Black Marxism by Robinson and The Great Transformation by Polanyi

Books by Cedric Robinson and by Karl Polanyi

“Black Marxism: The making of the Black radical tradition” by Cedric Robinson explores capitalism as a consequence of the spread of racism in European society. The author also examines the role of culture, traditions, and Marxist ideas in shaping the Black resistance to slavery. “The Great Transformation: The political and economic origins of our time” by Karl Polanyi focuses on the development of a market economy in the West. In particular, the opposition of economic motives and social interests is seen as the basis of its functioning. While both books explore capitalism in Europe, they focus on different processes. However, both authors emphasize that capitalism denies social values ​​and cultivates exclusively economic ones. Robinson explores this phenomenon through racism and various aspects of the formation of resistance. Polanyi discusses the transformation of people into economic entities, living only for profit or survival. Although the authors consider the social crisis associated with capitalism from different perspectives, they both suggest resistance as a natural consequence that strikes a balance between social and economic values.

Black Marxism by Cedric Robinson

Cedric Robinson’s book is essentially a critique of Marxism in terms of racial segregation and discrimination. According to the author, racism arose long before the development of capitalist society but shaped its structure. Robinson argues that the phenomenon in European society “was not simply a convention for ordering the relations of European to non-European peoples but has its genesis in the “internal” relations of European peoples” (Robinson, 2005, p. 2). Thus, racism is not a consequence of capitalism but its prerequisite. At the same time, it is an integral part of European society and has developed as a natural phenomenon.

In particular, Robinson argues that the expectations of Marx and Engels were false. Philosophers of Marxism counted on the consciousness of Europeans, whose “bourgeois society would rationalize social relations” (Robinson, 2005, p. 2). However, the development of the structure of capitalist society was based solely on racial differences, which determined the ideology. The ideas of Marxism regard capitalism as a revolutionary direction to feudalism. However, the author emphasizes that the modern socio-economic system arose based on the old one and did not deny it. Robinson calls this phenomenon racial capitalism, which is dependent on imperialism and slavery.

This idea explains why the author focuses on Europe when talking about Black people. Robinson believes that racism is a key characteristic of Western society, based on which the entire system is built. In particular, he criticizes socialist ideas as a way to disguise the feudal order as a more liberal concept. The author emphasizes that “socialism began as one expression of the bourgeois society and the bourgeoisie that it came to oppose explicitly” (Robinson, 2005, p. 47). Thus, he calls the middle class, not the proletariat, the ancestors of the ideological critics of capitalism. For example, Robinson calls the creation of the Irish working class a consequence of colonialism. Anglo-Saxon chauvinism made segregation possible, which explained the mistreatment and low wages of the Irish people. This example illustrates a particular form of European racism, the consequence of which is the construction of the capitalist system.

Robinson argues that European racism created Africans solely as a means of production. Thus, he deprived them of the traditions and rights which they had in their homeland. The author notes that “violence did not come naturally to African peoples” (Robinson, 2005, p. 309). However, the desire for violence and domination is an innate feature of European society. Thus, Black radicalism was born, consisting of denying the historical ties between Africans and Europeans and dehumanizing Blacks as a labor force. Robinson emphasizes that Western society has transformed the portrayal of Africans and their influence on history, which has become the basis of racism. Capitalism was later justified and defined as “the importance of Black labor power possessed for the world economy sculpted and dominated by the ruling and mercantile classes of Western Europe” (Robinson, 2005, p. 4). Thus, the slave trade and racism have natural links with economic development. Robinson argues that capitalism was not created artificially but determined by long historical processes.

Robinson argues that the proletariat did not constitute a revolutionary movement opposed to bourgeois culture. Since their views and ideas were shaped by the historical context, they could not represent radical groups. From the point of view of capitalism, “they were its negation, but that was hardly the source of their being” (Robinson, 2005, p. 4). However, the resistance shown by African slaves is the only force of opposition since they have their own culture, formed outside of Europe. The author describes several uprisings and individuals who influenced the development of capitalist society. Thus, the formation of Black radicalism was a “social and political as well as a historical process” (Robinson, 2005, p. 5). In particular, the ideas of Marxism were the basis for organized resistance to exploitation and racism.

The Great Transformation by Karl Polanyi

Karl Polanyi, in his book, explores the process of the birth of capitalism in Western society. The most crucial concept in his analysis is the double movement that characterized 19th-century capitalism. On the one hand, there was a process of recognizing the market economy as organizing, which led to a decrease in public control over the economy. On the other hand, the old social structures disintegrated to form a new market society. Thus, the author argues that “the market expanded continuously, but this movement was met by a countermovement checking the expansion in definite directions” (Polanyi, 2001, p. 136). In particular, the double movement consists of the process of destruction of traditional socio-economic systems and counteraction to it in the form of more modern forms of control.

The market system, according to Polanyi, has the main feature, which is self-regulation. The author argues that there has never been a true market economy since it is a utopian artificial concept. However, the formation of a new society was based on the introduction of new institutions and an almost instantaneous reaction of society, which ensured the double movement. Thus, the author considers such an economy as a mechanism that is “directed by market prices and nothing but market prices” (Polanyi, 2001, p. 45). In other words, in a market economy, money acts as a signal that people receive and interpret to gain benefits.

The market economy, according to Polanyi, requires minimal institutional structures. He emphasizes that a liberal state and a gold standard are needed. The former provides regulation and subsequent response, while the latter involves international trade and competition. Special attention is paid to the fact that the market economy becomes independent of both social and political institutions and is governed exclusively by economic motives. The author believes that capitalism is disembedded from the social structure of society.

Such minimalistic institutionalization cannot but affect the psychological state of people and society. Polanyi argues that capitalism is the first economic system to imply the “justification of action and behavior in everyday life, namely, gain” (Polanyi, 2001, p. 31). Thus, people in a given structure must obey logical economic laws and also act rationally. A person within the framework of a market economy is transformed into an “Economic Man” (Polanyi, 2001, p. 45). Although the author criticizes Marx in fundamental principles, he supports the philosopher in the fact that under capitalism, a person is forced to sell the labor, which becomes a commodity. A participant in a market economy is motivated either by the accumulation of funds or by the sale of labor to receive wages. Consequently, guided exclusively by accumulation motives or the desire for survival, a person becomes selfish, and the main goal is profit.

Polanyi constitutes a critique of capitalism as an abnormal society in comparison with past eras. The author argues that in a traditional society, “man’s economy, as a rule, is submerged in his social relationships” (Polanyi, 2001, p. 48). Thus, material goods serve to protect the social status and maintain communication. However, in a market economy, these goals become secondary, giving way to exclusively economic aspects. Polanyi argues that in earlier societies, a person is guided by social norms or institutions, as well as by their social values. The economy served to meet the needs of society and ensure survival; it was controlled by people who collectively cared for others.

Polanyi, based on the presented arguments, concludes that the emergence of capitalism is associated with changes in social structures which violate the traditions which were the basis of human existence. In particular, the author claims that “labor and land are made into commodities, which, again, is only a short formula for the liquidation of every and any cultural institution in an organic society” (Polanyi, 2001, p. 167). An example of this phenomenon, he calls the slavery of Africans, who were sold to the West for an artificial purpose. Capitalism did not exist for them and was not developed in their local community. Europeans brought them into a society with a completely different organizational structure.

The counteraction arising as one of the elements of the double movement is presented as a mechanism for protecting society from the crisis. Polanyi states that “since the working of such markets threatens to destroy society, the self-preserving action of the community was meant to prevent their establishment or to interfere with their free functioning, once established” (Polanyi, 2001, p. 210). The author often appeals to protectionism as a manifestation of the community’s group interests in opposing exclusively market motives. Thus, Polanyi’s central argument rests on the assumption that these countermovements provide resistance to the capitalist structure.

Shared Theme of Two Books

A detailed description of the central arguments of the two books helps to identify the common themes presented in them. Although both works explore capitalism from different angles, they focus on the transformation of psychology and the place of man in the development of a new society. First of all, capitalist society is considered exclusively as an economic structure that is dis-embedded from the society. Robinson emphasizes that Africans in Europe were perceived as a means of labor. Polanyi also described human motives in a market economy as purely economic. Consequently, both authors underline negative psychological and social changes which occur to a person in a capitalist society. They also refer to the study of the experience of earlier societies, identifying the prerequisites for the development of such a situation.

However, the most evident common theme discussed by the two researchers is resistance. Both Robinson and Polanyi consider the opposition to the capitalist order as the main reason for maintaining social balance and resolving the cultural crisis. In particular, Robinson describes the Black Resistance in Europe as a means of eliminating racism and slavery, which Europeans are not capable of. In turn, Polanyi considers more local examples in the form of protectionism, when people defend not economic but social interests. Thus, both authors consider the development of capitalism as a natural but negative state for society. Robinson and Polanyi refer to the ideas of Marxism as more socially oriented and capable of providing a sufficient basis for resistance. Although Robinson criticizes Marxism to a greater extent than Polanyi, both authors agree that this ideology is the main one for opposing the capitalist one.

It is also noteworthy that both authors consider the motivation of the members of capitalist society in the same way. Thus, Robinson emphasizes that Africans were enslaved due to the need for the means of labor to enrich Europeans. In turn, the Black people were forced to participate in the new structure because they feared for their lives and work was the only way of survival for them. Polanyi stresses that the worker must also sell his labor to support himself while the capitalist accumulates funds. Thus, both the proletarian and the slave are seen as a means of labor. Robinson notes that the employee cannot be a source of resistance since he has no choice. However, Black can oppose himself to the structure since his psychology was formed outside the capitalist structure. Polanyi also turns to protectionism, where people defend their traditional values ​​and social interests, which creates resistance. Thus, both authors view culture and traditions as a source of possible opposition to the economic motives of the new society.


Polanyi, D. (2001). The Great Transformation: The political and economic origins of our time. Web.

Robinson, C. J. (2005). Black Marxism: The making of the Black radical tradition. University of North Carolina Press.

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