The Republican intellectual establishment is united against Trump – but his message of cultural and racial resentment has deep roots in the American right
Au 16, 2016 – The Republican party, its leaders like to say, is a party of ideas. Debates over budgets and government programmes are important, but they must be conducted with an eye on the bigger questions – questions about the character of the state, the future of freedom and the meaning of virtue. These beliefs provide the foundation for a conservative intellectual establishment – thinktanks such as the American Enterprise Institute, magazines such as National Review, pundits such as George Will and Bill Kristol – dedicated to advancing the right’s agenda.
Over the last year, that establishment has been united by one thing: opposition to Donald Trump. Republican voters may have succumbed to a temporary bout of collective insanity – or so Trump’s critics on the right believe – but the party’s intelligentsia remain certain that entrusting the Republican nomination to a reality television star turned populist demagogue has been a disaster for their cause and their country. Whatever Trump might be, he is not a conservative.
That belief is comforting, but it is wrong. Trump is a unique character, but the principles he defends and the passions he inflames have been part of the modern American right since its formation in the aftermath of the second world war. Most conservative thinkers have forgotten or repressed this part of their history, which is why they are undergoing a collective nervous breakdown today. Like addicts the morning after a bender, they are baffled at the face they see in the mirror.
Writing under pseudonyms borrowed from antiquity, such as “Decius”, the masked authors described the site, called JAG by its fans, as the “first scholarly journal of radical #Trumpism”. Posts analysing the campaign with titles such as The Twilight of Jeb! alternated with more ambitious forays in philosophy such as Paleo-Straussianism, Part I: Metaphysics and Epistemology. More intellectually demanding than the typical National Review article, the style of their prose also suggested writers who were having fun. Disquisitions on Aristotle could be followed by an emoji mocking the latest outraged responses to Trump.
The Republican intellectual establishment is united against Trump – but his message of cultural and racial resentment has deep roots in the American right
The authors at JAG were not all backing Trump himself – officially, they were “electorally agnostic” – but they were united by their enthusiasm for Trumpism (as they put it, “for what Trumpism could become if thought through with wisdom and moderation”). They dismissed commentators who attributed Trump’s victory to his celebrity, arguing that a campaign could not resonate with so many voters unless it spoke to genuine public concerns.
JAG condensed Trumpism into three key elements: economic nationalism, controlled borders and a foreign policy that put American interests first.
These policies, they asserted, were a direct challenge to the views of America’s new ruling class – a cosmopolitan elite of wealthy professionals who controlled the commanding heights of public discourse. This new ruling class of “transnational post-Americans” was united by its belief that the welfare of the world just happened to coincide with programmes that catered to its own self-interest: free trade, open borders, globalisation and a suite of other policies designed to ease the transition to a post-national future overseen by enlightened experts. In the language of JAG, they are the “Davoisie”, a global elite that is most at ease among its international peers at the World Economic Forum in Davos and totally out of touch with ordinary Americans.
Mainstream conservatives and their liberal counterparts were equally complicit in sustaining this regime, but JAG focused its attention on the right. Leading Republican politicians and the journalists who fawned over them in the rightwing press were pedlars of an “intellectually bankrupt” doctrine whose obsessions – cutting taxes, policing sexual norms, slashing government regulation – distracted from “the fundamental question” Trump had put on the agenda: “destruction of the soulless managerial class”.
A dissenting minority has been waging a guerrilla war against the conservative establishment for three decades
JAG unleashed salvo after salvo against “Conservatism Inc”, the network of journals and thinktanks that, along with talk radio and Fox News, has made defending the party of ideas into a lucrative career path. “If Trump ends up destroying the Republican party,” they wrote, “it is because the Republican party, as it exists today, is little more than a jobs programme for failed academics and journalists.”
News of JAG began circulating on the right shortly after its debut early in the primary season. “The first time I heard someone refer to it, I thought it was a joke,” says former George W Bush speechwriter David Frum. But it quickly found an audience. “They got a huge response almost immediately,” says conservative activist Chris Buskirk, who recalled excited emails and frantic texting among his colleagues. In June, the Wall Street Journal columnist and former Ronald Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan alerted her readers to the “sophisticated, rather brilliant and anonymous website”. A link from the popular rightwing website Breitbart News drove traffic even higher, and JAG seemed poised to shape the discussion over the future of conservatism.
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Jacobin Interview: Eric Foner on the Abolitionists, Reconstruction, and Winning ‘Freedom’ from the Right.
No living historian has done more to shape our understanding of the American Civil War era than Eric Foner. A rare scholar who is both prominent outside the historical community and esteemed within it, over the course of a fifty-year career Foner has acquired virtually every award, tribute, and professional honor available to a historian in the United States.
Yet the true measure of his legacy lies not in accolades but influence. Foner’s most important books have transformed the way we see — and the way we teach — the origins of the Civil War, the significance of slave emancipation, and the politics of postwar Reconstruction.
Foner grew up in a New York family equally devoted to historical scholarship and left-wing politics. His father, Jack, and his uncle, Philip, both taught history at City College before they were dismissed and blacklisted as Communists.
For the elder Foners, a radical approach to US history involved placing the black freedom struggle at center stage. “In the 1930s,” Eric later wrote, “the Communist party was the only predominantly white organization to make fighting racism central to its political program.” It was no coincidence that the family was friendly with W. E. B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson, or that Philip Foner’s five-volume selection of Frederick Douglass’s writings and speeches, which he completed while on the blacklist, was the first collected edition of its kind.
Foner’s family background has produced occasional clumsy efforts at red-baiting, including a 2002 National Review essay which denounced him as a Soviet sympathizer and “left-wing polemicist.” In reality, Foner’s own contemporary political interventions have generally remained within the American liberal mainstream. Yet it would not be unfair to credit his Old Left upbringing with a major influence on his scholarly career.
Foner’s first book, Free Soil, Free Labor, and Free Men (1970), which remains the standard work on the rise of the Republican Party, showed how antebellum Republicans were not merely critics of slavery, but exponents of a powerful political-economic ideology of their own. His most celebrated book, Reconstruction (1988), provided a synthesis that decisively rejected the racist folklore that had informed popular and scholarly treatments of the post–Civil War period for much of the twentieth century.
In these and other works, a central theme in Foner’s scholarship has been the contested terrain of freedom in American history. (This is no less true of his most recent book, Gateway to Freedom, on the antebellum underground railroad.) The Civil War era, in his view, represented a revolutionary clash of political ideas and forces — a period that unmade and then remade American society. The revolution, of course, remained unfinished — but it was a revolution nonetheless.
Three Jacobin contributors sat down with Foner to discuss the achievements and failures of Reconstruction, how to reclaim the idea of freedom from the Right, whether the antislavery movement has any lessons for the contemporary left, and why Karl Rove is one of his biggest fans.
So what’s this story we’ve heard about an argument you had with your eighth-grade history teacher about Reconstruction?
This was a long time ago, probably 1957 or ’58 — it was tenth or eleventh grade. And yeah, it was American History class, in Long Beach, Long Island, and the teacher was basically giving us the old, traditional Birth of a Nation view of Reconstruction. She said the Reconstruction Act of 1867, which gave the right to vote to black men in the South, was the worst law in all American history.
So I raised my hand and I said, “I don’t agree with you, Mrs. Berryman, I think the Alien and Sedition Acts were worse.” I don’t know where I got that from. And she said, “Alright, Eric, if you don’t like the way I’m teaching, you come in tomorrow and you give a lecture on Reconstruction.” Which I did — my father was a historian, Du Bois was a friend of the family, we had Black Reconstruction at home. So we used that.
I came in and I gave my presentation, and at the end of the class the teacher says, “All right, we’re now going to have a vote as to who’s right: me or Eric.” Well, she won by a landslide, let’s put it that way.
When would you say high school students started learning a new way of seeing Reconstruction?
Maybe the 1970s, or even after that. Of course, Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction had been out there since 1935, but it was ignored in the mainstream [white] universities. It was taught in the black colleges. In the black colleges you had a different view of Reconstruction, but that was totally sealed off from the larger academic world.
But I think a real turning point was in 1965, when Kenneth Stampp published this book called The Era of Reconstruction, which was not a very detailed research book but it gave a more positive view of Reconstruction. And because of the civil rights revolution, people wanted a different history. People were talking about the “New Abolitionists,” the “Second Reconstruction.” Little by little people started chipping away.
So in the seventies there was a lot of scholarship being done, but exactly when it got into the high schools I don’t know. Maybe the eighties. You’d have to look at the textbooks for that.
Today I think all the textbooks are good, but I still find, wherever I talk about this, that there are plenty of people — and not just the older ones — who say, “All I know about Reconstruction is corruption, carpetbaggers.”
The main thing is that people know next to nothing about Reconstruction. And what they do know is just not correct. I mean, just basic myths. People say, “They gave the right to vote to blacks but they disenfranchised all the whites.” Well, that’s completely untrue, they did not disenfranchise all whites. But people think that’s a known fact.
What percentage were actually disenfranchised?
A tiny percent. The people disenfranchised were people who held during office before the Civil War. Nobody knows how many that was. It might have been 8,000, 10,000, nobody knows, but it was not all whites. Your average Confederate veteran was not disenfranchised.
Oh, and the idea that all the blacks in office were illiterate and ignorant, also a total myth — we could go on about this but the point is, there are still a lot of misconceptions. I’m hoping that with the 150th anniversary of Reconstruction coming up there will be a little more interest.
There’s a 2011 Pew Poll showing that Americans still don’t even agree on the cause of the Civil War. There’s a plurality saying it was “states’ rights,” rather than slavery — and it’s not a North-South divide, either.
Yes, I see that all the time. It isn’t regional. The thing is, it’s an index of cynicism about political life. Which is totally understandable. The idea that anyone could do anything for an idealistic reason, or that you can believe anything that politicians say . . .
You look at our own world, with politics today, it’s easy to say, “Hey, it must have been just a bunch of Northern capitalists trying to control the South,” or “It was just states’ rights.” Whenever I lecture, someone raises the issue of states’ rights, and the thing I like to say is: “Yes, you’re right, the South believed in states’ rights. And the right they were interested in was the right to own slaves.” And that was a right created by state law, so naturally they wanted to protect states’ rights.
And then I say, if that was really the issue, then explain the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 to me — which was a federal law, probably the most powerful federal law before the Civil War in terms of overriding local judicial procedures, overriding local law enforcement. Federal troops, federal marshals, going into states, you think that’s a reflection of states’ rights? No.
When it came to vigorous federal action in defense of slavery, the South was perfectly happy to go that route. So they did not dogmatically believe in states’ rights . . .
Just look at the Mississippi Declaration of Secession. Or Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens’s “Cornerstone Speech.” One thing I admire about these guys is that they didn’t beat about the bush. They were very candid. “We are seceding because the future of slavery is in danger.”
After the war, the myth developed that everybody had already agreed that slavery needed to go.
Yes, slavery got washed out of the writing on the war. But it didn’t happen in a straight line. When it comes to the Civil War, what historians write is a reflection of the world they are living in at the moment.
During World War II there was an upsurge in people seeing the Civil War through its lens, through the fight against fascism and the knowledge that entrenched evil is not going to go away without violence. So in that period they saw slavery as the root of it.
But later you get a post-Vietnam thing, which was a little more cynical. I think even today we’re in a post-Iraq moment, where the idea is basically, “War is hell and politicians justify it with all this rhetoric which has no meaning, so how can you believe anything anyone says?”
My view on this is Du Bois’s, actually. Sometimes the “neo-abolitionist” historians get a little too gung-ho for war, the glorifying of the war. I agree with Du Bois, who says that war is murder, chaos, anarchy. But sometimes good comes out of it. I don’t think it’s a good thing that all these people got killed in the Civil War. I’m not glorifying it and waving the flag for it. But what I’m saying is that I’ve never seen a peaceful scenario for the abolition of slavery in this country.
Now, a lot of people say it would have died out as a result of being uneconomical. How do you know that? When would it have died out? It was plenty economical before the Civil War, why would it suddenly die out?
People say, “Oh, well Brazil abolished slavery.” Brazil abolished slavery partially because we abolished slavery. Do you think Brazil would have abolished slavery if we hadn’t? I think political economy is very important here. The clash of two fundamentally different societies with two fundamentally different labor systems is what’s going on, in my opinion.
Do you think it makes sense to talk about the Civil War and Reconstruction as a ‘bourgeois revolution’?
I tend not to use terminology like that, which I feel is an insider terminology. I try to write as clearly and accessibly as possible. So I understand what it means to call it a bourgeois revolution, and there are a lot of ways one could say it is. But I don’t think you would find that phrase in my writings.
But I do call it a revolution. I call the Civil War the Second American Revolution, as historian Charles Beard did, and as abolitionist Wendell Phillips did. But the Revolution is the destruction of slavery, that’s the revolutionary quality. That’s Du Bois’s point.
I call it a capitalist revolution. I don’t know if that’s the same thing as a bourgeois revolution. It destroys a system that is both capitalist and non-capitalist in ways that are quite difficult to explain, but the consequence of the Civil War is capitalist hegemony throughout the entire United States.
But that’s not the cause of the Civil War, because the capitalists were perfectly happy with the slave South. They made a lot of money off the slave South and there was no reason for them to go to war. But the consequence of the war was certainly the hegemony of Northern industry and finance throughout the entire country.
I wanted to talk about Karl Rove, who is apparently a big fan of your book Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men, on antebellum Republican ideology.
He said he learned how to build a political coalition from that book.
A student came up to me one year and said, “You might not approve of this, but I’ve got an internship in the White House working for Karl Rove this summer.” I said I don’t disapprove, they need all the help they can get down there. He said, “I’m glad you feel that way,” and he whipped out his copy of my Reconstruction book and said, “Mr Rove asked if I could get you to sign this for him.”
I think this kind of thing scares off the young contemporary left, because they see the legacy of antislavery being claimed by this vicious capitalist force.
Anything can be claimed by anyone! I mean, Glenn Beck held his civil rights rally a little while ago.
The National Review does something on Frederick Douglass from time to time.
We shouldn’t allow them to take possession of these struggles. By the way, Obama absorbs all of this into his narrative of American history, obviously, and what’s objectionable about all this — from Obama’s vision of American history to Karl Rove’s — is that they see all these things as struggles within a stable system, so to speak.
Instead of denying, like the Right used to, that we’ve ever had inequality in this country, the Right says, “Well of course slavery was horrible, but we abolished it. We abolished slavery.” We! We! Who’s this “we,” you know?
And then they say, “Jim Crow, it was terrible.” No one’s defending Jim Crow anymore. We had a great civil rights struggle, Martin Luther King is a hero to everybody left, right and center, but it’s a defanged Martin Luther King. Martin Luther King is the guy who gets up at the Lincoln Memorial and, you know, says one sentence — I want my children to be judged by the content of their character — and that’s Martin Luther King. You don’t get the King who spoke out against the Vietnam War, or the Poor People’s Campaign King.
King was a radical guy. King said that the Civil Rights Movement was a fundamental challenge to American values. The people who absorb it into a feel-good thing now say it was an expression of basic American values. In other words, there is a stable thing called Americanism which all these struggles are just improving all the time.
So I can see how people can be cynical about the appropriation of that, but I don’t think we should let it be appropriated. I wrote a book about the history of the idea of freedom, and then shortly thereafter George W. Bush took control of the idea of freedom for the War in Iraq. Operation Iraqi Freedom — freedom, freedom, freedom, that’s all it was. It turned a lot of people off the idea of freedom.
Obama doesn’t even talk about freedom much, except when he’s going to war. Freedom is the last refuge when they want to go to war.
I don’t think we should cede freedom to the Right. Absolutely not. We should not concede the common sense idea of freedom. In my book there are many other concepts of freedom equally embedded in the American tradition, which have a lot more to do with equality and economic rights, which we should insist on. It’s not just owning a gun and getting the government off your back.
So yes, I can understand that people look back at the abolitionist movement and say, first, “Well, the whites were racist.” Well some of them were racist, no question about it. But hey, they were willing to put themselves on the line to end slavery, so what else do you want?
This is a pseudo-politics, a psycho-politics, that says people ought to be loving each other. That’s not what politics is, people loving each other. It’s people acting together, even if they don’t love each other, for a common purpose. If you’re going out to a labor picket line, are they all loving each other, the people on that picket line? Probably not. But they have a common self-interest that they’re pursuing.
Then they say, “It didn’t succeed. They abolished slavery, but racism is permanent, and another form of slavery came in.” Of course, terrible injustice came in. But it wasn’t slavery. I think that’s a very cynical view of social change — that if you don’t get utopia nothing has happened.
There’s a related myth that emancipation happened, but immediately it was replaced by Jim Crow. But in reality there was a long period between Reconstruction and complete black disenfranchisement, and across the late nineteenth century there were all these struggles in the South, with whites and blacks acting together.
You’re absolutely right, it didn’t just end in 1877. There was Radical Reconstruction, which I think was a very idealistic effort to, as Du Bois said, create democracy. Du Bois’s subtitle talks about “the part which black folk played in the attempt to reconstruct democracy in America.” It’s not about black people, it’s about democracy — are we going to have a democracy in this country or not?
But then there was a generation at least which was kind of inchoate, as you say. There was a tendency towards more and more racism, but there were also struggles like the Readjusters in Virginia, the Populists of course, and other things. It’s not until around 1900 that Jim Crow, which is a shorthand for comprehensive white supremacy in the South, comes in.
The struggle is the story. I don’t think we should romanticize it, but the idea that racism is permanent and there’s nothing you can say or do and that’s it — that’s a totally unhistorical way of thinking about it.
Among other things, it’s a story of attempts at interracial cooperation from below, which ultimately failed by 1900. It’s sometimes argued that the political failure of Reconstruction in the South was due to the fact that Republican support among Unionist whites, which was significant at the beginning, seemed to have disappeared or diminished by 1877. Why do you think that happened?
That’s one of the reasons for the failure of Reconstruction — it’s one reason. Of course, there were some states where they never had any white support, like South Carolina and maybe a couple of other places. Louisiana had very, very little.
The problem of getting poor white support was very difficult and was exacerbated by the difference between the Northern Republican Party and the Southern Republican Party. In some of these states, like North Carolina or Georgia, there were poor whites, Unionists, and so on, who were interested in supporting the Republicans for economic advantages like debtor’s relief.
But the Northern Republican Party was not interested in supporting them. They rejected Georgia’s Constitution because it suspended the collection of debts, and they said, “Hey, I’m sorry, you guys have got to pay your debts.” It’s like Greece, they were acting like Angela Merkel.
I actually think the failure of Reconstruction was not solely or even primarily on that basis. Rather, you have to go to the federal level and look at what was basically a failure to enforce the law. There were these constitutional amendments — the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth — but you get a withdrawal from enforcement after a while, and that reflected changes in Northern society — political, economic, and intellectual. And without a willingness to enforce the law, the power structure in the South — the economic power structure — is going to take over eventually.
It’s possible to imagine continued federal intervention — not, you know, military intervention for forty years, but enough to make it clear that these laws will be enforced. Like what happened in the Civil Rights Movement. There was a social movement, but there was also the National Guard, federal courts, other things just making it clear to people, not that they have to love each other, but that they have to act in certain ways and they can’t act in other ways. That if people act in ways that are in violation of federal law, they will be punished. And if that becomes clear, then people eventually abide by the law.
This is the point where Karl Rove’s attempt at appropriation fails, because when you’re looking at that moment, where Northern support dries up and people are beginning to doubt the effort to enforce the law, they have exactly the same kinds of concerns that Karl Rove has, that the Republican Party today has.
Yes, exactly. Rove would probably say this was an outside imposition on the South and therefore whites were never going to accept it. Maybe there’s some truth to that. But as you said, there were the Populists, the Readjusters, there were grounds for white militancy in the South all through this period, which occasionally come to the fore and helped work out things with blacks. But they were usually overturned by violence.
So you go back to the question: are you going to allow political violence to determine elections and political power in this country? If you are, that’s what’s going to happen. And if not, you’re going to need federal intervention to prevent it. I think the national story of Reconstruction and its failure is very important, not just the local story.
Of course, there’s an old argument about corruption in the Reconstruction state governments, but newer scholarship has looked more closely at the problem of state government revenue, and the new property taxes imposed after the war.
Yes, these state governments faced a real Catch-22. Before the war, state revenue was basically from the tax on slaves, not on landed property. Planters could accumulate large tracts of property and not be taxed on it, but be taxed on their slaves instead. And this left the poorer whites not paying taxes on their land. Most people owned land, but they didn’t pay taxes.
This was a weird fiscal system, where it’s the tax on slaves that’s supporting the government, but it does allow a lot of fiscal autonomy to poorer areas. After the Civil War, there are no more slaves, so no more tax! It becomes a general property tax. That’s bad for the planters, but it’s also bad for the poorer whites, who are now paying a tax on their land they didn’t have to before.
So that becomes a big problem. These governments are setting up school systems, and they’re now serving a doubled citizenry where blacks are now suddenly getting benefits from the government as well as whites, but the fiscal resources are very, very weak. And that’s why they were issuing bonds that were deteriorating in value. And you get corruption out of that.
But even the way you posed the question, which pops up in a lot of this literature, shows the hold of modern day politics: corruption and taxation are thrown into the same bag. But taxation is not corruption! This notion that levying taxes is bad is part of this critique of Reconstruction.
But surely if these are poor farmers who want schools, and you raise taxes to build these school systems and stuff — if it had been done well, wouldn’t they ultimately have benefited from it?
The immediate problem was that they couldn’t get debtor’s relief. They were all in debt. The Republican Party was divided, because a lot of Republicans — including black Republicans — thought they shouldn’t alienate planters too much. They wanted to get the planters into the Republican Party.
So it was very hard to have a radical party, to have a populist party, because the local parties were dependent on the Northern Republican Party, which more and more was the party of industry and sound finance. It was a political coalition that was very difficult to maintain. It was a coalition between the poorest people in the country and the richest people in the country!
And then there was the need for cotton. That’s one of the reasons they didn’t distribute land to the former slaves: because they thought they’d have to grow cotton. The problem is, there was actually an overproduction of cotton after the war, because the British had encouraged cotton in India and Egypt during the war. There’s a lot more supply in the world than there had been before because the Civil War had cut it off.
The thing is, the agricultural system in the South was not a racial system. It affected blacks more severely but there were more white sharecroppers than black in every census. The crop lien system (which left indebted farmers dependent on cash crops) forced people to grow cotton. So yes, the expansion of cotton production was in the white areas, and that was very detrimental to them because the price was falling throughout this whole period. There was overproduction, so growing cotton was a losing game.
So here you get into total counterfactual fantasy: if they had changed the whole credit system — if, if, if! That’s what the Populists called for [in the 1890s]. Get out of dependence on merchants and banks. Let the government be the one who loans the money to the farmers. It didn’t happen, of course. (Now it happens, but that’s with agribusiness, that’s a different story.) So there are a million problems.
I don’t think Reconstruction in its utopian phase could have succeeded, but I don’t think it’s crazy to imagine more modest kinds of success which would have made the shift over to Jim Crow more difficult.
What do you think about land redistribution, as a counterfactual?
Well, in an agricultural society it’s a lot better to have land than to not have land. Would it have been a panacea for everything? No. The credit system, you’d have had to change that too, because land is not the only scarce resource. It certainly would have given blacks more bargaining power in the system, but it was not the end-all, be-all answer. Most white farmers owned land after the war, but they were losing it through this whole period.
To me, the key thing wouldn’t necessarily have been the direct benefits to African Americans, which were significant but still limited. I’m thinking of the political dynamic. Because that’s the divide that arose later on, the poor whites who owned land and poor blacks who owned nothing. Steven Hahn called them the “propertyless poor.”
Though a lot of whites are losing their property too.
But you know, you can take that even farther. To Thaddeus Stevens, the biggest thing this would have accomplished was to destroy the planter class. Take away their land and they’re gone, and that would have changed the whole political configuration of the South.
I mean, he wanted to sell it to Northerners too.
Forty acres to the blacks and then sell the rest. Then you’ve got a whole different society. That’s a great counterfactual. Blacks would have ended up at the bottom of the economic ladder anyway because they lacked resources, but the whole system would have looked very different.
Okay, let’s do counterfactuals. But let’s say in 1867 blacks get the right to vote, and there’s a general white uprising in the South and you have to send the Army back in. Then people might have said, fuck these guys! This is impossible, we’re gonna take their land away again. Crisis creates that kind of radicalism.
In the dominant discourse, the American Revolution was very moderate, it was legalistic, and that’s good because it was relatively peaceful, unlike the French Revolution. Yet it left slavery in place. And then even the Second American Revolution ended up so moderate and legalistic that it prevented them from doing a lot of radical things — the kind of things you’d imagine the French Jacobins doing had they been in the United States.
Well you know, Georges Clemenceau was here after the war and he was reporting for a French newspaper. He called Thaddeus Stevens the Robespierre of the Second American Revolution. So he saw what was going on.
But on the other hand, the abolition of slavery seems so normal and inevitable in retrospect, yet it was an incredibly radical act. Especially the uncompensated abolition of slavery, the liquidation of what was by far the largest concentration of property in the country — slaves. No compensation was a pretty radical thing. I guess you’re right, it wasn’t radical enough, but it was certainly pretty radical for the nineteenth century.
Lessons for Today’s Radicals
What if some young socialist came up to you and asked, “Is there anything here, in antislavery and Reconstruction, that’s useful for an anti-capitalist, socialist project?”
Yes! First of all though — the abolitionist movement was not an anticapitalist movement.
But it was a radical movement.
Yes, it was a radical movement. The abolitionists show you that a very small group of people can accomplish a lot by changing the discourse of the country. After the Civil War, everybody claimed to have been an abolitionist. But they weren’t!
There weren’t a whole lot of abolitionists before the war. There were a few beleaguered individuals scattered about, in upstate New York, for example. There were only a couple dozen abolitionists in New York City!
Now, there was a free black community, they were very militant, and you could say they were abolitionists, but I’m talking about the organized abolitionist movement. That was very small. Nonetheless, they managed to actually accomplish quite a bit. They pioneered the use of the media of that time — the steam press, the telegraph, the petitions, the traveling speakers — to change public discourse. If you want to learn something from the abolitionists, that’s what you learn. The first thing to do is intervene in public discourse.
And the Occupy movement — success, failure, gone, still around, whatever you want to think about it — it changed the public discourse. It put this question of the 1 percent and the 99 percent, inequality, on the national agenda. That doesn’t mean they’re going to do much about it in Washington, but it is now part of our consciousness, just as by 1840 the abolitionist movement put the issue of slavery on the agenda in a way it had not been. Now, it took twenty years for anything to happen, but I think that’s something to learn from them, how they managed to do that.
Here’s the point. I am a believer in the abolitionist concept — that the role of radicals is to stand outside of the political system. The abolitionists said, “I am not putting forward a plan for abolition, because if I put forward a plan, people are just going to be debating my plan. ‘Oh, it’s going to be two years, five years, seven years.’ No: I’m putting forward the moral imperative of dealing with slavery.” And if people are convinced of that, then politicians will come up with a plan to do it. That means politicians are eventually going to pick up those ideas and use them in other ways and turn them into political strategies.
A guy like Lincoln was not a radical abolitionist by any stretch of the imagination. He was a moderate. And yet by the 1850s Lincoln understood that abolitionists were part of — to use a Karl Rove term — his “base.” Lincoln understood that you don’t win by just appealing to your base, but no politician is going to kick his base out and say “I don’t want to deal with these guys.”
So yes, there are some radical guys in the party, like Joshua Giddings, like Salmon P. Chase. But you know, Giddings represented one very unique district. He was like Bernie Sanders. Not too many Giddingses are going to get elected.
Then how do you interpret the debate among abolitionists, like the split that eventually happened between William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass?
You know, this is where I differ from the tradition I grew up in. I don’t believe there is one true party line that every movement has to have. The Maoist view is better: let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred tactics bloom. Let some people go into politics and other people not go into politics, let some people work above ground and others not. You know, you have the Underground Railroad, you have people working illegally, but you also have people working totally legally and openly. There’s no one correct tactic. The more different tactics you have, the better.
I totally agree with that, but in some ways, Garrison was making the argument that you started out with just now: let’s just stand out and say what’s right. And Douglass said, look, at a certain point, you have to intervene.
But Douglass’s concept of politics is still politics as agitation. He doesn’t support the Republican Party. He supports the Radical Abolition party which gets twenty votes! But the point of that is just to get the idea out there. Politics is another venue for getting your idea out there.
But the idea is out there! In your most recent book, you quote Charles Sumner talking about the “anti-slavery enterprise” as an inclusive movement. Isn’t the striking thing about this moment in American politics the fact that even though they’re at each other’s throats, they’re working towards a common goal? Even though Douglass is trashing Lincoln in his editorials, fundamentally they still build through the Republican Party. This is the real radical moment, in the mid 1850s — when the Republican Party, the antislavery party, wins control of the North. Just a few years earlier that was unimaginable.
No, you’re right. Yes, I make this argument, but I think one should not homogenize things. Douglass and Wendell Phillips are trying to get rid of Lincoln in 1864! They nominate John C. Frémont to run instead. Lincoln and the abolitionists have this odd, interesting relationship. It’s partly symbiotic, it’s partly antagonistic, but these guys are not holding Lincoln’s coat by any means.
Very good historians make very big mistakes talking about this because they look at Douglass’s speeches about Lincoln. But Douglass is a very shrewd guy. He understands you’ve got to get Lincoln on your side, especially after the Civil War. So suddenly Lincoln is the guy who we were all really wrong to criticize, and he was actually a believer in racial justice. By the 1870s he’s trying to invoke Lincoln to get people’s support for Reconstruction.
But as you said, this is politics, right? It’s not about loving each other — it’s about changing the world.
Absolutely. But even though there’s an antislavery enterprise, I still think there’s a fundamental difference between abolitionists and the politicians. I mean, I hope that people on the Left do not just throw up their hands and say, “Well, there’s nobody you can trust.” It’s politics! You make deals. But I also believe that this is the luxury of an intellectual with a full-time job, so I don’t have to worry about it.
But I think radicals shouldn’t be involved in the day to day business of politics. I’m on the board of the Nation, which is not as radical as Jacobin, but in our current political climate it’s to the left of the mainstream, let’s put it that way. A lot of our editorial board meetings are about: “Oh God, should we support Hillary? Should we support Obama?” and I say, “Hell no, that’s not even what we should be talking about! We should not be getting involved in Democratic Party internal battles. That’s not what our job is.”
Our job is to put out new ideas, different ideas, pressure people, and I don’t care fundamentally if Obama or Hillary gets the nomination in 2008. Sure I have an opinion about it but I don’t think that’s our job to worry about it. All of this maneuvering, “Oh, what do we do in this or that election.” We are not politicians. Politicians do it better.
In 1864 Lincoln absolutely outmaneuvered these guys, because they weren’t politicians. I mean they put up John C. Frémont. Who the hell is that? Lincoln controlled the machinery.
But there had to be a point at which people with abolitionist views decided that they were going to involve themselves in the process — even if it was the [1848–54] Free Soil Party, or something like that. There was a process of coalition-building in which people who didn’t like each other, who thought they were too radical, or not radical enough, worked together on a common project. It was anti-sectarian, or non-sectarian.
I agree with you. On the other hand, Douglass welcomed the Free Soil Party because its politicians were moving toward antislavery. He did not welcome the [1840–44] Liberty Party — even though it was more radical than Free Soil — because that was abolitionists moving towards politics. He thought that was a deterioration of the abolitionist statement.
I’m giving you a rigid kind of view of what radicalism is, when what I actually believe is that people should be doing everything at the same time. There is no one correct way. If people want to work in the Democratic Party, let ’em. There are good people in the party, in some places, running.
I’m certainly happy de Blasio was elected here. De Blasio is not Thad Stevens but he’s certainly an improvement on what we’ve had. And I think that’s great. But I don’t think the role of radicals is to just jump on board and say de Blasio’s our man.
Maybe a good example is Thaddeus Stevens. He’s a party man, he’s a politician, but he’s certainly as much an abolitionist as anybody, and more of a racial egalitarian than a lot of people on the Left then.
Even than a lot of Underground Railroad types.
Absolutely. But Thaddeus Stevens is central in the political system. He doesn’t control the Congress, but he’s important. He’s almost like John Boehner today. He’s a key guy in the House of Representatives. So Stevens is another way of looking at it. He’s an abolitionist using a position of power in the political system.
But Stevens also knows how to compromise. He sees what you can get and he takes it. On the Fourteenth Amendment, Charles Sumner initially says he won’t accept it because it recognizes the power of the state to disenfranchise people — it punishes states in terms of numbers of their members in Congress if they don’t allow blacks to vote, but it still allows the possibility of doing it.
Stevens says, “Hey, this is a step toward what we want and we have to do it. It’s imperfect, but we’ve got to take it.”
Same thing with Frederick Douglass on the Emancipation Proclamation: ‘This is one step.’
One of my numerous differences with President Obama is that a few years ago he went to a college and he was chatting with some students, and he was complaining about liberals criticizing him, and he said, if these guys were around when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, they would have said it’s no good. And I said, wait a minute, the abolitionists didn’t say it was no good! They said it was great, but you’ve got to do more!
I guess why we’re so interested in this juncture between abolitionists and Republicans is just that we’re wondering about the process. You have a situation where Wendell Phillips is invited to the White House in 1862. Thinking about it, that’s like, what, the equivalent of Noam Chomsky being invited to the White House by Obama? That would never happen — it seems impossible for Obama even to say anything about the 99 percent.
I wrote my book about Lincoln, and I wouldn’t say it was written for Obama but I had hoped Obama would read it. Because it’s about exactly how a political figure and a social movement can somehow, not exactly coordinate with each other, but influence one another.
I would like to see Obama inviting the equivalent of Frederick Douglass today, whoever that is, to the White House and listening to him and talking to him about things, asking his advice about things. Lincoln didn’t care when these guys came in and criticized him, he was perfectly happy to learn something from them.
Obama isn’t like that. He’s very thin-skinned. He doesn’t like differences of opinion within his own party. I think that’s a serious flaw. I think for Jacobin — and I say this to the Nation — the number one thing is to put out a different worldview than the dominant one today.
I think the financial crisis has cracked open the old consensus. I read two newspapers in the morning, over breakfast, the New York Times and the Financial Times. I don’t read them online, I get them delivered to my door, the old-fashioned way. The Financial Times is more radical than the New York Times! You read the Financial Times on the fiscal crisis, the financial system, they’re up in arms that no banker has gone to jail, about the austerity program. The Financial Times tells you what’s actually happening, it’s amazing.
My point is that the consensus has cracked open, and therefore publications like Jacobin have to put forward an alternative point of view, and worldview, an alternative vision.
The problem is the abolitionists had a vision. It was a society without slavery and with equality for all. And that’s what they put out, but I don’t think they had any concept of what abolition would mean economically, what would be the implications for the country. Yes, they wanted the South to be like the North — more farms, little towns.
But the funny thing is, in New England the factory system was very powerful in the 1840s and the abolitionists didn’t look in their own backyard and say, “What about Irish laborers in the factories?” That’s why I say their vision was basically a moral one.
So let’s talk a little about the vision of the Republican Party. The early GOP brought together both ex-Whigs and ex-Democrats, but the majority had been lifelong Whigs. It was almost sort of an offshoot of the Whigs. The traditional view is that the Whigs were basically elitists. But in the context of the time wasn’t there something historically progressive about their kind of bourgeois liberalism?
You’re right. Of course the Whigs were very skeptical of democracy. In the 1830s, you have the Jacksonians who seem to represent a popular politics of democracy, and yet they’re anti-Indian, they’re racist. Then you have the Whigs who seem to be more forward-looking, but they’re capitalists.
But the guys who come to the fore are the ones who combine things. Lincoln and Seward are more small-d democratic Whigs who see that you can’t run in this country in the 1830s in favor of the elite and say, “Vote for me, I’m for the elite.” Although some Whigs tried. So you get these democratic Whigs who have this forward-looking economic view, but also have a mass politics, which many Whigs are not that comfortable with.
Lincoln’s got the economic progress, free-labor notion, but not the kind of elite finance capitalist thing. Going into Reconstruction, Thaddeus Stevens is actually into inflation, greenbacks. Guys like him have this vision of uplifting everybody through money and credit, low-interest rates. Every man his own capitalist, but without big capitalists out there.
Seward is a very interesting guy, because he tries to get the Whig party to appeal to immigrants. But the Whigs were very nativist, and that’s part of the reason he didn’t get the nomination in 1860. The Know-Nothings didn’t like Seward because when he was governor twenty years before he’d tried to get public money for Catholic schools.
What I meant by the question about the Whigs is that, the way I see it, the Democrats, in addition to their racism, represented a very agrarian, decentralized, yet small-d democratic vision that was opposed to improvement of society through collective means. That’s a very American thing in the sense that Europe, where the suffrage was restricted, really had no equivalent of the Democratic Party.
You’re right. Because in Europe the Industrial Revolution happened before democracy came in. People were excluded as a class and that encouraged class consciousness because people were excluded from the political system as a class. The labor struggle and the political struggle were interconnected with each other. That’s the point of E. P. Thompson’s book on the English working class. That book is about politics as much as labor, it’s about the struggle for the vote for working-class people.
I think the fundamental thing is that in the US in the nineteenth century, the mainstream of radicalism is based on individual autonomy, equality, and small property. Whether it’s a homestead thing, or even the Knights of Labor later. That’s what the Socialist Party breaks with — the idea that small property will solve capitalism. They say you’ve got to find a more collective solution to this.
Eventually the free labor ideology dies out. But in the nineteenth century the free-labor ideology was the source of much of American radicalism, and there’s no point in going back and saying, “Hey, they shouldn’t have thought that, they should have been socialists.”
That’s the peculiarity of this 1850s moment, isn’t it? This free-labor vision develops that bequeaths industrial capitalism and laissez faire, but at the same time it’s inchoate, it’s undetermined, and labor struggles can come out of it too. And that’s how Lincoln in the 1850s could say nobody should remain a wage earner for life.
But there is no real connection between that and socialism, and indeed there were plenty of socialists then and later, who said, “This is retrograde, this idea of small property being the essence of freedom. It’s a barrier against a collective view of society.” To say that today, however, is unhistorical anyway, because socialism was not on the agenda in 1850.
One thing about free labor is that when it emerges in the fifties, conservative elites in the South had no hesitancy finding anticapitalism in antislavery. They talked about Red Republicans and Black Republicans. They thought the way the antislavery people fundamentally challenged property was dangerous, that it cracked the egg.
The abolitionists always insisted they were not attacking property. They were attacking property in man as an illegitimate thing. Of course, others picked this up, and radical laborites called themselves the new abolitionists later on. When Thaddeus Stevens was proposing confiscating land in the South, there were Northern Republicans who said, “Wait a minute! The Irish are going to start talking about confiscating factories.” Even then they said, slavery was different, it was not legitimate property.
Let’s put it this way: after the Civil War, the free-labor vision becomes the essence of a radical labor critique of the Industrial Revolution.
Yet it also becomes the seed of right-wing laissez-faire . . .
Yes, free labor cracks up on class lines. The labor movement in the twentieth century — it’s not just rhetoric when they said, “We’re the new abolitionists.” Because the free-labor ideal was now under assault.
What we should be talking about is maybe the old Socialist Party, before World War I, Debsian socialism. Because what they had, which the abolitionists didn’t quite have, was an umbrella under which all sorts of groups could find a common ground, whether it’s birth control advocates, labor activists, anti-monopolists, and socialists, people like Debs who had a vision of socialism.
The idea of socialism they had was kind of a vague one, and of course the great historical fallacy is to view it back through the lens of World War I and the Russian Revolution. But before that, this was a large umbrella radical movement, with all sorts of people with very specific aims who could get together.
Today one of our problems is we have a lot of movements going on and they’re sympathetic to one another but they don’t seem to connect with one another. Whether it’s antiracist movements, gay movements, environmentalist — they all seem kind of fragmented. Whereas the Socialist Party, they all came together. You had Emma Goldman in there, you had Debs, you had municipal reformers, Jane Addams, progressives — it was part of the political dynamic of the country.
Even though in 1912 Debs got his million votes — 6 percent, that’s not a hell of a lot — but we’d take it now. But I think that’s a different model than the abolitionist model.
Maybe part of the reason they were able to have this unity with all these different causes was that it was a socialist party, which meant that even though their ideas were vague, what gave form to them was this idea of a different kind of society. People could invest their hopes in that.
Whereas today, with all the various struggles, we don’t have that, there’s no clear alternative.
Well, maybe we need a new word. Socialism unfortunately has gotten a bad name in this country.
It’s pretty popular with our generation, if you believe polls.
Good! If people are willing to talk about socialism, I think that’s great.
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By James M. McPherson
During the fateful years of 1860 and 1861 James A. Garfield, a representative in the Ohio legislature, corresponded with his former student at Hiram College, Burke Hinsdale, about the alarming developments in national affairs. They agreed that this "present revolution" of Southern secession from the Union was sure to spark a future revolution of freedom for the slaves.
Garfield quoted with approval the famous speech by Republican leader William H. Seward, in which Seward had characterized the ideological conflict between the proslavery South and the free-labor North as "an irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces" which "means that the United States must and will, sooner or later, become either a slave-holding nation, or a free-labor nation." Garfield echoed Seward’s certainty of the outcome. The rise of the Republican party, they agreed, was a "revolution," and "revolutions never go backward." Southern secession meant that this revolution would probably triumph in the violence of civil war.
If that turned out to be the case, wrote Garfield, so be it, for the Bible taught that "without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins." Or as Hinsdale put it: "All the great charters of humanity have been writ in blood . . . England’s was engrossed in [the blood] of the Stuarts – and that of the United States in [the blood] of England." Soon, perhaps, the slaves, would achieve their charter of freedom in the blood of their masters.1
Shortly after the beginning of the Civil War, James Garfield joined the Union army and rose eventually to the rank of major general. From the outset, he believed that Northern victory would accomplish the revolution of freedom for the slaves. In October, 1862 he insisted that the war must and would destroy "the old slaveholding, aristocratic social dynasty" that had ruled the nation, and replace it with a "new Republican one." A few months later, while reading Louis Adolph Thier’s ten-volume History of the French Revolution, Garfield was "constantly struck" with "the remarkable analogy which the events of that day bear to our own rebellious times."2
In December 1863 Garfield doffed his army uniform for the civilian garb of a congressman. During the first three of his seventeen years in Congress, Garfield was one of the most radical of the radical Republicans. He continued to view the Civil War and Reconstruction as a revolution that must wipe out all traces of the ancien regime in the South. In his maiden speech to the House of Representatives on January 28, 1864, he called for the confiscation of the land of Confederate planters and the redistribution of this land among freed slaves and white Unionists in the South. To illustrate the need for such action, Garfield drew upon the experience of the English revolutions against the Stuart kings in the seventeenth century and the American Revolution against Britain in the eighteenth. "Our situation," he said, "affords a singular parallel to that of the people of Great Britian in their great revolution" and an even more important parallel to our forefathers of 1776. "The Union had its origin in revolution," Garfield pointed out, and "confiscation played a very important part in that revolution . . . Every one of the thirteen States, with a single exception, confiscated the real and personal property of Tories in arms." The Southern planters were the Tories of this second American revolution, he continued, and to break their power we must not only emancipate their slaves, "we must [also] take away the platform on which slavery stands – the great landed estates of the armed rebels . . . Take that land away, and divide it into homes for the men who have saved our country." And after their land was taken away, Garfield went on, "the leaders of this rebellion must be executed or banished from the republic. They must follow the fate of the Tories of the Revolution." These were harsh measures, Garfield admitted, but "let no weak sentiments of misplaced sympathy deter us from inaugurating a measure which will cleanse our nation and make it the fit home of freedom . . . Let us not despise the severe wisdom of our Revolutionary fathers when they served their generation in a similar way."3
Garfield later receded from his commitment to confiscation and his belief in execution or banishment. But he continued to insist on the enfranchisement of freed slaves as voters, a measure that many contemporaries viewed as revolutionary. Garfield linked this also to the ideas of the first American Revolution. The Declaration of Independence, he said in a speech on July 4, 1865, proclaimed the equality of birthright of all men and the need for the consent of the governed for a just government. This meant black men as well as white men, said Garfield, and to exclude emancipated slaves from equal participation in the government would be a denial of "the very axioms of the Declaration of Indepedence."4
In 1866, Congress passed the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution as a moderate compromise that granted blacks equal civil rights but not equal political rights. When the Southern states refused to ratify this moderate measure, Garfield renewed his call for revolutionary change to be imposed on the South by its Northern conquerors. Since the Southern whites, he said in early 1867, "would not cooperate with us in rebuilding what they had destroyed, we must remove the rubbish and rebuild from the bottom . . . We must lay the heavy hand of military authority upon these Rebel communities, and . . . plant liberty on the ruins of slavery."5
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By Marta Harnecker, translated by Federico Fuentes
[Paper presented at the International Scientific Academic Meeting on Methodology and Experiences in Socio-environmental Participatory processes, Cuenca University, November 13-15, 2014.*]
December 19, 2014 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — These words are aimed at those who want to build a humanist and solidarity-based society. A society based on the complete participation of all people. A society focused on a model of sustainable development that satisfies people’s genuine needs in a just manner, and not the artificial wants created by capitalism in its irrational drive to obtain more profits. A society that does all this while ensuring that humanity’s future in not put at risk. A society where the organized people are the ones who decide what and how to produce. A society we have referred to as Twenty-First Century Socialism, Good Living or Life in Plenitude.
The question is how can we achieve this complete participation? How can we guarantee as much as possible that all citizens, and not just activists or leftists, take an interest in participation? How can we achieve the participation of middle class sectors alongside popular sectors? How can we ensure that solidarian interests prevail over selfish ones? How can we attend to the concerns of the poorest and most forgotten and repay the social debt inherited by previous governments?
I am convinced that it is through what we have called “decentralized participatory planning” that we can achieve these objectives. We have reached this conclusion not on the basis of reading books and academic debates, but through the study of practical experiences of participatory budgets and participatory planning, primarily in Brazil, Venezuela and the Indian state of Kerala.
We were very attracted to the experience of participatory budgeting undertaken by the regional Workers’ Party government in Porto Alegre, Brazil, because we saw it as a new, transparent, rather than corrupt, way of governing, that delegated power to the people.
In Venezuela, we got a strong sense of how the popular subject was strengthened through the initiative taken by Chávez to promote the creation of communal councils and his decision to grant them resources for small projects. This was not done in a populist manner, with the state coming in to satisfy the community’s demand; rather it occurred after a process of participatory planning where the citizens of the community implemented what he called “the communal cycle”, which involved the following actions: diagnosis, elaboration of a plan and budget, execution of the project, and control over how it was carried out.
Lastly, our work was been greatly enhanced by what we learnt from one of the first experiences in the world of “decentralized participatory planning” that occurred in the Indian state of Kerala. There, a communist government decided to carry out an important process of decentralization, not only of monetary resources, but also material and human resources, to aid with the implementation of local development plans that were based on the active participation of local residents. The end result of this has been a more egalitarian economic development when compared to the rest of India, and a growth in resident’s self-esteem and self-confidence. This type of decentralization allowed for greater local government autonomy when it came to planning their development, which facilitated the progress of a much more effective participatory planning.
The type of planning we advocate is the antithesis of the centralized planning implemented under the Soviet Union. In the old USSR, it was thought that to coordinate all efforts towards building a new society, a central authority was required to decide objectives and means. It was a process in which decisions were always made from above, on many occasions without taking into consideration that down below was where people best knew the problems and possible solutions.
Similarly, often processes that claim to be participatory limit themselves to being processes of simple consultation. Rather than promoting a process of decision-making by citizens, local politicians limit themselves to consulting citizens. The people in the local area are called upon to participate in working groups where they are asked to point out their main priorities for public works and services for their respective communities. A technical team collects these and it is the technicians and not the people who decided upon which projects to implement. We don’t deny that a willingness to listen to people represents a step forward, but it is very limited.
We advocate a more integral process in which it is the people who genuinely discuss and decide upon their priorities, elaborate, where possible, their own projects and carry them out if they are in the condition to do so without having to depend on superior levels. We seek to fully involve citizens in the planning process, which is why we refer to it as participatory planning.
To achieve complete citizen’s participation we must take the plans of small localities as our starting point, where conditions are more favorable for peoples’ participation, and apply the principle that everything that can be done at a lower level should be decentralized to this level, and only keeping as competencies of higher up levels those tasks that cannot be carried out at a lower level. This principle is referred to as subsidiarity.
By Harry Targ
Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS)
For presentation at the upcoming “Moving Beyond Capitalism” Conference, Center for Global Justice, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico July 29-August 5, 2014
The deepening 21st century crises of capitalism-from growing economic impoverishment to neo-fascism to literal destruction of planet earth-demand movements and visions of change unparalleled in quantities and qualities of response. Anti-capitalist responses to these crises range from helplessness to spontaneous activism. Often political reactions ignore the history and context of the crises and the movements that have come before that have planted the seeds of fundamental social change. This paper will survey movements of social change in the era of neoliberal globalization suggesting both the breadth of such movements and the historical context from which they came. The tasks for today still require an analysis of the nature of existing systems and responses, visions of desirable alternatives, and contextualized discussions of moving from here to there. “Moving Beyond Capitalism” requires such a grounding of the future in the past and the present.
21st Century Imperialism: Post-Cold War Perspectives on Global Political Economy
The collapse of the Soviet Union transformed world affairs, scholarly analyses of international relations, punditry, and rationales for imperial foreign policies. A new buzzword became part of political discourse to describe the international system: “globalization.” Almost immediately a large literature was generated suggesting that the world had changed. Globalization was replacing the system of often hostile nation-states that had characterized the world since the sixteenth century.
While interpretations of globalization varied, the common conception of the term suggested that a process of relations was occurring in which interactions between nations, business and financial organizations, groups, and peoples had become so frequent and intense that they were creating one global society. Major globalizing institutions included multinational corporations, especially the 200 largest global corporations with production, distribution, and decision-making facilities in many countries, and international financial institutions engaged in speculative activities all across the globe. At the cultural level a handful of media conglomerates produced a large percentage of the cultural products, images, artistic endeavors, and print and electronic information that the world consumed. Finally, international institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the newly created World Trade Organization brought international influence to bear on states that resisted the globalization process.
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By CJ Polychroniou,
Truthout | Interview – 08 June 2014
Henry A. Giroux (Screengrab via Disposable Life / Vimeo)"The commanding institutions of society in many countries, including the United States, are now in the hands of powerful corporate interests, the financial elite and right-wing bigots whose strangulating control over politics renders democracy corrupt and dysfunctional," says Henry A. Giroux.
To read more articles by C. J. Polychroniou, Henry A. Giroux and other authors in the Public Intellectual Project, click here.
C. J. Polychroniou, for Truthout: It is widely believed that the advanced liberal societies are suffering a crisis of democracy, a view you share wholeheartedly, although the empirical research, with its positivist bias, tends to be more cautious. In what ways is there less democracy today in places like the United States than there was, say, 20 or 30 years ago?
Henry A. Giroux: What we have seen in the United States and a number of other countries since the 1970s is the emergence of a savage form of free market fundamentalism, often called neoliberalism, in which there is not only a deep distrust of public values, public goods and public institutions but the embrace of a market ideology that accelerates the power of the financial elite and big business while gutting those formative cultures and institutions necessary for a democracy to survive.
The commanding institutions of society in many countries, including the United States, are now in the hands of powerful corporate interests, the financial elite and right-wing bigots whose strangulating control over politics renders democracy corrupt and dysfunctional. Of course, what is unique about the United States is that the social contract and social wage are subject to a powerful assault by the right-wing politicians and anti-public intellectuals from both political parties. Those public spheres and institutions that support social provisions, the public good and keep public value alive are under sustained attack. Such attacks have not only produced a range of policies that have expanded the misery, suffering and hardships of millions of people, but have also put into place a growing culture of cruelty in which those who suffer the misfortunes of poverty, unemployment, low skill jobs, homelessness and other social problems are the object of both humiliation and scorn.
Neoliberal societies, in general, are in a state of war – a war waged by the financial and political elite against youth, low-income groups, the elderly, poor minorities of color, the unemployed, immigrants and others now considered disposable. Liberty and freedom are now reduced to fodder for inane commercials or empty slogans used to equate capitalism with democracy. At the same time, liberty and civil rights are being dismantled while state violence and institutional racism is now spreading throughout the culture like wildfire, especially with regards to police harassment of young black and brown youth. A persistent racism can also be seen in the attack on voting rights laws, the mass incarceration of African-American males, and the overt racism that has become prominent among right-wing Republicans and Tea Party types, most of which is aimed at President Obama.
At the same time, women’s reproductive rights are under assault and there is an ongoing attack on immigrants. Education at all levels is being defunded and defined as a site of training rather than as a site of critical thought, dialogue and critical pedagogy. In addition, democracy has withered under the emergence of a national security and permanent warfare state. This is evident not only in endless wars abroad, but also in the passing of a series of laws such as the Patriot Act, the Military Commission Act, the National Defense Authorization Act, and many others laws that shred due process and give the executive branch the right to hold prisoners indefinitely without charge or a trial, authorize a presidential kill list and conduct warrantless wiretaps. Of course, both [former President George W.] Bush and Obama claimed the right to kill any citizens considered to be a terrorist or who have come to the aid of terrorism. In addition, targeted assassinations are now carried out by drones that are more and more killing innocent children, adults and bystanders.
Another index of America’s slide into barbarism and authoritarianism is the rise of the racial punishing state with its school-to prison pipeline, criminalization of a range of social problems, a massive incarceration system, militarization of local police forces and its use of ongoing state violence against youthful dissenters. The prison has now become the model for a type of punishment creep that has impacted upon public schools where young children are arrested for violating something as trivial as doodling on a desk or violating a dress code. Under the dictates of the punishing state, incarceration has become the default solution for every social problem, regardless of how minor it may be. Discordant interactions between teacher and student, however petty, are not treated as a criminal offense. The long arm of punishment creep is also evident in a number of social services where poor people are put under constant surveillance and punished for minor infractions. It is also manifest in the militarization of everyday life with its endless celebration of military, police and religious institutions, all of which are held in high esteem by the American public, in spite of their undeniably authoritarian nature.
As Edward Snowden made clear, the hidden registers of authoritarianism have come to light in a trove of exposed NSA documents which affirm that the US has become a national security-surveillance state illegally gathering massive amounts of information from diverse sources on citizens who are not guilty of any crimes. To justify such lawlessness, the American public is told that the rendering moot of civil liberties is justified in the name of security and defense against potential terrorists and other threats. In reality, what is being defended is the security of the state and the concentration of economic and political power in the hands of the controlling political and corporate elites.
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By Mike Lofgren
Rome lived upon its principal till ruin stared it in the face. Industry is the only true source of wealth, and there was no industry in Rome. By day the Ostia road was crowded with carts and muleteers, carrying to the great city the silks and spices of the East, the marble of Asia Minor, the timber of the Atlas, the grain of Africa and Egypt; and the carts brought out nothing but loads of dung. That was their return cargo.
– The Martyrdom of Man by Winwood Reade (1871)
Feb 21, 2014 – There is the visible government situated around the Mall in Washington, and then there is another, more shadowy, more indefinable government that is not explained in Civics 101 or observable to tourists at the White House or the Capitol. The former is traditional Washington partisan politics: the tip of the iceberg that a public watching C-SPAN sees daily and which is theoretically controllable via elections. The subsurface part of the iceberg I shall call the Deep State, which operates according to its own compass heading regardless of who is formally in power. 
During the last five years, the news media has been flooded with pundits decrying the broken politics of Washington. The conventional wisdom has it that partisan gridlock and dysfunction have become the new normal. That is certainly the case, and I have been among the harshest critics of this development. But it is also imperative to acknowledge the limits of this critique as it applies to the American governmental system. On one level, the critique is self-evident: In the domain that the public can see, Congress is hopelessly deadlocked in the worst manner since the 1850s, the violently rancorous decade preceding the Civil War.
Yes, there is another government concealed behind the one that is visible at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue, a hybrid entity of public and private institutions ruling the country…
As I wrote in The Party is Over, the present objective of congressional Republicans is to render the executive branch powerless, at least until a Republican president is elected (a goal that voter suppression laws in GOP-controlled states are clearly intended to accomplish). President Obama cannot enact his domestic policies and budgets: Because of incessant GOP filibustering, not only could he not fill the large number of vacancies in the federal judiciary, he could not even get his most innocuous presidential appointees into office. Democrats controlling the Senate have responded by weakening the filibuster of nominations, but Republicans are sure to react with other parliamentary delaying tactics. This strategy amounts to congressional nullification of executive branch powers by a party that controls a majority in only one house of Congress.
Despite this apparent impotence, President Obama can liquidate American citizens without due processes, detain prisoners indefinitely without charge, conduct dragnet surveillance on the American people without judicial warrant and engage in unprecedented — at least since the McCarthy era — witch hunts against federal employees (the so-called “Insider Threat Program”). Within the United States, this power is characterized by massive displays of intimidating force by militarized federal, state and local law enforcement. Abroad, President Obama can start wars at will and engage in virtually any other activity whatsoever without so much as a by-your-leave from Congress, such as arranging the forced landing of a plane carrying a sovereign head of state over foreign territory. Despite the habitual cant of congressional Republicans about executive overreach by Obama, the would-be dictator, we have until recently heard very little from them about these actions — with the minor exception of comments from gadfly Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky. Democrats, save a few mavericks such as Ron Wyden of Oregon, are not unduly troubled, either — even to the extent of permitting seemingly perjured congressional testimony under oath by executive branch officials on the subject of illegal surveillance.
These are not isolated instances of a contradiction; they have been so pervasive that they tend to be disregarded as background noise. During the time in 2011 when political warfare over the debt ceiling was beginning to paralyze the business of governance in Washington, the United States government somehow summoned the resources to overthrow Muammar Ghaddafi’s regime in Libya, and, when the instability created by that coup spilled over into Mali, provide overt and covert assistance to French intervention there. At a time when there was heated debate about continuing meat inspections and civilian air traffic control because of the budget crisis, our government was somehow able to commit $115 million to keeping a civil war going in Syria and to pay at least £100m to the United Kingdom’s Government Communications Headquarters to buy influence over and access to that country’s intelligence. Since 2007, two bridges carrying interstate highways have collapsed due to inadequate maintenance of infrastructure, one killing 13 people. During that same period of time, the government spent $1.7 billion constructing a building in Utah that is the size of 17 football fields. This mammoth structure is intended to allow the National Security Agency to store a yottabyte of information, the largest numerical designator computer scientists have coined. A yottabyte is equal to 500 quintillion pages of text. They need that much storage to archive every single trace of your electronic life.
Yes, there is another government concealed behind the one that is visible at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue, a hybrid entity of public and private institutions ruling the country according to consistent patterns in season and out, connected to, but only intermittently controlled by, the visible state whose leaders we choose. My analysis of this phenomenon is not an exposé of a secret, conspiratorial cabal; the state within a state is hiding mostly in plain sight, and its operators mainly act in the light of day. Nor can this other government be accurately termed an “establishment.” All complex societies have an establishment, a social network committed to its own enrichment and perpetuation. In terms of its scope, financial resources and sheer global reach, the American hybrid state, the Deep State, is in a class by itself. That said, it is neither omniscient nor invincible. The institution is not so much sinister (although it has highly sinister aspects) as it is relentlessly well entrenched. Far from being invincible, its failures, such as those in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, are routine enough that it is only the Deep State’s protectiveness towards its higher-ranking personnel that allows them to escape the consequences of their frequent ineptitude. 
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Chairman Mao Zedong (L) signs a copy of his Little Red Book for Sidney Rittenberg (R) in Beijing, 1966. (Sidney Rittenberg)
By Matt Schiavenza
From 1944, when the 23-year-old Sidney Rittenberg first arrived in China with the U.S. Army, to his departure 35 years later, no other foreign national played as important a role in the country. A Chinese linguist and Communist sympathizer, Rittenberg served as a friend, confidante, translator, and journalist for the Communist Party leadership after first encountering them at their Yan’an base in 1946. During the first three decades of P.R.C. history, Rittenberg enjoyed remarkable influence in a country largely closed off to the outside world. However, his high profile came at a grave cost: He was imprisoned twice and held in solitary confinement for a total of 16 years.
Now 92, Rittenberg remains a sharp observer of contemporary China, commenting often about the country that has defined his personal and professional life. A genial man with an easy laugh, Rittenberg betrays little bitterness about his years in China, which he wrote about in his memoir The Man Who Stayed Behind, and has continued to visit since his return to the U.S. In a wide-ranging phone conversation with me last month, Rittenberg recounted his personal memories of Chairman Mao Zedong, born 120 years ago today, and why he believes that, through forging an early alliance with the Chinese leader, the United States might have avoided both the Korean and Vietnam wars. Our interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
When did you actually first meet Chairman Mao in person?
It was October 20-something in 1946. I’d just come over land to Yan’an [the Communist Party home base in Shaanxi Province] from Inner Mongolia, and after arriving, I was immediately taken to the weekly dance in the Party headquarters building. When we opened the door to go in, Mao was dancing in the middle of the floor. He saw me and stopped dancing, and after I shook his hand he said, “We’d like to welcome an American comrade to join in our work.” Then, he took me over by the side of the hall and sat me down on a chair, and immediately said that he wanted to invite me to his place and spend a day or two just talking about America. The interesting thing here is—and this is confirmed by Li Zhishui, the doctor who wrote the book on Mao’s personal life—America was the only foreign country that really fascinated and interested him and was one he greatly admired. He would invite left-wing Americans to his place and sit and chat. To my knowledge, he didn’t invite foreign experts of any other nationality—just the Americans.
Why do you think he had such a fascination with America and Americans?
Mao’s modern education began when he went to high school in Changsha, the provincial capital of Hunan Province. There, he had a very enlightened liberal teacher, one whose daughter he actually married, who taught him about Rousseau, Franklin, Jefferson, and so on, and those first foreign thinkers really interested him. In fact, Mao related somewhere that he once thought Jeffersonian democracy was the future for China. Eventually, he came to believe that foreign backers would not permit China to evolve into a Western-style democracy, and that’s when he turned to Lenin.
What were your impressions of him? What was he like? Was he as charismatic as people say?
He was only charismatic because of the strength of his mind and his ability to put complicated political thinking into very colorful, popular language—which is a talent that seems to be totally lost in China these days. But, you know, he was no Fidel Castro. He was no orator. He didn’t keep people spell-bound—he was a rather slow and bumbling speaker. But the way he analyzed things was fascinating. And he was always careful to make it very simple, to put things in popular terms, not like the mind-numbing stuff that began coming out later.
You know, it was interesting: When you sat and talked with him, he was laid back. He talked as though everything was just a casual conversation and very humorous. Anyone who was talking with him in my experience would be constantly in stitches laughing, and he’d laugh too. So he gave the impression of a kind of sage from the backwoods, who was a great analyzer and a great talker. Nothing threatening at all, nothing tough.
What was the relationship like between Mao and [Chinese premier] Zhou Enlai? Was Zhou more sophisticated and more urbane? Did they balance each other well?
They were totally different. Zhou was a very gregarious, urbane person, an organizational genius who could do two or three different things at the same time without getting mixed up. In the early 1930s, Zhou had led the attack on Mao as one of the students Stalin had sent back from Moscow to run the Chinese Communist Party. But after the near-obliteration of the Red Army—when they took its remnants and started the Long March— Zhou decided that Mao had been right about the strategy and tactics of guerrilla warfare and dropped his opposition and made up his mind that from now on, he was going to follow Mao—and he did. He acted as Mao’s chief of staff: Whatever the leading team decided, Zhou would be in charge of executing the decision. He was an organizational genius, no question about it. Everyone respected him and looked up to him.
Was Deng Xiaoping a major figure in the Party by this time, or did he emerge later?
Deng only emerged later, really. He came to prominence in the Chinese Civil War, when he was the number one political commissar of the great field armies that wiped out or captured most of Chiang Kai-Shek’s elite troops. He was a little man who carried out Mao’s strategic concepts. Mao would send him a document on how to wage the campaign strategically, and Deng was in charge of making sure it was carried out. You know, one of Deng’s great advantages politically—and it probably saved his life in the Cultural Revolution—was that in the 1930s, he was persecuted for supporting Mao against Stalin’s people. Mao never forgot that. So, in the Cultural Revolution, Liu Shaoqi was enemy number one, and Deng was enemy number two. But unlike Liu, who was hounded to death, Deng was protected by Mao.
How did you earn the trust of these men in the 1940s?
[Laughs] Well, you know—that’s a curious question. I’m a kind of open, direct guy, and I think they understood that I was telling them the truth, whatever I said, as I saw it. I was working with the UN relief program and doing famine relief work in the Communist area that was under the command of Li Xiannian, who later became president of the P.R.C., and Wang Zhen, who later became vice president. I was able to give them some important information about the American decision to allow Chiang Kai-Shek to wipe out Communist troops in that area. At the time, the local leaders, Li Xiannian and his colleagues, were in dispute about the intentions of General Marshall and the American role in the Chinese civil war. Some people, including the then-political commissar, felt that the Nationalists would not be allowed to attack them and wipe the Communists, who were outnumbered four or five to one in that area, out. Others believe that Marshall would let them be killed.
I got a very clear statement from General Marshall’s attache, General Henry Byroade, that the Americans were definitely going to let the Nationalists attack and annihilate these 60-70,000 Communist troops in that area. I took that information to the local commanders, Li Xiannian and so on, it proved to be right, and they totally escaped from encirclement. And when they came back to Yan’an, they thanked me and told me how correct my information had been. And in his memoirs, Li recalls this story and my role, which he exaggerates—my role wasn’t probably the decisive factor, but it was helpful. And then, these two commanders, who were both Central Committee members, Li Xiannian and Wang Jian, became my two sponsors in joining the Chinese Communist Party.
And was this in 1946, as well?
1946. It was all in 1946.
What were the circumstances of your arrest in the 1940s? How did you run into trouble with Mao? And did Mao personally play a role in your arrest or was it someone beneath him?
No, no, no. Nobody could have touched me, or any other foreigner, without the personal approval of Mao. Couldn’t be done. What happened was, the story came out some years ago. Stalin’s foreign trade minister and one of his old Bolshevik allies, Anastas Mikoyan, otherwise known as the “Armenian rug salesman,” made a secret trip to China in 1949, I think in January. He went to
the mountains where Mao and we all were, about 100 miles from Beijing, and held a series of talks with Mao, giving him Stalin’s opinion of what was going on in China. Among the documents that he brought was a personal message from Stalin to Mao, saying that they had identified me as a member of an American spy ring, the queen bee of which was Anna Louise Strong, a friend of mine, whom they had arrested in Moscow. Stalin had her deported and recommended that the Chinese arrest me as well. Of course, they never sent any evidence because there wasn’t any.
And how long were you in prison at that time?
Six years. The first year was in total darkness. It was not good.
Did you think you’d be in prison indefinitely?
Well, I’ll tell you, not this time. That was the second time (from 1967-1977). Because after the horrible first year in darkness, the warden suddenly came and told me that they understood that I was telling the truth. They understood who I was, and that I should forget about all the accusations that were hurled at me. So he gave me two choices. I’d been hollering all along that if they were going to keep me here, let me at least read and study and make some use of my time. He said “we can’t let you go until your case is cleared up,” which I knew meant while Stalin was alive. The other option, he said, was that I could just go back to America and forget about China for the rest of my life. If I wanted to go back, they’d send me back.
But that was not an option for me. I didn’t even think about it. My health was totally broken down. I was in shambles, just trying to get back to normal life. And besides, I didn’t want to go back with this cloud over me. What was I going to do? So I said I’ll stay and study. And I did that for five more years.
And what was it like to be released? How did that happen?
[Laughs] One day, the chief keeper unlocked my little cell and came in and said, “Come with me. Someone wants to talk to you.” So I went outside and into the main prison corridor and he unlocked a little door that I had never seen open and led me in. And there was a man whom later I learned was the first leader of the Chinese version of the CIA, the state security ministry. At that time, he was a bureau chief at the ministry of public security, which was internal.
Anyway, they had a chair there. I sat down and I knew immediately something big was happening because you don’t sit counter-revolutionaries down. He then issued a formal apology in the name of the central government, and said: “We were wrong. You’re a good man. We mistreated you, we misunderstood you. We’ll do everything possible to make it up to you.” After that, we went through the process of picking jobs that I wanted to do. He said, “Well, if you want to go back to America, we’ll send you back and we’ll give you enough money to start up whatever you want to do. If you want to travel in Europe, we’ll send you to Europe. If you want to stay in China, we’ll give you a villa in the south. You won’t have to work.” And of course, that was the funny thing, because what you want most when you’re locked up in solitary is the chance to do something, to work. So anyway, I told him, I said I want to go back to doing what I was doing on the day I was arrested.
What was that?
I was working at the Xinhua news agency, correcting English, teaching a little journalism, and doing some writing and some pinch hit announcing. But mainly just helping the Chinese journalists who were working in English just straighten their stuff out.
In 1955 when you were released from prison, did your relatives and friends think you were crazy for wanting to stay in China? Did they petition for you to come back?
They knew nothing about it. They had no idea. My brother-in-law was a flying Colonel in the Marine Corps and he stuck his neck out in the McCarthy days to get the government to figure out where I was, what happened. But they were only able to find out that I was somewhere in prison. They didn’t know where or why or what. So when I got out, they still knew nothing about me. They didn’t know what was going on.
When did they learn that you were released from prison?
As far as I know, the first time they got word was when Israel Epstein, who was working in the foreign languages press in Beijing, went to America and met my niece. He told her the story and then my niece got in touch with me, and then my sister, and so on. Oh, my goodness, but by then, that was after my second arrest. By then, it was 1977. In between, they didn’t know anything about me, and I didn’t try to contact them because in those days it was tricky for an American to be in touch with, you know, “Red China,” quote, unquote. It wouldn’t have been good for them.
Was there any criticism of Mao in the mid-50s? Was there a sense of euphoria in China at this time? When did his so-called abusive power begin, in your mind?
I think there was a fundamental change that began as he was coming into power. He gave a speech in 1949 just before the proclamation of the P.R.C. on the people’s democratic dictatorship. Previously, he said that the government of the new China would preside over a pluralistic economy. He even once said, “China doesn’t suffer from too much capitalism; it suffers from too little.” So when the new regime took power, they’d develop socialism, collective economy, private capitalism, individual artisans; six different forms of economy, altogether.
But in this 1949 speech, he shifted his emphasis to one-party dictatorship. I remember feeling aggravated at the time because I thought if the U.S. had played its cards better, maybe he wouldn’t have gone that far. We may have been able to influence the kind of government that finally formed in China. In 1946, I translated a message from Mao to the United States saying that in five years, the Communists planned to be in power in China and wanted to have normal relations with the United States by then. They knew Americans supported Chiang Kai-Shek, but that once Mao took power, that would be over.
Mao cited two reasons why he wanted normal relations. The first one was that China was in shambles: They’d been fighting wars for over a century and everything needed to be rebuilt. They needed a major input of capital. And the only country in the world, after World War II, that had that kind of money was the United States. So China want to get construction loans from the U.S. Mao added that the Chinese were not asking for a handout. They had gold and they could pay at the ongoing rates of international interest. So that was point one, which was not surprising to me.
But point two really bowled me over. He said after the Communists came to power, they didn’t want to be unilaterally dependent on the Soviet Union. They wanted to have good relations with both East and West. Mao said, of course, the Soviets were China’s comrades. "We’re all Communists, but there are many of their viewpoints that we do not share, and we have our own way of looking at things. And we don’t want to be shut off from you, from America, and dependent on them."
I think if America had taken those remarks seriously, it could’ve been different. I even think that we may not have had to fight the wars in Korea and Vietnam. But we totally ignored it.
And was that just because of the McCarthyist spirit in the U.S., the fear of a Red China?
Yeah. It was not just McCarthy, it was people like Dean Rusk—Secretary of State [under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson], undoubtedly a man of strong principle, a good man, but very, very ideological, and, in my view, bigoted. In Rusk’s view, a Communist was a Communist was a Communist. The differences between the Chinese and the Russians were not that important.
After your first arrest from prison, how did you get involved again with Chairman Mao? How long did that process take?
Actually, I didn’t sit down and talk with him again until 1963, when I had been working for two years on the translations of his works into English. Four Americans plus Israel Epstein, who was stateless, met with Mao to discuss some questions of translation, which turned into a long talk about everything under the sun, and then dinner. And then I saw him every year after that until my arrest in 1967.
What were the circumstances of your second arrest? They were very different from the first, is that right?
Very different. My wife and I were supporting young people who were trying to dismantle the dictatorship of the proletariat and establish a kind of town hall democracy in China. And I was making speeches in support of them all over the place. And, well, Mao lost his sense of humor about it and put me back in prison.
And you were imprisoned for how many years this time?
And solitary again?
But this was better than the first time because I knew why I was there, you know. The first time, I had no idea what I was doing there. There was this terrible hurt, this feeling of being misunderstood. But the second time, I was not being misunderstood, so it was different.
You were in prison until 1977—how did you learn about the death of Chairman Mao in ‘76?
I had the People’s Daily in prison so I had the news.
And what did you feel when Mao died? Were you relieved? Were you delighted? Were you sad? It must’ve been complicated.
No, no—I still thought he was a revolutionary leader that had answers to the world’s problems. I thought his death was this terrible loss … but you know, here’s the thing, Matt. It was very strange. When Zhou Enlai died, in January that year, I was distraught. I thought he’d been a very dear, very warm and caring friend on a personal level. And I felt like I’d lost my father almost, I really, literally sat in prison, you know, and just cried and cried.
When Mao died, intellectually, I felt that this was much more important. A much greater tragedy, this was the leader, with a capital L, who had been lost to the world. But I didn’t have a single tear. And I remember thinking to myself at the time: why is this? What’s going on? And I didn’t have the answer.
I think my emotional intelligence, if there is such a thing, was smarter than my intellect at that point. Intellectually, I mourned him, but emotionally, I didn’t.
You moved back to the United States in 1980. What prompted that decision? Did you think you were through with China? Was it exhaustion?
No, no, not at all. When I was in the Army class at Stanford in 1943, I had this idea of learning to be a bridge-builder between Americans and Chinese. If I had both languages and both cultures, I could help these two peoples understand each other and to learn to work together. So by 1980, I decided there was nothing more that I could do on the Chinese end, and I needed to go back and work from the American end. What brought it about was my disgust at the corruption that was already rampant. It wasn’t yet like it is today, but it was already very much in evidence.
I was disgusted by the fact that Deng Xiaoping, after bragging to Robert Novak about the Democracy Wall, about how the government allowed people to put up posters and express their opinion and criticize freely and so on, he shut it down once he consolidated his power. He suppressed the Democracy Wall. We had lots of young democratic activists coming to our home every weekend and we had a kind of forum discussion, and we were living at the Friendship Hotel, where most foreign experts lived, and when they came in to the hotel compound, they had to register their names. So once Deng began suppressing democratic opinion, these people were all going to be in danger. I didn’t feel that my wife and I would be in danger because they weren’t going to fool with us anymore, but I thought these kids were going to be in danger.
But mainly, I was just disgusted by the shutting down of democratic activity and the corruption, and I just said to Yulin you know, it’s time to go to America and off we went.
I imagine that when you arrived in America after 35 years, the culture shock must have been incredible.
It was such fun! When I got back, the op-ed editor of the New York Times asked me to write a piece on July 4th on how it felt to come back after being away 14 years longer than Rip Van Winkle. And I did. And you know, we got a terrific welcome from the press. I was on the Today Show the day after we got back. And, unfortunately, Tom Brokaw wasn’t there that day, so it wasn’t a great program. But, then, the next day, Linda Charlton of the New York Times wrote a feature that took up the whole of page 2. And the headline was something like: "Native Son Returns to Tell His Folks About His In-Laws." And they had a picture of Yulin and myself. Then, everything was coming up roses. That week, I was invited to go to Washington and was formally received by the assistant Secretary of State for Asia, who was Richard Holbrooke. I spent two days talking with the guys on the China desk at the State Department. Everyone was very courteous and friendly. Nobody tried to put me on the spot or ask embarrassing questions. And I felt right at home. I felt great.
It was around this time that Deng Xiaoping made his famous assessment of Mao, saying that Mao was 70 percent correct and 30 percent incorrect. How do you feel about that?
I don’t buy that. I think of it more as before and after. I think Mao was a great leader up to coming to power in 1949, and maybe for three or four years afterwards, when they carried out these great social reforms in China. You know, the eight-hour day, jobs for all the intellectuals, and eliminating opium, eliminating prostitution, equality before the law for women; just ordinary social reforms, which really were a transformation in the China of that day.
It started going bad around 1955. Initially, he encouraged the set up of co-ops, which worked very well. Farm production went way up. It was based on continued private ownership of the land, but the farmers helped each other to till the land. The harvest yield was distributed 60 percent in terms of how much land one had, 40 percent in terms of how much work one put in, or different proportions like that.
But then, Mao got overexcited and got into his build-Rome-in-a-single-day mode. They went from the co-ops to collective farms, so the farmers who had got their own land after centuries of hunger now lost their land to the collective. But being good Chinese patriots, most of them didn’t complain about it. They went along, but farm production, per capita, never went up again until the Deng Xiaoping reforms, when the land was de-collectivized. So that’s when it all really started going bad, really. So, in other words, what I’m saying is I think of it more in terms of Mao before power and after power, rather than a particular ratio.
Do you think there was something personal that changed him? Did he get drunk with power, to use the cliche?
I do. I do think that. In 1968, I think it was, he was up at the Tiananmen gate with Edgar Snow. I was in prison then, but I read about it. He told Snow that China was mostly a peasant country and needed an emperor figure. He was endorsing the kind of adulation and emperor-worship that was going on with him at the center. I think he consciously did get drunk.
It’s strange, Matt, because before coming to power, he wrote and talked constantly about the dangers of the arrogance of power. I remember in 1944, before I got to China, he had reprinted a little pamphlet about a peasant uprising in the Ming dynasty, where the peasant leaders drove the emperor out of Xi’an and assumed the throne. But as soon as they got into power, they became drunk with power and corrupt. And they lost power very quickly. The emperor brought his armies back and chased them away. Mao ordered every functionary in the party to study the pamphlet as a guard against being corrupted by power later on. And he kept constantly preaching this kind of sermon, and yet he was corrupted by power worse than most people.
Jung Chang in her biography of Mao in 2006 argued that he was a megalomaniac who was after more than just power of China—that he wanted world power. What do you think about that idea?
Well, first of all, in my personal opinion, I think that whole book is pretty much garbage. It’s a terribly one-sided—well not really one-sided, but a lot of it is just fiction. You know, like the story she tells about the Long March being a conspiracy hatched by Chiang Kai-Shek and Stalin, working together. It’s ridiculous. Anyway.
Did Mao want to be a more consequential figure than just the President of China? That was one of her arguments.
No, I think that’s nonsense. You know, Mao, he had two sides. One, he was a great military strategist and tactician. I could cite endless examples of brilliant strategies that most people wouldn’t even dream of. But the other side of him was that he was a terrific individualist, and sort of an anarchical populist. I remember after the border war between China and India in 1962, Marshall Chen Yi, who was also foreign minister, came back from the Himalayas and he brought a big cobra back with him. And he invited my wife and I to come eat the snake with him. And I remember asking him, playing devil’s advocate, I said look: the Indians were beaten, you’re at the peak of the Himalayas, you could have swept down, and in 200 hundred miles, you’d be in Calcutta. So why did you turn back?
He looked at me like I was crazy. He said: Lord, we have so many problems managing China, you think we want to have to manage India? I don’t think Mao or anybody else was really interested in anything but China.
If Mao were alive today, what would he think about China’s progress? What would he think about the country? I mean, I know it’s impossible to answer in a way, but would he be satisfied? Would he be disappointed? Is today’s China what he had in mind, in a strange way?
I think it’s a two-sided thing. I’ve thought quite a lot about this, actually. He would be very proud to see the strength of the economy and the change in the world position of China. He’d be thrilled at that. On the other hand, he’d be really disgusted at the breakdown of morality and values. And I think he would be very happy with the way Xi Jinping is starting out by trying to restore some of the old values. But, at the same time, I don’t think he would be happy about the added emphasis now, after the recent Third Plenum meeting, on letting market forces decide things and getting the government increasingly out of economic management. That was certainly against his fundamental views. Of course, he might have changed.
Does it surprise you that Mao is still the face on all the Chinese banknotes, that his portrait is still at Tiananmen, that he is still revered in China?
No, not at all, because the young people that are growing up now, including young Party members, have no idea really who he was and what he wrote and what he did. All they know is he’s sort of the George Washington figure. He was the founder of the country, the unifier of the people, and so on. And that’s all they know. And I wouldn’t expect that to change in the near future.
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August 16, 2013, supporters of ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi gather in the center of Cairo to protest against the clearance of demonstrators. / Xinhua
By Su Changhe
English Edition of Qiushi Journal,
Central Committee, Communist Party of China,
Vol.5 No.4 Oct 1, 2013
I. From Africa to the United States
In October 2012, I had the chance to attend the Second China-Africa Think-Tanks Forum in Africa. After the conference, I travelled to the United States to observe the presidential election there.
At the Think-Tanks Forum in Ethiopia, I remember hearing certain African scholars go on about Africa’s civil society and democratic transition. The forum was being held in a resort compound in the outskirts of Addis Ababa. Leaving the compound, it was not long before I came across impoverished everyday people living in squalor. The state in which these people were living came in stark contrast to the talk of democracy that had taken place in the conference hall. I couldn’t help but be taken aback by the huge gap between academia and the real world.
The year 2012 was a big year for elections. This election fever began with general elections in Russia and France towards the beginning of the year, and came to a conclusion with the US and Japanese elections towards the end of the year. But while it all seemed so “perfect,” a feeling of democracy “fatigue” has nonetheless set in for many people. Democratic transition has become a topic of considerable interest among scholars in China over the past few years. For over a year, I have been a regular attendant at various academic symposiums on democracy held in China. The contrast I have experienced between reality and academia has been the source of some uncertainty in my mind over popular topics concerning democracy. As a researcher of diplomacy and international relations, democracy is certainly not my field of expertise. However, I do believe that looking at democracy from the perspective of diplomacy and international relations could have a meaningful bearing on how we think about the development of democracy of various countries in the age of globalization.
II. Misconceptions in the study of democracy
The academic study of democracy has long been centered around the democratic transition of developing countries. This gives the impression that democratic transition only concerns developing countries, and that it is not an issue for developed countries. In their studies, scholars, the media, and social groups tend to subconsciously regard Western-style democracy as the sole benchmark for gauging democracy. In their minds, the so-called path to democracy for developing countries must be to follow the standard that has been set by Western-style democracy. These research tendencies have proven seriously misleading for developing countries, with many paying bitterly as a result. The number of developing countries who have sealed their own tombs with the “democracy” they tried to emulate is not small either.
A large-scale global industry has formed around the study of democracy. Of course, the agenda of these studies has been set by a small minority of Western countries for developing countries to follow. Moreover, the benchmark for appraising democracy is determined entirely by a small handful of countries. This involves a range of appraisal mechanisms, and a contingent of campaigners who are paid by various foundations to go around the world delivering speeches and selling the case for democracy. Thus, democracy, together with the social sciences founded on its basis, is more like a propaganda tool employed by the West than anything else, and the resulting knowledge bubble is far from small. Whenever the West, driven by its own interests, plans to intervene militarily in another country in the name of “democracy” and “humanitarianism,” this propaganda tool springs into action, relentlessly labeling the country in question as authoritarian and autocratic. When this happens, the country on the receiving end is never far from civil war and chaos. Scholars of diplomacy and international relations are almost constantly looking at countries and regions that have been thrown into chaos owing to external intervention. Faced with developing countries that have descended into killing and destitution as a result of foreign intervention, any scholar versed in the basics of politics who still believes that this is due to a lack of “democracy,” or to the need to constantly enhance “democracy,” as opposed to turning to external intervention for the answers, is making an argument that cannot be justified in reason or logic.
Under the Western-style appraisal mechanisms of democracy, there is only one precondition that needs to be met for a developing country to be considered a “democracy,” or to “graduate” from the class of authoritarian countries: that country must show obedience to Western countries, and must give up its independent foreign and domestic policies. Any country that does so is immediately rewarded with “international” praise. As far as international public opinion is concerned, some countries are able to become democracies overnight. But those who do not do what they are told may find themselves being put back on the “authoritarian” list without prior warning, which is what happened to Russia several years ago. Various appraisal mechanisms are like leashes tied around the necks of developing countries and emerging markets. If one of these countries refuses to do as it is told, the holders of the leash will not hesitate to tighten the knot.
When Chinese academics study democracy in China, they tend to subconsciously see the West as being the perfect model for democracy. Sometimes they even subconsciously place themselves on the non-democratic side of the scale, a mentality that leads to a sense of inferiority in global academic exchanges. The result is that they are unable to hold their heads high in front of their teachers. I remember one time being at an event with scholars from English-speaking countries. As per routine, they began wielding their leash, putting questions to me about censorship and freedom of speech in China. It just happened to be around the time when the Muslim world was up in arms over the film the Innocence of Muslims. I responded by asking the scholars a question: If you had even the most basic respect for the religious beliefs of others, and if you had the necessary censorship in your countries to prevent such insulting material from going public, would it not have been possible to prevent the US Ambassador to Libya from being killed? My question left them in silence. In the age of globalism, all countries must seriously consider the issue of restraint and self-restraint in the expression of public opinion. Any country failing to do so has no credibility to talk about freedom of speech.
So, it is evident that developing countries need to free themselves from this leash. This being the case, they need to liberate their minds from overly simplistic distinctions such as “democratic and non-democratic,” and “democratic West, authoritarian non-West.” And they need to free themselves from their superiority-inferiority mentality. Only then will they genuinely be able to approach the development of democracy on the basis of their own national conditions.
III. The retrogression of Western-style democracy and the re-democratization movement
Before we are genuinely able to boast a spirit of freedom and an independent national character, we must untie ourselves from the discourse of Western-style democracy. To do this, we must first downgrade the democracy that a small number of Western countries preach from “universal knowledge” to “local knowledge.” For a considerable period of time, the US has relied on diplomatic initiatives to turn American-style democracy from local knowledge into universal knowledge. If all of the world’s countries, north, south, east, and west, were able to cherish the democracy that they have built on the basis of their own national conditions and history, and if they were able to develop a new and more advanced theory of democracy, the so-called universal theory of democracy that is currently prevalent would naturally be reduced to a local theory of democracy. Admittedly, this downgrading will be a long and drawn-out process. The most important thing, therefore, is that researchers and practitioners start on this now.
It will be impossible for us to free ourselves from the discourse of Western-style democracy unless we are able to think independently and communicate as equals in academic activities. Do the small minority of Western countries that have always been viewed as a paradigm of democracy not have the potential for democratic transition? In other words, are the democratic systems in these countries undergoing a process of retrogression? Going a step further, at a time when academics are speculating as to which developing region will see the emergence of “democracy’s fourth wave,” I personally am more inclined to make the assumption that this next wave of democratization is most likely to appear in the West. Without reform, it is possible that the standing of Western-style democracy in human political civilization will go into decline. Of course, most academics throughout the world, especially those engaged in the study of comparative politics, are busy devoting all their energies to the lack of democracy in developing countries. Few have the courage to go out on a limb and raise the retrogression of Western-style democracy and the democratic transition that the West is facing as a serious topic for academic discussion. Do those scholars who study ways of gauging the quality of democracy dare to apply those benchmarks to developed Western countries, instead of just developing countries?
There are indeed signs that Western-style democracy is retrogressing. According to the logical reasoning that has been established by the discourse of Western-style democracy, all problems in developing countries can be attributed to a lack of democracy. The same logic also dictates that many problems in the West, such as political polarization, the alienation of the social elite from the general public, high levels of national debt, irresponsible promises by politicians, falling voter turnout, the monopolization of public opinion, and authoritarian intervention in other countries, are the result of the system of democracy having gone wrong. From the perspective of international relations, Western-style democracy has clashed with people’s hopes for a world order of peace and development since its very inception. Being established on the foundation of exclusive, territorial politics, this system allows Western countries to legitimately discharge the negativities of their domestic political systems into international politics, and show absolutely no regard for the concerns, feelings, and interests of other countries. For this reason, this system is a major source of international conflict, and a domestic obstacle preventing the responsible participation of these countries in global governance. From the perspective of international relations, seeing how the US Federal Reserve has attempted to shift the crisis with round after round of quantitative easing, any observer with a basic understanding of politics will be hard-pressed to go on believing the Wall Street theory that a central bank should form policy independently, or go on believing that the US is a responsible country.
So, scholars of comparative politics in developing countries need to start researching issues such as democratic transition and the retrogression of democracy in countries that practice Western-style democracy. On this basis, they need to provide more rational suggestions with regard to re-democratization movements in these countries—which is by no means impossible—and even establish an agenda for them in the research of democracy. Only then will scholars of comparative politics from developing countries win the respect of the international academic community.
IV. Shifting the agenda in the study of democracy
The retrogression and decline of Western-style democracy should come as a warning to developing countries that are still exploring their path of national development. Any country that blindly copies this system will eventually encounter the same difficulties that Western countries are experiencing today. The kind of democracy that is just a game for the rich, that causes constantly falling turnout, that forces the morality out of politics, that makes people feel small and insignificant, that is increasingly used to legally bully people, that creates conflict and division, and that gives rise to more and more “lawful” wars, is absolutely not what the human race aspires towards in the pursuit of fine politics. This kind of democracy is a disaster for human civilization, and under absolutely no circumstances can China embrace it.
Therefore, we need to rethink the current agenda in the research of democracy, and seek to bring about a change in direction. Chinese scholars must free themselves from meaningless debate over Western-style democracy, and work hard to shift the research of democracy back in the direction of national governance, a classical topic in political science that has more of a bearing on national development.
To do this, it is worth giving more consideration to China’s democratic development on the basis of the political resources that China already boasts. The word “democracy,” which in Chinese is made up of the characters for “people” and “rule,” has its own unique meaning in the political context of China. Breaking the word down, we can see that the word has at least three closely-related meanings. The first is “rule of the country by the people,” also known as “rule by the people,” which represents the foundation of the state. The second is “rule on behalf of the people,” which implies that the government must maintain close ties with the people and rely on the people. Only on the basis of these two conditions can “the position of the people as masters of the country” be truly realized. The notion of “rule on behalf of the people,” which is manifested in a political elite that maintains close ties with the people and serves the public, is an inherent political resource that not all countries can claim to enjoy. Many political elites from developing countries go on about democracy, civil society, NGOs, and elections when they are attending international meetings, but they have little sentiment with regard to “rule on behalf of the people” and “rule by the people.” Severe alienation from the public is a common phenomenon in these countries, and it is not difficult to understand why this leads to political degradation and social unrest. Maintaining close links to the public is an important means for preserving the vitality of democracy. In China, this close bond can be attributed to two things: the spirit of compassion for the people that China’s intellectual elite has preserved since ancient times; and the mass line, a distinct form of democratic practice conceived by the Communist Party of China. In the world’s democracies, if the ruling elite becomes alienated from the people, and if democracy becomes a game for a minority of 1% who show no regard for the wellbeing of the people and who even view the votes of the poor with open contempt, then it is hardly surprising to see this so-called democracy go into decline.
Another word that requires more consideration is “election.” When we research the topic of elections, we seem to devote all our thoughts to the practice of “one person, one vote.” We make the assumption that the word election simply means to hold a popular vote. And we assume that once we have a vote, a great deal of problems will be able to be resolved with great ease. Actually, the word for “election” in Chinese is much deeper in meaning than its English equivalent, being composed of two words, “select,” and “recommend.” China’s national governance, appointments, and policy making activities involve both “selection” as well as “recommendation,” with special emphasis being given to the latter. This is the quintessence of the election system. Of the world’s successful countries, not a single one relies entirely on votes. But if we look at countries gripped in chaos, we can see that every single one demonstrates a dogmatic belief in votes. Researchers of Western politics should be aware that “recommendation” also exists widely in Europe and the US; these countries are not run solely on the basis of votes. I have always thought that we need to thoroughly study the practice of “recommendation” in the American system. There is definitely a great deal that can be learned from this. If we fail to gain a clear understanding of “recommendation,” and instead focus all our attention on the more eye-catching aspect of “votes,” we will succeed only in oversimplifying US politics. Simply learning from the “votes” aspect of politics in the US will do nothing but lead us astray as we pursue our own path of political development.
In summary, in the development of democracy from generation to generation, the role of different peoples is to inherit and then pass on ideas. Even in Africa, there are scholars who believe that Africa once had its own indigenous democracy. However, these indigenous resources were destroyed following the introduction of Western-style democracy. This is something that is worthy of deep thought.
Contemporary Chinese scholars have the fortune of living in a historic time that is witnessing the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. Would we not be a laughing stock to foreign observers and our later generations if we were to totally neglect the path and system that are fuelling this drive forwards?
(Originally appeared in Qiushi Journal, Chinese edition, No.11, 2013)
The author is a professor at the School of International Relations and Public Affairs, Fudan University.