Workers Vanguard No. 979

29 April 2011


Commemorating the War That Smashed Slavery

Finish the Civil War!

Black Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!

Part One

The following is a presentation given by Spartacist League speaker Diana Coleman, veteran of the Southern civil rights movement, at a forum in Oakland on March 5.

In 1965 I went down to Gulfport, Mississippi, with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) for the second Freedom Summer. It startles me to realize that that was nearly 50 years ago—46 to be exact, but who’s counting. There had been a debate in SNCC about whether to do voter registration or direct action sit-ins for integration. Well, by the summer of ’65, SNCC people were sick of registering people to vote, that is, to vote Democrat in a state that was run by the racist Southern Democrats, the Dixiecrats. Stokely Carmichael, in one of his better utterances, said that it was as ludicrous for Negroes to join the Democratic Party as it would have been for Jews to join the Nazi Party. That seemed right to me.

So we preferred sit-ins and demos. When our integrated group wasn’t served at a lunch counter, we organized demos, first a small one of our project members and then bigger and bigger ones of black youth, mostly teenagers, to demonstrate in front of the store. There are some poor-quality photos of this at the literature table. Well, with the Gulfport black longshore union threatening a port shutdown, those lunch counters finally did get integrated.

Even as a New Leftist, I was impressed with the power of labor. But in the interim, we were surrounded by an ugly crowd of raving white racists waving Confederate flags. I wasn’t surprised that they called us every racist name in the book. And I wasn’t surprised at the vile misogyny directed toward me and the two other young white women. But I was surprised to be called a “carpetbagger.” I didn’t even know exactly what one was. I thought it might have something to do with the Civil War. And I figured it was probably a good thing, not a bad thing, considering the racist scum who were mouthing off.

Indeed, it was a compliment, although not intended as such. This is what the Southern planters called the Northern Radical Republicans who stayed in the South after the Civil War and who, along with black Union soldiers, made up the backbone of the Freedmen’s Bureau. The term also included New England women abolitionists who came to the South to teach blacks to read. That accusation embodies as well the racist assumption that black people are happy with their lot and only get “stirred up” when white “outside agitators” come along.

This was my introduction to the fact that the contemporary black question, including the very concept of race, has its roots in the system of chattel slavery. People try to tell you that that was a long time ago. Not really. When I was in Mississippi that summer, I ran into old people whose grandparents had been born as slaves, and they told them all about it. As William Faulkner famously wrote about the South, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The Civil War and its aftermath continue to shape this country to this day. The black population of America is no longer enslaved, but neither are they free. The Civil War was the Second American Revolution which ended chattel slavery, but it will take a third American revolution, a workers revolution, to end wage slavery, racial oppression, imperialist war and endemic poverty for blacks and all of the multiracial American working class.

As I look around at this country, Wall Street and the banks are doing great, while working people, particularly but not exclusively blacks and Latinos, lose their jobs, their houses, their health care, their pensions. There are the endless, orchestrated attacks on the unions. The homeless wander the streets. Police brutality is a fact of life in the ghettos and barrios. The U.S. is still in Iraq, still in Afghanistan, still running the Guantánamo prison camp. The U.S., with less than 5 percent of the world’s population, has one-fourth of the world’s prison population, most of them black and brown. And we see Obama, the first black president, presiding over the smashing of the United Auto Workers union, an institution that actually made a concrete difference in the lives of black working people. If this is “change we can believe in,” I sure don’t see it. It looks like the “same-old, same-old” to me. We say: No support to either bourgeois party, Democrat or Republican!

The Fight for Black Liberation Today

For the title of this forum, we wanted to make it clear how we wanted to “Finish the Civil War”—that is, by black liberation through socialist revolution. Indeed, there is another side out there that thinks that it’s just halftime in the Civil War and that the South will rise again. In December there was a Secession Ball in Charleston, South Carolina. In February, there was a re-enactment of the inauguration of Jefferson Davis. Last year, the governor of Virginia declared April Confederate History Month. A Virginia textbook is trying to peddle the lie that lots of black men took up arms fighting for their slave-owners.

Beyond this outright racist garbage, it is a sign of the reactionary times we live in that the Civil War is controversial with those who consider themselves leftists. In L.A. we talked to a young woman looking to join a socialist group who told me that she couldn’t really support the North in the Civil War because they were simply fighting for capitalism. And that blacks were better off as slaves than later as free sharecroppers, since they had higher caloric intake as slaves. Probably not true, but even if it was, so what!

A young man around the left group Spark argued that the Confederate flag was an “ambiguous symbol” expressing not only racism but also opposition to Northern aggression. Or how about Progressive Labor (PL) which, hailing “resistance” to the revolutionary war waged by the Union Army that smashed black chattel slavery in the South, lauds riots in New York City in 1863 that turned into an anti-black pogrom, killing at least a dozen black people and burning down black housing and an orphanage for black children. This kind of leaves you shaking your head and saying “right on” to Sherman’s March to the Sea.

We have described the black population in the U.S. as an oppressed race-color caste. We noted in our seminal document “Black and Red” [printed in Marxist Bulletin No. 9, “Basic Documents of the Spartacist League”] that “from their arrival in this country, the Negro people have been an integral part of American class society while at the same time forcibly segregated at the bottom of this society.” Thus blacks face discrimination, in different degrees, regardless of social status, wealth or class position. The grotesque arrest of noted Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. showed that in living color.

But blacks are today still an integral and strategic part of the working class, despite unemployment and mass incarceration. As Leon Trotsky, leader along with Lenin of the Russian Revolution, stated, “We must say to the conscious elements of the Negroes that they are convoked by the historic development to become a vanguard of the working class.” Won to a revolutionary program, black workers will be the living link fusing the anger of the dispossessed ghetto masses with the social power of the multiracial proletariat under the leadership of a Leninist-Trotskyist vanguard party.

From the formation of the Spartacist tendency in the early 1960s, we have stood for the perspective and program of revolutionary integrationism. This position is counterposed to both the liberal reformist response to black oppression and to all political expressions of black separatism. The liberation of black people from conditions of racial oppression and impoverishment—conditions inherent to the U.S. capitalist system—can be achieved only in an egalitarian socialist society. And such a society can be achieved only through the overthrow of the capitalist system by the working class and its allies. This talk is an exposition of those points.

Karl Marx and the Civil War

You cannot understand the black question in the U.S. without understanding that “peculiar institution,” slavery, and the bloody Civil War which ended it. And I want to deal prominently here with the role of Karl Marx in understanding these questions. There’s endless garbage out there from black nationalists and academics about how “Marxism is Eurocentric,” “Marx was a racist,” “Marx didn’t know nothing about the U.S.,” etc., etc. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In their Civil War writings, one is struck by Marx and Friedrich Engels’ astonishing knowledge of American history. They saw the Civil War as one of the century’s major battles for emancipation, a social overturn and a harbinger of socialist revolutions to come.

I read this book called Marx at the Margins by Kevin B. Anderson, a follower of Raya Dunayevskaya, and found his chapter on Marx and the Civil War quite useful. He makes the point that although Marx’s writings on the Civil War and slavery are quite available in the U.S., they are often disregarded and considered as “falling outside Marx’s core concerns, or even his core concepts.” Of course, in Volume 1 of Capital, which presumably does deal with Marx’s “core concepts,” Marx writes: “In the United States of North America, every independent movement of the workers was paralyzed so long as slavery disfigured a part of the Republic. Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded.” You will find these last words on the membership cards of our Labor Black Leagues.

Comrade Jacob gave a great class called “Slavery and the Origins of American Capitalism,” which was reprinted in WV [Nos. 942, 943 and 944; 11 September, 25 September and 9 October 2009]. I cannot recapitulate it all here, but what it demonstrated so well is that slavery, although it was certainly an outmoded social system, was key to the early development of American and British capitalism. In the 1800s, the textile mills of Britain ran on cotton from the Southern slavocracy, shipped on boats owned by Northern capitalists and leaving from Northern ports. British and American capitalists were tied to slavery by a million threads, even if they themselves didn’t own slaves. Anderson’s book had an interesting early quote from Marx in 1846, speaking about slavery in the American South and Brazil:

“Direct slavery is as much the pivot upon which our present-day industrialism turns as are machinery, credits, etc. Without slavery there would be no cotton, without cotton there would be no modern industry. It is slavery which has given value to the colonies, it is the colonies which have created world trade, and world trade is the necessary condition for large-scale machine industry…. Slavery is therefore an economic category of paramount importance.”

And in slavery we see the beginning of the material basis for the creation of a race-color caste. As Frederick Douglass said: “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.” The unscientific category of “race” and the racist myth of black inferiority were necessary props to slavery in the U.S. As Dick Fraser, a veteran Trotskyist who made a unique contribution to the Marxist understanding of the American black question, wrote, “Particularly when the world was bursting with revolutions proclaiming the equality of all men. This slave system became so repulsive in fact that only weird and perverse social relations could contain it. To despise the black skin as the mark of the slave was the principal and focal point of these social relations,” [“The Negro Struggle and the Proletarian Revolution” (November 1953), reprinted in Prometheus Research Series No. 3, “In Memoriam, Richard S. Fraser: An Appreciation and Selection of His Work” (August 1990)]. “Weird and perverse” is about right, now as then.

There’s this image that Marx spent all his time sitting around in the library of the British Museum writing Capital. Well, it’s good that he did, but he and the First International also fought slavery as an inseparable part of the struggle for working-class emancipation. A number of German workers came to the United States following the defeat of the 1848 bourgeois-democratic revolution. These “Red ’48ers” were animated by revolutionary ideals and became involved in the anti-slavery struggle. Joseph Weydemeyer, a close collaborator of Marx’s, became a Union officer at a critical juncture when the North needed leaders with military experience.

Marx and Engels also played a key role in winning English workers in the cotton industry to the cause of Northern victory. The British bourgeoisie wanted to intervene on the side of the Confederacy but was stymied by working-class opposition. These workers in England endured great privations and suffering, but they were won to an internationalist conception that they had an interest in fighting to get rid of black chattel slavery. If you are interested in more info on this topic, I recommend a talk by Don Alexander called “Karl Marx and the War Against Slavery,” which was given in 1990 [printed in WV No. 502, 18 May 1990].

James McPherson starts off his book Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution by stating:

“Four years after the guns fell silent at Appomattox, Harvard historian George Ticknor reflected on the meaning of the Civil War. That national trauma had riven ‘a great gulf between what happened before in our century and what has happened since, or what is likely to happen hereafter. It does not seem to me as if I were living in the country in which I was born’.”

Indeed, the Civil War was a social overturn that freed the slaves and opened the road to the development of the United States as a modern industrial power. Before the Civil War, the U.S. was very federated and didn’t have a national currency; there was no federal income tax or IRS (I leave it to you whether this was an advance!); many areas weren’t accurately mapped. Before the Civil War, the United States was a plural noun, as in “The United States are beautiful.” After the Civil War, the United States became a singular noun, as in “The United States is beautiful.” Or ugly, depending on whether you’re referring to the scenery or today’s political situation.

Writing in 1861, Marx said, “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” [“The Civil War in the United States”]. Criticizing Lincoln’s early wavering on emancipation, Marx declared, “Events themselves drive to the promulgation of the decisive slogan—emancipation of the slaves.”

The Civil War: A Social Revolution

Marx was quite clear that slavery was an expansionist system that had to be stopped. Very much like Frederick Douglass, with whom there was a real convergence, Marx returned again and again to the notion that the Union needed to wage the war by revolutionary means, whether by the use of black troops or by encouraging a slave uprising. After John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, Marx wrote to Engels: “In my view, the most momentous thing happening in the world today is, on the one hand, the movement among the slaves in America, started by the death of Brown, and the movement among the slaves in Russia, on the other.... I have just seen in the Tribune that there was a new slave uprising in Missouri, naturally suppressed. But the signal has now been given.” After Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and gave the go-ahead to the recruitment of black troops, nearly 200,000 joined up to fight for their own freedom. They spread fear in the hearts of the Confederacy as Marx had predicted, and helped turn the tide to win the war.

Let me make a point here that the American Revolution was more of a political revolution than a social revolution. It didn’t overthrow an entrenched aristocratic order—it was more the question of which capitalists, British or American, would be profiting. The war of independence did not really need a radical, plebeian, terrorist phase. It didn’t give rise to a living radical tradition or heroes with whom we can identify. Who would it be—Jefferson, the slave-owner?

It is in the Civil War era that there are parallels with the plebeian component of the French Revolution. The radical abolitionists—Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman and John Brown—are the only figures in American history before the emergence of the workers movement with whom we can identify. The life of Harriet Tubman illustrates in a particularly acute fashion the tremendous obstacles black women faced regarding even the elementary decencies of life. Despite her courageous work for black freedom, she lived in poverty all her life and was compelled to wage a decades-long fight for the pension her Civil War service entitled her to. Today black working women face triple oppression as blacks, women and workers.

John Brown is denounced in public schools as a dangerous extremist and a maniac. Of course, we don’t share John Brown’s religious outlook. But he was a committed fighter for black rights who wanted to inspire black rebellion and was willing to die trying. If that makes you crazy, then perhaps we need more crazy people. When John Brown said: “I, John Brown, am quite certain that the crimes of this land will never be purged away but with blood,” he was so right. It took blood and iron and a war that cost 600,000 men, almost as many as have died in all other U.S. wars combined, to end slavery.

I want to say something about Lincoln and historical materialism. Many opponents of revolutionary Marxism, from black nationalists to reformist leftists, have made a virtual cottage industry out of the slander that “Honest Abe” was a racist or even a white-supremacist. Here’s a quote from the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP): “It is a lie that ‘Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves’ because he was morally outraged over slavery. Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves (and not all the slaves at first, but only those in the states that had joined the southern Confederacy) because he saw that it would be impossible to win the Civil War against that southern Confederacy without freeing these slaves and allowing them to fight in the Union army” [Revolutionary Worker, 14 August 1989]. The RCP’s conclusion: “Lincoln spoke and acted for the bourgeoisie—the factory-owners, railroad-owners, and other capitalists centered in the North—and he conducted the war in their interests.”

Actually Lincoln was morally outraged by slavery, but the real point is that the RCP rejects Marxist materialism in favor of liberal moralizing. They deny that against the reactionary class of slaveholders and the antiquated slave system, the Northern capitalists represented a revolutionary class whose victory was in the interests of historical progress. Presenting the goals of the North and South as equally rapacious, the RCP neither sides with the North nor characterizes its victory as the consummation of a social revolution. Do they, Spark or PL even bother to think they might want to deal with Karl Marx’s positions on this question? Not really; their Marxist pretensions are pretty thin.

As Marxists, we must be able to grasp that the bourgeoisie was once progressive, but now, in the epoch of imperialist decay, is no longer. Things change, that’s dialectical. Of course, this is all a little rich coming from the RCP, whose calling card is back-handed support to the Democrats, through their “Drive Out the Bush Regime” campaigns. Or PL, which brags that its members worked in the Obama campaign.

Lincoln and Emancipation

One of the more important and controversial of Marx’s writings on the Civil War is his letter to Abraham Lincoln on the occasion of his re-election in 1864. This was somewhat controversial in the First International at the time. And it still is controversial. Let me give myself as a bad example of this. One of the pictures on the forum flyer shows Ritchie Bradley cutting down the Confederate flag that hung in San Francisco Civic Center. That this symbol of slavery and the KKK was hanging in San Francisco in the 1980s really was outrageous. It had been there for years, sometimes taken down if there was a big demo but put back up. When Ritchie and I ran for SF Board of Supervisors in 1982, we had made an issue of it and said that, if elected, our first act would be to see it taken down. The issue had come up in unions like the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. But by 1984, with some pushing especially by our National Chairman, Jim Robertson, the Bay Area SL decided that the flag had to go.

This was a real project: the pole was a huge metal thing and the flag was hooked way at the top; you couldn’t just stand at the bottom and pull it down. Ritchie had to practice pole-climbing with a special rope device. He and another guy dressed in workers coveralls (over a Union Army outfit) went to the pole first with a ladder. The guy got Ritchie started and then pulled away the ladder. Meanwhile, we had someone at the nearby pay phone who called the SF Chronicle’s press reps in City Hall and said, “Wow, there’s this guy climbing the flagpole in a Union Army outfit, looking like he’s gonna tear down the Confederate flag. You should come out and take a picture.” So there were great photos in the bourgeois press.

The same day Ritchie first took down the Confederate flag, an all-white jury for a second time acquitted the Klan/Nazi killers of the five civil rights and labor organizers who were murdered in 1979 in Greensboro, North Carolina. Actually, Ritchie tore down two Confederate flags because “Dixie Dianne” Feinstein, then SF mayor, now Senator from California, kept putting them back up. She also had destroyed a replica of the historic Northern Fort Sumter flag that the SL kindly donated to the city and which Ritchie kindly installed. In fact, the Confederate flag only finally stayed down after anonymous militants came in the night and cut down the whole damn pole with an acetylene torch.

In the meantime, Ritchie went on trial for vandalism. But Ritchie and his lawyer, Valerie West, put Feinstein and the city administration on trial, as communists are supposed to do in this situation. Valerie tried to get the videotape of the Greensboro massacre, which prominently shows the KKK/Nazi murderers with Confederate flags, entered as evidence, but the judge thought that was “too good” and would unduly influence the jury. But there was all kinds of testimony about slavery, the KKK and the Civil War, which the jury just loved. One juror later said the trial changed his life. Most of the jury was for acquittal; it was a hung jury and the city didn’t try him again because they knew they’d never get a conviction.

So to get to my point here, I was supposed to testify as a witness and go into the SL’s politics. I was supposed to read Marx’s letter to Lincoln, but on the stand I just balked and wouldn’t read all of it. Valerie kept saying, “Isn’t there something else you want to read?” and I kept saying, “No.” What’s a lawyer to do? Anyhow, here’s what Marx wrote:

“Sir, We congratulate the American People upon your Re-election by a large Majority.

“If resistance to the Slave Power was the reserved Watchword of your first election, the triumphant Warcry of your Re-election is, Death to Slavery.”

Here’s the part I really didn’t like and refused to read:

“From the commencement of the Titanic American Strife, the Working men of Europe felt instinctively that the Star spangled Banner carried the Destiny of their class….”

It goes on:

“The Working Men of Europe feel sure that as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the Middle Class, so the American Anti-Slavery War will do for the Working Classes. They consider it an earnest of the epoch to come, that it fell to the lot of Abraham Lincoln, the single-minded Son of the Working Class, to lead his Country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained Race and the Reconstruction of a Social World.”

By declaring that the European workers saw “the star-spangled banner” as carrying the destiny of their class, was Marx forsaking the red flag of communism? That was my view, but it really reflected my own New Leftism and lack of historical perspective. Is “the star-spangled banner” waving over Sherman’s March to the Sea, followed by ten solid miles of black people who rightly saw the Northern force as a liberating army, just the same as “the star-spangled banner” on U.S. warplanes dropping napalm on Vietnam? Is Lincoln sending an occupying army into the South the same as Obama, Commander-in-Chief of U.S. imperialism, sending an occupying army into Afghanistan? No!

The Civil War was the last of the great bourgeois-democratic revolutions, and Lincoln was bourgeois and revolutionary at the same time—with all the contradictions that this implies. As materialists, Marxists do not judge historical figures primarily based on the ideas in their heads but on how well they fulfilled the tasks of their epoch. While Lincoln had bourgeois conceptions—no surprise there!—he was uniquely qualified to carry out the task before him, and in the last analysis he rose to the occasion as no other. That is the essence of his historical greatness. We can complain that Lincoln wasn’t Lenin. That’s true—but there wasn’t much of an organized working class in the U.S. until after the Civil War, either. Marx understood that with the demise of the slave power, the unbridled growth of capitalism would lay the foundation for the development of the American proletariat—capitalism’s future gravedigger.

The Defeat of Radical Reconstruction

Now on Radical Reconstruction. As we said in “Black and Red”: “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 old planter class.”

Radical Reconstruction was the most democratic and egalitarian time in American history. Public education was set up in the South. Very brave abolitionist women from New England risked death teaching blacks. These schools were flooded by blacks of all ages. It had been a crime to teach a slave to read, but even for poor whites there had not been a public school system. Blacks voted at rates as high as 90 percent and many, mostly ex-slaves, were elected to state and national office. The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments were passed, abolishing slavery, declaring that anyone born in the U.S. was a citizen and that the right to vote could not be denied on “account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Of course, women, black or white, still couldn’t vote. And indeed, Mississippi did not officially ratify the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery until 1995. Luckily, they lost the war, so slavery was abolished, official consent or not, but it’s certainly a statement.

These amendments were progressive measures won, as is always the case, by struggle. Initially, I had no idea how progressive the 14th Amendment was. I assumed that in all countries, if you were born there, you were a citizen. But in many countries you aren’t a citizen if you aren’t of the “native stock.” Today, this progressive measure is under attack from the anti-immigrant bigots. For example, Republican U.S. Congressman Gary Miller, ranting against immigrant women and “anchor babies”: “By granting children of illegal immigrants citizenship, the child can eventually anchor an entire family into the United States…. Consequently, the child—and potentially their family—will have access to a wide array of taxpayer-funded benefits.”

Tell me please, what is this “wide array of taxpayer-funded benefits”? We all know the undocumented workers get the worst work at the lowest pay, are afraid to collect benefits and face a higher risk of deportation under Obama than they did under Bush. These immigrants often bring experience of class struggle, experience which the U.S. working class could really use, and they provide a living link to the proletariat of other countries. The labor movement must see the struggle against anti-immigrant and anti-black racism as central to its own cause. No deportations! Full citizenship rights for all immigrants! An injury to one is an injury to all!

Now as I said, “Capitalist and slave alike stood to gain from the suppression of the planter aristocracy, but beyond that had no further common interests.” For Reconstruction to have succeeded would have required breaking up the large landed estates and for blacks to have gotten the “40 acres and a mule.” But the promise of black freedom was betrayed when the Northern capitalists formed an alliance with the remnants of the slavocracy in order to exploit Southern resources and the freedmen. Especially after the Paris Commune of 1871, which the American bourgeoisie watched with great horror, they saw expropriation and redistribution of private property in the land as a threat. Black freedmen and poor white sharecroppers hardly had the social weight to effect this change. In the Compromise of 1877, Union troops were pulled out of the South—and sent to repress the Great Rail Strike of 1877. That tells you a whole lot right there!

Over the next 20 years emerged the postwar Southern system of sharecropping, poll taxes, chain gangs, the convict lease system and lynch law. This was codified in a series of laws institutionalizing the rigid Jim Crow segregation and police-state terror that dominated the South right up until the civil rights movement. It took a while, because blacks fought to defend the rights they had won. But there was a political counterrevolution, and the armed agents of it were the Ku Klux Klan. Hundreds, maybe thousands of blacks were lynched during this period. This was the so-called Redeemer period glorified by racist academics and racist movies like Birth of a Nation.

While blacks were not returned to slavery, the legacy of the defeat of Reconstruction is that blacks in the U.S. were consolidated anew as a specially oppressed race-color caste segregated at the bottom of this society. Segregation was the main prop of the new racist order. This was generalized throughout the country, where the harsh economic realities of black oppression were always in evidence despite the fact the segregation might be de facto, rather than the Jim Crow, back-of-the-bus kind. The segregation of blacks as an oppressed race-color caste is essential to the maintenance of American capitalism and has served U.S. imperialism very well.