dyson, among others). Such a view intentionally disregards class and presumably lumps together the leader of the capitalist state and military, Obama, with black victims of police terror. Finally, there’s a tendency to assume racism is something that can be changed by turning inwards and conquering internal biases (see YahNé Ndgo and most university level classes on race). But if racism and white supremacy are tools used by a ruling class, then the solution to racism is not shaming people but ending class society. The only way to ever rid our society of racism is to target the root, the idea (and it is an idea because supremacy under capitalism is based on class, not race) of white supremacy. But white supremacy will always remain an important tool (Allen says the most important tool) in the hands of the capitalist class, and therefore always exist, so long as the capitalist class still exists. You can’t fight racism without fighting to end capitalism, and you can’t fight to end capitalism without fighting racism.


1 reply »

  1. John, while we disagree on other important topics, this was truly excellent review of Allen’s work, something that has also educated me in the mechanism of racism in the US and it’s origin.

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