“Struggle & Progress – Celebrating the 150th Anniversary of Union Victory and Emancipation,” Jacobin, Issue 18, Summer 2015.
The Civil War is still going on, in both an ethnic and a class sense. That is why the anniversary of the bloodiest conflict in U.S. history is worth understanding and not forgetting. It is still going on in the sense that the South still acts as a reactionary political drag on the rest of the country. It is the homeland of some of the most reactionary sections of the capitalist class – in defense; in oil; in coal; in retail; in construction. These people are the spawn of the landed planter aristocracy that was expropriated at the end of the Civil War. It is still going on in the sense that minorities and immigrants are still persona non grata in that region in a more intense way than elsewhere - though institutional racism elsewhere is no slouch.
Conditions in the South for black and Latino peoples are below most other parts of the country – in healthcare, education, wages and working conditions, government services, policing and ‘justice’ issues.’ It is still going on in the sense that even white workers in the South are also spat upon – suffering in less degree the same conditions as black and immigrant workers. They take on a servility to the new southern capitalist aristocracy in exchange for their ‘higher’ standing vis a vis minorities, but this only prolongs their own oppression. The official southern State antagonism to unionism is just one example. It is still going on in the sense that the same Southern bible-thumpers that justified chattel slavery now justify wage slavery and adoration of the market.
What is clear is that constant talk that ignores class in favor of only ‘race’ discussions avoids the centrality of economic roles in the nation and especially in the South. Ethnicity is many times a dimension of class; it stamps those with different skin colors or languages as fit for certain jobs, certain wages and certain treatment, in spite of the ‘talented tenth.’ The constant liberal prattling about ‘diversity’ alone hides the economic component and imperative of profiteering that underlies racism. If ‘race’ is merely a political category, then why does it endure? Just that people are ‘stupid’ or ‘mean?’ After all, the much heralded ‘Second Reconstruction’ during the 1960s has also failed to bring equality to the black strata of the working class even now.
Anarchists and other ultra-leftists believe that the Civil War changed nothing. Jacobin begs to differ. They, like many Marxists before them, consider it to be a ‘2nd American Revolution’ which destroyed chattel slavery uncompensated. Jacobin interviews Eric Foner, son of the famous left historian Phil Foner, who first gave this real understanding to Reconstruction. Here Eric Foner carefully shows how the northern Republican capitalists under Johnson refused to alleviate the debts of southern small farmers and working men, which helped turn them away from Reconstruction. The northern Republicans also instituted land taxes on small holdings for the first time, which increased the financial burden on poorer whites. Foner says that the Abolitionist movement was small, and only increased in power as its views became confirmed by events. Yet it ignored the plight of working men in the North, such as Irish textile workers, so he considers its leaders to be mainly moralists.
Foner points out that ‘love’ is not the basis for a real politics, as you do not need to love people to work with them, you only need to have similar goals. Foner has a ‘Let a 100 Flowers Bloom” approach to class struggle, but then points out that the myriad political groups and causes fractionate the left in the U.S. He points to the role of the Socialist Party in the early part of the 20th century that acted as a ‘big tent’ for every force – suffragettes, labor agitators, anti-war activists, anti-lynching partisans and socialists of every stripe. Nothing like it exists today, and in my opinion, that is the reason the left is so weak.
This discussion leads into Jacobin’s main point about the war, expanded on in several articles – that the Southern planter elite saw the anti-slavery movement as part of wedge to bring broader progressive changes that they understood as a ‘socialism’ of some type. Jacobin calls it “America’s First Red Scare.” Abolitionists or Republicans or free blacks were called ‘red Republicans,’ labor anarchists, Communards, even ‘communists’ by more astute Confederate polemicists. Their point was that first you get rid of slavery – pretty soon you are going to have unions and labor strife! They thought that slavery would keep blacks and whites separate – and hence easier to rule. The anti-slavery role of socialist and labor radicals who had emigrated after the failed 1848 revolutions in Europe confirmed this. German socialists chased pro-slavers out of St. Louis. German socialists in east Texas kept that area loyal to the North. Marx himself supported the Northern side in the war. Later the black vote in the South allowed the Populist movement to challenge southern businessmen and landed gentry. This was intolterable to the KKK and the White Leagues.
Two articles talk about the agency of black slaves in the struggle for their own freedom – 200,000 black soldiers who joined the Union army, participating in 450 military engagements, providing 120 infantry regiments, 22 light and heavy artillery regiments and 7 cavalry regiments. At Petersburg, 1 in every 8 soldiers besieging Richmond was black. Or black women who organized for the right to marry their husbands in the army, which sounds trivial until you understand that slaves were forbidden to be married. Jacobin also has articles in this issue on why there are so many pro-Confederate films about the Civil war and also one about Populist labor struggles in the South after the civil war that united blacks and whites.
Adolph Reed corrects the black-nationalist myth that slavery was solely destroyed by black people themselves through a look at film. This argument seems false on the face of it based on the numerous facts of the Civil war and Reed calls it the ‘James Brown’ theory of black liberation. I.E. it is just up to individual black action, as expressed in fantasies like “Django Unchained.” In the process Reed deconstructs various films that deal with the Civil War, like ‘Glory,’ ‘Lincoln,’ ‘Cry Freedom,’ ‘Mississippi Burning,’ ‘Driving Ms. Daisy’ and ‘The Help.’ Reed is tough on ‘psychobabble’ and multiculturalism. Ultimately the Civil War was a joint white and black military project to end slavery and that cannot be ignored. Reed was a supporter of the Labor Party in the 1990s.
Another author, Kenneth Warren, takes black elites to task for only focusing on ‘race relations’ rather than inter-ethnic worker alliances as the best way to overcome institutional racism. Ultimately at the time Booker T Washington became the standard bearer of integrating black labor into capital. He also criticizes Michelle Alexander, writer of “The New Jim Crow,” for partially following a goal of ‘improving race relations’ instead of a broader social justice approach. Warren makes the point that it was only after Populism was defeated that Jim Crow could rule unhindered in the South, as Populism motivated both black and white workers and sharecroppers in the South to oppose the southern oligarchy.
The only real missing piece of information in this issue of Jacobin is how many white southerners actually opposed the war or supported the union. This alone was a significant political fact which underscored the failure of Confederate ‘nationalism’ and provided a ready base for the subsequent Readjuster and Populist movements after the war.
Jacobin ends with a look at how Reconstruction was killed by Southern violence and Northern hostility, starting with President Andrew Johnson – reflecting the renewed economic links between the southern capitalists and landowners and the northern bourgeoisie. There was no widespread “Homestead Act” in the south and plantation properties seized by former slaves were returned to their original owners. So most black people were deprived of land and ultimately after 30 years (and perhaps consequently) the vote. This article points out that the myth of the lazy ‘welfare queen’ originated during Reconstruction as a weapon by southern racists to take back the South. In 1875 the U.S. Supreme court even ruled that citizenship did not guarantee the right to vote. By the turn of the century, Jim Crow was fully in control and black people had for the most part lost any power in the South. Both black people and ‘socialism’ had been stopped.
What is significant in all this is that the struggle against any form of ‘socialism’ in the U.S. has been going on far longer than the cold war that ended in 1989, the Red Scare of the 1950s, or the Palmer raids of 1919. It is a target not connected to any nation, like China or the USSR, but ultimately aimed at the American and world labor movement.
And I bought it at Mayday Books’ excellent magazine and newspaper section.
(“The New Jim Crow,” and books that challenge the myths of Confederate nationalism, reviewed below.)
October 31, 2015