Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 5, 2020

John Brown and the American Indian

Filed under: african-american,American civil war,slavery — louisproyect @ 6:51 pm

It is a terrible disgrace that some on the left have praised the Showtime series on John Brown, including Eileen Jones on Jacobin, Ben Travers on IndieWire and Melanie McFarland on Salon. I say that without having seen a single episode but am sure that if it is even 1/100th faithful to James McBride’s novel, it is a hatchet job on John Brown.

As I work my way through David S. Reynolds’s superlative biography, I can imagine a great biopic about John Brown that would finally put the stake in the heart of all the trashy films that preceded it, including “Santa Fe Trail” and “The Good Lord Bird”. The following excerpt from Reynolds’s book details the relationship between Brown and the American Indians in Kansas. Yes, Brown was a Calvinist—with all its faults—but he was also a deeply ethical human being. A biopic about Brown would salvage him from all the mud that has been thrown by Hollywood and premium cable. He might have been a fanatic but that’s what it took to stand up to racism. Thank goodness the white participation in BLM protests shows that his soul goes marching on.


In Kansas there was a close link between the incursions of slavery and the maltreatment of Native Americans. As late as 1854, Kansas was still so sparsely settled that no settlement there could be identified as a white town or village. Native Americans, many of whom had been forced out of the East, were the main inhabitants of the Territory. Although white towns formed as proslavery and antislavery forces competed for supremacy after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Indians were by far the largest ethnic group during the time John Brown was there.

In warring against proslavery forces, John Brown was defending the rights of not only African Americans but also of Native Americans. Indian tribes occupied the finest lands in Kansas. From 1854 onward, proslavery settlers took control of most of these lands through unfair bargains, out-right confiscation, or deadly force. A contemporary journalist noted, “Nearly all of the Indian agents [i.e., white officials who dealt with the natives] were slavery propagandists, and many of them owned slaves.” The first to introduce slavery into Kansas was the Reverend Tom Johnson, an illiterate, coarse, slaveholding minister who appropriated some of the Shawnee tribe’s finest land and converted it into Shawnee Mission, a pro-slavery center.

Thereafter, proslavery settlers attempted to spread the so-called bless-ings of the South’s culture, including its incongruous mixture of Christianity and slavery. Nearly 1 oo,000 Cherokees, Creeks, and Choctaws established Christian communities in the territory south of Kansas, in what is now Oklahoma. These Indian communities had newspapers, churches, and, shockingly, slavery. Many Cherokee farmers owned black slaves.

Most of the natives who remained in Kansas, however, adopted few white customs other than excessive consumption of firewater. For the most part, the natives in Kansas were cheated or displaced by the invading whites.

Both proslavery and antislavery whites were prejudiced against the natives. The Free State settlers loathed the prospect of Indians remaining in Kansas as strongly as they desired the exclusion of blacks. John Brown and his family were as unusual on the Native American issue as they were in their opinion of blacks. John Brown’s respect for Native American culture dated from his Ohio childhood and ran through his adulthood. A story dating from his period in western Pennsylvania during the 1820s, when he was starting his family near Meadville, showed his deep sympathy for Indians. Every winter, natives from western New York would flock to the Meadville area to hunt. Many times the Browns welcomed groups of natives, supplying them with food and provisions. Some local white families, incensed over the annual arrival of the Indians, went with guns to John Brown’s house, asking him to join them in driving off the natives. John Brown replied firmly, “I will have nothing to do with so mean an act. I would sooner take my gun and help drive you out of the country.”

His notion of fighting racist whites while aiding Indians was fully real-ized in Kansas, where he befriended the natives as he battled the proslavery types who were trying to displace them. From the start, the Browns established friendly relationships with local tribes such as the Sacs, the Foxes, and the Ottawas. Bands of thirty to forty natives would frequently pass back and forth near Brown’s Station. Often four or five would break off from the pack and ride over to talk with the Browns. “While we were in Kansas,” recalled Jason Brown, “I did not know, or hear of a single act of unkindness by any of these Indians to the white settlers.”

In the summer of 1855, John Jr. visited a nearby Indian chief, who was so pleased with their meeting that later he sent members of his tribe to the Browns bearing gifts of melon and corn. The chief made it clear to John that he would have nothing to do with the efforts of whites to “civilize” Native Americans. Civilization, the chief indicated, was corrupting. “We want no houses and barns,” he said. “We want no schools and churches. We want no preachers and teachers.” He added with a laugh, “We bad enough now.” His tribe met in council and chose the Browns as the surveyors of its land, sensing it would thereby be protected against proslavery settlement.

On the eve of the Pottawatomie killings the Browns found that racism tainted even their close followers. John Jr., after seeing his father off with an anxious warning not to do anything “rash,” liberated two enslaved blacks (a teenaged boy and girl) from a farm a dozen miles outside of Lawrence. His subordinates in the Pottawatomie Rifles denounced this bold action, calling it “a great mistake and a terrible outrage upon humanity.”

His brother Jason reported later that the freeing of the slaves “raised a good deal of commotion and division among us” on the issue of race. He explained: “It was objected to by the ‘Free White State’ men, as they called themselves, who wanted Kansas only for whites, when it should be admitted to the Union as a State, leaving out the broken and disheartened remnants of eleven or twelve tribes of ‘red man’ around us, for another removal and the black man to be sent into a still more hopeless bondage.” The volunteers, who “did not want to mix up with ‘niggers’ or abolitionists,” voted to return the blacks to their owner. They also voted to relieve John Jr. of his command of the company.

The incident showed that the problems of blacks and Indians were intermingled. In the eyes of the Browns, the “hopeless bondage” of the slaves and the removals of “broken and disheartened” native tribes were equally despicable. For ” ‘Free White State’ men,” in contrast, both blacks and Indians were loathsome creatures to be banished from the presence of whites. Most Free State whites in Kansas were just as racist as their proslavery opponents, whom they were more inclined to compromise with than to murder.

John Brown’s actions around the time of his Pottawatomie raid show how distanced he was from such racism. Not only did he respect Native Americans, but his closest ally, other than family members, was the half-breed John Tecumseh “Ottawa” Jones. He finalized his plan on the reserve where Jones lived, and after the killings he spent much of his time there. He later credited his Indian friend with saving him and his family from starvation in the desperate months just after the raid.

Ottawa Jones was a prosperous and well-educated farmer who lived on the ten-mile-square Ottawa reserve along with more than three hundred other Indians. He had attended Hamilton College and in 1845 was married to a Maine woman who had come to Kansas as a missionary to the Indians. He owned over a hundred cattle and fourteen horses, and his three-hundred-acre farm produced 4,000 bushels of grain annually. Jones was familiar with the cruelty and treachery of whites. He had established a large hotel that was burned to the ground by forty proslavery men, who also stole money from his wife. His total loss was between $6,000 and $10,000. He had also witnessed the apostasy of Dutch Henry Sherman. For years Sherman had worked on Jones’s farm, until he earned enough to venture out on his own. While working for Jones, Sherman had been equivocal on slavery, but when he left to run the store on Mosquito Creek he became a rabid proslavery activist. On the Joneses’ reserve, near Middle Ottawa Creek, was a way station where Brown and his party camped the night of May 22. Brown’s group used a large grindstone there to sharpen the two-edged broadswords that had been brought from Ohio. The swords, inscribed with eagles, were reportedly left over from a failed filibustering scheme to take over Canada. Now they were going to be put to the service of a new kind of filibuster: one against slavery and racism, one that coupled the gratuitous violence of Southern lynchings with the bloodiness of revolts by enslaved blacks and massacres by Native Americans.

November 28, 2020

John Brown’s Puritanical roots

Filed under: Film,slavery — louisproyect @ 5:16 pm

When I discovered that Showtime had scheduled a series devoted to John Brown, my first reaction was positive. With so much of public opinion moving against white supremacy, it was about time that the abolitionist got a favorable fictional treatment, especially since he had been treated as a destructive fanatic by Hollywood. The 1940 “Santa Fe Trail” was typical. In my 2012 review, I noted:

Blacks are portrayed in the film in the same way as they are portrayed in “Gone with the Wind”, as bamboozled victims of Northern do-gooders. John Brown is depicted as a manipulative fanatic who cares little about their fate, once he has freed them from their owners. At one point, a male ex-slave tells Stuart that all he wants is to go back to Texas and live a normal life once again. That, of course, can only mean a return to slavery.

After watching a trailer for the Showtime series titled “The Good Lord Bird”, I felt cheated once again. Unlike the 1940 film in which Brown is depicted as a fanatical terrorist, this time he is much more of a tragicomic buffoon. Watch the trailer and you’ll see Ethan Hawke chewing the scenery.

To my dismay, I saw that Jacobin’s film critic Eileen Jones described it as “good as you hoped”. Despite being a Berkeley professor (or maybe because of), I find her judgements questionable at best. In this case, it was wretched. This is how she saw it:

The series seems to have been designed for me personally, so of course I love it — from the spaghetti Western–style animated opening credit sequence to the gospel music-filled score to every last spittle fleck flying out of John Brown’s mouth as he calls upon the might of the Lord to help him smite the slavers. But I’m not sure where that leaves the rest of you.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but it leaves me sick to my stomach.

Totally enraged by the left consensus on this trash, I resolved to read the novel it was based on and a newish biography by David S. Reynolds titled “John Brown: Abolitionist”. The novel was written by an African-American named James McBride that won a National Book Award in 2013. I’ll have much more to say about it later on but suffice it to say that it depicts Frederick Douglass as a drunken pedophile.

I am now reading Reynolds’s biography and can recommend it highly. He describes it as a “cultural biography”, which is a term he coined to describe a methodology in which the subject is placed in a historical context. To get an idea of the richness of his understanding of John Brown and his cultural context, let me cite the first few pages of chapter two, which deals with Brown’s roots in Puritanism.


A Southern political cartoon of 1863 spoke volumes about the paranoia John Brown had aroused in the Confederacy. The cartoon, titled “Worship of the North,” pictures an altar with the word PURITANISM blazoned across its base and FREE-LOVE, SPIRIT RAPPING, ATHEISM, and NEGRO WORSHIP on the bricks above it. On the altar sits an ugly Lincoln, beside whom lies the dying American Union. Flanking the altar are antislavery leaders of the Republican Party, including Charles Sumner and William Henry Seward. An African in tribal dress looms at the side of the group holding an odd-looking spear. Hovering over all are Satan and a statue of John Brown, both also holding spears.

The cartoon illustrates the often-neglected fact that the Civil War was far more than a struggle between the North and the South over social issues such as slavery, economics, and states rights. These social issues were intensified by profound cultural differences, real and perceived. John Brown was at the epicenter of this conflict.

The South’s view of him as a demonic Northerner is made clear in the cartoon, where his statue stands like an idol above the altar on the same level as Satan. From the South’s perspective, the “Worship of the North” was devil worship, and John Brown was Satan’s main accomplice.

The spears held by the statue, Satan, and the African represent the pikes John Brown had distributed at Harpers Ferry among the blacks he temporarily freed from slavery. He had designed the pikes, made of bowie knives attached to poles, to be used as weapons by the blacks against white pursuers. For Southerners, the John Brown pike epitomized the twin horrors of Northern aggression and slave revolts.

The other images in the cartoon were also linked with the satanic Brown. Lincoln and his antislavery cronies, from this Southern perspective, were Brown’s worshipers. The moribund American Union was his victim. The armed African was the product of his raid, as was the North’s sympathy for blacks, parodied in the racist phrase NEGRO WORSHIP.

The remaining words on the altar indicated the depth of the South’s hostility. SPIRIT RAPPING and FREE-LOVE were two of the countless “isms” the South associated with Northern society. Movements such as spiritualism, free love, Fourierism, Transcendentalism, and women’s rights had, in fact, sprouted prolifically in the antebellum North, a society caught in the throes of reform and creative ferment. These Northern movements prompted both disgust and smugness in the South. For Southerners, Northern society was wild and anarchic, given to ever-shifting fads that were essentially godless (hence the ATHEISM on the cartoon altar). Abolitionism was an especially wicked example of Northern fanaticism. The South, which considered itself a stable society supported by the “civilizing” institution of slavery, regarded the North as a chaos of homegrown theories rooted in that Ur-source of subversiveness: New England Puritanism.

The PURITANISM at the base of the cartoon was as telling as was the Brown statue at the top. From the South’s perspective, seventeenth-century Puritanism had contributed to the Northern cultural evils that found their culmination in Brown.

Normally, Puritanism does not factor in histories of the Civil War. A widely held view is that Puritanism, far from stirring up warlike emotions, had by the nineteenth century softened into a benign faith in America’s millennial promise. Supposedly, it buttressed mainstream cultural values, fostering consensus and conformity.

For many in the Civil War era, however, Puritanism meant radical individualism and subversive social agitation. In 1863, the Democratic congressman Samuel Cox typically blamed the Civil War on disruptive New England reform movements that he said were rooted in Puritanism. He insisted that fanatical Abolitionism caused the war, and, in his words, “Abolition is the offspring of Puritanism. . . . Puritanism is a reptile which has been boring into the mound, which is the Constitution, and this civil war comes in like a devouring sea!” Charles Chauncey Burr, another defender of the South, bewailed “this terrible Puritan war.” Burr painted the history of the North as a dark drama of aggressive Puritanism:

The nature of Puritanism is to tolerate nothing that it dislikes, and to fight every thing that dislikes it. . . . Nothing escapes it. About a third of a century ago it drove at slavery—swore that it would either break up slavery, or break up the Union. . . . It organized, sent forth agents and lecturers, printed tracts and newspapers, to fill the Northern mind full of its own fanaticism, and to teach the slaves how to poison or murder their masters. . . . On, on, this implacable Puritanism drove, destroying social unity, and sowing the seeds of anarchy, despotism and war, until its harvest of death was ready to be gathered.

This demonization of Puritanism made its way into Southern war songs, such as “The Southern Cross,” which painted the South as peaceful and free until ruined by the “Puritan” North:

How peaceful and blest was America’s soil,
‘Till betrayed by the guile of the Puritan demon,
Which lurks under virtue, and springs from its coil,
To fasten its fangs in the life blood of freemen.

What linked Puritanism with Northern reform was its powerful heritage of antinomianism—the breaking of human law in the name of God. Antinomian rebels from Anne Hutchinson onward put divine grace above social codes. In the nineteenth century this spirit fostered a law-flouting individualism that appeared variously in militant Abolitionism, Transcendentalist self-reliance, and the “individual sovereignty” championed by anarchists and free-love activists—a pervasive individualism parodied in “Worship of the North” by the word EGO that beams from two suns in the top corners of the cartoon.

Northerners, like Southerners, associated these movements with radical Puritanism, but often from a positive perspective. In his 1844 lecture “New England Reformers,” Emerson declared that the “fertile forms of antinomianism among the elder puritans seemed to have their match in the plenty of the new harvest of reform.” Emerson admired the self-reliant spirit behind the reforms. “In each of these movements,” he said, “emerged a good result, an assertion of the sufficiency of the private man.” A Northern journalist went so far as to say: “Puritanism and nothing else can save this nation. . . . The Puritan element, which demands religious freedom, as the birthright of Heaven, in matters spiritual, is the nourisher of that civil liberty which releases the body from secular despotism in matters temporal.”

Northern soldiers were proud to accept the sobriquet “Puritan.” A Union marching song, “My Northern Boy to the War Has Gone!” pictured a Union soldier at Antietam carrying his grandfather’s sword, which linked him to the Puritan past:

His Puritan Grandsire’s sword gleamed bright
Where hosts were in strife engaging;
And many a Rebel eye clos’d in night,
While the contest fierce was raging!

July 2, 2020

The World Socialist Web Site and the toppled Washington and Jefferson statues

Filed under: indigenous,slavery — louisproyect @ 8:46 pm

There was a time when I kept closer track of the World Socialist Web Site, when Syria and Ukraine were on the front burner politically. As apologists for Assad and Putin’s genocidal-like war in Syria, their talking points filtered out into the “anti-imperialist” left.

As for Ukraine, I got into a series of exchanges with their cult leader Joseph North back in 2015 when WSWS began running hysterical articles about nuclear war about to break out over Ukraine. I had written an article titled “Is the U.S. contemplating a nuclear attack on Russia?” that questioned their reliability as journalists and, more importantly, their grasp of geopolitics. Like many who make a hodge-podge of conspiracy-mongering and Marxism, they always see world events in apocalyptic terms, mostly as a way of generating website traffic.

According to Alexa, wsws.org is rated 13,097 in global internet engagement, which is extraordinarily high. For comparison’s sake CounterPunch is rated 47,413. The interesting thing is the Socialist Equality Party’s inability to turn those page reads into raising its profile on the left. Because of its cultish demeanor and its chicken-little hysterics, there’s little chance that a 21-year old young radical is going to join.

It’s only gain lately has been to line up a group of septuagenarian history professors in their crusade against Project 1619 that began as a special issue of the Sunday New York Times Magazine. It included an article by chief editor Nikole Hannah-Jones that charged Lincoln with viewing free black people as a “troublesome presence” incompatible with a democracy intended only for white people. This got under the skin of both WSWS and the historians who saw the USA as a model of revolutionary democracy, unlike, for example, Gerald Horne who argued that 1776 was an attempt to preserve slavery.

I weighed in on the Project 1619 debates in February but had little to say until now. Only recently has WSWS shown up on my radar screen when someone on the Facebook Leftist Trainspotters group posted a link to an article that was positively livid over the threats to Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Grant monuments arising during the George Floyd protests. I would have advised young activists to leave Lincoln and Grant alone (not that they would pay me much attention) but I’d be happy to take a sledge hammer to Washington and Jefferson myself.

The article’s treatment of Washington sounds like something that would have shown up in my social studies textbook in 1959:

George Washington was the commander of the Continental Army in the American Revolution (1775-1783), in which the 13 colonies asserted their independence from their British colonial masters. Washington, in a decision that electrified the world, left behind his military post and returned to private life, helping to institute in practice the separation of the civilian from military power in the republic.

Are these people for real? George Washington owned more than 100 slaves and signed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, which authorized the capture of runaways in free states and criminalized coming to their aid. When one of his slaves, a woman named Ona Maria Judge, escaped, he made every effort to re-enslave her, even if he had to break the law.

This is not to speak of Washington’s genocidal assault on the Mohawks who had fought with the British in 1776, mostly because the colonists were aggressively seizing Indian land with Washington’s approval. Washington gave the marching orders to his underling General John Sullivan, who was in charge of Indian removal: “The immediate objectives are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops in the ground and prevent their planting more.”

Their encomium to Thomas Jefferson is even more bizarre:

Thomas Jefferson was the author of what is arguably the most famous revolutionary sentence in world history: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” That declaration has been inscribed on the banner of every fight for equality ever since 1776. When Jefferson formulated it, he was crystalizing a new way of thinking based on the principle of natural human equality. The rest of the preamble to the Declaration of Independence spells out in searing language the natural right of people to revolution.

This is a throwback to the turn the CP took under Earl Browder, who once said, “Communism is 20th Century Americanism”. Under his leadership, the party created the Jefferson School in New York to train cadres. One can understand why the muddleheaded Stalinists would take this approach but what does this have to do with a group that claims to have inherited the mantle of Leon Trotsky?

Compared to Jefferson, Washington was mere piker with his 100 slaves. Jefferson had six times as many on his Monticello plantation. One of them was Sally Hemings, a slave that bore six children to Jefferson. When he was a 44-year old widower, he began screwing her (maybe even raping) during his post as minister to France. She was 14 at the time. Nice.

Like Washington, Jefferson was just as vicious toward native peoples. As president, Jefferson believed that land in the west had to come under white ownership. In 1776, he was growing frustrated with the inability of the colonists to bring the Cherokees under control. He wrote, “Nothing will reduce those wretches so soon as pushing the war into the heart of their country. But I would not stop there. I would never cease pursuing them while one of them remained on this side of the Mississippi.”

As the newly formed United States began to expand westward, they ran into resistance from the Shawnee and other tribes in the Great Lakes region. He invited their leaders to Washington in 1809 and warned that “the tribe which shall begin an unprovoked war against us, we will extirpate from the earth or drive to such a distance as they shall never again be able to strike us.” Showing the kind of racist arrogance that typifies treatment of native peoples, he added, “In time you will be as we are. You will become one people with us; your blood will mix with ours, and will spread with ours over this great land.” The blood was not mixed with the whites, however. It was scattered on the soil as the genocide began.

If war on the Indians marked the beginning of internal colonizing, it was manifest destiny that served as the foundation for the USA becoming one of the world’s greatest imperial powers. In a letter to James Monroe, Jefferson wrote about how this glorious new democratic republic could transform the entire western hemisphere, “it is impossible not to look forward to distant times when our rapid multiplication will expand itself beyond those limits, and cover the whole northern, if not the southern continent.” Yes, that southern continent. From the seizure of Texas and other Mexican land in 1845, US domination proceeded across the entire southern continent.

WSWS also credits Jefferson with inspiring the Haitian revolution, as if this was some kind of proof that he had no imperial designs on the southern continent. “The American Revolution delivered a powerful impulse in that direction that led to the French Revolution of 1789 and the greatest slave revolt in history, the Haitian Revolution of 1791, in which slaves liberated themselves and threw off French colonial domination.”

The facts on Haiti and Jefferson are not quite what you get from these great American patriots at WSWS. As president, Jefferson encouraged Haitian independence from France, but refused to recognize the new black republic and even embargoed trade with it. Jefferson’s attitude toward Haiti was a variation on Henry Kissinger’s realpolitik. If Haiti threw out the French, that was good for American interests as well as British. On the other hand, Haiti’s independence as an emancipated new society might pose a threat to southern slaveowners so you could not go overboard with that democracy stuff. In a meeting with the British, Jefferson thought it was a good idea to prevent the freed slaves from having “any Kind of Navigation whatsoever or to furnish them with any Species of Arms or Ammunition.”

The Haitian revolution scared the hell out of the plantation-owners. While Jefferson had given lip-service to abolitionism, he shared their worries about armed black people who might be able to topple slavery in other places like Brazil or Cuba. This was a real fear over an 19th century domino effect.

In Tim Matthewson’s article “Jefferson and the Nonrecognition of Haiti” that appeared in the March 1996 Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, he describes Jefferson’s realignment with the slavocracy:

During the debates over the Haitian trade, Jefferson acknowledged a significant shift in his attitude toward slavery. He abandoned optimism about emancipation. “I have long time given up the expectation of an early provision for the extinguishment of slavery among us,” he wrote to William Burwell. Never abandoning the general goal of emancipation, his letter marked an increasingly pessimistic trend in his thoughts on slavery. In a man of such sanguine temperament, this shift suggested the transmutation of the post-Revolutionary South associated with the expansion of slavery and the southern reaction to the Dominguan revolution. Since the 1780s, he had publicly favored the exclusion of slavery from the West, but in 1804 he had expressed no objection to the extension of slavery into Louisiana and the southwest. His shift acknowledged that the die had been cast and the future had been sealed, perhaps for generations, and it also suggested that his commitment to emancipation had been reduced to a theoretical concern.

My only question is whether the geniuses at WSWS knew this and still decided to write a puff-piece about Jefferson or perhaps they were just ignorant. In either case, they don’t seem equipped to lead Americans to socialism or even lecture young activists about which statues they shouldn’t take down.

February 17, 2020

John Clegg, Bhaskar Sunkara, and the deeper implications of Project 1619

Filed under: Jacobin,Project 1619,racism,reparations,slavery — louisproyect @ 8:29 pm

Most of the vitriol directed against Project 1619 centers on Nikole Hannah-Jones’s introductory essay, especially her observation: “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.” The World Socialist Web Site (WSWS) and its allies hope to put Lincoln back on his pedestal and refute the notion that black Americans have tended to fight against racism on their own. All of this is subsumed under the opposition’s main idea that they are fighting “identity politics” that undermines class unity.

There is another beef that the class fundamentalists have against Project 1619 that has generated less commentary. They don’t care for Matthew Desmond’s support for the New History of Capitalism, as it has been dubbed. Or NHC, for short. Titled “In order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation,” the article cites two of the key NHC’ers:

“American slavery is necessarily imprinted on the DNA of American capitalism,” write the historians Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman. The task now, they argue, is “cataloging the dominant and recessive traits” that have been passed down to us, tracing the unsettling and often unrecognized lines of descent by which America’s national sin is now being visited upon the third and fourth generations.

For some academics, including Marxists, the idea that slavery is part of the DNA of American capitalism is a metaphor as objectionable as Hannah-Jones’s usage. They discount the importance of slavery as key to the growth of American capitalism and even go so far as to argue that it was a ball and chain on economic progress.

Writing for Jacobin in the sole article dealing with Project 1619, John Clegg, who disagrees with Charles Post’s analysis of slavery as “pre-capitalist”, describes the southern plantation as capitalist but concurs with Post’s description of it as retrograde. Unlike Sean Wilentz and company, Clegg is not that interested in a discussion of whether racism is in America’s DNA. Instead, his goal is to refute the NHC’ers Desmond cites:

Desmond begins his article by drawing on the Harvard historian Sven Beckert who argues that “it was on the back of cotton, and thus on the backs of slaves, that the U.S. economy ascended in the world.” Yet Desmond neglects to mention that this claim has been widely rejecte by specialists in the economic history of slavery.

If you click the link to “rejected” in the citation above, you will be directed to an article by economists Alan L. Olmstead and Paul W. Rhode titled “Cotton, Slavery, and the New History of Capitalism” that is the source of one of Clegg’s key rejoinders:

It’s true that cotton was among the world’s most widely traded commodities, and that it was America’s principal antebellum export. But it’s also true that exports constituted a small share of American GDP (typically less than 10 percent) and that the total value of cotton was therefore small by comparison with the overall American economy (less than 5 percent, lower than the value of corn).

I understand that Clegg is an accomplished academic with a post in the U. of Chicago history department but I have to wonder if he bothered to do anything except take Olmstead and Rhode’s claim at face value. They wrote, “More than this, cotton was not even the nation’s most important agricultural commodity in terms of value—that distinction always went to corn.” They don’t back that up with statistics and Clegg follows suit.

Clegg also takes their findings on exports as a percentage of American GDP at face value, but did he bother to put that under the same kind of critical scrutiny as he puts the NHC’ers? As a Columbia University retiree, I have access to the online Cambridge Historical Statistics that will likely never be checked by the Jacobin readers who walk away from Clegg’s article assuming that slavery was less important than corn in the take-off of American capitalism.

There’s a bit of a problem, however. The GDP that Olmstead and Rhode refer to was a product of their own research and not some independent data-gathering body. Since Olmstead is one of the six editors who put together the five-volume Cambridge series, it is entirely possible that his own biases might have crept into how the data is presented. It doesn’t help that one of the other editors is Gavin Wright, whose own attack on the NHC’ers is linked to in the word “widely” in Clegg’s citation above. Wright lets the impudent historians know that they are in for a good biffing: “Having thus allowed the editors to dig their own rhetorical graves, let me urge economic history readers not to overreact to the bluster and bombast.”

I should add that there was no government agency collecting data for GDP during slavery. If you do a search on “GDP” in the online Cambridge Historical Statistics, you will find the following disclaimer:

The official estimates of national income and product provided by the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) begin in 1929. The broad interest in long-term trends has generated a number of attempts to estimate national product for the earlier period… It is important to note that all pre-1929 estimates are based on fragmentary data that were not originally collected for the purpose of making national product estimates. This means that the series are less precise than the official estimates.

In fact, prior to the publication of the Cambridge Historical Statistics, the only available data was from the census bureau but only beginning in 1869. In the essay on GDP in the Cambridge Historical Statistics, you will learn that economists have no uniform opinion on such matters. It even warns that Robert Gallman’s statistics on GDP dating back to 1839 “are not appropriate for studies of economic fluctuations or dynamics.” But never mind, let John Clegg cherry-pick the statistical findings in an article by Olmstead and Rhode that is congenial to his thesis that slavery retarded American capitalism. Others will dig deeper than the U. of Chicago sociologist.

All in all, reading Olmstead/Rhode and Wright reminds me of Sean Wilentz’s gate-keeping that keeps historians like Nicholas Guyatt beyond the pale. Wilentz huffs and puffs about how the impudent Hannah-Jones does not pay proper respects to Lincoln while the economists are beside themselves over the nerve of Sven Beckert and company exaggerating the importance of cotton and slavery. How dare they.

For some, there’s good reasons to cheer on Olmstead and Rhode since their debunking of the NHC’ers has the added value of rendering the need for reparations obsolete. If slavery did not turbocharge capitalism, why should black people be entitled to reparations? Maybe they should be paying back American corporations to compensate for lost profits under slavery.

In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Nikole Hannah-Jones said:

If you read the whole project, I don’t think you can come away from it without understanding the project is an argument for reparations. You can’t read it and not understand that something is owed. But there’s not a piece that looks at that in the project, so I’m going to be working on a piece that is actually asking the question of: If we understand that the legacy is alive right now and that so much of the conditions of black Americans can be traced to that legacy, then what do we actually owe? What is the restitution that is owed?

The WSWS, a bastion of opposition to Project 1619, will have none of this. “But the race-based interpretation advanced by the 1619 Project, reflecting the social aspirations of the more affluent sections of the African-American middle class, serves to bolster demands for reparation payments. This is not incidental to the Project’s aims. Hannah-Jones has already announced that her forthcoming project will be a demand for racially based reparations.”

Opposition to reparations also comes from the rightwing cesspool, just as was the case with Project 1619. When both the National Review and WSWS line up against Project 1619, you have to ask what the hell is going on. Same thing with the NHC and reparations. On August 26, 2019, an article appeared in National Review that gloated over Olmstead and Rhode’s “stinging rebuke” of NHC historian Edward Baptist. Since Baptist’s work was cited by Ta-Nehisi Coates’s in a call for reparations, naturally the government will have to say, no thank you.

Bhaskar Sunkara also came out against reparations in The Guardian but without the WSWS’s vitriolic class-fundamentalism or the National Review’s obvious white supremacist baggage. Instead, he finds the idea of reparations beyond the capability of government agencies to administer and unfair to non-black citizens who will be getting short shrift (the reference to Coates below is Ta-Nahisi Coate’s 2014 article in the Atlantic calling for reparations):

But what kind of bureaucratic process would be necessary to identify who gets to receive the reparations Coates supports? It can’t simply be race, because recent immigrants from Africa wouldn’t qualify, nor would the descendants of slaves held in former French or British colonies. Would we need a new bureau to establish ancestry? Is that overhead and the work it will involve for black Americans to prove that they qualify worth it compared to creating a universal program that will most help the marginalized anyway?

Or consider this dilemma: money for reparations will come from government expenditure, of which around half is funded by income tax. Could we be in a situation where we’re asking, say, a black Jamaican descendent of slaves, or a poor Latino immigrant, to help fund a program that they can’t benefit from? Reparations wouldn’t be quite such a zero-sum game, but it would hard to shake the perception. Is this really the basis that we can build a majoritarian coalition?

A blogger named Paul Sowers, about whom I know nothing, took exception to Sunkara in an article titled “Fuel for the Journey: Bhaskar Sunkara, Black Exclusion, and Reparations.” He begins by pointing out that the New York State county that Sunkara grew up in was sued by the Anti-Discrimination Center of Metro New York, a private civil rights group. It made the case that local government in Westchester County was violating the terms of an agreement to receive federal funds contingent upon their being allocated to undo obvious, longstanding patterns of segregation.

He caustically added: “Sunkara was born and raised in the village of Pleasantville, N.Y., which—when the lawsuit was initially filed in 2006—had an African-American population of 0.0%. It is referenced explicitly in Beveridge’s sworn declaration. And like many jurisdictions in Westchester County, it appears to have remained particularly keen on preserving the broader region’s rich history of enforced separation of black people.”

He then lets the hammer drop:

Which is what makes Sunkara’s most recent commentary on the issue of reparations in The Guardian so totally objectionable; because his life in America simply does not exist in any recognizable way without the fact of that manufactured black failure. Jacobin arguably does not exist without that black failure (Sunkara’s parents’ names both appear on Jacobin Press LLC’s business license filings, with his dad listed as the company principal, and the company address being listed at an apartment that the family owns in the Bronx). And so the question is, then, what does it mean for an individual whose life and professional career, which in so direct and unambiguous a way has been made wholly possible by the specific oppression suffered by black people, to then use his position in the media to promote the message that specific policy designed to redistribute such opportunities back to those very people “can’t adequately address racial inequality”?

In my view, the assault on both the NHC and on reparations demonstrates that racism remains part of the DNA of the U.S.A. as Nikole Hannah-Jones points out. In keeping with his undying loyalty to Bernie Sanders, Sunkara used his opposition to reparations as a cudgel against Elizabeth Warren.

Although I have all sorts of problems with Ta-Nehisi Coates, he makes some very good points in his Atlantic article “The Case for Reparations”. Like is the case with Nikole Hannah-Jones’s reflections on her father’s experiences in her Project 1619 essay, Coates examines the costs racism extracted from a black man named Clyde Ross, who was born into a family fortunate enough to own 40-acres as promised by the Radical Republicans.

Unfortunately, his father was swindled out of his land by racists:

When Clyde Ross was still a child, Mississippi authorities claimed his father owed $3,000 in back taxes. The elder Ross could not read. He did not have a lawyer. He did not know any-one at the local courthouse. He could not expect the police to be impartial. Effectively, the Ross family had no way to contest the claim and no protection under the law. The authorities seized the land. They seized the buggy. They took the cows, hogs, and mules. And so for the upkeep of separate but equal, the entire Ross family was reduced to sharecropping.

Coates offers an impassioned case for reparations in contrast to Sunkara’s pettifoggery. It makes a good companion-piece to the articles that appeared in the Project 1619 special issue of the Sunday Times Magazine. If you have trouble getting past Atlantic’s paywall, contact me at lnp3@panix.com and I will send you a copy.

February 14, 2020

Marx, Lincoln and Project 1619

Filed under: Civil War,Counterpunch,Project 1619,slavery — louisproyect @ 2:23 pm

Victoria Woodhull: Spiritualist and leader of the first socialist international in the United States

COUNTERPUNCH, FEBRUARY 14, 2020

It must have enraged the historians who signed Sean Wilentz’s open letter to the New York Times and their World Socialist Web Site (WSWS) allies to see Abraham Lincoln knocked off his pedestal. How insolent for Nikole Hannah-Jones to write in her introductory essay for Project 1619 that “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.” Lincoln was not only an iconic figure for the average American. Karl Marx admired him as well for his war on slavery. Since the primary goal of the critics of Project 1619 was to prioritize class over “identity”, naturally Karl Marx was just the authority to help make their case against the bourgeois New York Times intent on dividing the working-class.

Since the WSWS sets itself up as a Marxist gate-keeper par excellence, we can assume that the historians also had the Karl Marx-Abraham Lincoln in mind when they hooked up with the Trotskyist sect. James McPherson is probably the closest to WSWS ideologically, having granted them interviews over the years. When they asked him if he read Karl Marx’s writings on the Civil War, the historian replied, “Well, I think they have a lot of very good insight into what was going on in the American Civil War. Marx certainly saw the abolition of slavery as a kind of bourgeois revolution that paved the way for the proletarian revolution that he hoped would come in another generation or so. It was a crucial step on the way to the eventual proletarian revolution, as Marx perceived it.”

In this article, I will look critically at what Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote about these questions. Although I have been a Marxist for 52 years, I have little patience with those who put him (or Lenin and Trotsky) on a pedestal. I believe that Nikole Hannah-Jones had good reasons to question his sanctity. More to the point, I will argue that Marx and Engels lacked the political foresight to see how black Americans would be short-changed after the Civil War. Keeping in mind that the first socialist international was located in the United States, we must examine its relationship to the newly emancipated black population. Based on my reading of Timothy Messer-Kruse’s “The Yankee International,” my conclusion is that it fell short.

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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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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.

August 24, 2018

Gerald Horne’s The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism: The Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy, and Capitalism in 17th Century North America and the Caribbean

Filed under: Counterpunch,slavery,transition debate — louisproyect @ 12:30 pm

I had high hopes for Gerald Horne’s The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism: The Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy, and Capitalism in 17th Century North America and the Caribbean for a couple of reasons. It might help me develop a deeper understanding of the genocidal tendencies of Dutch and British colonialism I reviewed in a CounterPunch article about the ethnic cleansing of Munsee Indians from New York State in the 17thcentury. While Horne’s history is focused on slavery, there are frequent allusions to what he calls the “indigenes” or native peoples. Just as importantly, I expected it to be in line with his provocatively titled “The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America” that was a timely debunking of our Founding Father myths. Turning the clock back a century, this time around Horne zeros in on the Glorious Revolution of 1688 that was glorious only to the slave-trading merchants of England and their colonial cohorts. For the indigenes or slaves who were victimized throughout the 17thcentury, there was no glory in being shot down by a musket.

My hopes were not only met, they were exceeded. Horne has written both a scholarly treatment enriched by primary sources excavated from archives three hundred years old but also a fierce polemic that hearkens back to those of CLR James and WEB Dubois. The end notes of “The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism” support some astonishing insights into the social reality of the emerging “revolutionary” North America. For example, in the penultimate chapter titled “The ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688” (scare quotes were never more appropriate), Horne refers to a French Protestant exile remarking in 1687 that “there is not a house in Boston however small be its means that has not one or two” enslaved Africans, and even some that have five or six. The endnote reveals that this report originated in Box 19 of the Daniel Parrish Slavery Transcripts in the New York Historical Society. There are hundreds of such notations in Horne’s book, which attest to his perseverance in making the cruelty of the 17thcentury palpable. To paraphrase Thomas Edison, scholarship is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. Buckets of sweat were probably accumulated in countless libraries and museums in the years it took to put together this groundbreaking text.

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August 20, 2018

Gerald Horne’s Seventeenth Century

Filed under: colonialism,slavery — louisproyect @ 4:11 pm

Midway through Gerald Horne’s “Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism”, I feel like I have struck gold. This history of the colonial projects of the 17th century gives me a better handle on questions that have preoccupied me over the years as the excerpt below indicates:

  1. The importance of the Caribbean islands in the period that might be described as mercantile capitalism. The only other historian who I have read who has zeroed in on this time and place was Sidney Mintz, whose study of sugar plantations made the case that these were the first modern factories even though based on forced labor.
  2. The tendency for these colonial powers to support emancipation for tactical reasons. Long before Lord Dunmore proclaimed the freedom of slaves in Virginia to help build an army opposed to George Washington, the same measures were being taken in the Caribbean islands a century earlier by the Dutch to be used against the British. As might be obvious from Horne’s last book that made the case that Washington et al were counter-revolutionaries, he rejects the bourgeois-democratic pretensions about 1776 that some on the left uphold, including it would seem the CPUSA that he reportedly belonged to or was at least a sympathizer of.
  3. The need to ethnically cleanse NY and New Jersey of the Delaware Indians, including the Munsees, in the 17th century. This was a necessary step to privatize land in the interests of petty commodity production leading up to capitalist property relations in the next century as I discussed in my article on the Munsees that appeared in CounterPunch.

Slave-based settler colonialism was an inherently unstable process, as the bonded labor force had little incentive to ally with their masters when foreigners invaded, providing the latter with incentive to overthrow the status quo. The Dutch were convinced that the Africans would act as a fifth column on their behalf: the Dutch may have heard that an African in Chile named himself “King of Guinea” and demanded vengeance against the settlers, which could have succeeded with Dutch aid. Thus, when Dutch forces invaded neighboring Peru in the 1620s, they brought along a chest full of manumission letters to hand out to the enslaved, along with weapons. Another contingent descended upon Pisco, where they sought to foment a slave revolt. As early as 1627, there was a fear in Virginia that there would be a replay of this stratagem by the Dutch. In the early stage of Dutch colonization in the Americas, race relations were lot always informed by racial hierarchy, providing an advantage over competitors not likeminded. Anti-Cromwell loyalists in Barbados were confident that the Dutch would back them, just as those who joined Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia in 1676—yet another landmark in the road to white supremacy and capitalism in North America—thought likewise: the French settlers who revolted in Martinique thought the same way in 1665. This meant that squashing colonial competitors was seen as important by London in seeking to prevent slave revolts. Since Caribbean islands were then seen as the embodiment of grand wealth, this argued further for building a grand navy, useful in squashing European rivals and revolts of the enslaved alike.

Throughout the 1640s the indigenous of the mainland, especially the Lenape and Minquas-Susquehannock of what is now called the Delaware Valley, had played the Dutch off against the Swedes, until the latter were driven out. The Dutch were not unique in this regard, and settlers perpetually had to account for the prospect of confronting shrewd Africans and indigenes backed by European rivals. U.S. Founding Father George Mason reminded his fellow rebels that Cromwell sent instructions to arm the enslaved in order to smash royalist rebellion in the seventeenth century—and this could happen again in the wake of 1776.

July 11, 2018

Andrew Zimmerman on Marx, Engels and Slavery

Filed under: Civil War,slavery — louisproyect @ 8:44 pm

Today I received the new collection of Marx and Engels’s writings on the Civil War from International Publishers. Although this book belongs in any collection of their books, I would say that the introduction by Andrew Zimmerman justifies the purchase all on its own. I have not heard of Zimmerman before but on the basis of the excerpt below, I plan to put him on my must-reading bucket list.

The excerpt resonates with a topic that I will be addressing in the next few days that has been prompted by various leftists on FB and Marxmail arguing that Marx and Lenin would vote for Democrats if they were alive today, just like the people writing for Jacobin and in the leadership of DSA. When I get around to a rebuttal of the three most common arguments along these lines, I will certainly consult Zimmerman’s introduction as well as the articles by Marx and Engels that illustrate his point that while they were very far-sighted on the Civil War, they still had a flawed interpretation.

Back in 2007, we had a CP’er or CP sympathizer on Marxmail who when challenged to identify an leading Marxist supporting a bourgeois politician, he referred to Karl Marx’s articles in praise of Abraham Lincoln. When I get around to writing my answer to this, I will bring up Marx’s support for Friedrich Sorge against Victoria Woodhull who in my view understood the flaws in official Marxism that Zimmerman alludes to below. She ran for president with Frederick Douglass as her running-mate. That Marx could have referred to Woodhull as a faker and instead endorsed the dreadful Sorge shows that he was just as capable of making mistakes as any other human being, including those today who view the Democratic Party as if it were some sort of social democratic party with distinctly American features. Baloney.

Andrew Zimmerman:

Marx and Engels recognized white supremacy as part of the slave system that lay at the root of the American Civil War, and noted also, especially in their discussions of Andrew Johnson, how racism limited the extent of emancipation after the war. Still, especially in their private correspondence, their own views of blacks sometimes limited their ability to analyze the Civil War. Perhaps the most jarring manifestation of this is their repeated use of the English racial epithet “nigger” in their private correspondence—nine times in the texts reproduced in this volume. They used this term ironically, however, to highlight a racism that they criticized rather than endorsed. Marx and Engels opposed racism at every turn, and the communist movements they inspired have remained some of the most powerful and consistent anti-racist and anti-imperialist forces in the world, including in the United States.

Still, Marx and Engels sometimes wrote as if the fight against slavery was primarily a white working-class struggle, with black workers and soldiers playing a vital, but only supporting, role. When Marx wrote in Capital that “Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded,” he connected the struggles of white and black workers, but also suggested that they were separate (document 108). When he called “slave revolution” the “last card up its [the Union’s] sleeve,” he attributes agency to the white Northern leadership who might play this card rather than to enslaved black workers themselves (document 10). When Marx remarked, in 1853, that US blacks who were born into slavery were not “freshly imported barbarians” from Africa but rather “a native product, more or less Yankeefied, English speaking, etc., and hence capable of being eman-cipated” (document 104), he did not only denigrate African cultures; he also blinded himself to the many African and African American political traditions that contributed to the defeat of slavery in the Americas.

Marx and Engels did grasp the American Civil War as a victorious workers’ struggle, but, unlike most Marxist analyses today, they overemphasized the importance of free white workers at the expense of enslaved black workers in this struggle. Marx and Engels rightly pointed to the many white American workers who fought on the side of Union, the white British workers who made British intervention on behalf of the Confederacy polit-ically impossible, and even to the working-class backgrounds of Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson. What they missed was the largest worker rebellion of all at the heart of the Union victory and the Civil War: the determination of great numbers of the four million enslaved black workers to withdraw their labor from their erstwhile masters, to transform fop war for the Union into a war against slavery, and to throw their collective intelligence, capacity for labor, and armed might behind the Union.

Marx and Engels were thus correct that the Civil War was a struggle of workers against slavery, although perhaps not precisely for the reasons they thought it was. Their comrades who served in the Union Army, however, worked with, and fought alongside, formerly enslaved African Americans and thus gained a better understanding of the importance of black workers in the conflict (see document 94). All this suggests that the fight against racism is not a matter of white people perfecting their own ‘1m-racist’ ideas hot rather develops through interracial political solidarity.

Regardless of these shortcomings, Marx and Engels did help lay the groundwork for one of the most, if not the most, important interpretations of the Civil War to date: W.E.B. Du Bois’s 1935 Black Reconstruction. In that work, Du Bois analyzed the southern slave as “the black worker” and portrayed the central drama in the Civil War as the “general strike” by which these black workers transformed the war between Union and Confederacy into a revolution against slavery. The capitalist outcome of Reconstruction Du Bois attributed to what he called a “counterrevolution of property.” Historians have only begun to give Du Bois’s interpretation of the Civil War and Reconstruction the credit it deserves. The essay by Du Bois that is the final text of this volume makes clear his critical appreciation of the writings of Marx and Engels on the Civil War.

 

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