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.”

April 15, 2019

HM/Jacobin Conference 2019: Socialism in our Time

Filed under: Historical Materialism,Jacobin — louisproyect @ 5:46 pm

The Socialism in Our Time conference that met this weekend was co-sponsored by Jacobin and Historical Materialism. This is a not an attempt at presenting an impartial report but simply my own reaction to the presentations.

  1. What Happened to the Pink Tide (Saturday 10:30am-12pm)

The speakers were Rene Rojas and Kenneth Roberts, with Roberts serving as a “discussant” (an academic conference convention) on Rojas’s article that appeared in the Summer 2018 Catalyst titled “The Latin American Left’s Shifting Tides”, which is not behind a paywall. It is a very long and very good article that I recommend thoroughly. Rojas’s analysis was not surprising:

When world commodity prices plummeted, the result was an unavoidable tightening of services and goods for their urban poor backers. Leftists in power could only think of tapping and squeezing as much as possible from their countries’ existing production and commercial circuits rather than developing new, alternative, and more reliable means to provide for their constituents. A recent Chavista voter could not have put it better, declaring that the government “just needs to find a way to make an economic revolution, so we can eat once again!” In short, poor urban voters abandoned the Pink Tide for its inability to break through the limits set by the neoliberal economy. Whereas elites beat back the classical left for going too far, the Pink Tide governments are falling to the very sectors that voted them into office, who are punishing left regimes for not going far enough.

He draws a contrast between the Pink Tide and what he calls the “classical left”, which meant, for example, the trade union movements in Brazil and Argentina of the 40s and 50s that exploited their social weight to gain concessions from a modernizing bourgeoisie:

Ironically, the rise of Latin America’s classical left was fueled by elite modernization projects. For the first time since the Mexican Revolution, the region’s popular sectors effectively threatened ruling-class power. Its foundation was the organized industrial working classes that emerged with the post-Depression industrial development in the region’s most economically advanced countries, along with the rebellious “peasantry” that was thrust into militancy with capitalist transformation of agriculture. Aided and often coordinated by an ancillary layer of students and low-level professional revolutionists, these effective left movements were built on radicalizing segments in unions and insurgent proletarianized rural communities and associations.

By contrast, the Central American revolutions of the 1970s and 80s relied on peasant movements and the informal sector:

The main impact of these rural-based insurgencies was to deliver real democratic reform and permanently dismantle the repressive labor system on which their agrarian oligarchies relied. The Sandinistas led a generalized insurrection that toppled the Somozas in 1979. In neighboring El Salvador, the FMLN twice attempted to replicate the former’s strategy. They came close, first in 1981, then again with the final 1989 offensive, occupying vast sections of the capital, each time fighting the oligarchic military regime to a standstill. The Guatemalan guerrillas built a less potent military apparatus that was essentially contained by the early 1980s, yet, punching above their weight and withstanding the regime’s genocidal response, they also forced a stalemate. The Salvadoran insurgency best illustrates the Left’s achievements: the mass armed insurgency of proletarianized rural communities was so costly to the traditional agrarian oligarchy that it reshaped their fundamental interests. By making the extra-economic forms of labor exploitation unviable, it forced ruling classes to shift to other commercial and manufacturing sectors.

Jeffrey Webber wrote a critique of Rojas in NACLA that is worth reading.

During the discussion, I pointed out that Rojas’s article failed to mention the constraints on Central and Latin American leftist governments, either of the “classical left” or Pink Tide varieties. In my experience carrying out solidarity work for the FSLN, it became obvious that the relationship of forces were making it impossible to move forward. Once the USSR went capitalist, the ability of anti-capitalist states to survive was severely limited. I didn’t have time to make an additional point that has some bearing on this but will mention it now. It was impossible, even under the best of circumstances, for Nicaragua or Venezuela to build socialism for the same reason it was impossible in the USSR. Socialism is a world system, just like capitalism. If there was to be a movement toward socialism in Latin and Central America, it would have to be continent-wide, just as it was in the 19th century against Spanish colonialism. Unfortunately, despite the lip-service given to Simon Bolivar by Hugo Chavez, there was never much attempt to apply the lessons of his struggle. In the 1960s, the Cubans formed OLAS as a way to unite revolutionary forces in Latin America but on a mistaken guerrilla warfare basis. When that failed, Cuba more or less gave up on such projects. With the exhaustion of the Pink Tide, it will be up to Marxist currents to carry the struggle forward. One hopes that they can abandon sectarianism and achieve the kind of mass support that Hugo Chavez or other Pink Tide leaders enjoyed.

  1. Brexit: WTF? (Saturday, 1pm-2:30pm)

This was a talk by Richard Seymour that was up to his usual high standards. Fortunately, he posted it to his Patreon account that I urge you to look at, as well as signing up for a monthly donation to his work.


  1. Revolution and Counter-Revolution in the Middle East (Saturday 3pm-4:30pm)

Yasser Munif spoke about the regime’s success in overtaking Aleppo that relied on a combination of aerial bombardment and being able to exploit ethnic and religious divisions.

After Munif, Anand Gopal spoke about class divisions that have largely gone unreported, even by people who are considered experts on Syria. Ultimately, it was class divisions rather than ethnic or religious divisions that undermined the possibility of a democratic revolution. He recounted his experiences in Manjib, a city of about 100,000 that was one of the first to expel the Assadist government officials early and to come under the control of a Revolutionary Council that encouraged the full flowering of democratic rights. However, the Council was dominated by the local bourgeoisie that despite suffering under Assad was determined to maintain private property rights at all costs. This meant that when local working-class residents demanded price controls on bread and their supply being maintained collectively rather than privately, the Council resisted. This led to young activists based in the local college organizing protests against the Council that had no effect until Islamists moved into Manjib and used force against it in the name of serving the people according to Islamic principles. Once the Islamists gained control of the city, they absorbed it into ISIS’s bogus caliphate and operated as a dictatorship, with no regard for the hunger that persisted under their rule. In his last visit to Manjib, Gopal learned that young activists, including some who joined ISIS, are thinking through the lessons of what happened and are now opened to socialist politics.

The final speaker was Frieda Afary, an Iranian-American member of the Alliance of Middle Eastern Socialists, who spoke about the emerging grass-roots resistance of trade unionists and women to the Islamic Republic. Her articles can be found on their website.

  1. Is there a Democratic Road to Socialism? A Debate. (Sunday 10:30am-12pm)

This was between Eric Blanc and Charles Post and largely forgettable. Blanc defended his neo-Kautskyite perspective, with several references to the importance of the “electoral arena”. If this was only about backing candidates as well as mass action, there wouldn’t have been much need for a debate. Perhaps sensing the leftist sensibility of the audience, Blanc did not mentioned the Democratic Party once but did, of course, talk about the need to back Sanders. Post, who is a congenital windbag, spent his time talking about working class power, the inevitably of a revolutionary struggle for power and other abstractions. If you were expecting the kind of debate that Peter Camejo had with Michael Harrington, you would have been disappointed. Since Charles Post is a humorless pedant, the debate was pretty much of a dud. It would have been far more interesting if Tim Horras had debated Blanc but he is not part of the charmed HM/Jacobin circle. However, I do urge you to read his article taking up all these questions here.

  1. How America Became Capitalist: Imperial Expansion and the Conquest of the West (Sunday, 1:00pm-2:30pm)

This was a presentation by James Parisot on his new book as titled above. I picked the book up on Saturday during lunch and can’t recommend it highly enough. Based on his PhD, it argues that slavery, capitalism and imperialism were intertwined. Rather than recapitulate his presentation, it would be best if I provided a brief excerpt from this intelligent and well-written Pluto book:

When Thomas R. Gray wrote Nat Turner’s “confessions” after interviewing him, he included in the introduction of his book, “Nat Turner, the leader of this ferocious band, whose name has resounded throughout Our widely extended empire, was captured.” For Gray, Turner’s rebellion was a challenge to empire. And in the south, empire could be seen as stretching from the household to the polity. As the Marquis de Chastellux put it, more critically, “I mean to speak of slavery; not that it is any mark of distinction, or peculiar privilege to possess negroes, but because the Empire men exercise over them cherishes vanity and sloth.” Thus, for some, the “empire” of slavery was not something to celebrate, but to criticize. Compared to the more prosperous and economical north, southern slavery tarnished human potential, encouraging arrogant behavior and idleness through the exercise of personal slave empires.

Slavery was, of course, not only racialized, but gendered. American slavery was unique in that it developed into a self-reproducing system, so that, even with the formal abolition of the slave trade, slavery could continue to expand south and west. Often slave women worked in the fields, the same as men, although in some cases their gender was preferred for household tasks. And, as recorded in the story of Harriet Jacobs, female slaves were also regularly raped. The result of this, along with the fact that free blacks and whites did occasionally copulate on consensual terms, led to years of debate over who, exactly, was “black.” Milton Clarke’s narrative, for example, reveals he was called a “white nigger.” And one record of racial categories in New Orleans shows a complexity of racial categories:

Sacatra: griffe and negress.
Griffe: negro and mulatto.
Marabon: mulatto and griffe.
Mulatto: white and negro.
Quarteron: white and mulatto.
Metif: white and quarteron.
Meamelouc: white and motif.
Quarteron: white and meamelouc.
Sang-mele: white and quarteron.

Charles Post and John Clegg were discussants in this panel discussion. Clegg, who agrees with Parisot that slave plantations were capitalist, offered useful points of agreements as well as criticisms, especially on what he thought were imprecise formulations on empire. Parisot, who has a refreshingly modest manner for an academic, thought that Clegg had a point.

As for Post, who was invited to be a discussant by Parisot, repeated his well-trodden arguments about why you can’t have capitalism without wage labor. Yawn.

  1. Leninism, Social Democracy, and the State (Sunday, 3:00pm-4:30pm)

This was an odd panel discussion with two of the speakers from the Socialist Project in Canada who declared Leninism extinct. In doing so, they were not repeating the arguments I have made but much more in line with Eric Blanc’s neo-Kautskyism. The other speaker was Nathaniel Flakin, an editorial board member of Left Voice who took up the cudgels against Kautskyism. If you go to the Left Voice website and do a search on Kautsky, you’ll find a number of interesting articles by Flakin as well as Doug Greene, who has begun to write for it as a guest columnist. Doug Greene, of course, is always worth reading.

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