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International Socialist Review, Winter 1960


David Dreiser

Race — Social or Biological?


Source: International Socialist Review, Vol.21 No. 1, Winter 1960, pp.26-27.
Transcription: Daniel Gaido.
Mark up: Andrew Pollack for ETOL.


Caste, Class & Race
by Oliver Cromwell Cox
Monthly Review Press, New York. 1959. 600 pp. $7.50.

This penetrating and scholarly work originally appeared in 1948 and it is a well-deserved recognition of the author and a happy occasion for students of race relations that a new edition has appeared.

Dr. Cox has come to grips with the most basic and difficult aspects of the question of racial discrimination, that is, its fundamental nature and origin. He deals with the subject analytically, historically, all with substantial success.

It is evident that he found very early the necessity for proper differentiation of race from other social divisions such as class, caste, estate and nationality. Since identity of race and caste as social relations is the dominant view in academic circles, Dr. Cox has made an independent treatment of caste based on Hindu and other Indian sources. Oddly, the chief proponents of the caste theory of race relations in American sociology, including Gunnar Myrdal, have eschewed any serious study of Indian caste relations.

There is an intimate connection between the theory that caste originated in a supposed racial antipathy between Aryan invaders and Dravidians in ancient India. In exploding this myth, Cox has contributed greatly to the proper understanding of caste as a peculiar social phenomenon in India, and also further to establish that race relations are a conjunctural aspect of history peculiar to capitalism and did not exist in the ancient world anywhere.

Cox treats race strictly as a social relation and not from the viewpoint of physical anthropology. As he points out, the same man may be recognized as a Negro in one country and as a white person in another and enter into race relations in both situations. The assumed races need not be biologically defined. It is enough that they have imputed physical differences which make them distinguishable.

He thus views anthropology as involving another subject with “no necessary relationship with the problem of race relations as sociological phenomena. Race relations developed independently of tests and measurements.” While true, it cannot be concluded so readily that anthropological tests and measurements developed independently of race relations. Cox might have done a great service to probe the extent to which “biological” classification has conformed with and depended on the world system of race relations.

Cox has traced the development of race relations from their origin in modern chattel slavery. This system was a commodity producing society that was an inevitable step in the birth and growth of industrial capitalism. Although reproducing the form of ancient slavery, it was by no means an anachronistic throwback. Slavery provided the accumulation of capital and raw materials necessary for the “industrial revolution.”

That the slave was physically distinguishable from the master was an historical accident born of the long previously established distribution of people of varying skin color over the globe, and the sudden development of military supremacy by Europeans enabling them to enslave. Long after the initial enslavement came the association of skin color with the status of the slave.

Out of this came a relation in which the inferiority of the slave was transferred to the person of color and the perpetuation of the relation after slavery no longer existed was based on skin color alone. Such constituted a race relation in the pure form. Thus a relation between people is racial if its conditions are determined primarily by recognized physical differences. The perpetuation of such a relation after the death of slavery became a vital element in the system of political control and economic exploitation by the American capitalist class.

Cox concludes that the primary need of race relations is subjugation for purposes of exploitation. The maintenance of the relation requires prohibition of intermarriage and other social intercourse. For this segregation is required and from a segregated and economically subject condition race prejudice flows. Prejudice is a by-product and by no means a cause of race relations. From this can be seen the fallacy of all theories of education against prejudice as an answer to the race problem. Cox has presented a valid theoretical basis for the conclusion in action of Negroes everywhere that it is segregation that must be fought first. Education of whites comes in the process or later.

Cox analyses other relations which involve intolerance, but in which the conditions differ. The primary demand that society makes of Jews is that they assimilate. Their religion and culture are designed to unite Jews in resisting assimilation. The Negro is in an opposite situation; he wants to assimilate, but is prevented from doing so although Negroes are among our oldest and most “Americanized” inhabitants.

Intermarriage between castes is generally proscribed as between races but with vital differences. Caste is an organized membership group and an individual may under special circumstances change caste. Offspring of an occasional inter-caste marriage may enter the higher caste. No one can change his race and an offspring of a Negro-white marriage is always a Negro unless indistinguishability permits passing.

Without making a specific reference to the Communist party, Cox rejects their former idea of a “forty-ninth state” or any form of national separatism as an aim of American Negroes. “Its social drive is toward assimilation” which would not just modify the conditions of race relations, but would eliminate the relation altogether. He sees an intimate connection between the Negro movement and the struggle of the working class at large against capitalism.

In discussing capitalism Cox presents a theory of class in which “social class” is characterized by a ladder of status and prestige as distinguishable from “political classes” which are two opposed forces (bourgeoisie and proletariat) locked in mortal war for control of the productive forces and of society. He cites Rosa Luxemburg (an excellent authority) .on the necessity for revolution and the falsity of reformism. He apparently misses entirely the utter contradiction between this view and his adulation of Roosevelt as a democratic reformer. This is the major defect in an otherwise superb work of historical materialist analysis and scholarship.

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