The Black Lives Matter movement, which has sprung back to life on a staggering scale recently, is a righteous cause. In much of the world, black lives really do not matter – or at least are usually valued less highly than white lives. This is not just the case in the US, where young black men are disproportionately killed by the police and subjected to various kinds of non-physical violence, including unemployment and imprisonment. Here in the UK, too, the state’s track record of racialised violence is also appalling and throughout much of the world, darker-skinned people are oppressed in a variety of ways – it is mainly black- and brown-skinned people, after all, that are the victims of US and Western imperialist violence in the Middle East and other parts of the world. At the same time, in the US and elsewhere, racism – whether in the form of apartheid and other legalised apparatuses or less overt forms of social inequality – has proved to be a highly effective apparatus of social control, allowing the ruling classes to divide and control their domestic workers.
From this point of view, the Black Lives Matter movement is a civilising force. A positive aspect of the worldwide protests is that they been, at least so far as I can see, largely spontaneous – not in the sense that they came out of nowhere (after all, they are a response not simply to the killing of one black man but to generations of chattel slavery and segregation), but in the sense that they have arisen relatively free from leftist co-option; it’s notable, for instance, that most the placards carried by demonstrators have been home-made. The protests surely also played a part in the firing of police officer Derek Chauvin, along with three of his colleagues, and to Chauvin being charged with murder. These protests have also brought together people of all ‘races’ to an unprecedented degree.
On the other hand, no clear working-class perspective has emerged out of the protests, even in the US. Here in the UK the situation is even more confusing, as many of the mainly young BLM demonstrators emphasize the importance of ‘being heard’ on the ‘issue’ of racism, but are less clear about who they want to be heard by and to what end. And there is little sense among British protestors of any coherent political understanding of racism beyond superficial ethical appeals to ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behaviour or vague calls for justice. Moreover, whatever radical ambitions some members of the Black Lives Matter organisation may harbour, the movement has been applauded or at least covered respectfully by huge swaths of the media and academic world. Many otherwise hard-nosed capitalist politicians, too, have pledged their allegiance to Black Lives Matter or engaged in a spot of socially-distanced knee-taking. CEOs and most of the world’s biggest corporations are also woking up to the power of the BLM brand; after all, what better than a few images of young people holding up homemade signs to give your social media profiles a bit of raw reality and multicultural edge? Of course, such co-option is no fault of the protestors or the BLM organisation itself; but it does show how easy it is for the ruling class to recuperate movements that primarily operate on the terrain of identity politics.
One of the most amusing elements of the now raging culture war over BLM is the conservative journalists’ and pundits’ claim that the Black Lives Matter organisation is ‘Marxist’. Now it may be true that some of its founders claim to be Marxists. A co-founder of BLM, Patrice Cullors, for example, has told journalists that she and her comrades are “trained Marxists”. But claiming to be a Marxist and actually being one are rather different things. In reality, BLM is a reformist organisation seeking ‘justice’ for black (and ultimately, as they say, all) people within the capitalist system. It does not stand for socialism. There is no indication on the BLM website, for example, that the organisation seeks the overthrow of capitalism or the ruling class – the raison d’être of any Marxist organisation and the only way that the majority of black people will be freed from misery under capitalism. And while its activism may lead to some small changes to the policing or judicial systems, some of its demands, such as the defunding of the police would not seem to be practical or even desirable while the capitalist system – itself a system of slavery – remains in place.
Strictly speaking, racism is simply the belief that races exist – a belief to which not only conservatives, but also many liberals and leftists subscribe (even if the latter occasionally refer to race as a ‘social construction’). We need to overcome the very concept of race, a pseudo-scientific notion that arose at the same time as racist practices, providing a justification for the slave trade in the early years of capitalism. This is only likely to be achieved if people of all skin colours come together to abolish the system itself.