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Race and Class in the Work of Oliver Cromwell Cox

Adolph Reed Jr. is a professor of political science at New School University and the author of The Jesse Jackson Phenomenon, W. E. B. Du Bois and American Political Thought, Stirrings in the Jug, and Class Notes.
This essay is reprinted from Race: A Study in Social Dynamics, the new abridged edition of Oliver Cromwell Cox’s Caste, Class, and Race (Monthly Review Press, 2000).

Oliver Cromwell Cox’s Caste, Class, and Race was first published in 1948 by Doubleday, which, in line with the anti-leftist imperatives of the time, almost immediately let the book go out of print. Fortunately, it was reissued in 1959 by Monthly Review Press, which has enabled subsequent generations to read Cox’s extraordinary text. Indeed, I discovered Cox through Monthly Review’s Modern Reader paperback edition in 1970; coincidentally, that was also the year of the only occasion on which I heard him speak, at the annual meeting of the Association of Social and Behavioral Scientists, the black social scientists’ group.

Cox is a curious figure in black American and left intellectual life. He is difficult to fit into a genealogy of black intellectuals or activists. Unlike some of his contemporaries, such as Ralph Bunche, Abram Harris, or E. Franklin Frazier, Cox was not particularly prominent within the racial advocacy or political activist groups of the day, though he did comment on contemporary affairs in venues such as the Journal of Negro Education. Cox neither produced a school of intellectual followers nor does he seem to have passed on his professional DNA through the founding of an interpretive tendency or the production of a visible cohort of students who would trace their intellectual lineage through him. Moreover, although he earned a doctorate in sociology from the University of Chicago, his work differed in focus and intellectual disposition from that of other black scholars associated with the Chicago School, including Frazier, Charles S. Johnson, and even St. Clair Drake, who shared with Cox an orientation that was at least compatible with and probably sympathetic to Marxism.

Cox stands out, however, as a scholar whose work consistently and rigorously proceeded from the conviction that making sense of the meaning of race and the character of race relations in American life requires an understanding of the dynamics of capitalism as a social system and its specific history in this country. Caste, Class, and Race was Cox’s most elaborate attempt to follow through on that conviction. This new, abbreviated Monthly Review Press edition reprints Race, the third section of Caste, Class, and Race, which comprised nearly half of the original volume. This should make the central thrust of Cox’s critique more accessible, if only because Caste, Class, and Race’s length—nearly six hundred pages of text—made the book seem overly daunting to many potential readers. Moreover, Cox’s meticulous, if suspiciously formalistic, discussion of the Indian caste system that was the topic of the more-than-one-hundred-page Part One of the original book is easily dispensable for contemporary readers. Cox’s consideration of the Indian caste order was preliminary to the argument that he laid out in Race against a scholarly tendency in the study of American race relations that had gained momentum during the interwar years, a tendency that invoked the metaphor of caste to describe racial stratification in the United States.

Cox took pains to chart the differences between the Indian caste system and the dynamics of racial stratification in this country, and he argued that the dissimilarities of the two systems were so great that the caste notion could not clarify American race relations. However, his main brief against the “caste school of race relations” was that it abstracted racial stratification in the United States from its origins and foundation in the evolution of American capitalism. In so doing, he argued, the caste school treated racial hierarchy as if it were a timeless, natural form of social organization. The caste approach to the study of American race relations has not been in vogue for several decades; other equally misleading metaphors have long since supplanted it.

Cox’s critique of the caste school was linked to his broader view of the inadequacy and wrong-headedness of attitudinal or other idealist approaches to the discussion of racial inequality. He emphatically rejected primordialist notions of racial antipathy or ethnocentrism as explanations of racial stratification. He insisted that racism and race prejudice emerged from the class dynamics of capitalism and its colonial and imperial programs. This was the basis of his critical assessment of other prominent tendencies in the liberal scholarly treatments of American race relations, including the work of Robert Park and Ruth Benedict, as well as Gunnar Myrdal’s singularly influential volume, An American Dilemma.

Cox believed that the theories of Robert Park, one of the founders of the Chicago School of Sociology and Booker T. Washington’s former ghostwriter, in effect naturalized notions of fundamental difference in two ways. First, said Cox, Park alleged that “the beginnings of modern race prejudice may be traced back to the immemorial periods of human associations.” Second, Park maintained that the racial subordination that prevailed in the South stemmed from custom and “mores,” a static, ahistorical notion of core beliefs and norms around which populations supposedly cohere organically. Similarly, while acknowledging that Ruth Benedict, the anthropologist of race relations and a former student of Franz Boas, improved on Park in recognizing racism’s historically specific, modern origins, Cox objected to Benedict’s construing of racism as an example of a universal tendency to ethnocentrism. The consequence, he argued, was that Benedict “conceives of race prejudice as essentially a belief and gives almost no attention to the materialistic source of the rationalization.” In his critique of Myrdal, the Swedish economist and sociologist commissioned by the Carnegie Foundation to produce a systematic study of American race relations, Cox was most critical of the tendency to locate American racial dynamics within abstract, transhistorical dispositions or attitudes. Myrdal’s An American Dilemma, Cox charged, was built around an evasion, the attempt to avoid a class analysis of American race relations. Thus Myrdal resorted to explaining American racism through airy, reified formulations, such as assertion of tensions and ambivalence around an idealized American Creed or a struggle for the “national soul.” Because the Myrdal study has had such lasting influence on American racial discourse, quoting Cox’s summary judgment of the document is useful both for clarifying his critique and for giving a flavor of his intellectual style.

An American Dilemma, the most exhaustive survey of race relations ever undertaken in the United States, is for the most part a useful source of data. In detail it presents many ingenious analyses of the materials. But it develops no hypothesis or consistent theory of race relations; and, to the extent that it employs the caste belief in interpretations, it is misleading. Clearly, the use of “the American Creed” as the “value premise” for his study severely limits and narrows Dr. Myrdal’s perspective. Even though we should grant some right of the author to limit the discussion of his subject to its moral aspects, he still develops it without insight. He never brings into focus the two great systems of morality currently striving in our civilization for ascendancy, but merely assumes a teleological abstraction of social justice toward which all good men will ultimately gravitate. Moreover, since we can hardly accuse him of being naïve, and since he clearly goes out of his way to avoid the obvious implications of labor exploitation in the South, we cannot help concluding that the work in many respects may have the effect of a powerful piece of propaganda in favor of the status quo. If the “race problem” in the United States is preeminently a moral question, it must naturally be resolved by moral means, and this conclusion is precisely the social illusion which the ruling political class has constantly sought to produce.

Cox advanced a perspective on race, racial difference, and racial stratification that we would today describe as a social constructionist view. Bypassing biological or physical anthropological definitions, he proposed that “race may be thought of as simply any group of people that is generally believed to be, and generally accepted as, a race in any given area of ethnic competition.” (He defined an ethnic group as “a people living competitively in a relationship of superordination or subordination with some other people or peoples within one state, country or economic area.”) He acknowledged that such races are not real in the sense of having a meaning and content apart from the specific patterns of social relations in which they are enmeshed; he opted for a “social definition of the term race.” Cox did not address in any depth the empirical or biological status of race as a category for sorting human populations. Indeed, he made no attempt to refute racist pseudoscience, contending that “the laboratory classification of races, which began among anthropologists about a hundred years ago, has no necessary relationship with the problem of race relations as sociological phenomena. Race relations developed independently of anthropological tests and measurements.” Nevertheless, the thrust of his argument was a clear refutation of such scientific racialism.

For Cox, race was most fundamentally an artifact of capitalist labor dynamics, a relation that originated in slavery. “Sometimes, probably because of its very obviousness,” he observed, “it is not realized that the slave trade was simply a way of recruiting labor for the purpose of exploiting the great natural resources of America.” This perspective led to one of Cox’s most interesting and provocative insights, that “racial exploitation is merely one aspect of the problem of the proletarianization of labor, regardless of the color of the laborer. Hence racial antagonism is essentially political-class conflict.” We should not make too much of the adverbs “simply” and “merely.” Seeing race as a category that emerges from capitalist labor relations does not necessarily deny or minimize the importance of racial oppression and injustice or the need to fight against racism directly.

Contrary to the claims of critics such as David Roediger, Cox did not dismiss racism among working-class whites. He argued that “the observed overt competitive antagonism is produced and carefully maintained by the exploiters of both the poor whites and the Negroes.” He recognized that elite whites defined the matrix within which non-elite whites crafted their political agency, and he emphasized the ruling-class foundations of racism as part of his critique of the liberal scholars of race relations who theorized race relations without regard to capitalist political economy and class dynamics. Cox’s perspective goes right to the heart of how we should try to understand race by encouraging us to move beyond categories for defining and sorting supposedly discrete human populations, beyond concepts of racial hierarchies, and beyond racist ideologies—all components of a singular, indivisible unholy trinity—and instead recognize that race is the product of social relations within history and political economy. More than a half-century after its initial publication, Cox’s interpretation is a refreshing alternative to the idealist frames that have persisted in shaping American racial discourse and politics. The lucidity and groundedness of his interpretation stand out strikingly, for example, in relation to ontological arguments the equivalent of devil theories that either trace racism back to the Ice Ages or attribute racism to ideas of the Enlightenment; his viewpoint contrasts just as sharply with arresting but uninformative and strategically useless metaphors, such as the characterization of racism as a “national disease” or the chestnut that racism “takes on a life of its own” or other such mystifications. Racism is not an affliction; it is a pattern of social relations. Nor is it a thing that can act on its own; it exists only as it is reproduced in specific social arrangements in specific societies under historically specific conditions of law, state, and class power.

Cox was not a political strategist; he did not approach political analysis with the instrumentalist specificity of an organizer or cadre. Nor did he ever affiliate with or move in the orbit of any political organization. He did not propound a clearly defined path for pursuit of the radical social and economic change that he viewed as necessary. Like many intellectuals of his era the vision of revolution embraced by W.E.B. Du Bois in his 1928 novel, The Dark Princess, comes most readily to mind. Cox gravitated toward a view of radical political change that by and large lacked a complex vision of popular agency. He considered the working-class political party, the labor party, to be the vehicle for effecting transformation to socialism, but he opposed parliamentary gradualism as hopeless. Similarly, he recognized the union as the basic organizational form of the working class. Although he acknowledged business unionism’s accomplishments, he condemned it as divisive and inimical to class struggle. However, he did not engage in issues bearing either on political processes and participation within the movement or strategies for building solidarity and broadening the political base within the working class, except insofar as he endorsed in very general terms the principle that the political class organization should represent not just the unionized, but all workers, on the model of the nineteenth-century Knights of Labor.

I suspect that the limitation of his strategic vision was reinforced by the combination of his teleological faith in capitalism’s inevitable replacement by socialism and an apocalyptic notion of revolution as the mechanism of millennial change. If the script is already written and a quantum leap is the sole necessary and sufficient condition for its realization, then there is little need to puzzle over how to get there from here. The only warrant is to preach the gospel and wait for enlightened adherents. This view suggests the convergence of Fabian and revolutionary notions of transformation, and as a practical matter it emphasizes the place of intellectuals as propagators of the gospel. It also devalues, or at least ignores the significance of, democratic, participatory processes for creating and shaping the sort of class-conscious movement that Cox calls “political- class struggle” on which the goal of social transformation must depend. This mindset may also reflect Cox’s failure to break with the familiar petit-bourgeois romance of revolution as jacquerie, and it quite likely blunted his critique of the idea of black race leadership.

In the early post–Second World War period the notion of the race leader as the source of effective black political agency retained conceptual force in conventional American racial discourse. Myrdal and other scholars and commentators assumed the category to be central for understanding black political action. However, the model of singular race spokesmanship, embodied most prominently by Booker T. Washington and Marcus Garvey, was being supplanted by a more plural, organizationally–based racial advocacy. Perhaps it was the disjunction between the new political forms and the residual rhetoric of leadership that led Cox to be so sharply and perceptively critical of the “persistent lament” that black Americans lacked a “great leader, whose function must be to bring about solidarity among Negroes.” He argued that no such entity could ever emerge, characterizing it as a fantasy. The black race leaders, he argued,

must be specialists in the art of antagonistic cooperation. Their success rests finally in their ability to maintain peace and friendship with whites; yet they must seem aggressive and uncompromising in their struggle for the rights of Negroes. They dare not identify all whites as the enemy, for then they will themselves be driven together into a hostile camp. This tentative nature of Negro solidarity presents a particularly baffling problem for the Negro leader. He must be a friend of the enemy. He must be a champion of the cause of Negroes, yet not so aggressive as to incur the consummate ill will of whites. He knows that he cannot be a leader of his people if he is completely rejected by whites; hence no small part of his function is engaged in understanding the subtleties of reaction to the manipulation of the whites of his community. No contemporary Negro leader of major significance, then, can be totally void of at least a modicum of the spirit of “Uncle Tom” ingratiation, compromise, and appeasement must be his specialties.

Cox’s critique of black leadership stemmed partly from his own political teleology; in his view black Americans’ “destiny” was “integration and fusion with the larger American society.” “To develop a powerful leader,” he argued, “Negroes must retract themselves, as it were, from their immediate business of achieving assimilation, and look to him for some promised land or some telling counterblow upon their detractors.” Not only was this course hopeless because of the limits and contradictions of the actual practice of race leadership that he described, but Cox felt also that it played into the hands of the opponents of black aspiration.

Cox’s analysis of black leadership was incisive and insightful, though not in tune with the style of race-conscious politics that originated in the Black Power era of the late 1960s and early 1970s and is hegemonic today. Yet his critique did not cut quite to the core of the problem with the notion of a race leader: that its ideal of an individual or individuals “whose function must be to bring about solidarity among Negroes” presumes the existence of or potential for a unitary racial consciousness. This in turn underscores a connection between the leaders and the led that circumvents or suppresses questions of genuine political differentiation, accountability, and popular participation. For Cox and other of his radical contemporaries, such as the elder Du Bois and Ralph Bunche in the 1930s and early 1940s, this inattentiveness to democratic concerns among black Americans was in tension with the larger egalitarian commitments of their politics. The imagery of “the masses” obscured and perfumed that tension, justifying a view of the rank-and-file population as fundamentally monolithic and passive by associating it with the rhetoric of apocalyptic revolution, according to which this population contains within it an emergent collective political subject, indeed the crucial political subject. The promise of paramount political agency in the millennial future could thus substitute for attention to popular agency and democratic participation in the present. Besides, to Cox and other black radicals operating before the victories of the civil rights movement, assuming an unproblematic racial political consensus simply expressed common sense insofar as that consensus was held to cohere around opposition to the Jim Crow regime and practices of racial exclusion and subordination. Cox, in particular, saw those objectives as exhaustive of the basis of a distinctively black politics. However, the rhetoric of “the masses” was nonetheless an evasion of the thorny problem of crafting a popular politics in the here-and-now.

This imagery of the masses has been normalized in black political discourse over the last three decades, but its associations with ideological radicalism have dissipated. In this environment, and with erosion of the objective basis for the presumption of coherent racial aspiration on which the notion was grounded, its limitations become clearer than they could have been to Cox and his contemporaries. Despite its superficial evocations of potential agency in motion, “the masses” is the conceptual negation of a discourse of political mobilization. Some of Cox’s formulations will seem mechanistic, especially to sensibilities honed in a time when capitalist power relations somehow seem more diffuse (despite their unprecedented global hegemony), prevailing social theoretical discourses seem more nuanced and less scientistic, and current political criticism focuses on categories of political identity other than those that emerge directly from the capitalist-labor relationship. Cox also displays a visceral, conventionally petit-bourgeois moralism in his perception that “social instability” and “disreputable communal life” prevailed among poor black Americans. His views in this area may have been reinforced by the Chicago School’s focus on social disorganization and pathology. In this way Cox stands out neither from his contemporaries nor from ostensibly leftist intellectuals today who imagine a degraded black “underclass” mired in pathology, “moral crisis,” and “nihilism.” (“The masses” and “the underclass” are, after all, two sides of the same coin: both representing monolithic, passive populations, though with different normative valuations.) However, I urge readers not to fixate on those occasional flaws, which in any case will probably often appear to be more egregious than they are, and to approach the text with an openness to the challenge that Oliver Cromwell Cox has bequeathed us: to think systematically about race as a category of social classification and hierarchy that emerged from and is a constitutive element of—not distinct from or alternative to—capitalist labor relations. This is the crucial entailment of the insight that race is a social construct and a prerequisite to the development of a genuinely transformative politics in the United States.