Racism

9
Dec

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review of Civil War by Other Means: America’s Long and Unfinished Fight for Democracy by Jeremi Suri (PublicAffairs, 2022)

By Matthew E. Stanley
Jacobin

A new book argues that the American right emerged out of a backlash to multiracial democracy following the Civil War. This is only partly true: reactionaries did not just fear democracy, they feared the economic redistribution former slaves associated with it.

In August, a poll conducted by YouGov revealed that 40 percent of Americans believe it likely that a civil war will take place within the next decade. That same poll showed that an even larger number, 62 percent, think that levels of political violence will increase within the next few years. Undeniably, there seems to be a sense among Americans that our democratic system is not robust enough to deal with the conflicts it generates. Moments of episodic crises, such as the January 6 insurrection, would then seem to be symptomatic of the broader structural problems with American democracy. But what is their cause?

In Civil War by Other Means: America’s Long and Unfinished Fight for Democracy, historian Jeremi Suri argues that the failure of Reconstruction, the ambitious post–Civil War project to create a new social order in the US South, explains not only the existence of a conspiratorial right but the January 6 insurrection too. Suri maintains that the world’s first experiment in genuine multiracial democracy inspired a long, violent resistance, not only against the progressive state governments of the 1860s and 1870s but against the very idea of a multiracial body politic. The effects of that backlash have reverberated for a century and a half, Suri argues, culminating with the ransacking of the US Capitol.

Suri’s study is thoughtful and deftly written. Its premise — that the January 6 attack, like Donald Trump himself, was far less a sudden, singular rupture than the predictable culmination of long-standing political currents — is indisputable. But by limiting its understanding of democracy to struggles for the franchise, Civil War by Other Means obscures what was at stake for former slaves and working-class whites during the Reconstruction era. Both groups were not simply concerned with the right to vote but in securing economic freedom for themselves after the dispossession of the planter class.

Ignoring these facts leads Suri to wrongly identify culture and constitutional encumbrances, rather than concentrated wealth under capitalism, as the primary obstacles to political self-determination.

A Splendid Failure
Suri begins by excavating the roots of white Southern anti-government resistance after slavery. In one chapter, he explores the power of martyrdom, including how the memory of John Wilkes Booth bolstered defenses of local white power, as anti-black collective violence surged throughout the former Confederacy. In another, he recounts how roughly fifty thousand white Southerners, mostly Confederate officers and Southern gentry, went into self-exile after Appomattox in the hopes of recreating their slave empire in Latin America.

These exiles, whom Ulysses S. Grant considered “a part of the Rebellion itself,” developed identities of resistance to multiracial democracy on both sides of the Rio Grande: against liberal reformers in Mexico and Radical Republicans in the United States. Suri views all of them — Lincoln’s assassins, Klansmen, and Confederate expatriates — as ideological ancestors of the January 6 insurrectionists.

Meanwhile, ex-slaves worked to realize their own understandings of democracy in the postwar South. The governments they created along with their allies, white Southern Unionists and black and white Northern “carpetbaggers,” were some of the most progressive in US history. In addition to universal male suffrage, the most reform-minded of those governments championed public education and infrastructure, women’s property rights, child labor laws, and new systems of credit that allowed poor people to buy land.

The result was, according to Suri, a “Second American Revolution” that made good on the promises of the Declaration of Independence. In some cases, Southern Republicanism was even more radical than Suri acknowledges. In New Orleans, for instance, the Republic Club sent a message of solidarity to the Paris Commune and applied for membership in the First International.

The book’s primary focus, however, is not grassroots radicalism but high politics. And it is here, in examining the nuances and limitations of the Republican Party, that Suri’s analysis is strongest. Considering how the party legislated and implemented policy to protect (or not) multiracial democracy in the South, he views Northern Republicans as necessary but cautious allies who were pushed from below.

Suri’s narrative is insightful but familiar: Andrew Johnson’s intransigence expanded and emboldened the Radicals in Congress; the Civil Rights Act of 1867, the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Reconstruction Acts opened democratic possibility in the South. Believing the Fifteenth Amendment to be “the most important event” in the nation’s history, President Grant proved an ardent defender of civil rights laws, and his use of military occupation largely worked against rising white violence. However, time, expense, political fatigue, and economic panic fed growing indifference in the North. With no popular base to support them, the gains of Reconstruction teetered on collapse.

The Rutherford Hayes and James Garfield presidencies had their opportunities to protect multiracial democracy, Suri argues, but were plagued by tepid leadership, constitutional crisis, corruption, and assassination. By the summer of 1877, Northern Republicans had acquiesced to “local self-government” (white rule) in the South while deploying federal forces against striking industrial workers in the North, facilitating their turn from “a party of money rather than a party of morals,” as Frederick Douglass put it. Associating “big government” with black rights, white reactionaries fomented a violent overthrow of what W. E. B. Du Bois termed the “abolition democracy,” ushering in home rule and eight decades of Jim Crow. The death of Reconstruction was the dawn of a new tradition of racialized anti-government activism.

Suri’s version of Reconstruction celebrates the inclusive, democratic possibilities of US politics while offering a broader critique of the US election system. Its riveting narrative offers a powerful warning against Whiggish conceptions of the past. Suri convincingly argues, for instance, that the presidential election of 1872 was the fairest and freest election in the nation’s history until the 1960s. This is a story of revolutionary conditions and remarkable multiracial advances leading to backlash, violence, and the deterioration of political and social rights. Rather than a march of progress, this analysis of American democracy is that of an ongoing project — one that is long, arduous, uneven, and woefully incomplete.

A Flawed Democracy
Suri maintains that the problems of Reconstruction and of Republican efforts to protect multiracial democracy are the problems of our time, too. Since its inception in the early nineteenth century, mass democracy in the United States has always been contested, its expansion predicated on hard-fought struggles for rights. There was never a golden age of American democracy. Indeed, the scope of disenfranchisement is even wider than Suri lets on. Enormous blocs of should-be voters have been — and in many cases continue to be — restricted by gender, race, servitude, the absence of property, age, ethnicity, literacy, criminal record, ability, or national origin. In many ways, the American ballot box has merely registered political outcomes that were largely determined before voting even began.

We still carry the US election system that Suri characterizes as arbitrary and contentious, and it has contributed to the nation’s current status as a “flawed democracy,” according to the Democracy Index. As Suri notes, the Constitution’s minoritarian elements — including the document’s strong protection of property rights, emphasis on capital mobility, and relative difficulty to amend — were designed by slaveholders and an ownership class that was deeply suspicious of, if not actively hostile to, popular democracy. Even for white male property owners, the system was mediated through a convoluted network of electors and representatives. Other features of US politics that structurally assist the forces of white democracy, according to Suri, include rampant gerrymandering, various forms of voter suppression, the nondemocratic nature of the US Senate and the Supreme Court, and the disenfranchisement of US citizens in the non-state territories of Washington, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, and the Mariana Islands (whose residents are principally, and not coincidentally, non-white people).

It was not simply multiracial democracy per se that white reactionaries of the Reconstruction era found so offensive; it was the threat that mass democracy posed to material as well as racial status.
Suri reserves his greatest ire, however, for the Electoral College, which he identifies as an archaic, elitist, antidemocratic, and deeply unpopular relic of the eighteenth century. To be sure, Reconstruction-era Republicans benefited from that outmoded system, as Hayes won the Electoral College but not the popular vote in 1876. At the same time, white Southern fears of government unleashed during Reconstruction have helped sustain this undemocratic system ever since. Further, the Electoral College would for decades afford disproportionate power to the segregationist South, since black people counted as full persons for purposes of electoral representation after the Fifteenth Amendment but were disenfranchised by Jim Crow laws.

These weaknesses in our constitutional system and the absence of a direct popular vote continue to enable right-wing authoritarianism, Suri contends. Today’s Republicans are generally hostile to voting rights because they view them, understandably, as more likely to check than augment their power. Some party leaders, including senator Mike Lee of Utah, have gone so far as to openly celebrate the Constitution’s lack of democracy. In his book’s final chapter, Suri makes several recommendations about how to stave off this antidemocratic momentum and ostensibly “save our democracy.” He proposes a constitutional amendment guaranteeing all citizens the right to vote, the abolition of the Electoral College, the legal prohibition of partisan gerrymandering, and a new and more democratic presidential line of succession.

This focus on formal politics, intriguing though it is, nevertheless offers an incomplete portrait of the Reconstruction era. And Suri’s emphasis on technocratic fixes also skirts vital questions about securing, maintaining, and leveraging power. (How will these laws come to pass without a mass movement?) In other words, Civil War by Other Means falls short not in its diagnosis of problems but in its identification of causes and solutions. In Suri’s telling, Radical Reconstruction was hindered by anti-black violence, shifting public opinion, and the constraints of the political system. It was not hindered by class conditions. Similar to the mono-causal “whitelash” theory that gained traction after the 2016 election, Suri views racial resentment, rather than white supremacy bound to political economy, as the principal explanatory factor for Reconstruction’s failure — and for the precarious state of US democracy.

In truth, it was not simply multiracial democracy per se that white reactionaries of the Reconstruction era found so offensive; it was the threat that mass democracy posed to material as well as racial status. Anti-black collective violence was not identical to class violence, but the two were inseparable. Suri too often overlooks this fact. Indeed, the Ku Klux Klan was not just a violent hate group; it was also effectively, as Chad Pearson argues in the book Capital’s Terrorists, a business owners’ organization. The white counterrevolution was not merely a racial project; it was also, as Du Bois argued, a conflict among classes, with former slaveholders using race hatred to “achieve economic security and restore fatal losses of capital and investment.”

Insurrectionist Workers?
Suri’s misapplication of class begins in the book’s introduction, which profiles insurrectionist Kevin Seefried as emblematic of those who stormed the US Capitol. A white worker and Sons of Confederate Veterans member from Sussex County, Delaware, Seefried supports Suri’s long Civil War thesis. After all, Seefried is an avowed anti-government white nationalist who forced a Confederate flag into the congressional chambers. But while Suri explains that the grievances of insurrectionists like Seefried may have stemmed in part from being “left behind” by the nation’s move toward a “multiracial meritocracy,” he marshals no evidence that Seefried was representative of the pro-Trump mob.

In reality, Seefried was a typical rioter only in that he is a white male who holds far-right political views (the January 6 insurrectionists were roughly 86 percent men and 93 percent non-Hispanic white). Few (about 14 percent) were members of militias or other hate or extremist groups. Far more (around 20 percent) were former military, offering further evidence that “the bombs explode at home.” Nor did the insurrectionists simply hail from rural America. They also came from the nation’s largest metro areas: New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Dallas, and Houston. Rather than urbanity or rurality, the common-origin denominator among the rioters involved demographic trends. Most came from counties that are trending rapidly toward racial pluralism and majority-minority status, and where the share of the white population is declining at rates well above the national average. This, no doubt, speaks to the valence within their ranks of a “Great Replacement” theory, one promulgated by conservative media personalities.

Most critically, the January 6 insurrectionists were not downtrodden workers, unemployed and uneducated, as Suri’s portrait of Seefried suggests. The vast majority were, like Trump’s base, professional-class, with disproportionate numbers of deeply conservative provincial elites from midsize cities, small towns, and retirement enclaves. Some were the bourgeoise that Patrick Wyman terms the “American gentry” — business and property owners who sit atop local hierarchies, and who “see themselves as local leaders in business and politics, the unappreciated backbone of a once-great nation.” Fearful of wavering influence in their own (typically racially and socioeconomically segregated) communities, they equated Trump’s “Make America Great Again” with protection of both their financial assets and racial identities.

In fact, the University of Chicago’s Project on Security and Threats obtained employment data for 501 of the 716 people arrested or charged for their role in January 6. The vast majority were either business owners, self-employed, or white-collar professionals, including doctors, lawyers, bankers, architects, and accountants. Only 22 percent of the sample held what the compilers described as “blue collar” jobs, as either wage-earning or salaried workers. Only 7 percent were unemployed. Even relative to other right-wing extremist groups as compiled by the FBI, the January 6 insurrectionists were strikingly well-off. After all, partaking in a prearranged government takeover in one of the nation’s most expensive cities requires time off work, as well as travel, airfare, and hotel expense. Many of the rioters dined in gourmet restaurants the night of January 5. Others stayed at the posh Willard Hotel, where rooms will cost you over $300 per night. Some even flew to the “Stop the Steal” rally on private jets.

Among both white and black Radicals, phrases including ‘better classes,’ ‘most respectable,’ and ‘best men’ were code for the class difference between free men of color and recently freed slaves.
The depiction of Kevin Seefried as a typical insurrectionist reinforces Suri’s idea of the roots of racial repression as primarily cultural, based on “habit and tradition,” rather than material, in the service of profit and class hegemony. However, belief in the Big lie, and the willingness to act violently on its behalf, is dangerous not because it holds sway among relatively powerless citizens like Seefried. It is dangerous because it is mainstream among relatively affluent members of a particular social class, the vast majority of whom, yes, are white, and who wield white nationalism in the service of class politics, as well as class power in the service of white nationalism. This is not to downplay the obvious role that white identity played in both Trump’s election and January 6, only to highlight that it is not fringe bands of neo-Confederates but acute inequality, engendered by the basic machinations of capitalism, that poses the greatest threat to American democracy.

Democracy on the Land
For a book about the long struggle for democracy, Suri’s study contains surprisingly little about contests over the meaning of democracy. His emphasis is on electoral democracy, or the processes by which enfranchised people vote for political representatives in periodically held elections. Yet more than any period of US history, Reconstruction demonstrates how this definition of democracy is necessary but insufficient. Although Suri characterizes Reconstruction as “a struggle over conflicting conceptions of democracy,” his core question is “democracy for whom?” and not “democracy of what kind?” Put another way, Suri’s notion of democracy pivots entirely on race — white man’s democracy vs. multiracial democracy — while obscuring intraracial distinctions and calls for economic democracy.

Former slaves did indeed see voting rights and ballot inclusion as fundamental rights. However, Suri’s claim that blacks recognized “representation in politics” as “the basic foundation of democracy” requires further context, and the book’s fixation on voting rights gives the impression that land ownership was of secondary importance to former slaves. It was not.

Although Suri’s flattening of critical class differences prevents him from exploring such issues, countless ex-slaves prioritized rights in land as equal to or above voting. This was especially true of newly emancipated people in rural areas, most of them landless and illiterate, whose demands tended to be more material than their free counterparts in the urban South. One freedman prefigured Martin Luther King Jr’s pithy critique of civil rights devoid of economic justice: “What’s the use of being free if you don’t own enough land to be buried in?”

The story of “Forty acres and a mule” as a dream deferred, though largely absent from Suri’s account, is essential to any materialist interpretation of Reconstruction — or of US history for that matter. Eager to kickstart the South’s cash crop economy, Southern planters and Northern capitalists each had a vested interest in opposing both communitarianism (democratically owned property) and independent proprietorship (small-scale privately owned property) for former slaves. Some of the latter feared that land redistribution in the South would lead industrial workers in the North to challenge other forms of property. Countless Northern industrialists, philanthropists, and politicians supported black political rights out of either sincere egalitarian impulses or an opportunity to grow their political party in the South. But many also feared alliances between former slaves and poor and middling white agrarians in the North and West. Even free blacks, white reformers, and Freedmen’s Bureau agents, most of them well-meaning, sincerely believed that the dependency of wage labor was the surest way to self-sufficiency for former slaves.

While Reconstruction represented an exceptional — and in many ways revolutionary — reallocation of power toward working people, property confiscation constituted what historian Michael Fitzgerald calls a “wartime vogue,” far less a result of ideology than of military necessity. By 1866, the idea of land redistribution for ex-slaves was a nonstarter. Allies of the former slaves, including the Freedmen’s Aid Association, the American Missionary Association, and the Freedmen’s Bureau, called for education, thrift, and land purchase through savings as substitutes for land reform. As time wore on, Southern state governments and most congressional Republicans exhibited what historian Claude Oubre terms only a “meager effort” to provide economic security for blacks. The democratic visions of these institutions were limited somewhat by the economic concepts of the time and the political constraints of the moment. But they were also limited by their class positions.

Of course, there were also black intraracial class tensions, particularly in urban centers. While the postwar South held a broad range of black voters, leaders, and convention delegates, contested definitions of democracy, including which of its elements should be emphasized, tended to break along class lines. Among both white and black Radicals, phrases including “better classes,” “most respectable,” and “best men” were code for the class difference between free men of color and recently freed slaves — and also served as indicators of democratic prerogatives. In his study of Reconstruction-era Mobile, Alabama, historian Michael Fitzgerald argues that “class divisions within the black community were so urgent that factional conflict could not be contained.”

As early as the state black conventions of 1865, Eric Foner observes a striking divide between more prominent leaders who pushed “political equality and self-help formulas,” and rural freedmen who possessed above all a “thirst for land.” Demanding “land or blood,” ex-slaves in the countryside decisively favored assembly delegates who called for plantations to be broken up. Yet convention leaders rarely highlighted such views. “By and large,” Foner contends, “economic concerns figured only marginally in the proceedings, and the addresses and resolutions offered no economic program, apart from stressing the ‘mutual interest’ of capital and labor, and urging self-improvement as the route to personal advancement.” Describing this gulf between ex-slaves and free blacks (the self-described men of “intelligence and wealth”), historian Ted Tunnell argues that the type of civic rights prioritized by free blacks, notably equal access to public spaces such as theaters, saloons, and steamboats, were “remote from the needs and aspirations of the overwhelming majority of ex-slaves who lived hard lives on toil and ceaseless anxiety.”

In his 1935 Marxist masterwork, Black Reconstruction in America, Du Bois characterizes Radical Reconstruction as a “dictatorship of labor” and acknowledges that the failure of land reform had far more to do with white than black opposition. Yet he also maintains that black leadership during Reconstruction skewed petite bourgeois, its members steeped in an individualistic, capitalist ideology (which was by no means unique to the black middle class).

In other words, former slaves who desperately needed land were too often represented by conservative white Unionists and free blacks whose class statuses and interests disinclined them from supporting large-scale material redistribution, which raises the question: Were Reconstruction governments truly a “dictatorship of labor,” or were they liberal and multiracial bourgeois alliances sustained by the votes of black and a minority of poor whites?

The book’s key shortcoming lies in its failure to address the full spectrum of Reconstruction-era democracy and to foreground the materialist nature of its social and political conflict.
In either case, former slaves constituted a distinct and especially radical social class. They envisioned self-ownership as a right, viewing it not as apart from, but essential to and often ahead of, voting. Most understood that political democracy would be limited — and even be turned back altogether — without control over the land that their labor had made productive. And they perceived this issue as both a matter of justice and, in many cases, precedent. As Du Bois points out, “The German and English and French serf, the Italian and Russian serf, were, on emancipation, given definite rights in the land. Only the American negro slave was emancipated without such rights and in the end this spelled for him the continuation of slavery.” Writing on Louisiana’s 1867 Radical convention, Tunnell explained that although civil rights were a monumental achievement, they did not directly address “fundamental economic problems.” “More than anything else,” he insists, “ex-slaves needed land.”

Democracy, in other words, was a contested concept in the Reconstruction South, not only between black and white but within the Radical movement. While Radicals shared common commitments to civil rights and state building, they were not a class coalition. And when the interests of Northern capital, the Northern voting public, and former slaves no longer intersected, as was the case by 1874, the coalition broke down. Despite populist economic programs and the workerist orientation of some party leaders, the absence of a working-class movement rendered social democracy unachievable, and the lack of social democracy in the South — the failure of land reform specifically — made the counterrevolution of property almost inevitable.

Beyond Political Democracy
As a history of Reconstruction, Civil War by Other Means is a brisk, engaging, and often penetrating read. Suri imposes a degree of continuity sure to give some historians pause — drawing a rather straight line between the Union Leagues and Black Lives Matter, between the Klan and QAnon, Ben “Pitchfork” Tillman and Donald Trump, white hoods and red hats. Yet the book’s premise, that “the Civil War never fully ended” and that its pronounced divisions related to race and anti-statism have been festering in US politics since Reconstruction, is unquestionable. Although his frequent use of Trump-era media language — “disinformation,” “white privilege,” “treason,” and “insurrection” — seems like an appeal to the incrementalist MSNBC crowd, Suri makes bold constitutional proposals and shows an uncommon commitment to representative government, multiracial political democracy, and majority rule, which he views as the solutions to the stubborn problem of white nationalism. In that regard, Civil War by Other Means is superior to other post-2016 studies of race in America that paint whiteness more as a timeless feature to be condemned morally and “worked through” by self-help-oriented individuals than a manifestation of social conditions to be overcome through mass politics.

But the book’s key shortcoming lies in its failure to address the full spectrum of Reconstruction-era democracy and to foreground the materialist nature of its social and political conflict. Suri hopes Americans will safeguard their democracy by digging up the roots to “remove the rot,” but his vision, which would no doubt remake US politics for the better, never transcends technocratic proceduralism. Skipping over the vital question of movement building, Suri is most concerned with what to do with power once achieved rather than how to achieve it. Accordingly, he views white nationalism as a cultural and political problem to be curbed through constitutional change rather than a question rooted in material relations to be solved through social transformation. In other words, Suri’s “democracy” is neither social democracy nor economic democracy. It is certainly not democratic socialism, with its emphasis on democratic participation beyond the political arena and a more equal distribution of resources through worker control.

Ultimately, Suri fails to answer a basic question: Is it even possible to possess and express equal political rights — to, in effect, “do” political democracy — in a profoundly materially unequal society devoid of economic rights? That question, too, is a legacy of Reconstruction, and part of our long and unfinished fight.

Matthew E. Stanley teaches in the department of history and political science at Albany State University.

 

Category : Capitalism | Marxism | Racism | Slavery | US History | 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
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
31
Jul

Decolonization and Communism

 

 

By Nodrada

“We have to give life to Indo-American socialism with our own reality, in our own language.
Here is a mission worthy of a new generation.”
-José Carlos Mariátegui, “Anniversary and Balance,” José Carlos Mariátegui: AnAnthology

 

June 26, 2021 Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Orinoco TribuneWhile the turn towards analyzing ongoing settler-colonialism has finally reached the mainstream of North American political discussions, there is still a lack of popular understanding of the issues involved. Settler-colonialism is, ironically, understood within the framework of the ways of thinking brought by the European ruling classes to the Americas. By extension, the conceptions of decolonization are similarly limited. Although the transition from analyzing psychological or “discursive” decolonization to analyzing literal, concrete colonization has been extremely important, it requires some clarifications.

Settler–colonialism is a form of colonialism distinct from franchise colonialism. The colonizers seek primarily to eliminate the indigenous population rather than exploit them, as in the latter form of colonialism. Decolonization is the struggle to abolish colonial conditions, though approaches to it may vary. Societies formed on a settler-colonial basis include the United States, Canada, Israel, New Zealand, and Australia. For our purposes, we will focus on the United States in analyzing local ideas of settler-colonialism and decolonization.

Among North American radicals, there are two frequent errors in approaching decolonization.

On the one hand, there are the opponents of decolonization who argue that settler-colonialism no longer exists. In their view, to identify specific concerns for Indigenous peoples and to identify the ongoing presence of settler-colonial social positions is divisive and stuck in the past. They believe that settlers no longer exist, and Euro-Americans have fully become indigenous to North America through a few centuries of residency.

On the other hand, there are proponents of decolonization who believe that Euro-Americans are eternally damned as settlers, and cannot be involved in any radical change whatsoever. The most extreme of these argue for the exclusion of Euro-Americans from radical politics entirely.

Settler-colonialism is not over, contrary to the first view. Rather, Indigenous peoples still struggle for their rights to sovereignty within and outside reservations, especially ecological-spiritual rights. Their ostensibly legally recognized rights are not respected, either. The examples of the struggles of the Wet’suwet’en, Standing Rock Lakota, Mi’kmaq, and other peoples in recent memory are testimony to this. Indigenous peoples are still here, and they are still fighting to thrive as Indigenous peoples. Capitalists drive to exploit the earth, destroying ecology and throwing society into what John Bellamy Foster calls a metabolic rift. This means that the demands of capital for expansion are incompatible with the ‘rhythm’ of ecology, destroying concrete life for abstract aims as a result.

An atomistic, individualist worldview is what undergirds the view of settler-colonialism as over and of contemporary Euro-Americans as being just as indigenous as Indigenous peoples. When settler-colonialism is seen as an individual responsibility or guilt, we are left with a very crude concept of it.

The denialists of settler-colonialism assume that it must be over, because the colonization of the Americas is apparently over. Thus, they think that modern Euro-Americans cannot be blamed for the sins of their forefathers, since individuals shouldn’t be held responsible for things which happened outside of their lifetimes. Guilt in this conception is an assessment of whether an atomistic individual is responsible for extremely specific crimes, such as participating in something like the Paxton Boys’ ethnic cleansing campaign in 1763 Pennsylvania.

The same ideological approach characterizes the other side, which obsesses over the individual status of “settler” and micro-categorizing the contemporary residents of North America within an abstract concept of settler-colonialism. They argue that having the individual status of “settler” means one is eternally damned, one is marked as a specific person by the crimes of a social system always and forever. This hefty sentence has high stakes, thus the obsession with categorizing every unique case within a specific box. continue

Category : Marxism | Racism | Socialism | Theory | US History | Blog
25
Oct


Protestors demonstrate during a ‘No Evictions, No Police’ national day of action protest against law enforcement who forcibly remove people from homes on September 1, 2020, in New York City. ANGELA WEISS / AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

By William I. Robinson
Truthout

Oct 25, 2020 – Few would disagree in light of recent events that the Trump regime, its most diehard extreme-right, white supremacist supporters, and elements of the Republican Party are bidding for a fascist putsch. Whether this putsch remains insurgent or is beaten back will depend on how events unfold in the November 3 election and its aftermath, and especially on the ability of left and progressive forces to mobilize to defend democracy and to push forward a social justice agenda as a counterweight to the fascist project.

This fight can benefit from analytical clarity as to what we are up against — in particular, analysis that links the threat of fascism to capitalism and its crisis. I have been writing about the rise of 21st-century fascist projects around the world since 2008. While such a project has been brewing in the United States since the early 21st century, it entered a qualitatively new stage with the rise of Trumpism in 2016 and appears to be fast-tracked now as the election draws near.

In the broader picture, fascism, whether in its 20th- or 21st-century variant, is a particular, far right response to capitalist crisis, such as that of the 1930s and the one that began with the financial meltdown of 2008 and has now been greatly intensified by the pandemic. Trumpism in the United States; Brexit in the United Kingdom; the increasing influence of neo-fascist and authoritarian parties and movements throughout Europe (including Poland, Germany, Hungary, Austria, Italy, the Netherlands, Denmark, France, Belgium and Greece), and around the world (such as in Israel, Turkey, the Philippines, Brazil and India), represent just such a far-right response to the crisis.

Trumpism and Fascism

The telltale signs of the fascist threat in the United States are in plain sight. Fascist movements expanded rapidly since the turn of the century in civil society and in the political system through the right wing of the Republican Party. Trump proved to be a charismatic figure able to galvanize and embolden disparate neo-fascist forces, from white supremacists, white nationalists, militia, neo-Nazis and Klansmen, to the Oath Keepers, the Patriot Movement, Christian fundamentalists, and anti-immigrant vigilante groups. Since 2016, numerous other groups have emerged, from the Proud Boys and QAnon to the Boogaloo movement (whose explicit goal is to spark a civil war) and the terrorist Michigan group known as Wolverine Watchmen. They are heavily armed and mobilizing for confrontation in near-perfect consort with the extreme right wing of the Republican Party, which long since has captured that party and turned it into one of utter reaction.

Encouraged by Trump’s imperial bravado, his populist and nationalist rhetoric, and his openly racist discourse, predicated in part on whipping up anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and anti-Black sentiment, they began to cross-pollinate to a degree not seen in decades as they gained a toehold in the Trump White House and in state and local governments around the country. Paramilitarism spread within many of these organizations and overlapped with state repressive agencies. Racist, far right and fascist militia, identified by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security as the most lethal domestic terrorist threat, operate inside law enforcement agencies. As far back as 2006, a government intelligence assessment had warned of “white supremacist infiltration of law enforcement by organized groups and by self-initiated infiltration by law enforcement personnel sympathetic to white supremacist causes.”

Fascism seeks to violently restore capital accumulation, establish new forms of state legitimacy and suppress threats from below unencumbered by democratic constraints.


The fascist insurgency reached a feverish pitch in the wake of the mass protests sparked by the police-perpetrated murder of George Floyd in May. Among recent incidents too numerous to list, fascist militia members have routinely showed up heavily armed at anti-racist rallies to threaten protesters, and in several instances, have carried out assassinations. Trump has refused to condemn the armed right-wing insurgency. To the contrary, he defended a self-described vigilante and “Blue Lives Matter” enthusiast who shot to death two unarmed protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on August 25. On September 3, federal marshals carried out an extra-judicial execution of Michael Reinoehl, who admitted to shooting a few days earlier a member of the white supremacist group Patriot Prayer during a confrontation between Trump supporters and counterprotesters in Portland, Oregon. “There has to be retribution,” declared Trump in a chilling interview in which he seemed to take credit for what amounted to a death squad execution.

Particularly ominous was the plot by a domestic terrorist militia group, broken up on October 8, to storm the Michigan state capitol to kidnap and possibly kill the Democratic governor of Michigan and other officials, a conspiracy that the White House refused to condemn. While there are great differences between 20th- and 21st-century fascism and any parallels should not be exaggerated, we would do well to recall the 1923 “beer hall putsch” in Bavaria, Germany, which marked a turning point in the Nazis’ rise to power. In that incident, Hitler and a heavily armed group of his followers hatched a plot to kidnap leaders of the Bavarian government. Loyal government officials put down the putsch and jailed Hitler but the fascist insurgency expanded in its aftermath.

The fascist putsch now hinges on the November election. The rule of law is breaking down. Trump has claimed, without any credible evidence, that the vote will be fraudulent, has refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power should he lose, and has all but called on his supporters to be prepared for an insurrection. Himself a transnational capitalist, a racist and a fascist, Trump took advantage of the protests over the murder of George Floyd to bring the project to a new level, inciting from the White House itself the fascist mobilization in U.S. civil society, manipulating fear and a racist backlash with his “law and order” discourse, and threatening a qualitative escalation of the police state. Widespread and systematic voter suppression, especially of those from marginalized communities, has already disenfranchised millions. Donald Trump Jr. called in September for “every able-bodied man and woman to join an army for Trump’s election security operation.”

Morphology of the Fascist Project

The escalation of veiled and also openly racist discourse from above is aimed at ushering the members of this white working-class sector into a racist and a neo-fascist understanding of their condition.
The current crisis of global capitalism is both structural and political. Politically, capitalist states face spiraling crises of legitimacy after decades of hardship and social decay wrought by neoliberalism, aggravated now by these states’ inability to manage the health emergency and the economic collapse. The level of global social polarization and inequality is unprecedented. The richest 1 percent of humanity control more than half of the world’s wealth while the bottom 80 percent had to make do with just 5 percent of this wealth. Such extreme inequalities can only be sustained by extreme levels of state and private violence that lend themselves to fascist political projects.

Structurally, the global economy is mired in a crisis of overaccumulation, or chronic stagnation, made much worse by the pandemic. As inequalities escalate, the system churns out more and more wealth that the mass of working people cannot actually consume. As a result, the global market cannot absorb the output of the global economy. The transnational capitalist class cannot find outlets to “unload” the trillions of dollars it has accumulated. In recent years, it has turned to mind-boggling levels of financial speculation, to the raiding and sacking of public budgets, and to militarized accumulation or accumulation by repression. This refers to how accumulation of capital comes increasingly to rely on transnational systems of social control, repression and warfare, as the global police state expands to defend the global war economy from rebellions from below.

Fascism seeks to rescue capitalism from this organic crisis; that is, to violently restore capital accumulation, establish new forms of state legitimacy and suppress threats from below unencumbered by democratic constraints. The project involves a fusion of repressive and reactionary state power with a fascist mobilization in civil society. Twenty-first-century fascism, like its 20th-century predecessor, is a violently toxic mix of reactionary nationalism and racism. Its discursive and ideological repertoire involves extreme nationalism and the promise of national regeneration, xenophobia, doctrines of race/culture supremacy alongside a violent racist mobilization, martial masculinity, militarization of civic and political life, and the normalization — even glorification — of war, social violence and domination.

As with its 20th-century predecessor, the 21st-century fascist project hinges on the psychosocial mechanism of dispersing mass fear and anxiety at a time of acute capitalist crisis toward scapegoated communities, whether Jews in Nazi Germany, immigrants in the United States, or Muslims and lower castes in India, and also on to an external enemy, such as communism during the Cold War, or China and Russia currently. It seeks to organize a mass social base with the promise to restore stability and security to those destabilized by capitalist crises. Fascist organizers appeal to the same social base of those millions who have been devastated by neoliberal austerity, impoverishment, precarious employment and relegation to the ranks of surplus labor, all greatly aggravated by the pandemic. As popular discontent has spread, far right and neo-fascist mobilization play a critical role in the effort by dominant groups to channel this discontent away from a critique of global capitalism and toward support for the transnational capitalist class agenda dressed in populist rhetoric.

The ideology of 21st-century fascism rests on irrationality — a promise to deliver security and restore stability that is emotive, not rational. It is a project that does not distinguish between the truth and the lie.

The fascist appeal is directed in particular to historically privileged sectors of the global working class, such as white workers in the Global North and urban middle layers in the Global South, that are experiencing heightened insecurity and the specter of downward mobility and socioeconomic destabilization. The flip side of targeting certain disaffected sectors is the violent control and suppression of other sectors — which, in the United States, come disproportionately from the ranks of surplus labor, communities that face racial and ethnic oppression, or religious and other forms of persecution.

The mechanisms of coercive exclusion include mass incarceration and the spread of prison-industrial complexes; anti-immigrant legislation and deportation regimes; the manipulation of space in new ways so that both gated communities and ghettos are controlled by armies of private security guards and technologically advanced surveillance systems; ubiquitous, often paramilitarized policing; “non-lethal” crowd control methods; and mobilization of the culture industries and state ideological apparatuses to dehumanize victims of global capitalism as dangerous, depraved and culturally degenerate.

Racism and Competing Interpretations of the Crisis

We cannot under-emphasize the role of racism for the fascist mobilization in the United States. But we need to deepen our analysis of it. The U.S. political system and the dominant groups face a crisis of hegemony and legitimacy. This has involved the breakdown of the white racist historic bloc that to one extent or another reigned supreme from the end of post-Civil War reconstruction to the late 20th century but has become destabilized through capitalist globalization. The far right and neo-fascists are attempting to reconstruct such a bloc, in which “national” identity becomes “white identity” as a stand-in (that is, a code) for a racist mobilization against perceived sources of anxiety and insecurity.

Yet many white members of the working class have been experiencing social and economic destabilization, downward mobility, heightened insecurity, an uncertain future and accelerated precariatization — that is, ever more precarious work and life conditions. This sector has historically enjoyed the ethnic-racial privileges that come from white supremacy vis-à-vis other sectors of the working class, but it has been losing these privileges in the face of capitalist globalization. The escalation of veiled and also openly racist discourse from above is aimed at ushering the members of this white working-class sector into a racist and a neo-fascist understanding of their condition.

To beat back the threat of fascism, popular resistance forces must put forward an alternative interpretation of the crisis, involving a social justice agenda founded on a working-class politics.

Racism and the appeal to fascism offer workers from the dominant racial or ethnic group an imaginary solution to real contradictions; recognition of the existence of suffering and oppression, even though its solution is a false one. The parties and movements associated with such projects have put forth a racist discourse, less coded and less mediated than that of mainstream politicians, targeting the racially oppressed, ethnic or religious minorities, immigrants and refugees in particular as scapegoats. Yet in this age of globalized capitalism, there is little possibility in the United States or elsewhere of providing such benefits, so that the “wages of fascism” now appear to be entirely psychological. The ideology of 21st-century fascism rests on irrationality — a promise to deliver security and restore stability that is emotive, not rational. It is a project that does not and need not distinguish between the truth and the lie.

The Trump regime’s public discourse of populism and nationalism, for example, bears no relation to its actual policies. Trumponomics involves a sweeping deregulation of capital, slashing social spending, dismantling what remains of the welfare state, privatization, tax breaks to corporations and the rich, anti-worker laws, and an expansion of state subsidies to capital — in short, radical neoliberalism. Trump’s populism has no policy substance. It is almost entirely symbolic — hence the significance of his fanatical “build the wall” and similar rhetoric, symbolically essential to sustain a social base for which the state can provide little or no material bribe. This also helps to explain the increasing desperation in Trump’s bravado as the election approaches.

But here is the clincher: Deteriorating socioeconomic conditions and rising insecurity do not automatically lead to racist or fascist backlash. A racist/fascist interpretation of these conditions must be mediated by political agents and state agencies. Trumpism represents just such a mediation.

To beat back the threat of fascism, popular resistance forces must put forward an alternative interpretation of the crisis, involving a social justice agenda founded on a working-class politics that can win over the would-be social base of fascism. This would-be base is made up of a majority of workers who are experiencing the same deleterious effects of global capitalism in crisis as the entire working class. We need a social justice and working-class agenda to respond to its increasingly immiserated condition, lest we leave it susceptible to a far right populist manipulation of this condition. Joe Biden may well win the election. Yet even if he does so and manages to take office, the crisis of global capitalism and the fascist project it is stoking will continue. A united front against fascism must be based on a social justice agenda that targets capitalism and its crisis.

William I. Robinson is distinguished professor of sociology, global studies and Latin American studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. His most recent book is The Global Police State. His Facebook blog page is WilliamIRobinsonSociologist.

Category : Fascism | Militarism | Neoliberalism | Racism | Rightwing Populism | Trump | Blog
11
Jul

Police officers line up by the AFL-CIO building during a stand-off between law enforcement officers and protesters at the Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, DC, on June 23. Astrid Riecken/Washington Post/Getty Images

Inside the distinctive, largely unknown ideology of American policing — and how it justifies racist violence

By Zack Beauchamp
Vox.com

July 7, 2020 – Arthur Rizer is a former police officer and 21-year veteran of the US Army, where he served as a military policeman. Today, he heads the criminal justice program at the R Street Institute, a center-right think tank in DC. And he wants you to know that American policing is even more broken than you think.

“That whole thing about the bad apple? I hate when people say that,” Rizer tells me. “The bad apple rots the barrel. And until we do something about the rotten barrel, it doesn’t matter how many good fucking apples you put in.”

To illustrate the problem, Rizer tells a story about a time he observed a patrol by some officers in Montgomery, Alabama. They were called in to deal with a woman they knew had mental illness; she was flailing around and had cut someone with a broken plant pick. To subdue her, one of the officers body-slammed her against a door. Hard.

Rizer recalls that Montgomery officers were nervous about being watched during such a violent arrest — until they found out he had once been a cop. They didn’t actually have any problem with what one of them had just done to the woman; in fact, they started laughing about it.

“It’s one thing to use force and violence to affect an arrest. It’s another thing to find it funny,” he tells me. “It’s just pervasive throughout policing. When I was a police officer and doing these kind of ride-alongs [as a researcher], you see the underbelly of it. And it’s … gross.”

America’s epidemic of police violence is not limited to what’s on the news. For every high-profile story of a police officer killing an unarmed Black person or tear-gassing peaceful protesters, there are many, many allegations of police misconduct you don’t hear about — abuses ranging from excessive use of force to mistreatment of prisoners to planting evidence. African Americans are arrested and roughed up by cops at wildly disproportionate rates, relative to both their overall share of the population and the percentage of crimes they commit.

Something about the way police relate to the communities they’re tasked with protecting has gone wrong. Officers aren’t just regularly treating people badly; a deep dive into the motivations and beliefs of police reveals that too many believe they are justified in doing so.

To understand how the police think about themselves and their job, I interviewed more than a dozen former officers and experts on policing. These sources, ranging from conservatives to police abolitionists, painted a deeply disturbing picture of the internal c

Police officers confront protesters in front of City Hall in New York City on July 1. Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Police officers across America have adopted a set of beliefs about their work and its role in our society. The tenets of police ideology are not codified or written down, but are nonetheless widely shared in departments around the country.

The ideology holds that the world is a profoundly dangerous place: Officers are conditioned to see themselves as constantly in danger and that the only way to guarantee survival is to dominate the citizens they’re supposed to protect. The police believe they’re alone in this fight; police ideology holds that officers are under siege by criminals and are not understood or respected by the broader citizenry. These beliefs, combined with widely held racial stereotypes, push officers toward violent and racist behavior during intense and stressful street interactions.

In that sense, police ideology can help us understand the persistence of officer-involved shootings and the recent brutal suppression of peaceful protests. In a culture where Black people are stereotyped as more threatening, Black communities are terrorized by aggressive policing, with officers acting less like community protectors and more like an occupying army.

The beliefs that define police ideology are neither universally shared among officers nor evenly distributed across departments. There are more than 600,000 local police officers across the country and more than 12,000 local police agencies. The officer corps has gotten more diverse over the years, with women, people of color, and LGBTQ officers making up a growing share of the profession. Speaking about such a group in blanket terms would do a disservice to the many officers who try to serve with care and kindness.

However, the officer corps remains overwhelmingly white, male, and straight. Federal Election Commission data from the 2020 cycle suggests that police heavily favor Republicans. And it is indisputable that there are commonly held beliefs among officers.

“The fact that not every department is the same doesn’t undermine the point that there are common factors that people can reasonably identify as a police culture,” says Tracey Meares, the founding director of Yale University’s Justice Collaboratory.

The danger imperative

In 1998, Georgia sheriff’s deputy Kyle Dinkheller pulled over a middle-aged white man named Andrew Howard Brannan for speeding. Brannan, a Vietnam veteran with PTSD, refused to comply with Dinkheller’s instructions. He got out of the car and started dancing in the middle of the road, singing “Here I am, shoot me” over and over again.

In the encounter, recorded by the deputy’s dashcam, things then escalate: Brannan charges at Dinkheller; Dinkheller tells him to “get back.” Brannan heads back to the car — only to reemerge with a rifle pointed at Dinkheller. The officer fires first, and misses; Brannan shoots back. In the ensuing firefight, both men are wounded, but Dinkheller far more severely. It ends with Brannan standing over Dinkheller, pointing the rifle at the deputy’s eye. He yells — “Die, fucker!” — and pulls the trigger.

The dashcam footage of Dinkheller’s killing, widely known among cops as the “Dinkheller video,” is burned into the minds of many American police officers. It is screened in police academies around the country; one training turns it into a video game-style simulation in which officers can change the ending by killing Brannan. Jeronimo Yanez, the officer who killed Philando Castile during a 2016 traffic stop, was shown the Dinkheller video during his training. continue

Category : Fascism | Racism | Blog
6
Jul

Slavery and the Racialization of Capital, from Bottom to Top

The Lehman Durr & Co. offices in Montgomery, Alabama, 1874

New York Review of Books

 

In 2013, the Italian playwright Stefano Massini turned this exemplum into The Lehman Trilogy, an epic five-hour play that was adapted and condensed last year by the director Sam Mendes and playwright Ben Power for the National Theatre in London. The play received rapturous reviews, and further plaudits after a limited run this spring in New York; it has just returned to London’s West End, where its continued success seems assured. The story begins in 1844, when Hayum Lehman emigrated from Bavaria to Mobile, Alabama. He changed his name to Henry and worked as an itinerant peddler before opening a small dry-goods store upriver, in Montgomery. Soon, two of his younger brothers, Mendel (Emanuel) and Mayer, joined him, and the dry goods store gradually evolved, first into a brokerage, and then into a bank. The play presents this arc as a parable of moral decline, from selling “goods,” to selling financial abstractions. “We are merchants of money,” second-generation Philip Lehman declares in Power’s translation: “our flour is money.”

The drama built around this story is an impressive theatrical experience, but also a deeply partial one, as some critics have noted—for the simple reason that some of the “goods” originally traded by the Lehman brothers, before their spiritual decline into mere merchants of money, were human beings. The play acknowledges, briefly, the company’s origins in the cotton markets of the antebellum South—profoundly underplaying not only the firm’s deep entanglement in the slave economy, but also that of the brothers themselves, who held slaves for at least twenty years. When I was invited by the National Theatre to write for its playbill an essay about the Lehman brothers as exemplars of the American Dream, my original draft mentioned the brothers’ connection to slavery, but this was cut from the final edit. When New York’s Park Avenue Armory asked if they could reuse the essay, I inquired if we could restore the issue of slavery, and offered an expanded draft with more detail. They preferred the National Theatre’s version, citing length.

The elision is not sinister, but it is symptomatic. No one involved in editing the playbills is defending or apologizing for slavery; they were doing their jobs, putting together a program of necessarily brief essays about the play as it has been produced, which does not address slavery. But the erasure of slavery from the play matters: it distorts the history of Lehman Brothers’ beginnings in the antebellum South, allowing the play to evade the question of whether making money out of money is really more reprehensible than making money out of slaves. That erasure is, ironically enough, perhaps the most allegorical aspect of the entire story: a history of American capitalism that disavows the central role slavery played in that history.

It was a problem several American reviewers noted, at least in part. The New York Times observed: “By completely omitting something terribly obvious—that the original fortune was made on the backs of slaves—the play suggests that the real evildoers were not the kindly young men from Bavaria who sold cloth,” but the wizards of Wall Street several generations later. For The Washington Post’s Richard Cohen, it was an astonishing flaw that the play “fails to mention that Henry, Emanuel, and Mayer Lehman were slave-owners.” No American writer today would make such an excision, Cohen argued: “it would be tantamount to writing a play about Germany in 1933 and not even mentioning what was happening to the Jews.” But The Lehman Trilogy is not merely tantamount to a play about Germany in 1933 that never mentions the Jews; it is a play about a dynasty founded in the Nazi era that thinks the family’s role in the Holocaust doesn’t matter.

For a century and more, the conventional wisdom about the evolution of the financial systems embodied in institutions like Lehman Brothers was that modern American capitalism was built not on the slave economy, but on its collapse. That story retains its cultural grip. “The great rise of Northern industry took place after the Southern slave economy was destroyed,” Jonathan Leaf insisted in an April “Dispatch” for the New Criterion defending The Lehman Trilogy against criticisms of its treatment of slavery, “and after the Confederacy’s wealth was obliterated” (his emphasis). But for half a century and more, historians have shown that this neither accurately describes the cotton economy of antebellum Alabama generally, nor the Lehman brothers’ particular role in it.

Since at least as long ago as 1944, with Eric Williams’s groundbreaking Capitalism and Slavery, historians have debated the complex intermingling of slavery and capitalism, while a wave of recent scholarship has argued for the centrality of slavery to the history of American economic development. Edward Baptist, Robin Blackburn, Walter Johnson, Sven Beckert, Calvin Schermerhorn, Michael R. Cohen, and others have contended that mid-century Southern slavery was far from the pre-industrial, agrarian economy of popular wisdom, inevitably defeated by the industrial power and modern financial systems of the North. The two systems were considerably more interdependent and mutually advantageous than that simplistic picture allows. Nor was the Civil War the product of a simple conflict between modern and premodern economies, although it was a conflict between wage labor and slave labor. Rather, between 1830 and 1860, the slave economy itself became increasingly modernized, its growing profits leveraged by the economies of scale afforded by new financial systems.

The cotton economy of the nineteenth century, accounting by most measures for more than half of the total goods exported from the US between 1820 and 1860, helped form many of America’s current economic and social institutions: the carceral system, property laws, insurance industry, modern finance systems—all have roots in the Southern slave economy. The profits created by the cotton business helped fund vast empires of trade and industry, including shipping and railroads. They also enriched middlemen: insurers, brokers, investors, and speculators, which is where the Lehmans enter the story.

Henry Lehman came from a farming family, perhaps one reason he chose to settle in the agrarian South; but he also grew up near the city of Mainz, a center of the German textile trade. He knew the value of cotton, and went straight to Mobile, Alabama, then second only to New Orleans as a cotton trading port. Jews settled less frequently in the antebellum South, and those who did tended to assimilate as fast as they could—indeed, the stark racial hierarchy of the South, divided into its ruthless binary of “black” and “white,” made it easier for Jewish immigrants to assimilate as “white.” (That said, antebellum anti-Semitism is another question that The Lehman Trilogy sidesteps.)

The American economy of the 1820s and 1830s was undergoing a transformation thanks to the development of new debt instruments secured by the use of slaves as collateral. The value of chattel slaves could be transferred into mortgages, securities, and bonds, like any other financial asset that could then be sold to investors nationally and internationally. The financialization of slave-assets thus allowed profiting from slavery even in places that had formally outlawed the slave trade—as had the United States, in 1808. The complex, sophisticated commercial systems that had developed along with colonial slave economies did not die when the slave trade was abolished; they merely operated from a greater distance.

All this easy credit helped fuel an American slave-asset and land bubble in the 1830s, driving an economic boom backed by Southern state governments that collapsed in the panic of 1837, the country’s worst financial crisis of the nineteenth century. Between 1837 and 1842, banks failed, credit disappeared, and the economy stagnated. The Lehmans arrived in the 1840s, just in time to capitalize on the cotton economy’s desperate need for investment and credit, quickly establishing themselves as cotton factors, a factotum role that combined brokerage with financial and marketing advice, insurance, transportation, logistics, and sometimes the supply of enslaved laborers. Cotton factors sold to farmers on credit, often accepting cotton as payment, which they could sell directly to Northern manufacturers. Some cotton factors, in turn, acquired financing from Northern banks, recycling profits from the Southern slave system back to those Northern and international financiers. Every link in the financial chain profited.

Between 1840 and 1860, the American cotton crop expanded hugely for several reasons, including improvements in seeds, while the industrial revolution, powered by immigrant labor, was taking hold in the North. By the middle of the nineteenth century, much of the American economy was entangled in networks of capital that were profiting from enslaved people. The prosperity created by enslavement extended far beyond cotton, as world capital markets leveraged the collateral held by enslavers; but so did the financial and commercial structures those markets helped develop and perfect. Slave-traders, for example, as Calvin Schermerhorn has shown, created integrated systems of supply and credit that anticipate concepts like vertical integration and supply-chain management a century later. Small merchants like Lehman Brothers repackaged credit and debt, selling it on to other investors; like plantation owners, they also borrowed against human collateral, thus profiting not only from the slaves they personally owned, but from the system’s shared mortgaging of human property.

The Lehman brothers’ own possession of slaves has long been part of the historical record, though not as central to critiques about the firm’s cultural symbolism after its collapse as it should have been. When, in 2003, descendants of slaves sued Lehman Brothers (and other firms, including R.J. Reynolds) for reparations, Lehmans was “forced to admit,” it was reported at the time, that the founding brothers “bought a slave in the 1850s” named Martha. A further affidavit acknowledged, though only provisionally, that the Lehman brothers “may have personally owned other slaves,” making the firm reportedly the first American bank to admit, however grudgingly, a role in institutional slavery. (Two years later, J.P. Morgan acknowledged that it had accepted some 13,000 slaves as collateral, and taken possession of 1,250 more as capital.) A year before Lehmans’ collapse, the House Judiciary Committee conducted a hearing on the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade, noting some of the historic companies that had benefitted from that trade, including Lehman Brothers, among others such as Aetna Casualty insurance, New York Life Insurance, Brooks Brothers, and J.P. Morgan Chase.

As far back as 1996, Roland Flade’s study The Lehmans noted that the 1860 census identified Mayer Lehman, the youngest of the brothers, as the owner of seven slaves in Montgomery. In partial mitigation, Flade remarked that people living in antebellum Alabama could not easily oppose slavery, which is quite true. But failing to combat, or even merely censure, slavery is one thing; purchasing one’s own enslaved humans, or trading in their enslavement, is another. The Lehman brothers did both. Two of their former slaves traveled with Mayer’s family when they moved to New York in 1868, a fact sometimes offered by the family’s defenders on the grounds that it would suggest the Lehmans treated their slaves with comparative decency. Not only a low bar for moral exculpation, this also avoids any account of the complex reasons freed slaves sometimes chose to stay with families that had formerly held them in bondage.

The question of how to include slaves in the American record has plagued the nation since its founding. The Constitution’s notorious “three-fifths clause” was a function of the agreed provision for a decennial census, for purposes of political apportionment. Representatives in Congress would reflect “the whole number of free Persons” and “three fifths of all other Persons” in each state, excluding natives (who were treated as separate nations). This construction does not, in fact, grant slaves any humanity, even fractionally; it merely counts a proportion of them as bodies for the census. As the size of both slave and immigrant populations grew, so did problems in census-taking. For the 1850 and 1860 decennial censuses, the government decided for the first time to count all slaves held in the United States in separate “slave schedules.” Following the Constitution’s logic, slaves were enumerated—by age, sex, and color (black or mulatto)—but only slave-holders were named.

According to the 1850 slave schedule, “H. Lehman” had already purchased two slaves within six years of arriving in Alabama: a fifty-year-old black man, and a forty-five-year-old black woman. In his 2006 history of the Lehmans, Peter Chapman noted that family archives show the Lehman family also bought a fourteen-year-old slave in 1854 (the one named Martha); the deed of sale, for $900, bound her as a “slave for life.” Six years later, the 1860 slave schedule identifies Mayer Lehman in Montgomery as the owner of four slave houses and seven slaves: two adult males, a fifty-year-old listed as black and a nineteen-year-old listed as mulatto; three adult females, all black, aged forty-five, thirty-five, and twenty-eight; a nine-year-old mulatto girl; and a five-year-old black boy. But even this inadequate record is vexed, implying, as it does, that slaves always knew their ages with certainty; some did, but the system was designed to keep them from all such sense of self-possession. The historical ironies are intense: the slave schedules reflect a society struggling to identify Americans from whom it had systematically stripped identity, while granting new immigrants like the Lehman brothers the status of free citizens.

Slave-holding was the most direct, but hardly the only, way in which the Lehmans were implicated in the slave economy.It was not simply that the Lehmans profited from the labor of those they had enslaved, or that their firm depended on the sale of cotton produced by other slaves, but that their entire business was imbricated in institutionalized slavery from start to finish. Contemporary accounts record the brothers’ accepting profits from slaves traded as chattel in lieu of debts—in 1859, a newspaper in Troy, Alabama, reported that a sheriff had sold “one negro woman, Beckey, about twenty years old, and her child Gus, about two years old,” to “satisfy a fifa in my hands in favor of Lehman Brothers.” (“Fifa” stood for fieri facias, a legal instrument that empowered a sheriff to levy the possessions of a defendant to make good a debt.) From such seemingly routine transactions an entire political economy arose.

Thus, while it is perfectly true that the Lehman brothers’ embroilment in slavery was commonplace in their time and place, that makes it all the more problematic to suggest that slavery can be marginal to their story. The embedded ordinariness of slavery is the point: to efface that, as the play does, is to miss everything. The triumphalism of the classic American immigrant success story here works to occlude the question of complicity in slavery, fashioning a familiar myth of hard work rewarded by social mobility that is superimposed over the actual system, in which the total deprivation of the rights of citizenship and humanity for some enabled others to enjoy precisely the rewards and mobility that slaves were so violently, and absolutely, denied.

Henry Lehman died in 1855, but when the Civil War came, the two surviving brothers were staunchly on the side of the Confederacy. Mayer Lehman was a committed Southern Democrat, friendly with the governor of Alabama, and knew Jefferson Davis socially. In October 1861, Lehman Brothers, “Merchants of Montgomery,” advertised in local papers that they had stockpiled “almost every article of necessity” during the war. Promising to “be reasonable as to prices,” they added that “owing to the hardness of the times, they are compelled to demand the cash.” Cash, appropriately, was italicized. During the war, the firm successfully ran blockades while issuing the Confederacy with free credit; the Governor of Mississippi sent a public note of thanks in 1864 to “Messrs. Lehman & Brothers,” for accepting “Confederate Treasury notes,” while “charging nothing for their trouble,” to supply the army with cotton and wool for uniforms—despite the blockade that “prevented a larger supply.” In October 1865, “Lehman & Brothers, rich Jews, and merchants,” were pardoned by President Andrew Johnson for doing so, one of the raft of pardons Johnson issued to white Southerners after the war in the name of restoring the Union, but in fact easing the cost of defeat for the embittered white South (and contributing to his eventual impeachment).

The latitude Johnson granted the South enabled the outrages of Reconstruction, as “black codes” establishing segregation replaced slavery in all but name. Southern lands and assets were restored to prewar owners; once again, the Lehman brothers benefited along with the system they upheld, their property reinstated after the war. The Lehmans had not only survived the conflict, they had profited directly from it, without paying any penalty for their support of the Confederacy. The moral exemplum about capitalism and the American Dream to be found in the story of Lehman Brothers is primarily the way in which the South’s investment in the cotton economy profoundly shaped American history from the antebellum period onward, particularly in the slave economy’s legacy of white wealth and black impoverishment, white privilege and black disenfranchisement.

Within two decades, the Lehmans had quit cotton factoring and the South, transforming themselves into a Northern finance powerhouse on Wall Street. They continued to broker deals between Southern cotton planters and the merchants and exchanges of the North after the war, while expanding their business to other commodities, before taking a seat on the newly formed New York Stock Exchange in 1887.

It is that process of transformation—leaving slavery behind but banking its profits—that is the story not only of Lehman Brothers, but also of the formation of modern American capitalism. The Lehman Trilogy wants its audiences to agree that an “abstracted” economy is somehow more morally objectionable than a “real” one, but this fable requires actively repressing the source of the “real” wealth. The Lehmans always traded in “derivative” capital; there was no golden age in which they traded innocent “goods” that became degraded by late capitalism into mere financial tools of decadent speculation.

If The Lehman Trilogy holds up a mirror to our moment, it is by registering slavery in a peripheral glance only to look away. Early in the play, Emanuel tells Henry, “I don’t want to sell buckets and spades to slaves.” Henry responds: “We sell to whoever will buy. Here in America, everything changes.” As an instance of the disavowal so often at work in popular accounts of slavery’s influence on modern America, this exchange is staggering. Slaves did not buy and sell; they were bought and sold. In endorsing the great American myth of transformation, the play implies that capitalism itself is emancipatory, that it might magically transform chattel into customers—and just as magically transform a dubious refusal to talk about slaves into a virtuous refusal to sell to slaves. The play thus succumbs to the abstraction it deplores, evading the material conditions that produced wealth to focus on capitalism as a transcendent promise of freedom and empowerment, endorsing the logic of a consumerist political economy.

Similar mechanisms of disavowal run throughout our cultural mythologies. Proslavery propaganda in the antebellum South insisted that Northern wage slaves were worse off than Southern chattel slaves. As wage slavery was conflated with an emerging trope of white slavery, bondage was rewritten as a universal condition. In the nineteenth century, even antislavery white writers were apt to suggest that capitalism made all Americans into slaves, rather than admit that American capitalism was partly made from slavery. Ishmael famously demands in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851), “Who ain’t a slave?” Henry David Thoreau agreed, declaring in Walden, “It is hard to have a southern overseer; it is worse to have a northern one.” In 1863, the year in which American slaves were emancipated, Emily Dickinson likened an author in the marketplace to a slave at auction: “Publication—is the Auction / Of the Mind of Man,” her poem begins; it ends by urging: “reduce no Human Spirit / To Disgrace of Price—.” In Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner’s 1873 The Gilded Age, the slave trade is just another market for the speculator Beriah Sellers to try to exploit, while Stewart Denison argued in his 1885 novel An Iron Crown: A Tale of the Great Republic that monopoly capitalism was trapping all Americans into economic bondage:

When four or five railway kings can steal one hundred and sixty millions in twenty years; when an oil company can pile fabulous millions on millions in ten years; when a Wall-street pirate can steal from the American people one hundred millions in twenty years by wrecking railroads… when the rich daily grow enormously rich, and the poor daily grow poorer; when all these things can occur, under the sanction of law, in a great republic, is it not time to stop and think? Having reflected, is it not time to act, before our slavery is complete and irremediable?

While scholars painstakingly examine the interconnections of slavery and capitalism, showing the complex traffic between Northern industrial and Southern cotton economies, too many of our popular accounts still view slavery as the South’s “peculiar institution” and treat it as a discrete, if horrifying, historical anomaly. This is how disavowal manages cognitive dissonance: it means conceding the existence of slavery, while refusing to believe that it has anything to do with the story you are telling; it means willfully pushing slavery to the edges of your consciousness and being saved by the logic of exception. The musical Hamilton does the same thing in its ambivalent dynamic of denouncing slavery’s iniquities while suggesting that its own protagonists were exempt from them. Anyone who didn’t know better would finish Hamilton innocent of the fact that George Washington owned slaves, much less that Alexander Hamilton himself bought and sold them on behalf of his wife’s family. Such stories try to have it both ways: for their heroes to be representative Americans, while erasing the vicious ways in which they truly were representative. The fact that everyone was doing it is not a defense, it merely measures the scale of the crime.

 

Category : Capitalism | Racism | Slavery | US History | Blog
24
May

More study of the difference between exproriation, exploitaton, and their interplay at the ‘rosy dawn’ of capitalist and everything that followed.

By Nancy Fraser
Policss/Letters On May 20, 2019

Presidential Address delivered at the one hundred fourteenth Eastern Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association in Savannah, GA, on January 5, 2018.

Capitalism has always been deeply entangled with racial oppression. That proposition clearly holds for the slave-based plantation capitalism of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. But it is equally true of the Jim Crow industrialized capitalism of the twentieth century. Nor can anyone reasonably doubt that racial oppression persists in the deindustrializing, sub-prime, mass-incarceration capitalism of the present era. Despite the clear differences between them, none of these forms of “really existing” capitalism was nonracial. In all of its forms to date, capitalist society has been entangled with racial oppression.

What is the nature of this entanglement? Is it contingent or structural? Did the capitalism/racism nexus arise by chance, and could matters have in principle been otherwise? Or was capitalism primed from the get-go to divide populations by “race”? And what about today? Is racism hardwired in the deep structure of contemporary capitalism? Or is a nonracial capitalism finally possible now, in the twenty-first century?

These questions are by no means new. They form the heart of a profound but under-appreciated stream of critical theorizing, known as Black Marxism. This tradition, which flourished from the 1930s through the 1980s, includes such towering figures as C. L. R. James, W. E. B. Du Bois, Eric Williams, Oliver Cromwell Cox, Stuart Hall, Walter Rodney, Angela Davis, Manning Marable, Barbara Fields, Robin D. G. Kelley, Cedric Robinson, and Cornel West.1 Although their approaches diverged in specifics, each of these thinkers grappled deeply with the capitalism/ racism nexus. At least through the 1980s, their reflections were at the forefront of what we now call “critical race theory.”

Subsequently, however, the question of capitalism’s entanglement with race dropped off the critical-theoretical agenda. With the waning of New Left radicalism and the collapse of really existing Communism, capitalism ceased to be viewed as a topic of serious interrogation in many quarters, while Marxism was increasingly rejected as dépassé. As a result, questions of race and racism were effectively ceded to thinkers working in the liberal and poststructuralist paradigms. Although those thinkers made some impressive contributions to mainstream and critical race theory, they did not attempt to clarify the relation between capitalism and racial oppression.

Today, however, a new generation of critical racist theorists is reinvigorating that problematic. Comprising thinkers like Michael Dawson, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Cedric Johnson, Barbara Ransby, and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, this generation is reconsidering the capitalism/ racism nexus anew, in light of twenty-first-century developments.2 The reasons are not hard to discern. The conjoint rise of a new generation of militant antiracist activists, on the one hand, and of an aggressively ethnonationalist and alt-right, white-supremacist populism, on the other hand, has dramatically raised the stakes of critical race theory. Many now appreciate, too, that the broader context for both those developments is a deepening crisis of contemporary capitalist society, a crisis that is simultaneously exacerbating, and rendering more visible, its characteristic forms of racial oppression. Finally, capitalism is no longer a taboo term, and Marxism is enjoying a revival. In this situation, the central questions of Black Marxism have again become pressing: Is capitalism necessarily racist? Can racial oppression be overcome within capitalist society?

Aiming to advance this problematic, I opted to use the occasion of my presidential address to revisit those venerable questions. The approach I propose scrambles the usual, sharp oppositions between structure and history, necessity and chance, which obscure the complexities of the capitalism/racism nexus. Contra the proponents of contingency, I shall maintain that there does exist a structural basis for capitalism’s persistent entanglement with racial oppression. That basis resides, as I shall explain, in the system’s reliance on two analytically distinct but inter-imbricated processes of capital accumulation, exploitation and expropriation. It is the separation of these two “exes,” and their assignment to two different populations, that underpins racial oppression in capitalist society. Contra proponents of necessity, however, I shall argue that capitalism’s exploitation/expropriation nexus is not set in stone. Rather, it mutates historically in the course of capitalist development, which can be viewed as a sequence of qualitatively different regimes of racialized accumulation. In each phase, a historically specific configuration of the two exes underpins a distinctive landscape of racialization. When we follow the sequence down to the present, we encounter something new: a form of capitalism that blurs the historic separation of exploitation from expropriation. No longer assigning them to two sharply demarcated populations, this form appears to be dissolving the structural basis for racial oppression that inhered in capitalist society for four hundred years. Yet racial oppression persists, I shall claim, in forms that are neither strictly necessary nor merely contingent. The result is new set of puzzles for Black Marxist theory and anti-racist activism in the twentyfirst century.

In what follows, I develop this argument in three steps. First, I defend the thesis that capitalism harbors a structural basis for racial oppression given that it relies on expropriation as a necessary condition for exploitation. Then, in a second step, I historicize that structure by sketching the shifting configurations of those two exes in the principal phases of capitalism’s history. In my third step, finally, I consider the prospects for overcoming racial oppression in a new form of capitalist society that still rests on exploitation and expropriation but does not assign them to two sharply demarcated populations.

1.1. THREE PERSPECTIVES ON CAPITALISM: EXCHANGE, EXPLOITATION, EXPROPRIATION

Is capitalism necessarily racist? Everything depends on what exactly is meant by capitalism—and on the perspective from which we conceive it. Three such perspectives are worth exploring. A first approach, taught in economics courses, assumed in business, and enshrined in common sense, views capitalism through the lens of market exchange. A second, familiar to socialists, trade unionists, and other protagonists of labor struggles, locates the crux of capitalism at a deeper level, in the exploitation of wage labor in commodity production. A third perspective, developed by critics of imperialism, puts the spotlight instead on capital’s expropriation of conquered peoples. Here, I suggest that by combining the second and third perspectives we gain access to what is missed by each of the three approaches considered alone: a structural basis in capitalist society for racial oppression.

Consider, first, the perspective of exchange. From this perspective, capitalism appears as an economic system simpliciter. Organized to maximize growth and efficiency, it is centered on the institution of the market, where self-interested, arms-length transactors exchange equivalents. Seen this way, capitalism can only be indifferent to color. Absent interference and left to follow its own economizing logic, the system would dissolve any pre-existing racial hierarchies and avoid generating any new ones. From the standpoint of exchange, the link between racism and capitalism is wholly contingent.

Much could be said about this view, but what is important for my present purposes is this: it delinks capitalism from racism by definitional fiat. By defining capitalism narrowly, as an inherently colorblind, utility-maximizing logic, the exchange-centered view relegates any racializing impulses to forces external to the market, which distort the latter’s operation. The culprit is, therefore, not (what it understands as) capitalism, but the larger society that surrounds it. Racism comes from history, politics, and culture, all of which are viewed as external to capitalism and as only contingently connected to it. The effect is to formalize capitalism, reducing it to a means/end economizing logic and stripping away its historical and political contents. In this way, the market-centered view obscures a crucial point that will be central to my argument here: for structural reasons, capitalist economies require “non-economic” preconditions and inputs, including some that generate racial oppression. Failing to reckon with that dependence, this view obfuscates the system’s distinctive mechanisms of accumulation and domination.

Some of those mechanisms are disclosed, by contrast, by our second perspective. Broader, less formal, and far less rosy, this view was originated by Karl Marx, who reconceived capitalism as a system of exploitation. Famously, he penetrated beneath the standard perspective of market exchange to the more fundamental level of commodity production. There he claimed to discover the secret of accumulation in capital’s exploitation of wage laborers. For Marx, importantly, capitalism’s workers are neither serfs nor slaves, but unencumbered individuals, free to enter the labor market and sell their “labor power.” In reality, of course, they have little actual choice in the matter; deprived of any direct access to the means of production, they can only secure the means of subsistence by contracting to work for a capitalist in exchange for wages. Nor does the transaction redound principally to their benefit. What from the first perspective is an exchange of equivalents is, in Marx’s, view a sleight of hand. Recompensed only for the average socially necessary cost of their own reproduction, capitalism’s workers have no claim on the surplus value their labor generates, which accrues instead to the capitalist. And that is precisely the point. The crux of the system, for Marx, is exploitation, viewed as a relation between two classes: on the one hand, the capitalists who own the society’s means of production and appropriate its surplus; on the other, the free but propertyless producers who must sell their labor power piecemeal in order to live. Capitalism, on Marx’s view, is no mere economy, but a social system of class domination, centered on the exploitation of free labor by capital in commodity production.

Marx’s perspective has many virtues, at least one of which is incontestable. By viewing capitalism through the lens of exploitation, it makes visible what the exchange perspective obscured: the structural basis in capitalist society for working-class domination. Yet this focus fails to disclose any comparable structural basis for racial oppression. On this point, at least, the exploitation perspective sits uncomfortably close to that of exchange. While demonstrating that capital is accumulated off the back of free waged labor, it sheds little if any light on how race figures in the system and why it plays such an outsized role in capitalism’s history. Failing to address that issue, it can only convey the impression that the system’s entanglement with racial oppression is contingent.

That conclusion is too hasty, however. The trouble is that in focusing so tightly on the process by which capital exploits wage labor, Marx failed to give systematic consideration to some equally fundamental processes that are bound up with that one. I have in mind two such processes that could, when probed, reveal deep-seated links to racial oppression. The first is the crucial role played in capital accumulation by unfree, dependent, and unwaged labor—by which I mean labor that is expropriated, as opposed to exploited, subject to domination unmediated by a wage contract. The second concerns the role of political orders in conferring the status of free individuals and citizens on “workers,” while constituting others as lesser beings—for example, as chattel slaves, indentured servants, colonized subjects, “native” members of “domestic dependent nations,” debt peons, and felons.3 continue

Category : Capitalism | Marxism | Racism | Slavery | US History | Blog
3
Dec

slave-family

Enslaved family harvesting cotton

Reference: Hidden in Plain Sight: A Note on Legitimation Crises and the Racial Order’ By Michael C. Dawson

 

The ‘Two Exes’ Required for a Full Picture of Our Capitalism

By Nancy Fraser

New School for Social Research

With Michael Dawson, I hold that exploitation-centered conceptions of capitalism cannot explain its persistent entanglement with racial oppression. In their place, I suggest an expanded conception that also encompasses an ongoing but disavowed moment of expropriation. By thematizing that other “ex,” I disclose, first, the crucial role played in capital accumulation by unfree and dependent labor, which is expropriated, as opposed to exploited; and second, the equally indispensable role of politically enforced status distinctions between free, exploitable citizen-workers and dependent, expropriable subjects. Treating such political distinctions as constitutive of capitalist society and as correlated with the “color line,” I demonstrate that the racialized subjection of those whom capital expropriates is a condition of possibility for the freedom of those whom it exploits. After developing this proposition systematically, I historicize it, distinguishing four regimes of racialized accumulation according to how exploitation and expropriation are distinguished, sited, and intertwined in each.

Michael Dawson offers many powerful insights about the relation between capitalism and racial oppression. In this article, I aim less to dispute his claims than to develop them, while focusing on three main points. Dawson contends, first, that my expanded conception of capitalism as an “institutionalized social order” is better than more familiar conceptions for theorizing the structural imbrication of race with capitalist society. He also claims, second, that I have not realized my model’s potential in this respect. Dawson contends, finally, that were I to do so, I would have to revise my view that there is no legitimation crisis in Habermas’s sense in the United States today.

I agree emphatically with the first two points, and I welcome the occasion to develop them here. Thus, I shall devote the bulk of my response to explaining why and how my expanded view can clarify capitalism’s systemic entanglement with racial oppression—in part by building on Dawson’s own insights. I am less convinced, by contrast, of his third claim that present-day struggles over race portend a crisis of legitimation in the United States. In a brief conclusion, therefore, I shall explain my doubts about that proposition.

I. From Exchange to Exploitation to Expropriation

Capitalism is often understood narrowly, as an economic system simpliciter. Certainly, that is the mainstream view, which equates it with private property and market exchange. In part because it naturalizes and dehistoricizes those categories, this approach has been roundly criticized. Left-wing thinkers in particular have faulted it for obfuscating the system’s distinctive mechanisms of accumulation and domination. Elaborating “critiques of political economy,” they have proposed broader and far less rosy understandings of capitalism.

Undoubtedly, Marx’s is the most influential of these critiques and, to my mind, the most convincing. Famously, his account penetrates beneath the market perspective of the system’s apologists to the more fundamental level of commodity production. There it discovers the secret of accumulation in capital’s exploitation of wage laborers. Importantly, these workers are neither serfs nor slaves, but unencumbered individuals, free to enter the labor market and sell their “labor power.” In reality, of course, they have little actual choice in the matter; deprived of any direct access to the means of production, they can only secure the means of subsistence by contracting to work for a capitalist in exchange for wages. And the transaction does not redound principally to their benefit. What from the market perspective is an exchange of equivalents is from this one a sleight of hand; recompensed only for the socially necessary cost of their own reproduction, capitalism’s workers have no claim on the surplus value their labor generates, which accrues instead to the capitalist. And that is precisely the point. The crux of the system, on Marx’s view, is the exploitative relation between two classes: on the one hand, the capitalists who own the society’s means of production and appropriate its surplus; on the other, the free but propertyless producers who must sell their labor power piecemeal in order to live. This relation defines the essence of capitalism as a mode of accumulation that is simultaneously a system of domination. Capitalism, on Marx’s view, is not an economy but a social system of class domination. Its cornerstone is the exploitation of free labor by capital in commodity production.

This perspective is immensely clarifying—as far as it goes. But absent some supplementation and revision, it cannot fully explicate Dawson’s point that capitalism is deeply entangled with racial oppression. The trouble is, the Marxian perspective focuses attention on capital’s exploitation of wage labor in commodity production; in its usual guise, therefore, it marginalizes some equally fundamental processes that are bound up with that one.1 Two such processes are essential for theorizing the racial dynamics of capitalist society. The first is the crucial role played in capital accumulation by unfree, dependent, and unwaged labor—by which I mean labor that is expropriated, as opposed to exploited, subject to domination unmediated by a wage contract. The second concerns the role of political orders in conferring the status of free individuals and citizens on “workers,” while constituting others as lesser beings—for example, as chattel slaves, indentured servants, colonized subjects, “native” members of “domestic dependent nations,” debt peons, felons, and “covered” beings, such as wives and children, who lack an independent legal personality.

Evidently, both of these matters—dependent labor and political subjection—are fundamental for understanding “race.” But both are also integral to the constitution of capitalist society. In a nutshell, as I shall explain, the subjection of those whom capital expropriates is a hidden condition of possibility for the freedom of those whom it exploits. Absent an account of the first, we cannot fully understand the second. Nor can we fully appreciate the nonaccidental character of capitalism’s historic entanglement with racial oppression.

To develop this claim, I shall draw on my expanded conception of capitalism, which is broader even than Marx’s. In place of the two-level picture he gave us, which comprises the apologists’ level of exchange plus the “hidden abode” of exploitation, I shall make use of a three-tiered model, which also encompasses the even more obfuscated moment of expropriation. By adding this third, noncontractual “ex,” I shall disclose the centrality of racialized dependent labor to capitalist society. The effect will be to shift our gaze from the political economy theorized by Marx to the latter’s “non-economic” conditions of possibility. From that perspective, capitalism appears as an institutionalized social order in which racialized political subjection plays a constitutive role. Together, these revisions will provide at least some of the conceptual resources we need to clarify capitalism’s deep-seated entanglement with racial oppression.

II. Expropriation as a Mode of Accumulation

Let me begin with expropriation. Distinct from Marxian exploitation, but equally integral to capitalist development, expropriation is accumulation by other means. Dispensing with the contractual relation through which capital purchases “labor power” in exchange for wages, expropriation works by confiscating capacities and resources and conscripting them into capital’s circuits of self-expansion. The confiscation may be blatant and violent, as in New World slavery—or it may be veiled by a cloak of commerce, as in the predatory loans and debt foreclosures of the present era. The expropriated subjects may be rural or indigenous communities in the capitalist periphery—or they may be members of subject or subordinated groups in the capitalist core. They may end up as exploited proletarians, if they’re lucky—or, if not, as paupers, slum dwellers, sharecroppers, “natives,” or slaves, subjects of ongoing expropriation outside the wage nexus. The confiscated assets may be labor, land, animals, tools, mineral or energy deposits—but also human beings, their sexual and reproductive capacities, their children and bodily organs. The conscription of these assets into capital’s circuits may be direct, involving immediate conversion into value—as, again, in slavery; or it may be mediated and indirect, as in the unwaged labor of family members in semi-proletarianized households. What is essential, however, is that the commandeered capacities get incorporated into the value-expanding process that defines capital. Simple theft is not enough. Unlike the sort of pillaging that long predated the rise of capitalism, expropriation in the sense I intend here is confiscation-cum-conscription-into-accumulation.

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Category : Financialization | Racism | Slavery | US History | Blog
1
Nov

Bacon and rebels vs Virginia aristocrats

Theodore W. Allen’s Legacy

By Jeffrey B. Perry
Solidarity

THEODORE W. “TED” Allen (1919-2005) was an anti-white supremacist, working-class intellectual and activist, whose work on the centrality of struggle against white supremacy is growing in importance and influene 98 years after his birth.

With its focus on racial oppression and social control, Allen’s two-volume The Invention of the White Race (1994, 1997: Verso Books, new expanded edition 2012) is one of the 20th-century’s major contributions to historical understanding.

Allen’s study presents a full-scale challenge to what he refers to as “The Great White Assumption” — the unquestioning acceptance of the “white race” and “white” identity as skin color-based and natural attributes rather than as social and political constructions.

His thesis on the origin, nature and maintenance of the “white race” and his contenion that slavery in the Anglo-American plantation colonies was capitalist and that enslaved Black laborers were proletarians, provide the basis of a revolutionary approach to United States labor history.

On the back cover of the 1994 edition of Volume 1, subtitled Racial Oppression and Social Control, Allen boldly asserted “When the first Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619, there were no ‘white’ people there; nor, according to the colonial records, would there be for another sixty years.”

That statement, based on 20-plus years of primary research in Virginia’s colonial records, reflected the fact that Allen found no instance of the official use of the word “white” as a token of social status prior to its appearance in a Virginia law passed in 1691.

As he later explained, “Others living in the colony at that time were English; they had been English when they left England, and naturally they and their Virginia-born children were English, they were not ‘white.’ White identity had to be carefully taught, and it would be only after the passage of some six crucial decades” that the word “would appear as a synonym for European-American.”

In this context Allen offers his major thesis — that the “white race” was invented as a ruling-class social control formation in response to labor solidarity as manifested in the later (civil war) stages of Bacon’s Rebellion (1676-77).

To this he adds two important corollaries: 1) the ruling elite deliberately instituted a system of racial privileges to define and maintain the “white race” and to implement a system of racial oppression, and 2) the consequence was not only ruinous to the interest of African Americans, but was also disastrous for European-American workers.

The Story of an Invention

Volume II, The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America, tells the story of the invention of the “white race” and the development of the system of racial oppression in the late 17th and early 18th century Anglo-American plantation colonies.

Allen’s primary focus is on the pattern-setting Virginia colony. He pays special attention to how tenants and wage-laborers in the predominantely English labor force were reduced to the status of chattel bond-servants beginning in the 1620s. In so doing, he emphasizes that this was a qualitative break from the condition of laborers in England and from long established English labor law.

He argues that this was not a feudal carryover, rather that it was imposed under capitalism, and an essential precondition of the emergence of the lifetime hereditary chattel bond-servitude imposed upon African-American laborers under the system of racial slavery.

Allen describes how, throughout much of the 17th century, the status of African Americans was indeterminate (because it was still being fought out) and he details the similarity of conditions for African-American and European-American laborers and bond-servants.

He also documents many significant instances of labor solidarity and unrest, especially during the 1660s and 1670s. Of great significance is his analysis of the civil war stage of Bacon’s Rebellion when thousands of laboring people took up arms against the ruling plantation elite, the capital Jamestown was burned to the ground, rebels controlled sixth-sevenths of the Virginia colony, and Afro- and Euro-American bond-servants fought side by side demanding an end to their bondage.

It was in the period after Bacon’s Rebellion that the “white race” was invented. Allen describes systematic ruling-class policies, conferring “white race” privileges on European Americans while imposing harsher disabilities on African Americans resulting in a system of racial slavery, a form of racial oppression that also imposed severe racial proscriptions on free African Americans.

He emphasizes that when free African Americans were deprived of their long-held right to vote in Virginia, and Governor William Gooch explained in 1735 that the Virginia Assembly had decided upon this curtailment of the franchise in order “to fix a perpetual Brand upon Free Negros & Mulattos,” this was no “unthinking decision.”

Rather, it was a deliberate act by the plantation bourgeoisie and a conscious decision taken in the process of establishing a system of racial oppression, even though it entailed repealing an electoral principle that had existed in Virginia for more than a century.

The “White Race” — A Ruling-Class Social Control Formation

Key to understanding the virulent racial oppression that develops in Virginia, Allen argues, is the formation of the intermediate social control buffer stratum, which serves the interests of the ruling class.

In Virginia, any persons of discernible non-European ancestry after Bacon’s Rebellion were denied a role in the social control buffer group, the bulk of which was made up of laboring-class “whites.” In the Anglo-Caribbean, by contrast, under a similar Anglo ruling elite, “mulattos” were included in the social control stratum and were promoted into middle-class status.

This difference was rooted in a number of social control-related factors, one of the most important of which was that in the Anglo-Caribbean there were “too few” poor and laboring-class Europeans to embody an adequate petit bourgeoisie, while in the continental colonies there were “too many” to be accommodated in the ranks of that class.

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Category : Marxism | Racism | Slavery | Strategy and Tactics | US History | Blog