Marx and Engels and Racialism – W. O. Henderson

Marx, his daughters & Engels.

In disputes with anarchists Marxists have often been quick to refer to Bakunin’s (and occasionally, Proudhon’s) anti-Semitism to try to dismiss the credibility of all that Bakunin ever wrote. Anarchists generally respond by openly acknowledging this horrible fault in Bakunin but also insisting that Bakunin had interesting and relevant aspects of his thought worth considering.

Yet Marxists seem more often unaware of and/or silent on the far greater number of racial and ethnic slurs and prejudices found in the writings of Marx and Engels. The following PDF article, whatever its limitations, is a convenient collection of some of these comments.

Marx and Engels had definite views on the historic roles of races and nations; though the article only mentions briefly in passing their ideas of historical and non-historical peoples and progressive and non-progressive nations that they applied to world history. Rosdolsky’s Engels and the ‘Nonhistoric’ Peoples: the National Question in the Revolution of 1848 is a marxist critique of this position - see a Leninist review here;

But at the first victorious uprising of the French proletariat ... the Austrian Germans and the Magyars will gain their freedom and take a bloody revenge on the Slav barbarians. The general war which will then break out will scatter the Slav Sonderbund [alliance], and annihilate all these small pigheaded nations even to their very names. The next world war will not only cause reactionary classes and dynasties to disappear from the face of the earth, but also entire reactionary peoples. And that too is an advance.' (F. Engels, The Magyar Struggle, January 1849)

Peoples which have never had a history of their own, which come under foreign domination the moment they have achieved the first, crudest level of civilisation ... have no capacity for survival and will never be able to attain any kind of independence. And that has been the fate of the Austrian Slavs. (Engels, Democratic Pan-Slavism, February 1849)

This racial hierarchy was applied globally:

There are “various disturbing references to the Latin American character. Thus the Mexicans are said to be “lazy” and to share “the vices, arrogance, thuggery and quixotism” of the Spaniards. Even after 1860, when Marx and Engels strongly opposed the French invasion of Mexico and celebrated the Mexican victory over General Lorencez in May 1862, they still could not refrain from from referring to the victorious Mexicans as “les derniers des hommes” [the last of men]. ... this kind of abusive remark was also used by Marx and Engels to refer to other “backward” nationalities and countries: the Montenegrans were labelled as “cattle robbers,” the Bedouins were branded as a “nation of robbers,” and there was a reference to the “hereditary stupidity” of the Chinese.” (Karl Marx’s Social and Political Thought, Vol. 6, Routledge, 1999 – edited by Jessop & Wheatley.)

None of this invalidates what value there is in the thought of Marx & Engels but it does show that they shared many of the faults of their contemporaries and rivals. While Bakunin’s anti-Semitism seems to have been plain old personal bigotry, Marx and Engels dressed their racism up in ‘scientific’ garb with references to the historically positive or negative, progressive or decadent roles supposedly played by different races.

Marx’s own daughter Laura married the French socialist, Paul Lafargue, whose ancestry was partly Negro. Curiously in the very same letter to Engels in 1866 which announced the betrothal of his daughter, Marx indicated his belief (following the French anthropologist Trémaux) in the relative inferiority of the Negro race, and the existence of intrinsic racial differences between the Slavs and Lithuanians; “the common Negro type was a degeneration form a quite higher one”, he quoted approvingly. (L. S. Feuer – Introduction to Marx & Engels, Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy; Fontana, UK, 1984.)

Marx’s anti-Semitism was not so different from Bakunin’s: he also sees Jews as money obsessed, racially degenerate and as shadowy controllers of financial systems. For comparison, see:

Marx, Engels, Bakunin and their contemporaries were people of their time; since then, the whole 19th century notion of ‘race’, its biological and genetic validity, has become outdated in the light of scientific developments on the subject. Yet racism, pseudo-scientific or otherwise, in left- and right-wing versions, is still with us.

(Article source: W. O. Henderson, Marx and Engels and the English Workers And Other Essays (1989), Frank Cass & Co., UK.)

M&E-Racism_article.pdf5.48 MB

Posted By

Red Marriott
Apr 29 2021 12:41


Attached files


Apr 29 2021 20:58

I agree that there was some racist stuff in the works of Marx and Engels, as well as the argument that people being "victims of their times" doesn't absolve them of responsibility or make those views in any way acceptable today.

I was curious about the New York Tribune one since I came across Marx's and Engels' Civil War writings there. Here's the actual newspaper article (lower right side), and also the text on MIA (which seems like an abridged version, with some other discrepancies). It doesn't actually seem like Marx is arguing that "the classes and races, too weak to master the new conditions of life, must give way" is something good, but rather he's saying that this is the observable result of "the increase of productive power" and the development of capitalism, which is what the beginning part of the article deals with. Here's the full paragraph from MIA:

Now I share neither in the opinions of Ricardo, who regards ‘Net-Revenue’ as the Moloch to whom entire populations must be sacrificed, without even so much as complaint, nor in the opinion of Sismondi, who, in his hypochondriacal philanthropy, would forcibly retain the superannuated methods of agriculture and proscribe science from industry, as Plato expelled poets from his Republic. Society is undergoing a silent revolution, which must be submitted to, and which takes no more notice of the human existences it breaks down than an earthquake regards the houses it subverts. The classes and the races, too weak to master the new conditions of life, must give way. But can there be anything more puerile, more short-sighted, than the views of those Economists who believe in all earnest that this woeful transitory state means nothing but adapting society to the acquisitive propensities of capitalists, both landlords and money-lords? In Great Britain the working of that process is most transparent. The application of modern science to production clears the land of its inhabitants, but it concentrates people in manufacturing towns.

He also calls the 13th-14th century Mongols "barbarians," if I'm not mistaken, but I don't think that's really controversial. The "barbarian" status of Mongols I think is rather hypocritical when coming from the conquering and colonial empires of Europe, which one might also describe in similar terms.

Red Marriott
Apr 29 2021 16:17

Ok, you may have a point in that case so I've edited that quote out of the intro. But in the wider context of M&E's views it's entirely likely they would see it as 'historically progressive'.