Author Archive

19
Nov

By Wang Wei

Qiushi Journal 
Updated: 2022-10-28

The Chinese civilization is one of the world’s four great ancient civilizations and the only one that has developed in an unbroken chain up to the present day. It thus holds a unique and important place in the history of human civilization. As President Xi Jinping has said, the origins of Chinese civilization are an important subject for Chinese scholars and an enduring focus for international researchers.

In the spring of 2002, a national-level project to trace the origins of the Chinese civilization was launched. Guided by Marxism, research focused on four ancient city ruins from between 3500 and 1500 BC—the Liangzhu site in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province; the Taosi site in Linfen, Shanxi Province; the Shimao site in Shenmu, Shaanxi Province; and the Erlitou site in Luoyang, Henan Province—as well as the ruins of regional centers along the Yellow, Yangtze, and Liaohe rivers. These sites best reflect the social development and building of central power in that period. Through large-scale archaeological excavations and surveys of settlement distribution in the surrounding areas, we collected information on every aspect of these sites. This information facilitated comprehensive cross-disciplinary research on the emergence, taking shape, and early development of the Chinese civilization from multiple perspectives and levels.

The research project aimed to answer several critical questions: First, when was the Chinese civilization formed, and how long is its history? Second, how did the Chinese civilization first emerge, take shape, and develop? And how did the trend toward a unified whole led by the dynasties on the Central Plains arise, given the Chinese civilization’s diverse sources of origin? Third, why did the Chinese civilization follow a path featuring diversity amidst unity, continuous history, and unbroken development? Fourth, what characteristics define the Chinese civilization’s emergence, taking shape, and development? And where does the Chinese civilization stand in world civilizational history?

After 20 years of work, the project to trace the origins of the Chinese civilization has scored impressive achievements.

Putting forward a Chinese approach to defining civilization and setting criteria for a society’s entry into civilization

A Chinese approach to defining civilization

There is considerable debate among scholars in China and abroad about defining civilization and other related concepts. From a historical materialist point of view, we proposed that civilization is an advanced stage of human cultural and social development. As a result of the development of productive forces, this stage gives rise to the social division of labor and social stratification, which produce classes, kingship, and states.

Project researchers regard the emergence of a civilization and the shaping of a civilization as distinct albeit interconnected. They constitute separate stages in the genesis and formation of a civilization, in which a quantity of civilizational factors first accumulates before a qualitative social change occurs. Specifically, the emergence of a civilization refers to a prehistoric period in which civilizational factors were first nurtured, as productive forces underwent considerable development, material and spiritual life was steadily enriched, and a division between mental and manual labor emerged, along with a social hierarchy.

By a civilization taking shape it refers to a stage in which material, spiritual, and cultural institutions advance considerably. Social stratification intensifies, giving rise to classes. The social hierarchy becomes institutionalized, and people’s social conduct becomes standardized to create a system of rites. A supreme ruler or king emerges, monopolizing power over military command and religious and sacrificial ceremonies. A body that enforces public power known as the state emerges, exercising the main function of social management. The emergence of a state symbolizes that a civilization has taken shape.

Criteria for determining a society’s entry into civilization

Based on the characteristics of the Mesopotamian and ancient Egyptian civilizations, international scholars generally considered writing, metallurgy, and cities as the three basic elements of a civilization. This standard would mean that the Chinese civilization has a history of just 3,300 years.

However, studies around the world have shown that several of the world’s early civilizations did not conform to this “three-basic element” criterion. For example, the Mayan civilization in Central America did not have metallurgy, while the Inca civilization in South America lacked a writing system. The patterns on the seals of the Harappan civilization in the Indus Valley were also not recognized as writing. As more archaeological discoveries were made and research advanced, however, the international academic community generally came to accept that various parts of the world should set their own standards for defining a civilization based on the characteristics that distinguished the development of their ancient societies.

Guided by Marxist theory, Chinese scholars have used historical documents and ancient legends as references. More importantly, we have a rich trove of archaeological materials obtained over the course of a century to shed light on the profound historical and cultural accumulation of the Chinese civilization and the unique path of development it has traveled. Chinese scholars, therefore, are in a better position to offer their definitions for civilization. According to Engels’ view that “the central link in civilized society is the state,” the project to trace the origins of the Chinese civilization put forward the following criteria to define the entry of a civilization: first, development of production, population increase, and the appearance of cities; second, a social division of labor, social stratification, and the emergence of classes; third, the emergence of kingship and states.

Over 5,000 years ago, agriculture developed in various regions in China, the population increased, and regional centers gradually grew into large cities. Advanced handicrafts, such as jade, turquoise vessels, fine pottery, and lacquerware production were specialized and under the control of the ruling class. All regions saw the emergence of a class that had extricated itself from physical labor and became specialized in managing social affairs. There was a serious divide between rich and poor, creating different classes. Kings emerged to assume military and religious power, and early states appeared in which governments were formed under the control of kings to exercise state power through establishing social norms and resorting to violence. Cities had high-grade buildings such as palaces for kings, high-grade tombs for deceased kings and members of the ruling class, and ceremonial vessels and systems to emphasize the status of the ruling class. Slavery was practiced, and people were killed and buried as sacrifices for the deceased nobles or when laying the foundations of palaces.

These discoveries by Chinese archaeologists provide ample material evidence to prove that China’s entry into civilization had its own distinctive characteristics. The level of productive development revealed by these materials demonstrates that the surplus labor of the time was enough to support institutions of public power, thus enabling a portion of the population to devote themselves to management and spiritual affairs away from production.

The above-mentioned criteria can also be applied to other civilizations. Although all civilizations are materially and spiritually distinctive, they share similarities in how institutions of royal power and states emerge, differing only in how royal power is subsequently manifested and the forms states take. In China, power was displayed through exquisite jade ceremonial vessels, bronze ceremonial vessels, large palaces made of wood and earth, and tombs imitating architecture on the ground. In Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt, gold, precious stones, magnificent stone temples, pyramids, and large burial chambers were used for this purpose.

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Representative artifacts excavated from large secondary burial tombs in the northern section of the Gangshang ruins in Tengzhou, Shandong Province. The site was selected as one of China’s top 10 archaeological discoveries in 2021.

XINHUA / PHOTO PROVIDED BY THE NATIONAL CULTURAL HERITAGE ADMINISTRATION

Establishing how the Chinese civilization emerged, took shape, and developed in the early stages and providing material evidence for its over 5,000 years of history

Research on the emergence, taking shape, and early development of the Chinese civilization, and on relevant background and reasons, has yielded the following conclusions: the foundations of the Chinese civilization were laid 10,000 years ago (8000 BC); civilization first emerged 8,000 years ago (6000 BC); its development accelerated 6,000 years ago (4000 BC); it entered into the stage of civilizational society more than 5,000 years ago (3000 BC); the Central Plains emerged as a powerful region 4,300 years ago (2200 BC); the first dynasty was founded 4,000 years ago (2000 BC); power held by royal families was consolidated 3,000 years ago (1000 BC); and a unified multi-ethnic state was created 2,200 years ago (221 BC).

Ten thousand years ago: laying the foundations

Around 11,000 years ago, global climate warming catalyzed the beginning of agriculture in East and West Asia. Then 10,000 years ago, people domesticated millet—the Setaria italica and Panicum miliaceum species—in northern China, and rice began to be cultivated in the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River. Cultivated rice, pottery, and stone tools have been excavated from the Shangshan site in Pujiang County, Zhejiang Province. Our ancestors in northern China and the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River also began making stone tools and pottery. The emergence of agriculture led to the creation of small village settlements in various places, thus laying the foundations for the creation of a civilization.

Eight thousand years ago: the emergence of a civilization

A period of great climate warming occurred between 8,000 and 6,000 years ago. Paleoenvironmental studies have revealed that the climate of the Yellow River Basin at the time was similar to the climate of today’s Yangtze River Basin, and that of the Yangtze River Basin was similar to today’s southern China. The warm and humid climate enabled rice farming to spread northward to the lower reaches of the Huaihe River, while millet farming became popular along the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River and in the north and south of the Yanshan Mountains. Stone and bone shovels unearthed at ancient sites indicate that slash-and-burn agriculture had already given way to settled farming. Agriculture during this period led to population growth, an increase in the number of villages, the development of handicrafts, and social progress. Inhabitants of the Jiahu site in Wuyang County, Henan Province, located on the upper reaches of the Huaihe River, cultivated rice, raised pigs, made wine and turquoise utensils, and invented a bone flute with seven finger holes. At Jiahu and Xinglongwa, located in Aohan Banner, Inner Mongolia, as well as other sites, a small number of large-scale tombs containing jade or turquoise vessels have been discovered, which suggests that society had begun to stratify, paving the way for the rise of a civilization.

Six thousand years ago: accelerated development

Around 6,000 years ago, the rise of the Chinese civilization began to pick up speed. Millet cultivation techniques spread from the Yellow River Basin to the Yangtze River Basin, and rice cultivation spread north to the Hanshui River Basin and the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River. Handicraft industries in various places also made striking progress, as fine pottery with a solid texture and a smooth surface appeared. The unearthing of four stone silkworm chrysalises dating back 6,000 years to an early settlement of the Yangshao Culture in Shicun Village, Xiaxian County, Shanxi Province, has led excavators to conclude that sericulture and silk reeling had already been invented by that time. People’s spiritual life was also steadily enriched. In an early burial tomb at a Yangshao Culture site in Xishuipo, Puyang City, Henan Province, the remains of the occupant were flanked on either side by mosaics of a dragon and a tiger made from a large number of clamshells. Painted pottery was also popular in China’s central and eastern regions, and rapid progress was made in jade craft, lacquer painting, and architecture.

Some important changes occurred in society in this period. First, the population increased significantly. The number of settlements multiplied, with clusters composed of dozens of villages found in the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River, and the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River. Second, central settlements began to appear. In the Zhudingyuan area in Lingbao City, Henan Province, several large settlements with a scale of up to one million square meters were discovered. Third, wars began to occur. Some large and medium-sized settlements were surrounded by trenches more than 10 meters wide and several meters deep, which were evidently used for defense. Stone axes were also found in the tombs of some adult males. Fourth, social stratification intensified, and a ruling class began to emerge. However, this stage still constituted an accelerated process in the emergence of a civilization; states had not yet been formed, and society had not entered into a civilization.

Five thousand years ago: entry into civilization

The period from 5,500 to 5,000 years ago was critical in the history of the Chinese civilization, as areas along the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River successively entered into a civilizational stage.

In the lower Yangtze River region, plowing and large-scale rice fields appeared around 5,300 years ago. Fields and irrigation ditches were organized in regular patterns, and rice farming techniques matured. Archaeologists have discovered large-scale water management systems around the site of the ancient Liangzhu city, along with mounds of 200,000 kilograms of carbonized rice on the south side of the Mojiaoshan site in the heart of Liangzhu city. These discoveries demonstrate that the development of farming and the mastery of grain storage were matters of great importance for Liangzhu. Recent discoveries at the Shi’ao and Maoshan sites in Zhejiang Province dating to the Liangzhu period reveal a checkerboard pattern of expansive fields lined with ridges made from tree branches, bamboo, and disused canoes. Waterways, irrigation holes, and drainage channels were all well-planned. Prehistoric paddies and farming systems discovered quite far from Liangzhu attest to the astounding scale of rice agriculture in the early stage of Liangzhu and the strength of its economy. Such discoveries show that at Liangzhu, an early state was built upon a foundation of religious, political, economic, and military development.

During this period, technologically advanced handicrafts such as fine jade, pottery, lacquerware, and turquoise ornaments appeared in numerous places. Jade cong—cylindrical tube ornaments—representing the Liangzhu Culture were engraved with intricate animal face patterns. People in the lower reaches of the Yellow River could make what is referred to as “eggshell-thin” ceramics with a thickness of less than one millimeter. The technical complexity of these products indicates that artisanal families with specialized skills had emerged by that time. Specialization in advanced handicrafts is an important sign of the social division of labor.

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The excavation site on the palace complex platform at the Shimao ruins in the city of Shenmu, Shaanxi Province. (File photo) XINHUA

Another sign of social development during this period was the emergence of ceremonial instruments and the initial formation of ritual systems. Jade, lacquerware, and exquisite pottery vessels were excavated from high-grade burial tombs in various places. This shows that local ruling classes controlled the production and distribution of valuable objects. They created a hierarchy through a ritual system that was based on technically advanced and highly prized ritual objects and used tomb size to indicate the status of the deceased.

Around 5,300 years ago, central cities and primitive religious shrines of more than a million square meters were built in the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River, the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River, and the Xiliao River Basin. The ancient city of Liangzhu, a sprawling metropolis in the lower reaches of the Yangtze River, had inner and outer sections of nearly 3 million square meters and 6.3 million square meters, respectively. It was the largest city anywhere in the world at that time. To protect it from mountain floods, more than 10 kilometers of low and high dams were built north of the city. This was the largest water control system in the world during this period and reflected the ability of the Liangzhu rulers to organize large-scale public construction projects.

Class stratification accelerated in step with the emergence of early high-level cities. Large high-grade buildings covering hundreds and even thousands of square meters, and large tombs containing more than a hundred or even several hundred pieces of exquisite objects pose a striking contrast to the modest houses and small-scale tombs of ordinary members of society, and illustrate the vast social wealth enjoyed by the ruling class.

In almost all regions, large tombs with elaborate weapons in the form of jade axes began to appear in this period. Burial tombs at the Liangzhu sites of Fanshan and Yaoshan contained jade axes with wooden handles, possibly serving as symbols of military power. In recently discovered tombs at the Gangshang site in Tengzhou City, Shandong Province, the highest-ranking male nobles were generally buried with one large and one small jade axe. These males are likely to have been kings with command over the military. As the ruling class accumulated authority based on military power, clan leaders became kings who exercised total power. This period also saw an increase in war and violence. Human skeletons scattered in garbage dumps, forming the foundations of large buildings, and buried in large tombs as sacrifices indicate that some people began to enslave others.

Four thousand and three hundred years ago: the rise of the Central Plains

Around 4,300 years ago, a shift occurred in the civilization process in various parts of China. An important upshot of this was the rise of the Central Plains. The period from 4,300 to 4,100 years ago witnessed significant climate change, marked by abnormal temperatures, erratic rainfall, and frequent flooding, greatly influencing the progress of civilization in all regions. The civilization along the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River declined, while that in the middle reaches of the Yellow River surged ahead. Powerful groups in the middle reaches of the Yellow River gradually became stronger than other groups around them, and two super-large settlements appeared in succession—Taosi in Shanxi and Shimao in Shaanxi.

The Taosi site covering an area of 2.8 million square meters is about 4,300 to 4,000 years old. The area with high-grade buildings features an 8,000-square-meter rammed-earth platform, buildings of terracotta tiles, painted walls, and decorative engravings. Taosi was thus home to the first palace in the middle reaches of the Yellow River. Nearly 100 items have been unearthed from burial tombs, including drums covered with alligator skins, stone chimes, jade axes, and a large ceramic tray with painted dragon patterns. The remnants of a semi-circular platform were also uncovered at the Taosi site, which astronomers believe to be an observatory for tracking celestial phenomena and determining important agricultural dates and seasons such as the spring equinox, autumn equinox, summer solstice, and winter solstice. This is consistent with the “Canon of Yao” in The Book of History. It describes how King Yao assigned astronomic officers to observe celestial phenomena and tell the divide of the seasons. The time, location, scale, and level of the Taosi site are relatively consistent with the literature describing King Yao’s capital of Pingyang.

A mountainous city built of stone blocks, Shimao was discovered 10 years ago. It is between 4,100 and 3,900 years old and has an area of four million square meters. The site is composed of an outer and inner city, as well as an imperial complex, and has various defensive facilities. The city’s heart consists of a platform dozens of meters in height, believed to be the foundation of a palace complex. The large palace on the platform covers thousands of square meters. There are also stone blocks and pillars carved with images of animals and their faces on the platform. Numerous ceramic eagles of over 50 centimeters to 1 meter in height were also excavated from the platform and are thought to be related to beliefs and worship. Shimao strongly resembles a military fortress. In the city, several sacrificial pits containing young female skulls were discovered. These findings show that just before the founding of the Xia Dynasty (2070–1600 BC), class divisions were particularly pronounced in northern Shaanxi, and a state ruled by a king with great military power had emerged.

Four thousand years ago: dynastic establishment

Around 4,000 years ago, the Xia Dynasty was founded. In the area centered on the southeastern foothills of Songshan Mountain in Henan Province, more than 10 large cities had appeared. Of these, the Wangchenggang site in Dengfeng City is particularly impressive, with a set of corresponding large and small inner and outer cities. The area had been known as Yangcheng ever since the start of the Warring States Period (475–221 BC). At the ruins of Wadian in Yuzhou City, Henan, which belong to the same period, various traces of sacrifices, including human and animal remains, have been identified on the large rammed-earth platform. The discoveries signal the start of a new stage for the Chinese civilization centered on the Central Plains. The “nine administrative districts” referred to in the “Tribute of Yu,” a chapter in The Book of History covered northern, central, and eastern China, indicating that at the founding of the Xia Dynasty, the power group along the middle reaches of the Yellow River extended its vision to the lower reaches of Yellow River and as far as the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River. After roughly 200 years of development, during its later stage, the Xia Dynasty continued to accumulate strength, thus gradually giving rise to the leading position of the Central Plains, which exercised an influence that was unprecedented in scope. This is reflected in the Erlitou ruins of Luoyang City in Henan Province.

The Erlitou site covers an area of more than three million square meters and is between 3,800 and 3,500 years old. It is the largest city site in China from that period. Records refer to the Yi-Luo River Basin, where the Erlitou site is located, as the central region of the Xia Dynasty. The golden age of the Erlitou Culture occurred during the late Xia Dynasty just before the founding of the Shang Dynasty (1600–1046 BC). The influence of the Erlitou Culture was unprecedented, with its ritual vessels and ceremonial systems, represented by jade yazhang, a type of ceremonial blade, spreading to the vast surrounding areas. The set of bronze and jade ceremonial vessels used by the Erlitou Culture was inherited in full by the Shang Dynasty.

In the lead-up to the founding of the Shang Dynasty, the Xia Dynasty was the only powerful political entity in the Songshan Mountain region where the Erlitou Culture was based. This gives us ample reason to conclude that Erlitou was most likely the capital of the late Xia Dynasty. The existence of the Xia Dynasty has thus not only been richly documented in literature since pre-Qin period but also proven by archaeological findings.

The Shang Dynasty inherited the ritual system pioneered by the Xia Dynasty. Political, economic, cultural, and social development continued, and a mature writing system, represented by the oracle-bone script, took shape. Metallurgy and the ritual system spread to a much wider area. Oracle-bone inscriptions show that the Shang king was the country’s supreme ruler, under whom a complete administrative structure existed, exercising direct control over the immediate hinterlands and indirect control over loyal vassal states. The political power and cultural influence of the Shang Dynasty stretched from the coast in the east to Longshan Mountain in the west, beyond the Yangtze and Hanshui rivers in the south, and as far as the Yanshan Mountain range in the north. Bronze ceremonial vessels belonging to the Shang system have been excavated across a vast area, demonstrating that the Shang Dynasty played a leading role in the evolution of the Chinese civilization and the development of culture and society in many places.

Three thousand years ago: the consolidation of royal power

In the first years of the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046–771 BC), the king of Zhou founded a feudal state by granting noble titles to relatives and officials and allowing them to establish vassal states, thus creating a stable rule over a vast area outside the immediate hinterlands of the capital. Based on the ritual systems of the Xia and Shang, the Zhou Dynasty developed a more advanced ritual system. It instituted a ceremonial system composed of different types and quantities of bronzeware, establishing a clear hierarchy. This hierarchy was continuously strengthened during the Western Zhou and gradually extended to all aspects of clothing, food, housing, and transportation. Institutional differences even governed garment colors, clothing styles, jade ornaments, horse-drawn carriages, and types and quantities of chimes and other musical instruments. The Western Zhou Dynasty was a critical period in the course of the Chinese civilization, characterized by a feudal system, patriarchal clan system, and system of music and rites. Consisting of many vassals with the Zhou king at the core, the state structure further strengthened the centralized power system developed during the Xia and Shang dynasties and laid a firm foundation for the founding of a unified multi-ethnic country during the dynasties of Qin (221–207 BC) and Han (206 BC–220 AD).

Two thousand and two hundred years ago: the formation of a unified multi-ethnic country 

This refers to the unification of China by the First Emperor of Qin in 221 BC based on an administrative system of prefectures and counties and a unified system of laws. Thus, China entered the civilization stage as a unified state, marking a new phase of developing a unified multi-ethnic country.

Historical insights from the development of the Chinese civilization 

The integration of diverse elements is an inexhaustible source of vitality for the Chinese civilization. 

Looking at the early evolution of the Chinese civilization, we can see the rich and varied nature of the cultures in the various regions of China. The cultures of the middle reaches of the Yellow River openly absorbed a diverse range of civilizational factors, and eventually integrated with the cultures of other regions. The cultures of all regions in China positively contributed to the formation of the Chinese civilization. The convergence and integration of various civilizations filled the Chinese civilization with vitality and enabled it to develop sustainably.

Openness, inclusiveness, exchange, and mutual learning are the driving forces for the development of civilization. 

The Chinese civilization has actively sought to learn from and absorb the achievements of other civilizations and has made innovations accordingly. Even in prehistoric times, exchanges were widespread and unfolded across regional and ethnic lines. Such exchanges documented a process of mutual learning between cultures and promoted the development of civilization. Exchanges and mutual learning have been crucial to the enduring prosperity of the Chinese civilization and are vital ingredients in its distinctive charm. Only by being open and inclusive and drawing inspiration from diverse sources can we ensure that the Chinese civilization maintains its liveliness and enjoys lasting vitality.

Cultural soft power is a proven way for the creativity and influence of the Chinese civilization. 

The process of refining advanced cultural concepts continued throughout the Xia, Shang, and Zhou civilizations, eventually giving rise to a set of mainstream values with rites as the key tenet. This profound concept exerted extensive influence, leading to the development of a civilization in the vast surrounding regions. Following the Qin and Han dynasties, the concept of rites was carried forward and further promoted and enriched to become a core value of the Chinese civilization. In addition, through exchanges and mutual learning, it spread to surrounding countries and regions and became an important concept for Eastern civilization.

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Key artifacts from the collection of the Erlitou Site Museum of the Xia Capital:

1) bronze wine container; 2) bronze tripod vessel with lattice pattern; 3) turquoise-inlaid bronze plate with an animal mask design; 4) dragon-shaped turquoise object; 5) jade knife with seven holes; 6) yazhang or ceremonial blade.

PROVIDED BY THE ERLITOU SITE MUSEUM OF THE XIA CAPITAL

The Chinese civilization emerged, took shape, and achieved early development largely in step with the other three major ancient civilizations of the world, and its achievements are on par with theirs. 

Agriculture emerged in China around 10,000 years ago, and the Chinese civilization began to take shape over 5,000 years ago, which largely coincides with the appearance of agriculture and the rise of civilizations in Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt. More than 3,000 years ago, the Zhou Dynasty built the largest government of that time through a feudal system. During the golden age of the Spring and Autumn Period (770–476 BC) when numerous schools of thought flourished in China around 2,600 years ago, the Axial Age of humanistic enlightenment played out in ancient Greece and India. Millet and rice farming, jade manufacturing, and silk-making embody our Chinese ancestors’ wisdom and creativity and represent important contributions to human civilization. The formation of the Chinese civilization was marked by myriad trials such as climate disruptions and social turmoil. Yet our forebears courageously overcame all difficulties and obstacles in a spirit of self-reliance and self-improvement and finally completed the creation of our great civilization, which took its place among the four great ancient civilizations. This development process and the achievements it has produced constitute the source of our cultural self-confidence today. The Chinese civilization has stood and will always stand tall among the world’s civilizations.

National unity is an aspiration of the people and the foundation of China’s strength and prosperity. 

The development of the Chinese civilization witnessed wars, numerous competing powers, and breakaway vassals. Yet under the guidance of a unified core and through the development of productive forces and social progress, a unified nation was ultimately established under the Qin and Han dynasties. Since then, valuing unity and seeking great harmony, both as ideas and practices, have strongly appealed to the Chinese nation and permeated its thinking. This concept has sustained the Chinese nation’s unity, guided its identity, and forged its unique character. History shows that national unity is not only an essential attribute of the Chinese civilization but a fundamental guarantee for its continuity. With national unity, ethnic solidarity, and social stability, the Chinese civilization is sure to attain even greater achievements.

The Chinese civilization has, like all civilizations of the world, traveled a distinct path of development and created a unique heritage.

The cradle of the Chinese civilization comprised a vast region with diverse environments. As a result, the Chinese civilization underwent a unique development process, which originated at multiple points and featured cultural collision, exchange, and integration. This grand process ultimately produced a system that unified the entire country under one ruler and fostered the political ideal of great harmony. A civilization led by a central core and characterized by unity amidst diversity thus began to develop. As such, the development of the Chinese civilization also constituted a process of creating a unified multi-ethnic country. This process endowed the Chinese civilization with inexhaustible vitality and turned the Chinese nation into an indivisible community. After the formation of a unified multi-ethnic state, national unity became the highest value and ideal of the Chinese people. The Chinese civilization developed a unique economic, political, and cultural system with agriculture as the foundation, a patriarchal clan system to regulate social relations, a social hierarchy based on a ritual system, virtue as the basis for human relations, and the concept of unity between humans and nature in regard to man’s relations with nature. This process proves that civilizations have different paths of development. It shows that every civilization is unique, should be appreciated in its own right, and can flourish side by side. This is the source of China’s confidence in its own path.

 

Wang Wei is Academician of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), Director of the CASS Academic Division of History, a visiting researcher at the Research Center for Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, and chief expert on the first to fourth phases of the Chinese Civilization Origins Project. 

(Originally appeared in Qiushi Journal, Chinese edition, No. 14, 2022)

Category : China | Marxism | Blog
18
Oct

What is there to celebrate?


By Eric Foner

C. Vann Woodward: America’s Historian 
by James Cobb.
North Carolina Press,
504 pp., £39.50,



During the​ 1950s and 1960s, a generation of academics rose to prominence in the United States with books and essays that breached the wall separating the university and the broader public. Many of them were historians, including Daniel Boorstin, Richard Hofstadter and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Invocations of history punctuated debates over the Cold War, civil rights and Vietnam. But none of these ‘public intellectuals’ reached a larger audience or had a greater social and political impact than C. Vann Woodward, whose books and essays concerned the nation’s most enduring problem, racial inequality. Historians are often warned about the dangers of ‘presentism’. But Woodward demonstrated that history can illuminate the world in which the scholar lives. Readers who sought to understand the civil rights revolution that dismantled the Southern racial system of Jim Crow turned to Woodward’s writings. By the time he died in 1999, many of his historical findings had been challenged by younger historians and Woodward himself had become disaffected with trends in both the writing of history and the struggle for racial justice. Yet he was widely considered, to borrow the subtitle of James Cobb’s new biography, America’s historian.

Most historians are not very introspective and lead uneventful lives, making things difficult for their biographers. So it’s understandable that Cobb, a historian at the University of Georgia, focuses almost entirely on Woodward’s intellectual and political career. Drawing on his subject’s writings and his voluminous papers at Yale, where Woodward taught from 1961 to 1977, Cobb portrays a scholar impatient with the mythologies, distortions and misguided hero worship that for most of the 20th century inhibited discussion of the South’s many problems.

Born in 1908 in Vanndale, a small town in Arkansas that serviced the area’s cotton economy, Comer Vann Woodward was a member of a prominent local family (Vanndale had been named after his mother’s family). Woodward understood early that the Jim Crow system, built on the disenfranchisement of Black voters, lynching, racial segregation and a biased criminal justice system, made a travesty of the country’s supposed commitment to equality and opportunity. Where did his rebellious outlook originate? Cobb credits the influence of his uncle and namesake, Comer, who wasn’t afraid to denounce the local Ku Klux Klan. There were other influences, too. While working on a master’s degree at Columbia in 1931-32, Woodward met Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Du Bois and other African American writers and activists. In the summer of 1932, he travelled to Europe; his itinerary included a visit to the Soviet Union. On his return, he became involved in the defence of Angelo Herndon, a Black communist convicted of violating Georgia’s 19th-century ‘insurrection’ law, originally intended to discourage slave rebellions, by organising Black and white factory workers. The Herndon case became an international cause célèbre and led to a Supreme Court ruling invalidating the statute as a violation of freedom of speech. (Woodward’s experience working with communists did not escape the notice of the FBI. In 1951, he was denied security clearance for an appointment as historical adviser to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.) In the summer of 1935, Woodward came face to face with the dire poverty of tenant farmers while working for a New Deal agency surveying social conditions in rural Georgia.

Like any complex social system, Jim Crow required ideological legitimation. As Woodward later wrote, historians who were united in their ‘dedication to the present order’ helped to provide it. By the 1930s, a distinctive account of history had become an orthodoxy among white Southerners, endlessly reiterated in classrooms and on public monuments. It rested on a number of axioms: slavery had been a benign institution; the Confederacy was a glorious Lost Cause; Reconstruction – the experiment in biracial democracy that followed the Civil War – was a time of misgovernment and corruption; the self-styled Redeemers, who rescued the South from the supposed horrors of ‘Negro rule’ by overthrowing Reconstruction, were the inheritors of the values of the Old South; a New South was emerging and with it the promise of widespread prosperity. This dogma held sway even at the University of North Carolina, a centre of Southern liberalism, where Woodward earned his doctorate. In 1935, he wrote to a friend that he had ‘not gleaned a single scholarly idea from any professor’. Things changed later that year, however, with the arrival of Howard K. Beale.

Beale was a disciple of the historian Charles Beard, who taught that political ideology was a mask for economic self-interest. Beale had recently published The Critical Year, in which he followed Beard in viewing the Civil War not as a struggle over slavery but as a second American Revolution, which transferred political power from Southern planters to Northern industrialists. The Radical Republicans of the era were less interested in the rights of the former slaves than in using Black votes to help fasten Northern economic control on the defeated South. For the rest of his career, Woodward remained something of a Beardian. In the acknowledgments to one of his books, he paid tribute to Beard as the ‘dean of historians’.

Woodward received his doctorate in 1937. Over the next two decades he produced four books that established him as one of the most influential historical voices of his generation: Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel (1938), a slightly revised version of his dissertation; Reunion and Reaction (1951), in which he argued in good Beardian fashion that railroad magnates were the key architects of the ‘bargain’ that resolved the disputed election of 1876 and ended Reconstruction; Origins of the New South (1951), an all-out critique of the political and social order created by the Redeemers; and The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955), an examination of the origins of segregation. These books demolished every important feature of the orthodox historical credo. The revered Redeemers were not the direct descendants of Old South planters but a new class of business-oriented merchants and industrialists, closely linked to the North. The state regimes they headed were as guilty of corruption as they claimed Southern governments had been during Reconstruction. Contrary to received wisdom, the New South was a ‘stunted neocolonial economy’, whose sharecropping and credit systems consigned Black and white tenant farmers alike to peonage. Even though some of Woodward’s arguments inspired spirited rebuttal, these books established the agenda for generations of historians of the 19th-century South.

This was presentism in the service of radical social change. Woodward hoped to discredit the existing Southern ruling class by exposing the ‘ethical bankruptcy’ of the Redeemers, from whom they claimed descent. Moreover, history, he insisted, offered home-grown alternatives to Jim Crow. In his biography of Tom Watson, Woodward traced the transformation of a leader of the People’s Party, or Populists, from an advocate of political and economic co-operation among Black and white small farmers into a vicious racist, the only possible route to electoral success once the region’s elite had eliminated Black voting. In the early 1890s, Watson had brought to mixed-race audiences the message that small farmers of both races shared the same economic interests and should unite in common cause. For decades, Woodward would defend the historical reputation of the People’s Party, especially against the criticism of his friend Richard Hofstadter, who argued that the insurgent farmers exemplified the way Americans suffering from economic decline turned to conspiracy theories and cultural hatreds to understand their plight. Woodward would later yield to critics who insisted that he had exaggerated the extent and sincerity of white populists’ appeal for Black support. ‘It was a book for the 1930s and of the 1930s,’ he explained. Today, when ‘populist’ is commonly used as a term of abuse, promiscuously applied to figures who share nothing in common, such as Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, it remains striking how long Woodward insisted that far from representing what Hofstadter called the ‘paranoid style’ of American politics, the People’s Party had advanced ‘one of the most thoroughgoing critiques of corporate America and its culture we have had’.

A different road not taken was central to Woodward’s argument in The Strange Career of Jim Crow. The timing could not have been better for this brief, lucid book, which appeared not long after the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Brown v. Board of Education, outlawing racial segregation in public schools. Brown is now widely viewed as the court’s most important ruling of the 20th century, and it is easy to forget how quickly the South’s white leadership launched a campaign of ‘massive resistance’ in order to preserve Jim Crow, and that many national leaders, including Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic candidate for president in 1952 and 1956, and President Eisenhower himself, bought into Southern arguments that segregation had existed from time immemorial and would prove impossible to uproot. Woodward presented a counter-history, a usable past for the burgeoning civil rights movement.

Segregation, Woodward insisted, was a recent invention, not a timeless feature of Southern life. It had not existed in the Old South (it would make little sense to try to separate the races under slavery) and was not immediately implemented after the Civil War. In fact, it wasn’t enshrined in law until the 1890s. Before then, indeterminacy defined Southern race relations. Black and white people mingled in railroad cars and sat next to one another in restaurants, theatres and other places of public accommodation. Why could they not do so again? The book’s influence, wrote the Black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier, stemmed from its contemporary significance: ‘The race problem was made and … men can unmake it.’ This optimistic historical lesson persisted even after other historians called into question important parts of Woodward’s account. In revised editions of the book that appeared in 1965 and 1974, he acknowledged that segregation had a longer history than he had allowed. It was already present in the pre-Civil War North and Woodward kept pushing the date of its emergence in the South back in time, admitting that segregation had existed as a social reality well before being codified in law.

Woodward did not rely solely on scholarship to ‘unmake’ the racism so deeply embedded in the academy and society at large. He also worked to eradicate it within the Southern Historical Association (SHA). Cobb’s account of Woodward’s campaign to desegregate the group’s annual meetings would be funny if it didn’t offer a reminder of the daily humiliations Blacks experienced under Jim Crow. State law and local custom forbade venues from allowing Black participants to eat with white attendees or lodge in the same hotel. The 1949 meeting was held at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. Woodward arranged for John Hope Franklin, a Black historian who had just published From Slavery to Freedom, a pioneering survey of African American history, to deliver a paper. But where would Franklin sleep and eat? Woodward facetiously suggested that Franklin bring along a ‘pup tent and K-rations’. What if he needed the bathroom? Franklin could hardly be expected to use the primitive toilet facilities set aside for the college’s waiters, gardeners and other Black employees. In the end, the distinguished historian Carl Bridenbaugh offered to give Franklin a key to his own house for use when he needed to relieve himself. Franklin’s participation went off without incident. The SHA, however, quickly reverted to meeting in places where Blacks could not attend alongside whites. It comes as a shock to read that not until 1962 did the SHA’s executive committee resolve that the organisation would meet only in venues where Black and white participants were treated the same.

Woodward’s​ book on Jim Crow marked the end of his career as a research historian. His subsequent books consisted largely of previously published essays and book reviews. Some of his best-known pieces tackled the fraught question of Southern identity. He pointed to the irony that even as the Cold War intensified claims about American exceptionalism, the South in fact shared key historical experiences – military defeat, widespread poverty, colonial exploitation – with many other countries. The rest of the nation, he suggested, might learn something from historians of the South, not least humility.

In this later phase of his career, Woodward acted as a kind of gatekeeper, using his connections and reputation to promote the advancement, via jobs, fellowships and book reviews, of his former graduate students. Many of them, including Barbara Fields, James McPherson, Louis Harlan and Steven Hahn, would go on to celebrated careers of their own. Most studied the 19th-century South; as a result, the Festschrift they produced for Woodward in 1982 has a coherence such books usually lack. Like many other ‘star’ professors, Woodward was often on leave, seeking, Cobb writes, to minimise ‘time spent in the classroom’. But he devoted time to reading and evaluating manuscripts not only for friends and students but also for historians with whom he had no personal connection. He sometimes bent the rules, writing reviews of books that originated in dissertations he himself had supervised, and suggesting to editors the names of writers, including his students, to review his own works. Cobb’s account reminds us of the small size and homogeneity of the interconnected worlds of publishing, reviewing and teaching before the expansion of colleges and universities in the 1960s and the advent of significant numbers of women and members of minority groups. A few prestigious journals published the same writers over and over again. Cobb counts more than 250 book reviews written by Woodward himself during the course of his career, including fifty in the New York Review of Books and 21 in the New York Times.

All this extracurricular activity helps explain why Woodward never wrote his long-planned and eagerly awaited general history of Reconstruction. Judging from evidence in his papers, he seemed genuinely uncertain how such a book should be organised, whether he should directly engage with what he called ‘the century-old debate’ on the era, and if he should include comparison with other societies that experienced the end of slavery (an approach he pioneered). As Woodward mulled over such questions, the history of Reconstruction was being rewritten, in part by his students. The old image of the period, trotted out whenever the argument was made that Black people shouldn’t have the right to vote, was superseded. While hardly unaware of the era’s failings, younger scholars were broadly sympathetic to the impulse to remake the South after the Civil War. Abolitionists and Radical Republicans, whose professions of concern for the rights of freed people Woodward had long viewed sceptically, were now being lionised as principled crusaders for justice, forerunners of the civil rights movement. Woodward was put off by Northerners who, wielding ‘legends of emancipation’, lectured the South about its failings. In a letter to the historian William J. Carleton in 1945, he wrote that Charles Sumner, among the most principled of the Radical egalitarians, ‘nauseates me’. Woodward believed the post-Civil War Northern commitment to racial equality had been weak and short-lived and that Reconstruction failed as much because of persistent Northern racism as rampant Southern violence.

Beginning in the 1960s, new scholarship was placing the former slaves – their aspirations, activism and understanding of freedom – at the centre of the Reconstruction story. In previous works, Woodward had primarily portrayed Blacks as victims, not active historical agents, and he did not explore deeply the grassroots Black leadership, which would now be a necessary part of any general history of the era. He understood why Reconstruction appealed to a new generation, but cautioned against viewing it as ‘in some ways a sort of Golden Age’. He felt uncomfortable with the directions in which the field was moving. One suspects that he was not interested in engaging in a debate with the authors of the new historiography, many of whom he had taught.

As he approached retirement, Woodward entered what one former student called his ‘Tory period’. He took positions that surprised, even shocked, many of his admirers. While admitting that he was ‘embarrassed’ to say so, he opposed a plan to admit women as fellows to one of Yale’s colleges. ‘Tory’, however, may be an exaggeration. He did nothing to hide his distaste for the administrations of Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon, and – more in keeping with his earlier sentiments – lent his name to public statements protesting against the Vietnam War, and organised a group of historians who prepared a report for the House impeachment committee on abuses of presidential power in US history. Turning down an invitation to contribute to a book of essays celebrating the bicentennial of American independence in 1976, he replied, ‘I am, in fact, beginning to wonder what there is to celebrate.’

Perhaps the most controversial moment in this phase of his career came in the mid-1970s, when Woodward orchestrated a campaign to prevent Herbert Aptheker from teaching a seminar on the life of W.E.B. Du Bois at a Yale college. The university allowed colleges, with the approval of an academic department, to offer classes taught by persons without an academic position but with other kinds of expertise. Aptheker’s Documentary History of the Negro People was an indispensable work used in courses throughout the country. His American Negro Slave Revolts was the only scholarly book on that subject. He had written important journal articles on Black abolitionism and on Reconstruction and was editing a projected collection of Du Bois’s correspondence. He was also a leading member of the American Communist Party. As such he had been blacklisted for decades by the academy. Woodward was an ardent foe of McCarthyism. In 1966, he had taken part in a panel at the Socialist Scholars Conference along with Aptheker and the Marxist historian of slavery Eugene D. Genovese. At that time, when the shadow of McCarthyism still hung over the academic world, for an intellectual of Woodward’s standing to appear alongside Aptheker had been a powerful statement that the latter was part of the guild of historians. It wasn’t unlike when movie studios a few years earlier had given screen credit to Dalton Trumbo for writing the films Exodus and Spartacus, marking the beginning of the end of the Hollywood blacklist. But at Yale the Aptheker affair did not work out that way.

Woodward mobilised opposition to the proposed seminar. Aptheker’s work, he insisted, was not up to Yale’s standards. At his behest, the history department declined to sponsor the course. But the political science department agreed to do so. Woodward brought his case to the faculty committee that approved such classes (normally a formality), which at first rejected the course then subsequently approved it. The dispute dragged on for years; in the end Aptheker did teach his seminar on Du Bois, twice. The students suffered no known adverse consequences. But Woodward’s reputation for open-mindedness received a serious blow, especially among the rising generation of historians.

Aptheker was white, but Woodward’s crusade against the proposed course dovetailed with his growing distaste for the shift in focus of the civil rights struggle from integration to calls for Black Power and its corollary on campus, demands for the establishment of Black studies programmes. He spoke out against multiculturalism, as well as militant students’ insistence that Black professors teach the new courses on Black history. Often, as the Black historian Sterling Stuckey pointed out, Woodward seemed to conflate students’ rhetoric with the scholarship, often outstanding, being produced for these courses. Elected president of the Organisation of American Historians in 1969, Woodward devoted his presidential address to criticism of Black studies. Coming a year after the assassination of Martin Luther King, the title of his lecture, ‘Clio with Soul’, seemed condescending to Black historians. He warned white scholars against aligning with this ‘fashionable cause’ and advised the ‘brother in black’ not to embrace ‘a mystique of skin colour’ or to elevate ‘deservedly neglected figures’ such as African kings and ghetto hustlers to the status of heroes. His insinuation that universities were employing Black academics solely on the basis of their race cost him his long friendship with John Hope Franklin (who had been hired a few years earlier by the University of Chicago).

Woodward died in 1999, hailed inside and outside the academy for his pioneering scholarship and ‘moral leadership’ in a profession that for most of the 20th century sorely needed it. Historical interests, of course, change over time. Woodward’s books, even The Strange Career of Jim Crow, are no longer widely assigned in college classes. This is unfortunate not only because of the enduring quality of his writing, but because they offer an inspiring example of engaged scholarship. At its best, Woodward’s work demonstrated that history enables us to pass judgment on the world around us. He employed his historical imagination to help bring down the towering edifice of Jim Crow. That is an accomplishment of which any historian would be proud.

Category : Intellectuals | Racism | US History | Blog
12
Sep

By Ian Angus

Climate & Capitalism

Sep 07, 2022

In Part Eight of Capital, titled “So-called Primitive Accumulation,” Marx describes the brutal processes that separated working people from the means of subsistence, and concentrated wealth in the hands of landlords and capitalists. It’s one of the most dramatic and readable parts of the book.

It is also a continuing source of confusion and debate. Literally dozens of articles have tried to explain what “primitive accumulation” really meant. Did it occur only in the distant past, or does it continue today? Was “primitive” a mistranslation? Should the name be changed? What exactly was “Marx’s theory of primitive accumulation”?

In this article, written for my coming book on The War Against the Commons, I argue that Marx thought “primitive accumulation” was a misleading and erroneous concept. Understanding what he actually wrote shines light on two essential Marxist concepts: exploitation and expropriation.

This is a draft, not my final word. I look forward to your comments, corrections and suggestions.

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On June 20 and 27, 1865, Karl Marx gave a two-part lecture to members of the International Workingmen’s Association (the First International) in London. In clear and direct English, he drew on insights that would appear in the nearly-finished first volume of Capital, to explain the labor theory of value, surplus value, class struggle, and the importance of trade unions as “centres of resistance against the encroachments of capital.”1 Since an English translation of Capital wasn’t published until after his death, those talks were the only opportunity that English-speaking workers had to learn those ideas directly from their author.

While explaining how workers sell their ability to work, Marx asked rhetorically how it came about that there are two types of people in the market–capitalists who own the means of production, and workers who must sell their labor-power in order to survive.

How does this strange phenomenon arise, that we find on the market a set of buyers, possessed of land, machinery, raw material, and the means of subsistence, all of them, save land in its crude state, the products of labour, and on the other hand, a set of sellers who have nothing to sell except their labouring power, their working arms and brains? That the one set buys continually in order to make a profit and enrich themselves, while the other set continually sells in order to earn their livelihood?

A full answer was outside the scope of his lecture, he said, but “the inquiry into this question would be an inquiry into what the economists call ‘Previous, or Original Accumulation,’ but which ought to be called Original Expropriation.”

“We should find that this so-called Original Accumulation means nothing but a series of historical processes, resulting in a Decomposition of the Original Union existing between the Labouring Man and his Instruments of Labour.… The Separation between the Man of Labour and the Instruments of Labour once established, such a state of things will maintain itself and reproduce itself upon a constantly increasing scale, until a new and fundamental revolution in the mode of production should again overturn it, and restore the original union in a new historical form.”

Marx was always very careful in his use of words. He didn’t replace accumulation with expropriation lightly. The switch is particularly important because this was the only time he discussed the issue in English–it wasn’t filtered through a translation.

In Capital, the subject occupies eight chapters in the part titled Die sogenannte ursprüngliche Akkumulation–later rendered in English translations as “So-called Primitive Accumulation.” Once again, Marx’s careful use of words is important–he added “so-called” to make a point, that the historical processes were not primitive and not accumulation. Much of the confusion about Marx’s meaning reflects failure to understand his ironic intent, here and elsewhere.

In the first paragraph he tells us that ‘ursprüngliche’ Akkumulation is his translation of Adam Smith’s words previous accumulation. He put the word ursprüngliche (previous) in scare quotes, signaling that the word is inappropriate. For some reason the quote marks are omitted in the English translations, so his irony is lost.

In the 1800s, primitive was a synonym for original–for example, the Primitive Methodist Church claimed to follow the original teachings of Methodism. As a result, the French edition of Capital, which Marx edited in the 1870s, translated ursprüngliche as primitive; that carried over to the 1887 English translation, and we have been stuck with primitive accumulation ever since, even though the word’s meaning has changed.

Marx explains why he used so-called and scare quotes by comparing the idea of previous accumulation to the Christian doctrine that we all suffer because Adam and Eve sinned in a distant mythical past. Proponents of previous accumulation tell an equivalent nursery tale:

Long, long ago there were two sorts of people; one, the diligent, intelligent and above all frugal elite; the other, lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living. … Thus it came to pass that the former sort accumulated wealth, and the latter sort finally had nothing to sell except their own skins. And from this original sin dates the poverty of the great majority who, despite all their labour, have up to now nothing to sell but themselves, and the wealth of the few that increases constantly, although they have long ceased to work.

“Such insipid childishness is every day preached to us in defense of property,” but when we consider actual history, “it is a notorious fact that conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder, in short, force, play the greatest part.” The chapters of So-called Primitive Accumulation describe the brutal processes by which “great masses of men [were] suddenly and forcibly torn from their means of subsistence, and hurled onto the labor-market as free, unprotected and rightless proletarians.”

These newly freed men became sellers of themselves only after they had been robbed of all their own means of production, and all the guarantees of existence afforded by the old feudal arrangements. And this history, the history of their expropriation, is written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire.

Marx’s account focuses on expropriation in England, because the dispossession of working people was most complete there, but he also refers to the mass murder of indigenous people in the Americas, the plundering of India, and the trade in African slaves–“these idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation.” That sentence, and others like it, illustrate Marx’s consistently sarcastic take on primitive accumulation. He is not describing primitive accumulation, he is condemning those who use the concept to conceal the brutal reality of expropriation.

Failure to understand that Marx was polemicizing against the concept of “primitive accumulation” has led to another misconception–that Marx thought it occurred only in the distant past, when capitalism was being born. That was what Adam Smith and other pro-capitalist writers meant by previous accumulation, and as we’ve seen, Marx compared that view to the Garden of Eden myth. Marx’s chapters on so-called primitive accumulation emphasized the violent expropriations that laid the basis for early capitalism because he was responding to the claim that capitalism evolved peacefully. But his account also includes the Opium Wars of the 1840s and 1850s, the Highland Clearances in capitalist Scotland, the colonial-created famine that killed a million people in Orissa in India in 1866, and plans for enclosing and privatizing land in Australia. All of these took place during Marx’s lifetime and while he was writing Capital. None of them were part of capitalism’s prehistory.

The expropriations that occurred in capitalism’s first centuries were devastating, but far from complete. In Marx’s view, capital could not rest there–its ultimate goal was “to expropriate all individuals from the means of production.”2 Elsewhere he wrote of big capitalists “dispossessing the smaller capitalists and expropriating the final residue of direct producers who still have something left to expropriate.”3 In other words, expropriation continues well after capitalism matures.

We often use the word accumulation loosely, for gathering up or hoarding, but for Marx it had a specific meaning, the increase of capital by the addition of surplus value,4 a continuous process that results from the exploitation of wage-labor. The examples he describes in “So-called Primitive Accumulation” all refer to robbery, dispossession, and expropriation–discrete appropriations without equivalent exchange. Expropriation, not accumulation.

In the history of capitalism, we see a constant, dialectical interplay between the two forms of class robbery that Peter Linebaugh has dubbed X2–expropriation and exploitation.

Expropriation is prior to exploitation, yet the two are interdependent. Expropriation not only prepares the ground, so to speak, it intensifies exploitation.5

Expropriation is open robbery. It includes forced enclosure, dispossession, slavery and other forms of theft, without equivalent exchange. Exploitation is concealed robbery. Workers appear to receive full payment for their labor in the form of wages, but in fact the employer receives more value than he pays for.

What Adam Smith and others described as a gradual build up of wealth by men who were more industrious and frugal than others was actually violent, forcible expropriation that created the original context for exploitation and has continued to expand it ever since. As John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark write in The Robbery of Nature:

Like any complex, dynamic system, capitalism has both an inner force that propels it and objective conditions outside itself that set its boundaries, the relations to which are forever changing. The inner dynamic of the system is governed by the process of exploitation of labor power, under the guise of equal exchange, while its primary relation to its external environment is one of expropriation.6

In short, Marx did not have a “theory of primitive accumulation.” He devoted eight chapters of Capital to demonstrating that the political economists who promoted such a theory were wrong, that it was a “nursery tale” invented to whitewash capital’s real history.

Marx’s preference for “original expropriation” wasn’t just playing with words. That expression captured his view that “the expropriation from the land of the direct producers–private ownership for some, involving non-ownership of the land for others–is the basis of the capitalist mode of production.”7

The continuing separation of humanity from our direct relationship with the earth was not and is not a peaceful process: it is written in letters of blood and fire.

That’s why he preceded the words “primitive accumulation” by “so-called.”

Notes:
1 Quotations from Marx’s 1865 lectures, “Value, Price and Profit,” are from Marx Engels Collected Works, vol. 20, 103-149. Quotations from “So-Called Primitive Accumulation” are from Marx, Capital vol. 1 (Penguin, 1976) 873-940.
2 Marx, Capital vol. 3, (Penguin, 1981) 571.
3 Ibid, 349.
4 See chapters 24 and 25 of Capital vol. 1.
5 Linebaugh, Stop Thief! (PM Press, 2014), 73.
6 Foster and Clark, The Robbery of Nature (Monthly Review Press, 2020), 36.
7 Marx, Capital vol. 3 (Penguin, 1981) 948. Emphasis added.

About Ian Angus
Ian Angus is a socialist and ecosocialist activist in Canada. He is editor of the ecosocialist journal Climate & Capitalism. He is co-author, with Simon Butler, of Too Many People? Population, Immigration and the Environmental Crisis (Haymarket, 2011), editor of the anthology The Global Fight for Climate Justice (Fernwood, 2010); and author of Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System (Monthly Review Press, 2016). His latest book is A Redder Shade of Green: Intersections of Science and Socialism (Monthly Review Press, 2017).

Category : Capitalism | Globalization | Marxism | Slavery | Terror and Violence | Working Class | Blog
16
Jul

By Steve Dubb and Emily Kawano

Nonprofit Quarterly
July 13, 2022 – What does ownership mean, and how can it be structured to design a more democratic economy? It is common to think of ownership as being about possession: it’s yours, or it’s mine—or perhaps, if we are thinking as a group, it’s ours. But it is much more than that. Ownership is a bundle of rights—social, individual, and collective—which means its boundaries and intersections vary from place to place.1

Today, a growing number of people are questioning how those ownership rights are defined and distributed. These days, in the world of work in the United States, there is talk of a Great Resignation;2 but this can also be thought of in other ways—as a great awakening, a great rebellion, a great recalibration.3 Beyond the workplace, communities are designing entirely new ecosystems of institutions—reclaiming ownership of their identities, cultures, land, and businesses.

Discussion of systems change has also rarely been more present. Yet, when people say “systems change,” more often than not they don’t mean systemic change—not really. Perhaps, to be generous, they mean systemic change writ small, focused on taking a multifaceted (sometimes called “collective impact”) approach to addressing a single problem—such as building a better workforce training and development system4— rather than shifting power and changing rights of ownership in society as a whole.

As Cyndi Suarez, NPQ’s president and editor in chief, observed a few years ago, “[S]ystem thinking has become deracinated, devoid of its true power implications.”5 Nowhere is this point more apt than when it comes to thinking of the overall economy. Simply put, when it comes to the economy, all too often systems change is treated as a bridge too far, best not entertained at all. Alternatively, systems change is only framed within the confines of our current dominant system: we are invited to “reimagine capitalism” rather than to dare imagine beyond it.6

With this article, we want to take that challenge on. We do this not out of curiosity or academic fancy but for some highly practical and pragmatic reasons. Our collective well-being—and perhaps even our collective survival—depends on it.

The Nature of the Challenge

It is common to treat the present global economy as a fact of nature, but it is not. Greed, we are also told, is part of the human condition. Maybe it is, but so too is cooperation. As Ariel Knafo, a psychology professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, explained in Scientific American years ago, “Human nature supports both prosocial and selfish traits,” and the “degree to which we act cooperatively or selfishly is unique to each individual and hinges on a variety of genetic and environmental influences.”7 Our current economic system privileges greed and diminishes cooperation; an economic system that prioritized solidarity would do the opposite. We can design our economy to build on the more cooperative, rather than the more self-serving, parts of our human selves—if we choose.

Can a redesign be done? Well, it has been done before. In fact, our present capitalist system, so often treated as permanent, is, historically speaking, quite new. The origins of the capitalist economy can be traced back to at least the beginning of the imperialist process unleashed by the European so-called “discovery” of the Americas. As economist Jeffrey Sachs explains in “Twentieth-century political economy: a brief history of global capitalism,” modern capitalism only “emerged as a [dominant] social system in western Europe in the first half of the nineteenth century.”8

In short, capitalism became the world’s reigning economic system only two centuries ago, and in many parts of the world its ascendancy is more recent than that. Economic systems have changed before. They can—and almost certainly will—change again.

Capitalism, as an economic system, has unleashed human productive capacity, but it has done so in ways that are highly exploitative and extractive. Capitalism, in short, has done and is doing great harm. It is impossible to discuss capitalism without recognizing its roots in Indigenous genocide and the enslavement of millions of Africans and their forcible relocation—dragged in chains to the “New World.” As Joseph Inikori, a University of Rochester historian, details, “the employment of enslaved Africans in large-scale commodity production in the Americas was central to the rise of the nineteenth-century Atlantic economy.”9

These days, even the benefits of capitalism on its own terms (such as gross domestic product) are showing diminishing returns—one sign of which is a decline in productivity increases.10 Meanwhile, when it comes to economic justice, the costs are disturbingly obvious. In January 2022, Oxfam offered a report that noted, “The 10 richest men in the world own more than the bottom 3.1 billion people.”11 And U.S. data on the racial wealth and wage gaps give few indications—to be polite—of substantive progress. In 2020, David Leonhardt in the New York Times observed that “the wages of Black men trail those of white men by as much as when Harry Truman was president.”12 Meanwhile, the Black-white wealth gap, according to Federal Reserve data, was greater in 2016 than in 1968 (2019 data showed modest improvement).13

Environmental costs are also rapidly rising. The climate crisis, the result of mounting carbon emissions, has already increased global temperatures by an estimated 1.11 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.14 But carbon emissions are by no means the only environmental challenge. As journalist Ashoka Mukpo writes in Mongabay, “The past 50 years have seen a catastrophic decline in the planet’s ecosystems and natural environments. Every day at least 32,300 hectares (80,000 acres) of forest vanish, and the size of wildlife populations has dropped by an average of 60%.”15

A Path Forward: Steps Toward a Solidarity Economy

How can any economy address the vast injustices ours generates today? The word economy is a combination of two Greek words—oikos, meaning household, and nomos, meaning management.16 The global economy, then, requires that we collectively manage our planetary home, including how we generate wealth and allocate resources. This is, of course, an immensely complicated endeavor in a world inhabited by more than 7.9 billion people.17
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Category : Capitalism | Cooperatives | Organizing | Socialism | Solidarity Economy | Blog
20
Mar

By Eugene Puryear

Liberation School

March 19, 2022 

The price…of slavery and civil war was the necessity of quickly assimilating into American democracy a mass of laborers…in whose hands alone for the moment lay the power of preserving the ideals of popular government…and establishing upon it an industry primarily for the profit of the workers. It was this price which in the end America refused to pay and today suffers for that refusal.1–W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America

Introduction

Karl Marx wrote to Lincoln in 1864 that he was sure that the “American anti-slavery war” would initiate a “new era of ascendancy” for the working classes for the “rescue…and reconstruction of a social world”.2 The Black historian Lerone Bennett, writing 100 years later, called Reconstruction, “the most improbable social revolution in American history”.3

Clothed in the rhetoric and incubated within the structure of “American Democracy,” it was nonetheless crushed, drowned in blood, for being far too radical for the actual “American democracy.” While allowing for profit to be made, Reconstruction governments made a claim on the proceeds of commerce for the general welfare. While not shunning wage labor, they demanded fairness in compensation and contracts. Reconstruction demanded the posse and the lynch mob be replaced with juries and the rule of law. This all occurred during a time when the newly minted “great fortunes” brooked no social contract, sought only to degrade labor, and were determined to meet popular discontent with the rope and the gun where the courts or the stuffed ballot box wouldn’t suffice.

The defeat of Reconstruction was the precondition for the ascension of U.S. imperialism. The relevant democratic Reconstruction legislation was seen by elites as “class legislation” and as antithetical to the elites’ needs. The proletarian base of Reconstruction made it into a dangerous potential base for communism, especially as ruling-class fears flared in the wake of the Paris Commune, where the workers of Paris briefly seized power in 1871. The distinguished service of Blacks at all levels of government undermined the gradations of bigotry essential to class construction in the United States.

Reconstruction thus lays bare the relationship between Black freedom and revolution. It helps us situate the particular relationship between national oppression and class struggle that is the key to any real revolutionary strategy for change today.

The new world

Like the Paris Commune, the People’s Republic of China, the Soviet Union, Vietnam and Mozambique, the Reconstruction governments were confronted by the scars of brutal war and long-standing legacies of underdevelopment. They faced tremendous hostility from the local ruling elites and the remnants of their formerly total rule, and were without powerful or terribly well-organized allies outside of the South.

With the status quo shattered, reconstruction could only proceed in a dramatically altered social environment. Plantation rule had been parochial, with power concentrated in the localized despotisms of the forced labor camps, with generalized low taxes, poor schools, and primitive social provisions.

Reconstruction answered:

“Public schools, hospitals, penitentiaries, and asylum for orphans and the insane were established for the first time or received increased funding. South Carolina funded medical care for poor citizens, and Alabama provided free legal counsel for indigent defendants. The law altered relations within the family, widening the grounds for divorce, expanding the property rights for married women, protecting minors from parental abuse… Nashville expanded its medical facilities and provided bread, soup, and firewood to the poor. Petersburg created a thriving school system, regulated hack rates, repaved the streets, and established a Board of Health that provided free medical care in the smallpox epidemic of 1873”.4

And further:

“Throughout Reconstruction, planters complained it was impossible to obtain convictions in cases of theft and that in contract disputes, ‘justice is generally administered solely in the interest of the laborer…’ Equally significant was the regularity with which lawmakers turned down proposals to reinforce labor discipline”.5

South Carolina disallowed garnishing wages to settle debts, Florida regulated the payment of farm hands, and the Mississippi legislature instructed local officials to construe the law “for the protection and encouragement of labor.” All across the South, former slaves assessed the taxable property of their former owners; state after state protected the upcountry farmer from debt, exempting his tools, personal property, and horse and plow from the usurers. In Alabama, personal property tools and livestock were exempt and a Republican newspaper declared that “a man who has nothing should pay no tax”.6

The school-building push resulted in a serious expansion of public education:

“A Northern correspondent in 1873 found adults as well as children crowding Vicksburg schools and reported that “female negro servants make it a condition before accepting a situation, that they should have permission to attend the night-schools.” Whites, too, increasingly took advantage of the new educational opportunities. Texas had 1,500 schools by 1872 with a majority of the state’s children attending classes. In Mississippi, Florida, and South Carolina, enrollment grew steadily until by 1875 it accounted for about half the children of both races”.7

Georgia, which had no public school system at all before the war, had 1,735 schools by 1874. The first public school law in Georgia was passed on the 100-year anniversary, to the day, of Georgia’s slave-era law making it a crime to teach Blacks to read and write.8 In South Carolina, in 1868, 30,000 students attended four hundred schools. By 1876, 123,035 were attending 2,776 schools, one-third of all teachers were Black.9

The source of this social vision was the most solid base of Reconstruction: the Black workers, farmers, and farmhands. Within the Black population there grew a few men of wealth and the pre-war “free” population provided notable and standout leaders. However, at the end of the day, Black was essentially synonymous with “proletarian.”

Black political power made itself felt all over the South in perhaps the most profound cultural turnaround in U.S. history. Blacks—who just a few years previously had, in the words of the Supreme Court, “no rights” that a white man “was bound to respect”—now not only had rights, but exercised power, literally and metaphorically, over their former masters.

The loss of a monopoly on the positions of power vested in either local government or local appointments to state and federal positions was deeply intolerable to elite opinion, alarming them “even more than their loss of statewide control”.11 In 1900, looking back, a North Carolina Congressman, highlighted Black participation in local government as the “worst feature” of Reconstruction, because Blacks “filled the offices which the best men of the state had filled. He was sheriff, deputy sheriff, justice of the peace…constable, county commissioner”.12 One Charlestonian admirer of the old regime expressed horror in a letter: “Surely our humiliation has been great when a Black Postmaster is established here at Headquarters and our Gentlemen’s Sons to work under his bidding”.13

This power was exercised over land sales, foreclosures, tax rates, and all civil and minor criminal cases all across the Black Belt. In Mississippi, former slaves had taken control of the Board of Supervisors across the Black Belt and one-third of the Black population lived under the rule of a Black sheriff.

In Beaufort, South Carolina, a center of the Plantation aristocracy, the mayor, police force, and magistrates were all Black by 1873. Bolivar County Mississippi and St. John the Baptist Parish in Louisiana were under total Black control, and Little Rock’s City Council had an on and off Black majority.14

Vicksburg and New Orleans gave Black officers command of white policemen while Tallahassee and Little Rock had Black police chiefs. Sixty Blacks across the South served as militia officers as well. Integrated juries also appeared across the South; one white lawyer said it was the “severest blow” he had ever felt to have to address Blacks as “gentlemen of the jury”.15

In South Carolina, Blacks had a majority of the House of Representatives and controlled its key committees. There was a Black majority in the Senate, the Lt. Governor and Secretary of State were Black throughout Reconstruction, and Blacks served as Land Commissioner, on the Supreme Court, and as Treasurer and Speaker of the House.16 Scottish journalist Robert Somers said the South Carolina statehouse was “a Proletarian Parliament the like of which could not be produced under the widest suffrage in any part of the world”.17

In Mississippi, throughout Reconstruction about 20% of the State Senate was Black as were 35% of the State House of Representatives.18 Two Black men served as Speaker of the House, including Isaac Shadd, a militant abolitionist who helped plan John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. Mississippi sent two men to the U.S. Senate, the only Blacks to serve during Reconstruction in that body. Sixteen Blacks from the South served in the U.S. Congress.

In Louisiana, a Black man was the governor for a brief period and the treasurer and the secretary of education for a much longer time. Florida’s superintendent of education was also Black, along with the Secretary of State.

One Northern observer touring South Carolina summed up the general upending of the social order noting there was “an air of mastery among the colored people.” They further noted that whites were “wholly reserved and reticent”.19

The source of Black power in the South was not simply the passive presence of large Black populations, but their active political organization and mobilization. This took place in a variety of overlapping venues such as the grassroots Republican “Union Leagues,” churches, and masonic networks. Newspapers often served as points of political education and influence as well.

“By the end of 1867, it seemed, virtually every black voter in the South had enrolled in the Union League or some equivalent local political organization…informal self-defense organizations sprang up around the leagues, and reports of blacks drilling with weapons, sometimes under men with self-appointed ‘military titles.’ The local leagues’ multifaceted activities, however, far transcended electoral politics. Often growing out of the institutions blacks had created in 1865 and 1866, they promoted the building of schools and churches and collected funds ‘to see to the sick.’ League members drafted petitions protesting the exclusion of blacks from local juries”.20

In St. Landry Parish in Louisiana, hundreds of former slaves gathered once a week to hear the newspaper read aloud to get informed on the various political issues of the day. In Georgia, it was said that every American Methodist Episcopal (a predominantly Black denomination) Minister was active in Republican organizing (Hiram Revels, Black Senator from Mississippi was an AME minister). Holland Thompson, a Black power-broker in Montgomery, Alabama, used a political base in the Baptist church as a route to the City Council, where he shepherded into being that city’s first public school system.21

All across the South, it was common during Reconstruction for politics to disrupt labor flows. One August in Richmond, Virginia, all of the city’s tobacco factories were closed because so many people in the majority-Black workforce were attending a Republican state convention.22

Blanche K. Bruce’s political career, which would lead to the U.S. Senate, started when he became actively engaged in local Republican political meetings in Mississippi. Ditto for John Lynch, one of the most powerful Black politicians of the Reconstruction era. The New Orleans Tribune was at the center of a radical political movement within the Republican Party that nearly took the governor’s office with a program of radical land reform in 1868.

Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina all had “labor conventions”—in 1870 and 1871—where farm workers and artisans came together to press for regulating rents and raising minimum wages, among other issues. Union Leagues were often sites of the organization of strikes and other labor activity.

One white Alabamian noted that, “It is the hardest thing in the world to keep a negro away from the polls…that is the one thing he will do, to vote.” A Mississippi plantation manager related that in his part of the state Blacks were “all crazy on politics again…Every tenth negro a candidate for some office.” A report from the 1868 elections in Alabama noted the huge Black turnout: “In defiance of fatigue, hardship, hunger, and threats of employers.” They stood in the midst of a raging storm, most without shoes, for hours to vote.23

Republican politics in the South were viable only due to these Black power bases. The composition of these politics required the rudiments of a popular program and a clear commitment to Black political power, and thus a degree of civil equality and a clear expansion of social equality as well. Reconstruction politics disrupted the ability of the ruling classes to exercise social control over the broad mass of poor laborers and farmers.

Republican politics was a living and fighting refutation of white supremacy, in addition to allowing the working classes access to positions of formal power. However outwardly accommodating to capital, the Reconstruction governments represented an impediment to capital’s unfettered rule in the South and North.

The political economy of Reconstruction

In addition to economic devastation, Reconstruction governments faced the same challenges as any new revolutionary regime in that they were beset on all sides by enemies. First and foremost, the Old Southern aristocratic elite semi-boycotted politics, organized a campaign of vicious terrorism, and used their economic influence in the most malign of ways. Secondly, the ravages of war and political turmoil caused Wall Street, the city of London, and Paris Bourse to turn sour on democracy in the South. On top of that, increasingly influential factions of the Republican Party came to agree that reconstructing the South was shackling the party with a corrupt, radical agenda hostile to prosperity.

The Republican coalition rested on a very thin base. While they had the ironclad support of Black voters, only in South Carolina, Louisiana, and Mississippi did Blacks constitute a majority, and even there, Republicans needed some white support to firmly grasp electoral power.

Most of the white Republican leaders were Northerners, with an overrepresentation of Union army veterans seeking economic opportunity after the war. Most entered politics to aid their own economic interests. These would-be capitalists, lacking the economic resources and social connections, sought a political tie and the patronage that came with it, which could become the basis for fortunes. This created a pull towards moderation on a number of economic and social issues that seeded the ground for Reconstruction’s ultimate defeat.

The Reconstruction governments had one major problem: revenue. Republican leader John Lynch stated as much about the finances of the state of Mississippi: “money was required. There was none in the treasury. There was no cash available even to pay the ordinary expenses of the State government”.24 Reconstruction governments sought to address this issue with taxes, bonds, and capitalist boosterism.

Early Reconstruction governments all operated under the belief that, with the right accommodation, they could revive and expand commerce. In particular, the railroad could open the upcountry to the market and encourage the expansion of various forms of manufacture and mineral extraction. A rising tide would lift all boats, and private capital would provide the investment and employment necessary for the South to prosper. And as such, they showered favors on the railroads in particular:

“Every Southern state extended munificent aid to railroad corporations… either in… direct payments… or in the form of general laws authorizing the states endorsement of railroads bonds… County and local governments subscribed directly to railroad stock… from Mobile, which spent $1 million, to tiny Spartanburg, South Carolina, which appropriated $50,000. Republican legislators also chartered scores of banks and manufacturing companies”.25

In 1871, Mississippi gave away 2 million acres of land to one railway company.26 The year before, Florida chartered the Great Southern Railway Co., using $10 million in public money to get it off the ground.27 State incorporation laws appeared in Southern legal codes for the first time, and governments freely used eminent domain. Their behavior, in the words of one historian, “recapitulated the way Northern law had earlier been transformed to facilitate capitalist development”28.

Many states also passed a range of laws designed to exempt various business enterprises from taxation to further encourage investment. That investment never showed up, to the degree required at least. Diarist George Templeton Strong noted that the South was “the last place” a “Northern or European capitalist would invest a dollar” due to “social discord”.29

As investments went, the South seemed less sure than other American opportunities. There were lucrative investment opportunities in the North and West as the Civil War had sparked a massive industrial boom, creating the careers of robber barons like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller.

The South was scarred by war, generally underdeveloped, and politically unstable from the fierce resistance of white supremacy to the rise of Black power. Major financiers were willing to fund cotton production—which was more of a sure thing—and a handful of new industries, but generally felt the South wasn’t much worth the risk. Southern state bonds thus traded at lower values than Northern or Western states, and given the South’s dire economic straits, their supply far outstripped demand for them on the market.

This meant that these investments attracted those “trained in shady finance in Wall St.” whose “business was cheating and manipulation,” and who were “in some cases already discredited in the centers of finance and driven out…of the North and West”.30

The old ruling classes grafted themselves onto the new enterprises, using their history and connections to become the board members and agents of many of the companies. Among other things, this meant the new enterprises were controlled by Democrats, who, while happy to exploit the Reconstruction governments, were doing all they could to undermine them and restore themselves to political power.

The old plantation owners were joined in the new ruling class matrix by the merchants and bankers who arose alongside the expansion of the railroad and of the commercial farming economy outside of the Black Belt.

This new “Bourbon” aristocracy quickly emerged as the main interlocutor with whatever outside investment there was. Economic uncertainty only increased after the Panic of 1873 sent the country into a depression. This made the South an even less attractive investment to outsiders and increased the power and leverage of the Democratic elite, who desired a quick return to total white supremacy and Black subordination.

Republican governments, then, had a choice: they could either turn towards this business class and try to strike an understanding around a vision of the “Gospel of Prosperity,” with some limited Black suffrage, and thus, expanded social rights for the laboring class, or they could base themselves more thoroughly on those same laboring classes, particularly in the Black Belt.

The political power of the elite still rested primarily on their monopoly of landownership and thus effective control over the most profitable industries. Land reform, breaking up the big plantations, and granting the freedman access to tracts of land would fatally undermine that control. It was a shift that would have curtailed the ability of planters to exercise economic coercion over their former slaves in the political realm and would have inserted the freedman more directly into the global economy, thereby marginalizing former planters’ roles as intermediaries with the banks, merchants, and traders. Among other things, this would strengthen Republican rule, crippling the economic and social power most behind their opposition.

Land, was, of course, the key demand of those emerging from slavery. Aaron Bradley, an important Black leader in Savannah, Georgia became known for holding “massive…public meetings” that were described by one scholar as “frequent gatherings of armed rural laborers,” where the issue of land ownership was front and center.31 “Deafening cheers” were heard at a mass meeting in Edgefield County, South Carolina, when a Republican orator laid out a vision where every attendee would acquire a parcel of land.32 In the words of Du Bois, “this land hunger…was continually pushed by all emancipated Negroes and their representatives in every southern state”.33

Despite that, only in South Carolina was land reform taken up in any substantial way. There, under the able leadership of Secretary of State Francis Cardozo, 14,000 Black families, or one-seventh of the Black population, were able to acquire land in just the four years between 1872 and 1876.34

Elsewhere, states eschewed direct financial aid to the freedman in acquiring land and mostly turned to taxation as an indirect method of finance. Cash-strapped planters, unable to make tax payments, would be forced to forfeit their land that would be sold at tax sales where they could be bought by Blacks. Of course, without state aid, most freed people had little access to the necessary capital. In Mississippi, one-fifth of the land in the state was forfeited through tax sales, but ultimately, 95% of that land would end up back with its previous owners.35

Through hard struggle, individuals and small groups of Blacks did make limited footholds into land ownership. In Virginia, Blacks acquired 81-100 thousand acres of land in the 1860s and 70s. In Arkansas in 1875 there were 2,000 Black landowners. By that same year, Blacks in Georgia had obtained 396,658 plots of land worth the equivalent of over $30 million today.36 Ultimately, however, most Blacks were consigned to roles as tenant farmers, farm laborers, or town and city workers. This placed the main base of the Reconstruction governments in a precarious position in which they were susceptible to economic coercion on top of extra-legal terrorism by their political enemies.

The chief advocates of the showering of state aid and the eschewing of land reform was the “moderate” faction of Republicans who tended to gain the upper-hand in the higher and more powerful offices. The fruits of these policies, however, sparked significant struggle over the direction of the Republican cause.

In Louisiana, in the lead-up to the 1868 elections, the Pure Radicals, a grouping centered on the New Orleans Tribune— the first Black daily newspaper—nearly seized the nomination for the governor’s chair on a platform laden with radical content. Their program was for an agriculture composed of large cooperatives; “the planters are no longer needed,” said the Tribune. The paper also editorialized that “we cannot expect complete and perfect freedom for the working men, as long as they remain the tools of capital and are deprived of the legitimate product of the sweat of their brow”.37

As mentioned, several states had “labor conventions.” The South Carolina convention passed resolutions endorsing a nine-hour day and proportional representation for workers on juries, among other things. The Alabama and Georgia conventions established labor unions, which embraced union league organizers across both states, and engaged in a sporadic series of agricultural labor strikes. Ultimately, most of these resolutions would never pass the state legislature.

Nonetheless, they certainly give a sense of the radicalism in the Republican base. This is further indicated by Aaron Logan, a member of the South Carolina House, and a former slave, who in 1871 introduced a bill that would regulate profits and allow workers to vote on what wages their bosses would pay them. The bill was too controversial to even make it to a vote. But, again, it’s deeply indicative of the mood among Black voters since Logan represented the commercial center of Charleston. Logan, it should also be noted, came on the scene politically when he led a mass demonstration of 1,000 Black workers, demanding the right to take time off from work to vote, without a deduction in wages, and he ended up briefly imprisoned at this action after arguing for Black gun ownership. 38

On the one hand, this resulted in even the more moderate factions of the Republican coalition broadly to support Black officeholding. Additionally, the unlimited largess being showered on corporations was curtailed by 1871.

On the other hand, the Reconstruction governments were now something of a halfway house, with their leaders more politically conservative and conciliationist than their base. They pledged to expand state services and to protect many profitable industries from taxes. They were vigilant in protecting the farmer’s axe and sow while letting the usurer establish debt claims on his whole crop. They catered to—but didn’t really represent—the basic, and antagonistic, interests in Southern society. And it was on this basis that the propertied classes would launch their counter-offensive.

Counter-revolution and property

The Civil War had introduced powerful new forces into the land:

After the war, industry in the North found itself with a vast organization for production, new supplies of raw material, a growing transportation system on land and water, and a new technical knowledge of processes. All this…tremendously stimulated the production of good and available services…an almost unprecedented scramble for this new power, new wealth, and new income ensued…It threatened the orderly processes of production as well as government and morals…governments…paid…the cost of the railroads and handed them over to…corporations for their own profit. An empire of rich land…had been…given to investors and land speculators. All of the…coal, oil, copper, gold and iron had been given away…made the monopolized basis of private fortunes with perpetual power to tax labor for the right to live and work.39

One major result was the creation of vast political machines that ran into the thousands of employees through patronage posts that had grown in size as the range of government responsibilities and regulations grew along with the economy. It created a large grey area between corruption and extortion. The buying of services, contracts, and so on was routine, as was the exploitation of government offices to compel the wealthy to come forth with bribes.

This started to create something of a backlash among the more well-to-do in the Republican coalition. Many of the significantly larger new “middle classes” operating in the “professions” began to feel that the government was ignoring the new “financial sciences” that prescribed free trade, the gold standard, and limited government. They argued that the country was being poorly run because of the political baronies created through patronage, which caused politicians to cater to the whims of the propertyless. These “liberals,” as they became known in Republican circles, increasingly favored legislation that would limit the franchise to those of “property and education” and that would limit the role of government in the affairs of businesses or the rights of workers.

This, of course, was in line with the influence of the rising manufacturing capitalists in the Republican Party, and became a point of convergence between “moderate” Republicans and Democrats. That the Democratic Party was part of this convergence was ironic as it postured as the party of white workers, although in reality they were just as controlled by the wealthy interests, particularly on Wall Street, as their opponents.

Reconstruction in general, and in South Carolina in particular, became central to the propaganda of all three elements. The base of Reconstruction was clearly the Black poor and laboring masses of the South, who voted overwhelmingly for Grant and whose governments were caricatured as hopelessly corrupt. On top of all that, they were willing to raise taxes on the wealthy to pay for public goods for everyone else.

It made the Reconstruction governments the perfect scapegoats for those looking to restrict the ballot of the popular classes in the service of the rights of property. Taxes, corruption, and racism were intertwined in a powerful campaign by the wealthy—in the clothing of the Democratic Party—to dislodge Republican rule.

Increases in taxation were as practical as they were ideological. The Reconstruction states had only debts and no cash. In order to attract more investment, early Republican governments didn’t dare repudiate the debt racked up by the rebels. The failure to ignite an economic boom and the lackluster demand for Southern bonds left increasing taxes as the only realistic means to increase revenue to cover an expanded role for public services.

The antebellum tax system had been very easy on the planters. Republicans relied on general property taxes that were increased more or less across the board. In particular, the wealthiest found their wealth—in land, stocks, and bonds—taxed, often for the first time. Their wealth was certainly taxed for the first time at their real value, since planters lost the power to assess their own property.

The planters, the bankers, and the merchants, or the “men of wealth, virtue and intelligence” in their own minds, organized a vicious propaganda war against higher taxes. They went so far as to organize conventions in the mid-1870s to plead their weak case. South Carolina’s convention, which included 11 Confederate Generals, put the blame for the tax “burden” squarely on the fact that “nine-tenths of the members of the legislature own no property”.40

Their critique wasn’t just over tax rates, but what they were being spent on. They depicted the Reconstruction governments as corrupt and spendthrift. These were governments run foolishly by inferior races, which were, in their world, dangerous because they legislated for the common man.

They also linked Reconstruction to communism. In the wake of the war, working-class organization intensified. Only three national unions existed at the end of the war, while five years later there were 21. Strikes became a regular feature of life.41 Their regularity was such that the influential magazine Scribner’s Monthly lamented that labor had come under the sway of the “senseless cry against the despotism of capital”.42 In New Orleans, the white elite feared Louisiana’s Constitutional Convention in 1867 was likely to be dominated by a policy of “pure agrarianism,” that is, attacks on property.43

The unease of the leading classes with the radical agitation among the newly organized laborers and the radical wing of the Reconstruction coalitions was only heightened by the Paris Commune in 1871. For a brief moment, the working people of Paris grasped the future and established their own rule, displacing the propertied classes. It was an act that scandalized ruling classes around the world and, in the U.S., raised fears of the downtrodden seizing power.

The Great Chicago Fire was held out to be a plot by workers to burn down cities. The Philadelphia Inquirer warned its readers to fear the communist First International, which was planning a war on America’s landed aristocracy. Horace White, editor of the Chicago Tribune, who’d traveled with Lincoln during his infamous debates with Douglas, denounced labor organizations as waging a “communistic war upon vested rights and property.” The Nation explicitly linked the northern labor radicals with the Southern freedman representing a dangerous new “proletariat”.44

August Belmont, Chairman of the Democratic National Convention, and agent for the Rothschild banking empire, remarked in a letter that Republicans were making political hay out of Democratic appeals to workers, accusing them of harboring “revolutionary intentions”.45

The liberal Republicans opened up a particular front against the Reconstruction governments, with a massively disorienting effect on Republican politics nationwide. Among the ranks of the liberals were many who had been made famous by their anti-slavery zeal, including Horace Greeley and his southern correspondent, former radical Republican James Pike. The duo turned the New York Tribune from a center of radicalism into a sewer of elitist racism. They derided Blacks as lazy, ignorant, and corrupt, describing South Carolina as being victimized by “disaffected workers, who believed in class conflict”.46 Reporting on the South Carolina taxpayer convention, Greeley told his audience that the planters were menaced by taxes “by the ignorant class, which only yesterday hoed the fields and served in the kitchen”.47

Greeley also served as a cipher for Confederate Secretary of State Robert Toombs, who observed that “reading and writing did not fit a man for voting. The Paris mob were intelligent, but they were the most dangerous class in the world.” He stated further that the real possibility of poor whites and Blacks uniting was his real fear in that they would “attack the interests of the landed proprietors”.48

The liberal Republicans were unable to capture the zeitgeist in the 1872 election. Former Union General and incumbent President Ulysses S. Grant and his campaign managers positioned their campaign as the true campaign of the working man. Nominating Henry Wilson, “The Shoemaker of Natick,” former indentured servant, and “friend of labor and the Negro,” as Vice-President. They famously waved the “bloody shirt,” reminding Northern workers and farmers what they had fought for and linking their opponents to a return of the Slave Power.

However, their challenge scrambled Republican politics and Grant quickly sought to conciliate his opponents by backing away from enforcing the rights of the freedman with force and doling out patronage and pardons to all manner of rebels, traitors, and terrorists. In 1874, Democrats swept the midterm elections, further entrenching the consolidation of the political power of capital. So emboldened, the 1875 elections devolved into an orgy of violence and fraud. Black Republican leader John Lynch noted that “Nearly all Democratic clubs in the State were converted into armed military companies”.49

In Yazoo County, Mississippi, a Republican meeting was broken up by armed whites who killed a state legislator. In Clinton, Mississippi, 30 Black people were murdered when bands of white vigilantes roamed the countryside.50 As one historian details:

“What we have to deal with here is not a local or episodic movement but a South-wide revolution against duly constitute state governments…the old planters as well as the rising class of bankers, merchants, and lawyers…decided to use any and every means…they drew up coordinated plans and designated targets and objectives. Funds for guns and cannons were solicited from leading planters”.51

That same historian estimates that “thousands” were killed in this brutal campaign.52

John Lynch, the Black Republican leader from Mississippi, related that, when he asked President Grant in the winter of 1875 why he had not sent more assistance to loyal Republicans besieged by terrorists in Mississippi, Grant replied that to have done so would have guaranteed a Republican loss in Ohio. This is as clear a sign as any of the shifting sands of Republican politics.

Black Power in the South had become an obstacle to the elites in both parties. It was the only area of the country where the “free ballot” was bound to lead workers holding some of the levers of power. Black suffrage meant a bloc in Congress in favor of placing social obligations on capital, a curtailment of white supremacy, and bitter opposition to property qualifications in voting. The very fact that opposition to Reconstruction was cast in “class” terms, against the political program of the freedman as much as the freedman themselves, speaks to these fears.

A solid (or even not so solid) Republican South was an ally to political forces aggrieved by the “despotism of capital” around the country. A solid white supremacist South was (and is) a bastion for the most reactionary policies and allies of policies of untrammeled profit making, which is, as we have shown, the direction in which the ruling classes were traveling. Thus, Reconstruction had to die.

The final charge

It was not until after…that white labor in the South began to realize that they had lost a great opportunity, that when they united to disenfranchise the Black laborer they had cut the voting power of the laboring class in two. White labor in the populist movement…tried to realign economic warfare in the South and bring workers of all colors into united opposition to the employer. But they found that the power which they had put in the hands of the employers in 1876 so dominated political life that free and honest expression of public will at the ballot-box was impossible in the South, even for white men. They realized it was not simply the Negro who had been disenfranchised…it was the white laborer as well. The South had since become one of the greatest centers for labor exploitation in the world.53 -W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America

While Reconstruction was destroyed in the service of the ruling classes, its defeat could not have taken place without the acquiescence and assistance of the popular classes among the white population as well. In the South, in particular, the role of the “upcountry small farmer” was essential.

During the war, these yeomen farmers had coined the phrase “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight.” At first, there was some fear, and some electoral evidence, that poor whites and the newly freed slaves might make an alliance of sorts. Instead, the rift between them widened. The hierarchy constructed of white supremacy relied on inculcating racial superiority in many ways, one of them being the idea of “independence” that made white small farmers “superior” to slaves. They were poor, but at least they were masters of their own patch of land.

The coming of the railroad changed all of this drastically. The railroad opened up the upcountry to the world economy. While it initially seemed like an opportunity, it was, in fact, a curse. Many small farmers dove into cotton production, the one thing financiers were eager to fund. They quickly found, however, that the cost of transporting and marketing their goods, in addition to the costs of inputs from merchants, made success very difficult, and made it almost certain they would have to resort to credit. The rates of usury were, however, allowed to go high enough that a majority of these small farmers became trapped in webs of debt.

The only way to keep going was to offer one’s crop as security for loans, ahead of time—the so-called “crop-lien.” From masters of their own realm, these farmers had now become slaves to debt, losing all real control of their destiny and farming to avoid eviction rather than to make any money.

This reality increased resentment at Reconstruction governments, and, given their dire financial situation, created another base of support for those trying to make an issue out of higher taxes. This ultimately helped solidify white opposition to Republican rule behind the planters and their Democratic Party.

As the 1870s turned into the 1880s, this consensus started to crack. The depression unleashed in the Panic of 1873 led to a breakdown of the two-party system as the two parties consolidated their views on how to move the country forward at the expense of workers and farmers. A variety of movements started to emerge, particularly strong in the West, opposing various aspects of the new consensus.

In the 1880s, the movement started to strengthen itself through a series of “Farmers Alliances” that spread like wildfire across the country. The alliances not only advocated and agitated for things like railroad regulation and more equitable farming arrangements, but also organized their own cooperatives and attempts to break free of the unjust state of affairs to which they were subject. The alliances were also major sites of political education where newspapers and meetings helped define and disseminate the economic realities of capitalism and exactly why these farmers were facing so much exploitation.

A Black alliance, the Colored Farmers Alliance, also grew rapidly, ultimately embracing millions of Black farmers. Black farmers, likewise, were getting the short-end of the stick in terms of the results of Reconstruction-era land policies. Despite being shut out of land ownership, Black farmers were highly resistant to returning to the plantations as farm laborers. This led to a rise in tenancy where Black farmers rented the land and took on the production of the crops for a share of the crop that they could sell, or what is called “sharecropping.”

Similar to white farmers in the upcountry, however, this system turned viciously against them. The costs of credit to carry out various farming activities or to cover the cost of goods in the offseason meant that they too, quickly and easily became ensnared by debt. This started to create intriguing political opportunities in the South. Disaffected white farmers started to become interested in the third-party movements representing popular discontent, particularly the Greenback-Labor Party.

The Greenbackers embraced much of the agrarian reform ideas favored by farmers, and added in support for an income tax, the free ballot, and the eight-hour day for workers. In Mississippi, Texas, and Alabama, the Greenback movement found some shallow roots with white farmers who, recognizing the political situation, understood their only possible ally could be Blacks.

Black politics, while in retreat, had not disappeared. The Colored Farmers Alliance was rooted in the same networks of religion, fraternal organization, and grassroots Republican political mobilization that had formed during Reconstruction. It was thus more politically inclined than the Southern Farmers Alliance of whites, which remained tied to the Democratic Party and its white supremacist policies.

Nonetheless, a growing number of Blacks seeking political opportunity sought to embrace the Greenback movement through a process known as “fusion.” This meant Republicans running joint candidates or slates with third parties in order to maximize their voting power and take down the Democrats. This led to somewhat of a “second act” of Reconstruction. The Colored Farmers Alliance played a key role in the early 1890s in pushing the alliances to launch the Populist Party, turning the incipient potential of the Greenback Party into a serious political insurgency, but one which couldn’t be truly national without a Southern component. Populism united the agrarian unrest of the West and South against the “money power” of the Wall Street banks.

Populists championed public ownership of the largest corporations of the time—the railroads—as well as the communications apparatus of the country. In addition, they advocated an agricultural plan known as the “sub-treasury system” to replace the big banks in providing credit to the farmers as well as empowering cooperatives rather than private corporations to store and market goods. All of these were ingredients to break small farmers out of a cycle of debt.

They also advocated for a shorter working day and a graduated income tax and sought to link together the demands of urban workers and those living in rural areas, saying in their preamble: “Wealth belongs to him who creates it, and every dollar taken from industry without an equivalent is robbery. ”If any will not work, neither shall he eat.” The interests of rural and civil labor are the same; their enemies are identical”.54 This turned the People’s Party into a real challenge to the ruling class on a national scale, one particularly potent in Georgia, North Carolina, and Alabama on the Southern front:

“The People’s (Populist) Party presidential candidate James B. Weaver received over one million votes in 1892 (approximately nine percent of the vote), winning 22 electoral votes (albeit, mostly in the West); in North Carolina, a Populist-Republican alliance took over the state legislature in 1894; Populists and their allies sat in Congress, governor’s offices, and held dozens of local offices over the next two years; and scores of Black and white People’s Party chapters had been established across the region”.55

This success would evoke a wave of terrorist violence against Populists and the Black community writ large that rivaled Reconstruction times and that, in terms of outright election fraud, exceeded it, which can be viewed clearly through the example of North Carolina, and Wilmington, in particular.

The 1892 election, the first time out for the Populists, opened up a new lane of cooperation. White Populists openly appealed for Black votes. “In addition to voting the ticket, blacks sometimes…took roles in county organizations and in mobilizing black voters. Some counties [even] placed blacks on ballots, and blacks were present at Populist rallies and in local Populist nominating conventions”56. In Raleigh, Blacks campaigned on horseback and on mule with the Presidential candidate James Weaver as well.57 The results reflected the campaign: “African Americans voted “en masse” for the People’s Party in 1892 in the first and second districts of the eastern part of the state, where the majority of black counties were. Black voters in both Hyde and Wilson counties, for instance, gave near unanimous support to the third party ticket”.58

Over the next two years Populists, Black and white, worked with Republicans, Black and white, to hammer out a fusion agreement for the 1894 state elections. This was despite fairly significant differences, such as the rise of Black populism, for instance, which heralded a rise in class differences within the Black community. Nonetheless, they found common ground and swept the elections:

“Among other changes, the elected Republican-Populist majority revised and simplified election laws, making it easier for African Americans to vote; they restored the popular election of state and county officials, dismantling the appointive system used by Democrats to keep black candidates out of office; and the fusion coalition also reversed discriminatory “stock laws” (that required fencing off land) that made it harder for small farmers to compete against large landowners. The reform of election and county government laws, in particular, undermined planter authority and limited their control of the predominantly black eastern counties”.59

The Fusion coalition also championed issues like “public funding for education, legislation banning the convict-lease system, the criminalization of lynching”.60 The Fusion government also restricted interest rates to address the massive debts being incurred by farmers and sharecroppers. Most notably, the Fusion governments stood up to the powerful railroad interests and their Northern backers like JP Morgan.

The port city of Wilmington was an important Republican stronghold and had to be neutralized for Democrats to break through the Fusion hold on the state. In 1897, Democrats started a vicious campaign of white supremacy, forming clubs and militias that would become known as “Red Shirts,” along with a media offensive.

As the Charlotte Observer would later state, it was the “bank men, the mill men, and businessmen in general,” who were behind this campaign.61 One major theme of the campaign was a particular focus on Black men supposedly “preying” on white women and girls. Physical violence and armed intimidation were used to discourage Blacks or Republicans and Populists of any color from voting.

As the election drew closer, Democrats made tens of thousands of copies of an editorial by Alex Manley, the Black editor of the Daily Record newspaper. Manley, an important civic leader in Wilmington had written the editorial in response to calls for increased lynchings against Blacks to stop interracial relationships. Manley argued that white women who sought out relations with Black men often used rape allegations to cover their tracks or end a dalliance.

While undoubtedly true, it raised the ire of white supremacists to the highest of pitches. On election day, most Blacks and Republicans chose not to vote as Red Shirt mobs were roaming the streets and had established checkpoints all over the city. Unsurprisingly, the Democrats won.

Unwilling to wait until their term of office began, some of the newly elected white officials and businesspeople decided to mount a coup and force out Black lawmakers right then and there. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of whites, marauded through the streets, attacking Black businesses and property and killing more than 300 Black people in the process. They forced the Republican mayor, along with all city commissioners, to resign at gunpoint. They banished them from the city, leading them in front of a mob that assaulted them before putting them on a train out of town. At least 2,000 Black residents fled, leaving most of what they owned behind.

The Wilmington massacre destroyed the Fusion coalition. All over the state, fraud and violence had been used against the Fusionists to no avail, but, as evidenced by the example of Wilmington, there was little chance of rebuilding ties of solidarity.

The same can be said for the populist period more generally. While Populists certainly have a mixed record, at best, when it came to racism in the general sense, it’s undeniable that the Populist upsurge opened up new political space for Blacks that had been shut-off by the two major parties. Further, it did so in a manner that was ideological much more commensurate with the unrealized desires of Republican rule.

So, in North Carolina and all across the South, Populists were crushed in an orgy of violence and fraud. Racism was a powerful motivating factor in Southern politics across this entire period. This racism, however, did not stop large numbers of whites from entering into a political alliance with Blacks. The anti-Populist violence has to be seen in this context as a counterweight against the pull of self-interest in the economic field.

Toward a third Reconstruction

Reconstruction looms large in our current landscape because so much of its promise remains unrealized. The Second Reconstruction, better known as “the sixties,” took the country some of the way there, particularly concerning civil equality. It reaffirmed an agenda of placing social claims on capital. It also, however, revealed the limits of the capitalist system, showing how easily the most basic reforms can be rolled back. This was a lesson also taught by the first Reconstruction.

The history of Reconstruction also helps us to understand the centrality of Black Liberation to social revolution. The dispossession of Blacks from social and civic life was not just ideologically but politically foundational to capitalism in the U.S. The Solid South, dependent on racism, has played and continues to play a crucial role as a conservative influence bloc in favor of capital.

Reconstruction also gives us insight into the related issue of why Black political mobilization, even in fairly mundane forms, is met with such hostility. The very nature of Black oppression has created what is essentially a proletarian nation which denounces racism not in the abstract, but in relationship to its actual effects. Unsurprisingly, then, Black Liberation politics has always brought forward a broad social vision to correct policies, not attitudes, which is precisely the danger since these policies are not incidental, but intrinsic, to capitalism.

In sum, Reconstruction points us towards an understanding that “freedom” and “liberation” are bound up with addressing the limitations that profit over people puts on any definition of those concepts. It helps us understand the central role of “white solidarity” in promoting capitalist class power. Neither racism nor capitalism can be overcome without a revolutionary struggle that presents a socialist framework.

References:
1 Du Bois, W.E.B. (1935/1999). Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880 (New York: Simon & Schuster), 325.
2 Marx, Karl. (1865). “Address of the International Working Men’s Association to Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States of America,” Marxists.org, January 28. Available here.
3 Bennett, Jr Lerone. (1969). Black Power U.S.A.: The human side of Reconstruction 1867-1877 (New York: Pelican), 148.
4 Foner, Eric. (1988/2011). Reconstruction: America’s unfinished revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: Perennial), 364-365.
5 Ibid., 363, 372.
6 Ibid., 372-375.
7 Foner, Reconstruction, 366.
? Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 651.
8 Bennett, Black Power U.S.A., 179.
9 Magnunsson, Martin. (2007). “No rights which the white man is bound to respect”: The Dred Scott decision. American Constitution Society Blogs, March 19. Available here.
10 Foner, Reconstruction, 355.
11 Rabinowitz, Howard N. (Ed.) (1982). Southern Black leaders of the Reconstruction era (Urbana: University of Illinois Press), 106-107.
12 Bennett, Black Power U.S.A., 150.
13 Foner, Reconstruction, 356-357.
14 Ibid., 362-363.
15 Facing History and Ourselves. (2022). “The Reconstruction era and the fragility of democracy.” Available here.
16 Bennett, Black Power U.S.A., 183-184.
17 Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 441.
18 Bennett, Black Power U.S.A., 160.
19 Foner, Reconstruction, 283-285.
20 Ibid., 282-283.
21 Ibid., 282.
22 Ibid., 291.
23 Lynch, John R. (1919). The facts of Reconstruction (New York: The Neale Publishing Company), ch. 4. Available here.
24 Foner, Reconstruction, 380.
25 Ibid., 382.
26 Rabinowitz, Southern Black leaders of the Reconstruction Era, 73.
27 Foner, Reconstruction, 381.
28 Ibid., 391.
29 Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 407-408.
30 Rabinowitz, Southern Black leaders of the Reconstruction era, 291-294.
31 Foner, Reconstruction, 374.
32 Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 601.
33 Foner, Reconstruction, 375.
34 Ibid., 376.
35 Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 603.
36 Bennett, Black Power U.S.A., 247.
37 Foner, Reconstruction, 377-378.
38 Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 581.
39 Foner, Reconstruction, 415-416.
40 Ibid., 478.
41 Cox Richardson, Heather. (2001). The death of Reconstruction: Race, labor, and politics in the post-Civil War North, 1865-1901 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press), 85.
42 Foner, Reconstruction, 328.
43 Cox Richardson, The death of Reconstruction, 86-88; Foner, Reconstruction, 518-519.
44 Cox Richardson, The death of Reconstruction, 88.
45 Ibid., 94.
46 Ibid., 96.
47 Ibid., 97.
48 Lynch, The facts of Reconstruction, ch. 8. Available here.
49 Foner, Reconstruction, 558-560.
50 Bennett, Black Power U.S.A., 330-331.
51 Ibid.
52 Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 353.
53 Populist Party Platform. (1892). Available here.
54 Ali, Omar. (2005). “Independent Black voices from the late 19th century: Black Populists and the struggle against the southern Democracy,” Souls 7, no. 2: 4-18.
55 Ali, Omar. (2010). In the lion’s mouth: Black Populism in the new South, 1886-1900 (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi), 136.
56 Ibid.
57 Ibid.
58 Ibid., 140.
59 Ibid., 141.
60 The Charlotte Observer. (1898). “Editorial,” November 17.

Category : Democracy | Elections | Marxism | Racism | Slavery | US History | Blog
27
Feb

Click HERE for a closeup view of the graphic.

By Carl Davidson

Feb. 27, 2022

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt; if you know Heaven and know Earth, you may make your victory complete.”

 –Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Successful strategic thinking starts with gaining knowledge, in particular gaining adequate knowledge of the big picture, of all the political and economic forces involved (Sun Tzu’s Earth) and what they are thinking, about themselves and others, at any given time. (Sun Tzu’s Heaven). It’s not a one-shot deal. Since both Heaven and Earth are always changing, strategic thinking must always be kept up to date, reassessed and revised.

This statement above was part of the opening to a widely circulated article I wrote four times now, about two, four, six, and eight years ago. With the upcoming November 2022 elections, it’s time to take my own advice again and do another update. The electoral strategic terrain is constantly changing, and we don’t want to be stuck with old maps and faulty models.

In the earlier versions, I suggested setting aside the traditional ‘two-party system’ frame, which obscures far more than it reveals, and making use of a ‘six-party’ model instead. I suggested that the new hypothesis had far more explanatory power regarding the events unfolding before us. I still like this hypothesis.

Some critics have objected to my use of the term ‘party’ for factional or interest group clusters. The point is taken, but I would also argue that U.S. major parties, in general, are not ideological parties in the European sense. Instead, they are constantly changing coalitions of these clusters with no firm commitment to program or discipline. So I will continue to use ‘parties,’ but with the objection noted. You can substitute ‘factions’ if you like. Or find us a better term.

For the most part, the strategic picture still holds. The ‘six parties’, under two tents, were first labeled as the Tea Party and the Multinationalists under the GOP tent, and the Blue Dogs, the Third Way New Democrats, the Old New Dealers, and the Congressional Progressive Caucus, under the Democratic tent. We had three ‘parties’ under each tent in the second and following versions.

There are still a few minor players outside of either tent—the Green Party campaigns in California, Kshama Sawant’s ongoing battles in the Seattle City Council, the local independent candidates of the Richmond Alliance, and a few more. They might be pretty important in local areas, but still lack the weight to be featured in this analysis.

But let’s move to the central terrain.

First and most essential for us on the left now is Biden’s victory over Trump alongside the persistent clout of Senator Bernie Sanders, who keeps showing far more strength than imagined. Today we would also certainly add the gains made by Alexandra Ocasio Cortez (D-NY) and the growth of ‘the Squad.’ Other progressives wins in Congress and DSA gains in several state legislatures are also noteworthy.

But here’s the danger. Biden’s won by a clear margin, but Trump also gained in total votes over his past numbers. This is dangerous and too close for comfort. Given a 50/50 Senate and a narrow margin in the House, Biden has to govern, as best as he can, alongside the continuing power of Trump and rightwing populism. Moreover, the right includes the full integration of Trump’s forces into the GOP national and state apparatus and Trump’s now overt alliances with growing fascist militias and related groups

Trump’s still refuses to accept his defeat by more than 7 million votes. Acceptance of this ‘Big Steal,’ transformed into a ‘Big Lie,’ is now a loyalty test throughout the Republican party, from top to bottom. Moreover, we all witnessed Trump’s attempted coup on Jan. 6, 2021, complete with an insurrectionary assault on the Capitol. Hundreds are now sitting in jail and their trials are underway. . The number of Oath Keepers and Proud Boys on trial is a case in point. More importantly, the House Committee on Jan. 6 is starting its public hearings, which promises to be a powerful media exposure.

Therefore, what has moved from the margins to the center of political discourse is the question of a clear and present danger of fascism. Far from an ongoing abstract debate, we are now watching its hidden elements come to light every day in the media. We also see the ongoing machinations in the GOP hierarchy and in state legislatures reshaping election laws in their favor. Now, the question is not whether a fascist danger exists, but how to fight and defeat it.

The outcomes for Biden and Trump, then, challenge, narrow, and weaken the old dominant neoliberal hegemony from different directions. For decades, the ruling bloc had spanned both the GOP transnationals and those transnational globalists in the Third Way Democrats. Now neoliberalism is largely exhausted. This is a major change, opening the terrain for new bids for policy dominance. Team Biden is groping for a yet-to-be-fully -defined LBJ 2.0, largely making major investments in physical and social infrastructure, like universal child care or free community college. Weirdly, the GOP claims to stand for nothing, save fealty, Mafia-style, to Trump. Behind that smokescreen are the politics of fascism and a neo-confederacy.

But the GOP still has three parties. Back in 2016, Politico had characterized them this way: “After the Iowa caucuses” the GOP emerged “with three front-runners who are, respectively, a proto-fascist, [Trump] a Christian theocrat [Cruz] and an Ayn Rand neoliberal [Rubio] who wants to privatize all aspects of public life while simultaneously waging war on the poor and working classes.”

 

So here’s the new snapshot of the range of forces for today (including a graphic map above).

Under the Dem tent, the three main groups remain as the Blue Dogs, the Third Way Centrists and the Rainbow Social Democrats. Although small, the Blue Dogs persist, especially given their partnership with West Virginia’s Joe Manchin in the Senate. With Biden in the White House, the Third Way group keeps and grows its major clout and keeps most of its African American, feminist and labor allies. The Sanders Social Democratic bloc has gained strength, especially with the growing popularity of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the growth of ‘The Squad. ‘Sanders has also formed and kept a progressive-center unity against Trump and has helped define ‘Build Back Better’ and other Biden reform packages.

The changes under the GOP tent have been radical, although keeping its three parties. The ‘Never Trumpers’, despite voting for Biden, have yet to split off entirely. In fact, despite the efforts to purge her, Liz Cheney of Wyoming continues fighting fiercely against Trump and his fascist measures and minions. The Jan. 6 insurrection also brought to the surface the tensions between the Christian nationalists headed by former Vice President Mike Pence and Trump’s rightwing populists. Apart from tactics, a key difference between the two is Koch money and its institutional power. The Koch brothers never liked or trusted Trump, and never funded him directly, pouring their millions into the Christian Nationalist bloc instead.

Trump still has a tight grip on the entire party, but without his White House power, the number of his GOP critics is on the rise. Daily. Trump has denounced all rivals from these two groupings, and is building his alliances with the Jan. 6 insurrectionist supporters in state legislatures. The goal is new anti-voter laws to control those counting the votes and defining the districts in the years ahead.

Let’s now look closer, starting from the left upper corner of the map:

The Rightwing Populists

This ‘party’, as mentioned, has taken over the GOP and is now tightening its grip. Trump was originally an ‘outlier elite’ with his own bankroll but now supplemented with funds from Russian oligarchs and Arab oil fortunes (See ‘Proof of Conspiracy ‘by Seth Abhramson). He is also still directly connected to the Robert Mercer family fortune, the 4th ranking billionaire funding rightwing causes. For example, the Mercers keep Breitbart News afloat and funded the career of Steve Bannon, former Trump ‘strategist’ that took him to victory in the last stretch. Along with Breitbart, Fox News is the main hourly mouthpiece for Trump’s war against the mainstream ‘fake news’ mass media. There are dozens of smaller outfits, but with millons of followers

Trump is also pulling in some new wealth. One example is Julia Jenkins Fancelli, an heiress to the fortune of the popular Publix supermarket chain. Alternet reports others: “One example is Dan and Farris Wilks, two billionaire siblings who have worked in the fracking industry in Texas and have “given a combined $100,000 toward the president’s reelection.” The Wilkes Brothers supported Sen. Ted Cruz over Trump in the 2016 GOP presidential primary but are supporting Trump in 2020.”

But major events reveal some fault lines. The House has now impeached Trump twice, once following the Jan. 6 events and earlier in 2019. The Senate followed up by acquitting him in both cases. In Trump’s second impeachment, 10 GOPers in the House and seven in the Senate votes against him. This is as good of an indictor as any of the remaining small but persistent strength of ‘regular’ Republicans in their own party.

The impeachment efforts, worthy in their own right, were also a major result of Trump’s fierce ongoing political warfare against the ‘Deep State.’ The battle is actually a contest for a new ‘America First’ white nationalist hegemony against the old neoliberal globalists under both tents. The ‘Deep State’ is the federal civil service and includes the ‘Intelligence Community,’ with a long list of Trump-targeted CIA and FBI leaders, supposedly corrupt, of which FBI director James Comey was the first to be purged. The real ‘corruption’ was their refusal to pledge loyalty to Trump personally, again like an old-style Mafia boss.

In the first impeachment vote in Feb. 2020, the sole breakaway vote was Mitt Romney on Article One. Romney, with considerable wealth himself, is also a Mormon bishop, and his LDS church recently listed holdings of over $37 billion with the SEC. This is a factor in Romney’s ability to stand alone. At the moment, however, the much-weakened GOP’s old Establishment is left with the choice of surrender, or crossing over to the Third Way bloc under the Dem tent. A good number already did so to vote for Biden in the Dem 2020 primary and general, expanding the Dem electorate to the right.

Trump now needs even more to shore up an alliance with the Blue Dogs. But it remains tactical, stemming from his appeals to ‘Rust Belt’ Democrats and some unions on trade and tariff issues, plus white identity resentment politics. The economic core of rightwing populism remains anti-global ‘producerism’ vs ‘parasitism’. Employed workers, business owners, real estate developers, small bankers are all ‘producers’. They oppose ‘parasite’ groups above and below, but mainly those below them—the unemployed (Get a Job! as an epithet), the immigrants, poor people of color, Muslims, and ‘the Other’ generally. When they attack those above, the target is usually George Soros, a Jew.

Recall that Trump entered politics by declaring Obama to be an illegal alien and an illegitimate officeholder (a parasite above), but quickly shifted to Mexicans and Muslims and anyone associated with ‘Black Lives Matter.’ This aimed to pull out the fascist and white supremacist groups of the ‘Alt Right’–using Breitbart and worse to widen their circles, bringing them closer to Trump’s core. With these fascists as ready reserves, Trump reached farther into Blue Dog territory, and its better-off workers, retirees, and business owners conflicted with white identity issues—immigration, Islamophobia, misogyny, and more. Today they still largely make up the audience at his mass rallies.

Trump’s outlook is not new. It has deep roots in American history, from the anti-Indian ethnic cleansing of President Andrew Jackson to the nativism of the Know-Nothings, to the nullification theories of Joh C. Calhoun, to the lynch terror of the KKK, to the anti-elitism and segregation of George Wallace and the Dixiecrats. Internationally, Trump combines aggressive jingoism, threats of trade wars, and an isolationist ‘economic nationalism’ aimed at getting others abroad to fight your battles for you. At the same time, your team picks up the loot (‘we should have seized and kept the oil!’).

Trump’s GOP still contains his internal weaknesses: the volatile support of distressed white workers and small producers. At present, they are still forming a key social base. But the problem is that Trump did not implement any substantive programs apart from tax cuts. These mainly benefited the top 10% and created an unstable class contradiction in his operation. Moreover, apart from supporting heavy vaccine research, his inability to deal adequately with the coronavirus emergency– over 900,000 dead—is is still undermining the confidence of some of his base. Most of what Trump has paid out is what WEB Dubois called the ‘psychological wage’ of ‘whiteness’, a dubious status position. Thus white supremacist demagogy and misogyny will also continue to unite a wide array of all nationalities of color and many women and youth against him.

Trump’s religious ignorance, sexual assaults and a porn star scandal always pained his alliance with the Christian Nationalist faction: (Mike Pence, Betsy DeVos, et. al.), and the DeVos family (Amway fortune). They were willing to go along with it for the sake of judicial appointments, with the 5-4 Supreme Court ruling against Black voters in Alabama only one major achievement. The alliance, nonetheless, has become more frayed since Jan. 6 and the ‘Hang Mike Pence’ spectacle.  But some stalwarts stood fast. The billionaire donor to the GOP right, Devos’s brother Erik Prince is a case in point. He amassed billions from his Blackwater/Xe firms that train thousands of mercenaries, These forces serve as ‘private contractors’ for U.S. armed intervention anywhere. Prinz is now reportedly preparing to spend a few million sending spies and other disruptors into ‘liberal groups’ to do dirty work in Trump’s favor.

The Christian Nationalists

This ‘party’ grew from a subset of the former Tea Party bloc. It’s made up of several Christian rightist trends developed over decades, which gained more coherence under Vice President Mike Pence. It includes conservative evangelicals seeking to recast a patriarchal and racist John Wayne into a new warrior version of Jesus. It was strengthened for a period by the  addition of William Barr as the Attorney General, He brought Opus Dei and the Catholic far-right, a minority with the American Catholic Church, closer to the White house. But seeing that Trump was about to go beyond the law in trying to overturn the 2020 election, Barr jumped ship and resigned just in time

A good number of Christian nationalists, however, are the Protestant theocracy-minded fundamentalists, especially the ‘Dominionist’ sects in which Ted Cruz’s father was active. They present themselves as the only true, ‘values-centered’ (Biblical) conservatives. They argue against any kind of compromise with the globalist ‘liberal-socialist bloc’, which ranges, in their view, from the GOP’s Mitt Romney to Bernie Sanders. They are more akin to classical liberalism than neoliberalism in economic policy. This means abandoning nearly all regulations, much of the safety net, overturning Roe v. Wade, getting rid of marriage equality (in the name of ‘religious liberty’) and abolishing the IRS and any progressive taxation in favor of a single flat tax. Salon in April 2018 reported:

“This rightwing Christian movement is fundamentally anti-democratic. Their ‘prayer warriors’ do not believe that secular laws apply to them, thus making it acceptable, if not honorable, to deceive non-believers in order to do God’s work. Many evangelicals in the Christian nationalist or ‘dominionist’ wing of the movement want the United States to be a theocracy. In some ways, this subset of the evangelical population resembles an American-style Taliban or ISIS, restrained (so far) only by the Constitution.”

The classic liberalism of most Christian Nationalist is also a key reason they attract money from the Koch Brothers networks. While the Koch’s hold Trump and his populists in some contempt, as mentioned above, the Christian Nationalist faction has access to Koch funds and its ALEC legislative projects, along with access to the DeVos fortunes. Effectively, Christian nationalist’ prosperity economics’ amounts to affirmative action for the better off, where the rise of the rich is supposed to pull everyone else upwards. Those below must also pay their tithes and pull upward with their ‘bootstraps.’ They argue for neo-isolationism on some matters of foreign policy. But as ‘Christian Zionists’ they favor an all-out holy war on ‘radical Islamic terrorism,’ to the point of ‘making the sand glow’ with the use of nuclear weapons. They pushed for moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and ripping up the Iran nuclear deal. All this is aimed at greasing the skids for the ‘End Times,’ the ‘Rapture, ‘and the ‘Second Coming.’ With Cruz, Pence and Devos as leaders, they have become the second most powerful grouping under the GOP tent, and the one with the most reactionary platform and outlook, even more so than Trump himself in some ways.

 The Establishment Neoliberal ‘RINOs’

This is the name now widely used in the media for what we previously labeled the Multinationalists. It’s mainly the upper crust and neoliberal business elites that have owned and run the GOP for years, but are now largely out in the cold. It included the quasi-libertarian House’ Freedom Caucus,’ the smaller group of NeoCons on foreign policy (John Bolton and John McCain), and the shrinking number of RINO (Republican In Name Only) moderates in The Lincoln Project. The Establishment also favors a globalist, U.S. hegemonist and even, at times, unilateralist approach abroad, with some still defending the Bush-Cheney disaster in Iraq. Their prominent voice today is Liz Cheney of Wyoming.

We also need to keep in mind the global backdrop to these shifts. The worldwide process of technology-driven financialization has divided the ruling class of late capitalism in every major country into three—a local sector of the transnational capitalist class, the nation-based multinationals, and an anti-globalist national sector. Thus among traditional U.S. neoliberals, some are U.S. hegemonists, but many have a transnational globalist understanding of the world with vast amounts of their money in foreign stock. China and global value chains integrate them with other global capitalists. This is why Trump’s trade policy is so controversial with Wall Street elites of both Republican and Democratic leanings. U.S. economic hegemony makes no sense at this financial and productive integration level. The global three way division also serves to explain why Trump’s rightwing populism, despite its American characteristics, is connected to the rightwing nationalist-populist rise in all European countries. He is not ‘explainable’ in American terns alone.

This subordination is a big change for the traditional GOP top dogs. They would like to purge a weakened Trump from the party and rebuild, but so far lack the ability. They could try to form a new party with neoliberal Dems. Or, more likely, they could join the Dems and try to push out or smother those to the left of the Third Way grouping.

Now let’s turn to the Dem tent, starting at the top right of the graphic.

The Blue Dogs

The Blue Dogs, according to the online newsletter Sludge, “operates a political action committee, Blue Dog PAC, that raises millions of dollars each election cycle, mainly from corporate PACs, and spends money to help elect more conservative Democrats. Corporate PACs that donated to Blue Dog PAC in the 2018 election cycle include those affiliated with drug company Pfizer, defense contractor Northrop Grumman, oil company ExxonMobil, and Wall Street bank Citigroup.”

This small ‘party’ has persisted and gained some energy. The recent effort of West Virginia’s Senator Joe Manchin to bloc or gut Biden’s reforms is a case in point. One earlier reason was that the United Steel Workers and a few craft unions had decided ‘to work with Trump’ on tariffs and trade. The USW also got firmly behind Connor Lamb (D-PA) for Congress. Lamb won a narrow victory in a Western PA CD in a rural and conservative area, but with many USW miner’s votes. He was endorsed by the Blue Dog PAC, although he is not yet a formal member of the caucus. Getting into a nearly physical floor fight with the GOP over Jan. 6 ‘radicalized’ Lamb a bit, moving him leftward.

But the small Blue Dog resurgence may not last. On the one hand, the DNC Third Way gang currently loves people like Lamb, and wants to see more candidates leaning to the center and even the right. On the other hand, an unstableTrump out of office has little to offer on major infrastructure plans save for ‘Build The Wall’ chanting at rallies. His potential votes among USW and other union members may shrink.

The Third Way New Democrats

First formed by the Clintons, with international assistance from Tony Blair and others, this dominant ‘party’ was funded by Wall Street finance capitalists. The founding idea was to move toward neoliberalism by ‘creating distance’ between themselves and the traditional Left-Labor-Liberal bloc, i.e., the traditional unions and civil rights groups still connected to the New Deal legacy. Another part of ‘Third Way’ thinking was to shift the key social base away from the core of the working class toward college-educated suburban voters, but keeping alliances with Black and women’s groups still functional.

Thus the Third Way had tried to temper the harsher neoliberalism of the GOP by ‘triangulating’ with neo-Keynesian and left-Keynesian policies. But the overall effect is to move Democrats and their platform generally rightward. With Hillary Clinton’s narrow defeat, the Third Way’s power in the party has diminished somewhat but gained clout with the victory of Biden. As mentioned above, its labor alliances have weakened, with unions now going in three directions. Most of labor has remained with the Third Way. Some moved rightward to the Blue Dogs while others—Communications Workers, National Nurses United, and the U.E.—are part of the Sanders bloc. Regarding the current relation of forces in the party apparatus, the Third Way has about 60% of the positions and still controls the major money. In California in 2018, for example, the Regulars kept control of the state party committee only with extremely narrow margins over Bernie supporters.

The key test was the November battle with Trump: Who inspired and mobilized the much-needed ‘Blue Wave’, gave it focus and put the right numbers in the right places? The measured Third Way moderates? Or the Social Democrat insurgents? This question brings us to the last of the six’ parties.’

The Rainbow Social Democrats

This description is better than simply calling it the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), as this article’s first version did. I’ve kept the ‘Rainbow’ designation because of the dynamic energy of AOC and the Squad. The Third Way, which has kept the older and more pragmatic voters of the rainbow groupings under its centrist influence, can still share it as well.

As explained before, the ‘Social Democrat’ title doesn’t mean each leader or activist here is in a social-democrat or democratic socialist group like DSA. It means the core groups–the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Progressive Democrats of America (PDA), Working Families Party (WFP), Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), Justice Democrats and Our Revolution and Indivisible—all have platforms are roughly similar to the left social democrat groupings in Europe. This is made even more evident with AOC’s and Bernie’s self-description as ‘democratic socialists’ in the primaries and the general, where it only seemed to help. The platform, however, is not socialist itself, but best described as a common front vs finance capital, war, and the white supremacist and fascist right. This is true of groups like Die Linke (‘The Left’) in Germany as well, which met recently with PDA and CPC members. In that sense, the ‘Third Reconstruction,’ promoted by Rev William Barber and the Poor People’s Campaign, might also serves as a good designation and goal.

Finally, there is the ongoing dramatic growth of the DSA due to their wise tactics in the 2016 Bernie campaign. They went all in for Bernie but also lost no opening to make themselves visible. Prominent Justice Democrat and DSAer Alexandra Ocasio Cortez, who has been a firebrand in the House, has made the ‘Green New Deal’ a household term, and joined Sanders in his efforts to shape Biden’s agenda. Now with nearly 100.000 members with chapters in every state, DSA has already won a few local and statehouse races the first time out. They are now an important player in their own right within these local clusters. But their growth may have peaked for a while. Their surfacing weaknesses reside in sorting out their own internal differences with sectarianism and even chauvinism against Black candidates.

This overall growth of this ‘party’ is all to the good. The common front approach of the Social Democratic bloc can unite more than a militant minority of actual socialists. Instead, it has a platform that can also unite a progressive majority around both immediate needs and structural reforms, including both socialists and non-socialists, the ‘Third Reconstruction.’ Apart from winning 46% of the 2016 Dem convention delegates and a good number of statehous seats, this ‘party’ is now noted for two things. First is the huge, elemental outpourings of young people–mainly women, students and the young workers of the distressed ‘precariat’ sector of the class–in the elemental risings of millions after Trump took office. Second was the enormous risings following the murder of George Floyd by the police—over 20 million, the largest in U.S history. With other mass groups like Our Revolution and Indivisible, they all added a higher degree of organization at the base to this dynamic and growing cluster.

What does it all mean?

With this brief descriptive and analytical mapping of the upper crust of American politics, many things are falling into place. The formerly subaltern rightist groupings in the GOP have risen in revolt against the Neoliberal Establishment of the Cheneys, Romneys and the Bushes. Now they have rightwing populist and white nationalist hegemony. The GOP, then, can be accurately called the party of the neo-Confederates and the main target of a popular, anti-fascist front. Under the other tent, the Third Way is seeking a new post-neoliberal platform, through President Joe Biden’s reforms. The progressive-center unity of the earlier Obama coalition, with all its constituency alliances, is still in place. At the same time, the Third Way still wants to co-opt and control the Social Democrats as an energetic but critical secondary ally. The Sanders’ forces have few illusions about this pressure on them, and don’t want to be anyone’s subaltern without a fight. So we are continuing to press all our issues, but adapting some policies to the common front vs. the fascist right. If we work well, we will build more base organizations, more alliances, and more clout as we go.

This ‘big picture’ also reveals much about the current budget debates. All three parties under the GOP tent still advocate neoliberal austerity. The Third Way-dominated Senate Democrats and Blue Dogs push for an ‘austerity lite’ budget and some Keynesian infrastructure programs. Team Biden, the Social Democrats and the Congressional Progressive Caucus are working on ‘Build Back Better’ programs and ‘Green New Deal’ projects that might expand advanced manufacturing jobs.

However, we must keep in mind that favorably ‘shifting the balance of forces’ in election campaigns is often an indirect and somewhat ephemeral gain. It does ‘open up space’, but for what? Progressive initiatives matter for sure, but much more is required strategically. Strategically, we are in a war of position, with periodic tactical ‘war of movement’ elemental risings. In that framework, we are interested in pushing the popular front vs. finance capital to its limits and developing a 21st-century socialist bloc. If that comes to scale in the context of a defeat of the pro-Trump right bloc, the Democratic tent is also going to be stretched and strained. It could even collapse and implode, given the sharper class contradictions and other fault lines that lie within it, much as the Whigs split four ways in the 19th Century. This ‘Whig option’ tactic would demand an ability on the part of the left to regroup all the progressive forces, inside and outside, into a new ‘First Party’ alliance or counter-hegemonic bloc. Such a formation also includes a militant minority of socialists, which will then be able to contend for governing power. The tricky part is to do this in a way that keeps the right at bay.

An old classic formula summing up the strategic thinking of the united front is appropriate here: ‘Unite and develop the progressive forces, win over the middle forces, isolate and divide the backward forces, then crush our adversaries one by one.’ In short, we must have a policy and set of tactics for each one of these elements, as well as a strategy for dealing with them overall. Moreover, take note of a warning from the futurist Alvin Toffler: ‘If you don’t have a strategy, you’re part of someone else’s strategy.’ Then finally, as to tactics, ‘wage struggle on just grounds, to our advantage and with restraint.’

To conclude, we still need to start with a realistic view of ourselves as an organized socialist left. Save for DSA, we are mostly quite small as organizations, but now we can see we are swimming in a sea of millions open to socialism. What can we do now? If you can see yourself or your group honestly working to achieve DSA’s stated program, by all means, join them and make them even larger. Or set up Jacobin / In These Times Reading Groups in your living rooms and unite socialists and close friends with them. The same goes with the new Convergence project growing out of Organizing Upgrade. Or join CCDS, CPUSA, Left Roots, or Liberation Road—socialist groups which largely share some or most of the perspective here. Join or start PDA or WFP chapters everywhere, use organizations and broad ‘Third Reconstruction’ and ‘Modern Tecumseh’ alliances and popular rainbow assemblies to build mass mobilizations, register new voters and defeat the GOP in November 2022 and 2024.

With both socialists and rainbow progressives, start at the base, focus on city and state governments, and expand the Congressional Progressive Caucus. We rarely gain victories at the top that have not been won and consolidated earlier at the base. Most of all, in order to form broader and winning coalitions, you need base organizations of your own to form partnerships and alliances WITH! Seize the time and Git ‘er done!

Category : Democracy | Elections | Fascism | Hegemony | Neoliberalism | Rightwing Populism | Strategy and Tactics | Blog
25
Jan

 

 

 

The historian has been at the forefront of telling the lost stories of U.S. radicalism—in comic book form—for nearly two decades.



The Progressive

Dec 14, 2021

In recent years, there has been a wave of politically-themed graphic novels that both help us to understand the past, as well as challenge the current status quo. Titles such as Guantanamo Voices by Sarah Mirk, Paying the Land by Joe Sacco, and March, a three-part series on the life of the late Congressmember John Lewis, use visual storytelling to untangle complex issues in a way that’s enjoyable to read but still rigorous and hard-hitting.

While nonfiction comics and graphic memoirs are now more popular than ever, I think it’s important to take a closer look at one of the authors who spearheaded the genre and whose work continues to shape it. Paul Buhle—a historian who has published books on everything from C.L.R. James to Jewish popular culture—began writing, editing, and producing graphic novels—a list now in excess of fifteen volumes.

Two of his early comics, Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History and The Beats: A Graphic History, rely on a combination of oral histories, vibrant images, and humor (both were co-written by Harvey Pekar, of American Splendor fame), to offer a unique and accessible lens on often misunderstood moments in U.S. radicalism. More recently, Buhle has followed this same trajectory by coming out with visual biographies of socialist stalwart Eugene V. Debs and Latin American revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara.

Paul Buhle of Madison, Wisconsin, is one of the United States’ most distinguished historians. As a chronicler of the American left, he is unparalleled. His books on the Hollywood left, Marxism, oral history, and related topics have set the standard for scholarly excellence. His magisterial Encyclopedia of the American Left, co-edited with Mari Jo Buhle and Dan Georgakas, is essential for anyone interested in the radical tradition of American radial history, culture, and politics (the third edition is due out in 2022).

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For more than sixteen years, Buhle has also written, edited, and collaborated closely with other writers and artists to create many engaging graphic nonfiction books that appeal to a wide audience of all ages. His subjects are broad and extensive, including topics and themes that fundamentally chronicle the American experience through the twentieth century and beyond. This work complements his exemplary personal activism and writing for progressive causes.

The artwork in his graphic books are examples of popular cultural visual expression about hugely important topics, especially biographical drawings of figures who have unjustly faded into historical obscurity.

My focus here is on the significance of the graphic novel genre and specifically on three of Buhle’s biographies—one on Paul Robeson, the second of Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse, and the last about radical attorney Leonard Weinglass. These strike me as emblematic of Buhle’s work in this exciting arena of interdisciplinary intellectual discourse.


Let’s start with Robeson. In 2020, Buhle co-edited Ballad of An American: A Graphic Biography of Paul Robeson, superbly drawn and written by Sharon Rudahl. The volume combines engaging art with biography and radical history and did tremendous justice to Robeson’s multi-dimensional life of art and political engagement.

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It chronicled the entire trajectory of Robeson’s storied life and accomplishments, including his disgraceful blacklisting during the darkest days of McCarthyism in the early Cold War era. The book proceeded from his early struggles to his precocious academic, musical, and athletic triumphs in his youthful years.

Ballad of An American highlights how Robeson overcame the horrific racism during his time at Rutgers University, while becoming its first nationally recognized football star and All-American. It also details Robeson’s early involvement with the emerging film industry.

What truly elevated him, however, was his political awakening. He became one of the most effective and eloquent advocates for progressive political change in U.S. history during much of the twentieth century. Robeson’s advocacy encompassed the struggle against racism and for the rights of labor and for all oppressed people, both domestically and internationally.

But the blacklist destroyed his health, ruined his income, and catalyzed the historical amnesia about him and his legacy that remains to the present. Despite a Robeson revival at his centennial in 1998, he still remains “the greatest legend nobody knows,” as historian Joe Dorinson ruefully noted.

Buhle’s book combines Sharon Rudahl’s magnificent artwork and details of Robeson’s astonishing life with an afterword by himself and Lawrence Ware that provides compelling historical context.


The graphic biography Herbert Marcuse: Philosopher of Utopia, by artist Nick Thorkelson and edited by Paul Buhle and Andrew Lamas, with a foreword by Angela Y. Davis, attempts to herald a Marcuse revival. Once again, Buhle has assembled a superb team of professionals to add visual and intellectual depth to this enterprise.

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The biography is a remarkable fusion of Marcuse’s life and philosophical development, set against the tumultuous historical events of early twentieth century Europe. It details his early studies with Martin Heidegger, his prominence in the iconic Frankfurt School and his crucial flight from Germany as a Jew from the growing threat of Nazi rule. Marcuse joined a large and distinguished number of intellectuals, artists, and others who fled Nazi tyranny, finding refuge in the United States and elsewhere.

Thorkelson’s drawings add enormously to the narrative. This reflects Paul Buhle’s commitment to the verbal and visual collaboration that has been the hallmark of this monumental focus of his later professional life in fostering radical graphic nonfiction.

Philosopher of Utopia addresses Marcuse’s personal struggles, his academic trajectory, especially at Brandeis University, and his growing stature as a radical political and public intellectual. Angela Davis was one of his star students at Brandeis and she came to realize, with his encouragement, that it could be possible to be an academic, a scholar, and an activist.

The book impressively summarizes Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, a scathing takedown of modern capitalist society. Its main theme is submission to a sophisticated capitalist scheme that demands and almost entirely ensures that “people recognize themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment.” The only thing that has changed since 1964 is the growing level of capitalist manipulation and domination.

Marcuse was outspoken in supporting Black Americans, students, and other protesters, and in opposing the Vietnam War. By then, he had moved to the University of California at San Diego, a city well known for its conservatism. He attracted considerable hostile attention, including from the American Legion, the Ku Klux Klan, and then-governor Ronald Reagan. The book shows how he was even forced to go into hiding during those times, a victim of the reactionary responses to the Black liberation, student, and other movements sweeping the globe and to Marcuse’s unwavering support for them.

Marcuse continued to support resistance movements throughout his lifetime, including the women’s movement. He supported it as the most important radical movement of the time. He also did his best to support Angela Davis throughout her activism and unjust incarceration.

In the graphic biography’s foreword, Davis writes: “Fifty years later, as we confront the persisting globalities of slavery and colonialism, along with evolving structures of racial capitalism, Herbert Marcuse’s ideas continue to reveal important lessons. The insistence on imagining emancipatory futures, even under the most desperate circumstances, remains––Marcuse teaches us––a decisive element of both history and practice.”


Throughout much of the twentieth century and into the very early twenty-first century, radical defense attorney Leonard Weinglass also advanced the ideals of a just and humane society. Like Robeson and Marcuse, he blazed his own path for these powerful ideals. And like the others, he too remains mostly unknown in the mainstream.

Once again, Buhle collaborated with other prominent figures of the creative left, including artist/writer Seth Tobocman and lawyer/writer/activist Michael Steven Smith, to produce a powerful visually based account of a truly heroic lawyer who devoted his entire life to the defense of movement activists.

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In Len, A Lawyer in History, we learn how Weinglass, a Yale-educated attorney, turned his back on privilege and monetary comfort; instead, he defended leftist activists, often in memorable cases, against the oppressive machinery of the capitalist state judicial apparatus right up until his death in 2011.

Proceeding chronologically, the book begins from Weinglass’s childhood on to his initial legal career. After his service in the Air Force, he worked briefly at a large law firm, and later the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office, and then opened a small office in a poor Black community in Newark, New Jersey––generally uncharacteristic of Ivy League legal graduates. Tobocman’s drawings effectively convey how this was the real start in his lifelong struggle for racial justice.

Soon, he began representing Newark activists challenging the corrupt administration of Mayor Addonizio. He defended rent strikers and those who had engaged in civil disobedience. The 1967 Newark “riots” fully radicalized him and he soon emerged as one of the country’s foremost activist lawyers, a position he would occupy for the remainder of his life.

Tobocman continues on to illustrate many of Weinglass’s most celebrated cases. He came to additional visibility when he defended the people charged after the Chicago police riot, following the massive police brutality unleashed by Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley during the Democratic National Convention in 1968.

Len, A Lawyer in History further chronicles his drive to use his superb legal talents on behalf of the marginalized and oppressed. Among his clients were Native American prisoners, student protestors against the Central Intelligence Agency, and other reactionary targets and policies of the U.S. government, as well as the Cuban Five, men who were unjustly imprisoned in the United States and labeled terrorists after resisting continued attacks on the socialist government of Cuba.


The three graphic nonfiction works detailed in this article join Paul Buhle’s larger body of work in this genre to add a powerful dimension to our understanding and appreciation of history. He has brought his remarkable scholarly background and skills to this enterprise. All of these volumes make a huge contribution to the contemporary historical canon.

Buhle’s works have also shaken up the long hidebound field of art history, for the good. That discipline has been slow to change, but maverick art historians combined with the massive upheavals of sixties and subsequent protests and the creation of ethnic and gender studies programs have permanently altered the discipline.

In 2022, Buhle and artist Anne Timmons will release ¡Brigadistas!, a graphic history of the Spanish Civil War. This work will further ensure that his distinguished legacy continues.

===

Paul Von Blum is senior lecturer in African American Studies and Communication at UCLA. He is a longtime civil rights and political activist and the author of many books and articles on political art, expressive culture, education, and law.

 



 

Category : Culture | Education | Media | US History | Blog
21
Oct















Grey Eminence, or Theory at the Top

By N. S. Lyons
Palladium
October 2021

One day in August 2021, Zhao Wei disappeared. For one of China’s best-known actresses to physically vanish from public view would have been enough to cause a stir on its own. But Zhao’s disappearing act was far more thorough: overnight, she was erased from the internet. Her Weibo social media page, with its 86 million followers, went offline, as did fan sites dedicated to her. Searches for her many films and television shows returned no results on streaming sites. Zhao’s name was scrubbed from the credits of projects she had appeared in or directed, replaced with a blank space. Online discussions uttering her name were censored. Suddenly, little trace remained that the 45-year-old celebrity had ever existed.

She wasn’t alone. Other Chinese entertainers also began to vanish as Chinese government regulators announced a “heightened crackdown” intended to dispense with “vulgar internet celebrities” promoting lascivious lifestyles and to “resolve the problem of chaos” created by online fandom culture. Those imitating the effeminate or androgynous aesthetics of Korean boyband stars—colorfully referred to as “xiao xian rou,” or “little fresh meat”—were next to go, with the government vowing to “resolutely put an end to sissy men” appearing on the screens of China’s impressionable youth.

Zhao and her unfortunate compatriots in the entertainment industry were caught up in something far larger than themselves: a sudden wave of new government policies that are currently upending Chinese life in what state media has characterized as a “profound transformation” of the country. Officially referred to as Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “Common Prosperity” campaign, this transformation is proceeding along two parallel lines: a vast regulatory crackdown roiling the private sector economy and a broader moralistic effort to reengineer Chinese culture from the top down.

But why is this “profound transformation” happening? And why now? Most analysis has focused on one man: Xi and his seemingly endless personal obsession with political control. The overlooked answer, however, is that this is indeed the culmination of decades of thinking and planning by a very powerful man—but that man is not Xi Jinping.

The Grey Eminence

Wang Huning much prefers the shadows to the limelight. An insomniac and workaholic, former friends and colleagues describe the bespectacled, soft-spoken political theorist as introverted and obsessively discreet. It took former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin’s repeated entreaties to convince the brilliant then-young academic—who spoke wistfully of following the traditional path of a Confucian scholar, aloof from politics—to give up academia in the early 1990s and join the Chinese Communist Party regime instead. When he finally did so, Wang cut off nearly all contact with his former connections, stopped publishing and speaking publicly, and implemented a strict policy of never speaking to foreigners at all. Behind this veil of carefully cultivated opacity, it’s unsurprising that so few people in the West know of Wang, let alone know him personally.

Yet Wang Huning is arguably the single most influential “public intellectual” alive today.

A member of the CCP’s seven-man Politburo Standing Committee, he is China’s top ideological theorist, quietly credited as being the “ideas man” behind each of Xi’s signature political concepts, including the “China Dream,” the anti-corruption campaign, the Belt and Road Initiative, a more assertive foreign policy, and even “Xi Jinping Thought.” Scrutinize any photograph of Xi on an important trip or at a key meeting and one is likely to spot Wang there in the background, never far from the leader’s side.

Wang has thus earned comparisons to famous figures of Chinese history like Zhuge Liang and Han Fei (historians dub the latter “China’s Machiavelli”) who similarly served behind the throne as powerful strategic advisers and consiglieres—a position referred to in Chinese literature as dishi: “Emperor’s Teacher.” Such a figure is just as readily recognizable in the West as an éminence grise (“grey eminence”), in the tradition of Tremblay, Talleyrand, Metternich, Kissinger, or Vladimir Putin adviser Vladislav Surkov.

But what is singularly remarkable about Wang is that he’s managed to serve in this role of court philosopher to not just one, but all three of China’s previous top leaders, including as the pen behind Jiang Zemin’s signature “Three Represents” policy and Hu Jintao’s “Harmonious Society.”

In the brutally cutthroat world of CCP factional politics, this is an unprecedented feat. Wang was recruited into the party by Jiang’s “Shanghai Gang,” a rival faction that Xi worked to ruthlessly purge after coming to power in 2012; many prominent members, like former security chief Zhou Yongkang and former vice security minister Sun Lijun, have ended up in prison. Meanwhile, Hu Jintao’s Communist Youth League Faction has also been heavily marginalized as Xi’s faction has consolidated control. Yet Wang Huning remains. More than any other, it is this fact that reveals the depth of his impeccable political cunning.

And the fingerprints of China’s Grey Eminence on the Common Prosperity campaign are unmistakable. While it’s hard to be certain what Wang really believes today inside his black box, he was once an immensely prolific author, publishing nearly 20 books along with numerous essays. And the obvious continuity between the thought in those works and what’s happening in China today says something fascinating about how Beijing has come to perceive the world through the eyes of Wang Huning.

Cultural Competence

While other Chinese teenagers spent the tumultuous years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) “sent down to the countryside” to dig ditches and work on farms, Wang Huning studied French at an elite foreign-language training school near his hometown of Shanghai, spending his days reading banned foreign literary classics secured for him by his teachers. Born in 1955 to a revolutionary family from Shandong, he was a sickly, bookish youth; this, along with his family’s connections, seems to have secured him a pass from hard labor.

When China’s shuttered universities reopened in 1978, following the commencement of “reform and opening” by Mao’s successor Deng Xiaoping, Wang was among the first to take the restored national university entrance exam, competing with millions for a chance to return to higher learning. He passed so spectacularly that Shanghai’s Fudan University, one of China’s top institutions, admitted him into its prestigious international politics master’s program despite having never completed a bachelor’s degree.

The thesis work he completed at Fudan, which would become his first book, traced the development of the Western concept of national sovereignty from antiquity to the present day—including from Gilgamesh through Socrates, Aristotle, Augustine, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Hegel, and Marx—and contrasted it with Chinese conceptions of the idea. The work would become the foundation for many of his future theories of the nation-state and international relations.

But Wang was also beginning to pick up the strands of what would become another core thread of his life’s work: the necessary centrality of culture, tradition, and value structures to political stability.

Wang elaborated on these ideas in a 1988 essay, “The Structure of China’s Changing Political Culture,” which would become one of his most cited works. In it, he argued that the CCP must urgently consider how society’s “software” (culture, values, attitudes) shapes political destiny as much as its “hardware” (economics, systems, institutions). While seemingly a straightforward idea, this was notably a daring break from the materialism of orthodox Marxism.

Examining China in the midst of Deng’s rapid opening to the world, Wang perceived a country “in a state of transformation” from “an economy of production to an economy of consumption,” while evolving “from a spiritually oriented culture to a materially oriented culture,” and “from a collectivist culture to an individualistic culture.”

Meanwhile, he believed that the modernization of “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” was effectively leaving China without any real cultural direction at all. “There are no core values in China’s most recent structure,” he warned. This could serve only to dissolve societal and political cohesion.

That, he said, was untenable. Warning that “the components of the political culture shaped by the Cultural Revolution came to be divorced from the source that gave birth to this culture, as well as from social demands, social values, and social relations”—and thus “the results of the adoption of Marxism were not always positive”—he argued that, “Since 1949, we have criticized the core values of the classical and modern structures, but have not paid enough attention to shaping our own core values.” Therefore: “we must create core values.” Ideally, he concluded, “We must combine the flexibility of [China’s] traditional values with the modern spirit [both Western and Marxist].”

But at this point, like many during those heady years of reform and opening, he remained hopeful that liberalism could play a positive role in China, writing that his recommendations could allow “the components of the modern structure that embody the spirit of modern democracy and humanism [to] find the support they need to take root and grow.”

That would soon change.

A Dark Vision

Also in 1988, Wang—having risen with unprecedented speed to become Fudan’s youngest full professor at age 30—won a coveted scholarship (facilitated by the American Political Science Association) to spend six months in the United States as a visiting scholar. Profoundly curious about America, Wang took full advantage, wandering about the country like a sort of latter-day Chinese Alexis de Tocqueville, visiting more than 30 cities and nearly 20 universities.

What he found deeply disturbed him, permanently shifting his view of the West and the consequences of its ideas.

Wang recorded his observations in a memoir that would become his most famous work: the 1991 book America Against America. In it, he marvels at homeless encampments in the streets of Washington DC, out-of-control drug crime in poor black neighborhoods in New York and San Francisco, and corporations that seemed to have fused themselves to and taken over responsibilities of government. Eventually, he concludes that America faces an “unstoppable undercurrent of crisis” produced by its societal contradictions, including between rich and poor, white and black, democratic and oligarchic power, egalitarianism and class privilege, individual rights and collective responsibilities, cultural traditions and the solvent of liquid modernity.

But while Americans can, he says, perceive that they are faced with “intricate social and cultural problems,” they “tend to think of them as scientific and technological problems” to be solved separately. This gets them nowhere, he argues, because their problems are in fact all inextricably interlinked and have the same root cause: a radical, nihilistic individualism at the heart of modern American liberalism.

“The real cell of society in the United States is the individual,” he finds. This is so because the cell most foundational (per Aristotle) to society, “the family, has disintegrated.” Meanwhile, in the American system, “everything has a dual nature, and the glamour of high commodification abounds. Human flesh, sex, knowledge, politics, power, and law can all become the target of commodification.” This “commodification, in many ways, corrupts society and leads to a number of serious social problems.” In the end, “the American economic system has created human loneliness” as its foremost product, along with spectacular inequality. As a result, “nihilism has become the American way, which is a fatal shock to cultural development and the American spirit.”

Moreover, he says that the “American spirit is facing serious challenges” from new ideational competitors. Reflecting on the universities he visited and quoting approvingly from Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, he notes a growing tension between Enlightenment liberal rationalism and a “younger generation [that] is ignorant of traditional Western values” and actively rejects its cultural inheritance. “If the value system collapses,” he wonders, “how can the social system be sustained?”

Ultimately, he argues, when faced with critical social issues like drug addiction, America’s atomized, deracinated, and dispirited society has found itself with “an insurmountable problem” because it no longer has any coherent conceptual grounds from which to mount any resistance.

Once idealistic about America, at the start of 1989 the young Wang returned to China and, promoted to Dean of Fudan’s International Politics Department, became a leading opponent of liberalization.

He began to argue that China had to resist global liberal influence and become a culturally unified and self-confident nation governed by a strong, centralized party-state. He would develop these ideas into what has become known as China’s “Neo-Authoritarian” movement—though Wang never used the term, identifying himself with China’s “Neo-Conservatives.” This reflected his desire to blend Marxist socialism with traditional Chinese Confucian values and Legalist political thought, maximalist Western ideas of state sovereignty and power, and nationalism in order to synthesize a new basis for long-term stability and growth immune to Western liberalism.

“He was most concerned with the question of how to manage China,” one former Fudan student recalls. “He was suggesting that a strong, centralized state is necessary to hold this society together. He spent every night in his office and didn’t do anything else.”

Wang’s timing couldn’t have been more auspicious. Only months after his return, China’s own emerging contradictions exploded into view in the form of student protests in Tiananmen Square. After PLA tanks crushed the dreams of liberal democracy sprouting in China, CCP leadership began searching desperately for a new political model on which to secure the regime. They soon turned to Wang Huning.

When Wang won national acclaim by leading a university debate team to victory in an international competition in Singapore in 1993, he caught the attention of Jiang Zemin, who had become party leader after Tiananmen. Wang, having defeated National Taiwan University by arguing that human nature is inherently evil, foreshadowed that, “While Western modern civilization can bring material prosperity, it doesn’t necessarily lead to improvement in character.” Jiang plucked him from the university and, at the age of 40, he was granted a leadership position in the CCP’s secretive Central Policy Research Office, putting him on an inside track into the highest echelons of power.

Wang Huning’s Nightmare

From the smug point of view of millions who now inhabit the Chinese internet, Wang’s dark vision of American dissolution was nothing less than prophetic. When they look to the U.S., they no longer see a beacon of liberal democracy standing as an admired symbol of a better future. That was the impression of those who created the famous “Goddess of Democracy,” with her paper-mâché torch held aloft before the Gate of Heavenly Peace.

Instead, they see Wang’s America: deindustrialization, rural decay, over-financialization, out of control asset prices, and the emergence of a self-perpetuating rentier elite; powerful tech monopolies able to crush any upstart competitors operating effectively beyond the scope of government; immense economic inequality, chronic unemployment, addiction, homelessness, and crime; cultural chaos, historical nihilism, family breakdown, and plunging fertility rates; societal despair, spiritual malaise, social isolation, and skyrocketing rates of mental health issues; a loss of national unity and purpose in the face of decadence and barely concealed self-loathing; vast internal divisions, racial tensions, riots, political violence, and a country that increasingly seems close to coming apart.

As a tumultuous 2020 roiled American politics, Chinese people began turning to Wang’s America Against America for answers. And when a mob stormed the U.S. Capitol building on January 6, 2021, the book flew off the shelves. Out-of-print copies began selling for as much as $2,500 on Chinese e-commerce sites.

But Wang is unlikely to be savoring the acclaim, because his worst fear has become reality: the “unstoppable undercurrent of crisis” he identified in America seems to have successfully jumped the Pacific. Despite all his and Xi’s success in draconian suppression of political liberalism, many of the same problems Wang observed in America have nonetheless emerged to ravage China over the last decade as the country progressively embraced a more neoliberal capitalist economic model.

“Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” has rapidly transformed China into one of the most economically unequal societies on earth. It now boasts a Gini Coefficient of, officially, around 0.47, worse than the U.S.’s 0.41. The wealthiest 1% of the population now holds around 31% of the country’s wealth (not far behind the 35% in the U.S.). But most people in China remain relatively poor: some 600 million still subsist on a monthly income of less than 1,000 yuan ($155) a month.

Meanwhile, Chinese tech giants have established monopoly positions even more robust than their U.S. counterparts, often with market shares nearing 90%. Corporate employment frequently features an exhausting “996” (9am to 9pm, 6 days a week) schedule. Others labor among struggling legions trapped by up-front debts in the vast system of modern-day indentured servitude that is the Chinese “gig economy.” Up to 400 million Chinese are forecast to enjoy the liberation of such “self-employment” by 2036, according to Alibaba.

The job market for China’s ever-expanding pool of university graduates is so competitive that “graduation equals unemployment” is a societal meme (the two words share a common Chinese character). And as young people have flocked to urban metropoles to search for employment, rural regions have been drained and left to decay, while centuries of communal extended family life have been upended in a generation, leaving the elderly to rely on the state for marginal care. In the cities, young people have been priced out of the property market by a red-hot asset bubble.

Meanwhile, contrary to trite Western assumptions of an inherently communal Chinese culture, the sense of atomization and low social trust in China has become so acute that it’s led to periodic bouts of anguished societal soul-searching after oddly regular instances in which injured individuals have been left to die on the street by passers-by habitually distrustful of being scammed.

Feeling alone and unable to get ahead in a ruthlessly consumerist society, Chinese youth increasingly describe existing in a state of nihilistic despair encapsulated by the online slang term neijuan (“involution”), which describes a “turning inward” by individuals and society due to a prevalent sense of being stuck in a draining rat race where everyone inevitably loses. This despair has manifested itself in a movement known as tangping, or “lying flat,” in which people attempt to escape that rat race by doing the absolute bare minimum amount of work required to live, becoming modern ascetics.

In this environment, China’s fertility rate has collapsed to 1.3 children per woman as of 2020—below Japan and above only South Korea as the lowest in the world—plunging its economic future into crisis. Ending family size limits and government attempts to persuade families to have more children have been met with incredulity and ridicule by Chinese young people as being “totally out of touch” with economic and social reality. “Do they not yet know that most young people are exhausted just supporting themselves?” asked one typically viral post on social media. It’s true that, given China’s cut-throat education system, raising even one child costs a huge sum: estimates range between $30,000 (about seven times the annual salary of the average citizen) and $115,000, depending on location.

But even those Chinese youth who could afford to have kids have found they enjoy a new lifestyle: the coveted DINK (“Double Income, No Kids”) life, in which well-educated young couples (married or not) spend all that extra cash on themselves. As one thoroughly liberated 27-year-old man with a vasectomy once explained to The New York Times: “For our generation, children aren’t a necessity…Now we can live without any burdens. So why not invest our spiritual and economic resources on our own lives?”

So while Americans have today given up the old dream of liberalizing China, they should maybe look a little closer. It’s true that China never remotely liberalized—if you consider liberalism to be all about democratic elections, a free press, and respect for human rights. But many political thinkers would argue there is more to a comprehensive definition of modern liberalism than that. Instead, they would identify liberalism’s essential telos as being the liberation of the individual from all limiting ties of place, tradition, religion, associations, and relationships, along with all the material limits of nature, in pursuit of the radical autonomy of the modern “consumer.”

From this perspective, China has been thoroughly liberalized, and the picture of what’s happening to Chinese society begins to look far more like Wang’s nightmare of a liberal culture consumed by nihilistic individualism and commodification.

The Grand Experiment

It is in this context that Wang Huning appears to have won a long-running debate within the Chinese system about what’s now required for the People’s Republic of China to endure. The era of tolerance for unfettered economic and cultural liberalism in China is over.

According to a leaked account by one of his old friends, Xi has found himself, like Wang, “repulsed by the all-encompassing commercialization of Chinese society, with its attendant nouveaux riches, official corruption, loss of values, dignity, and self-respect, and such ‘moral evils’ as drugs and prostitution.” Wang has now seemingly convinced Xi that they have no choice but to take drastic action to head off existential threats to social order being generated by Western-style economic and cultural liberal-capitalism—threats nearly identical to those that scourge the U.S.

This intervention has taken the form of the Common Prosperity campaign, with Xi declaring in January that “We absolutely must not allow the gap between rich and poor to get wider,” and warning that “achieving common prosperity is not only an economic issue, but also a major political issue related to the party’s governing foundations.”

This is why anti-monopoly investigations have hit China’s top technology firms with billions of dollars in fines and forced restructurings and strict new data rules have curtailed China’s internet and social media companies. It’s why record-breaking IPOs have been put on hold and corporations ordered to improve labor conditions, with “996” overtime requirements made illegal and pay raised for gig workers. It’s why the government killed off the private tutoring sector overnight and capped property rental price increases. It’s why the government has announced “excessively high incomes” are to be “adjusted.”

And it’s why celebrities like Zhao Wei have been disappearing, why Chinese minors have been banned from playing the “spiritual opium” of video games for more than three hours per week, why LGBT groups have been scrubbed from the internet, and why abortion restrictions have been significantly tightened. As one nationalist article promoted across state media explained, if the liberal West’s “tittytainment strategy” is allowed to succeed in causing China’s “young generation lose their toughness and virility then we will fall…just like the Soviet Union did.” The purpose of Xi’s “profound transformation” is to ensure that “the cultural market will no longer be a paradise for sissy stars, and news and public opinion will no longer be in a position of worshipping Western culture.”

In the end, the campaign represents Wang Huning’s triumph and his terror. It’s thirty years of his thought on culture made manifest in policy.

On one hand, it is worth viewing honestly the level of economic, technological, cultural, and political upheaval the West is currently experiencing and considering whether he may have accurately diagnosed a common undercurrent spreading through our globalized world. On the other, the odds that his gambit to engineer new societal values can succeed seems doubtful, considering the many failures of history’s other would-be “engineers of the soul.”

The best simple proxy to measure this effort in coming years is likely to be demographics. For reasons not entirely clear, many countries around the world now face the same challenge: fertility rates that have fallen below the replacement rate as they’ve developed into advanced economies. This has occurred across a diverse array of political systems, and shows little sign of moderating. Besides immigration, a wide range of policies have now been tried in attempts to raise birth rates, from increased public funding of childcare services to “pro-natal” tax credits for families with children. None have been consistently successful, sparking anguished debate in some quarters on whether losing the will to survive and reproduce is simply a fundamental factor of modernity. But if any country can succeed in reversing this trend, no matter the brute-force effort required, it is likely to be China.

Either way, our world is witnessing a grand experiment that’s now underway: China and the West, facing very similar societal problems, have now, thanks to Wang Huning, embarked on radically different approaches to addressing them. And with China increasingly challenging the United States for a position of global geopolitical and ideological leadership, the conclusion of this experiment could very well shape the global future of governance for the century ahead.

N.S. Lyons is an analyst and writer living and working in Washington, D.C. He is the author of The Upheaval.

Category : China | Cold War | Marxism | Blog
7
Oct

 

Friends of Socialist China
October 6, 2021

We are republishing this insightful article in LA Progressive by Dee Knight (member of the DSA International Committee) comparing human and democratic rights in the US and China, and challenging the lazy, Eurocentric assumptions that China is ‘authoritarian’ and that the only valid system of governance is Western capitalist democracy.

The leaders of the USA and China faced off at the United Nations General Assembly in late September, in a dramatic verbal conflict over peace, democracy, and human values. Biden said “The authoritarians of the world, they seek to proclaim the end of the age of democracy, but they’re wrong.” He added that the U.S. will “oppose attempts by stronger countries to dominate weaker ones, whether through changes to territory by force, economic coercion, technological exploitation or disinformation… But we’re not seeking a new Cold War or a separation of the world into rigid blocs…”

The UN delegates listened as Biden proclaimed the United States “is not at war” for the first time in two decades – weeks after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. He did not mention continued U.S. military occupations in Iraq, Syria, and Somalia – all of which have been deemed failures – or U.S. military presence in at least thirteen other African countries and hundreds of bases across the globe.

Biden also offered no explanation for the recent agreement with Australia and the United Kingdom to develop and deploy nuclear submarines in the Indo-Pacific region, or the “Quad” alliance with Japan, South Korea and India to threaten China with war ships and nuclear missiles. The question of U.S. sanctions against targeted enemies across the globe also was not mentioned. Neither were the activities of the National Endowment for Democracy and the Alliance for Progress to try to control internal affairs in numerous countries, including China.

Xi Jinping responded that “China has never and will never invade or bully others to seek hegemony… A world of peace and development should embrace civilizations of various forms and must accommodate diverse paths to modernization. One country’s success does not have to mean another country’s failure,” Xi continued. “The world is big enough to accommodate common development progress of all countries.”

Xi emphasized that “Democracy is not a special right reserved for any individual country but a right for the people of all countries to enjoy.”

The U.S. president did not mention his difficulties getting bills through Congress to upgrade the country’s infrastructure and provide improved basic services to people – services like health care, child care, housing and education, which are guaranteed in China, often free or at minimal cost. The “Build Back Better” bills are supported by a decisive majority of the U.S. population, but are fiercely opposed by recalcitrant right-wingers in Congress, along with “moderate” Democrats beholden to big oil and big pharma. These bills – dubbed “enormous” and unaffordable by Congressional opponents – pale in cost when compared with the military budget. At $743 billion for one year, while the infrastructure and budget reconciliation bills are for ten years, the military budget is nearly double their total for each year. (This doesn’t include military-related items, such as intelligence and veterans’ services, which bring the annual military total up above a trillion.)

An effort to pare off just ten percent of the military budget was crushed in Congress in September: a sign of the political power of the military-industrial complex, which combines with big oil, big pharma, big banks and insurance companies to dominate the U.S. political process. These same forces are helping right-wingers in both Congress and many states to quash voting rights, reversing the historic gains of the mid-century Civil Rights movement.

While the U.S. economy struggles to recover, levels of inequality reach historic proportions, and the political system is ever more polarized, Xi could point to China’s success in helping 800 million people lift themselves out of extreme poverty. A recent report noted that “In 2019, as China entered the last stages of its poverty eradication scheme, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said, ‘Every time I visit China, I am stunned by the speed of change and progress. You have created one of the most dynamic economies in the world, while helping more than 800 million people to lift themselves out of poverty – the greatest anti-poverty achievement in history’.”

Average wages for urban workers in China doubled between 2010 and 2020.”>China’s economic success – growing at an average rate of 9.5 percent per year, growing in size by almost 35 times (according to China’s Great Road, by John Ross), building railroads, highways, subways, even entire cities, to become the second largest economy in the world – didn’t happen without strain. Inequality increased, and some worried that the new “market socialism” was a lot like capitalism. The poverty eradication campaign was essential, just as efforts to restrain big capitalists were as well. These efforts were possible in large part due to the Chinese approach to democracy. As Xi said:

What we now face is the contradiction between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life… The needs to be met for the people to live better lives are increasingly broad. Not only have their material and cultural needs grown; their demands for democracy, rule of law, fairness and justice, security, and a better environment are increasing.

How China’s leaders intervened is an illustration of China’s democratic path. A report from Harvard University’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation finds over 90% of the Chinese people like their government, and “rate it as more capable and effective than ever before. Interestingly, more marginalized groups in poorer, inland regions are actually comparatively more likely to report increases in satisfaction.” It says Chinese people’s attitudes “appear to respond to real changes in their material well-being.”

This contrasts with people’s attitudes in the United States, which are polarized politically, racially, and economically. Public trust in the U.S. government is in crisis. There are very real human rights concerns, with police killings, homelessness and mass incarceration at pandemic proportions. A new report says police killings in the U.S. have been undercounted by more than half during the past four decades. Of nearly 31,000 people killed by police during that period, more than 17,000 were unaccounted for in official statistics. Black people were 3.5 times as likely to be killed by the police as white people. Latinx and indigenous people also suffered higher rates of fatal police violence than white people.

Chinese democracy
The Chinese revolution itself was fundamentally democratic – abolishing feudalistic hierarchy and privilege, equalizing gender differences, and enabling poor workers and farmers to be involved in national administration. The Ash Center study includes an important essay, “Democracy in China: Challenge or Opportunity?” by Yu Keping, director of the China Center for Comparative Politics and Economics. Yu Keping says “Western scholars use their democratic standards, such as a multi-party system, universal suffrage, and checks and balances, to evaluate Chinese political development,… and conclude that Chinese reform is more economic than political.” This, he says, is an unnecessary bias and misunderstanding.

The basics of Chinese democracy are people’s congresses at local, provincial and national levels. A Global Times report says “according to the State Council, ‘Deputies to the people’s congresses of cities not divided into districts, municipal districts, counties, autonomous counties, townships, ethnic minority townships and towns are elected directly by their constituencies. Deputies to the NPC [National People’s Congress] and the people’s congresses of the provinces, autonomous regions, municipalities directly under the Central Government, cities divided into districts, and autonomous prefectures are elected by the people’s congresses at the next lower level.’ These elections are all competitive.”

There are also regular consultations between government officials and the people at all levels. Key principles are “people-oriented government, human rights, private property, rule of law, civil society, harmonious society, government innovation, and good governance,” Yu Keping wrote.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is at the core of all this. Its 95 million members make it a preponderant factor in Chinese society. There are eight non-communist political parties, with which the CCP consults regularly. But CCP members lead society. The guiding slogan is “serve the people.” The story of the poverty eradication campaign provides a good example:

The targeted phase of poverty alleviation required building relationships and trust between the Party and the people in the countryside as well as strengthening Party organization at the grassroots level. Party secretaries [were] assigned to oversee the task of poverty alleviation across five levels of government, from the province, city, county, and township, down to the village… Three million carefully selected cadres were dispatched to poor villages, forming 255,000 teams that reside there. Living in humble conditions for generally one to three years at a time, the teams worked alongside poor peasants, local officials, and volunteers until each household was lifted out of poverty. In this process, many cadres were unable to return home to visit families for long stretches of time; some fell ill in the harsh natural conditions of rural areas and more than 1,800 Party members and officials lost their lives in the fight against poverty. The first teams were dispatched in 2013; by 2015, all poor villages had a resident team, and every poor household had an assigned cadre to help in the process of being lifted, and more importantly, of lifting themselves out of poverty. At the end of 2020, the goal of eliminating extreme poverty was reached.

The study says the “cadres and officials who have mobilized in the countryside have been essential in building public support for and confidence in the Party and the government.”

The government’s effective response to the COVID-19 pandemic continued to build public support. Shortly after Wuhan emerged from the COVID-19 lockdown, York University Professor Cary Woo led a survey of 19,816 people across 31 provinces and administrative regions. Published in the Washington Post, the study found that 49 percent of respondents became more trusting of the government following its response to the pandemic, and overall trust increased to 98 percent at the national level and 91 percent at the township level.

“The Chinese way of political development,” Yu Keping says, “is extremely different from the Western democratic tradition… Consequently, it is almost dead-end to explain the Chinese way of democratic politics through using existing Western democratic theories.” Democracy means “government by the people,” the professor says. So “the fundamental criteria to judge whether a country is a ‘democracy’ or not is government’s responsiveness to its citizens… As long as a country has formal institutions to guarantee that government policies can effectively reflect the public’s opinions, that citizens can participate in political life, and the incumbent political regime has to respond to people’s interests, it can be considered democratic regardless of the particular party systems, election procedures, or power separation mechanisms.”

Western Challenges
Former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo admitted in 2019 that “We lied, we cheated, we stole… It’s part of the glory of the American experiment.” Pompeo’s claims that the Chinese Communist Party is “the greatest danger” to democracy in the world, and that China’s to blame for the COVID-19 pandemic have served to discredit the U.S. position rather than strengthen it. Biden, Secretary of State Blinken and most in Congress, to their shame, are continuing Pompeo’s infamous campaign. Despite hundreds of millions of U.S. funds to support protests in Hong Kong, that effort has fizzled. Hong Kong ranks in the top three on the Fraser Human Freedoms Index, while the U.S. is in 17th place. (An earlier LA Progressive article provides additional information.)

Regarding claims of “genocide” in Xinjiang, Columbia University Professor Jeffrey Sachs, a special advisor to the UN Secretary General, says “The US government has offered no proof, and unless it can, the State Department should withdraw the charge.” Code Pink webinars have demolished U.S. anti-China claims. Using these lies and false accusations, the U.S. has imposed sanctions and launched an international boycott of products made in Xinjiang. The main result has been to hurt the people of Xinjiang. But the smear campaign has also confused many progressives and so-called “leftists” in the U.S., who have fallen victim to the continued repetition of these lies in the mainstream media.

China has answered the U.S. slander campaign with claims of its own. In late September it called on the UN Human Rights Council to “work to eliminate the negative impacts of colonialism on people around the world.” The statement, issued with 21 other countries, said “Economic exploitation, inequality, racism, violations of indigenous peoples’ rights, modern slavery, armed conflicts and damage to cultural heritage are among the legacies of colonial repression.” In a separate statement, China “called for nations that have conducted illegal military interventions to pay reparations. Without naming any states, he pointed out that such action had severe consequences for social and economic development.”

“A democratic system is a marriage of universality and particularity,” Professor Keping says. “We cannot make arbitrary conclusions that democracy has only one model merely based on the assumption that democracy is a universal value and has common features… The nature of democracy is government by the people or ‘people become their own masters,’ which is reflected in a series of institutions and mechanisms that guarantee the citizens’ democratic rights… Chinese democracy, growing out of Chinese tradition and society, will not only bring good fortune to the Chinese people, but also contribute greatly to the advancement of democratic theory and practice for all mankind.”

Category : China | Democracy | Blog
5
Sep

By TIM LACY

US Intellectual History Blog

FEB 20, 2014

Thinking Like a Gramscian Historian: An Introduction, a Provocation, and Guide to the Basics

What follows is a guide and provocation—not a formula—for writing as a mature, unorthodox Marxist historian. By the latter I mean as a “Gramscian Historian,” or perhaps something like a Critical Theorist historian. As the points below accumulate, moreover, you might see this as a guide to thinking like a Gramscian Intellectual Historian. We’ll see. [Note: This could be read as a companion to Kurt Newman’s November 19, 2013 post on Gramsci.]

The deeper I delve into the darkest corners of my theoretical self (an ongoing preoccupation over the past year, by choice and accident), I’m seeing myself as a someone who could get comfortable writing in a Critical Theorist-Gramscian historical mode of analysis. By this I do not mean using that mode to direct my selection of evidence, guide all of my interpretive decisions, or to depart from a factually rich style of writing (hopefully that sense of self will be confirmed as reviews of my book begin to appear). Rather, in a fashion true to the historicism of Max Horkheimer and the concreteness of Antonio Gramsci, I mean using that mode to help one make sense of the abstractions, generalizations, and inductions that arise from a deep immersion in evidence. A Gramscian-Critical Theorist mode of analysis is another important tool in my box of interpretive tools.

The immediate inspiration for this post is the death of Stuart Hall, but through a recommendation by James Livingston. When Jim posted a reflection about Hall on his Facebook page, he included a reference to Stuart Hall’s 1986 article “Gramsci’s Relevance for the Study of Race and Ethnicity” (Journal of Communication Inquiry, vol. 10, no. 5, pp. 5-27). I would’ve never noticed this without Jim’s shout-out, which included this marketing tag: “The best single piece on Gramsci I have ever read is not by Cammett or Genovese, or Nairn or Anderson, or, for that matter, Laclau and Mouffe, but by Hall, in the Journal of Communications Inquiry.” That is no small praise. I bought Livingston’s pitch, and this post is the result.

Almost everything in the outline, or program, below derives from the Hall article. That piece, in turn (which sadly contains no bibliography), relies primarily on Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks. But Hall also references a number of other pieces that may (I’m not sure) exist outside the Notebooks. Finally, in a bibliography afterwards I cite some other potentially useful secondary sources.

———————————————————————
How to Think Like a Gramscian Historian, as Inspired By Stuart Hall

Note: All page references are to the Hall article. Other sources are sprinkled throughout.

1. Like any good orthodox Marxist—as distinct from a unorthodox Marxist thinker like Gramsci—you must still know and understand the economic terrain/base. This means thinking about the period, particulars, and specifics of capital and labor. Be sensitive to communities and various regional differences. This is what helps make your historical thinking historicist. This means knowing both qualitative and quantitative data, as much as is possible. (pp. 14, 18)

2. Having learned the economic terrain, let it simmer in the background. Think about the contours of the story you have just ascertained—it’s elements of commodification and reification (the ‘thingification’ of social relations, as a relation of tradeable objects).

3. Ask how these contours, in turn, affected “superstructures” as manifest in culture, thought worlds, ideology, politics, psychology, and personality. Again, sensitivity to particular communities and regions, as well as periodization, is a necessity. (p. 14)

4. Think about the relations of conceptual superstructures to social forces and individuals. What are the various levels of articulation between these classes and forces, and how do they compete with each other? Be aware of sites of struggle and crisis. Think about whether the social force, movements, and individuals (all the players) are ‘organic’ (meaning historical and deep) or incidental (“occasional, immediate”). An ‘organic’ crisis can last for decades and is not static. (p. 13)

5. Has the interaction or coordination between these forces created a ‘hegemony’ or effected a historical bloc that sustains hegemonic environment? This definition of hegemony seems useful (from here): “the success of the dominant classes in presenting their definition of reality, their view of the world, in such a way that it is accepted by other classes as ‘common sense’.” Hegemonies are seen through their effects of power and control. Hall also seems to imply, to me anyway, that for Gramsci not all hegemonies are necessarily bad; they can dominate in positive and negative ways. Hegemony is, then, more of a descriptor than a shadowy monster. Hall notes that “‘hegemony’ is a very particular, historically specific, and temporary ‘moment’ in the life of a society.” It is multi-dimensional and has a multi-arena character that involves many fronts in society’s superstructure. Finally, it is a ‘historic bloc’ rather than a ‘ruling class’ that includes the “strata of the subaltern and dominated classes, who have been won over by specific concessions and compromises and who form part of the social constellation but in a subordinate role.” (pp. 14-15)

6. Is the hegemonic class dominating or leading? Domination can maintain the ascendancy of a class, but only with limited reach. A leading hegemonic bloc wins consent by taking into account “subordinate interests” and attempts to maintain popularity. Coercion and consent run together for Gramsci, and run the gamut of cultural, moral, ethical, and intellectual concerns. (p. 16-17)

7. Consider the power—“the sturdy structure”—of “civil society” when analyzing struggles. Most all struggles, in liberal democracies, are won by protracted and complex ‘wars of position’ rather than momentary ‘wars of maneuver” that are reminiscent of WWI trench battles. Those wars of position occur in the context of civil society. The ‘art of politics’, then, is what happens in the context of “voluntary associations, …schooling, the family, churches and religious life, cultural organizations, so-called private relations, gender, sexual and ethnic identities, etc.” The state, in this scenario, is both “educative and formative”—a “point of condensation” for those diverse kinds of institutions and their relations. The state is a function of the “civil hegemony” that derives from that civil society. The complexity of these historical circumstances cannot be emphasized enough. In Hall’s words (as inspired by Gramsci): “This points irrevocably to the increasing complexity of the inter-relationships in modern societies between state and civil society.” Hall adds: “The effect is to multiply and proliferate the various fronts of politics, and to differentiate the various kinds of social antagonisms.” (pp. 17-20)

8. Enter ideology, and how it affects civil society and hegemony. Gramsci defines ideology as “a conception of the world, any philosophy, which becomes a cultural movement, a ‘religion’, a ‘faith’, that has produced a form of practical activity or will in which a philosophy is contained as an implicit theoretical ‘premiss’. …In its best sense [it is]…a conception of the world that is implicitly manifest in art, in law, in economic activity and in all manifestations of individual and collective life.” Given this definition, Gramsci declares that the essential problem of ideology is how it “preserve[s] the ideological unity of the entire social bloc which that ideology serves to cement and unify.” Ideology consists of a philosophical core or nucleus that is linked and elaborated, in Hall’s words, “into practical and popular forms of consciousness” as they affect (and effect) “the broad masses of society, in the shape of a cultural movement, political tendency, faith or religion.” Gramsci is less concerned with the philosophical nucleus than ideology as an organic form which touches thinking people and “practical, everyday, common sense.’ The key here is that philosophy values coherence while common-sense thinking is eclectic—concerned with effectiveness and practice. Common-sense thinking, to Gramsci, is “not rigid and immobile but is continually transforming itself.” It also more likely to be a deep product of historical process. Finally, Gramsi circles back to everyday politics: “The relation between common sense and the upper-level of philosophy is assured by ‘politics’.” (p. 20-21)

9. At this point you, as an historian, might be asking about ‘the self’ and real people. What of the individual thinker, however complex or simple? Gramsci hasn’t forgotten you and them. Gramsci recognizes the individual via plurality. According to Hall, Gramsci “refuses any idea of a pre-given unified ideological subject.” There is a “‘plurality’ of selves or identities of which the so-called subject of thought and ideas is composed.” As such, “the personality is strangely composite.” And on that individual’s consciousness (always a tricky subject in Marxist thought), Hall sees Gramsci as drawing “attention to the contradiction in consciousness between the conception of the world which manifests itself…in action, and those conceptions which are affirmed verbally or in thought.” The result is a “complex, fragmentary and contradictory conception of consciousness” that surpasses considerably the “false consciousness” of traditional/orthodox Marxist thought. In sum, there is no “‘given’ and unified ideological class subject” (p. 22-23). We must try to understand those who participate in hegemonies in the smallest units possible to as to reflect individual and group agency (the final term being my import).

10. Finally, Gramsci even addresses paradigm change—the transformation of hegemonies. Hall found an extraordinary passage in the Prison Notebooks that hits Kuhnian tune. Here’s Hall’s narration:

“The multi-accentual, inter-discursive character of the field of ideology is explicitly acknowledged by Gramsci when…he describes how an old conception of the world is gradually displaced by another mode of thought and is internally reworked and transformed: ‘what matters is the criticism to which such an ideological complex is subjected…This makes possible a process of differentiation and change in the relative wight that the elements of the old ideologies used to possess…what was previously secondary and subordinate…becomes the nucleus of a new ideological and theoretical complex” (p. 23).

A Gramscian vision of benign or pernicious ideological, or hegemonic, change is one where the new paradigm always contains residues of the old. New ideas are articulated, and old one disarticulated. In either case history and historical circumstance are respected.

I noted this on the USIH Facebook page, but consider the “how to” outline above my own kind of tribute to both Stuart Hall—and James Livingston?. The latter probably gets more credit as an antagonist and provocateur than as an authentic person and inspiration to good historical thinking. This one is for you, Jim, even if you think it comes off as sucky, programmatic b.s. – TL

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Secondary Bibliography

Notes: (a) These are in addition the abovementioned Hall article and his embedded citations of Gramsci’s works. (b) I do not endorse these in their particulars, but rather as broad guides to thinking about Gramsci’s thought

“A Gramsci Glossary.” Workers’ Liberty. March 27, 2013.

Raney, Vanessa. “Gramsci Outside of Marx?: Defining Culture in Gramscian Terms.” Web essay, Claremont Graduate University (Fall 2003).

Rosengarten, Frank. “An Introduction to Gramsci’s Life and Thought.” Marxist Internet Archive Library, Antonio Gramsci Archive.

Category : Hegemony | Marxism | Theory | Blog