Slavery

12
Sep

By Ian Angus

Climate & Capitalism

Sep 07, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Category : Capitalism | Globalization | Marxism | Slavery | Terror and Violence | Working Class | Blog
20
Mar

By Eugene Puryear

Liberation School

March 19, 2022 

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

The new world

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

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

Reconstruction answered:

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

And further:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The political economy of Reconstruction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Counter-revolution and property

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The final charge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Toward a third Reconstruction

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

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

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

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

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

Category : Democracy | Elections | Marxism | Racism | Slavery | US History | Blog
6
Jul

Slavery and the Racialization of Capital, from Bottom to Top

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

New York Review of Books

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

By Nancy Fraser
Policss/Letters On May 20, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

slave-family

Enslaved family harvesting cotton

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

 

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

By Nancy Fraser

New School for Social Research

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

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

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

I. From Exchange to Exploitation to Expropriation

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

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

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

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

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

II. Expropriation as a Mode of Accumulation

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

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

Bacon and rebels vs Virginia aristocrats

Theodore W. Allen’s Legacy

By Jeffrey B. Perry
Solidarity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Story of an Invention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Category : Marxism | Racism | Slavery | Strategy and Tactics | US History | Blog
28
Oct

Marx in the United States: An Interview

Editor’s Note:The following is a guest post by Tobias Dias & Magnus Møller Ziegler, who transcribed the following interview that they did with me and who will be translating it into Danish. I publish it here with their permission.

At the end of May 2017, Dr. Andrew Hartman visited Aarhus University in Denmark to give a talk entitled ‘How Karl Marx Challenges the Liberal Tradition in American Intellectual History’. Magnus Møller Ziegler and Tobias Dias, editors of a special issue on Karl Marx from Slagmark, the leading Danish Journal for the history of ideas, took the occasion to ask Hartman about Karl Marx’s intellectual legacy in the US, a topic that he is currently working on for a book project due in 2019 from the University of Chicago Press.

In the forthcoming book, Hartman deals with the complex task of collecting the puzzle pieces for a particular American Marx, however multifaceted and colourful this puzzle may appear. Because what really characterizes an American Marx? How American and Marxist is this Marx? In what ways has Marx served as a catalyst for radical thinking and praxis or a placeholder for the ideas of others? And vice versa: Is Marx something more to the US than just the ‘evil genius’ and antithesis to the American liberal project, is his thought in fact intimately linked with the historical development of the US itself?

Without claiming to give an exhaustive answer to these questions, the interview with Andrew Harman unfolded as a conversation about the broader historical picture of the reception of Marx and Marxism in the US, from Marx’s early writings in the 1850’s for a New York newspaper to the contemporary uses of Marx since the 2008 economic crash. Slagmark began this unfolding by asking professor Hartman about his upcoming book.

Slagmark: Why are you writing this book on Marx in the United States?

Andrew Hartman: I decided to write this book for two reasons, one personal, one political. Personally, when I was 19-20 years old I got really into Marx and Marxism. I was in some ways a political radical; I had become interested in history and philosophy and got hooked on Marx, I joined Marxist reading groups and read Marxist literature. I have always kept that interest, but as I pursued my PhD in US History and have written books on other topics it has been side-lined. But now I am a full professor, and I decided that I want to write a book about a topic that I have a personal passion for. It takes five years to write a book like this, and I want something that is going to keep me interested and fascinated and it has certainly done that so far.

But I think there is a larger social and political reason for why this book is well timed. The reading of Marx in the United States ebbs and flows, sometimes he is really hot, sometimes not so much, and I think we are in one of those hot moments where a lot of people are picking up Marx again. You have seen book sales increase, a lot of people are reading Capital, even the Grundrisse and other works, and part of this has to do with a reaction to the economic crash of 2008. Ever since then, we have seen the rise of new left-wing media such as Jacobin magazine and they have somewhat of a Marxist bent, so it is sort of in the air in the US again and, I think, maybe elsewhere. So, I think there will be a lot of interest in this, and what would be interesting to people is that this isn’t new: There has been other waves of interest in Marx in American history since the 1860’s. So, hopefully, it would be a service to people as well.

Marx’s Own Time and the Late 19th Century

Slagmark: Let us go back to the 1850’s then and start our little journey through the history of Marx in the US with Marx himself. It is well known that Marx wrote articles for the New-York Daily Tribune as its European correspondent, and even exchanged letters with President Lincoln. How did people in the US receive Marx’s ideas in his own lifetime?

Hartman: For about four years in the 1850’s Marx wrote for a New York newspaper and this was his main source of income for those years, and he really relied upon that. He was, as you know, a poor man living in London. He was mostly writing about European politics and his articles were well received. However, the people in the US reading those articles did not necessarily think of him as a great revolutionary philosopher, more as a knowledgeable reporter on European affairs and politics, which was largely what he wrote about. But then when the civil war began in 1861 – and even in 1860 with the rise of the crisis when Lincoln was elected – he was fired from that position, because there was not a lot of money and the newspaper had to dedicate all their resources to reporting on the crisis. That was when he got the position to write for the Austrian paper, Die Press, and that is when he started writing about the civil war for a European audience, particularly for a left-wing radical European audience. I will argue that in his civil war writings, which make for great reading, he was extremely smart about the US civil war and extremely well-read on American politics. A lot of this had to do with his conversations with Engels who was very fascinated with the war, particularly the military aspects of it. But it was also because Marx had long standing correspondences with some of the German 48’ers, his comrades who had emigrated to the United States following the revolutions of 1848. What I will argue is important about these civil war writings are a few things.

The first argument is, that they helped convince a European audience of radicals that the Union was worth supporting. Because many European radicals up to that point either had no interest, or because they had a sort of politics of self-determination, a national determination that was in part grounded in the struggles of Ireland. They were not in favour of the Union, and sometimes they were even arguing in favour of Confederate self-determination. Marx convinced them that the war was about slavery first and foremost, so there was a moral imperative not to support the Confederacy. But he also convinced them that Union victory would be good for the cause of the working-class struggle because it would destroy slavery and so the working class in both Europe and the US would not have to compete with slave labour, so they could better organize working class consciousness. So, he was hugely convincing to a European audience.

The other argument that I am making – and I am not the first, a few people have made this – is that his close attention to the civil war and the politics of revolutionary class struggle and capitalism helped form his ideas for Capital.

So, that is really where the story starts, with his civil war writings and how they helped shape his ideas more broadly. His civil war writings did not have an American audience, it was a European audience, but they shaped his thinking on capitalism. And later, as the story proceeds through the 20th century, his civil war writings would become extremely influential on how American historians would think about the civil war. In short, at the time, there is not that influence, but it comes later.

Slagmark: Can you go a bit more into on how this experience of the civil war influenced Capital?

Hartman: Sure, that is a puzzle I am working on and trying to piece out. One of Marx’s long-standing arguments about capitalism is that it is both progressive and horrible. It is better than feudalism, because it is revolutionary and unleashes energies and spirits that are progressive and will lead to something better, and it destroys the traditional feudal ties that has kept people in bondage for millennia, but on the other hand, it is horrible because it impoverishes people as a proletariat. And one of the things he noticed about the US civil war is, that not only had the Union come to a different politics because of its different attitude towards slavery, but that it came to this because of its different attitudes about labour, free labour versus slave labour, and how the free labour system, which was the basis of Union political economy, was in direct tension with the slave labour system, which was more traditional and feudal. And these progressive energies unleashed by the Union were a good thing, a revolutionary thing, and he had hoped it would eventually lead to the kind of working class consciousness that would cut across these feudal or traditional boundaries. He had already been working with these ideas, but they were made more concrete by his close study of the US civil war. Many scholars in the US since has disagreed with that, but I think it helped shape his ideas.

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Category : Marxism | Slavery | US History | Blog
19
Oct

By Robin Blackburn

New Left Review 95, September-October 2015

Sven Beckert has produced a fascinating and wide-ranging history of cotton, from its early appearance in household production in Asia thousands of years ago, via its modest debut in local exchanges, to its eventual role as a key ingredient in the Industrial Revolution and its continuing importance for today’s consumers, poor or rich. [1] Importantly, this is an account of both stages of cotton’s production, in the fields as well as the factories, agriculture as well as manufacture. A German historian now based in the United States, Beckert is the author of The Monied Metropolis (2001), a study of the consolidation of New York’s bourgeoisie in the latter half of the nineteenth century. His new book, Empire of Cotton, is enriched by research into documents and archives from two dozen countries. This is by no means untrodden territory. Giorgio Riello in his—also prizewinning—Cotton: The Fabric that Made the Modern World (2013) has recently provided a fascinating account of how and why Asia’s manufacturers (for him, India’s in particular) were displaced by Europe’s. Both are works of much greater ambition than the general run of commodity histories—anecdotal narratives of cod, coal or tobacco, for instance. For its part, Empire of Cotton is closer in explanatory reach to Sidney Mintz’s path-breaking story of sugar, Sweetness and Power (1985), though through the lens of economic history, not cultural anthropology. Beckert aims to recast our understanding of ‘the making and remaking of global capitalism’, and with it the modern world.

Archaeological evidence suggests that cotton production emerged almost simultaneously in the Indian subcontinent and the Americas around 3000 bc; flax and wool—and, in China, silk and ramie—had been spun and woven for at least four millennia before that. Versatile, hard-wearing, washable and easily dyed, cotton rapidly became an important item in the household economies of India, China, West Africa, Anatolia and Pre-Columbian Mexico and Peru; planted alongside food crops and processed in the gaps between other agricultural tasks, often in the evenings, with women spinning while men wove. By the fourth century bc, Gujarati cotton textiles were traded along the Indian Ocean rim as far as East Africa; they would reach China and Southeast Asia by 200 bc. By around ad 1400, large-scale cotton workshops were established in Dhaka and Baghdad, while ‘urban loom houses’ in Ming China employed thousands of workers.

Europe was the exception: it did not grow cotton, which requires a frost-free growing season, and for long did not import it in quantity either, though European merchants and consumers were gradually educated to appreciate the finer Indian muslins and calicoes. The turning point, in Beckert’s account, came with European entry into Subcontinental commercial networks, gathering momentum in the seventeenth century as Britain prevailed in the Anglo–Dutch wars and established a semi-monopoly over India’s external textile trade; by the mid-eighteenth century, he notes, cotton cloth constituted over 75 per cent of East India Company exports. It was shipped both to Europe, to satisfy increasing domestic consumption, and to Africa, where rulers and merchants often demanded Indian cotton cloth in exchange for slaves. The fabric ‘became entangled in a three-continent-spanning system’, in which ‘the products of Indian weavers paid for slaves in Africa to work on the plantations in the Americas to produce agricultural commodities (sugar and tobacco) for European consumers.’ In Beckert’s summary: ‘Europeans had invented a new way of organizing economic activity.’

Modest domestic cotton industries in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England and France operated on the putting-out system, importing the raw material from the Ottoman Empire; but the cost of transportation was too high and, compared with silk, the price it fetched too low, for it to be profitable. Raw cotton only really entered global commerce in the late eighteenth century, with the industrial take-off in Lancashire. Beckert posits international competition in cotton textiles as the key driver for the Industrial Revolution: English manufacturers—often already linked into New World plantation networks and well-acquainted with the buoyancy of global markets—faced the problem of competing with high-quality yet cheap Indian cloth; the putting-out system was resistant to drives for higher productivity, while Lancashire wages in 1770 were some six times higher than those in India. This spurred the search for innovations to raise productivity: the flying shuttle (1733), spinning jenny (around 1763–64), water frame (1769), Crompton’s mule (1779). Watt’s steam engine (patented 1769) would give an enormous impetus to these developments, which were brought together in the factory system. As Beckert notes, hundreds of thousands of labourers were also looking for waged employment because they owned no land. Canals, turnpikes and refurbished ports helped British manufacturers bring their wares to market at home and overseas.

The rise of the cotton factory, powered by water or steam, created an explosion in demand for raw cotton, which Levantine and Caribbean producers struggled to meet—opening the way for cotton-growing on the slave plantations in North and South America. Up to this point, long-staple cotton came mainly from the islands and coastal enclaves on the Gulf and in South Carolina. From the mid-1790s, Eli Whitney’s ‘ginning machine’ enabled the short-staple ‘up-country’ cotton, grown inland, to be processed. The perfection of this device over a couple of decades set the stage for a massive increase in cotton cultivation in the Mississippi Valley and South West, itself a response to the major role of cotton textiles in European industrialization. Nearly half of the 12 million slaves shipped from Africa to the New World arrived after 1780; many of those who toiled on the cotton plantations would be supplied by a domestic us slave trade that remained vigorous up to the 1850s. By this time the us cotton crop, only a few thousand pounds in 1800, was soaring above 2 billion lbs, supplying two-thirds of us exports; some 67 per cent of the total crop was grown on land that had not been part of the us in 1800.

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Category : Capitalism | Slavery | Blog
17
Aug

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.

American Jacobins

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.

For the source of this article, and more…

Category : Capitalism | Democracy | Racism | Slavery | Socialism | Blog
16
Feb

By James M. McPherson
rbhayes.org

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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