Marxism

29
Jan

By Alain Badiou
24 January 2023
via Verso Blog

This article was originally published by L’Obs on 2 September 2022.

The current conjuncture demands rigorous analysis if we are to understand the political moment and develop a strategy to respond to it. Alain Badiou undertakes this task, offering thirteen theses on global politics today and suggesting an organizing strategy for the Left given those conditions.

Thesis 1. The global conjuncture is one of the territorial and ideological hegemony of liberal capitalism.Commentary. The obviousness and banality of this thesis dispense me from commenting.

Thesis 2. This hegemony is by no means in crisis, still less in a coma, but in a particularly intense and innovative sequence of its deployment.

Commentary. On the subject of the capitalist globalisation that is totally hegemonic today, there are two opposing positions that are equally false. The first is the conservative position: capitalism, especially combined with parliamentary ‘democracy’, is humanity’s definitive form of economic and social organisation. It is in fact the end of history, as the essayist Fukuyama once popularised. The second is the leftist position according to which capitalism has entered its final crisis, or is even already dead.

The first position is simply a repetition of the ideological process begun in the late 1970s by the renegade intellectuals from the ‘red years’ (1965-1975), which consisted in simply eliminating the communist hypothesis from the field of possibilities. This made it possible to simplify the dominant propaganda: there was no longer any need to praise the (dubious) merits of capitalism, but only to maintain that facts (the USSR, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, China, the Khmer Rouge, the Western communist parties, etc.) had shown that nothing else was possible except criminal ‘totalitarianism’.

Faced with this verdict of impossibility, the only response is to re-establish the communist hypothesis, assessed beyond the fragmentary experiments of the last century, in its possibility, its strength and its liberating capacity. This is what is happening and inevitably will happen, and what I am trying to do in this very text.

The scenarios of bloodless capitalism or dead capitalism base themselves on the financial crisis of 2008, on the inflationary monetary disorders brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, and on the countless episodes of corruption revealed daily. They conclude either that the moment is revolutionary, that all it takes is a strong push for the ‘system’ to collapse (classic leftism), or that all it takes is to step aside, to withdraw for example to the countryside and lead a sober life respectful of nature, to realise that we can then organise completely new ‘forms of life’, the destructive capitalist machine turning in a vacuum into its final nothingness (ecological Buddhism).

All of this has no connection whatsoever with reality.

Firstly, the crisis of 2008 was a classic crisis of overproduction (too many houses were built in the US and sold on credit to insolvent people), and, in due course, its propagation created the conditions for a new capitalist impetus, boosted by a strong sequence of concentration of capital, with the weak being washed away, the strong strengthened, and in passing – a very important gain – the ‘social legislation’ stemming from the end of the Second World War largely liquidated. Once this painful tidying up is done, ‘recovery’ is now in sight. Secondly, the extension of the capitalist grip to vast new territories, the intensive and extensive diversification of the world market, is far from complete. Almost all of Africa, a good part of Latin America, Eastern Europe, India are all ‘in transition’, either zones of plunder or countries ‘taking off’, where large-scale market implantation can and must follow the example of Japan or China.

The fact is that capitalism is corrupt in its essence. How can a collective logic whose only norms are ‘profit above all else’ and universal competition of all against all avoid widespread corruption? The recognised ‘cases’ of corruption are only side operations, either local purges for propagandist purposes or settling of scores between rival cliques.

Modern capitalism, that of the world market, which with its few centuries of existence is historically a recent social formation, has only just begun to conquer the planet, after a colonial sequence (from the sixteenth to the twentieth century) in which conquered territories were enslaved to the limited and protectionist market of a single country. Today, plundering is globalised, as is the proletariat, which now comes from every country in the world.

Thesis 3. However, three active contradictions are at work in this hegemony.

i) The extremely developed oligarchic dimension of the possession of capital leaves ever less room for the integration of new owners into this oligarchy. Hence the possibility of authoritarian sclerosis.

ii) The integration of financial and commercial circuits into a single world market is opposed by the maintenance, at the level of mass policing, of national forms that inevitably enter into rivalry. Hence the possibility of a planetary war resulting in one state that is clearly hegemonic, including over the world market.

iii) It is doubtful today whether capital, in its present line of development, can valorise the labour-power of the entire world population. Hence the risk that a mass of totally deprived and therefore politically dangerous people will form on a global scale.

Commentary.

i) We are now at a point where 264 people own the equivalent of what three billion others own – and the concentration continues. Here, in France, 10 per cent of the population own well over 50 per cent of the total wealth. These are concentrations of ownership with no stable precedent on a global scale. And they are far from complete. They have a monstrous side, which obviously does not guarantee them eternal duration, but is inherent to capitalist deployment, and even its main motor.

ii) The hegemony of the United States is increasingly being undermined. China and India between them have 40 per cent of the world’s workforce. This indicates a devastating deindustrialisation in the West. In fact, American workers now account for only 7 per cent of the global labour force, and Europe even less. The result of these contrasts is that the world order, still dominated for military and financial reasons by the USA, is seeing the emergence of rivals who want their share of sovereignty over the world market. Confrontations have already begun in the Middle East, Africa and the China seas. They will continue. War is the horizon of this situation, as the last century has shown, with two world wars and incessant colonial killings, and as the war in Ukraine confirms today.

iii) Already today there are probably between two and three billion people who are neither owners, landless peasants, petty-bourgeois employees or workers. They wander the world in search of a place to live, constituting a nomadic proletariat which, if politicised, would b

Thesis 4. In the last ten years, there have been numerous, and sometimes vigorous, movements of revolt against this or that aspect of the hegemony of liberal capitalism. But they have also been resolved without posing any major problem to the dominant capitalism.Commentary. These movements have been of four kinds.

i) Brief and localised riots. There have been large, spontaneous riots in the suburbs of major cities, for example London and Paris, usually following police killings of young people. These riots either lacked widespread support in a frightened public and were mercilessly suppressed, or were followed by vast ‘humanitarian’ mobilisations, focused on police violence, largely depoliticised in the sense that no mention was made of the precise nature of these exactions and the profit that bourgeois domination ultimately draws from them.

ii) Sustained uprisings, but without an organisational creation. Other movements, notably in the Arab world, have been socially much broader and lasted for many weeks. They took the canonical form of square occupations. They were generally quelled by the temptation of elections. The most typical case was that of Egypt: a very large-scale movement, with the negative unifying slogan ‘Mubarak out’ enjoying apparent success (Mubarak left power, was even arrested), the inability of the police for a long time to take over the square, the explicit unity of Coptic Christians and Muslims, and the apparent neutrality of the army. But, in the elections, naturally, it was the party with a presence in the popular masses – though not very present in the movement – that won, namely the Muslim Brotherhood. The most active part of the movement opposed this new government, thus opening the way to an intervention of the army, which put a general, El-Sisi, in power. He mercilessly repressed all opposition, first the Muslim Brotherhood, then the young revolutionaries, and in fact re-established the old regime in a rather worse form than before. The circular nature of this episode is particularly striking.

iii) Movements leading to the creation of a new political force. In some cases, the movement was able to create the conditions for the emergence of a new political force, different from the regular ones of parliamentarianism. This was the case with Syriza in Greece, where revolts were particularly numerous and harsh, and with Podemos in Spain. These forces have dissolved into the parliamentary consensus. In Greece, the Tsipras government surrendered without significant resistance to the injunctions of the European Commission and returned the country to the path of endless austerity. In Spain, Podemos has also become bogged down in the game of parliamentary combinations, whether governmental or oppositional. No trace of real politics has emerged from these organisational creations.

iv) Movements of fairly long duration, but with no notable positive effects. In some cases, apart from a few classic tactical episodes (such as the ‘takeover’ of classic demonstrations by groups equipped to confront the police for a few minutes), the absence of political innovation meant that on a global scale it was the figure of conservative reaction that was renewed. This was the case, for example, in the USA, where the dominant counter-effect of ‘Occupy Wall Street’ was the coming to power of Trump, and also in France, where the outcome of ‘Nuit debout’ was Macron. A little later, indeed, Macron was the sole target of the typically petty-bourgeois Gilets Jaunes movement. Like all such movements, whose leaders are all frankly hostile to the eradication of bourgeois property, and in fact want stronger state support for it, the result only affected state formalities, and its sole target was President Macron. And the magnificent result, worthy of the farces and traps that the parliamentary system reserves for its clients, was in the end the re-election of Macron.

Thesis 5. The cause of this impotence in the movements of this last decade is the absence of politics – even hostility to politics – in various forms, recognisable by a number of symptoms. Beneath these negative sentiments there is in fact a constant submission to electoral ritual, under the spurious name of ‘democracy’.

Commentary. Let us note, in particular, as signs of an extremely weak political subjectivity:

i) Exclusively negative unifying slogans: ‘against’ this or that, ‘Mubarak out’, ‘down with the 1% oligarchy’, ‘reject the labour law’, ‘no one likes the police’ etc.

ii) The absence of a prolonged temporality: both in terms of knowledge of the past, which is practically absent from the movements (apart from a few caricatures), and of which no inventive assessment is proposed other than a projection into the future, limited to abstract considerations on liberation or emancipation.

iii) A vocabulary largely borrowed from the adversary. This is above all the case with a particularly equivocal category such as ‘democracy’, or the use of the category of ‘life’, ‘our lives’, which is only an ineffective investment of existential categories in collective action.

iv) A blind cult of ‘novelty’ and a disregard for established truths. This point is a direct result of the commercial cult of the ‘novelty’ of products and a constant conviction that something is being ‘started’ which, in reality, has already happened many times. At the same time, it prevents us from learning the lessons of the past, from understanding the mechanism of structural repetition, and leads us to fall into the trap of false ‘modernities’.

v) An absurd time scale. This time scale, modelled on Marx’s money—commodities—money’ circuit, assumes that problems such as private property and the pathological concentration of wealth, which have been pending for millennia, can be dealt with or even resolved by a few weeks of ‘movement’. The refusal to consider that a good part of capitalist modernity is simply woven from a modern version of the triplet ‘family, private property, state’ established a few thousand years ago, as early as the Neolithic ‘revolution’. And that therefore communist logic, as far as the central problems that constitute it are concerned, is situated on a scale of centuries.

vi) A weak relationship to the state. What is at issue here is a constant underestimation of the resources of the state compared to those available to this or that ‘movement’, in terms of both armed force and the capacity for corruption. In particular, the effectiveness of ‘democratic’ corruption, whose symbol is electoral parliamentarianism, is underestimated, as is the extent of the ideological dominance of this corruption over the overwhelming majority of the population.

vii) A combination of disparate means without any assessment of their distant or near past. No conclusions are drawn that can be widely popularised from the methods that have been used since at least the ‘red years’ (1965-1975), or even for two centuries, such as factory occupations, trade-union strikes, legal demonstrations, the formation of groups to enable local confrontation with the police, the storming of buildings, the sequestration of bosses in factories, and so on. Nor from their static symmetries: for example, in squares occupied by crowds, long and repetitive hyper-democratic assemblies, where everyone is called on to speak for three minutes, whatever their ideas and linguistic resources, and where the ultimate stake envisaged is simply the repetition of this exercise.

Thesis 6. We must remember the most important experiences of the near past, and reflect on their failures.

Commentary. From the red years to today.

The commentary on Thesis 5 may well seem quite polemical, even pessimistic and depressing, especially for young people who can legitimately enthuse, for a time, about all those forms of action which I ask to be critically re-examined. These criticisms are understandable if we remember that, personally, in May ’68 and its aftermath, I experienced and participated enthusiastically in things of exactly the same order, and was able to follow them long enough to measure their weaknesses. I have the feeling that recent movements are exhausting themselves by repeating, under the mark of the new, well-known episodes of what can be called the ‘right’ of the May ’68 movement, whether this right comes from the classical left or from the anarchist ultra-left, which in its own way was already talking about ‘forms of life’, and whose militants we called ‘anarcho-desirers’.

There were in fact four distinct movements in 1968.

i) a revolt of student youth;

ii) a revolt of young workers in the large factories;

iii) a general strike by the trade unions attempting to control the two previous revolts;

iv) the emergence, often under the name of ‘Maoism’ – with several rival organisations – of an attempt at a new politics, the principle of which was to draw a unifying axis between the first two revolts by endowing them with an ideological and fighting force that seemed able to guarantee them a real political future. In fact, this lasted for at least a decade. The fact that it did not stabilise on a historical scale (which I readily acknowledge) should not mean that we repeat what happened then without even knowing that we are repeating it.

Let’s just remember that the June 1968 elections produced a majority so reactionary that it could be compared with the ‘blue horizon’ chamber at the end of the First World War. The end result of the May/June 2017 elections, with the crushing victory of Macron, an attested servant of globalised big capital, should make us reflect on what is repetitive in all this. All the more so as the same Macron was re-elected in 2022.

Thesis 7. The internal politics of a movement must have five characteristics, relating to slogans, strategy, vocabulary, the existence of a principle, and a clarified tactical vision.

Commentary.

i) The main slogans must be affirmative, offering a positive determination, and not be satisfied with complaint and denunciation. This is even so at the cost of internal division as soon as one goes beyond negative unity.

ii) The slogans must be strategically justified. This means: informed by knowledge of the previous stages of the problem the movement is addressing.

iii) The vocabulary used must be controlled and consistent. For example: ‘communism’ is today incompatible with ‘democracy’; ‘equality’ is incompatible with ‘liberty’; any positive use of an identitarian term, such as ‘French’, or ‘international community’, or ‘Islamist’ or ‘Europe’, must be proscribed, as well as terms of a psychological nature, such as ‘desire’, ‘life’, ‘person’, and any term linked to established state provisions, such as ‘citizen’, ‘elector’, and so on.

iv) A principle, what I call an ‘Idea’, must be constantly confronted with the situation, insofar as it locally carries a non-capitalist systemic possibility. Here we must quote Marx, as he defined the tasks of militants and their mode of presence in movements: ‘Communists everywhere support every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things. In all these movements they bring to the front, as the leading question in each, the property question, no matter what its degree of development at the time.’

v) Tactically, it is always necessary to bring the movement as close as possible to a body capable of coming together to effectively discuss its own perspective and that from which it illuminates and judges the situation.

Political activists, as Marx says, are part of the general movement, they do not separate themselves from it. They distinguish themselves solely by their ability to inscribe the movement in an overall point of view, to foresee from this what the next stage must be, making no any concession on these two points, even under the guise of unity, to the conservative conceptions which can perfectly well subjectively dominate even a major movement. The experience of revolutions shows that crucial political moments are in the form closest to a public meeting, where the decision to be taken is clarified by speakers who may also contradict one another.

Thesis 8. Politics gives the spirit of movements a specific duration, which should match the temporality of states, and not just be a negative episode in their domination. Its general definition is that it organises, among the various components of the people and on the largest possible scale, a discussion around slogans which must be those of permanent propaganda as well as of future movements. Politics provides the general framework for these discussions: it is the assertion that there are today two ways for the general organisation of humanity, the capitalist way and the communist way. The first is only the contemporary form of what has existed since the Neolithic revolution, a few thousand years ago. The second proposes a second global, systemic revolution in the future of humanity. It proposes to emerge from the Neolithic age.

Commentary. In this sense, politics consists in situating locally, through broad discussion, the slogan that crystallises the existence of these two roads in the current situation. Being local, this slogan can only come from the experience of the masses concerned. It is there that politics learns what can make the effective struggle for the communist road exist locally, whatever the means. From this point of view, the wellspring of politics is not right away antagonistic confrontation, but the continuous investigation, in situ, of the ideas, slogans and initiatives capable of bringing to life locally the existence of two roads, one of which is the conservation of what exists, the other its complete transformation according to egalitarian principles which the new slogan has to crystallise. The name of this activity is ‘mass work’. The essence of politics, outside of movement, is mass work.

Thesis 9. Politics is done with people from everywhere. It cannot submit to the various forms of social segregation organised by capitalism.

Commentary. This means, especially for intellectual youth, who have always played a crucial role in the birth of new politics, the need for a continuous journey towards other social strata, especially the most deprived, where the impact of capitalism is most devastating. In present conditions priority must be given, in our countries as well as on a world scale, to the vast nomadic proletariat, who, like the peasants of Auvergne or Brittany in the past, arrive in great waves, facing the worst risks, to try to survive as workers here, since they can no longer do so as landless peasants there. The method, in this case as in all others, is patient investigation on the spot: in markets, housing estates, hostels and factories, the organisation of meetings, even very small ones at the beginning, the fixing and dissemination of slogans, broadening the base of work, confrontation with the various local conservative forces, etc. This is exciting work, once you realise that the key is active stubbornness. An important step is to organise schools to spread knowledge of the global history of struggle between the two roads, its successes and its current impasses.

What was done by the organisations that arose for this purpose after May ’68 can and must be done again. We must reconstitute the political axis I mentioned, which is still today an axis between the youth movement, some intellectuals, and the nomadic proletariat. This is already being done here and there. It is the only properly political task of the moment.

What has changed in France is the deindustrialisation of the suburbs of the big cities. This provides the far right with its working-class support. It must be fought on the spot, by explaining why and how two generations of workers have been sacrificed in a few years, and by simultaneously investigating, as far as possible, the opposite process, namely the extremely violent industrialisation of Asia. Work with manual workers is always immediately international, even here. In this respect, it would be extremely interesting to produce and distribute a newspaper of the workers of the world.

Thesis 10. There is no real political organisation today. The task is therefore to see to the means of reconstituting it.

Commentary. An organisation is responsible for conducting surveys, synthesising mass work and the local slogans that have emerged from it, so as to place them in a global perspective, enriching the movements and monitoring their consequences over the long term. An organisation is judged not on its form and procedures, as one judges a state, but on its capacity to do what it is charged with. We can use a formula from Mao: such an organisation is one which can be said to ‘give back to the masses in a precise form what it has received from them in a still confused form’.

Thesis 11. The classical party form is defunct today because it defined itself, not by its capacity to do what Thesis 9 says, namely mass work, but by its claim to ‘represent’ the working class, or the proletariat.

Comment. We must break with the logic of representation in all its forms. The political organisation must have an instrumental definition, not a representative one. Besides, ‘representation’ means ‘identity of what is represented’. But identities must be excluded from the political field.

Thesis 12. As we have just seen, what defines politics is not the relationship to the state. In this sense, politics takes place ‘at a distance’ from the state. Strategically, however, it is necessary to break the state, because it is the universal guardian of the capitalist road, notably because it polices the right to private property of the means of production and exchange. As the Chinese revolutionaries said during the Cultural Revolution, we must ‘break with bourgeois right’. Therefore, political action towards the state is a mixture of distance and negativity. The aim is actually for the state to be increasingly surrounded by hostile opinion and political sites that have become alien to it.

Commentary. The historical record of this case is very complex. For example, the Russian Revolution of 1917 certainly combined several things, i.e. a broad hostility to the tsarist regime, including in the countryside because of the war, an intense and long-standing ideological preparation, especially in the intellectual strata, workers’ revolts leading to real mass organisations, called soviets, and soldiers’ uprisings, with the existence, thanks to the Bolsheviks, of a solid, diversified organisation, capable of holding meetings with orators who were first-rate in their conviction and their didactic talent. All of this took place with victorious insurrections and a terrible civil war that was finally won by the revolutionary camp, despite massive foreign intervention. The Chinese revolution followed a completely different course: a long march through the countryside, the formation of people’s assemblies, a real Red Army, the lasting occupation of a remote area in the north of the country, where agrarian and productive reform could be experimented with, at the same time as the army was being consolidated, the whole process lasting some thirty years. Moreover, instead of the Stalinist terror of the 1930s, there was a mass student and worker uprising in China against the aristocracy of the Communist Party. This unprecedented movement, called the Proletarian Cultural Revolution, is for us the latest example of a policy of direct confrontation with the figures of state power. None of this can be transposed to our situation. But one lesson runs through the whole adventure: the state, whatever its form, can in no way represent or define the politics of emancipation.

The complete dialectic of any true revolutionary politics has four terms:

i) The strategic idea of the struggle between two roads, communist and capitalist. This is what Mao called the ‘ideological preparation of opinion’, without which, he said, revolutionary politics is impossible.

ii) The local investment of this idea or principle by the political organisation, in the form of mass work. The decentralised circulation of everything that emerges from this work in terms of slogans and victorious practical experiences.

iii) Popular movements in the form of historical events, within which the political organisation works for both their negative unity and the refinement of their affirmative determination.

iv) The state whose power must be broken, either by confrontation or encirclement, if it is the power of the agents of capitalism. And, if it comes from the communist road, it must be destroyed, if necessary, by the revolutionary means that the Chinese Cultural Revolution attempted in a fatal disorder.

To invent in situ the contemporary disposition of these four terms is the problem of our conjuncture, simultaneously practical and theoretical.

 

Thesis 13. The situation of contemporary capitalism involves a kind of stalemate between the globalisation of the market and the still largely national character of the police and military control of populations. In other words, there is a gap between the economic disposition of things, which is global, and its necessary state protection, which remains national. The second aspect is the resurrection of imperialist rivalries in other forms. Despite this change of form, the risk of war is increasing. In fact, war is already present in large parts of the world. Future politics will also have the task, if it can, of preventing the outbreak of an all-out war, which this time could put the existence of humanity at stake. It can also be said that the historical choice is: either humanity breaks with the contemporary Neolithic age that is capitalism and initiates its communist phase on a global scale; or it remains in its Neolithic phase, and will be greatly exposed to perishing in a nuclear war.

Commentary. Today the great powers seek, on the one hand, to collaborate in the stability of world affairs, notably by combating protectionism, but on the other hand fight one another for hegemony. The result is the end of directly colonial practices, such as those of France or England in the nineteenth century, i.e. the military and administrative occupation of entire countries. The new practice is what I propose to call zoning: in entire zones (Iraq, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Mali, Central Africa, Congo, and so on) states are undermined, annihilated, and the zone becomes a zone of plunder, open to armed gangs as well as all the capitalist predators of the planet. Alternatively, the state is made up of businessmen linked by a thousand ties to the big companies of the world market. Rivalries intertwine in vast territories, with constantly shifting power relations. Under these conditions, an uncontrolled military incident would be enough to bring us to the brink of war. The blocs are already drawn: the United States and its ‘Western-Japanese’ clique on one side, China and Russia on the other, nuclear weapons everywhere. We can only recall Lenin’s dictum: ‘Either revolution will prevent war, or war will provoke revolution.’

We could thus define the maximum ambition of future political work: to realise for the first time in history the first hypothesis, so that revolution will prevent war, rather than the second, i.e. that war will provoke revolution. It was this second hypothesis that materialised in Russia in the context of the First World War, and in China in the context of the Second. But at what a price! And with what long-term consequences!

We must hope, and we must act. Anyone, anywhere, can start to make real politics, in the sense presented in this text. And talk, in turn, to those around them about what they have done. This is how it all begins.

Translated by David Fernbach

Category : Capitalism | China | Marxism | Philosophy | Socialism | Theory | Blog
6
Jan

 

 

By Christian Noakes (Posted Dec 20, 2022)

 

Within the heterogenous tradition of Marxism there are two diametrically opposed conceptions of popular culture: the elitist and vanguardist. The former is far from unique to Marxism, and it could be argued that such positions are antithetical to the popular sentiments of Karl Marx’s revolutionary thought. Such an orientation represents a dominant intellectual trend more generally, wherein the popular culture of the masses is considered devoid of positive value and categorically distinct from so-called high culture.1 Within Marxism, this elitism tends to assume that the ruling class has an absolute monopoly on popular cultural production. This position is perhaps best represented by Theodor Adorno, who categorically dismisses popular culture as insidious and debased. In his analysis of popular music, he goes as far as to distinguish between popular and “serious” music.2 Such positions overlook popular agency and the need to combat capitalist ideology on a social, rather than individual, level.

In contrast, vanguardists consider popular culture as a fundamental vehicle for mass education and the propagation of a particular worldview, in concert with a corresponding and underlying socioeconomic order. Proponents do not dismiss popular culture outright or conceive of it as inherently “bad” or “low,” but instead ask: popular culture for which class and toward what ends? Vanguardist praxis treats popular culture as “a terrain of contestation.”3

Another distinguishing characteristic of vanguardism is the belief in the intellectual capacity of the populace. Vanguardism is not simply a matter of being the most advanced. It also implies the ability to lead or give direction to the masses. On the intellectual field of culture, this entails a raising of consciousness. In response to the critique that ideas put forward in socialist publications were too complex for the working class to grasp, Antonio Gramsci observed the following:

The socialist weeklies adapt themselves to the average level of the regional strata they address. Yet the tone of the articles and the propaganda must always be just above this average level, so that there is a stimulus to intellectual progress, so that at least a number of workers can emerge from the generic blur of the mulling-over of pamphlets and consolidate their spirit in a higher critical perception of history and the world in which they live and struggle.4

Gramsci, therefore, rejects the extremes of both infantilizing anti-intellectualism (i.e., tailism) or isolated elitism. This is illustrative of how vanguardists can meet the people “where they are,” so to speak, and then work to move them to higher levels of class consciousness.

Gramsci and the lesser-known Peruvian Communist José Carlos Mariátegui—who is himself often compared to Gramsci—were not merely theorists of vanguardism. They actively practiced it and indeed, led this aspect of the class struggle in Italy and Peru, respectively. Both treated cultural and political issues as being deeply intertwined and sought to promote politically and intellectually developed popular culture for the working class and oppressed peoples in order to counter the dominant popular bourgeois culture. Their revolutionary praxis materialized in publications such as Gramsci’s L’Ordine Nuovo and Mariategui’s Amauta.

Gramsci looked with admiration at the strides made by the Soviet Union in making the arts accessible to the working class and the proliferation of revolutionary cultural institutions such as the Proletkult. The revolutionary fervor in the Soviet Union and the increasing militancy of Italian workers inspired Gramsci to create an institution for the development and propagation of proletarian culture in Italy. Out of this desire came the newspaper, L’Ordine Nuovo: Weekly Review of Socialist Culture, which Gramsci founded in 1919 with a group of intellectuals and revolutionaries that would later become a core group in the Communist Party of Italy. In its pages, readers found works of political prose alongside theater and literary criticism. The paper also introduced many to Communist artists and intellectuals from abroad, such as Anatoly Lunacharsky, Maxim Gorky, Henri Barbusse, and Romain Rolland. Reflecting on the initial impetus for the publication, Gramsci said,

The sole sentiment which united us… was associated with our vague yearning for a vaguely proletarian culture.5

The June 21, 1919, edition marked a significant shift in the publication from this somewhat eclectic initial phase into an organ for a concrete political program. Ordine Nuovo became not only a publication, but a core group representing something of a tendency or faction within Italian socialist politics—with a particularly heavy influence on labor struggles in Turin. Central to this solidification of political purpose was the factory council movement, which Ordine Nuovo fueled with its program to turn internal commissions of Turin factories into Italian soviets or councils. By directly empowering the workers to manage production themselves, Gramsci asserted that the councils would prepare the working class of Italy to take power and provide them with the competence to build and maintain a socialist society. The Ordine Nuovo group put its energies toward fostering a culture, by means of the councils, in which the workers would see themselves as producers within a larger cooperative system of production, rather than as atomized wage-earners.6 This culture was organically fostered through direct dialog with the workers themselves. With an air of satisfaction, Gramsci remarked that “To us and to our followers, Ordine Nuovo became ‘the newspaper of the factory councils.’ Workers loved Ordine Nuovo… [b]ecause in its articles they found part of themselves.… Because these articles were not cold, intellectual architecture, but were the outcome of our discussions with the best workers. They articulated the real feelings, will, and passion of the working class.”7

At the request of the workers, Gramsci and other members of Ordine Nuovo spoke regularly at council meetings. In September 1920, the revolutionary potential of the councils reached a high point when workers occupied factories and took direct control over production. At this time, the publication ceased, and Gramsci and the other members joined the workers in the factories “to solve practical questions [of running a factory] on a basis of common agreement and collaboration.”8

While the editorial line of the newspaper became more defined and motivated by concrete political goals, it still focused on fostering an organic popular culture of the working class, which it treated as an integral part of building socialism. This included the creation of the School of Culture and Socialist Propaganda, which was attended by both factory workers and university students. Among the lecturers were Gramsci and the other members of Ordine Nuovo, as well as several university professors.9 Such efforts were vital in the intellectual and ideological preparation for the establishment of an Italian socialist state, at which time “[b]ourgeois careerism will be shattered and there will be a poetry, a novel, a theatre, a moral code, a language, a painting and a music peculiar to proletarian civilization.”10 While Italy would soon see the horrors of fascism—rather than the establishment of this proletarian civilization, and thus the full development of a national proletarian culture—the militant working class culture fostered by Gramsci and Ordine Nuovo could never be fully snuffed out by the Mussolini regime. The cultural politics of Gramsci would also have a lasting influence beyond Italy.

Such influences are apparent in the works of José Carlos Mariátegui, who had been in Italy at the time of the founding of its Communist Party and identified most closely with the Ordine Nuovo group. After returning to Peru, Mariátegui put his newfound Marxist convictions to use in a variety of endeavors, including the production of the journal, Amauta, which was heavily influenced by Gramsci.11

Published from 1926 to 1930, this groundbreaking and visually stimulating journal was Mariátegui’s primary vehicle for uniting the cultural and political vanguards of the time.12 In his introduction to the inaugural issue, Mariátegui states: “The goal of this journal is to articulate, illuminate, and comprehend Peru’s problems from theoretical and scientific viewpoints. But we will always consider Peru from an international perspective. We will study all the great movements of political, philosophical, artistic, literary, and scientific renewal. Everything that is human is ours.”13 Along these simultaneous lines of inquiry into Peruvian society and internationalism, Amauta brought together leading artists, intellectuals, and revolutionaries of Peru, Latin America, and Europe. In addition to featuring much of Mariátegui’s most enduring works, it featured other key Peruvian figures, such as the feminist activist and poet Magda Portal and leading indigenist artists José Sabogal and Camilo Blas. Reaching beyond Peru’s borders, the journal also featured contributions by Diego Rivera, Pablo Neruda, Henri Barbusse, Romain Rolland, and Georg Grosz. Likewise, its readership was also international. In addition to being available throughout much of Latin America, it was also distributed in New York, Madrid, Paris, and Melbourne, Australia.14

Mariátegui was at the center of the vanguardista movement in Peru. This youthful and creative movement concerned itself with the creation of a “new Peru,” which would break from the prevailing oligarchic traditions inherited from Spain.15 While diverse in focus and orientation, vanguardistas sought to create new social, political, and cultural forms. According to Mariátegui,

A current of renewal, ever more vigorous and well defined, has been felt for some time now in Peru. The supporters of this renewal are called vanguardists, socialists, revolutionaries, etc.… Some formal discrepancies, some psychological differences, exist between them. But beyond what differentiates them, all these spirits contribute to what groups and unites them: their will to create a new Peru in a new world.… The intellectual and spiritual movement is becoming organic. With the appearance of Amauta, it enters the stage of definition.16

For its part, Amauta promoted anti-imperialism, gender equality, and internationalism as core principles of its national vision.

A new Peru would have to resolve the “Indigenous question”—the most pressing issue for Mariátegui. To aid in this endeavor, the journal laid bare the semi-feudal/semi-colonial nature of Peru’s economy, which relied on the socioeconomic subjugation of the country’s Indigenous population, and acted as national forum and network for otherwise regionally isolated Indigenous peasant organizing.17 Every issue also promoted a plurinationalism that included Quechua and Amari people in the Peruvian identity and body politic. In stark contrast to the national bourgeoisie, which saw Spain as the source of Peruvianness, the journal promoted a national identity and culture centered around the country’s Indigenous population, as was reflected by the majority of its content. This included articles analyzing racialized relations of production, Indigenous-centered art, and even the very name of the journal, Amauta being Quechua for “wise one” and a title given to teachers in the Inca Empire. As Mariátegui states in his introduction of issue 17 (September 1928), “We took an Inca word to create it anew. So that Indian Peru, Indigenous America might feel that this magazine was theirs.”18 Previously excluded and infantilized, Indigenous people were central to the pages of Amauta, and to the national culture it fostered.

Amauta aimed to polarize Peru’s intellectuals and bring readers under the banner of Marxism-Leninism.19 Its content was particularly important in organizing and providing direction to the country’s rural and Indigenous populations.20 It also helped to establish Indigenismo as Peru’s dominant school of art, thereby fostering a national culture in opposition to the colonial culture inherited from Spain.21 As the most popular Latin American journal of its time, it was central in the propagation of an Indigenous and peasant-centered Marxism that would come to characterize socialist movements throughout Latin America.

The works of Mariátegui and Gramsci were instrumental in the development and dissemination of popular subaltern culture. Through dialog and collaboration, Amauta and L’Ordine Nuovo would come to be leading outlets in the education of the masses along explicitly revolutionary lines. In contrast to both anti-intellectualism and elitism, the cultural projects of Mariátegui and Gramsci represent the vanguardist conviction that the masses are capable both of understanding complex or advanced ideas and of developing their own organic culture divorced from the ruling.


Notes:

  1.  Peter McLaren, “Popular Culture and Pedagogy,” in Rage and Hope: Interviews with Peter McLaren on War, Imperialism, and Critical Pedagogy (New York: Peter Lang, 2006) 213.
  2.  Theodor Adorno, “On Popular Music,” in Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader, ed. John Storey (Athens, GA: University of Georgia, 2006).
  3.  McLaren, Rage and Hope, 214.
  4.  Antonio Gramsci, Selections from Cultural Writings, ed. David Forgas and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (Chicago: Haymarket, 2012), 33.
  5.  Quoted in Giuseppe Fiori, Antonio Gramsci: Life of a Revolutionary (New York: Schocken 1973), 118.
  6.  John M. Cammett, Antonio Gramsci and the Origins of Italian Communism (Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press, 1967), 95.
  7.  Quoted in Antonio A. Santucci, Antonio Gramsci (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010), 68.
  8.  Fiori, Antonio Gramsci: Life of a Revolutionary, 139.
  9.  Cammett, Antonio Gramsci and the Origins of Italian Communism, 81.
  10.  Gramsci. Selections from Cultural Writings, 50—51.
  11.  Marc Becker, Mariátegui and Latin American Marxist Theory (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1993).
  12.  David O. Wise, “Mariátegui’s ‘Amauta’ (1926—1930), A Source of Peruvian Cultural History,” Revista Interamericana de Bibliografia 29, no. 3—4 (1979): 299.
  13.  José Carlos Mariátegu, “Introducing Amauta,” in “The Heroic and Creative Meaning of Socialism”: Selected Essays of José Carlos Mariátegui, 75—76.
  14.  Wise, “Mariátegui’s ‘Amauta’ (1926—1930),” 293.
  15.  Kildo Adevair dos Santos, Dalila Andrade Oliveira, and Danilo Romeu Streck, “The Journal Amauta (1926—1930): Study of a Latin American Educational Tribune,” Brazilian Journal of History of Education 21, no. 1 (2021).
  16.  Mariátegu, “Introducing Amauta,” 74—75.
  17.  Mike Gonzalez, In the Red Corner: The Marxism of José Carlos Mariátegui (Chicago: Haymarket, 2019).
  18.  José Carlos Mariátegui, “Anniversary and Balance Sheet,” in José Carlos Mariátegui: An Anthology, ed. Harry E. Vanden and Marc Becker (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2011), 128.
  19.  Wise, “Mariátegui’s ‘Amauta’ (1926—1930)”; Jesús Chavarría, José Carlos Mariátegui and the Rise of Modern Peru, 1890—1930(Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1979).
  20.  Harry E. Vanden, National Marxism in Latin America: José Carlos Mariátegui’s Thought and Politics (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1986).
  21.  Wise, “Mariátegui’s ‘Amauta’ (1926—1930),” 295.

 

 

Category : Fascism | Latin America | Marxism | Blog
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
19
Nov

By Wang Wei

Qiushi Journal 
Updated: 2022-10-28

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

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

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

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

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

A Chinese approach to defining civilization

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

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

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

Criteria for determining a society’s entry into civilization

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

XINHUA / PHOTO PROVIDED BY THE NATIONAL CULTURAL HERITAGE ADMINISTRATION

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

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

Ten thousand years ago: laying the foundations

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

Eight thousand years ago: the emergence of a civilization

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

Six thousand years ago: accelerated development

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

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

Five thousand years ago: entry into civilization

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four thousand years ago: dynastic establishment

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

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

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

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

Three thousand years ago: the consolidation of royal power

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

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

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

Historical insights from the development of the Chinese civilization 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PROVIDED BY THE ERLITOU SITE MUSEUM OF THE XIA CAPITAL

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Category : China | Marxism | Blog
12
Sep

By Ian Angus

Climate & Capitalism

Sep 07, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Category : Capitalism | Globalization | Marxism | Slavery | Terror and Violence | Working Class | Blog
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
21
Oct















Grey Eminence, or Theory at the Top

By N. S. Lyons
Palladium
October 2021

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

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

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

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

The Grey Eminence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cultural Competence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That would soon change.

A Dark Vision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wang Huning’s Nightmare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Grand Experiment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Category : China | Cold War | Marxism | Blog
5
Sep

By TIM LACY

US Intellectual History Blog

FEB 20, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

———————————————————————
Secondary Bibliography

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

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

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

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

Category : Hegemony | Marxism | Theory | Blog
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
31
Dec

By Marc Becker
Against the Current
No. 209, November/December 2020

WRITING IN THE 1920s, the Peruvian Marxist José Carlos Mariátegui introduced a uniquely Latin American perspective on revolutionary socialist movements and theories. He famously noted, “we certainly do not want socialism in America to be a copy. It has to be a heroic creation.”(1) This political dynamism is what made him into an intellectual force with lasting relevance.

Mariátegui’s voluminous and perceptive writings as well as extensive political activism left an unmistakable and lasting impression on the political, social, and intellectual landscape of his country. Nevertheless, even as he has retained central importance for revolutionary socialism in Latin America, in the United States few people are aware of his contributions.

When Mariátegui died in 1930, his funeral turned into one of the largest processions of workers ever seen in the streets of the capital city of Lima, but in the United States his death was hardly noticed.

Waldo Frank, a prominent left-wing U.S writer, the first chair of the League of American Writers and a close friend of Mariátegui, declared that Mariátegui’s death plunged “the intelligentsia of all of Hispano-America into sorrow; and nothing could be more eloquent of the cultural separation between the two halves of the new world than the fact that to most of us these words convey no meaning.”(2)

Despite this lack of attention in the United States and writing a century ago and on a different continent, Mariátegui’s thought remains relevant for the struggles we face today.

Early Life

José Carlos Mariátegui was born June 14, 1894 in the southern Peruvian coastal town of Moquegua and grew up on outskirts of Lima. He was raised by a poor and deeply religious mestiza (mixed race) single mother, Maráia Amalia LaChira. She had separated from her husband, Francisco Javier Mariátegui, because, when she discovered that he was the grandson of a liberal independence hero, she wanted to protect her children from that liberal influence.

This did not prevent her son from becoming the leading Marxist thinker in Latin America, but it did seem to temper his attitudes toward religion.

Mariátegui was a poor and sickly child. He suffered from tuberculous, and when he was eight years old he hurt his left leg, disabling him for life. Because of a lack of financial resources, he only managed to achieve an eighth-grade education. As a result, he was largely self-taught, which later led him to quip that he was an intellectual at odds with the intellectual world.

Rather than continue his education, Mariátegui was forced to find a job to help support his family. At the age of 15, he began to work as a copyboy for the newspaper La Prensa. He soon rose through the ranks in the newsroom as he began writing and editing as well.

These experiences introduced him to the field of journalism, which he subsequently used both for his financial livelihood and as a vehicle to express his political views. Almost all of his voluminous writings originated as relatively short pieces that he penned for popular magazines.

Drawing on this journalistic experience, Mariátegui launched two short-lived newspapers, Nuestra Epoca and La Razón, that assumed an explicitly pro-labor perspective. His vocal support for the revolutionary demands of the workers soon ran him afoul of the Peruvian dictator Augusto B. Leguía, who in October 1919 exiled him to Europe.

Mariátegui later calls this early period of his life his “stone age” and ignored the literary output that resulted from it. As a result, his early writings have received little attention.

Marxism and Amauta
It was during his three-and-a-half-year sojourn in Europe that Mariátegui developed into a Marxist intellectual. Through a series of experiences in France and Italy he saw the revolutionary potential of Marxism. This trajectory and orientation later led his critics to condemn him as a “Europeanizer,” a rather ironic criticism for someone who has come to be generally applauded for adopting Marxist theories to a Latin American reality.

Mariátegui later commented that in Europe he picked up some ideas and a woman, the Italian Anna Chiappe with whom he subsequently had four children — all boys.

In 1923, Mariátegui returned to Peru “a convinced and declared Marxist.” He presented a series of lectures on the “history of world crisis” at the González Prada Popular University in Lima that drew on his experiences and observations in Europe.

He was a popular lecturer, but because of his lack of an academic degree he could not get a regular teaching appointment at the main San Marcos University. Indeed, he was an intellectual at odds with the intellectual world.

In 1924, the police arrested Mariátegui because of his alleged subversive activity at the González Prada Popular University. A strong international reaction led to his release, perhaps reinforcing in his mind the importance of the international dimensions to a socialist struggle.

In 1924, Mariátegui lost his (good) right leg, and as a result spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair. Even as his health failed (or perhaps because of that), both his intellectual output and efforts to organize a social revolution intensified.

Among Mariátegui’s literary activity, the most significant was the founding in 1926 of the journal Amauta (which means “wise teacher” in Quechua) as a vanguard voice for an intellectual and spiritual revolution. The journal moved beyond politics to include philosophy, art, literature, and science.

Amauta was a relatively high-brow publication that gained international renown. Two years later, Mariátegui launched a short-lived biweekly newspaper appropriately titled Labor as an extension of Amauta to reach out to the working class.

In 1928, Mariátegui published his most famous book 7 ensayos de interpretación de la realidad peruana (Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality). The essays provide a broad sociological overview of key issues facing Latin America: economics, racial problems, land tenure, education, religion, regionalism and centralism, and literature (the last and by far the longest essay in the collection). This book quickly became a fundamental work on Latin American Marxism and established him as a founding light of Latin American Marxist theory.

In terms of his political activity, in 1928 Mariátegui founded the Peruvian Socialist Party (PSP), served as its secretary-general and brought it into alignment with the Communist International as a vanguardist party designed to lead the proletariat to revolution. With that goal in mind, the party organized communist cells all over country. In 1929, the PSP launched the General Confederation of Peruvian Workers (CGTP) as a Marxist-oriented trade union federation.

During this entire time, Mariátegui continued to run into political problems with the Leguía regime. Mariátegui attacked working conditions at the U.S.-owned Cerro de Pasco copper mine and Leguía feared that he was inciting workers.

In 1927, the police arrested and detained him for six days at a military hospital on charges of involvement in a communist plot. The police subsequently raided his house and shut down Labor.

Even as the labor and political organizations that Mariátegui helped found flourished, his health floundered. The person who came to be known as the Amauta died on April 16, 1930.

Mariátegui’s Ideology
Mariátegui was an integrative thinker who incorporated a broad range of factors into his political analyses and materialist conception of the world. Broadly, his intellectual contributions can be broken down along five lines: national Marxism, anti-imperialism, agrarian issues, racial matters, and religion.

Mariátegui is often seen as the first truly creative and original Latin American Marxist thinker who analyzed concrete historical realities in order to develop solutions to problems of non-European societies. Rather than a rigid and determi­nistic Marxism, he embraced an open and voluntarist revolutionary praxis that excelled in applying European doctrines to Latin American realities in new and creative ways. continue

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