Workers Vanguard No. 1149
22 February 2019
Black Liberation Struggle: The Key to American Socialist Revolution
In observance of Black History Month, we are pleased to publish the conclusion of an educational presented in December by comrade Jacob Zorn at a gathering of the Spartacist League in New York. Part One appeared in WV No. 1148 (8 February).
It is important to contrast how the race concept in the U.S. incorporated the “one-drop rule,” which was not the case elsewhere in the Americas. In Puerto Rico, there is a famous poem by Fortunato Vizcarrondo, “¿Y tu agüela, aonde ejtá?” whose title translates as, “Where is your grandmother?” In it, a black Puerto Rican responds to racist taunts by a white Puerto Rican, pointing out that both of them have black grandmothers, but his is a proud part of the family while the other’s is hidden. The poem is powerful because many “white” Puerto Ricans have black ancestors whom they deny. But such a poem wouldn’t work in the United States. Anybody in the U.S. with a black grandparent—or great-grandparent—is black, no matter his or her physical appearance.
For the overwhelming majority of slaves in the U.S., slavery was a permanent condition. Manumission was much less common than in other countries, so there was a much smaller population of free black people. There was at the same time a much larger white population than in much of the Caribbean.
Here it is important to keep in mind that about 500,000 African slaves ended up in the U.S.—out of 12.5 million enslaved Africans who were brought to the Americas between 1525 and 1866. More than a third of all these slaves ended up in Brazil—about ten times the number who ended up in the U.S. In Brazil by the time of abolition in 1888, there was a significant non-slave black population. According to the 1872 census, at least three-quarters of all black and mixed-race Brazilians—some 4.25 million people—were free. They constituted 40 percent of the entire population in Brazil.
Thus, the neat equation of black skin and being a slave broke down in Brazil in a way that it did not in the American South. I would argue that unlike in the United States, black people in Brazil do not form a caste. In fact, the term “black Brazilian” means something different in Brazil than it would to an American, since the “one-drop rule” does not exist in Brazil. Racial mixing is much more common—and accepted—in Brazil. There is a saying in Brazil, “money whitens.” This means that wealth and status can to some degree offset racial discrimination. In the U.S. it is usually the opposite: the caste nature of black oppression means that even the most distinguished black person is still subject to racist abuse.
Black oppression is central to Brazilian society, and black and mixed-race people are specially oppressed—but it takes a different form than in the United States. The prevalence of racial mixture—sometimes referred to as “racial democracy”—is used to obscure black oppression in Brazil. Of course, a revolutionary party in Brazil would crucially need to take up the banner of black liberation.
In the U.S., the free black population was much smaller. According to the census of 1860, there were slightly less than 500,000 free black people in the United States—mostly in the Mid-Atlantic region or the Upper South—compared to almost four million slaves. In the U.S., people of mixed race were considered black, and the free black population was much more marginal. Southern states tried to force free blacks to leave, and many Northern states passed laws trying to prevent them from settling there. Some whites who opposed slavery supported the colonization movement, which held that free blacks could not live alongside whites and that former slaves would have to “colonize” places in Africa or Central America.
The largest number of free blacks in the country before the Civil War lived in the North, and as C. Vann Woodward observed, Jim Crow segregation “was born in the North and reached an advanced age before moving South in force” (The Strange Career of Jim Crow ). The Democratic Party in the North was dedicated to segregation. During the Civil War, a Democratic Party propagandist even invented a word, “miscegenation,” to describe the rampant race-mixing that was sure to follow if black people achieved equality.
This treatment of free black people was the “prototype” of caste subjugation: that a population, officially free and not slave, could be segregated, discriminated against, and at times violently attacked for no reason other than their skin color. The first use of the term “caste” that I am aware of was in the front page of the first issue of William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator in 1831, referring to free black people in Washington, D.C., as “continuing, even as free men an unenlightened and degraded caste.” In 1850, Frederick Douglass referred to “the malign feeling which passes under the name of prejudice against color” as a “mean spirit of caste.” He added: “Properly speaking, prejudice against color does not exist in this country.” Douglass then gave a pretty good description of race-color caste oppression of black people who were not slaves:
“We are then a persecuted people; not because we are colored, but simply because that color has for a series of years been coupled in the public mind with the degradation of slavery and servitude. In these conditions, we are thought to be in our place; and to aspire to anything above them, is to contradict the established views of the community—to get out of our sphere, and commit the provoking sin of impudence.”
—“Prejudice Against Color” (1850), in The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, Vol. 2, ed. Philip S. Foner (1950)
After the recent furor over Trump’s appointment of Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, I read one of its classic decisions, Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857). The immediate importance of the case was whether Dred Scott should be free because he had lived in Illinois, a free state. The historic importance of this decision is that it invalidated the Missouri Compromise (1820), destroying the balance between slave and free states and paving the way for the Civil War. Most of the decision deals with whether black people who were not slaves were citizens of the United States. As Chief Justice Taney put it:
“The question is simply this: can a negro whose ancestors were imported into this country and sold as slaves become a member of the political community formed and brought into existence by the Constitution of the United States, and as such become entitled to all the rights, and privileges, and immunities, guaranteed by that instrument to the citizen, one of which rights is the privilege of suing in a court of the United States in the cases specified in the Constitution?”
And Taney’s response was clear: Black people “had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” In other words, black people in the United States would forever be marked as inferior because their ancestors had been slaves. In a sense, the Dred Scott decision is an early defense of what would become race-color caste oppression.
The Civil War
This does not mean there was a straight line from the Supreme Court ruling in 1857 to black oppression today. One of the greatest periods of social struggle comes between the two: the Civil War and Reconstruction, which destroyed the entire slave system and opened the possibility of creating an interracial bourgeois democracy. Many academics, including several who are on the left side of the political spectrum, claim that there was no fundamental class difference between the slave South and the capitalist North.
Various leftists echo this. The crown of idiocy must go to Progressive Labor (PL). A 9 March 2018 Challenge article called Lincoln “a lifelong and committed racist,” a “white supremacist” and “ethnic cleanser.” Another PL article (16 June 2016) argues that “Juneteenth Hides Truth of Lincoln’s Racist Union ‘Victory’.” It seems pointless to polemicize against people who cannot tell the difference between Sherman’s march to the sea and Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa against the Soviet Union. To deny the progressive nature of the Civil War is to abandon historical materialism; it also takes capitalist society—and racist ideology—as everlasting. At bottom, it evinces a profound historical pessimism and liberal moralism.
But it is not just PL. Comrade Don Alexander brought to my attention a pamphlet that the Internationalist Group (IG) put out in 2009, “Marx on Slavery and the U.S. Civil War.” In it there is a polemic against my forum on the Mexican-American War of 1846-48 (reprinted in Black History and the Class Struggle No. 22, July 2012). The IG says that we “have lost sight of the capitalist character of slavery.” Referring to my article, they state:
“Here the slavocracy and the slave system are counterposed to the bourgeoisie and the capitalist system, as if they were two different ruling classes and two different modes of production, rather than two sections of the bourgeois ruling class whose interests clashed, and where defeat of the slave masters was necessary for industrial capitalism to flourish.”
If there was no class difference between the bourgeoisie in the North and the slavocracy in the South, but merely a squabble within the bourgeoisie as the IG states, then the Civil War was not necessary, and there is no reason to support one side of the bourgeoisie or the other. To be sure, the IG supports the North in the Civil War. In fact, in this same pamphlet there is a polemic against PL. But nowhere in the article does the IG disprove PL’s analysis—because they share the same point of view.
The IG pamphlet contains one of my favorite articles by Marx, the two-part “The Civil War in the United States,” published in October and November 1861. This is a polemic against the British bourgeoisie, who claimed that slavery was not the central issue in the Civil War. Marx shows how the Civil War was a social revolution and that the North would need to destroy slavery in order to win. In the second part, Marx asserted:
“The present struggle between the South and North is, therefore, nothing but a struggle between two social systems, the system of slavery and the system of free labour. The struggle has broken out because the two systems can no longer live peacefully side by side on the North American continent. It can only be ended by the victory of one system or the other.”
This contradicts the IG’s own view that there was no question of “two different ruling classes and two different modes of production” in the Civil War. Marx and Engels never wavered in their support to the North. Marx’s emphasis on the central role of slavery in the war was part of his effort to build support among British workers for a Northern victory, even though the shortage of cotton had devastated the British textile industry. The IG cynically reprints this article by Marx, which actually refutes their anti-Marxist position.
The IG’s argument dovetails with a growing trend among historians. On the one hand, this trend is useful because it highlights the connections between the slave system and early capitalism. But it also flattens out the development of slavery and capitalism. If slavery were just some variant of capitalism, there is no class difference between the North and South, and there is no reason to support the North in the Civil War. For that matter, then there is no difference between the Roman Empire and capitalism. And while they don’t write about it, it is safe to assume that most of these historians would think that China today is also a capitalist country.
They turn capitalism into a general abstraction—all of these systems have some form of market in which profit played a role—and remove the issue of class from capitalism. In that sense, they remove class struggle—which is the only way that history progresses. But if history is really just different gradations of capitalism, there really isn’t any chance of fundamental social change. By denying that the Civil War was a revolution fought out between counterposed social systems, and that slavery was the central issue, this perspective despairs of white workers ever being won to the fight for black rights.
The Civil War was a great bourgeois revolution because it smashed slavery and meant the victory of the capitalist order, based on “free labor” as it was called, over the system of slave labor. It was also part of a whole series of wars for national unity. But it also came very late in the epoch of bourgeois revolutions. The most progressive period of American capitalism was compressed into a few years, and almost immediately after the end of the Civil War, the U.S. started becoming an imperialist power. In the 1870s, the progressive aspects and the reactionary aspects of capitalism are almost simultaneous.
Reconstruction and Its Defeat
Seeking to defend black oppression, bourgeois historians and politicians buried Reconstruction under a pile of racist lies to “prove” racial equality was impossible. W.E.B. Du Bois demolished this as early as 1910 in an article published in the American Historical Review, but it was not until the civil rights movement that white historians began to tell the truth about Reconstruction. It was during Reconstruction that two visions of black people in capitalist America were posed: full and equal citizens, or an oppressed caste. Again, at bottom this was a conflict over labor.
In Charleston, South Carolina, on 21 March 1865, 4,000 black people celebrated the Union occupation of their city. Among the banners were “We Know No Masters But Ourselves,” and “We Know No Caste or Color.” Former slaves and their allies fought for the ability to control their own labor, without being dominated by white planters. Above all, this meant that the former slaves wanted land—the main productive resource in the South—land that they and their ancestors had worked without compensation for almost 200 years.
On the other hand, after the Confederacy’s surrender in early April, the remnants of the defeated Southern planter class wanted former slaves to continue to work in the cotton fields as a cheap, steady supply of labor. Forced to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, Southern politicians after the Civil War passed laws known as “Black Codes” that were designed to make sure black people were terrorized into being a reliable, docile, cheap labor force on the Southern plantations.
In 1865, ex-Confederate brigadier general Benjamin G. Humphreys was elected governor of Mississippi. In urging that Mississippi pass its Black Codes, he asserted: “The Negro is free, whether we like it or not. To be free, however, does not make him a citizen, or entitle him to political or social equality with the white race.” Crucially, these laws applied to all black people—including those few who had been free before the Civil War. The Black Codes were an attempt to decree that all black people in the South formed a subordinate caste, whose members might be free, but they still had no rights a white man had to respect.
But these laws met tremendous resistance among black people in the South. The Black Codes helped spur Northern Republicans to begin what became known as Radical Reconstruction, when Republicans in Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866 over President Andrew Johnson’s veto. In 1868, Congress removed Governor Humphreys and replaced him with Union general Adelbert Ames. For a period, the national government, and crucially the military, pushed an egalitarian vision. The Fourteenth Amendment was ratified in 1868; this stated that everybody born in the United States was a citizen, invalidating the Dred Scott decision. In 1870, Congress ratified the Fifteenth Amendment which protected the right to vote for all male citizens.
Reconstruction was the first attempt to create a society in which black and white people were equal citizens—which flew in the face of the entire history of the U.S. since the 1670s. While Reconstruction is usually viewed as an issue of black and white, the defeat of the slavocracy also accentuated the class differences among Southern whites. Democratic Party appeals to white supremacy were a way to block unity between poor whites and blacks.
In less than a decade, people who had formerly been legal property, with no rights that whites were bound to respect, assumed key roles in society: attending schools, voting, running for office and demanding their rights. But despite the best efforts of a few courageous white Radical Republicans like Charles Sumner and his House colleague Thaddeus Stevens, as well as black leaders like Frederick Douglass, Reconstruction failed.
This raises the question: Could Reconstruction have succeeded? There is a tendency among some historians to pose the defeat of Reconstruction as a military question. To be sure, during Reconstruction, black Southerners and their white Republican allies faced tremendous violence by the Democratic Party and its military wing, the Ku Klux Klan. There is no military reason why the Union Army, that had already defeated the Confederacy, could not have put paid to Southern racists.
But the Republicans—the main party of the Northern bourgeoisie—did not do so, not because they were unable to do so, but because they decided this would not have been in their class interests. In order for Reconstruction to have worked, it would have needed to destroy the slavocracy, emancipate the slave population, break the former masters’ grip on the land, and distribute the productive resources of the South, the land, to the now-free population. This would likely have broken the dependency of the South on plantation monoculture and could have paved the way for the development of a modern, industrial South.
This is exactly what did not happen. This was not for lack of awareness. Black people during Reconstruction consistently and insistently demanded land. Sometimes, the Republicans and the bourgeoisie have been accused of “betraying” Reconstruction by not redistributing land. Certainly, they betrayed the hopes of the black population, but they did not betray their own class interests. As capitalists, the Northern bourgeoisie looked to the South not as a site for social transformation but as a place to make money. And making money required getting cotton production up and running on a large scale, not diversified agriculture on small holdings. They didn’t distribute the land to the former slaves because they wanted it themselves, which meant getting black people back to work.
The second reason is ideological. The Reconstruction era is a period of growth for Northern industry and we see the birth of a combative labor movement, along with the attempts of the U.S. capitalist class to smash the workers. The capitalist class, in the main, feared anything that could be seen as a threat to private property. The New York Times spelled this out when it warned in June 1867 that “confiscation as proposed by Stevens and [Wendell] Phillips, or a division of land as suggested by Senator Wade, is a war upon property, which, once begun, would not be confined to the South.” The Paris Commune of 1871, which saw the working class seize power for the first time, frightened the bourgeoisie even more.
As we wrote in “Black and Red—Class Struggle Road to Negro Freedom” (1966, reprinted in Marxist Bulletin No. 9):
“Capitalist and slave alike stood to gain from the suppression of the planter aristocracy but beyond that had no further common interests. In fact, it was the Negroes themselves who, within the protective framework provided by the Reconstruction Acts and the military dictatorship of the occupying Union army, carried through the social revolution and destruction of the older planter class.”
The bourgeoisie was not going to do what was necessary to finish the historic tasks of the Civil War. The black population lacked the strength to do so (which is not to say that the freedmen and their allies did not fight bravely for their rights, as was clear in their fights for public education and against school segregation). And the working class was too immature—focused on its own struggles and tied to the Democratic Party in the North—to take up these tasks in the 1870s.
The First International, founded by Karl Marx, did have followers in the U.S., but they were not strong enough to win over black militants and workers to a common working-class party. Instead of forming a mass workers party, white workers remained loyal to the Democratic Party and black people remained loyal to the Republicans. The defeat of Reconstruction set the stage for the consolidation of the black population in the South into a race-color caste.
This brings up another slogan that we use: Finish the Civil War! This means that the tasks first posed by Reconstruction—the integration of black people into American society on the basis of full social, political and economic equality—remain outstanding 150 years later. And they can only be accomplished through workers revolution.
Black Oppression and the Rise of U.S. Imperialism
Everybody is familiar with Marx’s famous saying, in Capital, Vol. 1 (1867), that “labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded.” This was more than a moral appeal against slavery. It was a statement of fact: Marx recognized that so long as half the country was dominated by slavery, workers would never be able to fight for even basic trade-union rights. The Civil War paved the way for the growth of American capitalism and the labor movement.
This was shown most clearly by the 1877 railroad strike, the first nationwide strike. The number of production workers in the U.S. rose from 1.3 million before the Civil War to over 5 million at the end of the 1800s. The consolidation of the black population as an oppressed race-color caste took place at the same time the working class was growing; black oppression was imprinted upon the labor movement. This period saw the development of the Populist movement of farmers against their oppression by the banks, railroads, etc. This is covered in comrade Brian Manning’s forum in March 2017 (“Race, Class and American Populism,” reprinted in Black History and the Class Struggle No. 26, August 2018), so I won’t go into detail.
The Populist movement was not a working-class movement, but it did raise the specter of joint black-white struggle in the South. In order to undercut Populism, the bourgeoisie co-opted a section of the white leadership of the Populists into the Democratic Party, and passed a series of laws throughout the South that disenfranchised black voters and consolidated Jim Crow segregation. This is what Mike Goldfield called “the system of 1896” in The Color of Politics (1997).
Black oppression also left its indelible imprint on U.S. imperialism, which developed at the same time. U.S. foreign policy has always been racist, reflecting America’s genocide against American Indians and the domination of U.S. politics by the slavocracy. Nevertheless, there was a big change between the Mexican-American War of 1846-48 and the Spanish-American War of 1898. When the U.S. invaded Mexico, it took over only the section of Mexico that was the most sparsely populated in order to avoid having to incorporate non-white, non-English-speaking non-Protestants. In 1869, there was a plan to annex Santo Domingo, which failed in part because of racist opposition.
But in 1898, after the Plessy decision, the U.S. seized Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam. By this time, racism no longer served as an obstacle to expansion, but as a justification for imperialism. The U.S. occupation of Cuba, which was a former slave society, reinforced the oppression of black Cubans. A few years later, the U.S. imperialists imposed strict segregation between black West Indian workers and white Americans in the Panama Canal Zone.
From 1870 to about 1900, only about 3 percent of Southern-born black people lived in the North. Then in the first half of the 20th century came the Great Migration, when millions of black people moved from the rural South to the urban North. This merits an entire class in itself, but I want to highlight two developments. First, the black question ceased to be a Southern question and became a nationwide question. Since black oppression in the North was not mainly a question of law, the conditions that black people faced in the North—residential segregation, police violence, poverty—underlined that black oppression was built into the base of American capitalism, not just its legal superstructure.
Second, black people became integrated into the industrial working class, albeit in the worst jobs and as the last hired and first fired. Religious and ethnic divisions between white workers of different backgrounds over time became subordinated to black-white divisions as the means to keep the working class down. This underscores the importance of the entire working class taking up the fight against black oppression, while also highlighting the role that black workers will play in the destruction of capitalism itself.
Race-Color Caste Analysis Complements Fraser
I want to conclude on the question of Richard Fraser and caste. Many comrades have observed that Fraser in his 1953 two-part lecture describes perfectly the mechanisms of race-color caste oppression. At the same time, Fraser opposed the term “caste” to describe the black question in the U.S. In his 1984 letter to us, Fraser notes that most of his ideas were based on black intellectuals, such as W.E.B. Du Bois, E. Franklin Frazier and Oliver Cromwell Cox. Later in the letter, he acknowledges an “original thought”: that racial oppression “will be overthrown with the overthrow of the capitalist class, and only by that.” The greatness of Fraser’s contribution to Marxism is just that: not only that he synthesized the disparate strands of black intellectual thought (which is a monumental task in itself) but he did so in the service of a revolutionary program to lead the working class to victory.
Rather than contradicting Fraser’s broader analysis of black oppression, the concept of color-caste oppression complements it. One of Fraser’s most insistent points is (as he put in his letter) “that the racial structure and race relations in the U.S. are historically unique. That no society has ever been founded upon a division based exclusively upon superficial characteristics.” To be honest, I long stumbled over this argument. The historical uniqueness of the American black question is obvious, but in my travels throughout the world, particularly Latin America, I have seen countries with a history of black chattel slavery in which black oppression today plays an important role in maintaining capitalism. As I hope I explained here, the historical evolution of race-color caste explains the fundamental difference between, say, black oppression in Cuba and Brazil, on the one hand, and in the United States on the other.
Fraser emphasized how the entire weight of American capitalism rests upon black oppression. This means that the bourgeoisie uses its arsenal of state repression to maintain black oppression. But it also means that the entire edifice of U.S. imperialism is built on an unstable foundation, since the struggle against black oppression shakes capitalist America to its core. This is even more true today, as the decaying bourgeoisie spits on its own heritage, defending the Confederacy and attacking the Fourteenth Amendment. This makes even more crucial our task of building a revolutionary workers party, 70 percent black, Latino and other minority, that can “clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat.”