Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 20, 2021

How Harper’s Magazine Undermines the Struggle Against White Supremacy

Filed under: african-american,Black Lives Matter,Harper's Open Letter,journalism — louisproyect @ 3:18 pm


John “Rick” MacArthur

When the latest issue of Harper’s arrived in my mailbox in June, white racist grievances had reached a fever-pitch. The University of North Carolina had refused tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones, Critical Race Theory had become a bogeyman like Communism was in the 1950s, and Republican state governments were working overtime to pass Jim Crow type voting laws. Instead of standing up to these racist threats, the magazine decided to publish a nearly 5,600 word attack on the 1619 Project by Princeton history professor Matthew Karp titled “History As End: 1619, 1776, and the politics of the past.” While the article is behind a paywall, you can register for one free article a month.

The article argues that it is futile to dwell on the racist history of the USA and to instead look forward to breakthroughs like the Civil War, the civil rights movement, etc. Essentially, Karp aligns himself with the cadre of historians that complained bitterly about all the falsehoods they supposedly saw in the 1619 Project. Among them, his Princeton colleague Sean Wilentz barked the loudest at Hannah-Jones. Mostly, the complaints were about her introductory article that stated that the colonists fought for independence in order to maintain slavery and that racism was in America’s DNA. Except for Wilentz, the historians took their case to the World Socialist Website (WSWS), an outlet distinguished by its hysterical Henny-Penny warnings that WWIII was always about to break out and that Socialist Workers Party leader Joe Hansen was a GPU agent.


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  1. Many great points–I especially like this one: “This rather obscure observation is supposed to remind us, according to Karp, that history is neither all good or all bad. I am not sure it is necessary to cite Foucault to understand what most children learn in the 8th grade. What they are not learning, however, is how White households ended up with 6.9 times as much wealth as Blacks’.”

    Comment by Alan Wald — July 20, 2021 @ 3:41 pm

  2. You write: “The article argues that it is futile to dwell on the racist history of the USA and to instead look forward to breakthroughs like the Civil War, the civil rights movement, etc.” I think your comment substantially misreads what Karp wrote. Karp’s view seems, instead, to be that origins are not the be all and end all of understanding today’s problems – they are not, in other words, the same as a DNA of the US – but, instead, events that impacted, but did not define or pre-determine, the outcome of all else that has occurred.

    What Karp writes seems pretty uncontroversial. Essentialism – i.e., what he critiques – is not typically considered good history.

    Comment by Neal — July 20, 2021 @ 8:39 pm

  3. Oh, you mean that both good things and bad things happen in history? So profound.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 20, 2021 @ 9:36 pm

  4. You can find examples of Nikole Hannah-Jones attacking Sanders here: https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2016/11/23/13715164/bernie-sanders-identity-politics-democrats-progressives

    Comment by Will Shetterly — July 21, 2021 @ 4:57 pm

  5. I actually have the same problem with throwing the term “identity politics” around and am glad she brought it up. I made similar points myself.

    Deepening Contradictions: Identity Politics and Steelworkers

    Comment by louisproyect — July 21, 2021 @ 5:30 pm

  6. Louis Proyect writes: “Oh, you mean that both good things and bad things happen in history? So profound.” I don’t think that Karp was trying to be profound. I think he was providing a critique of a way of thinking that is, at best, not good history because it employs essentialism, ignores context, ignores contrary evidence, contains serious errors, etc., so as not to illuminate either the past or provide anything helpful for understanding or improving the present and future. At worst, that way of thinking is simply dishonest in its formulation of the past for purposes of political ends.

    I might add, given your interest in things profound, that it is not at all profound for a writer to acknowledge that slavery, Jim Crow and racism have had and still have a horrible impact on the US. As Karp notes, that is something that even Trump’s “historians” recognize. Karp, in an effort to present history in a manner that explains how slavery was eradicated (at least in the US), how Jim Crow was defeated and how still existing racial prejudice can be abated notes that it is also necessary to acknowledge countervailing trends in US history (e.g., that, at the time of the Revolutionary War, serious objections to slavery first began to appear in the colonies and that, in fact, some states in the north ended slavery; and that many of those who helped in the abolitionist movement found support in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to advance that agenda; etc., etc.). In other words, presenting the past as if figures such as Benjamin Franklin was not president of the world’s – and not merely the US’s – first anti-slavery society, as if Frederick Douglas was not all that important a figure, as if MLK was not all that important an figure, etc., etc., provides no lessons for our time about overcoming still existing prejudices.

    Comment by Neal — July 22, 2021 @ 3:29 pm

  7. As Karp notes, that is something that even Trump’s “historians” recognize.


    I would put scare quotes around recognize as well.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 22, 2021 @ 3:41 pm

  8. “I would put scare quotes around recognize as well.”

    Why? Does the 1776 Project fail to recognize that? Do critics of the 1619 Project like Barbara Fields and James McPherson deny the history of racism in the US?

    Comment by Will Shetterly — July 22, 2021 @ 4:01 pm

  9. Shetterly, please make an effort to respond to my obvious point. I was referring to Trump’s historians who all uphold white supremacy even if they pay lip-service to opposing it.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 22, 2021 @ 4:50 pm

  10. Your obvious point is odd. Trump attracted more voters of color than any Republican in something like 40 years. Either this means a growing number of black people are white supremacists, or “white supremacy” is a less useful explanation today than it was during Jim Crow.

    Comment by Will Shetterly — July 22, 2021 @ 4:57 pm

  11. About 87% of Black voters nationwide chose Biden over Trump, according to preliminary national exit polling. Those early exit polls show that 19% of Black men voted for Trump, as did 9% of Black women.

    An Associated Press VoteCast survey showed overall larger Black support for Biden — 90%. According to the AP survey, 12% of Black men voted for Trump, while only 6% of Black women supported him.

    Among all voters, Biden won Detroit, capturing 94% of the vote while Trump received only 5%. In Philadelphia, Biden grabbed 81% compared to 18% for Trump. Philly’s diverse surrounding suburbs also outperformed for Biden. Atlanta residents backed Biden over Trump 73% to 26%.

    At least one preliminary snapshot shows that Trump made slight inroads with Black voters, compared with 2016 results. And while final numbers may show a negligible Trump bump this year among African American voters, exit polls are notoriously inaccurate, especially when the final vote count hasn’t been weighted.


    Comment by louisproyect — July 22, 2021 @ 5:04 pm

  12. Sure, the Democrats still have the majority of POC voters. Yet the tide is shifting. Are GOP voters of color white supremacists?

    Comment by Will Shetterly — July 22, 2021 @ 5:14 pm

  13. Will Shetterly asks: “Are GOP voters of color white supremacists?”

    Odd question that assumes that voters and their candidates are ideologically interchangeable. Be that as it may, understanding the reasons why certain voters voted for Trump serves a purpose. Is it that they can’t stand the Democrats? or Biden? Is it that they like portions of Trump’s agenda? Or, did they enjoy the reality show aspect of the Trump’s presidency? Or, perhaps, they enjoyed his coarse way of speaking?

    We can guess on and on about these things, although it is worth noting that working class whites have, over the years, voted less and less often for Democrats – although, of course, there are exceptions to that. That other segments of the working class might also be voting a bit less often for the Democrats – if that turns out really to be the case – should concern the Democrats a lot.

    Comment by Neal — July 22, 2021 @ 6:35 pm

  14. The numbers I’m aware of say that is the case, and we can agree that the Dems should be concerned. But they seem to be focused on defeating leftists within their party, so I’m guessing they’re not.

    Comment by Will Shetterly — July 22, 2021 @ 6:56 pm

  15. Will Shetterly writes: “But they seem to be focused on defeating leftists within their party, so I’m guessing they’re not.”

    I would think that the analysis, as seen by bigwigs in the Democratic party, has two parts: 1. policy preferences of the Democrats are more or less set, such that there is not much that can be done if that is an issue for certain voters; but 2. rhetoric can always be changed and certain elements of the left use rhetoric – most particularly about culture and race – that is seen as truly offensives to vast swaths of all voters including, in particular, those in the working class.

    Now, I think that the Democrats have two real problems for the working class. One actually involves policy. The other – the one the Democrats are, at times, willing to address – concerns cultural matters. So far as policies, the party primarily pushes the agenda of wealthy educated people – basically, those who would, when I was younger, make up the former – now defunct – Nelson Rockefeller wing of the GOP -, academics, Silicon Valley (and the like), bankers and Wall Street as its mainstay, with morsels dropped now and then for the working class, poor and minorities – enough dropping to distinguish them from the GOP – so that the working class, poor and minorities don’t all defect, along with cultural rhetoric about racism, sexism and the like (i.e., the things that the educated and academic segments of the Democratic coalition like to hear).

    So, the party’s approach to dealing with defectors is to worry mostly to focus on not allowing the rhetoric it uses about those race, sex and the like to be conflated with those on the left who are part of what some call cancel (or woke) culture – i.e., the rhetoric and, with it, activities that much of the country really hates.

    My gut reaction is that more than morsels also need to be dropped for the working class, poor and minorities. And, our country’s other institutions (e.g., the press) needs to be repaired – although only the press can heal itself) so that people have some faith in things in which the government is involved. At this point, confidence in any US institutions is collapsing, and not only in the perception of certain segments of the public. So, there is much work to do. The cancel/woke element of the left, however, makes things harder for the Democrats by allowing over the top rhetoric and by driving people from their jobs for saying this or that thing that someone decides is the problem of the week.

    Comment by Neal — July 23, 2021 @ 6:10 pm

  16. “The cancel/woke element of the left, however, makes things harder for the Democrats by allowing over the top rhetoric and by driving people from their jobs for saying this or that thing that someone decides is the problem of the week.”

    Help, I am being invaded by the The Bellows! Someone save me from the Matt Taibbi/Glenn Greenwald/Jimmy Dore left.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 23, 2021 @ 9:02 pm

  17. Louis, I laugh, and I pity you a little, but my heart is with leftists who put class before social identity. Identitarians never tell us how we can end racism or sexism, but any leftist worth his salt can tell you how to end poverty in a month, either with socialism if we can win or with Basic Income if we cannot. Solve the problems we know how to solve, then work on the ones we don’t.

    Comment by Will Shetterly — July 23, 2021 @ 10:27 pm

  18. You sound like Eugene V. Debs:

    “In this system class rules class and while the system lasts, and this, as I have already indicated, is not a race question, but a class question, and when the Negroes, the great mass of whom are wage workers, develop sufficient intelligence to understand their true economic and political interests, they will join and support the Socialist Party, the only political party in the world today whose declared purpose it is to abolish class rule and establish a republic whose fundamental principle is the equal rights and freedom of all.”

    No Negro Question Outside the Class Question:
    An Open Letter to J. Milton Waldron, President of the
    National Negro American Political League
    (June 30, 1908)

    Click to access 080627-debs-towaldron.pdf

    Comment by louisproyect — July 23, 2021 @ 11:09 pm

  19. Do you think class was not a greater issue than race during Jim Crow? Capitalism is the system of “systemic racism”—you can’t keep poor blacks and whites at the bottom without a class system.

    A favorite factoid: “When the racist poll tax was passed in the South, imposing property and other requirements designed to shut out Black voters, many poor whites also lost the right to vote. After Mississippi passed its poll tax law, the number of qualified white voters fell from 130,000 to 68,000.” —Sharon Smith

    Comment by Will Shetterly — July 23, 2021 @ 11:14 pm

  20. Since you’re quoting Debs, here are two things he said I agree with:

    “As a social party we receive the Negro and all other races upon absolutely equal terms.” —Eugene V. Debs

    “There never was any social inferiority that was not the shriveled fruit of economic inequality.” —Eugene V. Debs

    Do you think either is wrong?

    Comment by Will Shetterly — July 23, 2021 @ 11:19 pm

  21. Do you think class was not a greater issue than race during Jim Crow?


    It would never occur to me to ask such a question. Over 4,000 Blacks were lynched during Jim Crow. A movement was built to end lynching that the CP spearheaded just as it spearheaded building industrial unions. Why you would prioritize one against another is anybody’s guess. Maybe you spent a little too much time in the Socialist Equality Party.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 23, 2021 @ 11:21 pm

  22. I’m not in the SEP, but I’m a fan of this observation:

    “has not the Communist Manifesto taught us that it is our duty to support any progressive movement that benefits the workers’ cause, even if this movement is not our own?” —Eleanor Marx

    Socialists like Du Bois and King did not need an ideology developed by bourgeois neoliberals like Derrick Bell and endorsed by the New York Times editorial board in order to work for equality for all.

    Comment by Will Shetterly — July 23, 2021 @ 11:37 pm

  23. The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, Vol. 2, No. 3, New Perspectives on Socialism I (Jul., 2003),
    For White Men Only: The Socialist Party of America and Issues of Gender, Ethnicity and Race
    By Sally M. Miller

    On the subject of race, ambivalence if not indifference framed the party’s record despite what at first glance appeared to be uniquely non-racist views for that era. Socialists indeed spoke with many different voices on race, while the party was perhaps most reflective of Eugene Debs’ view that the socialist movement had no particular message for African Americans as a race. Debs argued passionately that the party was open to workers of all races and backgrounds, but none should be invited on any other basis than their identity as workers. His close comrade, Kate Richards O’Hare, maintained that African Americans must be accorded civil and political rights but she endorsed social segregation. Lena Morrow Lewis, perhaps the most active and successful party organizer, convinced the party executive at least to explore the possibility of assigning black party members on organizing swings in areas where black men still retained the franchise. Oscar Ameringer, a Bavarian-born party intellectual and journalist, who ironically spent many years in close collaboration with the racist Berger on other party matters, led campaigns on the local level opposing further disfranchisement and segregation. But Berger and Untermann, the leaders of the anti-immigrant wing of the party, virulently condemned all non-Caucasians, arguing that Caucasian civilization had to be protected against the encroachment by others as they bemoaned the presence of other races in the United States. Berger himself was on record as announcing that blacks constituted a lower race.

    Unlike women and newer immigrant groups, no stream of African Americans demanded a place for themselves at the Socialist Party’s table. While some African American radicals joined the party and tried to convert Blacks to socialism, such numbers were minuscule. In contrast to the newer immigrant groups, no network of organizations or institutions on a radical foundation existed within the black community which might have been tapped by socialist organizers. As historian Mark Naison has observed, African Americans lacked radically-committed fraternal orders and cultural organizations which could have converted to socialism. And unlike hundreds of women who organized socialist clubs and threatened to form a competing movement, African American women’s organizational efforts tended to focus on education and social services so they built no such parallel structure. Consequently, no separate black bureaucracy developed in the party comparable to the foreign language federations and the Woman’s National Committee. No organizational voice spoke on behalf of and to African Americans from within the Socialist Party.21

    The Socialist Party went on record at its founding convention as welcoming African Americans to membership, after a resolution was introduced by one of the three black delegates present. Debs soon seemed to echo that sentiment by commenting that the class struggle was colorless: African Americans were free to join the party but no special efforts would be made on their behalf as Blacks. But as with the party’s initial endorsement of full rights for women, it refrained from implementing its resolution, and did not assign organizers or issue relevant literature. Nor did it discuss or reaffirm the resolution at subsequent conventions.22

    A fierce debate, however, erupted which dramatically displayed the divisions within the party over African American membership and also over integrated locals. Charles H. Vail writing in the influential International Socialist Review welcomed any black support for the Socialist Party while other rank-and-filers, southerners, Eraste Vidrine and E.F. Andrews, in separate articles in the same journal, displayed great agitation over any party involvement in race matters. Deep South locals opposed integrating African American members. Indeed, when New York party organizer, Theresa Malkiel – herself an immigrant from the Russian Empire – tried to address an African American crowd in Arkansas, which had been barred from joining her audience at a white socialist gathering, her willingness to do so horrified her hosts who feared inciting a riot. Party newspaper articles and reports demonstrate that southern socialist attitudes reflected the sentiments of their region. In 1913 a party survey revealed the particulars of the division over integrated locals. Reports submitted to the Information Department of the National Office indicated that mixed locals were the norm outside the South. But the reports from nine Southern state secretaries and the District of Columbia showed that in states such as South Carolina and Mississippi, segregationist party practices prevailed, while in the Upper South an African American member could belong to the local nearest his home.

    Although no effort was made to determine the number of African American members, it is apparent that these socialists in the southern states numbered merely in the dozens.23 African Americans who tried to convert their communities to socialism tended to be clergy, such as ministers George Washington Woodbey, George W. Slater, and George Frazier Miller. The Tennessee-born Woodbey, the most active in the party of these figures, served as a delegate to national conventions and as a member of the party’s California State Executive Board as well as a candidate for public office on the socialist ticket. He participated in convention debates over immigration restriction where he battled against any racist exclusionary policies. Woodbey’s appeals to his fellow African Americans on behalf of socialism always approached blacks as members of the working class. Slater, about whom very little is known, wrote a few articles in the same vein for the Chicago Daily Socialist in 1908 and 1909, and a few years later for the Christian Socialist.24 Two locations where campaigns were initiated to attract African Americans were New York City and Oklahoma. In New York such efforts were sparked by Virgin Island-born Hubert Harrison with sometime party member W.E.B. DuBois peripherally involved. Local New York, which like the party in general initially lacked any specific interest in recruiting African Americans, appointed Harrison as a speaker and organizer during the municipal campaign of 1911. For the next three years Harrison worked in Harlem to expand its small African American membership and vote but, despite some party consideration of establishing a program for blacks, Harrison’s efforts played out basically in isolation.

    For example, plans for a “Colored Socialist Club” were cancelled in the face of charges of segregation by DuBois and Rev. Miller. Harrison continued as a socialist soapbox speaker, emphasizing the party’s commitment to end exploitation of workers of all races. But in 1914, Harrison abandoned the party, attracted to the Wobblies as more supportive of people of color, thereby ending Local New York’s pre-WWI outreach to black Harlemites. By then DuBois also had broken ranks with the Socialist Party in order to support Woodrow Wilson in the election of 1912, a commitment he soon regretted. A few years later during the war, A. Philip Randolph, founder of a socialist political club while still a student, and Chandler Owen, both college-edited Southerners, edited a monthly, The Messenger, whose masthead proudly proclaimed itself to be “the only radical Negro magazine in America.”

    Their circle included African American intellectuals and journalists, many of whom hailed from the Caribbean, such as Wilfred A. Domingo, George S. Schuyler, Rev. George Frazier Miller, and Otto Huiswoud who had been born into slavery in the Dutch West Indies. Randolph and Owen lectured at the socialist Rand School of Social Science on economics “and the Negro question” and expanded African American party membership and electorate; in the New York mayoralty election of 1917, one-fourth of black voters marked their ballots for the socialist candidate (who, ironically, was Morris Hillquit). In the meantime, other socialist-leaning periodicals, the Emancipator and the Crusader, began to publish in Harlem as well. But any chances of a network of African American socialist institutions taking firm root in Harlem were undercut by the events surrounding the war, especially by the socialist schism. Indeed, some of these African Americans soon joined the Communist Party, which would eventually make greater efforts to recruit black Americans than had the prewar Socialist Party.25

    Comment by louisproyect — July 23, 2021 @ 11:45 pm

  24. Thank you. There are things in there that I had not known. However, the gist is news at 11: It was a more racist time.

    It was also a time with an enormous gap between rich and poor that we’re returning to, and yet the identitarians want to focus on social identity instead of class.

    Here’s Du Bois putting class first in his foreword to the 50th edition of his classic work:

    “I still think today as yesterday that the color line is a great problem of this century. But today I see more clearly than yesterday that back of the problem of race and color, lies a greater problem which both obscures and implements it: and that is the fact that so many civilized persons are willing to live in comfort even if the price of this is poverty, ignorance, and disease of the majority of their fellowmen.” —W.E.B. Du Bois

    Comment by Will Shetterly — July 24, 2021 @ 2:13 am

  25. Here’s King putting class first:

    “In the treatment of poverty nationally, one fact stands out: there are twice as many white poor as Negro poor in the United States. Therefore I will not dwell on the experiences of poverty that derive from racial discrimination, but will discuss the poverty that affects white and Negro alike.” — Martin Luther King

    Comment by Will Shetterly — July 24, 2021 @ 2:14 am

  26. I really don’t have time to answer Will or Neal on this post so I am turning comments off. Sorry.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 24, 2021 @ 2:27 am

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