Racial Domination in Advanced Capitalism: A Theory of Nationalism and Divisions in the Labor Market (Harold M. Baron, 1975)

Synopsis by Kurtis Kelley

In the essay Racial Domination in Advanced Capitalism: A Theory of Nationalism and Divisions in the Labor Market, Baron courageously seeks to provide both researchers and activists with a more detailed analysis of the relationship between different forms of nationalism and the capitalist economy. For Baron, Marxist theory had not yet taken up the concept of nationalism with enough depth—certainly not enough depth to sufficiently explain the non-integration of the Black working class into the American mainstream and the enduring influence and solidarity found within Black Nationalism. What role does both Black and White nationalisms play in regards to divisions in the labor market? How have Black and White nationalisms affected the assimilative efforts of the white capitalist superstructure on the Black community? Baron’s theory of racial domination in advanced capitalism helps us in answering these questions.

Three major features of U.S. American society provide “theoretical clarification of the unique position of the Black community”: the capitalist economy, racism within domestic and international spheres, and nationalism as a form of organization for both Black and White communities respectively. Through this analysis, Baron argues that racial nationalism and the relations of production are codependent, and that the Black working class remains a distinctive, non-assimilated national group whose position is largely determined and restricted by the three features of US society mentioned above.

To support his analyses of the racial domination of the Black working class, Baron employs the Marxist concepts of base and superstructure to help constitute the skeleton of his theoretical framework for understanding the relationship between nationalism and economic exploitation within advanced capitalism. Within U.S. society, the base refers to the capitalist economy and the superstructure refers to the culture and the social, political, and intellectual institutions that reinforce and reflect the capitalist economy.   Baron furthers traditional Marxist theory here by showing the inextricable link between base, superstructure, and nationality.

On the relationship between capitalism and nationalism, Baron is direct: “All capitalist societies have had a national form which conditioned, through boundaries, a set of cultural, ideological, social, and territorial elements that regulate the relationship between the base and superstructure.” Nationalism acts as a “regulator” of some of the most important relationships that people and groups form, which in turn often produces mass cohesion, loyalty, and sometimes autonomous, self-sufficient nations in the classic sense.

Thus, for Baron, nationalism refers to the “ideological, cultural, and political movements that agitate for the establishment of a nation or modifications within an established nation,” and not all nationalisms achieve a nation. Baron notes here that he shares the view that nationalism is a potential and demonstrable anti-colonial force with Lenin and Mao, and pushes for a greater appreciation of this within contemporary Marxist theory. The nationalism of colonial, imperialist nations is also under-theorized within traditional Marxism, which instead focuses too heavily on the political structures of the state itself instead of the superstructural elements which nationality as a concept better captures for our comprehension.

Within this discussion of Base-Superstructure-Nation, Baron also defines the concept of “relative congruency” to help readers understand the simultaneous and autonomous operation of major elements within society. While the superstructure of our capitalist society seeks to establish higher levels of “congruency” to aid in the predictability of an increasingly technocratic advanced capitalist system, many ideological/political/intellectual/religious movements will support the mainstream of society, while others will continue to have a conflictual relationship with the dominant society. For Baron, it is vitally important that we pay close attention both to reinforcing movements, such as Reformation Protestantism and early capitalism, and conflictual movements such as many of those that comprised the Black Power movement.

In seeking to contrast the difference between Black and White nationalisms in the United States, Baron notes that he isn’t claiming that either one of these nationalisms have a completely autonomous nation such as other internationally recognized countries, but that their institutional and social relationships “comprise nationalities that exist as significant formations within an overarching American nation.” Baron also resists the trend to downplay the Black and White racial tension, instead saying this conflict is now, “grounded in the nationality conflict between the dominated community and the dominating community, making the antagonism a deeply rooted one.” The concept of U.S. citizenship itself, Baron demonstrates, emerged being closely linked with the control of enslaved Africans. The superstructure these relationships produced helped to ease the class conflict between the white working class and the ruling white elite—all in an effort to maintain domination over Black Americans for economic, political, and social benefit.

Following the Civil War, the possibility of an autonomous Black nation in that era was defeated alongside Reconstruction policies that could have protected Black Americans from the quasi-colonial status they have maintained since. As Black Nationalist movements have sought self-determination since that time, most notably with the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, the state has had to take a less central role as an “organizer of racism”. In the contemporary moment, two strategies of White nationalism remain within US politics—the first being the Conservative view which seeks to maintain the status quo. The second is the liberal viewpoint, which seeks to assimilate certain Black people who will do so into the dominant society. Baron notes that neither has anything to say about the Black people who wish to maintain a level of autonomy and not assimilate into the white American mainstream.

Base and superstructure of society have operated alongside White nationalism to restrict the flourishing of Black nationality in such a way that its major manifestation lay outside of independent economics and national political structures, instead being found within Black social cultural and ideological formations.  To maintain cultural and political control over the Black nation, white institutions “have to promote the prestige of certain Blacks who can perform” as their surrogates. Booker T. Washington stands out as a white-funded surrogate for dominant economic interests that maintained a close relationship with the Black community. In contrasts, Marcus Garvey’s Pan-Africanist movement promoted a more conflictual relationship with White nationalism and the U.S. state.

Disturbances in the racial balance, a balance that the ruling class relies on for a predictable market, can come from three forces: economic shifts, Black Nationalist calls for self-determination, and White Nationalist backlash and reactionary politics. To support the maintenance of their hegemonic position in times of civil unrest, the ruling elite will deftly utilize temporary concessions to stave off revolution and other disturbances that could affect the predictability of the capitalist market. These concessions can also act to blur racial distinctiveness, which can lead to cultural cooptation by the white community of Black cultural artifacts, a process that is often viewed by white institutions as positive cultural exchange and evidence of integration, thus strengthening calls for gradual, non-revolutionary change.

For Baron, the implications for this theoretical inquiry lie in its ability to guide future action, in part by helping us avoid simple analogies for the situation faced by Black people in the US.  The racial domination of Black people in the United States is not analogous to other, more “classically” colonized nations, but must be considered in the specific context of “all three relevant national frameworks”: “Black and White nationalities and the inclusive nation-state.” Baron ends his essay with a call for white anti-racists to take a sober account of Black Nationalism as more than just a “cultural expression”, and of White nationalism as an “inclusive force” whose dynamics “impose conditions of operation that cannot be willed away through moral condemnation.”