Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 6, 2020

Harry Braverman’s class analysis of early American history

Filed under: Historical Materialism,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 7:16 pm

Harry Braverman, 1920-1976

In doing some research for an article on Harry Braverman for a major project underway on the left, I wanted to put some of his lesser-known work in the foreground. Even if the Wikipedia entry on Harry Braverman understandably devotes the lion’s share of its entry to his “Labor and Monopoly Capital,” there’s much more of his contributions to Marxism that need to be fleshed out.

Braverman was a member of the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL) in the late 1930s, the youth group of Norman Thomas’s Socialist Party (SP). At that time, James P. Cannon’s Communist League of America had dissolved itself into the SP to engineer a left-wing split. In “History of American Trotskyism,” Cannon congratulated himself for carrying out the split that produced the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) that left SP a “dead husk.” Braverman’s eventual affiliation with the Socialist Union and Monthly Review were acts that repudiated Cannon’s sectarianism.

Wikipedia has a brief mention of his writing for SWP periodicals as Harry Frankel, a name he used to avoid being blacklisted from industrial jobs long before McCarthyism began. Eighteen of those articles appear along with seven he wrote for The American Socialist, the Socialist Union magazine he co-edited with Bert Cochran. Available on the Marxist Internet Archives, they remain as relevant today as the day they were written. Braverman wrote for a working-class readership but never spoke down to it like some sectarian groups. His talent for combining scholarship with clarity led him to a long and productive career at Monthly Review.

In a series of four articles written for the SWP’s theoretical journal Fourth International in 1946, Braverman examined early American history from a Marxist perspective. Except for the Communist Party’s Philip Foner, scholars from the Progressivist tradition, like Charles Beard, dominated the field.

In “Class Forces in the American Revolution,” Braverman distinguishes himself from Communist Party leader Earl Browder who had proclaimed that “Communism is 20th Century Americanism.” You’ll find little of the breathless embrace of 1776 from bourgeois historians like Daniel J. Boorstin, or even leftists like Sean Wilentz. For Braverman, the goal was to identify the class alignments that Boorstin and Wilentz tend to obfuscate in the name of “democracy.”

Unlike the Communists, who created the Jefferson School to honor a founding father, Braverman used the tools of historical materialism to put Thomas Jefferson into context. Braverman quoted Jefferson’s statement when British merchants forced down tobacco prices, they left slave-owners like him in a bind: “A powerful engine for this purpose, was the giving good prices and credit, till they got him more immersed in debt than he could pay, without selling his lands or slaves.”

Braverman wrote, “In this paragraph, Jefferson reveals more of the springs of revolutionary action in his class than in the whole Declaration of Independence.” That’s about as succinct a summary of the American Revolution that you will ever find.

In a follow-up article titled “How the Constitution Was Written,” Braverman examined Alexander Hamilton, the man glorified in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash Broadway hit. He writes that “Hamilton’s system was unified by a single conception: The establishment of the rule of the bourgeoisie.” Dispensing with Founding Father chic, as Ishmael Reed puts it, Braverman saw Hamilton as a man consumed with the need to solidify capitalist rule:

The bourgeoisie stood on a too narrow base, a fact which Hamilton sensed and which he sought to correct by his feverish efforts in behalf of manufacturers. It was not until the middle of the 1840s that manufactures surpassed commerce in the relative composition of the bourgeoisie. In the meantime the opening of the western lands and the admission of new agricultural states to the union increased the weight of the planters. Already during the decade of the great struggle, two new states were admitted who cast their votes in the Jefferson column in the election of 1800.

After knocking Hamilton off his pedestal, Braverman next takes on Andrew Jackson. Sean Wilentz wrote a Jackson biography that downplayed his role as a defender of slavery and a mastermind of Indian removal. While young radical historians such as Tom Mertes took down Wilentz for “Whitewashing Jackson,” when “revisionist” history influenced by Howard Zinn was its peak, Braverman was far ahead of his times for charging Jackson with crimes against humanity.

In “The Jackson Period in American History,” he wrote, “Andrew Jackson became a link of special configuration in the chain of planter Presidents that began with Thomas Jefferson and ended forever with Jefferson Davis. The attitude of this group of Presidents towards slavery was progressively modified as cotton fixed the “peculiar institution” on the South. Thomas Jefferson was a passive opponent of slavery. Jackson takes his rightful place in the progression as an active defender of slavery, as the planters travelled the sixty-year road to Jefferson Davis.”

As for Indian removal, Braverman was an outspoken defender of indigenous rights. He wrote, “It is only necessary to add that when the bourgeoisie, through the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, tried to block the planters from the Indian lands, Jackson paid no heed, saying, ‘John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it.’”

Finally, in “Three Conceptions of Jacksonianism,” he offers a critique of Frederick Jackson Turner, a Progressivist historian who argued that the frontier was decisive in American history and that its chief result was “democracy.” Braverman regards this as the heart of Turner’s thesis and stresses that his writings deal mainly with the Jackson era.

Braverman’s goal is to a group of historians who borrow from Marxism at the same time they hurl “envenomed shafts” against consistent and avowed Marxists. They include Charles A. Beard, Vernon L. Parrington, Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. and Jr., and Louis Hacker. Referring to Beard’s claim that Jackson created a farmer-labor democracy, Braverman presents a class analysis that remained consistent through his forty-year commitment to socialist values:

But the historian may protest that the workers and farmers got a hearing in Washington from the Jackson administrations. What of the protection of the land interests of the farmers? The ten-hour laws? The mechanics lien laws? The progress made, especially by the workers, is beyond dispute. First of all, however, it must be understood that such concessions did not directly endanger the planting class, and, for that reason, they could countenance reforms which gained for them national electoral support. Let us recall how John Randolph, planter spokesman in Congress, challenged the bourgeoisie: “Northern gentlemen think to govern us by our black slaves, but let me tell them, we intend to govern them by their white slaves.”

2 Comments »

  1. Thanks for this interesting post about Harry Braverman’s early writing. He had a brilliant mind and a great writing style, writing for and with the working class and not just about them. Born into the working class and at one time a skilled metalworker, he knew what it meant to be a working person. And he knew what would be necessary for the working class to liberate itself.

    Of the modern directors of Monthly Review Press (other than Leo Huberman, who headed up the Press it its youth), it won’t be long before I become the longest-serving director. I am both proud and humbled to be in a position once held by the great Harry Braverman. Same goes for Leo Huberman, who was also a labor educator, as was I. Nothing has shaped my intellectual life as much as has Monthly Review. And few writers have shaped how I think more than Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital.

    Comment by Michael D Yates — September 6, 2020 @ 7:48 pm

  2. Seems the obvious question is, Why not compile all these articles in to a collection and publish them as a book? His 100th birthday is in December.

    Comment by Aaron — September 9, 2020 @ 1:53 am


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