Was Karl Marx’s Commodity Fetishism Critique Born Out of Racism? 2013

In 1972, my friend, political scientist and author Carlos Moore, wrote a book entitled, Were Marx and Engels White Racists? Like me, Carlos is an Afro-Cuban expatriate. His book presents arguments supporting the opinion that Marx and Engels were innately racist. This argument is of interest to me, because I view Marx and Engels in the same light, as speaking one thought, but representing another. Similarly, I see the pedagogy of contemporary art theory in the same manner. It professes to be progressive and objective, but in actuality it is passively misogynistic and racist, in that it fails to look outside the White male European philosophical perspective, boasting a fallacy that history started in Europe. It is therefore appropriate that graduate art school would characteristically promote the theory of Karl Marx.

In Carlos Moore’s aforementioned book, he sites British Marxist theorist E.J. Hobsbawm, as stating,

“So much for the general state of Marx’s and Engel’s historical knowledge. We may summarize it as follows. It was (at all events in the period when the Formen were drafted) thin on pre-history, on primitive communal societies and on pre Colombian America, and virtually non-existent on Africa. It was not impressive on the ancient or medieval Middle East, but markedly better on certain parts of Asia, notably India, but not on Japan. It was good on classical antiquity and the European Middle Ages.”

There is a European tradition that began in the Middle Ages and continued on through the 1700’s in France and England. It is the use a Scold’s Bridle. Made of iron, and conformed to lock onto a woman’s head, the bridle was actually a muzzle which White European men used to silence their nagging and gossiping wives. They brought these oppressive apparatuses with them to the New World and used them on the enslaved Africans. I feature these iron gagging gadgets in a series of oil paintings I’m creating called Antebellum Appropriations, wherein I alter classical European paintings which were created during the slave trade era to tell slave stories.  In my narratives, slaves and White women appear muzzled in these contraptions.

The omission in art school theory syllabuses of writings by women and people of color is a continuation of the European oppressive gag tactic which incorporated the Scold’s Bridle, only this time the silencing is committed sans iron. Similarly, Karl Marx’s failure to address oppressed people of Color, which make up more than three-quarters of the world’s population, debunks his theoretical rhetoric of “universality.”  According to Marxian theorist David Harvey, Marx “pled with Cabet not to take his communist-minded followers to the new world. He quotes Marx as having said to Cabet, “Stay as good communists in Europe and fight through the revolutionary transformation in that space.” (Space as a Key Word, by David Harvey, pg 139).

If Karl Marx was so concerned for the welfare of oppressed people all over the world and criticized global capitalism as being a fetish of commodity: why then did he not care enough to arm, with the liberating truth of his Communist Manifesto, the millions of oppressed Africans, from which the concept of fetishism was born, and who were the victims of the greatest form of capitalism known as slavery? I conclude that it was because Karl Marx was a racist. His private letter to Engle, in 1862, rings of racism. In the letter, he references his socialist political competitor, Ferdinand Lassalle, in the following manner:

“It is now completely clear to me that he, as is proved by his cranial formation and his hair, descends from the Negroes from Egypt, assuming that his mother or grandmother had not interbred with a nigger. Now this union of Judaism and Germanism with a basic Negro substance must produce a peculiar product. The obtrusiveness of the fellow is also nigger-like.”

Such an anthropological racist description of Black people supports what Carlos Moore wrote in his book, regarding Karl Marx’s racist tendencies. Carlos wrote,

“Western society, and European peoples exclusively, this provided the historical model, the social prototype for Marx’s and Engel’s most important generalizations concerning the historical development of all human societies, And there is strong evidence that this was due not to a lack of available anthropological, ethnological and sociological material, but rather to Marx’s and Engels’ profoundly Euro-centric orientation.”

Carlos Moore also sites racist and anti-Semitic rhetoric in Karl Marx’s essay on the Jewish Question, wherein Marx uses terms like “race peculiarities” and “inborn race characteristic” and adjectives like “schmutzig-judischen.” I received a Bachelor of Arts degree in German, so I know what that means: “Dirty Jewish.”  Furthermore, Carlos Moore sites that in Marx’s Critique of Political Economy, Marx’s uses the terms “civilized” and “uncivilized” to differentiate White people from those of Color.  Carlos goes on to site many references of racism in Karl Marx’s rhetoric and writing.

With regard to Karl Marx’s irreverence and disrespect of things sacred in African civilization, Marx said the following, concerning African fetishes:

“The direct transition from the African’s fetish to Voltaire’s ‘Supreme Being,’ or from the hunting gear of a North American savage to the capital of the Bank of England, is not so absurdly contrary to history, as is the transition from Bastiat’s fisherman to the wage labourer.”

Karl Marx should have asked someone from the Congo, whose faith involves a secret understanding of things sacred, if their religious fetishes directly transitioned into a cult of deism for the French Revolution. He should have asked Native Americans how they feel about being labeled “savages.” There is an epistemological spiritual sophistication in “primitive” people which Eurocentric atheists such as Carl Marx fail to understand.

I conducted a little bit of research on African fetishes from the Congo, for an art project I’m working on, and found the following. Called Nkisi, African fetishes are community-owned consecrated sculptural figures and vessels which have been used religiously, for centuries, for protection and empowerment. They are believed to be sanctuaries for the souls of the ancestors and sustaining forces of life on earth.  In strict accordance with specific songs, nails are hammered into the Nkisi to excite medicinal ingredients which are housed within cavities that are hidden in the figures. This action is believed to elicit healing energies that maintain social health and wellness within a community.

Had Karl Marx researched this knowledge, concerning African fetishes, perhaps he would have been less likely to debase and desecrate a centuries old African religious practice, by likening it to capitalist materialistic obsessions or to a French Revolutionary cult movement which surfaced at the height of the slave trade in which France played a major role.  Or perhaps the knowledge of it would have further fueled his racism and his disdain for religion, made it all the easier for him to ridicule a faith unknown to him and riddle his atheistic writing with racist rhetoric. Where the “religious” are concerned, Karl Marx would find plenty of racist cohorts.

Religion is man-made. Spirituality is God-made. The shortcomings of man contribute to making religion unattractive to skeptics. There are racists and hell hounds in holy places. My eldest son Rafael, now 16 years old and a high honors A.P. student at Loyola High School, experienced a strong example of this when he was five years at the Good Shepherd Catholic School in Beverly Hills where he was a student in Kindergarten. A little blonde girl from Spain, named Bridgette, used to love playing with Rafael on the playground.  She followed him everywhere he went. They became good friends. However, whenever her parents came to pick her up, she quickly scurried away from Rafael and said, “Quick, my parents are here! I can’t let them see me play with you. They said not to play with the black boys.  They said I have to stay away from you because you’re black.” Rafael told me that Brigitte often said that to him and that he kept reminding her, “But I’m not black, Bridgette. Look, my skin is brown.” There were two black boys in  the Kindergarten class, my son Rafael and his friend Tyler, both dark-skinned. Everybody else was either Asian or Latino, but mostly white.

One day after school, several concerned parents and the Kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Miller, who was a loving White woman, approached me.  She was holding the hands of Rafael and Tyler who were both frowning and looking confused. Aghast, Mrs. Miller said to me, “I’m so sorry, she caught me off guard! I wasn’t expecting it.” The parents, also upset, said, “Don’t worry. We’re going to boycott the party.” I had no idea what they were talking about. The following is what had happened before I had arrived.

Bridgette’s mother, a presumably good Catholic woman, had just given Mrs. Miller a stack of invitations to her daughter’s birthday party so that Mrs. Miller could hand them out to the students. Each invitation was stuffed into an envelope with a child’s name on it.  Unsuspecting, Mrs. Miller proceeded  to hand out each invitation to the appropriate kindergarten student. When she handed them all out, and looked at her empty hands, she realized that Rafael and Tyler, the only two Black students in the class, were the only two children who did not receive an invitation.

I said to the teacher and the parents, “It must have been a mistake. She must have dropped them or something, on the way.” “Oh no, it was no mistake,” insisted everyone. I caught site of Brigitte’s mother from the corner of my eye and said, “Look, there she is, I’ll ask her.” I said to Brigitte’s mother who looked perturbed, “I’m sure it’s an oversight, but my son Rafael and Tyler didn’t receive an invitation to Brigitte’s birthday party.” She scornfully retorted. “Are you trying to tell me who to invite to my daughter’s party?”

I pulled my son away from the argument that ensued between Brigitte’s belligerent racist mother and the other supportive parents, and drove Rafael home. From his booster seat in the back, Rafael asked me some questions. The conversation went like this:

Rafael: Did she do that on purpose?

Lili: Yes, honey.

R: You mean I can’t go to Brigitte’s birthday party?

L: No, sweetheart. I’m sorry, you’re not invited.

R: (His eyes watering) Why not?

L: Because she doesn’t love God.

R: But will she go to heaven when she dies?

L: I don’t know, honey. What do you think?

R: I think she will, and when she gets to heaven she’ll ask Jesus to forgive her.

L: (My eyes watering) That’s so nice of you, Rafa.

R: (His eyes tearing and his lip now trembling). Mommy?

L: Yeah, baby.

R: (Barely able to get the words out through his weeping.) Will Brigitte have a clown and a jumper at her party like I’m having?

L: I don’t know, honey.

R: Can I still invite her to my birthday party?

L: Of course, honey.

R: Yay!  (Wipes the mucous from his nose.)

That’s exactly how the conversation went. You don’t forget moments that negatively impact your children so deeply. I tried not to let Rafael notice that I was crying all the way home with him. We invited Brigitte to his birthday party, but she didn’t show up.

Recently, a fellow graduate student who is an Iranian Muslim woman, came into my studio crying. I barely knew her, but she said that she felt (based on the content of my artwork) that I would understand her feeling so hurt over the racial insensitivity she had just experienced in class, from a visiting famous White European woman artist and her classmates who fell silent. After sitting, crying and venting for a while, she said to me, “Oh one thing, the White women in your paintings are way too friendly-looking. You make them all victims.  They were perpetrators too. You should paint some of them looking mean.”  When she said that, I remembered what had happened to my son Rafael in the Kindergarten and the several other racist incidences I have endured at the mouths of White women. I decided that I would heed to my classmates’ advice, on occasion.

However painful these incidents of racism we endure are, they provide us with an insight into the complexity of human nature with regard to duplicity and racism.  The trauma we survive arms us with the ability to discern and critically scrutinize the racism that, at times, leaks from the mouths or the pens of conscientiously-minded people such as Karl Marx, while others more privileged are too blinded by the zeal of his charismatic rhetoric to even notice.