This is a an excerpt from the ground-breaking book “An Invitation To Islam For Black Marxists” by Professor Shareef Muhammad. No nation or community has suffered so much as the African Americans have endured and continue to endure for centuries. From the institutionalization of slavery, a faux promise of emancipation to the segregationist tendencies of White America that continue in one form or the other to date has created plethora of social, economic and political problems for the Black community that dwells in America. While rest of the world is portrayed with a fabricated notion of the American dream to ensure accumulate human and financial capital in America, nothing much has been done to mitigate the shear underdevelopment of the Black community.
As the name suggests, in this chapter we will focus on the theme of underdevelopment and exploitation of the Black community, from the Marxist and Islamic perspective. For this, we rely on the work of two distinguished and noted Black Marxist scholars, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa by Walter Rodney, and How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America by Manning Marable. In my personal and humble opinion, both works are indispensable for developing a thorough understanding of the role of capitalism in the arrested development of black people in the United States and abroad.
Walter Rodney in How Europe Underdeveloped Africa vividly demonstrates the degree to which Africa was developed in the pre-colonial era and the role of the gluttonous European colonial powers in colonizing and siphoning the wealth of Africa. Europe’s development and its ubiquitous wealth were the results of plundering Africa’s raw materials and natural resources. Similarly, in How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America, Marable posits that the Africans who were stolen from their mother country, forced to labor in America against their will, have had their neighborhoods, communities, and economies, systematically underdeveloped at the hands of White America.
Walter Rodney and Manning Marable took Marxism and made it their own and I will make no exceptions with their insights into capitalism. Their cases are sound. My contention is that Marxism’s inherent limitations impose on even their sincerest attempts at an indigenized socialist outlook on the plight of black people.
The most obstructing aspect of Marable’s thinking is his belief in the transformative power of class consciousness. He asserts that the black poor which he refers to as the “sub-proletariat” represent the arresting effects of capitalism in the same way that, as Lenin articulated, imperialism is capitalism’s inevitable phase abroad. Marable argues that the fear and animosity felt by those living in crime-infested, impoverished conditions prevent black people from attaining the class-consciousness required to unify black communities.
In How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America in the chapter ‘The Black Poor’ he reminds us why the term “pimping” is idiomatic of the capitalist infrastructure. “The pimp is one typical representative of innercity underdevelopment within the sub proletariat, the personification of the individualistic hustler. He accumulates petty capital by brutalizing young women, who sell their sexuality on the open market to (usually white middle-class male) “consumers.” Methods of “labor discipline” invariably include naked—rape, threats, physical and psychological assaults. Women who are coerced or who accept these crude terms of “employment” are expected to deliver a certain number of tricks with “Johns” per hour, day and week. Police in the ghetto are usually an integral part of the trade and expect a regular cut from the women’s profits for tolerating the traffic in their precincts. Local Black and white entrepreneurs in the inner city motel and hotel business find room to expand and even to survive by orienting services to accommodate prostitution. The profits are also used to underwrite other illicit activities, from the ghetto’s omnipresent drug traffic in elementary and secondary schools to small-time fencing operations.”
The crudest exhibition of the toxic individualism fostered by capitalism is found in America’s economically depressed areas known as ‘the hood.’ Where you will find capitalism stripped of its pretentions. Where survival and not the economic theory is a priority. In the words of Common ‘My whole I life I was worried about eatin’/I ain’t have time to think about what I believe in’. This is the mindset of the dispossessed. It also obscures the bigger picture. People in the mire seldom see the system and if they do they have little optimism in being able to rectify it. Crime is the recourse by default. But there is more. It becomes sociogenic with inhabitants creating a counter-public that is part of an alternative worth-value in a society that deems them worthless. By inverting social norms they produce alternative sub-cultures wherein they see themselves as on top. Of course, this is a delusion since the self-destructive behavior in the hood is the recapitulation of anti-blackness in America. Marable is explaining to us that what is called pathologies in the black community are the side effects of the white man’s world. In fact, they are the truth about his world.
To transcend this and create a new reality people in the hood must become aware of how capitalism has robbed them of their humanity. These pathologies which are the self-replication of the anti-blackness of America have turned the inner-city into an enclave of social terror that produces anxieties, existential angst, distorted self-perspectives, cancerous imperatives for survival, and sense of impending dread. What does this do to long-term thinking? The pre-frontal cortex of the brain is altered. Thus, poverty and structural racism can change the biology of people. Marx’s crude understanding of this phenomenon was even the basis for why he racialized class. A person consumed by all of the above psychological tortures find it difficult to properly diagnosis themselves and prescribe the proper medicine which according to Marable is the realization that they are the lumpenproletariat and their state is the culmination of centuries of economic exploitation, first as slaves, secondly as sharecroppers, thirdly as the non-class quasi-citizens.
The problem with this is outlined in the section of this book on class-consciousness. To reiterate, belief in the positivism of class-consciousness is the central myths of Marxism that has only failed because it is a one-dimensional attack on multi-faceted oppression. Nowhere has class-consciousness been able to transform society into anything other than statist country? Marxists are not born in the hood. They come from universities. This is not a negative but we must understand the reason. It is the irony that Marxism has become a form of elitism, an educated man’s revolution. The Bolsheviks were educated. The Cuban rebels were educated. The Maoists were educated. Modern revolutions have been the preserve of men of letters or at least those who read. What would Manning Marable suggest as a way of stimulating the intellectual curiosities that would lead the street goon or hooker to read Communist Manifesto or Das Kapital? The greatest potential for seismic change for black people, especially the “black subproliteriat” would necessarily involve a religious framing of the human because revolution would have to be proceeded by redemption. It would be a homo spiritualis that is fully realized in Islam.
Marxism endorses mass change only. There are no personal objectives that the socialist as an individual or as a group can strive towards in the interim. There is to be class-consciousness followed by the class revolution. Nothing before or in between. There is really nothing to being socialist before or after the revolution. Either we have the massive overhaul or replacement of capitalism or there is nothing. Thus, in socialism (especially Marxism) struggle and liberation are exclusively the main events. Socialism is not a way of life. Islam places struggle and liberation in the context of worship. The sunnah or way of the human being is to change your life and then work to change the world. Therefore, unlike Marxism, the Islamic revolution is not all or nothing. It is not outside of self to in. Small victories on a personal level have merit just as they do communally. The reason socialism has lost traction and has virtually no subscribers in the hood is not that it is too radical but because it does not offer an alternative way of life for those seeking personal change and who do not want to wait for a mass movement before undertaking that change. The dope fiend and the prostitute are not ongoing to realize their worth through the ontological lenses of Marx’s economic determinism.
The materialist view of religion links Black Marxist thinkers. It is the consensus that religion is otherworldly and thus neglectful or at worst stunts the political and economic development. In How Europe Underdeveloped Africa Walter Rodney explains the process of colonialism. He argues that the creation of the agrarian capitalist system required enslaved Africans working on the plantations in the Americas and the industrial capitalism that it spawned required the colonization of Africa. The first was the exploitation of labor and the second was the expropriation of raw materials. The former paved the way for the latter. In describing this process Rodney takes account of Africa to counter European colonial propaganda that rendered the continent as a Hegelian place with no history. In this effort, his view on religion was more conciliatory than most Marxists.
Rodney highlights Africa’s development in pre-colonial Africa, acknowledging that Islam played an important role in that development. With Africa divided by language and tribe, Walter Rodney regards “ Islam as the hoped-for unifying factor” that would go on to produce what he terms ”theocratic state[s].” Rodney speaks of Islamic Civilization as leaving a “resplendent literary and architectural record” and that in Mali, the University of Timbuktu was “testimony to the standard of education achieved in Africa before the colonial intrusion.” Yet, Rodney points to the French as having halted this legacy. He writes that the “Islamic institutions of learning suffered severely during the French wars of conquest, while others were deliberately suppressed when the French gained the upper hand.”
As Rodney correctly notes European colonization of Africa did hasten the destruction of Islamic educational institutions but not the tradition. An essential aim of the colonizers was to displace the Islamic perspectives on society like the muamalat. The muamalat refers to the logic and behavior of Muslim civil society which includes commercial transactions and mediums of exchange. It also includes the obligations of those who have to who have not. The muamalat is what Muslim Africa practiced before capitalism and socialism and while the institutions have been destroyed their concepts have been preserved in the manuscripts of Timbuktu. Rodney acknowledges religion and Islam, in particular, was an intrinsic part of society that “continued to act as an element of the superstructure, which was crucial in the development of the state.”
Rodney does not exhibit the militant atheism characteristic of his Marxist peer but is ambivalent about the liberating power of religion. He writes: “Religion is an aspect of the superstructure of society, deriving ultimately from the degree of control and understanding of the material world. However, when a man thinks in religious terms, he starts from the ideal rather than with the material world (which is beyond his comprehension). This creates a non-scientific and metaphysical way of viewing the world, which often conflicts with the scientific materialist outlook and with the development of society.”
Aware that this may be an overgeneralization he mentions as a caveat that: “Religion can play both a positive and a negative role as an aspect of the superstructure. In most instances in early Africa, religious beliefs were associated with the mobilization and discipline of large numbers of people to form states. In a few instances, religion also provided concepts in the struggle, for social justice.” There were actually more than “a few instances” in which justice was framed in religious terms. Indeed, religion cohered with the African spirit for justice. Most of the resistance to colonialism came from the Sufi orders like the Qadiriyyah and the Tijani. Resisting oppression was both the logical extension of their spirituality and effective. The muamalat warrants more examination. The Islamic institutions that developed in sub-Sahara exemplified social equity. The awqaf or waqf which has been referenced in conjunction with medieval Islam’s welfare tradition is a point of origin. They were local communal treasuries that provided a safety net for those in the community or tribe. In sub-Saharan West Africa, this trust was overseen by the ulema or religious scholars and was separate from the king. This separation made the trust virtually incorruptible as the ruler could not access it for personal and vain purposes. Religious law was, in the pre-modern African, the preserve of the religious scholar and not the king. One is hard-pressed to find in sub-Saharan West Africa Rule by Divine Right. The ‘economy’ was divided into communal and private property. Thus, there were traders, merchants, and entrepreneurs but they could not privatize every sector of society leaving basic needs open and opportunity open and free to others. It was not a society of employees but traders. The private and communal coexisted and were sacrosanct. This is what Toure and Nkrumah referred to as the African humanist impulse which they presumptuously felt was best expressed in socialism but had its earlier practice in Islam.
Rodney rebounds to his Marxist outlook saying:
“At the same time, the religious beliefs themselves react upon the mode of production, further slowing up progress in that respect. For instance, belief in prayer and in the intervention of ancestors and various Gods could easily be a substitute for innovations designed to control the impact of weather and environment.”
Here he treats religions as interchangeable instead of dynamic institutions that engage the same changes over time as other thought systems. Religion in history is subject to an interpretative mode and so the reputation of any religion is the sum of its hermeneutics. Rodney understands this, as does Marable in his surveying the politics of the Black Church, but essentializes religion in the way Marx has done by characterizing religion as merely reacting to the mode of production because its otherworldly priorities must compete with the material concerns of the people. He could have benefited from a closer study of Islam in the Western imagination. Islam has always been an opponent to white dominion. It was the advancing Islam that made Europe rescind into its pre-Greco-Roman borders and even shrunk those borders. It was the Muslims and the establishment of Islamic civilizations that dominated the overland trade routes, restricting European access, and arrested the development of Europe’s economies while Africa’s were enlarged. He acknowledges the role that Islam, in particular, played in the development of pre-capitalist Africa: “Elsewhere, there flourished Islam and other religions which had nothing to do with European trade. As before, religion continued to act as an element of the superstructure, which was crucial in the development of the state.”
When the merchants of Wagadu (part of the Ghana kingdom during the eleventh century) traded with the Berber Muslims they were impressed with how they would stop trade when the call to prayer was made. They would “close shop” and prepare for the ritual of prayer. After the prayer was finished they would resume trade. This signaled two things: First, that the religion of Islam places a reality above commerce. Greed is subdued by worship. Second, worship does not negate prayer since the trade was resumed. There is no Sabbath or hermitage requiring vows of extreme asceticism. The integration of the worldly and the otherworldly in the life of the believer is effortless and has defined Islamic civil society.
Therefore, his repeating the Marxist mantra that religion inhibits material success because it is concerned with the hereafter is a gross oversimplification that betrays the perspicacity for which Walter Rodney is known. Islam, as he pointed out, has done the opposite of what he ascribes to being the effects of religion. He acknowledges that Islam catalyzed large-scale state formation, integrating the oral local stateless societies into the literate, empires of Mali and Songhai but does not discuss the pro-socialist communal aspects of these large empires and their spiritual basis. The welfare institutions throughout Islamic Africa stemmed from an Islamic concept of the muamalat which included the divine ordinances on the money. It held that the poor had a right to the wealth of the rich a belief that is at the core of zakat. Neither Marable nor Rodney could conceive of a society where the just economic system stemmed from the people’s spirituality based upon eschatological incentives concerning wealth and in which following the Sunnah of the Prophet (s.a.w.s) resulted in just economic dealings. Yet this exactly the kind of society that the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.s) established fourteen hundred years ago. It was a model of social-economic justice that can thrive today and is outside the false capitalist-socialist binary.