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AUSTRALIAN
MARXIST
REVIEW

Journal of the Communist Party of Australia

ISSUE 37APRIL 1997

Historical Aspects of Race Relations

This article is taken from Chapter 16 of Caste, Class, and Race by black socialist scholar, Dr Oliver Cromwell Cox. This seminal work was first published in the United States in 1948.

In a discussion of “the origin” of race relations it should be well to determine at the outset exactly what we are looking for. We shall proceed, therefore, by first eliminating certain concepts that are commonly confused with that of race relations. These are: ethnocentrism, intolerance, and “racism”.

Ethnocentrism, as the sociologists conceive of it, is a social attitude which expresses a community of feeling in any group — the “we” feeling as over against the “others.” This attitude seems to be a function of group solidarity, which is not necessarily a racial phenomenon. Neither is social intolerance … racial antagonism, for social intolerance is social displeasure or resentment against that group which refuses to conform to the established practices and beliefs of the society. Finally, the term “racism” as it has been recently employed in the literature seems to refer to a philosophy of racial antipathy. Studies on the origin of racism involve the study of the development of an ideology, an approach which usually results in the substitution of the history of a system of rationalisation for that of a material social fact. Indeed, it is likely to be an accumulation of an erratic pattern of verbalisations cut free from any on-going social system.

What then is the phenomenon, the beginnings of which we seek to determine? It is the phenomenon of the capitalist exploitation of peoples and its complementary social attitude. Again, one should miss the point entirely if one were to think of racial antagonism as having its genesis in some “social instinct” of antipathy between peoples. Such an approach ordinarily leads to no end of confusion.

The Beginning of Racial Antagonism

Probably a realisation of no single fact is of such crucial significance for an understanding of racial antagonism as that the phenomenon had its rise only in modern times. In a previous chapter on “the origin of caste” we have attempted to show that race conflict did not exist among the early Aryans in India, and we do not find it in other ancient civilisations. Our hypothesis is that racial exploitation and race prejudice developed among Europeans with the rise of capitalism and nationalism, and that because of the world-wide ramifications of capitalism, all racial antagonisms can be traced to the policies and attitudes of the leading capitalist people, the white people of Europe and North America.

By way of demonstrating this hypothesis we shall review briefly some well-known historical situations. In tracing the rise of the Anglo-Saxons to their position as the master race of the world we shall omit consideration of the great Eastern civilisations from which Greece took a significant cultural heritage. There seems to be no basis for imputing racial antagonism to the Egyptians, Babylonians, or Persians. At any rate, the Greeks were the first European people to enter the stream of eastern Mediterranean civilisation, and the possibility of racial exploitation did not really occur until the Macedonian conquest. Our point here is, however, that we do not find race prejudice even in the great Hellenistic empire which extended deeper into the territories of coloured people than any other European empire up to the end of the fifteenth century.

The Hellenic Greeks had a cultural, not a racial, standard of belonging, so that their basic division of the peoples of the world were Greeks and barbarians — the barbarians having been all those persons who did not possess the Greek culture, especially its language. This is not surprising, for the culture of peoples is always a matter of great moment to them. But the people of the Greek city-states, who founded colonies among the barbarians on the shores of the Black Sea and of the Mediterranean, welcomed those barbarians to the extent that they were able to participate in Greek culture, and intermarried freely with them. The Greeks knew that they had a culture superior to those of the barbarians, but they included Europeans, Africans, and Asiatics in the concept Hellas as these peoples acquired a working knowledge of the Greek culture.

The experience of the later Hellenistic empire of Alexander tended to be the direct contrary of modern racial antagonism. The narrow patriotism of the city-states was given up for a new cosmopolitanism. Every effort was made to assimilate the barbarians to Greek culture, and in the process a new Greco-Oriental culture with a Greco-Oriental ruling class came into being. Alexander himself took a Persian princess for his wife and encouraged his men to intermarry with the native population. In this empire there was an estate, not a racial, distinction between the rulers and the un-Hellenised natives.

Moreover, the inclination of Alexander to disregard even cultural differences in his policy toward the peoples of his empire seemed to have stimulated one of the most remarkable philosophies of all time: that of the fundamental equality of all human beings. In Athens, in about 300 BC, Zeno developed a system of thought called stoicism which held in part that “all men should be fellow citizens; and there should be one life and order, as of a flock pasturing together, which feeds together by a common law.” This doctrine was not a reaction to race prejudice but rather to certain invidious cultural distinctions among the peoples of the time; and the idea has come down to us by way of the Roman law, the preaching of St. Paul, and the writings of the philosophers of the Enlightenment. It has been given a democratic emphasis in the American Declaration of Independence and in amendments to the Constitution of the United States.

The next great organisation of peoples about the Mediterranean Sea — and in so far as European civilisation is concerned this may be thought of as constituting the whole world — was the Roman Empire. In this civilisation also we do not find racial antagonism, for the norm of superiority in the Roman system remained a cultural-class attribute. The basic distinction was Roman citizenship, and gradually this was extended to all freeborn persons in the municipalities of the empire. Slaves came from every province, and there was no racial distinction among them. Sometimes the slaves, especially the Greeks, were the teachers of their masters; indeed, very much of the cultural enlightenment of the Romans came through slaves from the East. Because slavery was not a racial stigma, educated freedmen, who were granted citizenship upon emancipation, might rise to high positions in government or industry. There were no interracial laws governing the relationship of the great mass of obscure common people of different origin. Moreover, the aristocracy of the empire, the senators and equites, was constituted largely from responsible provincials in the imperial administration.

One should not mistake the social relationship among the various social estates of the Greek and Roman world for race relations. The Spartiates, Perioikoi, and Helots of Laconia, for instance, were not races but social estates; neither did the Metics, the alien residents of Periclean Athens, constitute a race. In early republican Rome intermarriage was forbidden between the privileged patrician class and the plebeian mass, but this was a social-estate partition rather than a racial accommodation.

If we have not discovered interracial antagonism in ancient Greece and Rome, the chances of discovering it in the system which succeeded the fall of the Roman Empire are even more remote. With the rise of the politico-religious system of Christianity, Western culture may be thought of as having entered its long period of gestation. Its first fruits were the Crusades. But during all this time and even after the Renaissance the nature of the movement and of the social contact of peoples in this area precluded the possibility of the development of race prejudice.

The general pattern of barbarian invasions was that of a succession of peoples of increasing cultural inferiority moving into areas of higher culture. Thus, the German nations which invaded the Roman Empire had a smaller capacity for maintaining a complex culture than the Romans had when they conquered the Greeks; and probably the Celtic people of Britain had still fewer resources to continue their Roman cultural heritage. In the movement of barbarian peoples from the East and North toward the general area of the Mediterranean no nationalistic sentiments stood in the way to limit their amalgamation with the native populations.

One aspect of this era of barbarian invasion, the movement of Asiatics into Europe, is of especial significance. The Asiatics were better warriors than rulers. We may say rather conclusively that the white man’s rise to superiority over the coloured peoples of the other continents is based pivotally on his superiority as a fighter. This is, however, a rather recent achievement. In the Middle Ages the Asiatics out fought him. The Huns, Saracens, Moors, Seljuk Turks, Ottoman Turks, Tartars — all went deep into Europe, subjugated and sometimes enslaved white peoples who today are highly race-prejudiced. At any rate, we shall not find racial antagonism among these invaders. The most powerful of them were Moslems, and both the economic base and religious sanctions of Mohammedanism are opposed to race prejudice. Under Mohammedanism — at least in so far as it has not been recently corrupted by capitalist ideals — the criterion of belonging is a cultural one; furthermore, Islam is a proselytising culture.

In Europe itself the policies of the Roman Catholic Church presented a bar to the development of racial antagonism. The Church, which gradually attained more or less religious, economic, and ideological dominance, had a folk and personal — not a territorial or racial — norm of belonging. The fundamental division of human beings was Christian and non-Christian. Among the non-Christians the heathen, the infidel, and the heretic were recognised by differential negative attitudes; however, as a means of entering the Christian community, conversion or recantation was freely allowed and even sought after. There was in medieval Europe — indeed in the Christian world — an effective basis for the brotherhood of peoples. Although a man’s economic, contractual relationship in his community determined his livelihood, to be excommunicated by the Church almost had the effect of putting him beyond the purview of society itself. In the Middle Ages, then, we find no racial antagonism in Europe; in fact, Europeans were, at this time, more isolated and ignorant about foreign peoples and world geography than the Romans and Greeks were.

But gradually, under a commercial and religious impulse, Europe began to awaken and to journey toward strange lands. The First Crusade may be taken as the starting point which finally led to world dominance by Europeans. When after their travels in the last quarter of the thirteenth century the Polos returned from the court of the great Kublai Khan in China to tell Europeans a story of fabulous wealth and luxury, the astonished people could hardly believe what they heard. Yet Marco Polo’s memoirs were a great stimulant to traders. It was not until the discovery of America and the circumnavigation of the globe, however, that the movement assumed a decidedly irreversible trend. The period between the First Crusade and the discovery of America continued to be characterised by the religious view of world order; but it set a pattern of dealing with non-Christian peoples which was to be continued, minus only its religious characteristics, to this day. To the extent that the religious controls remained effective, racial antagonism did not develop; what really developed was a Jew-heathen-infidel antagonistic complex which was to colour European thought for some centuries.

Up to the eleventh century Christian Europe was hemmed in from the North, East, and South by heathens and infidels; the Mediterranean was almost encircled by the Arabian Mohammedans, a people whose culture was superior to that of the northern Europeans. In the eleventh century, however, under the organising influence of the popes, the holy warriors of Christendom began to carry conquering crusades into the territory of the heathen Slavic and infidel Asiatic peoples. As a general rule the Church made the lands and even the peoples of the non-Christian world the property of the Crusaders, and the trader ordinarily followed the cross.

In fact, it was this need for trade with the East, especially by the Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese merchants, and its obstruction by the Mohammedans whose country lay across their path in the Near East, which induced the Portuguese, in the fifteenth century, to feel their way down the African coast in the hope of sailing around this continent to the East Indies. Here began the great drama that was, in a few hundred years, to turn over the destiny of the world to the decisions of businessmen. But our concern at this point is to indicate that racial antagonism had not yet developed among the Europeans.

In the first place, the geography of the world was still a mystery, and some of the most fantastic tales about its peoples were believed. Stories of the splendor, luxury, and wisdom of the peoples of the East held all Europe in constant wonderment. No one would have been surprised if some traveler had returned from the heart of Africa to break the news that he had found a black monarch ruling over a kingdom surpassing in grandeur and power any that had then existed in Europe. In short, the white man had no conception of himself as a being capable of developing the superior culture of the world — the concept “white man” had not yet its significant social definition — the Anglo-Saxon, the modern master race, was then not even in the picture.

But when the Portuguese began to inch their way down the African coast they knew that the Moors and heathens whom they encountered were inferior to them both as fighters and as culture builders. This, however, led to no conclusions about racial superiority. Henry the Navigator, himself, sought in those parts a Christian prince, Prester John, with whom he planned to form an alliance “against the enemies of the faith”. All through the latter half of the fifteenth century the Portuguese sailors and explorers kept up this search for the kingdom of the lost black prince.

Of more significance still is the fact that there was as yet no belief in any cultural incapacity of these colored people. Their conversion to Christianity was sought with enthusiasm, and this transformation was supposed to make the Africans the human equals of all other Christians. The Portuguese historian, Gomes Eannes de Azurara, writing in the middle of the fifteenth century, gives us some idea of the religious motives for Prince Henry’s exploits among the peoples on the West African coast. One reason for the Navigator’s slave raids:

… was his great desire to make increase in the faith of our lord Jesus Christ and to bring to him all souls that should be saved, — understanding that all the mystery of the Incarnation, Death, and Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ was for this sole end — namely the salvation of lost souls, whom the said Lord Infant (Henry) by his travail and spending would fain bring into the true faith. For he perceived that no better offering could be made unto the Lord than this. For if God promised to return one hundred goods for one, we may justly believe that for such great benefits, that is to say, for so many souls as were saved by the efforts of this Lord, he will have so many hundreds of guerdons in the Kingdom of God, by which his spirit may be glorified after this life in the celestial realm. For I that wrote this history saw so many men and women of those parts turned to the holy faith, that even if the Infant had been a heathen, their prayers would have been enough to have obtained his salvation. And not only did I see the first captives, but their children and grandchildren as true Christians as if the Divine grace breathed in them and imparted to them a clear knowledge of itself.

This matter of cultural conversion is crucial for our understanding of the development of racial antagonism. For the full profitable exploitation of a people, the dominant group must devise ways and means of limiting that people’s cultural assimilation. So long as the Portuguese and Spaniards continued to accept the religious definition of human equality, so long also the development of race prejudice was inhibited. Although it is true that the forays on the African coast were exceedingly ruthless, the Portuguese did not rationalise the fact with a racial argument. To kill or to take into slavery the heathen or infidel was to serve the highest purpose of God. As Azurara pointed out: &ld … though their bodies were now brought into subjection, that was a small matter in comparison to their souls, which would now possess true freedom for evermore”. In granting to Prince Henry a “plenary indulgence”, Pope Eugenius IV gave “to each and all those who shall be engaged in the said war (slave raids), complete forgiveness of all their sins.”

The Portuguese people themselves had developed no racial hatred for the captives. Azurara relates how the townspeople at Lagos wept in sympathy for the suffering of the Moors as families were broken to be distributed among different masters. And, it seems, the captives were quite readily assimilated into the population.

… from this time forth (after their partition) they began to acquire some knowledge of our country, in which they found great abundance; and our men began to treat them with great favour. For as our people did not find them hardened in the belief (i.e. Islam) of the Moors, and saw how they came unto the law of Christ with a good will, they made no difference between them and their free (Portuguese) servants, born in our own country. But those whom they took (captured) while still young, they caused to be instructed in mechanical arts. And those whom they saw fitted for managing property, they set free and married to women who were natives of the land (of Portugal), making with them a division of their property as if it had been bestowed on those who married them by the will of their own fathers. … Yea, and some widows of good family who bought some of these female slaves, either adopted them or left them a portion of their estate by will, so that in the future they married right well, treating them as entirely free. Suffice it that I never saw one of these slaves put in irons like other captives, and scarcely any one who did not turn Christian and was not gently treated.

And I have been asked by their lords to the baptisms and marriages of such; at which they, whose slaves they were before, made no less solemnity than if they had been their children or relations.

Azurara The Discovery and Conquest of Guinea

The Portuguese had no clear sense of racial antagonism, because its economic and rationalistic basis had not yet developed among them. Indeed the Portuguese and Spaniards never became fully freed of the crusading spirit, which constantly held in check their attainment of a clear appreciation of the values of competitive labour exploitation. The Church received its share of African servants; as yet, however, it had no idea of the economic uses of segregation and “cultural parallelism” — of the techniques for perpetuating the servile status of the black workers. It had developed no rationalisations of inborn human inferiority in support of a basic need for labour exploitation.

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