Review – Race War!, by Horne (print)


Recent years have seen a revisiting of the 'Good War' and the 'greatest generation.' These drumbeats have echoed from best sellers, Hollywood blockbusters, and campaign speeches including W’s D-day remembrance and Reagan’s 1984 speech on the windy cliffs of Normandy replayed throughout the weeklong spectacle of his funeral. The chauvinistic motif of 'greatness' is harnessed as a PR backdrop for the 'war on terror' as forced comparisons accumulate on the current cultural billboard. But like a lot of commercial and even academic history in the US, much gets left out of broadcast narratives of World War II. Race War! revives a discipline. Gerald Horne breaks through pervasive amnesia by telling how for a time the Japanese empire was able to use its claim to be the 'champion of the colored races' as a 'powerful mobilizing tool in a world comprised overwhelmingly of Asians, Africans, and Latin Americans.' What’s more, through this history Horne contributes to a fuller global and historic understanding of racism.

The central thesis of the book is expanded upon throughout: 'an all-encompassing British racism – amply bolstered by other European powers and particularly by the United States – demobilized the colonized, making them highly susceptible to Japanese racial appeals.' The Japanese ruling class morphed popular Japanese anti-racism into a virulent nationalism. These elites don’t offer an egalitarian framework but an inversion of white supremacy with the Japanese on top. Horne documents and illustrates the racist world of the British Empire using Hong Kong as a central case study. It is the British assumption of superiority and the vast and violent discrimination, abuse and exploitation of those not of 'pure European descent' that becomes the soil upon which the racial appeal thrives. In addition to his central thesis, Horne offers as a 'subtext' the brutality of the Japanese, especially in China, which contradicts their racial appeals.

Race War! offers an on-the-ground history from five continents as told through letters, newspapers, diaries and public records combined with the history of decisions made behind closed doors, in court and through legislation. The narrative ranges from Hong Kong street workers abused by drunken British officials, to British prisoners in Japanese occupied Hong Kong, to the trials of Eurasian and Asian American collaborators with the Japanese. We see tension between German and Japanese leaders arise out of the contradiction between Nazi racial theories and Japanese opposition to white supremacy; we see the Japanese ultranationalist Black Dragon Society who successfully organize solidarity with groups in San Francisco and Harlem (among other things, like plotting to assassinate Charlie Chaplin); we see the British criss-cross of colonial troops (Ceylonese fighters sent to Africa and East Africans sent to Ceylon to avoid arming colonial subjects in their home country); and we see US operatives learn the lessons of the British while opportunistically presenting themselves as a foil to British white supremacy in Asia and attempting minor reforms in the US military.

Besides writing an important history, Horne adds to our understanding of the evolution of white supremacy. This book primarily focuses on 'race and racism within the British Empire in Asia,' but also shows how British white supremacy and Japanese responses impacted colonized peoples in the Empire from West Africa to the Malay Peninsula as well as people of color in the US. Particularly, the Japanese show-of-force against white supremacy impacted the push for civil rights in the US after World War II. The move – at least legally – to eliminate Jim Crow resulted from internal pressure from the freedom struggle coinciding with the needs of a changing economy, and the external pressure from the appeal/threat of equality offered by Communism. Horne shows that an additional factor was the appeal/threat of race war.

Throughout the book, we also get a sense of the short-term power and long-term danger of nationalism devoid of class-informed approaches to fighting exploitation and colonialism. Racism was (is) used to dominate Asians, Africans and Latinos around the world while encouraging nationalist responses that have been (can be) hostile to historical materialist understandings of the relationship of racism to capitalism and imperialism. Simultaneously, racism was (is) nurtured to demobilize any class-consciousness among European and US workers while also mobilizing them (at least whites) to fight imperial wars. To the benefit of the ruling class, racism, in its various forms became a principal – and flexible – component of the structured process of hegemony and accumulation.

Knowing and understanding the history provided by Race War! can also help understand the larger shifts taking place in the configuration of racism in relation to capitalism through the 20th century. Currently, new modifications in this relation accompany and influence the economic shifts that develop as production becomes increasingly based on mechanization and automation. Race War! suggests to me that the fight against white supremacy must avoid fundamentalism – nationalist and religious – and that that fight benefits from a historical materialist understanding of imperialism, national liberation and the overall revolutionary process.

Race War! White Supremacy and the Japanese Attack on the British Empire By Gerald Horne New York: New York University Press, 2004

--Reviewed by Tony Zaragoza