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Full Marx: What is race?

The concept of ‘race’ is fraught with problems. The MARX MEMORIAL LIBRARY explores some of the difficulties

WHAT is “race”? If by race you mean distinct groups of humans distinguished by physical and/or mental characteristics which derive from their biology, their genes then — “race” doesn’t exist.  

That’s not a Marxist conclusion either — it’s a scientific one, backed up by evidence that is pretty universally accepted. 

All humans have descended from a common group of ancestors which then radiated and developed into what, once, probably could have been described as different “races” in the sense of groups sharing a common gene pool (itself a contested concept).  

However subsequent dispersal and intermixing means that it is meaningless today to talk of anyone’s biological “race.”  

Recent evidence has shown that around 2 per cent of the DNA of most individuals is of neanderthal origin (a hominid, but non-human species that died out some 40,000 years ago) but we are all members of the same human species; Homo sapiens.

DNA testing of individuals — popularised in television programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are? — shows that almost all of us have “mixed” (and sometimes unexpected) ancestry. 

Geographical origins may be indicators of specific inherited differences. Sickle cell anaemia, for example, is particularly common in people with an African or Caribbean family background.

The term “race” can be used in a looser sense — to refer to anything from someone’s family group to the “human race.”  

Its meaning has shifted over time — first used to refer to those who spoke a common language, and then to nationality or geographical origin and then from the mid-18th century to refer variously to supposed innate psychological or physical traits.  

In the mid-19th century, for example, it was common to refer to the English (or Welsh, Scots, Irish, or French) “race.”  

When Marx and Engels used the term race they did so loosely, in all of these senses and in a casual and undefined way.  

For example, in response to a query, Engels wrote: “We regard economic conditions as the factor which ultimately determines historical development.  But race is itself an economic factor.”  

Today we might use the term “nationality” or “national characteristics,” understanding that those characteristics are invariably stereotypes and — to the extent that they reflect reality — are predominantly socially, not biologically, determined.  

With the expansion of colonialism and imperial domination, notions of race focused specifically on subjugated peoples, in particular those easily identified because of their skin colour.  

Black people were portrayed — in newspapers, in the music hall, in Parliament and from the pulpit — as inferior, in intelligence, aptitude, energy or morals, a convenient cloak for exploitation.  

“Progressive” opinion argued for compassion, but seldom went much further. All this was well before the general acceptance of coherent theories of inheritance and evolution.

Charles Darwin — whose grandfather, the abolitionist Josiah Wedgwood coined the anti-slavery medallion “Am I Not a Man And a Brother?” — challenged the prevailing, polygenic view of human origins (that different “races” had evolved separately) but was nevertheless a man of his time, class and society.  

He divided humanity into separate races according to skin colour and cranial shape and asserted that Europeans were evolutionarily more advanced than “black” people (and men more advanced than women).  

Social Darwinists such as Herbert Spencer (who coined the term “survival of the fittest”) used evolutionary theory to justify capitalism and inequality, including “racial” superiority and eugenics (selective breeding). 

With the “discovery” of genes in the early 1900s, such views were given a spuriously “scientific” basis.  

They were seized on by fascism as the basis for the elimination of the “unfit” — first of disabled people and minority groups such as the Roma, and ultimately of Jews.  

Well into recent times attempts have been made to allocate differences in people’s socially defined characteristics (such as intelligence) to their “race.”  

As the prominent Marxist biologist Stephen Rose points out “questions about a person’s ‘race’ are meaningful only in a racist society” yet terms such as “mixed race” can still sometimes be heard.  

It is much more meaningful — and interesting (as the popularity of DNA testing, websites such as Genes Reunited and family genealogy demonstrate) — to talk about people’s biogeographical ancestry.  

There are differences in gene frequency between those living in north and south Wales, for example. Sometimes this can be medically significant.  

For example, some historically isolated populations — in Europe and elsewhere — show an increased incidence of haemophilia.  

And distinct population groups — not races in the biological sense — show reliable variations in gene frequencies, some of which are associated with known disorders such as cystic fibrosis.  

But “race” today — an assumed biological difference between different “racial” groups is a social construct. And today however it is rare to hear anyone except racists (we’ll come to them in the next answer) talking about someone’s “race.”  

Ironically, the term has been replaced by the equally problematic concept of “ethnicity.” Ethnicity replaces the notion of objective biologically determined identity with a bizarre mix of categories which are held to relate to those most relevant to different social groupings relating to shared cultural heritage, ancestry, history, traditions or beliefs.  

The 1991 UK census was the first to include a question on ethnicity, with tick-box categories of “White,” “Black-Caribbean,” “Black-African,” “Black-Other (please describe),” “Indian,” “Pakistani,” “Bangladeshi,” “Chinese” and “Any other ethnic group (please describe).”  

Successive censuses — and the ethnic categories used by government bodies such as the Office for National Statistics have become ever more complex, for example with the inclusion of Scottish or Irish (an option initially not available for English or Welsh respondents) and, in the 2001 census, of “Arab.”  

All of them may be well-meaning but they confuse geographical “origins” (itself a problematic concept) with antiquated notions of race, nationality — and colour.  

Some of the categories themselves are (like “race”) socially determined, reflecting what are deemed to be generally accepted groupings.  

Some possible categories such as “Jewish” or “Muslim” — both arguably as significant today in the context of Britain’s “multi-ethnic” society — are excluded, presumably because they conflate or can signify ancestry, religion or subjective ethnicity.  

It is partly for this reason that today, most surveys recognise their subjectivity, asking respondents to self-identify, with questions along the lines of “how would you describe your ethnicity” and, usually, including a category for “other.”  

Anyone who has conducted research involving ethnicity will have had respondents quite properly describing themselves (for example) as “Cornish” or had queries asking (for example) whether Syrian refugees should be classed as “Black” or “White.” 

The consequences go beyond anomalies. The emphasis on ethnicity is so widespread that it sometimes becomes a substitute for significant efforts to secure inclusivity.  

Most importantly the ethnic categories exclude what are often the most important features of any individual’s access to services or facilities — their class, their income and their postcode.  

The next answer will examine what a Marxist approach can add to our understanding of racism. For more information about the Marx Memorial Library, visit


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