Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 10, 2020

Project 1619 and its detractors

Filed under: Counterpunch,slavery — louisproyect @ 2:14 pm

Sean Wilentz, pal of Bill and Hillary Clinton, in a united front with World Socialist Web Site

COUNTERPUNCH, JANUARY 10, 2020

Last August, the New York Times Sunday Magazine devoted an entire issue to Project 1619, an attempt to root today’s racism in the institution of slavery dating back to the seventeenth century. In 1619, British colonists in Point Comfort, Virginia bought twenty African slaves from Portuguese traders who had landed there, fresh from a body-snatching expedition. Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote the introduction to ten articles in the magazine that focused on different aspects of Black oppression, such as Traymaine Lee’s on the wealth gap between black and white Americans.

Four months later, five prominent historians of the Civil War signed a letter demanding that the newspaper correct “errors” and “distortions” in Project 1619. Rumor has it that Princeton professor Sean Wilentz wrote the letter and lined up four others to co-sign: Victoria Bynum, James M. McPherson, James Oakes, and Gordon S. Wood. I would only add that Bynum wrote a book that chronicled the armed resistance to wealthy slave-owners by poor white southerners and served as a consultant for the inspiring movie “The Free State of Jones”.

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43 Comments »

  1. I read your article. You don’t actually engage with the objections raised to the NY Times 1619 project. In any event, whatever some colonists may have thought about slavery, the UK was not seeking to end it at that time but, instead, interested at that time in its perpetuation. And, that was well known among colonists. And, yes, it is the case that there was hypocrisy among some, such as Madison, Jefferson, etc., who expressed strong objections to slavery but held slaves. Hypocrisy, however, is endemic among humans.

    It is also known that during the Constitutional Convention, Madison and others from that region – as opposed to the far south – lined up on the side of those who wanted to end the slave trade and who sought to keep as much support as possible out of the Constitution. To the extent that they opposed the slave trade in particular, that position put them at odds with the idea that the revolution could really have been in support of the preservation of slavery and, moreover, would logically have made those with that view more interested in revolting from the UK, which again, supported the slave trade.

    Lastly, it is to be noted that most socialists have seen class, and not race, as the defining issue. While I am not a socialist, I certainly understand its appeal.

    Comment by Neal — January 10, 2020 @ 4:09 pm

  2. “Lastly, it is to be noted that most socialists have seen class, and not race, as the defining issue.”

    Oh, I hadn’t realized that. Now I will certainly join WSWS in denouncing Black Lives Matter and all their other bullshit.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 10, 2020 @ 5:05 pm

  3. I did not say that anyone should condemn anyone. I was merely making a basic point that socialism has generally treated class rather than race as the defining issue for understanding the world such that, for socialism, solving purported problems arising from the existence of class would go a long way towards solving issues such as racism. Whether socialists should oppose BLM is a different matter. I’m not a socialist so that is not for me to say. By contrast, fascism has placed far greater emphasis on race than on class as being the defining issue for understanding the world. Are you claiming that socialism has now morphed into a form of fascism?

    Comment by Neal — January 10, 2020 @ 5:20 pm

  4. 1. We’re not a socialist but we’re terribly concerned that socialists should think correctly along class lines (as defined by the SEP).
    2. Hitler was a vegetarian. Some of you may be vegetarians. Therefore some of you are Nazis.

    Is that what you’re saying. GODDAMN IT, IS THAT WHAT YOU’RE SAYING?????????????????????!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    QED

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — January 10, 2020 @ 5:52 pm

  5. “By contrast, fascism has placed far greater emphasis on race than on class as being the defining issue for understanding the world.”

    Yes, I’ve noticed the striking similarity between Adolf Hitler and W.E.B. DuBois myself, especially in DuBois’s “Souls of Black Folk” where he stressed the need for boiling Caucasian babies in oil.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 10, 2020 @ 5:57 pm

  6. Farans Kalosar, if you are addressing your point to me, I am not saying that socialists should think along class lines. I am saying that socialism defines itself with reference to class and addressing problems that have arisen by virtue of the existence of class. That is simply a fact.

    If socialism wants to recast itself by concentrating on race, so be it. In that regard, they sound a lot like fascists.

    Comment by Neal — January 10, 2020 @ 5:59 pm

  7. Farans Kalosar. My last comment – which would have been number 5 in this discussion – seems to have been swallowed by the computer. I’ll try to repeat it.

    My point was that socialism is defined with reference to class and to addressing issues arising due to the existence of class. If, however, actual socialists want to now use race to define socialism that’s their right. But, they should not be surprised that their ideology is treated as being rather in sync with fascism.

    Comment by Neal — January 10, 2020 @ 6:03 pm

  8. Thank you Farans for highlighting the logical fallacy …

    Here’s another consideration for Neal, if he is actually interested in the topic (and not just trolling):

    Neal states: “Socialism has generally treated class rather than race as the defining issue …”

    To the degree that socialists do this, they are shooting themselves in the foot. And in the U.S. they have done so for the longest time. That is why the socialist left in the U.S. is so impotent and incompetent. [Related: Most of the U.S. socialists cannot even take a clear position on the medieval theocratic regime of Iran, which is clearly ALL about class domination by a minority. So, go figure!]

    I don’t know why it is so difficult to realize that race and gender *interact* with class.

    Look at the unpaid labor performed by women at home (and now lots of temporary workers, part-timers and precariously employed men). This unpaid labor makes possible the social conditions that reproduce capitalist accumulation on a higher level.

    Look at another angle of this: When women enter the work force on a large scale, capitalists create a LOWER level of wages that they can pay, so as to raise their profit margins in positions held by women.

    Let’s look at the race issue: Obviously slavery (unpaid labor) increased the profit margins for those selling cotton to the manufacturing centers of the world in the 18th and 19th centuries, and in turn raised the profit margins of those manufacturers.

    Another example: When slavery proper was abolished in the U.S. and replaced with Jim Crow laws, that created a multi-level wage system, which enabled capitalists to accumulate more profits from the positions held by Black workers.

    There is no Great Wall of China separating race and gender issues from class issues. They interact in myriad ways in any really-existing capitalist society.

    Comment by Reza — January 10, 2020 @ 6:22 pm

  9. My understanding is that the captives of 1619 were indentured servants not slaves. Black chattel slavery came about much later, in the 1660-1670s or so period.

    Comment by Kurt Hill — January 10, 2020 @ 6:24 pm

  10. Kurt, they were NOT indentured servants. I am not sure how this idea took root but here’s the real history:

    https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/first-african-slave-ship-arrives-jamestown-colony

    Comment by louisproyect — January 10, 2020 @ 6:32 pm

  11. I wouldn’t waste overmuch time on the 1619 Project–there are much better sources, including perhaps the major works of the participating historians. To a considerable degree the WSWS/NYT kerfuffle is a sideshow between two monumental political irrelevancies. Anything the NYT publishes will be first and foremost ideological and will ultimately support a rationale for some form of neoliberalism. And anything the WSWS publishes will ultimately divert the energies of socialists into a series of lifeless gestures without political consequence.

    Who wants to spend the rest of her life with the po-faced and manifestly narcissistic “David North” croaking and farting away on a lilypad overhead? The smell alone should lead to suicide.

    But not to understand the role of racism in the current ideological maelstrom of advanced capitalism, as the capitalists head for the bunkers, is to be criminally deceived. Like sexism–as, yes, displayed in the quite arbitrary storm of libel against HRC (whom I nevertheless utterly reject and do not admire)–the evil of racism and its key role both in the victimization of the underclasses and the self-victimization of certain segments of “white people” are of the highest importance. Of course this matters. No decent socialist can avoid “identity politics” in this sense. There is no contradiction IMO between this position and a class outlook.

    Ideology is the toolset whereby oppression is made real, and racism at present is its most vital implement, followed by masculinism.

    The historical roots of this are intricate and complex, but of the contemporary reality there can and should be, I believe, no doubt. Who can doubt that this has its roots in the centuries of slavery and inequality of the sexes.

    Among its many differences from “fascism”–the ultra-right ideology of Trump and kind, while it suffers from a terrifying degree of mental incoherence, has the consistent project of a retreat from governance across the board in society. The “one percent” are building walls everywhere and huddling behind them. They do not seek to build a thousand-year Reich or anything of the kind. They seek to tear down everything that does not immediately support their welfare. This may be why Trump can happily attack the formerly sacrosanct FBI and CIA, and why he is unlikely to persist in military adventures that would require a permanent commitment to social infrastructure. It may also explain why this lifelong antisemite can welcome a Jewish son-in-law and thump the tub, like so many of his kind, for the State of Israel.

    This is the payoff of the racism and masculinism–a world of “I don’t care, do you?” in which the so-called “white race” and the rule of manliness are merely stalking-horses, ploys to rope in the suckers.

    In the face of the current climate catastrophe and its threat of mass extinction, I find this more terrifying than Auschwitz and the Gulag combined. We cannot IMO oppose this on the basis of “pure” class analysis any more than on that of liberal moralism.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — January 10, 2020 @ 7:07 pm

  12. Sorry Neal but the idea that “most socialists have seen class, and not race, as the defining issue” went out with the Russian Revolution when it’s leaders (Lenin and Trotsky) saw the Socialist Union of Soviets as impossible in the Tsarist “prisonhouse of Nations” that oppresssed peoples with 100 different languages without first combatting what they called “Great Russian Chauvinism”.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — January 10, 2020 @ 7:31 pm

  13. Reza. I posted in earnest.

    That something intersects does not mean that it is one and the same thing. By way of example, politics such as the politics associated with Bismarck, who was quite conservative, championed most of what social democrats and many socialists now champion (e.g., universal healthcare, social retirement programs, living wages, etc., etc.). That did not make Bismarck a social democrat or socialist. He had his own reasons. He thought it made the state, including its military stronger, by having better fed and healthier subjects.

    Socialists have, if we go historically, asserted largely that problems such as race would disappear in a socialist society because ridding the barrier of class would create an environment where race no longer mattered. Now, that was always nonsense but that does not mean it did not sound good and was not sincerely believed. What little we know about countries that have been governed by socialistic ideologies – even if the flaws of these countries now seem so obvious that those who at one time supported such countries, such as the USSR, deny that those countries were ever really connected with the socialist movement – is that prejudice was not eliminated or even abated.

    You might try asking someone raised in the USSR what they think of African Americans or even Africans. Amazingly, you will really not infrequently hear well-educated people using terms such as “Monkeys” as supposedly reasonable descriptions. (On this point, I know it to be a fact, having had a very substantial amount of contact with people from the former USSR.) In other words, socialism is not likely an answer to racism. It may or may not lead to a better society, overall, but racism will persist and socialism, in part due to its historical position about race, was particularly ill-equipped to address the issue.

    Whether present-day socialists have anything more intelligent to say about race than their predecessors remains to be seen. I am not holding my breath expecting anything much.

    Comment by Neal — January 10, 2020 @ 7:39 pm

  14. I don’t take issue with the fundamental premise of LP’s article. I don’t fully support it, either. I believe the civil war did far more to change class relations than the war of independence. I’ve visited the city of Shelbourne in Nova Scotia, where escaped slaves relocated during the two wars between the colonists and Britain; they are proud of their aid to the cause of emancipation. A couple of points should be inserted into this discussion that seem to be left out:

    Trotsky’s sympathy with the cause of African Americans was not as pure as LP would have us believe. James P. Cannon’s “Notebook of an Agitator” has a section on maritime labor. Trotskyism had a significant faction in the Sailors’ Union of the Pacific, and they were ardent propagandists for that union. The Communist Party, who were Trotskyism’s competitors of the time, made a point of organizing African Americans into maritime unions. Trotskyists ignored that in favor of the racial exclusionism of the SUP. For all Cannon’s specifics of attacks on the Communist Party’s factionalism, he made no mention of race in that section on maritime labor. A student of Trotskyism would have no idea that Cannon and Trotsky had an opportunist and unethical alliance with racism to further their own factional interests in a union that gradually transformed from simple racism into union busting and gangsterism. Even Frank Lovell, the leader of the Trotskyist faction in the SUP, and who was among those expelled not for opposing the union’s racism, but instead for supporting a fellow unionist who stood up against the union busting of the SUP, later admitted a serious strategic mistake on the part of the SWP in its approach in the SUP. Trotsky himself tried to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee to testify against Harry Bridges, who was one of the CP leaders who embraced racial integration as a principled tactic. Today you will find a deafening silence on the part of modern Trotskyists on any of this in their accounts of the history of their movement.

    I would also draw attention to the premise of the 1619 Project that slavery in the Americas began with the importation of African slaves. Europeans enslaved the indigenous people upon their arrival long before 1619. The effort was not as successful, for reasons related to those slaves being in their homes, with the support of nearby communities making slavery less practical. The entire Trotskyist movement has a blank spot when it comes to the situation of indigenous Americans, aside from using the example of Leonard Peltier as a “political prisoner”. Trotskyism has a particularly eurocentric approach to these issues, which manifests itself in ways unexpected, hence the lack of mention of the enslavement, however minimally successful, of indigenous Americans, by any faction of that movement. And for all its claims of Stalin’s falsification of history, Trotskyism does a bang up job of its own when closely examined by those who take the time to see alternative accounts.

    Lastly, LP’s snide remark on the WSWS implying a falsity to its claim to Trotskyist orthodoxy should bring an examination of his own credentials. When the positions of Trotskyists, or claimants to that philosophy, on current events, most particularly support for imperialism in the middle east, we find many, including LP, forgetful of Trotsky and Lenin in their position on opposing the imperialism of their own country. Nothing is more fundamental than opposing U.S. aggression in the middle east. On this issue we find Trotskyist claimants all over the map, with some actually cheering on NATO jets as they take off for bombing runs. So as far as Trotskyist orthodoxy is concerned, no one has a lock on that one – despite their claims to the contrary. And as this syndrome continues, Trotskyism creates its own obstacles to relevance.

    Comment by Peter Turner — January 10, 2020 @ 7:44 pm

  15. Karl Friedrich. I think you are conflating nationality with race. The early USSR faced the fact that it needed to somehow “unite” – which came to mean conquer and control – divergent nationalities. Nationality meant divergent political loyalties, not different races. Ukrainians and Russians are the same race. Yet, they ended up with separate “republics.”

    Comment by Neal — January 10, 2020 @ 7:51 pm

  16. “When the positions of Trotskyists, or claimants to that philosophy, on current events, most particularly support for imperialism in the middle east, we find many, including LP, forgetful of Trotsky and Lenin in their position on opposing the imperialism of their own country.”

    Another Assadist rears his ugly head.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 10, 2020 @ 7:58 pm

  17. Neal, since you were sincere …

    You state: “That something intersects does not mean that it is one and the same thing.”

    I did not say they are the SAME thing. I said categorically (and repeated it twice) that they INTERACT. *Separate* things interact, not the same things. Your Bismarck example is completely besides the point.

    Do you agree or disagree with what I *actually* said?

    Further … You state: “Socialists have, if we go HISTORICALLY, asserted largely that problems such as race would disappear in a socialist society because ridding the barrier of class would create an environment where race no longer mattered.” (my emphasis)

    Again, *historically*, socialists have made TONS of mistakes. The whole point is to correct those mistakes, not keep sticking to them even after a couple of centuries of making the same mistakes.

    The point is a very simple and basic one. We don’t need to make it any more complicated than it has to be.

    Comment by Reza — January 10, 2020 @ 8:14 pm

  18. Reza. I think I understood your point about interaction. That race interacts with class does not make it something to which socialism can speak intelligently. As you note, socialists cannot even figure out that Iran is a medieval theocracy ruled by an elite class. I think socialists need some humility. I think their way of thinking puts conclusions ahead of investigation. Or, put differently and with your example in mind, socialists think that Iran serves some purpose in the socialist project regardless of what Iran is actually like. So, Iran is transformed into a progressive country when, in fact, it is the opposite. So, I do agree with your point, more or less.

    Comment by Neal — January 10, 2020 @ 8:54 pm

  19. Of course socialism can speak intelligently to race. In the long run, nothing else can. Only this does not mean the lifeless puppetry of “David North” and his cult, or equivalent. A certain bricollage, to use a long-unfashionable formerly fashionable term, takes place in history, whereby the materials of social relations and culture are continually repurposed to meet new circumstances. Racism and masculinism exist to a certain extent independently; they nevertheless serve the ideological purposes of the ruling classes in the class struggle.. This need not imply some nonsensical bourgeois avant-garde ontology and epistemology in which class struggle ceases to be the driver of history because there are bits left over from the historical process or things not 100% determined by it. The way forward is still human solidarity, which requires the realization of the human (which does not yet fully exist) and this in turn requires engagement with “identity politics” but not the elimination of a class outlook or the abandonment of class struggle, without which no resolution is possible and barbarism–or worse–is inevitable.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — January 11, 2020 @ 5:19 am

  20. As always seems to happen, Proyect continues the lie that anyone who opposes U.S. imperialism in the middle east must, by definition, be an “Assadist”. I would remind Mr. Proyect of a work entitled “In Defense of Marxism”, in which Trotsky defended the Soviet Union against attacks by capitalism. That was used by the Trotskyist movement of the time to adopt a position that they supported the Soviet Union in WW2, while still advocating a political revolution to overthrow the ruling caste. So by Proyect’s logic, Trotsky was a Stalinist.

    The reality those of us who are active on the left understand is that those Trotskyists who oppose Proyect’s line on Syria make clear that while opposing U.S. imperialism they do not abandon a call for the overthrow of the Syrian capitalist government by the Syrian people themselves. Revolutionaries understand the difference between opposing imperialist war against a country and supporting the government of that country. Proyect does, too. He is just being dishonest in his polemics, which all too frequently make use of smarmy sarcasm.

    Comment by Peter Turner — January 12, 2020 @ 9:42 pm

  21. The reality those of us who are active on the left understand is that those Trotskyists who oppose Proyect’s line on Syria make clear that while opposing U.S. imperialism they do not abandon a call for the overthrow of the Syrian capitalist government by the Syrian people themselves.

    Sounds like you are a fellow traveler of David North’s cult. Are you into the whole Joseph Hansen as FBI asset deal as well?

    Comment by louisproyect — January 12, 2020 @ 10:38 pm

  22. Apparently you didn’t read the first sentence of what I wrote: “I don’t take issue with the fundamental premise of LP’s article.” Since you were criticizing the WSWS in your article, why do you make your assumption? While I think the 1619 Project has weaknesses, I also think the WSWS’s criticism is just plain wrong. What is more interesting is your clamor to put me in some box that you can use to discredit me. I’ll tell you what I am, which might not be too different from what you are:

    In my revulsion over Stalinism, together with seeing a need for overthrow of capitalism led by the working class, and an attraction to much of what was written by Lenin and Trotsky, I gravitated to Trotskyism for most of my adult life. I also found myself agreeing in practical activism with them. But my misgivings morphed into rejection after a time. I mentioned one aspect in my original post: My personal knowledge of the Sailors’ Union history, and study that resulted, led me to see how Trotskyism is not so much a coherent political philosophy as much as a current that is defined by its opposition. Now that the object of its opposition is gone, it strains to define itself. The centrifugal forces inherent in its philosophical emptiness lead it to have no real definition. Hence, its claimants contradict each other, and themselves, at every turn. Every modern issue has “Trotskyists” on opposite sides – and all claim to the the orthodox carriers of the flame. They debate each other on this pretext.

    If you want to see how this manifests itself, read two works by Trotsky himself from 1940: “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay”, and “Why I Agreed to Testify Before the Dies Committee”. In the former, he prohibits, as a matter of principle, ever cooperating with a capitalist government against a union. This is held out as gospel by all currents in the Trotskyist movement, with the partial exception of Proyect’s. His co-thinkers – who separated from Trotsky back then – are active in union reform movements that use the courts. I also did this. In the latter work, Trotsky defended his attempt to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee that was trying to deport Harry Bridges for being a communist. Imagine the logical twists necessary to justify that! And both these positions, that were completely in contradiction to each other on a fundamental aspect of political ethics, were written in the same year.

    So as to your question: No. I oppose U.S. war everywhere, at least since WW2. That is not to imply support for the Syrian government. This is not complicated. It’s as fundamental as it gets. I know we disagree on this. My point was that you are not in a position to criticize anyone’s claim to Trotskyist orthodoxy; and actually, my position on Syria, and on imperialist war, conforms to it.

    Comment by Peter Turner — January 13, 2020 @ 1:00 am

  23. My point was that you are not in a position to criticize anyone’s claim to Trotskyist orthodoxy; and actually, my position on Syria, and on imperialist war, conforms to it.

    I have no other “position” on Syria except to debunk the bullshit that appears in WSWS, Grayzone, Consortium News, et al. You make it sound like I am writing about Syrian rebels like David Graeber writes about the YPG. The Syrian revolution died about four years ago and I write nothing that would allow one to conclude that I have anything in common with al-Nusra or any other Islamist group.

    My emphasis is primarily on answering people like Max Blumenthal on chemical attacks. I have a real affinity with Eliot Higgins, although I obviously am not invested in open source investigations.

    My advice to you is to get in the habit of quoting me or whoever you have a beef with. Lenin did that when he was polemicizing against Kautsky. Nearly everything I have written about Syria in the past 12 months is devoted to refuting “false flag” conspiracy theories about Douma or writing reviews of documentaries about Syria. If you had taken the trouble to actually read what I have been writing, you’d understand that you are in a debate with a straw man, not me.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 13, 2020 @ 1:53 am

  24. I agree that Sean Wilentz and his associates wrote a remarkably ignorant letter to the Times about the 1619 Project.

    Their claim that they have access to objective historical Truth, while the Times 1619 Project “suggest a displacement of historical understanding by ideology” is based on an outmoded understanding of historiography. Cultural studies, contemporary hermeneutics, neo-pragmatism, neo-Marxism, and just evolving common sense have taught us that no one is immune to ideology and, likewise, no one has unfettered access to objective truth. Truth is contingent and ideological (in other words, historical) and arrived at tentatively through research and argumentation. In this exchange, Times editor Jake Silverstein makes a more compelling argument.

    Their claim that the 1619 Project engaged in a “dismissal of objections on racial grounds” is based on a misreading of a Twitter exchange and a disturbing blindness to the racial politics of five white scholars dismissing the work of a collection of black scholars and journalists as racially suspect.

    Their claim that there are factual errors that cannot be “described as interpretation or ‘framing’ is, in fact, only their interpretation offered within their framing. As Jake Silverstein shows, there is substantial historical evidence to support both of the claims they reject: 1) “one of the primary reasons the colonists to decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery” (Wilentz, et. al., curiously, frame the quotation by leaving out the qualifying clause beginning with “one of”) and 2) that the US was “founded on racial slavery” (claiming, oddly, that it could not be because Lincoln, Douglass, and the “majority of abolitionists” rejected this claim; in fact, the radical abolitionists maintained that the Constitution was a compact with slavery and, even after he rejected this view, Douglass argued this document was “at war with itself” on the subject of slavery).

    It is hard to avoid concluding that these and other dubious claims have more to do with a group of historians defending their turf from upstart journalists. More ominously, these five white historians seem untroubled by the fact that no Black historians or anyone trained in disciplines that have arisen since these historians were trained (African American Studies, Gender Studies, Cultural Studies, Whiteness Studies) agreed to sign their letter, feeling perhaps as I do that it fails to learn an important lesson of contemporary history: Avoiding paternalism means engaging and magnifying voices that have been oppressed rather than substituting your narrative for theirs by claiming that you know better based on your version of “objective truth.”

    I also appreciate your analysis of WSWS. Their class essentialism and blindness to racism as a structure imbricated with class, gender, sexuality, … is clear in their dismissal of these other concerns as “identity politics” rather than intersectionality. For a better analysis of democratic socialism’s understanding of American racial capitalism see We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism–American Style (Eds. Aronoff, Dreier, and Kazin). The New Press, 2020.

    Comment by mdanabennett — January 13, 2020 @ 5:02 am

  25. mdanabennett. Given the fact that the government of Britain supported the slave trade – something that was known to all involved -, why would the colonists from the Southern colonies want to revolt against the UK for purposes of maintaining slavery? The logic that slavery was the moving issue for the US revolution or anything of the sort makes no sense at all, at least if the idea was to protect slavery. Rather, that theory is, instead, something pushed by people who have a present-day agenda that requires recasting historical events to support that agenda.

    Yes, it is true that the Somerset decision had issued. But, that ruling did not make slavery illegal and it did not make the slave trade unlawful. Slave owners obviously knew that to be the case as the slave trade continued unabated. So, support for slavery hardly constituted a substantive reason to support separating from Britain.

    Moreover, attitudes about slavery were beginning to shift in the colonies around the time of the revolution, especially in the north but also in the middle states (including even Virginia). Which is to say, strong anti-slavery sentiment had begun in the colonies. So, why would the pro-slavery colonies throw the hat in with states where support for slavery was on the decline if the revolution was for purposes of protecting slavery?

    The point here is that whatever objections might be made to Professor Wilentz’s letter, his basic point – i.e., that the premise of the 1619 project is contradicted by the evidence and by logic – is rather well taken.

    Comment by Neal — January 13, 2020 @ 2:03 pm

  26. Given the fact that the government of Britain supported the slave trade – something that was known to all involved -, why would the colonists from the Southern colonies want to revolt against the UK for purposes of maintaining slavery?

    Would Slavery Have Ended Sooner if the British Won the American Revolutionary War?

    https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/172653

    Comment by louisproyect — January 13, 2020 @ 3:08 pm

  27. Louis. Let’s start with the obvious, which is that you are directing me to consider counterfactual speculation. Britain did not win the war. It is entirely possible that Britain, seeing that the slave trade could be substantially increased due to the impact of cotton on the nascent US economy – something that occurred not only after the war and but many years after the time of the US Constitution -, would have been drawn further into the slave trade. In any event, there is no way to know any of that. I am going to assume that you realize that much such that you likely did not link to the HNN article to tell me what might have occurred if the world were very different than it turned out.

    Turning to what I would guess you cited the linked-to article to show, it notes that the UK made something akin to promises to slaves who sided and fought for the British and that there is mention about insurrection in the Declaration of Independence. Overlooked, however, by this point is the fact that the colonies were already in open rebellion against the British years before the time of the Declaration of Independence and years before the time the British made promises to slaves in order to undermine an already active rebellion. In other words, the argument has an effect before cause. And, that is bad history.

    The article also misreads the Somerset opinion, at least as it would have been understood at that point. The decision made clear that the question of slavery was one of a country or colony’s local “positive” law. In other words, nothing in the decision meant or suggested that slavery would become illegal in the colonies. Rather, if a slave escaped and somehow against all odds made it to England and, in England, was then recaptured, English law made that person a free person. The most important impact in the US with respect to the Somerset decision is likely the fugitive slave clause of the Constitution, something that only came after a major fight in the Constitutional convention. And, perhaps Somerset later led to the Fugitive Slave Act. If the fight with British was about slavery, why did the Southern states have to threaten to leave the union unless the Constitution added a fugitive slave clause?

    Now, it is true that the Somerset decision came to be understood as being a nail that might help end slavery. But, to imagine that a decision issued in England in 1772 was a major, if any, cause of the rebellion by the colonies around that same time is fantastical nonsense. Or, to put the matter differently, the exact same argument made to suggest that the colonies fought to maintain slavery could be used to show that they ought to have sided with the British. After all, it was people like Benjamin Franklin who were strongest against slavery, Jefferson, hypocritical though he was on the issue, was also known to be against slavery, as was Madison. So, if, in fact, the logic for the Southern colonies to revolt was to maintain slavery, they had no good side to fight for. Think about it.

    Comment by Neal — January 13, 2020 @ 6:50 pm

  28. I don’t think that the American rebellion of 1776 was primarily intended to defend slavery but it did factor into the decision. My interest in this debate has more to do with the charge that racism is in the DNA of the USA, which I agree with. Whatever motivated Washington, et al, to declare independence, there is no question about their commitment to slavery as a hub of the emerging capitalist system. Another aspect of this debate that comes out in the WSWS interviews was McPherson and Wood’s beef with one of the Project 1619 articles that was based on Sven Beckert, Edward Baptist and Walter Johnson’s scholarship establishing slavery as key to the American economy. I have read Beckert’s book and am just beginning Baptist’s. Will be writing a long reply to their critics in a month or so.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 13, 2020 @ 7:06 pm

  29. I think that the world, at the time that the US came into being, largely accepted slavery. So, to say that slavery was built especially into the DNA of the US is very much an overstatement, at least if what you are saying is that slavery was something more especially pertinent to the US than to the rest of the world. Clearly, unless you cherry-pick evidence to the point of simply ignoring what was occurring throughout the world, your claim amounts to saying that slavery is built into the DNA of humanity.

    At the time that the US Constitution was being written, the US was the first country in the history of the world which had an active anti-slavery movement. It was, in fact, a very substantial movement with prominent people actively involved. Among its leaders was Benjamin Franklin. Jefferson and Madison, who both held slaves, were clearly opposed to the slave trade and, ultimately, to slavery. They thought that if the slave trade were ended, slavery would die off because its supposed economic benefits were abating rapidly. (They failed to anticipate the impact later of cotton.) Madison, among many others, supported bringing an end to the slave trade during the Constitutional Convention and, of course, language on that topic appears in the Constitution. Of course, all of them were people of their time.

    Lincoln, several generations later, was a strong opponent of slavery and the GOP formed originally as an opponent to slavery. And, his election led to the South breaking away from the Union, so clearly the entire US could not be said to have slavery in its DNA.

    In other parts of the world – e.g., the Arab world – slavery held on until the 1960’s and, in places like Sudan, slavery made a comeback more recently.

    Where the US differed from, for example, the Arab world is that most Arab slaves were house slaves while a substantial portion of slaves in the US south, especially with the rise of cotton, were engaged in very hard labor. But, slavery was largely wiped out – and out great cost in human lives – in the US. So, while there were people here who would have perpetuated slavery, they were defeated on the battlefield. Of course, their cause survived but not in the same form.

    To me, your claim is simply political as opposed to substantive.

    Comment by Neal — January 13, 2020 @ 9:45 pm

  30. I think that the world, at the time that the US came into being, largely accepted slavery.

    There is slavery and there is slavery. In the Ottoman Empire, the Janissaries were both slaves and members of the ruling class. In the USA and Brazil, slaves were treated like animals or worse.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 13, 2020 @ 9:50 pm

  31. Louis. There were also always slaves, in the normal sense of the word, in the Ottoman Empire and across much of the Islamic world. There is evidence of long slaves marches with respect to bringing slaves to mine materials. Moreover, house slaves were very common. There is less evidence of brutal slavery in Islamic countries than in the US South. But, that does not mean that nasty slavery did not also exist in Islamic empires, including the Ottoman Empire.

    The Janissary army was an extremely cruel institution. Parents of Christian children were forced to give up male children. The children were then converted to Islam and forced to be soldiers – and, in particular, they were formed into elite units perhaps akin to army rangers or green beret in the US. The soldiers were not permitted to marry. In time, the institution evolved so that the soldiers were paid a salary for their services. It is not quite clear that they were slaves in the normal sense of the word – although they technically were so in the early days of the institution – and, in any event, the Janissaries eventually became a force that people volunteered to join.

    Islam, as it was traditionally understood, was a religion of laws and among the laws were those that allowed (and even encouraged), but with substantial legal restrictions, slavery. Those restrictions protected, more often than not, slaves from the worst aspects of cruelty that existed elsewhere but, as I noted at the top of this comment, there is evidence of cruel slave treatment in the Ottoman Empire. Moreover, African Muslims played a substantial role in the slave trade into the “New” world. In any event, slavery is a cruel institution, even if the slaves are treated somewhat humanely, comparatively speaking.

    I think that you have a lot too much enthusiasm to brand the US evil. As I noted, the US was the first country in the history of the world to have a substantial movement dedicated to the eradication of slavery. Yes, there was horrific slavery in the US. But, there was also a major fight against slavery, one that ended, after the death of 600,000 people, with slavery being eradicated in the US. While that did not lead to equality for African Americans but to a new form of exploitation and discrimination, I also think it reasonable to say that Rome was not built in a day either. Borrowing and transforming a phrase from a religious tradition, I’ll note that perhaps man helps in completing creation of the world. Marx also thought in such terms – otherwise, why bother suggesting that workers unite.

    We don’t know where the issue of race will end up in the US. We can hope that people will be judged, as Dr. King, proposed, by the content of their character and by their accomplishments, not by ascribed characteristics. Thus far, however, that has yet to be the case anywhere on earth.

    Comment by Neal — January 14, 2020 @ 1:57 pm

  32. For those interested in the difference between chattel slavery and precapitalist slavery, this is useful:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_slavery_in_the_Muslim_world#Roles_of_slaves

    Comment by louisproyect — January 14, 2020 @ 2:20 pm

  33. I read the Wikipedia material. It is not very illuminating. And, it does not address anything related to the issue you raised, is that there is somehow some magical distinction that makes slavery into part of the US’s DNA but not, say, part of the DNA of the Islamic world, where slavery still exists. And, that is not to harp on the Islamic world other than to note that, in fact, your premise is political rather than factual.

    Comment by Neal — January 14, 2020 @ 2:59 pm

  34. Neal, I wasn’t speaking to you. I was speaking to people who don’t make boneheaded remarks like “Rome wan’t built in a day”.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 14, 2020 @ 3:02 pm

  35. Louis, I was merely noting that your point did not make much sense, whether it was addressed to me or someone else.

    You might actually want to do some real research about slavery in the Islamic world. It is not a pleasant picture, although it is not quite as brutal – or, to be more precise – not as often brutal as slavery in the US South. I’ll note something you overlooked in particular, which are female slaves in the Islamic world, who were used as concubines. That, so far as I know, is very cruel and, given how men and women sometimes interact, sometimes very brutal.

    Of course, if you reach conclusions based on political ideology, you can assert clearly false things such as slavery is part of the DNA of the US, as if the US had some monopoly on that evil when, in fact – and it is a fact, even if you don’t want to acknowledge it -, slavery has played a substantial role in human society for thousands of years, with its demise – except, at this point, in the Arab world – the result of changes in attitudes in Western societies, most particularly the US.

    Comment by Neal — January 14, 2020 @ 3:11 pm

  36. Of course, if you reach conclusions based on political ideology, you can assert clearly false things such as slavery is part of the DNA of the US, as if the US had some monopoly on that evil

    —-

    I never said the USA had a monopoly. Spain, Portugal and England were also slave powers. My analysis is that while all slavery is evil, chattel slavery was qualitatively more evil because it was tied to capitalist production. By analogy, serfdom was evil but under feudalism serfs enjoyed far more leisure time than free wage laborers did working in the textile mills of the 19th century. Michael Perelman points this out in “The Invention of Capitalism”, a book that can be read online for those trying to understand how capitalist slavery differs from precapitalist slavery:

    “Although their standard of living may not have been particularly lavish, the people of precapitalistic northern Europe, like most traditional people, enjoyed a great deal of free time. The common people maintained innumerable religious holidays that punctuated the tempo of work. Joan Thirsk estimated that in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, about one-third of the working days, including Sundays, were spent in leisure. Karl Kautsky offered a much more extravagant estimate that 204 annual holidays were celebrated in medieval Lower Bavaria.”(5)

    Comment by louisproyect — January 14, 2020 @ 3:42 pm

  37. Louis. You write: “chattel slavery was qualitatively more evil because it was tied to capitalist production.” Chattel slavery long pre-dates capitalism. Moreover, it existed outside of the West, including, but not only, in the Islamic world, and still exists there, most particular in Sudan and Eritrea. It is defended there at this time as being something enlightened, on the theory that because Mohamad had slaves, slavery must somehow be desirable and worthy of emulation. It has existed since the dawn of mankind. It pre-existed capitalism by many millennia.

    Does Perelman’s book acknowledge that chattel slavery was the norm outside of the West and long before there were any capitalists? If not, he is not very well informed.

    Now, I think it can be said that slavery was a particularly vicious institution in the US South. I can’t speak to Brazil but, no doubt, it could have been similarly nasty there. Capitalism, however, has no monopoly for being cruel and has no special connection with slavery, including chattel slavery. Nor does capitalism have any monopoly on slavery that was unimaginably cruel. By way of example only and not to pick on Arab Muslims, it is to be noted that after the conquest of much of the Indian subcontinent by the Arab Muslim armies, the population found were considered irredeemable heathens by the conquerors. The cruelty unleashed thereafter by those conquerors has only been matched, historically, by the Nazis and Communists in Stalin’s USSR, Mao’s China, and Cambodia. As Will Durant wrote in his famous book, The Story of Civilization: Our Oriental Heritage “The Islamic conquest of India is probably the bloodiest story in history. It is a discouraging tale, for its evident moral is that civilization is a precious good, whose delicate complex of order and freedom, culture and peace, can at any moment be overthrown by barbarians invading from without or multiplying within.” The numbers of people killed as a result of that invasion, albeit over the course of several centuries, dwarfs what the Nazis did by an order of magnitude. Moreover, huge, even by Western standards, numbers of slaves were taken and treated like dirt because, being heathens, there were not really considered fully human. And, this pre-dated capitalism by many, many centuries.

    Capitalism may or may not be beneficial to mankind. It certainly has cruelty associated with it – a lot of it, especially during the industrialization period. But, efforts to render capitalism uniquely cruel are contradicted by the record of horrendous cruelty that would make even the worst slave owners and factory operators cringe.

    Comment by Neal — January 14, 2020 @ 5:18 pm

  38. Thanks for bringing my attention to the improper use of the word chattel. I always associated it with slave labor under capitalism. Perelman does not really deal with slavery as such but his main point is essential. Capitalism was a great leap forward in terms of its dynamism but far more exploitative of labor. This has a lot to do with the difference between the production of use values such as when a serf chops down trees on a feudal estate in the 1300s as the need arose and the production of exchange values such as when a lumberjack did it 400 years later, for six days a week and 12 hours a day after losing his land as a result of the enclosure acts.

    This becomes clear when you look at Spanish rule in Latin American during the dawn of capitalism. Spaniards created institutions such as the ‘encomienda’ (a kind of fiefdom) that had their origins–at least nominally–in feudal Spain. However, the class relations that typified Spanish colonial society had nothing in common with the Old World. To dramatize the difference, you need only to look at the ‘mita,’ a form of labor servitude that replaced the ‘encomienda.’

    Interestingly, the ‘mita’ was based on the Incan ‘m’ita,’ a form of labor servitude that existed in the Incan empire, a truly feudal system. Peru scholar Steve Stern wrote, “Traditionally, native society supplemented joint labor by the community as a whole with a rotation system. Peasants served a m’ita, or turn, out of the community’s total labors. The rotations allowed communities and ayllus to distribute collective labor needs or obligations in accordance with local reciprocities, which called for equal contributions of labor-time by the community’s kindreds.”

    The Spanish ‘mita’ had virtually nothing in common with this. When an Indian was dragooned by the Spanish lord to go off to a mine or ‘obraje’ (early manufacturer operated in sweatshop conditions), production quotas were set arbitrarily at a level beyond what a ‘mitayo’ worker could produce. In order to meet them, the Indian would have to bring his children into the mine or ‘obraje’ to work just as is the case in places like Bangladesh today. In other words, Peru and Bolivia were turned into something like gigantic slave-labor camps.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 14, 2020 @ 6:14 pm

  39. Louis. You are very welcome. And, thank you for bringing my attention to the horrors that occurred in Latin America.

    I’ll note: there have been nasty institutions created all over the world, including in our time, most especially in countries that claimed to act in the name of Marxism and the like. And, as I see things, such is the result of the very problem that Marx saw with capitalism, as in Critique of the Gotha Program:

    “The right of the producers is proportional to the labor they supply; the equality consists in the fact that measurement is made with an equal standard, labor. But one man is superior to another physically, or mentally, and supplies more labor in the same time, or can labor for a longer time; and labor, to serve as a measure, must be defined by its duration or intensity, otherwise it ceases to be a standard of measurement. This equal right is an unequal right for unequal labor. It recognizes no class differences, because everyone is only a worker like everyone else; but it tacitly recognizes unequal individual endowment, and thus productive capacity, as a natural privilege. It is, therefore, a right of inequality, in its content, like every right.”

    Marxism’s solution to the problem noted is “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!” I think history will conclude in the very distant future, after no has an ideological or political stake about the merits of communism or capitalism, that “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!” failed to solve the problem Marx astutely noted above. As a result, countries that followed such a solution rigidly, such as the USSR and China, had to create a police state, one that even prevented people from escaping. Such a society was very much akin to a slave state. Put differently, the same problem existed in human beings in any society, communist, feudal, capitalist, etc., etc.. And, different endowments meant differing interests, not just productive interests. And, that meant some people necessarily did not want to go along with the cradle to grave program mapped out by the communists. And, as more astutely noted by Plato, if one really and truly believes, to the point of religious faith, in the program that was mapped out, one has to enforce it, including with (as in Plato’s program), secret police, etc., etc.

    That is not to suggest that Marxism has nothing positive to offer the reader. It does help at times to look at class structure and at exploitation. I do not deny any of that. However, Marxists seem prone to viewing the world the way religious zealots do, such that if the facts don’t support a claim made – or something that helps advance their cause -, then the facts must be considered wrong and, accordingly, reinterpreted so as to fit the needs of the cause. As one person who posted here noted, today’s Marxists or communists have created an imaginary Islamic world where, notwithstanding the fact that homosexuals are, in the real Islamic world, tossed out of upper stories of buildings head first, women are treated more or less like mere chattel for pleasure, etc., etc., Marxists and their namesakes relabel these reactionary societies “progressive” and, even worse, the most reactionary among them, the Islamists, are seen as the most progressive. Such sends a clear message to non-communists and non-Marxists that Marxists and communists don’t care much about facts, such that they should not be trusted.

    I’ll note lastly. Chattel slaves are those who can be bought and sold. Buying and selling – trading – has existed since the dawn of humanity. And, if you could buy and sell cattle or berries or wheat, you could buy and sell humans. That was the way the world was. Chattel slave was destroyed, over time, most particularly in places where capitalism matured. Today, it is only in places where capitalism is not a significant thing, such as Sudan and Eretria, that chattel slavery can still really prosper. Capitalism can obviously exist with slavery, as it did in the US South and elsewhere. And, a more socialistic society might (or might not) continue or improve from the reforms that occurred on that front in most capitalist societies. But, nowadays, the parts of the world where chattlel slavery survives are not its capitalist regions. That does not mean that chattel slavery might not return to such societies. However, it is quite clear that such would require a real fight because, quite clearly, capitalist societies also incorporate within them elements who find slavery repugnant.

    Comment by Neal — January 14, 2020 @ 8:34 pm

  40. Modern racism has arisen in different ways in the “white” countries, though all the separate tendencies have converged in our era. British (or should one already be saying “English”) racism, is a function of the fall of the British Empire and the “homecoming” of ex-colonials who are not welcome in the country of their former masters. Continental European racism has a similar origin, but one with many distinctive features of its own.

    During the colonial and pre-Civil War eras in the United States, race became the differentiator between slave and free–undeniably a class distinction. Then, after the war, racism developed from a rationale for slavery into a full-fledged ideology, which became the sign of white supremacy–again class-related, in that it rationalized the creation of a semi-enslaved black rural working class and allowed oppressed “white” people, often little better off than their black “inferiors,” to enjoy a degree of privilege as opposed to “black” people, thus enlisting their support in a system that oppressed them and blacks alike.

    In every case in which an “identity” group is oppressed by virtue of its identity, some attitudinal and ideological gyration related to social class is involved. Class society exploits and relies on the ready-made materials of differentiated identity to mask and obfuscate class distinctions and recruit individuals on both sides of the discriminatory divide into supporting their own oppression and the oppression of others.

    To the extent that identity differences are the means of implementing class supremacy it is not only acceptable but essential to understand these differences and their role in perpetuating social conflict–and to validate the distinct identities of the groups thrown into mortal conflict by capitalism in its final convulsions.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — January 16, 2020 @ 7:35 pm

  41. I want to add that the “failure” of “really existing socialism” (which as Chomsky and others have pointed out, was actually hugely successful in its own way–the”second world”–despite its savage and fatal distortions) was in fact not failure in the sense of a weak system that could not compete on some abstract universal basis, defined by national borders, in competition with other entities so defined (the “free world”) but the consequence of an all-out military and geopolitical onslaught conducted with desperate urgency over generations.

    To be beaten in an unequal fight of worldwide proportions is not the same thing as to fail out of weakness or lack of invention or moral fiber, which is the naive–if you like, Smithian–way of accounting for “the failure of socialism.” This story is contemptibly naive and conveniently ignores the current catastrophic failure of capitalism and the industrial society to which it gave birth–clearly destroying not only itself but the human race and all life on earth, such is its wonderful strength.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — January 16, 2020 @ 7:47 pm

  42. Farans. Yes, communists were opposed when they came to power and thereafter. But, that did not require setting up police states. On the day that the USSR proclaimed its adherence to free speech, it began arresting people who said things those who ruled the country did not like. Mao did not need to start a cultural revolution that led to the deaths of millions and millions of innocent people. Cambodia’s leaders did not need to annihilate a third of their own people. And, when Cambodia did, the US was not anymore there to put pressure on that country. The US and other western powers had already been driven off years before by the Vietnamese.

    The USSR and those countries in its orbit prevented people from leaving the country. This was decades after the USSR was immune from outside military attack. If there is such a great system in place, you would think that the country would want people to see the world. In fact, TV in the USSR would include interviews of poor Americans. However, these tended to entice Soviets to leave because, poor though America’s poor are, they’re attire (e.g., jewelry and clothing) could not be airbrushed out of a film, such that Soviet citizens could see that poor Americans had better things than the typical Soviet citizen.

    The USSR’s financial problems were largely generated by stupid policies. Among them, in order to support the satellite nations it indirectly governed (e.g., East Germany), the USSR would sell raw materials for substantially below the market rate for those materials but thereafter buy back the finished products for substantially more than the market rate. So, there was a net loss both on the raw materials and finished products. Over time, that was a huge amount of money drained from the country. Also among them, the system for distributing things like food involved transporting them to a central station. The manager of the central station, of course, hoped to make extra money. So, he – usually a he but, of course, potentially a she – would hold back on the delivery of food in order to receive extra payment. That led to huge quantities of food spoiling and then being dumped. Also, workers had no incentive to work or even to care about the quality of what they produced. So, basic things like toasters were unreliable. Also, getting things involved a double system. People stood in line for hours. However, at nearly every store, the same things could be purchased without having to wait in line and, moreover, of somewhat better quality if you knew the store manager. Of course, you had to buy from the so-called back door and pay the actual market price. The store clerk would then put in the store’s register the amount of money that could officially be charged and pocket the rest.

    In fact, at nearly every stage of public life, the USSR and countries that mimicked it undermined themselves. I have noted a number of such things above. There are, however, countless examples.

    It is also to be noted that the USSR failed to improve on the dismal racism and antisemitism that existed before the country was established. There was rabid racism in the USSR, even though there were very few non-whites. People from Africa were not infrequently called “Monkeys.” And, quite obviously, there was rabid antisemitism, which is why nearly all of the country’s Jews worked to leave the country.

    Bad ideas produce bad results. This is not intended to vindicate capitalism. It is, however, to note that the things that countries like the USSR did were ill-considered. Their policies led to misery, not to people having a better life.

    Comment by Neal — January 17, 2020 @ 9:36 pm

  43. “Their policies led to misery, not to people having a better life.”

    Considering their policies were a direct result of 70 years of imperialist encirclement and blockade, the trillions the Pentagon spent (garnered largely from 3rd world super exploitation) certainly accomplished its goal.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — January 18, 2020 @ 7:57 pm


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