On the so-called “rational kernel of racism”

Chris Cutrone

Image: Photograph of measurements taken
to determine one’s “racial hygiene” (1933)


The following is Chris Cutrone’s attempt to explain what he actually meant by this controversial formulation. While I find his ex post facto explanation adequate, the original formulation still seems extravagant and misleading. Nowhere does he address the “anthropologically dissimilar” comment either, which is troubling.

Once again, it does not necessarily reflect the views of any other member of the organization, and certainly does not represent the organization’s views as a whole.

I must speak to my “rational kernel of racism” comment, which is being taken out of context to try to impeach me.

I did not mean of course that somehow it is reasonable or otherwise OK to be racist.

By this statement I was applying Marx’s comment about the “rational kernel” of the Hegelian dialectic, which aimed to take it seriously and demystify it, not debunk or dismiss it.

The same is true in addressing racism as ideology — as the “necessary form of appearance” of social reality.

I was trying to address the issue of supposed “racism” in terms of the Marxist tradition of “ideology-critique,” or the immanently dialectical critique of ideological forms of appearance, or, explained more plainly, the critique from within of ideologies according to their own self-contradictions, in the interest of seeking how they might be changed.

Wilhelm Reich in 1933

Wilhelm Reich in 1933

I follow Wilhelm Reich, who wrote in The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1933) that Marxists had failed to recognize the “progressive character of fascism” — by which he meant of course not that fascism was itself progressive (Reich was a Communist), but that fascism was a new ideology that met a new historical situation more successfully than Marxism did, and that Marxists were wrong to dismiss fascism as irrational, by which they tried to alibi their own failure to do better politically.

The point was why did members of the working class, to whatever degree, support an ideology that was against their interests? Reich thought that Marxists needed to be more like Marx in his critique of ideology.

So, what I meant by the “rational kernel of racism” was the need to address why otherwise rational people would have racist ideologies. It won’t do, I think, to try to dismiss racism as irrational. Rather, the question is, why are people racist? What social realities do racist ideologies express? What social needs are expressed, in however distorted form, by racist ideologies? For it is not a matter that those with racist attitudes have them in their own self-interest. Quite the contrary, it is often against their better interests.

In other words, I think that racist ideologies need to be addressed not as straightforward expressions of interests, which concedes too much to the realities of competition of some workers against others, but rather as phenomena of self-contradiction, of living in a self-contradictory society, “capitalism,” which is something real that needs to be changed, not merely ethically deplored, and moreover changed from within: as Lenin put it, capitalism needs to be overcome “on the basis of capitalism itself”; as Marx thought, according to capitalism’s immanent self-contradictions. Racist ideologies need to be regarded as part of this.

However, it must be admitted that nowadays racist ideologies are not nearly as centrally important a part of the social reality of capitalism as they once were. Racism is no longer considered anywhere near as reasonable as it once was. And of course this is a good thing — though it does present challenges to the “Left’s” own ideologies about the nature and character of social reality.

Beyond that, there is the issue of the actual politics of “anti-racism,” which my old mentor Adolph Reed has helpfully pointed out leads nowhere today, and so recommends junking present strategies of anti-racist politics, in favor of struggling against the concrete social and political disadvantages people face. There’s no point to a “politics” that tries to change people’s attitudes, where the real issue is material circumstances. But it does suit the “Left” today very well, in its own subcultural lifestyle consumerist taste community and paranoid authoritarian moral hectoring to focus on racist attitudes, as a substitute for real politics.

10 thoughts on “On the so-called “rational kernel of racism”

  1. I basically think Chris’ reasoning is fine. Is there supposed to be something self-evidently wrong with this? Could you provide some commentary?

    • I don’t find anything wrong with this formulation at all. Nor do I find anything wrong with Chris’ earlier formulation, if contextualized in this manner. It was only really in isolation from the broader context of this argument that the statement appeared controversial, which was probably why Chris indicated that he’d prefer to keep his opinion “closeted.”

      That said, I originally found the idea that there was a “rational kernel” to this irrationality rather tasteless, considering what a disgusting ideology racism is. Upon further reflection, however, I realize all ideology contains this “rational kernel,” insofar as it is the reflection of a social and historical reality out of which it arises. In this sense only is the real the rational and the rational real. It’s somewhat akin to religion, even, an irrationality with a material basis that is for this very reason comprehensible through materialist analysis.

      • If anything racism is a extreme manifestation of the hierarchical ideology adopted at all levels of society rather than a manifestation of any contradictions.

  2. I am glad you finally showed your ass (in many recent posts, not solely this one). You are just another reactionary sycophant.

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  5. “In other words, I think that racist ideologies need to be addressed not as straightforward expressions of interests, which concedes too much to the realities of competition of some workers against others, but rather as phenomena of self-contradiction, of living in a self-contradictory society…”

    Perhaps the most absurd thing ever said abt race.

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