Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 24, 2019

Behind the attack on New York Times Project 1619

Filed under: racism,slavery — louisproyect @ 10:16 pm

Last August, the NY Times Sunday Magazine was entirely devoted to Project 1619, an attempt to root the racism of today in the institution of slavery that dates back to 1619, when more than 20 slaves were sold to the British colonists in Virginia. This hypothesis in itself might have not touched off the controversy surrounding the project. Instead, it was another claim that the American Revolution of 1776 was a reactionary rebellion to preserve slavery that probably set the gears in motion that led to an open letter from five prestigious historians to the NY Times that concluded:

We ask that The Times, according to its own high standards of accuracy and truth, issue prominent corrections of all the errors and distortions presented in The 1619 Project. We also ask for the removal of these mistakes from any materials destined for use in schools, as well as in all further publications, including books bearing the name of The New York Times. We ask finally that The Times reveal fully the process through which the historical materials were and continue to be assembled, checked and authenticated.

The letter was written by Sean Wilentz and signed by him and four others: Victoria Bynum, James M. McPherson, James Oakes, and Gordon S. Wood. All are white with an average age of 71.

It is highly likely that the Socialist Equality Party (SEP) that publishes the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS) helped organize this campaign since all of the historians, except Wilentz, have granted interviews to it about their objections to Project 1619. It is even more likely that SEP member Tom Mackaman led this effort since he is a professor at King’s College in Pennsylvania and might have used his academic status to persuade them to take a stand. McPherson probably didn’t need much persuasion since his contacts with WSWS go back to 1999. It is not clear how much contact WSWS had with Sean Wilentz since his liberal Democratic Party politics might have made him much less amenable to any joint project with a bunch of sectarian lunatics.

At any rate, others have connected the dotted lines, including the Wall Street Journal that summed up the conflict a week ago:

So wrong in so many ways” is how Gordon Wood, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of the American Revolution, characterized the New York Times’s “1619 Project.” James McPherson, dean of Civil War historians and another Pulitzer winner, said the Times presented an “unbalanced, one-sided account” that “left most of the history out.” Even more surprising than the criticism from these generally liberal historians was where the interviews appeared: on the World Socialist Web Site, run by the Trotskyist Socialist Equality Party.

The “1619 Project” was launched in August with a 100-page spread in the Times’s Sunday magazine. It intends to “reframe the country’s history” by crossing out 1776 as America’s founding date and substituting 1619, the year 20 or so African slaves were brought to Jamestown, Va. The project has been celebrated up and down the liberal establishment, praised by Sen. Kamala Harris and Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

A September essay for the World Socialist Web Site called the project a “racialist falsification” of history. That didn’t get much attention, but in November the interviews with the historians went viral. “I wish my books would have this kind of reaction,” Mr. Wood says in an email. “It still strikes me as amazing why the NY Times would put its authority behind a project that has such weak scholarly support.” He adds that fellow historians have privately expressed their agreement. Mr. McPherson coolly describes the project’s “implicit position that there have never been any good white people, thereby ignoring white radicals and even liberals who have supported racial equality.”

The project’s creator, Nikole Hannah-Jones, is proud that it “decenters whiteness” and disdains its critics as “old, white male historians.” She tweeted of Mr. McPherson: “Who considers him preeminent? I don’t.” Her own qualifications are an undergraduate degree in history and African-American studies and a master’s in journalism. She says the project goes beyond Mr. McPherson’s expertise, the Civil War. “For the most part,” she writes in its lead essay, “black Americans fought back alone” against racism. No wonder she’d rather not talk about the Civil War.

To the Trotskyists, Ms. Hannah-Jones writes: “You all have truly revealed yourselves for the anti-black folks you really are.” She calls them “white men claiming to be socialists.” Perhaps they’re guilty of being white men, but they’re definitely socialists. Their faction, called the Workers League until 1995, was “one of the most strident and rigid Marxist groups in America” during the Cold War, says Harvey Klehr, a leading historian of American communism.

“Ours is not a patriotic, flag-waving kind of perspective,” says Thomas Mackaman, the World Socialist Web Site’s interviewer and a history professor at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. He simply recognizes that the arrival of 20 slaves in 1619 wasn’t a “world-altering event.” Slavery had existed across the world for millennia, and there were already slaves elsewhere in what would become the U.S. before 1619.

So, Mackaman says that the arrival of 20 slaves in 1619 was no big deal since “Slavery had existed across the world for millennia, and there were already slaves elsewhere in what would become the U.S. before 1619.” Odd that Mackaman, the big-time Marxist scholar, can’t distinguish between pre-capitalist and capitalist slavery. Yes, there were slaves in 1619 but being one in the Ottoman Empire was not the same thing as picking cotton. The Janissaries, who were slaves, were also the Sultan’s elite troops, paid regular salaries, and eventually became part of the ruling class.

If the WSWS was defending Marxism by going on the attack against Project 1619, that didn’t seem to bother the Washington Examiner’s Michael Barone who was pleased to hear James McPherson deny that racism was a permanent condition. This is the same Barone who wrote “How Genetic Science Is Undercutting the Case for Racial Quotas” for the Washington Examiner on April 4, 2018. Somehow, the belief in genetic inferiority does not seem consistent with racism not being a permanent condition but I’ll let the dialectical geniuses at WSWS sort that out.

In addition to the Trump-supporting Washington Examiner, Wilentz and company got thumbs up from the City-Journal, the voice of the neoconservative Manhattan Institute, the National Review, and New Criterion, a high-falutin’ journal that once awarded a prize to Charles Murray, best-known for his Bell-Curve theory that finds Blacks genetically inferior.

Most of the fury from the WSWS and its academic allies is directed at an introductory article written by Nikole Hannah-Jones, an African-American staff writer for the NYT Sunday Magazine and the recipient of a Polk Award for her reports on NPR Radio. This paragraph must have made Sean Wilentz’s hair catch fire:

Conveniently left out of our founding mythology is the fact that one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery. By 1776, Britain had grown deeply conflicted over its role in the barbaric institution that had reshaped the Western Hemisphere. In London, there were growing calls to abolish the slave trade. This would have upended the economy of the colonies, in both the North and the South. The wealth and prominence that allowed Jefferson, at just 33, and the other founding fathers to believe they could successfully break off from one of the mightiest empires in the world came from the dizzying profits generated by chattel slavery. In other words, we may never have revolted against Britain if the founders had not understood that slavery empowered them to do so; nor if they had not believed that independence was required in order to ensure that slavery would continue. It is not incidental that 10 of this nation’s first 12 presidents were enslavers, and some might argue that this nation was founded not as a democracy but as a slavocracy.

From all the sparks this debate has generated, it is important to recognize that it did not start with her article. To some extent, it reflects both a generational and racial divide with both younger and Black scholars less willing to believe in the purity of our Founding Fathers. The overwhelming majority of the Project 1619 authors were African-American. All the white ones were young.

You can see the generational conflict at work in the June 6th NY Review of Books take-down of Sean Wilentz’s latest book titled “No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation’s Founding” (unfortunately behind a paywall; contact me for a copy). Written by Nicholas Guyatt, it reflects the skepticism of younger scholars about the democratic pretensions of Jefferson, et al. It also puts Wilentz’s reverence for the US Constitution into a political context:

So why is Wilentz so interested in a form of antislavery originalism? The answer, I think, lies in politics rather than history. No Property in Man began as a series of lectures at Harvard in 2015. That year, Wilentz got into a spat with Bernie Sanders after the presidential candidate told an audience in Virginia that the United States “in many ways was created…on racist principles.” Wilentz, in a New York Times Op-Ed, dismissed “the myth that the United States was founded on racial slavery” and accused Sanders of “poison[ing] the current presidential campaign.” To describe the Founding as racist was, Wilentz wrote, to perpetuate “one of the most destructive falsehoods in all of American history.”

Wilentz has long been a liberal activist. For more than a quarter-century, he faithfully supported Bill and Hillary Clinton. During the Lewinsky scandal in 1998, he warned Congress that “history will track you down and condemn you for your cravenness” if Bill Clinton was impeached. In a 2008 editorial in The New Republic, he accused Barack Obama and his campaign team of keeping “the race and race-baiter cards near the top of their campaign deck” during their battle with Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. He has been a particularly sharp critic of those who’ve rallied behind candidates to the left of the Clintons. In a recent article lamenting the Sanders phenomenon, Wilentz accused the left of being irresponsible in its economic promises, solipsistic in its embrace of identity politics, and disrespectful toward the achievements of the liberal tradition. Trashing the Founders is, for Wilentz, another sign of progressive immaturity.

Nicholas Guyatt is a 46-year old (that’s young to me!) British professor at the University of Cambridge who has a better grasp of American politics than you might expect. His latest book is titled “Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation”, which addresses the question why the Founding Fathers failed to include blacks and Indians in their cherished proposition that “all men are created equal”? The usual answer is racism, but the reality, according to the Amazon.com blurb, is more complex and unsettling. Namely, “Unable to convince others-and themselves-that racial mixing was viable, white reformers began instead to claim that people of color could only thrive in separate republics: in Native states in the American West or in the West African colony of Liberia.” Some of you might recall that, as Hannah-Jones pointed out, Lincoln’s solution to the North-South conflict was sending slaves to Liberia.

This obviously is not the kind of analysis that sits well with Marxists and leftists who view 1776 as a paradigmatic bourgeois-democratic revolution. As Neil Davidson has pointed out, it is best to think of these revolutions only as bourgeois rather than bourgeois-democratic since in most instances the result was all about class domination rather than Enlightenment values.

Hannah-Jones’s article was not the only one that pissed off the WSWS and their historian allies. There’s also one by Matthew Desmond simply titled “Capitalism” that is based on the groundbreaking scholarship of Sven Beckert, Edward Baptist and Walter Johnson. They make the case that chattel slavery was a form of capitalist exploitation even though there’s very little in Marx’s Capital to buttress that analysis. It was only with the publication of Eric Williams’s “Capitalism and Slavery” that scholars began to reconsider these questions. While he has not lined up with WSWS on whether the Constitution sanctioned slavery, John Clegg informed Jacobin readers that Desmond was all wet in claiming that slavery “helped turn a poor fledgling nation into a financial colossus.” I will be working on a lengthy reply to Clegg but it is important to note that two of the historians who signed the open letter agree with him.

One of them was John Oakes, who in referring to this new scholarship,  takes the accusatory tone so characteristic of WSWS: “What you really have with this literature is a marriage of neo-liberalism and liberal guilt. When you marry those two things, neo-liberal politics and liberal guilt, this is what you get. You get the New York Times, you get the literature on slavery and capitalism.” I’m almost surprised that he didn’t use the term “pseudo-socialist” that is ubiquitous to this sectarian website. For Oakes, Desmond’s fatal flaw is moralism:

Desmond, following the lead of the scholars he’s citing, basically relies on the same analogy. They’re saying, “look at the ways capitalism is just like slavery, and that’s because capitalism came from slavery.” But there’s no actual critique of capitalism in any of it. They’re saying, “Oh my God! Slavery looks just like capitalism. They had highly developed management techniques just like we do!” Slaveholders were greedy, just like capitalists. Slavery was violent, just like our society is. So there’s a critique of violence and a critique of greed. But greed and violence are everywhere in human history, not just in capitalist societies. So there’s no actual critique of capitalism as such, at least as I read it.

This could not be further from the sort of detailed economic analysis Desmond puts forward in his article, such as this:

As slave labor camps spread throughout the South, production surged. By 1831, the country was delivering nearly half the world’s raw cotton crop, with 350 million pounds picked that year. Just four years later, it harvested 500 million pounds. Southern white elites grew rich, as did their counterparts in the North, who erected textile mills to form, in the words of the Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner, an “unhallowed alliance between the lords of the lash and the lords of the loom.” The large-scale cultivation of cotton hastened the invention of the factory, an institution that propelled the Industrial Revolution and changed the course of history. In 1810, there were 87,000 cotton spindles in America. Fifty years later, there were five million. Slavery, wrote one of its defenders in De Bow’s Review, a widely read agricultural magazine, was the “nursing mother of the prosperity of the North.” Cotton planters, millers and consumers were fashioning a new economy, one that was global in scope and required the movement of capital, labor and products across long distances. In other words, they were fashioning a capitalist economy. “The beating heart of this new system,” Beckert writes, “was slavery.”

The WSWS interviewer confessed to James McPherson, the other critic of the new scholarship on slavery and capitalism, that he finds it “problematic”. Certainly, McPherson must be as bothered as he was by their drawing “an equal sign between what they perceive to be a fully developed capitalist South, and the North.” That is a crude reduction of what Beckert, et al, have written, but just what you might expect from WSWS. McPherson’s response is rather feeble:

Yes, that’s right. That part of it—that the South is as capitalist as the North, or Great Britain—is unpersuasive to me. Certainly, they were part of a capitalist world order. There’s no question about that. Cotton and sugar were central. But the idea that the ideology of the planter class in the South was a capitalist ideology, there I’ve always been a little bit more on the side of Eugene Genovese, who sees the southern ideology as seigneurial.

I have no idea whether McPherson read Desmond’s article carefully but there is nothing about “ideology”, nor is there much to speak of about it in the scholarship of Beckert, et al. Instead, their books focus on commodity production for the marketplace that is central to Marxist theory, even if it is not premised on free wage labor.

Finally, there is the question of why people like Bynum, McPherson, Oakes and Wood would ever sit down with the likes of the SEP/WSWS. You can only conclude that they, like most academics, have a narrow focus on their own work and could not be more indifferent to the hundreds of articles on the WSWS website that have defended Assad from charges of war crimes and other such crypto-Stalinist rubbish. They also probably liked the attention they were getting from this sect that does have a talent for buttering up academics, at least those who are such babes in the wood.

One of the most reactionary elements of the SEP’s program is its characterization of the trade union movement in the USA as an obstacle to progress as if Scott Walker’s crushing of the public service unions in Wisconsin was no big deal. To get an idea of how demented these people are, they published an article this year calling attention to how the Christchurch, New Zealand white supremacist and mass murderer Brenton Tarrant praised trade unions in his 50-page manifesto as if this would warn off someone working in an Amazon warehouse from starting a union.

Unlike other groups on the left, the SEP does not participate in the living mass movement. Except for its website and the election campaigns they run from time to time, you will never run into them at planning meetings for a protest against fracking or police brutality. Its primary goal is to gin up traffic to its website as if reaching some target number of visits will hasten in the socialist revolution.

The main complaint that it has about Project 1619 is a familiar one, namely that it is based on identity politics rather than class. Although he did not sign the open letter, Adolph Reed was happy to sit down with these idiots, another sign of his political myopia. When WSWS asked him to comment on supposedly a dominant tendency in academia is to attribute all social problems to race, or to other forms of identity, he replied:

As Walter Benn Michaels said, and as I have said time and time again, if anti-disparitarianism is your ideology, then for you a society qualifies as being just if 1 percent of the population controls 90 percent of the wealth, so long as that within that 1 percent 12 percent or so are black, etc., reflecting their share of the national population. This is the ideal of social justice for neoliberalism. There’s no question of actual redistribution.

Like all the other people so ready to dismiss the contributors to this project as “neoliberal” or worse, Reed appears to have either only skimmed through the articles or not having read them at all. If he had read Trymaine Lee’s “The Wealth Gap”, he would have seen something complete different from blacks trying to use affirmative action to get a seat at the ruling class table. Showing little reverence toward the New Deal that has become fashionable during the growing popularity of Bernie Sanders, Lee writes:

The G.I. Bill is often hailed as one of Roosevelt’s most enduring legacies. It helped usher millions of working-class veterans through college and into new homes and the middle class. But it discriminatorily benefited white people. While the bill didn’t explicitly exclude black veterans, the way it was administered often did. The bill gave veterans access to mortgages with no down payments, but the Veterans Administration adopted the same racially restrictive policies as the Federal Housing Administration, which guaranteed bank loans only to developers who wouldn’t sell to black people. “The major way in which people have an opportunity to accumulate wealth is contingent on the wealth positions of their parents and their grandparents,” Darity says. “To the extent that blacks have the capacity to accumulate wealth, we have not had the ability to transfer the same kinds of resources across generations.”

Writing for The New Republic, where he has a monthly column, Reed assured his readers that “The New Deal Wasn’t Intrinsically Racist”. That’s some consolation to the children of those men and women who got screwed “accidentally”. Like most of the garbage Reed writes nowadays, it is an attempt to debunk the idea that American society is racist to the core. At the heart of all these historians’ special pleading for the Great American model is a refusal to come to terms with the reality, namely that it was a racist and imperialist genocidal monster that grows more rapacious with each passing year. It is not surprising that the Washington Examiner, The National Review, The City Journal and the New Criterion find the WSWS campaign amenable to their reactionary interests. Whenever I run across this special pleading for an idealized republic in which racial and other “identity” based demands are an obstacle to future progress, I am always reminded of what Leon Trotsky, the greatest Marxist thinker of the 20th century, told his comrades in 1933, when he was an exile living in Turkey:

But today the white workers in relation to the Negroes are the oppressors, scoundrels, who persecute the black and the yellow, hold them in contempt and lynch them. When the Negro workers today unite with their own petty bourgeois that is because they are not yet sufficiently developed to defend their elementary rights. To the workers in the Southern states the liberal demand for ‘social, political and economic equality’ would undoubtedly mean progress, but the demand for ‘self-determination’ a greater progress. However, with the slogan ‘social, political and economic equality’ they can much easier be misled (‘according to the law you have this equality’.

This is the attitude that revolutionaries should adopt when it comes to Project 1619. It is also the attitude that my friend Noah Ignatiev defended as a “race traitor”. For those who reject the “racial identity” politics of the NY Times-backed project simply because a bourgeois newspaper is behind it, I invite you to contact me for copies of the key articles. They are the real deal as opposed to the junk the WSWS is peddling.


  1. The Trotsky quotation near the end of the article is from the 1933 discussion in Turkey, not from those 6 years later in Mexico. The “national self-determination” context in 1933 was re: the CPUSA advocacy of a black belt nation in the South. I think the 1939 discussions with Johnson/James are better informed and more illuminating in relation to the main discussion in your article.

    Comment by Frank Brodhead — December 24, 2019 @ 11:53 pm

  2. This is not a serious treatment of the issues involved. At the center of the WSWS criticisms, and the historians’ letter to the Times, and Wood’s reply to Silverstein, as well as the interviews with Reed & Janiewski, is the claim of falsification of the history of the American Revolution. These include claims that the Revolution took place in order to preserve the institution of chattel slavery against British interference, and that racial hatred are in the DNA of the country, and therefore permanent.

    Eric Foner was also critical of the latter aspect of 1619 Project in a recent podcast.

    Comment by Anna — December 25, 2019 @ 5:53 pm

  3. I have to tell you that when Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote, “Anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country, as does the belief, so well articulated by Lincoln, that black people are the obstacle to national unity”, she was speaking metaphorically. A country does not have DNA; a human body does. Her statement was equivalent to something like this: “Anti-black racism has existed since its inception just as anti-Arab racism has existed in Israel since its inception.” It will take a revolution, of course, to end racism in both the USA and Israel. If one happens here, it will not be led by the bat-shit SEP that has not led a single struggle against racism in its entire history.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 25, 2019 @ 6:52 pm

  4. I previously sent this to the MarxMail server but I think it bears repetition here:

    In the Grundrisse, which was only published in 1939 in Moscow and in English in 1973 by Vintage, has a direct mention of American slavery as a form of capitalism, which in these contexts would be instructive to WSWS et. al.’s idiocy (of course they seem incapable of actually reading Marx and instead depend on the sermons of David North):

    “The fact that we now not only call the plantation owners in America capitalists, but that they are capitalists, is based on their existence as anomalies within a world market based on free labour.” [Emphasis in original] (pg. 513, Martin Nicolaus translation)

    Also it seems merited to indicate that, even if they do not say so in the Times, the thesis of the 1776 rebellion being intended to preserve slavery is that of Gerald Horne’s book:

    Comment by stew312856 — December 25, 2019 @ 8:21 pm

  5. Also informative is “The American blindspot”: Reconstruction according to Eric Foner and W.E.B. Du Bois by Noel Ignatiev, available online for free in a variety of venues.

    Comment by stew312856 — December 25, 2019 @ 8:26 pm

  6. It’s quite clear from my comment that I understand Hannah Jones’ meaning.

    Why not deal with the issue of historical falsification?

    Comment by Anna — December 26, 2019 @ 3:46 am

  7. These include claims that the Revolution took place in order to preserve the institution of chattel slavery against British interference,

    That is a question of interpretation. You might want to read what I wrote about Lord Dunmore to get a handle on this:


    Comment by louisproyect — December 26, 2019 @ 4:21 am

  8. There are two issues to disentangle here that merit consideration.

    The first is the question of historical interpretation, which is not that controversial if one reads something as commonplace as the Declaration of Independence, which was not articulating modern scientific racism in the formulation we all know today, but did in fact include a rather potently racist demonization of the Indigenous and Africans:

    He [King George] has excited domestic insurrections amongst us [what we would call slave revolts today], and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions [caused primarily by British treaties forbidding westward expansion of the colonial project].

    The second is the impact of contemporary Black political philosophy upon the discussion, which is veiled but present. The 1619 discourse does include what seems to be a very clear hint of Afro-pessimism, a recent philosophical trend that was created by Dr. Frank Wilderson. It has several variations and moderations, as with any philosophical development, but one strand favored by institutionalized liberal discourse is the notion that white supremacy is so ontologically inscribed into the minds of American whites that solidarity never is ever possible at all. The late Bruce Dixon and RL Stephens have both written thorough critiques of the philosophy worth considering. Wilderson himself in (from what I deduce) an American who had a series of experiences in South Africa during the anti-apartheid struggle that informed this project.

    Comment by stew312856 — December 26, 2019 @ 4:45 am

  9. I’ll stick with Douglass and Du Bois- actual revolutionaries – not professors coasting on Ivy League big business endowments, and sponsorship from Shell Oil. The former have much more nuanced views on the American Revolution, and were far closer to the fires of violent bigotry. Of course, we should know why Du Bois has been erased from history by capitalist mouthpieces like the NYT. The SEP has nothing to do with the discussion, we get it, you don’t like them.

    Comment by Ben — December 26, 2019 @ 7:49 am

  10. The SEP has nothing to do with the discussion? Are you fucking kidding me? They are the primary reason this has become “viral” in the same sense as syphilis or smallpox.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 26, 2019 @ 1:25 pm

  11. The New York Times’s 1619 Project: A racialist falsification of American and world history
    By Niles Niemuth, Tom Mackaman and David North
    6 September 2019

    The essays featured in the magazine are organized around the central premise that all of American history is rooted in race hatred—specifically, the uncontrollable hatred of “black people” by “white people.” Hannah-Jones writes in the series’ introduction: “Anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country.”

    This is a false and dangerous conception. DNA is a chemical molecule that contains the genetic code of living organisms and determines their physical characteristics and development. The transfer of this critical biological term to the study of a country—even if meant only in a metaphorical sense—leads to bad history and reactionary politics. Countries do not have DNA, they have historically formed economic structures, antagonistic classes and complex political relationships. These do not exist apart from a certain level of technological development, nor independently of a more or less developed network of global economic interconnections.

    The methodology that underlies the 1619 Project is idealist (i.e., it derives social being from thought, rather than the other way around) and, in the most fundamental sense of the word, irrationalist. All of history is to be explained from the existence of a supra-historical emotional impulse. Slavery is viewed and analyzed not as a specific economically rooted form of the exploitation of labor, but, rather, as the manifestation of white racism. But where does this racism come from? It is embedded, claims Hannah-Jones, in the historical DNA of American “white people.” Thus, it must persist independently of any change in political or economic conditions.

    Hannah-Jones’s reference to DNA is part of a growing tendency to derive racial antagonisms from innate biological processes. Democratic Party politician Stacey Abrams, in an essay published recently in Foreign Affairs, claims that whites and African Americans are separated by an “intrinsic difference.”

    This irrational and scientifically absurd claim serves to legitimize the reactionary view—entirely compatible with the political perspective of fascism—that blacks and whites are hostile and incompatible species.

    In yet another article, published in the current edition of Foreign Affairs, the neurologist Robert Sapolsky argues that the antagonism between human groups is rooted in biology. Extrapolating from bloody territorial conflicts between chimpanzees, with whom humans “share more than 98 percent of their DNA,” Sapolsky asserts that understanding “the dynamics of human group identity, including the resurgence of nationalism—that potentially most destructive form of in-group bias—requires grasping the biological and cognitive underpinnings that shape them.”

    Sapolsky’s simplistic dissolution of history into biology recalls not only the reactionary invocation of “Social Darwinism” to legitimize imperialist conquest by the late nineteen and early twentieth century imperialists, but also the efforts of German geneticists to provide a pseudo-scientific justification for Nazi anti-Semitism and racism.

    Dangerous and reactionary ideas are wafting about in bourgeois academic and political circles. No doubt, the authors of the Project 1619 essays would deny that they are predicting race war, let alone justifying fascism. But ideas have a logic; and authors bear responsibility for the political conclusions and consequences of their false and misguided arguments.

    American slavery is a monumental subject with vast and enduring historical and political significance. The events of 1619 are part of that history. But what occurred at Port Comfort is one episode in the global history of slavery, which extends back into the ancient world, and of the origins and development of the world capitalist system. There is a vast body of literature dealing with the widespread practice of slavery outside the Americas. As Professor G. Ogo Nwokeji of the Department of African American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, has explained, slavery was practiced by African societies. It existed in West Africa “well before the fifteenth century, when the Europeans arrived there via the Atlantic Ocean.”[1]

    Comment by David Green — December 26, 2019 @ 9:22 pm

  12. ‘The essays featured in the magazine are organized around the central premise that all of American history is rooted in race hatred—specifically, the uncontrollable hatred of “black people” by “white people.”’

    Of course, all of US history isn’t rooted in white hatred of African Americans. It has also been rooted in white hatred of Native Americans, Asians and peoples from Central and South America. But, I’m sure the authors know this, and made this exaggerated statement quite deliberately in an effort to diminish the horrors of slavery and post-Civil War Jim Crow.

    This perpetually downplaying of the brutalities inflicted upon African Americans by whites in this country is grossly offensive. For an insight into the harsh social control of African Americans through uncontrolled, indiscriminate violence well into the first half of the 20th Century, I highly recommend “The Warmth of Other Suns” by Isabel Wilkerson. Wilkerson rightly calls this system in the South “authoritarian”, and describes it in disturbing detail through the day to day experiences of the people she interviewed. She also describes the heroism and resilience of those who resisted it by participating in the Great Migration.

    Comment by Richard Estes — December 27, 2019 @ 3:03 am

  13. In terms of basic Marxian economics, the political economy of this wretched state was founded explicitly on the expropriation of the Indigenous and the African American in a genocide that was combined and commingled, something demonstrated by the perpetrators (just read any of the primary sources of the colonial era) and the survivors (Google “maroon colonies” for more info). Though imperfect, I would say that The Free State of Jones is an important interjection to consider herein, particularly as a rebuttal to Afro-pessimist logics that deny any potential of inter-ethnic worker solidarity that overcomes racial slavery.

    Comment by stew312856 — December 27, 2019 @ 3:22 am

  14. “The reason everyone was so appalled by Nazism after 1945 is obvious. While most everyone in the pan-European world had been openly and happily racist and anti-Semitic before 1945, hardly anyone had intended it to lead where it did. Hitler’s Final Solution missed the entire point of racism within the capitalist world-economy. The object of racism is not to exclude people, much less exterminate them, but to keep them within the system … to be exploited economically and used as political scapegoats. What happened with Nazism was … a blunder, a skid, a loss of control. Or perhaps it was the genie getting out of the bottle.”
    “Before 1945, there were two brands of sociologist: those, especially in the United States, who explicitly justified the concept of white superiority, and those who sought to describe the underprivileged of the large urban centres and explain the ‘deviance’ of their denizens. The descriptions were well-intentioned if patronising, but the assumption that this behaviour was deviant and had to be rectified to meet middle-class norms was unquestioned. And since in most cases, and not only in the United States, the lower classes were also ethnically distinguishable from the middle classes, the racist underpinnings of this study are clear.”

    From: The Albatross of Racism, by Immanuel Wallerstein (https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v22/n10/immanuel-wallerstein/the-albatross-of-racism)

    Comment by Reza — December 27, 2019 @ 4:26 am

  15. “In terms of basic Marxian economics, the political economy of this wretched state was founded explicitly on the expropriation of the Indigenous and the African American in a genocide that was combined and commingled, something demonstrated by the perpetrators”

    One of the curious features of Jim Crow is that it became so extreme in its violence and ongoing expropriation of the wealth of African Americans that white southerners drove much of their workforce to the North and West. Wilkerson personalizes this quite well. Of course, this was a capitalist process, with African Americans having to confront racism and expropriation in different forms, but it is striking that white southerners were resistant to even mild reforms that would have discouraged African Americans from departing. They placed a high value on preserving racial dominance, even at the expense of capitalist development and profit.

    Comment by Richard Estes — December 27, 2019 @ 4:58 am

  16. To sum how I understand Wallerstein:

    It is a PREREQUISITE for any colonialist and/or imperialist project to have racism as an *axiomatic* principle. It cannot work otherwise. Plain and simple.

    So, all these professors (and apparently now the WSWS-type nut jobs) do their best to avoid answering very simple questions, when it comes to the very real and *present* social facts in the U.S.

    For example: Does any race other than African Americans in the U.S. end up being shot by police after a basic traffic stop? If no comparable number of white persons (on a frequent basis, and compared to their share of the population) qualify for such murder-treatment by the ‘law enforcement’ … well … where does that come from?

    Comment by Reza — December 27, 2019 @ 7:28 am

  17. Looking forward to your response to Clegg. His analysis seemed logical to me. Is US capitalism deformed by racism (allowing for a possible future in which white supremacy is overtaken by solidarity and a slightly less exploitative capitalism with less inequality, more democracy and more better services and public sector) or whether it is fundamentally intertwined with it and irredeemable and therefore in need of complete socialist etch a sketch shaking.

    Comment by Jon M Greenbaum — December 27, 2019 @ 11:00 pm

  18. Cedric Robinson argues in his Anthropology of Marxism that racism was inscribed into the capitalist project from the start. His timeline begins with the Crusades and the macro-level creation of a racialized continental project, Europe, which was separated from and made superior to the rest of Eurasia. Robin DG Kelley explains it:

    So what did Robinson mean by “racial capitalism”? Building on the work of another forgotten black radical intellectual, sociologist Oliver Cox, Robinson challenged the Marxist idea that capitalism was a revolutionary negation of feudalism. Instead capitalism emerged within the feudal order and flowered in the cultural soil of a Western civilization already thoroughly infused with racialism. Capitalism and racism, in other words, did not break from the old order but rather evolved from it to produce a modern world system of “racial capitalism” dependent on slavery, violence, imperialism, and genocide. Capitalism was “racial” not because of some conspiracy to divide workers or justify slavery and dispossession, but because racialism had already permeated Western feudal society. The first European proletarians were racial subjects (Irish, Jews, Roma or Gypsies, Slavs, etc.) and they were victims of dispossession (enclosure), colonialism, and slavery within Europe. Indeed, Robinson suggested that racialization within Europe was very much a colonial process involving invasion, settlement, expropriation, and racial hierarchy. Insisting that modern European nationalism was completely bound up with racialist myths, he reminds us that the ideology of Herrenvolk (governance by an ethnic majority) that drove German colonization of central Europe and “Slavic” territories “explained the inevitability and the naturalness of the domination of some Europeans by other Europeans.” To acknowledge this is not to diminish anti-black racism or African slavery, but rather to recognize that capitalism was not the great modernizer giving birth to the European proletariat as a universal subject, and the “tendency of European civilization through capitalism was thus not to homogenize but to differentiate—to exaggerate regional, subcultural, and dialectical differences into ‘racial’ ones.”

    Comment by stew312856 — December 27, 2019 @ 11:26 pm

  19. Anna: While the 1619 Project may contain errors in historical fact and theory, and I certainly think it does, the point of the dispute fostered by the “right-liberal” historians and WSWS is a political one. WSWS reductively sees the Project as a mere tool of NYT-style liberal identity divide and conquer politics. But the content of the Project differs from the content of NYT’s editorial politics. As far as this goes, we are to oppose the appropriation of this history by liberal apologists.

    Since the WSWS deed is done, however, we first critically sweep it out of the way. That will make it clear where we stand. Proyect and others have already done so, but just to cite one example, Gordon Wood claims that absence of chatter around slavery by the planters is evidence that they were not motivated by concerns that British abolitionism would soon come to a plantation near them. But there is plenty of historical evidence that it was already established custom South and North not to speak too much of the institution of slavery, a “custom” that persisted throughout the early history of the United States until the slaveowners resorted to the State to maintain that suppression from the 1830’s on. So lack of evidence does not guarantee lack of concern on the part of the slaveowners. And there is no doubt plenty of evidence of practical measures taken to preserve slavery, carried out with tight lips.

    The above-mentioned infamous passage by Jefferson from the Declaration of Independence is prima facie evidence of this. Note the studied vagueness of “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us”. Did he mean the Regulator movement in the Carolinas of the 1760’s-70’s?, some of whose participants later fought as Loyalists against their own Charleston planter oligarch “revolutionaries”? Or does it refer to the legacy slave rebellions in New York province between 1712-1741, or the Stono Rebellion of 1739 in South Carolina?

    In contrast, Jefferson is much more forthright with naming names in the very next clause: “and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions”. This reflects the actual priorities of the Anglo-Americans, and that can be easily backed by the historical facts of the course of the Revolutionary War. Washington’s army always sought to avoid head on battles with the British Army that he knew he’d likely lose, and most of the time hung out in the back country to wait them out. Not so with the Indians. There an all-out genocidal war of “merciless savagery” was systematically launched all along the Appalachian frontier from the Cherokee to the Iroquois Confederacy lands, laying waste to towns and crops and ultimately destroying the Iroquois Confederacy entirely.

    So I’d say the main priority of the colonial Anglo-Americans in the War was to attack the Indians and take their land. That was their strategic offensive move. Maintaining the security of their slave property was a second, and very defensive, concern. Indeed, I’d say that “America began”, not in 1619, but when the first English settler at Jamestown or Plymouth murdered the first Indians and stole their wives and children into Anglo Indian slavery while they also stole their land, and it is likely the North American Indian slave trade was more important in the early to mid-17th century than that from Africa or the Caribbean, until the indigenous population was so depleted by slaving raids and the epidemics so conveniently transmitted by this trade in distressed human beings that the settlers had no alternative but to turn to more expensive Black slaves. That is a thesis I seek to prove. See “Indian Slavery in Colonial America, Alan Gallay ed. (2009) or “Brethren by Nature: New England Indians, Colonists, *and the Origins of American Slavery*” (**my emphasis).

    So how revolutionary was the American bourgeois revolution? All bourgeois revolutions necessarily contain within them their own counterrevolutionary moment, after all, the bourgeoisie are a class of exploiters who must stop the revolutionary Ferris wheel when their own cart reaches the top. It is only a question of the balance between revolution and counterrevolution, where different bourgeois revolutions can be observed to have different mixes. The American Revolution was a bourgeois revolution: Even at its supreme Thermadorian moment, the 1787 Constitutional movement, it enacted the abolition of State grants of titles of nobility, not to “abolish feudalism” but to prevent what they then called “Old Corruption”, the Royal influence peddling in titles. Hence it appears in the now much talked about Emoluments clause – too bad it’s failed. I must read “Counter-Revolution of 1776”, though the thesis is doubtful. Court cases and books don’t change history, movements change history, and Wilberforce’s Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade did not appear until 1787, after the revolutionary war. Likewise, but counterfactually, actual abolition began to first take hold in the states north of Maryland, between the 1780’s until about 1810, with New York lagging until the 1830’s, while slavery was formerly abolished in the Northwest Territory in the 1780’s, well before the British Empire in 1833. Perhaps these early abolitions were motivated by the same craven fear of slave revolt rather than noble progressive impulse? Revolutionary events usually send out progressive, if not revolutionary, ripples. And Britain itself doesn’t count, as there was no appreciable slavery institutionalized there in the first place and the court decisions were more of a Dred Scott situation with the opposite result.

    Perhaps the American Revolution was a “shallow” bourgeois revolution with relatively “weak” revolutionary and counterrevolutionary moments, a Category 1 or 2 hurricane rather than a 5. I can certainly agree that measures taken to preserve slavery during the Revolutionary War were its strongest counterrevolutionary moment, as political economy should inform us concerning the preservation of any retrograde mode of production. And political economy might also tell us that the American Revolution was conservative in a much broader sense: the Americans wanted to preserve the existing merchant capitalist dominated system at the precise time when metropolitan Britain had begun to move onto the Industrial Revolution (Watt steam engine, developed 1763 to 1775). But what of the genocidal war against the Indians? Revolutionary or counterrevolutionary? Wasn’t it more revolutionary to fight the British head on with the likelihood you and your revolution would lose, rather than slaughter Indians you were sure to defeat? Or perhaps this genocide formed the great chasm or void at the heart of this “shallow” event. I haven’t made my mind up as can be seen, but the genocidal heart of the American Revolution is another, perhaps the largest, bucket of blood, guts and dirt to dump upon the “exceptional” head of the “grand experiment”, as the liberals call the United States.

    Comment by Bradley Mayer — December 28, 2019 @ 2:38 am

  20. I would only add to the rhetorical question that “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us” likely refers to the 1775 proclamation by Lord Dunmore, British governor of Virginia, encouraging slaves to desert their masters. But the point remains the same, Jefferson discretely avoids the cause of “insurrections”. See https://www.counterpunch.org/2011/05/23/was-the-american-revolution-fought-to-save-slavery/ though I would reject Counterpunch’s headline:

    0) The American rebellion began in the New England, not Virginia, not in plantation country but in merchant country;
    1) The Virginians behind George Washington fought the revolutionary war to conquer a continent and exterminate its indigenous population. This on the face of it is not “revolutionary” or “progressive” either then or now;
    2) The British Empire countered with Dunmore’s proclamation. Perhaps he hoped to panic the Virginians into remaining loyal;
    3) The Virginia planters countered with heightened militancy against slave revolts and flight. In this they also now had many of the small slaveholding settler-farmers, who normally hated the planter oligarchy, as allies.

    Otherwise, Sharma’s “Rough Crossings: The Slaves, the British, and the American Revolution” is a thin reed upon which to base the thesis behind the Counterpunch headline, and beware that their headlines sometimes misrepresent the content of their articles.

    This I believe is the correct causal chain of events. This differs profoundly from the causes of the Civil War where the continent had already be conquered and the fight was in part over how to divide the spoils between slave and non-slave states. Fidelity to the truth – the *whole* truth!

    Comment by Bradley Mayer — December 28, 2019 @ 5:14 pm

  21. Not true, the major slave trading corporations were actually based in New England, in particular the Brown family of Ivy League university fame. They were the major hub of supplies, ships, and slave-produced commodity processing in the American colonies. The northern colonies as hubs of manufacturing cannot be underestimated for their important contribution to the Triangle Trade. Hell, the first slave trading voyage in the colonies was launched from Boston as an outcome of the Pequot war!

    Comment by stew312856 — December 28, 2019 @ 6:47 pm

  22. So you’re on the side of the tribalists then? I can’t say I am surprised. Your dismissal of the historians involved is itself racist, let alone ad hominem. What is your trajectory? Wall Street, Columbia University, Upper East Side. By your own logic, your position cannot be taken seriously.

    Comment by Janet Avery — December 30, 2019 @ 1:12 pm

  23. I love these personalized attacks about living on the Upper East Side, etc. They confirm the low intelligence and cowardly motivations of “Janet Avery” who uses an email that can’t be located through Google and a proxy half the time. Incapable of responding to data or logic, he throws spitballs. Why do I say “he”? Because for all we know, “Janet” is some slug named Danny living in his parents’ basement wasting time trolling this blog.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 30, 2019 @ 1:16 pm

  24. It seems that the purpose of this article is to discourage association with the WSWS. I recall that this Blog-site responded in a similarly vituperative manner after Chris Hedges agreed to participate in a joint interview with David North. In any event, the really significant aspect of the 1619 controversy, as Proyect recognizes, is that it has been triggered by the World Socialist Web Site. This is something of a shocker. But it is not entirely surprising. If one manages to rise above one’s factional hatreds, one must recognize that the WSWS — despite well-documented efforts to block access to the site — is developing a substantial, loyal and rapidly growing readership. I check its readership figures (to the extent that they can be verified through on-line resources) and they show a really significant rise during the past year. Its global ranking is above that of the online site of Jacobin Magazine (though still slightly below in national rankings). It is way above the readership of Truth-dig and Counterpunch (in both global and national rankings). Whether or not the SEP will be able to translate this readership strength into “political mobilization” strength remains to be seen. The jury is out on that one, though its readership was extraordinarily high during the recent auto workers strike, That might be a coincidence, though it is apparent that the SEP managed to establish contact with a substantial group of Mexican auto workers. Speculation aside, the WSWS is certainly being widely followed and has acquired sufficient strength to influence political discussion. The Times, I am sure, is taking this seriously. At this point, the term “sectarian,” not to mention other derogatory terms, does little to explain its influence. It is probably true that the SEP is not part of the broad left community, but that may well be one of the main reasons for its growing influence. To sum up, this article is basically a factional screed.

    Comment by Allen — December 30, 2019 @ 4:27 pm

  25. I have no intention of discouraging association with the WSWS/SEP. They are doing a good enough job on their own. I suspect that if Tom Mackaman was not a member, they never would have had access to Gordon Wood and company. As for their Alexa rating, it should be obvious that conspiracy-mongering does wonders for your numbers. Anything about “false flags” in Syria, Victoria Nuland calls to Poroshenko, etc., is pure click-bait. It is the reason that Max Blumenthal gets invited to speak on Tucker Carlson’s show. I only wonder why Joseph North hasn’t made an appearance yet.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 30, 2019 @ 6:26 pm

  26. You love these personalized attacks about living on the Upper East Side? For my part, I do not love your person attacks on the historians involved as “All are white with an average age of 71.”

    Also, I resent your misuse of pronouns to describe me. Going forward, I am We/Us.

    Comment by Janet Avery — December 31, 2019 @ 2:28 pm

  27. Look, Danny/Janet, 99 percent of trolls are male. If the shoe fits, wear it.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 31, 2019 @ 2:45 pm

  28. Calling the Socialist Equality Party a bunch of “sectarian lunatics” is a disgusting insult to true Marxism. Your bourgeois class prejudice is showing. I am a long-time supporter of the SEP and the WSWS since it went on line in 1998. Being called “sectarian” is a badge of honor as far as I’m concerned, from the likes of you.

    Comment by Carolyn Zaremba — January 3, 2020 @ 8:10 pm

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