Jacobin Interview: Eric Foner on the Abolitionists, Reconstruction, and Winning ‘Freedom’ from the Right.
No living historian has done more to shape our understanding of the American Civil War era than Eric Foner. A rare scholar who is both prominent outside the historical community and esteemed within it, over the course of a fifty-year career Foner has acquired virtually every award, tribute, and professional honor available to a historian in the United States.
Yet the true measure of his legacy lies not in accolades but influence. Foner’s most important books have transformed the way we see — and the way we teach — the origins of the Civil War, the significance of slave emancipation, and the politics of postwar Reconstruction.
Foner grew up in a New York family equally devoted to historical scholarship and left-wing politics. His father, Jack, and his uncle, Philip, both taught history at City College before they were dismissed and blacklisted as Communists.
For the elder Foners, a radical approach to US history involved placing the black freedom struggle at center stage. “In the 1930s,” Eric later wrote, “the Communist party was the only predominantly white organization to make fighting racism central to its political program.” It was no coincidence that the family was friendly with W. E. B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson, or that Philip Foner’s five-volume selection of Frederick Douglass’s writings and speeches, which he completed while on the blacklist, was the first collected edition of its kind.
Foner’s family background has produced occasional clumsy efforts at red-baiting, including a 2002 National Review essay which denounced him as a Soviet sympathizer and “left-wing polemicist.” In reality, Foner’s own contemporary political interventions have generally remained within the American liberal mainstream. Yet it would not be unfair to credit his Old Left upbringing with a major influence on his scholarly career.
Foner’s first book, Free Soil, Free Labor, and Free Men (1970), which remains the standard work on the rise of the Republican Party, showed how antebellum Republicans were not merely critics of slavery, but exponents of a powerful political-economic ideology of their own. His most celebrated book, Reconstruction (1988), provided a synthesis that decisively rejected the racist folklore that had informed popular and scholarly treatments of the post–Civil War period for much of the twentieth century.
In these and other works, a central theme in Foner’s scholarship has been the contested terrain of freedom in American history. (This is no less true of his most recent book, Gateway to Freedom, on the antebellum underground railroad.) The Civil War era, in his view, represented a revolutionary clash of political ideas and forces — a period that unmade and then remade American society. The revolution, of course, remained unfinished — but it was a revolution nonetheless.
Three Jacobin contributors sat down with Foner to discuss the achievements and failures of Reconstruction, how to reclaim the idea of freedom from the Right, whether the antislavery movement has any lessons for the contemporary left, and why Karl Rove is one of his biggest fans.
So what’s this story we’ve heard about an argument you had with your eighth-grade history teacher about Reconstruction?
This was a long time ago, probably 1957 or ’58 — it was tenth or eleventh grade. And yeah, it was American History class, in Long Beach, Long Island, and the teacher was basically giving us the old, traditional Birth of a Nation view of Reconstruction. She said the Reconstruction Act of 1867, which gave the right to vote to black men in the South, was the worst law in all American history.
So I raised my hand and I said, “I don’t agree with you, Mrs. Berryman, I think the Alien and Sedition Acts were worse.” I don’t know where I got that from. And she said, “Alright, Eric, if you don’t like the way I’m teaching, you come in tomorrow and you give a lecture on Reconstruction.” Which I did — my father was a historian, Du Bois was a friend of the family, we had Black Reconstruction at home. So we used that.
I came in and I gave my presentation, and at the end of the class the teacher says, “All right, we’re now going to have a vote as to who’s right: me or Eric.” Well, she won by a landslide, let’s put it that way.
When would you say high school students started learning a new way of seeing Reconstruction?
Maybe the 1970s, or even after that. Of course, Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction had been out there since 1935, but it was ignored in the mainstream [white] universities. It was taught in the black colleges. In the black colleges you had a different view of Reconstruction, but that was totally sealed off from the larger academic world.
But I think a real turning point was in 1965, when Kenneth Stampp published this book called The Era of Reconstruction, which was not a very detailed research book but it gave a more positive view of Reconstruction. And because of the civil rights revolution, people wanted a different history. People were talking about the “New Abolitionists,” the “Second Reconstruction.” Little by little people started chipping away.
So in the seventies there was a lot of scholarship being done, but exactly when it got into the high schools I don’t know. Maybe the eighties. You’d have to look at the textbooks for that.
Today I think all the textbooks are good, but I still find, wherever I talk about this, that there are plenty of people — and not just the older ones — who say, “All I know about Reconstruction is corruption, carpetbaggers.”
The main thing is that people know next to nothing about Reconstruction. And what they do know is just not correct. I mean, just basic myths. People say, “They gave the right to vote to blacks but they disenfranchised all the whites.” Well, that’s completely untrue, they did not disenfranchise all whites. But people think that’s a known fact.
What percentage were actually disenfranchised?
A tiny percent. The people disenfranchised were people who held during office before the Civil War. Nobody knows how many that was. It might have been 8,000, 10,000, nobody knows, but it was not all whites. Your average Confederate veteran was not disenfranchised.
Oh, and the idea that all the blacks in office were illiterate and ignorant, also a total myth — we could go on about this but the point is, there are still a lot of misconceptions. I’m hoping that with the 150th anniversary of Reconstruction coming up there will be a little more interest.
There’s a 2011 Pew Poll showing that Americans still don’t even agree on the cause of the Civil War. There’s a plurality saying it was “states’ rights,” rather than slavery — and it’s not a North-South divide, either.
Yes, I see that all the time. It isn’t regional. The thing is, it’s an index of cynicism about political life. Which is totally understandable. The idea that anyone could do anything for an idealistic reason, or that you can believe anything that politicians say . . .
You look at our own world, with politics today, it’s easy to say, “Hey, it must have been just a bunch of Northern capitalists trying to control the South,” or “It was just states’ rights.” Whenever I lecture, someone raises the issue of states’ rights, and the thing I like to say is: “Yes, you’re right, the South believed in states’ rights. And the right they were interested in was the right to own slaves.” And that was a right created by state law, so naturally they wanted to protect states’ rights.
And then I say, if that was really the issue, then explain the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 to me — which was a federal law, probably the most powerful federal law before the Civil War in terms of overriding local judicial procedures, overriding local law enforcement. Federal troops, federal marshals, going into states, you think that’s a reflection of states’ rights? No.
When it came to vigorous federal action in defense of slavery, the South was perfectly happy to go that route. So they did not dogmatically believe in states’ rights . . .
Just look at the Mississippi Declaration of Secession. Or Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens’s “Cornerstone Speech.” One thing I admire about these guys is that they didn’t beat about the bush. They were very candid. “We are seceding because the future of slavery is in danger.”
After the war, the myth developed that everybody had already agreed that slavery needed to go.
Yes, slavery got washed out of the writing on the war. But it didn’t happen in a straight line. When it comes to the Civil War, what historians write is a reflection of the world they are living in at the moment.
During World War II there was an upsurge in people seeing the Civil War through its lens, through the fight against fascism and the knowledge that entrenched evil is not going to go away without violence. So in that period they saw slavery as the root of it.
But later you get a post-Vietnam thing, which was a little more cynical. I think even today we’re in a post-Iraq moment, where the idea is basically, “War is hell and politicians justify it with all this rhetoric which has no meaning, so how can you believe anything anyone says?”
My view on this is Du Bois’s, actually. Sometimes the “neo-abolitionist” historians get a little too gung-ho for war, the glorifying of the war. I agree with Du Bois, who says that war is murder, chaos, anarchy. But sometimes good comes out of it. I don’t think it’s a good thing that all these people got killed in the Civil War. I’m not glorifying it and waving the flag for it. But what I’m saying is that I’ve never seen a peaceful scenario for the abolition of slavery in this country.
Now, a lot of people say it would have died out as a result of being uneconomical. How do you know that? When would it have died out? It was plenty economical before the Civil War, why would it suddenly die out?
People say, “Oh, well Brazil abolished slavery.” Brazil abolished slavery partially because we abolished slavery. Do you think Brazil would have abolished slavery if we hadn’t? I think political economy is very important here. The clash of two fundamentally different societies with two fundamentally different labor systems is what’s going on, in my opinion.
Do you think it makes sense to talk about the Civil War and Reconstruction as a ‘bourgeois revolution’?
I tend not to use terminology like that, which I feel is an insider terminology. I try to write as clearly and accessibly as possible. So I understand what it means to call it a bourgeois revolution, and there are a lot of ways one could say it is. But I don’t think you would find that phrase in my writings.
But I do call it a revolution. I call the Civil War the Second American Revolution, as historian Charles Beard did, and as abolitionist Wendell Phillips did. But the Revolution is the destruction of slavery, that’s the revolutionary quality. That’s Du Bois’s point.
I call it a capitalist revolution. I don’t know if that’s the same thing as a bourgeois revolution. It destroys a system that is both capitalist and non-capitalist in ways that are quite difficult to explain, but the consequence of the Civil War is capitalist hegemony throughout the entire United States.
But that’s not the cause of the Civil War, because the capitalists were perfectly happy with the slave South. They made a lot of money off the slave South and there was no reason for them to go to war. But the consequence of the war was certainly the hegemony of Northern industry and finance throughout the entire country.
I wanted to talk about Karl Rove, who is apparently a big fan of your book Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men, on antebellum Republican ideology.
He said he learned how to build a political coalition from that book.
A student came up to me one year and said, “You might not approve of this, but I’ve got an internship in the White House working for Karl Rove this summer.” I said I don’t disapprove, they need all the help they can get down there. He said, “I’m glad you feel that way,” and he whipped out his copy of my Reconstruction book and said, “Mr Rove asked if I could get you to sign this for him.”
I think this kind of thing scares off the young contemporary left, because they see the legacy of antislavery being claimed by this vicious capitalist force.
Anything can be claimed by anyone! I mean, Glenn Beck held his civil rights rally a little while ago.
The National Review does something on Frederick Douglass from time to time.
We shouldn’t allow them to take possession of these struggles. By the way, Obama absorbs all of this into his narrative of American history, obviously, and what’s objectionable about all this — from Obama’s vision of American history to Karl Rove’s — is that they see all these things as struggles within a stable system, so to speak.
Instead of denying, like the Right used to, that we’ve ever had inequality in this country, the Right says, “Well of course slavery was horrible, but we abolished it. We abolished slavery.” We! We! Who’s this “we,” you know?
And then they say, “Jim Crow, it was terrible.” No one’s defending Jim Crow anymore. We had a great civil rights struggle, Martin Luther King is a hero to everybody left, right and center, but it’s a defanged Martin Luther King. Martin Luther King is the guy who gets up at the Lincoln Memorial and, you know, says one sentence — I want my children to be judged by the content of their character — and that’s Martin Luther King. You don’t get the King who spoke out against the Vietnam War, or the Poor People’s Campaign King.
King was a radical guy. King said that the Civil Rights Movement was a fundamental challenge to American values. The people who absorb it into a feel-good thing now say it was an expression of basic American values. In other words, there is a stable thing called Americanism which all these struggles are just improving all the time.
So I can see how people can be cynical about the appropriation of that, but I don’t think we should let it be appropriated. I wrote a book about the history of the idea of freedom, and then shortly thereafter George W. Bush took control of the idea of freedom for the War in Iraq. Operation Iraqi Freedom — freedom, freedom, freedom, that’s all it was. It turned a lot of people off the idea of freedom.
Obama doesn’t even talk about freedom much, except when he’s going to war. Freedom is the last refuge when they want to go to war.
I don’t think we should cede freedom to the Right. Absolutely not. We should not concede the common sense idea of freedom. In my book there are many other concepts of freedom equally embedded in the American tradition, which have a lot more to do with equality and economic rights, which we should insist on. It’s not just owning a gun and getting the government off your back.
So yes, I can understand that people look back at the abolitionist movement and say, first, “Well, the whites were racist.” Well some of them were racist, no question about it. But hey, they were willing to put themselves on the line to end slavery, so what else do you want?
This is a pseudo-politics, a psycho-politics, that says people ought to be loving each other. That’s not what politics is, people loving each other. It’s people acting together, even if they don’t love each other, for a common purpose. If you’re going out to a labor picket line, are they all loving each other, the people on that picket line? Probably not. But they have a common self-interest that they’re pursuing.
Then they say, “It didn’t succeed. They abolished slavery, but racism is permanent, and another form of slavery came in.” Of course, terrible injustice came in. But it wasn’t slavery. I think that’s a very cynical view of social change — that if you don’t get utopia nothing has happened.
There’s a related myth that emancipation happened, but immediately it was replaced by Jim Crow. But in reality there was a long period between Reconstruction and complete black disenfranchisement, and across the late nineteenth century there were all these struggles in the South, with whites and blacks acting together.
You’re absolutely right, it didn’t just end in 1877. There was Radical Reconstruction, which I think was a very idealistic effort to, as Du Bois said, create democracy. Du Bois’s subtitle talks about “the part which black folk played in the attempt to reconstruct democracy in America.” It’s not about black people, it’s about democracy — are we going to have a democracy in this country or not?
But then there was a generation at least which was kind of inchoate, as you say. There was a tendency towards more and more racism, but there were also struggles like the Readjusters in Virginia, the Populists of course, and other things. It’s not until around 1900 that Jim Crow, which is a shorthand for comprehensive white supremacy in the South, comes in.
The struggle is the story. I don’t think we should romanticize it, but the idea that racism is permanent and there’s nothing you can say or do and that’s it — that’s a totally unhistorical way of thinking about it.
Among other things, it’s a story of attempts at interracial cooperation from below, which ultimately failed by 1900. It’s sometimes argued that the political failure of Reconstruction in the South was due to the fact that Republican support among Unionist whites, which was significant at the beginning, seemed to have disappeared or diminished by 1877. Why do you think that happened?
That’s one of the reasons for the failure of Reconstruction — it’s one reason. Of course, there were some states where they never had any white support, like South Carolina and maybe a couple of other places. Louisiana had very, very little.
The problem of getting poor white support was very difficult and was exacerbated by the difference between the Northern Republican Party and the Southern Republican Party. In some of these states, like North Carolina or Georgia, there were poor whites, Unionists, and so on, who were interested in supporting the Republicans for economic advantages like debtor’s relief.
But the Northern Republican Party was not interested in supporting them. They rejected Georgia’s Constitution because it suspended the collection of debts, and they said, “Hey, I’m sorry, you guys have got to pay your debts.” It’s like Greece, they were acting like Angela Merkel.
I actually think the failure of Reconstruction was not solely or even primarily on that basis. Rather, you have to go to the federal level and look at what was basically a failure to enforce the law. There were these constitutional amendments — the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth — but you get a withdrawal from enforcement after a while, and that reflected changes in Northern society — political, economic, and intellectual. And without a willingness to enforce the law, the power structure in the South — the economic power structure — is going to take over eventually.
It’s possible to imagine continued federal intervention — not, you know, military intervention for forty years, but enough to make it clear that these laws will be enforced. Like what happened in the Civil Rights Movement. There was a social movement, but there was also the National Guard, federal courts, other things just making it clear to people, not that they have to love each other, but that they have to act in certain ways and they can’t act in other ways. That if people act in ways that are in violation of federal law, they will be punished. And if that becomes clear, then people eventually abide by the law.
This is the point where Karl Rove’s attempt at appropriation fails, because when you’re looking at that moment, where Northern support dries up and people are beginning to doubt the effort to enforce the law, they have exactly the same kinds of concerns that Karl Rove has, that the Republican Party today has.
Yes, exactly. Rove would probably say this was an outside imposition on the South and therefore whites were never going to accept it. Maybe there’s some truth to that. But as you said, there were the Populists, the Readjusters, there were grounds for white militancy in the South all through this period, which occasionally come to the fore and helped work out things with blacks. But they were usually overturned by violence.
So you go back to the question: are you going to allow political violence to determine elections and political power in this country? If you are, that’s what’s going to happen. And if not, you’re going to need federal intervention to prevent it. I think the national story of Reconstruction and its failure is very important, not just the local story.
Of course, there’s an old argument about corruption in the Reconstruction state governments, but newer scholarship has looked more closely at the problem of state government revenue, and the new property taxes imposed after the war.
Yes, these state governments faced a real Catch-22. Before the war, state revenue was basically from the tax on slaves, not on landed property. Planters could accumulate large tracts of property and not be taxed on it, but be taxed on their slaves instead. And this left the poorer whites not paying taxes on their land. Most people owned land, but they didn’t pay taxes.
This was a weird fiscal system, where it’s the tax on slaves that’s supporting the government, but it does allow a lot of fiscal autonomy to poorer areas. After the Civil War, there are no more slaves, so no more tax! It becomes a general property tax. That’s bad for the planters, but it’s also bad for the poorer whites, who are now paying a tax on their land they didn’t have to before.
So that becomes a big problem. These governments are setting up school systems, and they’re now serving a doubled citizenry where blacks are now suddenly getting benefits from the government as well as whites, but the fiscal resources are very, very weak. And that’s why they were issuing bonds that were deteriorating in value. And you get corruption out of that.
But even the way you posed the question, which pops up in a lot of this literature, shows the hold of modern day politics: corruption and taxation are thrown into the same bag. But taxation is not corruption! This notion that levying taxes is bad is part of this critique of Reconstruction.
But surely if these are poor farmers who want schools, and you raise taxes to build these school systems and stuff — if it had been done well, wouldn’t they ultimately have benefited from it?
The immediate problem was that they couldn’t get debtor’s relief. They were all in debt. The Republican Party was divided, because a lot of Republicans — including black Republicans — thought they shouldn’t alienate planters too much. They wanted to get the planters into the Republican Party.
So it was very hard to have a radical party, to have a populist party, because the local parties were dependent on the Northern Republican Party, which more and more was the party of industry and sound finance. It was a political coalition that was very difficult to maintain. It was a coalition between the poorest people in the country and the richest people in the country!
And then there was the need for cotton. That’s one of the reasons they didn’t distribute land to the former slaves: because they thought they’d have to grow cotton. The problem is, there was actually an overproduction of cotton after the war, because the British had encouraged cotton in India and Egypt during the war. There’s a lot more supply in the world than there had been before because the Civil War had cut it off.
The thing is, the agricultural system in the South was not a racial system. It affected blacks more severely but there were more white sharecroppers than black in every census. The crop lien system (which left indebted farmers dependent on cash crops) forced people to grow cotton. So yes, the expansion of cotton production was in the white areas, and that was very detrimental to them because the price was falling throughout this whole period. There was overproduction, so growing cotton was a losing game.
So here you get into total counterfactual fantasy: if they had changed the whole credit system — if, if, if! That’s what the Populists called for [in the 1890s]. Get out of dependence on merchants and banks. Let the government be the one who loans the money to the farmers. It didn’t happen, of course. (Now it happens, but that’s with agribusiness, that’s a different story.) So there are a million problems.
I don’t think Reconstruction in its utopian phase could have succeeded, but I don’t think it’s crazy to imagine more modest kinds of success which would have made the shift over to Jim Crow more difficult.
What do you think about land redistribution, as a counterfactual?
Well, in an agricultural society it’s a lot better to have land than to not have land. Would it have been a panacea for everything? No. The credit system, you’d have had to change that too, because land is not the only scarce resource. It certainly would have given blacks more bargaining power in the system, but it was not the end-all, be-all answer. Most white farmers owned land after the war, but they were losing it through this whole period.
To me, the key thing wouldn’t necessarily have been the direct benefits to African Americans, which were significant but still limited. I’m thinking of the political dynamic. Because that’s the divide that arose later on, the poor whites who owned land and poor blacks who owned nothing. Steven Hahn called them the “propertyless poor.”
Though a lot of whites are losing their property too.
But you know, you can take that even farther. To Thaddeus Stevens, the biggest thing this would have accomplished was to destroy the planter class. Take away their land and they’re gone, and that would have changed the whole political configuration of the South.
I mean, he wanted to sell it to Northerners too.
Forty acres to the blacks and then sell the rest. Then you’ve got a whole different society. That’s a great counterfactual. Blacks would have ended up at the bottom of the economic ladder anyway because they lacked resources, but the whole system would have looked very different.
Okay, let’s do counterfactuals. But let’s say in 1867 blacks get the right to vote, and there’s a general white uprising in the South and you have to send the Army back in. Then people might have said, fuck these guys! This is impossible, we’re gonna take their land away again. Crisis creates that kind of radicalism.
In the dominant discourse, the American Revolution was very moderate, it was legalistic, and that’s good because it was relatively peaceful, unlike the French Revolution. Yet it left slavery in place. And then even the Second American Revolution ended up so moderate and legalistic that it prevented them from doing a lot of radical things — the kind of things you’d imagine the French Jacobins doing had they been in the United States.
Well you know, Georges Clemenceau was here after the war and he was reporting for a French newspaper. He called Thaddeus Stevens the Robespierre of the Second American Revolution. So he saw what was going on.
But on the other hand, the abolition of slavery seems so normal and inevitable in retrospect, yet it was an incredibly radical act. Especially the uncompensated abolition of slavery, the liquidation of what was by far the largest concentration of property in the country — slaves. No compensation was a pretty radical thing. I guess you’re right, it wasn’t radical enough, but it was certainly pretty radical for the nineteenth century.
Lessons for Today’s Radicals
What if some young socialist came up to you and asked, “Is there anything here, in antislavery and Reconstruction, that’s useful for an anti-capitalist, socialist project?”
Yes! First of all though — the abolitionist movement was not an anticapitalist movement.
But it was a radical movement.
Yes, it was a radical movement. The abolitionists show you that a very small group of people can accomplish a lot by changing the discourse of the country. After the Civil War, everybody claimed to have been an abolitionist. But they weren’t!
There weren’t a whole lot of abolitionists before the war. There were a few beleaguered individuals scattered about, in upstate New York, for example. There were only a couple dozen abolitionists in New York City!
Now, there was a free black community, they were very militant, and you could say they were abolitionists, but I’m talking about the organized abolitionist movement. That was very small. Nonetheless, they managed to actually accomplish quite a bit. They pioneered the use of the media of that time — the steam press, the telegraph, the petitions, the traveling speakers — to change public discourse. If you want to learn something from the abolitionists, that’s what you learn. The first thing to do is intervene in public discourse.
And the Occupy movement — success, failure, gone, still around, whatever you want to think about it — it changed the public discourse. It put this question of the 1 percent and the 99 percent, inequality, on the national agenda. That doesn’t mean they’re going to do much about it in Washington, but it is now part of our consciousness, just as by 1840 the abolitionist movement put the issue of slavery on the agenda in a way it had not been. Now, it took twenty years for anything to happen, but I think that’s something to learn from them, how they managed to do that.
Here’s the point. I am a believer in the abolitionist concept — that the role of radicals is to stand outside of the political system. The abolitionists said, “I am not putting forward a plan for abolition, because if I put forward a plan, people are just going to be debating my plan. ‘Oh, it’s going to be two years, five years, seven years.’ No: I’m putting forward the moral imperative of dealing with slavery.” And if people are convinced of that, then politicians will come up with a plan to do it. That means politicians are eventually going to pick up those ideas and use them in other ways and turn them into political strategies.
A guy like Lincoln was not a radical abolitionist by any stretch of the imagination. He was a moderate. And yet by the 1850s Lincoln understood that abolitionists were part of — to use a Karl Rove term — his “base.” Lincoln understood that you don’t win by just appealing to your base, but no politician is going to kick his base out and say “I don’t want to deal with these guys.”
So yes, there are some radical guys in the party, like Joshua Giddings, like Salmon P. Chase. But you know, Giddings represented one very unique district. He was like Bernie Sanders. Not too many Giddingses are going to get elected.
Then how do you interpret the debate among abolitionists, like the split that eventually happened between William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass?
You know, this is where I differ from the tradition I grew up in. I don’t believe there is one true party line that every movement has to have. The Maoist view is better: let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred tactics bloom. Let some people go into politics and other people not go into politics, let some people work above ground and others not. You know, you have the Underground Railroad, you have people working illegally, but you also have people working totally legally and openly. There’s no one correct tactic. The more different tactics you have, the better.
I totally agree with that, but in some ways, Garrison was making the argument that you started out with just now: let’s just stand out and say what’s right. And Douglass said, look, at a certain point, you have to intervene.
But Douglass’s concept of politics is still politics as agitation. He doesn’t support the Republican Party. He supports the Radical Abolition party which gets twenty votes! But the point of that is just to get the idea out there. Politics is another venue for getting your idea out there.
But the idea is out there! In your most recent book, you quote Charles Sumner talking about the “anti-slavery enterprise” as an inclusive movement. Isn’t the striking thing about this moment in American politics the fact that even though they’re at each other’s throats, they’re working towards a common goal? Even though Douglass is trashing Lincoln in his editorials, fundamentally they still build through the Republican Party. This is the real radical moment, in the mid 1850s — when the Republican Party, the antislavery party, wins control of the North. Just a few years earlier that was unimaginable.
No, you’re right. Yes, I make this argument, but I think one should not homogenize things. Douglass and Wendell Phillips are trying to get rid of Lincoln in 1864! They nominate John C. Frémont to run instead. Lincoln and the abolitionists have this odd, interesting relationship. It’s partly symbiotic, it’s partly antagonistic, but these guys are not holding Lincoln’s coat by any means.
Very good historians make very big mistakes talking about this because they look at Douglass’s speeches about Lincoln. But Douglass is a very shrewd guy. He understands you’ve got to get Lincoln on your side, especially after the Civil War. So suddenly Lincoln is the guy who we were all really wrong to criticize, and he was actually a believer in racial justice. By the 1870s he’s trying to invoke Lincoln to get people’s support for Reconstruction.
But as you said, this is politics, right? It’s not about loving each other — it’s about changing the world.
Absolutely. But even though there’s an antislavery enterprise, I still think there’s a fundamental difference between abolitionists and the politicians. I mean, I hope that people on the Left do not just throw up their hands and say, “Well, there’s nobody you can trust.” It’s politics! You make deals. But I also believe that this is the luxury of an intellectual with a full-time job, so I don’t have to worry about it.
But I think radicals shouldn’t be involved in the day to day business of politics. I’m on the board of the Nation, which is not as radical as Jacobin, but in our current political climate it’s to the left of the mainstream, let’s put it that way. A lot of our editorial board meetings are about: “Oh God, should we support Hillary? Should we support Obama?” and I say, “Hell no, that’s not even what we should be talking about! We should not be getting involved in Democratic Party internal battles. That’s not what our job is.”
Our job is to put out new ideas, different ideas, pressure people, and I don’t care fundamentally if Obama or Hillary gets the nomination in 2008. Sure I have an opinion about it but I don’t think that’s our job to worry about it. All of this maneuvering, “Oh, what do we do in this or that election.” We are not politicians. Politicians do it better.
In 1864 Lincoln absolutely outmaneuvered these guys, because they weren’t politicians. I mean they put up John C. Frémont. Who the hell is that? Lincoln controlled the machinery.
But there had to be a point at which people with abolitionist views decided that they were going to involve themselves in the process — even if it was the [1848–54] Free Soil Party, or something like that. There was a process of coalition-building in which people who didn’t like each other, who thought they were too radical, or not radical enough, worked together on a common project. It was anti-sectarian, or non-sectarian.
I agree with you. On the other hand, Douglass welcomed the Free Soil Party because its politicians were moving toward antislavery. He did not welcome the [1840–44] Liberty Party — even though it was more radical than Free Soil — because that was abolitionists moving towards politics. He thought that was a deterioration of the abolitionist statement.
I’m giving you a rigid kind of view of what radicalism is, when what I actually believe is that people should be doing everything at the same time. There is no one correct way. If people want to work in the Democratic Party, let ’em. There are good people in the party, in some places, running.
I’m certainly happy de Blasio was elected here. De Blasio is not Thad Stevens but he’s certainly an improvement on what we’ve had. And I think that’s great. But I don’t think the role of radicals is to just jump on board and say de Blasio’s our man.
Maybe a good example is Thaddeus Stevens. He’s a party man, he’s a politician, but he’s certainly as much an abolitionist as anybody, and more of a racial egalitarian than a lot of people on the Left then.
Even than a lot of Underground Railroad types.
Absolutely. But Thaddeus Stevens is central in the political system. He doesn’t control the Congress, but he’s important. He’s almost like John Boehner today. He’s a key guy in the House of Representatives. So Stevens is another way of looking at it. He’s an abolitionist using a position of power in the political system.
But Stevens also knows how to compromise. He sees what you can get and he takes it. On the Fourteenth Amendment, Charles Sumner initially says he won’t accept it because it recognizes the power of the state to disenfranchise people — it punishes states in terms of numbers of their members in Congress if they don’t allow blacks to vote, but it still allows the possibility of doing it.
Stevens says, “Hey, this is a step toward what we want and we have to do it. It’s imperfect, but we’ve got to take it.”
Same thing with Frederick Douglass on the Emancipation Proclamation: ‘This is one step.’
One of my numerous differences with President Obama is that a few years ago he went to a college and he was chatting with some students, and he was complaining about liberals criticizing him, and he said, if these guys were around when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, they would have said it’s no good. And I said, wait a minute, the abolitionists didn’t say it was no good! They said it was great, but you’ve got to do more!
I guess why we’re so interested in this juncture between abolitionists and Republicans is just that we’re wondering about the process. You have a situation where Wendell Phillips is invited to the White House in 1862. Thinking about it, that’s like, what, the equivalent of Noam Chomsky being invited to the White House by Obama? That would never happen — it seems impossible for Obama even to say anything about the 99 percent.
I wrote my book about Lincoln, and I wouldn’t say it was written for Obama but I had hoped Obama would read it. Because it’s about exactly how a political figure and a social movement can somehow, not exactly coordinate with each other, but influence one another.
I would like to see Obama inviting the equivalent of Frederick Douglass today, whoever that is, to the White House and listening to him and talking to him about things, asking his advice about things. Lincoln didn’t care when these guys came in and criticized him, he was perfectly happy to learn something from them.
Obama isn’t like that. He’s very thin-skinned. He doesn’t like differences of opinion within his own party. I think that’s a serious flaw. I think for Jacobin — and I say this to the Nation — the number one thing is to put out a different worldview than the dominant one today.
I think the financial crisis has cracked open the old consensus. I read two newspapers in the morning, over breakfast, the New York Times and the Financial Times. I don’t read them online, I get them delivered to my door, the old-fashioned way. The Financial Times is more radical than the New York Times! You read the Financial Times on the fiscal crisis, the financial system, they’re up in arms that no banker has gone to jail, about the austerity program. The Financial Times tells you what’s actually happening, it’s amazing.
My point is that the consensus has cracked open, and therefore publications like Jacobin have to put forward an alternative point of view, and worldview, an alternative vision.
The problem is the abolitionists had a vision. It was a society without slavery and with equality for all. And that’s what they put out, but I don’t think they had any concept of what abolition would mean economically, what would be the implications for the country. Yes, they wanted the South to be like the North — more farms, little towns.
But the funny thing is, in New England the factory system was very powerful in the 1840s and the abolitionists didn’t look in their own backyard and say, “What about Irish laborers in the factories?” That’s why I say their vision was basically a moral one.
So let’s talk a little about the vision of the Republican Party. The early GOP brought together both ex-Whigs and ex-Democrats, but the majority had been lifelong Whigs. It was almost sort of an offshoot of the Whigs. The traditional view is that the Whigs were basically elitists. But in the context of the time wasn’t there something historically progressive about their kind of bourgeois liberalism?
You’re right. Of course the Whigs were very skeptical of democracy. In the 1830s, you have the Jacksonians who seem to represent a popular politics of democracy, and yet they’re anti-Indian, they’re racist. Then you have the Whigs who seem to be more forward-looking, but they’re capitalists.
But the guys who come to the fore are the ones who combine things. Lincoln and Seward are more small-d democratic Whigs who see that you can’t run in this country in the 1830s in favor of the elite and say, “Vote for me, I’m for the elite.” Although some Whigs tried. So you get these democratic Whigs who have this forward-looking economic view, but also have a mass politics, which many Whigs are not that comfortable with.
Lincoln’s got the economic progress, free-labor notion, but not the kind of elite finance capitalist thing. Going into Reconstruction, Thaddeus Stevens is actually into inflation, greenbacks. Guys like him have this vision of uplifting everybody through money and credit, low-interest rates. Every man his own capitalist, but without big capitalists out there.
Seward is a very interesting guy, because he tries to get the Whig party to appeal to immigrants. But the Whigs were very nativist, and that’s part of the reason he didn’t get the nomination in 1860. The Know-Nothings didn’t like Seward because when he was governor twenty years before he’d tried to get public money for Catholic schools.
What I meant by the question about the Whigs is that, the way I see it, the Democrats, in addition to their racism, represented a very agrarian, decentralized, yet small-d democratic vision that was opposed to improvement of society through collective means. That’s a very American thing in the sense that Europe, where the suffrage was restricted, really had no equivalent of the Democratic Party.
You’re right. Because in Europe the Industrial Revolution happened before democracy came in. People were excluded as a class and that encouraged class consciousness because people were excluded from the political system as a class. The labor struggle and the political struggle were interconnected with each other. That’s the point of E. P. Thompson’s book on the English working class. That book is about politics as much as labor, it’s about the struggle for the vote for working-class people.
I think the fundamental thing is that in the US in the nineteenth century, the mainstream of radicalism is based on individual autonomy, equality, and small property. Whether it’s a homestead thing, or even the Knights of Labor later. That’s what the Socialist Party breaks with — the idea that small property will solve capitalism. They say you’ve got to find a more collective solution to this.
Eventually the free labor ideology dies out. But in the nineteenth century the free-labor ideology was the source of much of American radicalism, and there’s no point in going back and saying, “Hey, they shouldn’t have thought that, they should have been socialists.”
That’s the peculiarity of this 1850s moment, isn’t it? This free-labor vision develops that bequeaths industrial capitalism and laissez faire, but at the same time it’s inchoate, it’s undetermined, and labor struggles can come out of it too. And that’s how Lincoln in the 1850s could say nobody should remain a wage earner for life.
But there is no real connection between that and socialism, and indeed there were plenty of socialists then and later, who said, “This is retrograde, this idea of small property being the essence of freedom. It’s a barrier against a collective view of society.” To say that today, however, is unhistorical anyway, because socialism was not on the agenda in 1850.
One thing about free labor is that when it emerges in the fifties, conservative elites in the South had no hesitancy finding anticapitalism in antislavery. They talked about Red Republicans and Black Republicans. They thought the way the antislavery people fundamentally challenged property was dangerous, that it cracked the egg.
The abolitionists always insisted they were not attacking property. They were attacking property in man as an illegitimate thing. Of course, others picked this up, and radical laborites called themselves the new abolitionists later on. When Thaddeus Stevens was proposing confiscating land in the South, there were Northern Republicans who said, “Wait a minute! The Irish are going to start talking about confiscating factories.” Even then they said, slavery was different, it was not legitimate property.
Let’s put it this way: after the Civil War, the free-labor vision becomes the essence of a radical labor critique of the Industrial Revolution.
Yet it also becomes the seed of right-wing laissez-faire . . .
Yes, free labor cracks up on class lines. The labor movement in the twentieth century — it’s not just rhetoric when they said, “We’re the new abolitionists.” Because the free-labor ideal was now under assault.
What we should be talking about is maybe the old Socialist Party, before World War I, Debsian socialism. Because what they had, which the abolitionists didn’t quite have, was an umbrella under which all sorts of groups could find a common ground, whether it’s birth control advocates, labor activists, anti-monopolists, and socialists, people like Debs who had a vision of socialism.
The idea of socialism they had was kind of a vague one, and of course the great historical fallacy is to view it back through the lens of World War I and the Russian Revolution. But before that, this was a large umbrella radical movement, with all sorts of people with very specific aims who could get together.
Today one of our problems is we have a lot of movements going on and they’re sympathetic to one another but they don’t seem to connect with one another. Whether it’s antiracist movements, gay movements, environmentalist — they all seem kind of fragmented. Whereas the Socialist Party, they all came together. You had Emma Goldman in there, you had Debs, you had municipal reformers, Jane Addams, progressives — it was part of the political dynamic of the country.
Even though in 1912 Debs got his million votes — 6 percent, that’s not a hell of a lot — but we’d take it now. But I think that’s a different model than the abolitionist model.
Maybe part of the reason they were able to have this unity with all these different causes was that it was a socialist party, which meant that even though their ideas were vague, what gave form to them was this idea of a different kind of society. People could invest their hopes in that.
Whereas today, with all the various struggles, we don’t have that, there’s no clear alternative.
Well, maybe we need a new word. Socialism unfortunately has gotten a bad name in this country.
It’s pretty popular with our generation, if you believe polls.
Good! If people are willing to talk about socialism, I think that’s great.
Greek workers vs police and austerity
By Harry Targ
Online University of the Left
Western Imperialism and the Greek Left
When the Nazis were defeated in Greece in 1944, most of the country was controlled by the Greek National Liberation Front (EAM). The Greek Communist Party constituted the largest political contingent in the EAM, but other liberal and radical anti-fascists were part of the coalition. Most of the population supported the EAM.
The British military entered Greece to help reestablish a dictatorial government as the Nazis fled. In collaboration with the Greek military the British army put in place a coalition government in the fall of 1944. The EAM representatives resigned from the government in December when the British Army ordered the Liberation Front to disarm. Then Greek police fired on EAM demonstrators. The British, with US assistance, brought two divisions of soldiers, tanks, and planes to crush the EAM resistance. The EAM surrendered in February, 1945. The surrender was followed by a “pacification” of the countryside by the British in conjunction with participation by the Greek National Guard.
In March, 1946, the Greeks held an election for national office, boycotted by the Left, in which monarchist politicians secured 49 per cent of the vote. The new regime restored the king to the throne and expanded resources to the army and police. Meanwhile the population continued to experience the economic misery extended by the war. For example, 75 percent of the children of Greece were malnourished. The Greek government continued the program of purging former EAM resistance fighters. They replaced trade union officials with government-appointed personnel and purged former EAM affiliated personnel from public institutions.
Finally, in the fall of 1946, a rebellion led by Greek Communists and other EAM members was launched. While assistance to the rebels came from neighboring states, the rebellion was a grassroots one. Many commentators over the years insisted that the Soviet Union, still committed to a “spheres-of-influence” agreement with the British, provided little or no assistance to the popular forces, even though the US administration would claim that the Greek Civil War was an example of the westward expansion of Soviet Communism.
The Role of the Greek Civil War in the Establishment of US Cold War Policy
By 1947, the Greek popular forces were engaged in a protracted civil war against the reactionary British-supported Greek government. With growing economic crisis at home the British were forced to withdraw their material support from the Greek government. The British informed the United States that if Greece were to be saved from “communism,” the US would have to replace British support. By 1947, the Truman Administration was ready to launch a full-scale military, economic, political, and cultural assault on what would be called “international communism.” The Greek Civil War could be the excuse needed to generate support from the American people for the new Cold War.
During February, 1947, Truman mobilized his advisors to prepare a declaration to be delivered to Congress concerning the world situation. At one meeting Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson argued that “the communists” were seeking to control Greece, Turkey, Iran, the Middle East, and Italy. If they achieved their goals in these countries, France and China would fall. As State Department historian Herbert Feis wrote: “The fall of the dominoes could be heard as he talked along.” Senator Arthur Vandenberg, former isolationist Republican Senator from Michigan, told administration officials that President Truman must “scare hell out of the American people.”
In order “to scare hell out of the American people,” President Truman appeared before Congress to request $400 million in military and economic aid to Greece and Turkey. The aid request provided the vehicle for Truman to articulate the government’s overall purposes of opening the world to capitalist expansion in terms of “freedom” versus “tyranny.” The language of the Truman Doctrine made it crystal clear that the struggle against socialism, the Left, and autonomous national development would be a long one. Despite the reality of the contending forces in the Greek Civil War, Truman said that the United States must “support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” The gauntlet was down. The United States would defend “free” countries like the reactionary Greek government, which included Nazi collaborators, against “totalitarianism,” that is, the Soviet Union and its “oppressed” allies in Eastern Europe. The term, “totalitarianism,” would be used to lump together countries and movements in Eastern Europe and later around the world which sought to construct alternative economic and political systems.
The US response to the Greek Civil War and the defeat of the EAM by 1949 was the primary force that led to the creation of political and economic institutions in that country that have constrained working class movements ever since. And the modest assistance program to the Greek government in 1947 was a prelude to the much larger Marshall Plan economic aid program adopted in 1948 that would do much to construct a Western European economic system compatible with global capitalist interests. The struggles of European social movements today are constrained by the establishment of European economic and political institutions going back to the 1940s.
(Part 2 will discuss the Marshall Plan and the construction of a European political economy compatible with global capitalism. The materials for the two essays come in part from prior blogs and Harry Targ “Strategy of an Empire in Decline: Cold War II,” MEP Publications, 1986).
A $3.75 billion loan to the British in 1946 and the $400 million loan to Greece and Turkey in 1947 were mere preludes to the much larger foreign assistance program known as the Marshall Plan. Initially after the war Britain, France, and Italy began to recover from the war’s devastation, but they suffered major setbacks as a result of the severe winter of 1946/47. Further, economic recovery in 1946 was shaped by a return to the nationalist economic policies of the prewar years, policies that reinforced trade restrictions. However, post-war policies which kept wages low and prices high in these countries were generating increasing opposition from workers, particularly in continental Europe. Due to the economic disruptions of the winter of 1946/47, rising labor militancy, fears of the spread of ideas supporting European independence, and the general shortage of dollar reserves, the United States developed the policy of providing massive doses of foreign assistance to European countries. After two-months of planning among State Department personnel, business leaders, and politicians, Secretary of State George Marshall announced a new aid policy, claiming its prime motivation to be humanitarian: (Continued)
Dear Friends and Colleagues,
An occasional message from Peter Dreier
This message is all about the Bernie Sanders campaign, but since it is a national holiday about patriotism, I wanted to include this piece by Dick Flacks and me, "How Progressives Should Celebrate This July 4th," linking it to the recent Supreme Court ruling on same-President Obama’s oration last week in Charleston.
The Sanders campaign is surging, surprising everyone with the large turnouts in Iowa, New Hampshire, Wisconsin (over 10,000 people at a rally in Madison a few days ago), and elsewhere. He has raised much more money, mostly in small donations, than anyone expected. He is attracting lots of people eager to volunteer for his campaign, hiring more staff, and picking up some significant endorsements. He is closing the gap in the polls with Hillary Clinton, including in key states with early primaries and caucuses. His campaign is based on a principled progressive agenda that, unlike any other figure in American politics (with the exception of Elizabeth Warren), he is able to explain in straightforward language that has a broad appeal.
As a result of all this, Sanders is getting lots of media attention. The right-wing media echo chamber (Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, the Weekly Standard, etc) is demonizing him as a dangerous radical but also hoping that his growing appeal will hurt Clinton and help a Republican win the presidency. The mainstream media (NYT, ABC, Newsweek, etc) is taking advantage of the Sanders surge to create the drama of a political horse race, while asking whether a strong Sanders showing will help or hurt Clinton’s chances to win the White House. The progressive media (The Nation, The Progressive, American Prospect, MSNBC, etc) and blogosphere is greeting the Sanders surge with enthusiasm and excitement but also raising questions about whether he’s in it to win or to push Hillary to the left, whether he can raise enough money to mount a credible national campaign, and whether his presidential campaign, win or lose, can also help strengthen the progressive movement (and the Democratic Party’s progressive wing) for the long haul.
The Sanders campaign has surged so quickly, and things are changing so rapidly, that it may be difficult to grasp what it means. With that in mind, here is a reading list (all from 2015 unless indicated otherwise) that may be useful for those who want to understand what is happening and to put it in historical perspective. You can also find out more at the Sanders campaign website.
The opinions expressed are mine alone and do not reflect the opinions of Occidental College or its employees. Occidental College is not responsible for the content of this communication.
September 26, 2011 — First posted at Cuba’s Socialist Renewal, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission — Cooperatives and Socialism: A Cuban Perspective is a new Cuban book, published in Spanish earlier this year. This important and timely compilation is edited by Camila Piñeiro Harnecker (pictured above). Avid readers of Cuba’s Socialist Renewal will recall that I translated and posted a commentary by Camila, titled "Cuba Needs Changes" [also available at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal], back in January. Camila lives in Cuba and has a degree in sustainable development from the University of Berkeley, California. She is a professor at the Centre for Studies on the Cuban Economy at Havana University, and her works have been published both in Cuba and outside the island.
Camila hopes her book may be published in English soon. In the meantime, she has kindly agreed to allow me to translate and publish this extract from her preface to Cooperatives and Socialism with permission from a prospective publisher. I hope that sharing this extract with readers will make you want to read the whole book. If it does become available in English I’ll post the details here. If you read Spanish you can download the 420-page book as a PDF here or here.
At the end of the text you’ll find the footnotes and table of contents, translated from the Spanish — Marce Cameron, editor Cuba’s Socialist Renewal
By Camila Piñeiro Harnecker, translated by Marce Cameron
This book arises from the urgent need for us to make a modest contribution to the healthy “birth” of the new Cuban cooperativism and its subsequent spread. Given that cooperatives are foreshadowed as one of the organisational forms of labour in the non-state sector in the Draft Economic and Social Policy Guidelines of the Sixth Cuban Communist Party Congress, the Dr. Martin Luther King Memorial Centre approached me to compile this book. The Centre has made an outstanding contribution to popular education aimed at nurturing and strengthening the emancipatory ethical values, critical thinking, political skills and organisational abilities indispensable for the conscious and effective participation of social subjects. The Centre considers it timely and necessary to support efforts to raise awareness about a type of self-managed economic entity whose principles, basic characteristics and potentialities are unknown in Cuba. There is every indication that such self-managed entities could play a significant role in our new economic model.
For this to happen we must grapple with the question at the heart of this compilation: Is the production cooperative an appropriate form of the organisation of labour for a society committed to building socialism? There is no doubt that this question cannot be answered in a simplistic or absolute fashion. Our aim here is to take only a first step towards answering this question from a Cuban perspective in these times of change and rethinking, guided by the anxieties and hopes that many Cubans have about our future.
When it is proposed that the production cooperative be one – though not the only – form of enterprise in Cuba, three concerns above all are frequently encountered: some consider it too “utopian” and therefore inefficient; others, on the basis of the cooperatives that have existed in Cuba, suspect that they will not have sufficient autonomy or that they will be “too much like state enterprises”; while others still, accustomed to the control over enterprise activities exercised by a state that intervenes directly and excessively in enterprise management, reject cooperativism as too autonomous and therefore a “seed of capitalism”. This book tries to take account of all these concerns, though there is no doubt that more space would be required to address them adequately.
The first concern is addressed to some extent with the data provided in the first part of the book regarding the existence and economic activity of cooperatives worldwide today. This shows that the cooperative is not an unachievable fantasy that disregards the objective and subjective requirements of viable economic activity. Thus, the experiences of cooperatives in the Basque Country, Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela that are summarised in the third part of the book demonstrate that cooperatives can be more efficient than capitalist enterprises, even on the basis of the hegemonic capitalist conception of efficiency that ignores externalities, i.e. the impact of any enterprise activity on third parties.
The efficiency of cooperatives is greater still if we take into consideration all of the positive outcomes inherent in their management model, which can be summarised as the full human development of its members and, potentially, of local communities. The democratic abilities and attitudes that cooperative members develop through their participation in its management can be utilised in other social spaces and organisations. Moreover, genuine cooperatives free us from some of the worst of the negative externalities (dismissals, environmental contamination, loss of ethical values) generated by enterprises oriented towards profit maximisation rather than the satisfaction of the needs of their workers.
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Truthout, May 17, 2015
On April 19, 2014, I sat down with author, journalist and professor Christian Parenti in Chicago. His work, which is wide-ranging and essential, explores some of the most powerful and brutal forces in our society: war, capitalism, prisons, policing and climate change. In this interview, we discussed ideology, climate change, Marxism, activism, the state, militarism, violence and the future. This is the first of a two-part interview.
Vincent Emanuele for Truthout: I’d like to begin by revisiting your 2011 book, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence. Right around the time Tropic of Chaos was published, Syria was experiencing record drought and massive livestock and crop losses. The connections between neoliberalism, climate change and Cold War-era militarism, for you, were on full display. However, you’re clear in noting that climate change exacerbates pre-existing crises. In other words, climate change is not necessarily the driver of crises in Syria, or Afghanistan, for example. You call this process the "catastrophic convergence." Can you talk about these various themes in the context of the last four years since Tropic of Chaos was published?
Christian Parenti: Syria is a prime example. There has been a terrible drought there, which coincided with austerity measures imposed by the Assad government cutting aid to Sunni farmers. Many of them were forced to leave the land, partly due to drought, partly due to the lack of support to properly deal with the drought. Then, they arrive in cities, and there’s more austerity taking place. This is experienced as oppression by the Alawite elite against an increasingly impoverished Sunni proletariat who’ve been thrown off their land.
This situation then explodes as religious conflict, which is really the fusion of environmental crises with neoliberal economic policies. Of course, the violent spark to all of this is the fact that the entire region is flooded with weapons. Some of these weapons are from the Cold War, and some of those guns are from recent US militarism in the region. There were a lot of vets of the anti-US struggle in Iraq who are Syrian – Mujahideen veterans who went to Iraq and came back to Syria and started to fight. There were Syrians who were selling guns to Iraqi underground groups. These groups were buying their guns back, and re-importing them to Syria. My friend David Enders has reported on this really well.
So, it’s a perfect example of this catastrophic convergence: The landscape is littered with guns, hammered socially by increasingly market-fundamentalist politics, and at the same time, natural systems are beginning to buckle and break as climate change starts to accelerate. Part of what’s fueling the sectarian conflict in Iraq has to do with this convergence. There’s a very serious lack of water in southern Iraq, partly because Turkey has been taking more water than they should, but there’s also a decline in precipitation, misuse of water resources, etc. In the Shia heartland, life is tough. These young farmers get pulled into the struggle against the Sunni, with militias or within the Iraqi Army. That’s a better deal than trying to struggle on an increasingly decimated farm. But it’s hard to research a lot of this. The violence is so intense that it makes reporting on these issues virtually impossible. Those are some examples that immediately come to mind.
As you’re responding, I’m thinking of Yemen. Really, your book has forced me to constantly examine the underlying environmental context when thinking about conflicts, wars and violence. Yet, this dynamic is left out of the narrative in the mainstream media, and even in many alternative outlets.
People have been reporting on Sanaa’s water crisis for several years. Yemen’s environmental crises is partly fueling the current conflict. Similarly, Boko Haram is capitalizing on and partly produced by environmental crises in northern Nigeria. Large parts of the West African Sahel – meaning the wide arid belt at the bottom edge of the Sahara desert – have been experiencing all sorts of natural precipitation fluctuations; too much rain, too little, at the wrong times. This, plus rising temperatures, has led to increased climate migration, urbanization, poverty, and – surprise, surprise! – political desperation. These chaotic weather patterns are linked to climate change.
Along with environmental crisis, Boko Haram is the byproduct of the brutality of the Nigerian security forces, which have targeted Northern Nigerian Muslims with wide, undisciplined, sometimes almost indiscriminate terror campaigns. Add to that the total corruption of the Nigerian oil state and its inability and unwillingness to redistribute wealth and resources to marginalized populations, and it’s a perfect storm. And out of this drama comes that nightmare we call Boko Haram.
To answer your initial question, what’s new since publishing the book? Seems like more of the same is spreading. But, to be perfectly honest, I find it profoundly depressing to think about this stuff all the time. My research has moved on to other questions.
You focus a lot on the Global South in Tropic of Chaos, but you briefly mention the Global North as well. However, you mention that this catastrophic convergence is experienced in a much different way depending on where one is located. Can you explain these differences?
Climate violence in the Global North looks like counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations abroad, and xenophobic border policing and anti-immigrant repression at home. As we’re speaking, the US has battleships off the coast of Yemen, supporting the Saudi air offensive. Climate violence looks like the special operations base that was in Yemen before US forces were run out a few weeks ago. That base was there partly because of the instability caused by the growing climate crisis that is fueled by US militarism and neoliberalism. The media might not call counter-terror operations climate wars, but that’s certainly part of what drives them.
Similarly, anti-immigrant detention and policing increasingly have a climate angle. Migration is rarely described in terms of its root causes. What is it that drives people off the land and forces them to migrate north? War, environmental crisis, and neoliberal economic restructuring that, by opening markets and removing state supports to popular classes, have destroyed rural economies, peasant livelihoods, all over the world. Much of Latin America, particular Mexico and Central America, have been experiencing the chaotic weather associated with climate change, extreme droughts punctuated by flooding. People are forced by all these factors to seek a better life abroad.
The media might not call counter-terror operations climate wars, but that’s certainly part of what drives them.
Greeting them upon arrival in the Global North – be that Texas or Sicily – are the ideology and infrastructure of xenophobia and militarized policing. The right, both in Europe and the US, uses racist, fear-mongering, anti-immigrant rhetoric to great effect in mobilizing their constituencies. Remember, the right needs emotionally charged electoral spectacle, because their real agenda is the upward redistribution of wealth from the working classes to the rich. But right-wing politicians cannot run on that platform: there aren’t enough rich people. So, the right must appeal to the real fears of regular people, but they pander to these fears using fake issues. Thus in the right-wing imaginary, it’s not the erosion of social democracy and the rise of deregulated, deindustrialized, hyper-privatized, financialized, boom and bust, neoliberal capitalism that has fucked the common person. No, it is foreigners and immigrants. Unfortunately, this rhetoric works with many.
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April 24, 2015
On April 12, 2015 the wildly popular Game of Thrones returned to HBO for a fifth season. No doubt, this season, like all the others, will break ratings records and encourage endless speculation and debate by fans. The television series, based on a projected seven novel series A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin, has a devoted following among viewers who are willing to wade through intricate plots, an enormous cast of characters and a world as rich as our own. The series is set in a fantasy world resembling feudal Europe and on the surface feels like many other “sword and sandal” epics, such as Lord of the Rings. However, the series is more than beach side reading — drawing extensively on history, mythology and literature.
Part of the appeal of Game of Thrones (especially for Marxists) is that, unlike Lord of the Rings, there are few clear cut heroes or villains; instead everyone is a shade of gray and presents a harsh view of the feudal world and its sharp class divisions, bourgeois revolutions from above, subordinate status of women, and brutal realpolitik. 
A historical materialist analysis of Game of Thrones has been the subject of two essays “Can Marxist theory predict the end of Game of Thrones?” by Paul Mason and “Game of Thrones and the End of Marxist Theory” by Sam Kriss (focusing heavily on the collapse of feudalism with arguments we will discuss in detail below). Kriss’ essay also argues that part of the appeal of Game of Thrones is that the series undermines any idealization of feudalism where “its kings aren’t just cruel and stupid but powerless, trying to bat away rapacious financiers and ghoulish monsters with both flapping, ineffectual hands…[and that this] was the last time that all the mystical creatures that hid in the dark places of society were known, named, and understood.” By contrast, capitalism presents itself as rational, while it shrouds real social relations beneath commodity fetishism and the mysteries of the market. The use of Marxist analysis to fantasies such as Game of Thrones, as Kriss rightfully points out, “helps explain our own demon-haunted world.”
The main settings for Game of Thrones are the fictional continents of Westeros and Essos. Westeros is made up of seven kingdoms — the Kingdom of the North, the Kingdom of Mountain and Vale, the Kingdom of the Isles and Rivers, the Kingdom of the Rock, the Kingdom of the Reach, the Kingdom of the Stormlands and Dorne. The Seven Kingdoms have existed for thousands of years largely as a feudal society and undergoing periodic dynastic shifts, civil wars and invasions (the dominant religion known as the “Faith of the Seven” forbids slavery).
One of the major plots of the series is a civil war by the noble kingdoms for control of the Iron Throne following the death of the King Robert Baratheon. The “War of the Five Kings,” which begins at the end of the first season initially involves five separate claimants to the Iron Throne (currently reduced to three by the end of season four) involves bloody battles, massacres and dynastic upheavals which devastate Westeros.
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By Bruno Cava
Translated by Devin Beaulieu
The difference between populist discourse and classic liberal discourse is based in that, for the former, the “people” is something that should be constructed, while for liberals the “people” is something already given. In this first case, the construction of the people implies the construction of a new representation. In the second case, the representation is only made to consider a society that precedes it, the pre-existent, is already formed.
In populism, the history of the construction of a people occurs through the division between “us” and “them.”
Populism denounces the false universal of the existing representative order, which does not represent us anymore, in order to directly demand a new universal. During the bourgeois revolutions this was the struggle against theancien regime according to which it was possible to liberate from the parasitic aristocracy in order to form the nation and bourgeois citizen, now considered a universal category. During the anticolonial struggles, this was the struggle against the metropole and imperialism in the name of unity, for national liberation. According to Antonio Gramsci, the construction of the people, the folk, unites intellectuals, workers, and peasants through the national-popular collective consciousness in order to liberate themselves from the bourgeois.
The Construction of the National-Popular
In Brazil, ideas of the national-popular were present in developmentalist versions, where national modernization combined with popular emancipation by means of mobilizing, pedagogical, and organizing actions. The conquest of power would not take place simply as the capture of the State, but would happen through the laborious cultural and ideological dissemination of national formation from the bases. The task of underdeveloped intellectuals in this project consists in leading the process of illumination of the masses, in agreement with an emancipatory program. Thus, whereby, sufficiently industrializing the country to form a conscious proletariat would overt falling into some form of economic determinism. Without the militant work of popular emancipation, modernization, invariably, will produce further class domination.
The political theory closest to this national-popular promise, although elaborated in the context of industrialized societies of the economic center, is Gramscian theory. According to Gramsci, who wrote in the first half of the past century, the exercise of power in capitalism is not sustained only through coercion and fear. It has to produce, above all, a diffuse legitimacy that, through innumerable collective cultural institutions, continually captures the consent of the majority. The representative field in its ensemble, composed of governments, parties, and unions can, in this way, operate as if representing the “general interest,” closing fissures and stopping deviations.
Ideology, then, does not appear as a system of systematic mystification. As if ideology were a veil opposite to reality, a mystical curtain that separates the people from the truth about the real relations of power. Further, ideology has a material character: that determines behavior and penetrates habits. Capitalism, in essence, does not fool anyone. Perspectives that capitalism can lose strength by means of denouncing its mystifications are naïve. Individuals already know that capitalism is a complex of exploitation that generates, at one extreme, luxury and waste and, at the other, misery and violence.
Hegemony and Counter-Hegemony
This is what Gramsci named hegemony: the normal form of politics in developed and complex societies, in which representative democracies prevail. Hegemony is a cultural operation on a large scale, which precedes a unity forced by the state, determining the existence of a hegemonic group that emerges as the bearer of “general interest.” In terms of hegemony, the crux of the question is not to question how capitalism functions, but rather, how we, ourselves, make it function. Capitalism possesses an evidence and emotion, permeated, in which we are involved in elaborating in our daily lives, our plans and ourselves.