Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

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


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.

Continue reading

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.


June 23, 2016

Free Labor: The Civil War and the Making of the American Working Class

Filed under: Civil War,trade unions,workers — louisproyect @ 6:11 pm

Screen Shot 2016-06-23 at 2.05.00 PM

For most people on the left, including me, American labor struggles begin with the 1877 railroad strikes and come to a climax with the CIO organizing drives of the 1930s. This is especially true if you have read Philip Foner’s “The Great Labor Uprising of 1877”, a Pathfinder book I read in the early 70s. It was a companion piece to Art Preis’s “Labor’s Giant Step”, another Pathfinder book that served as a great guide to the 1930s labor struggles and still does.

I would recommend both of these books to people who want to learn about labor history even if the money goes to a group that has lost the thread completely on the labor movement if not to speak of the class struggle in general. To these two must-reads, I would add a new book by Mark A. Lause, a former member of the Socialist Workers Party who has followed in the footsteps of Philip Foner and Art Preis with the magisterial “Free Labor: The Civil War and the Making of the American Working Class”.

When you hear the term “free labor” in the context of the Civil War, the first thing that springs to mind is the Radical Republican agenda to abolish slavery but Lause uses it in a broader sense. His study amasses an astonishing collection of historical detail to demonstrate that the worker soldiers who fought for emancipation also thought the term applied to their own struggle against bosses, whether they owned a shoe factory in Massachusetts or a plantation in Mississippi.

In the very first sentence of the Acknowledgments, Lause states: “Work on this subject has gone on for decades, as I gathered up what has become the bits and pieces from almost every library or archive I’ve ever visited.” Support for this statement can be found on just about every page of a work that is studded with amazing profiles of personalities and events that have languished in obscurity for far too long.

As an experiment, I opened “Free Labor” randomly and felt positive that I would land upon the kind of revelation that makes the book so compelling. So on page 80, I read:

[DeWitt Clinton] Roberts went from Charleston to Atlanta for work, but, as the weeks wore on, the prospect of Confederate conscription once more threatened him. He had gotten a thirty-day leave from his employer, the Southern Confederacy, to visit Charleston, and then told the provost marshal that he wanted to visit his relatives near Oxford, Mississippi. On December 20, 1863, he abandoned his “trunk, books, and clothing,” saving what he “could carry in a handtrunk.” He found that war had crippled the Southern railroads, but he reached Oxford nevertheless, eight days later. There, he persuaded the Confederate cavalry to permit him through the lines to Holly Springs. Circumstances soon forced Roberts, who had thought so disparagingly of the blacks attacking Fort Wagner, to rely entirely upon African Americans for assistance in reaching Union lines.

Roberts was a printer from the North who had ended up in the South for work before the start of the war and became part of the modest trade union initiatives that were cropping up there as well, often incorporating the region’s racist ideology. When the prospects of being drafted into the Rebel army confronted him, he had no choice except to depend on Blacks to escape to the North. Whatever his racial attitudes, and as Lause points out he was no William Lloyd Garrison, he made common cause with those seeking freedom.

The printers are to the labor struggles of the 1860s that railway workers were to 1877 and auto workers were to the CIO in the 30s. This was a function of the vanguard role played by craftsmen in the 1860s, a period long before Fordism and assembly lines became dominant. Like the men who volunteered to fight against Franco in Spain, printers enlisted in the Union army as a way of defeating chattel slavery in the South and what was commonly known as wages slavery in the North at some point in the future. Lause cites a newspaper that observed in 1861 that every volunteer regiment had enough printers to open an office of its own.

The National Typographers Union was to the labor vanguard of the 1860s that the UAW was to Flint sit-down strikes even if it like the UAW failed to break the color line at General Motors. Lause points out that after the war the Washington, DC printers deferred to the Confederate veterans who refused to work alongside Blacks, including Lewis H. Douglass, the son of Frederick Douglass, who worked in the Government Printing Office.

For New Yorkers, there is a great pleasure in store to read about the most militant bastion of free labor in the city, the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Lause writes:

There, too, a vicious dispute in the Navy Yard among radicalized workers was raised. One of their leaders, Moses Platt, “made an extravagant speech about capital and labor,” calling on workers to throw off their yoke. At a meeting of a Brooklyn trade union meeting, one of the members rose to discuss working-class political action, adding that “the nearest approach to success was made in France during the last revolution, when the combination of labor became so strong that capitalists in all countries became alarmed and combined to put it down, and – did so through Napoleon.”

Employers reacted coherently when workers beyond the Navy Yard showed signs of militancy: stonecutters, blacksmiths, carpenters and laborers went on strike as did painters and hatters, while piano makers faced a lockout, and plasterers, molders, jewelers, machinists, and musicians organized for a pay increase. A “Farmers’ Protective Union of the counties of Kings, Queens, Suffolk, Westchester, Richmond and Rockland” formed. At the same time, the use of convict labor drew the molders and other trade unionists into politics, urging a bill to regulate such innovations.

You get a sense of the craftsmen character of the early labor movement from the inclusion of jewelers, musicians and piano makers fighting for higher wages. Many years ago just after I had completed a training program as a machinist in Kansas City in order to help me get a factory job as part of the SWP’s “turn to industry”, the word came down that party members should only work in unskilled jobs like in the meatpacking industry. Clearly, they had a very poor grasp not only of the role of skilled workers in this period but how workers become politicized in the first place. As was the case during the Civil War and will surely be the case in the next radicalization, workers will move against the class enemy not because of their role in surplus value creation but as a reaction to social crisis in general. When Lenin wrote in “What is to be Done” that a socialist party has to respond to every injustice, including the right of artists to paint as they please, he was polemicizing against the “point of production” mentality that has confused so much of the left over the years into adopting a “workerist” orientation.

African-Americans, either those still enslaved or those in the ranks of “wages slavery” were on the front lines of the labor movement. In the South, they engaged in mass resistance to the Confederacy as they abandoned their slave-master’s plantation or carried out sabotage and arson to undermine the rebel cause.

In the general insurrectionary mood, poor whites in the South began to make common cause with Blacks as Lause points out:

The growing numbers of aggrieved nonslaveholders, including armed Confederate deserters and escaped Union prisoners, provided slave rebels a growing number of whites ready to transgress the color bar. Civilian authorities far from Federal lines clamored for martial law and the assignment of troops to suppress small bands of armed blacks. Increasingly, Confederates feared a convergence of “deserters from our armies, Tories and runaways.” By early 1864 Confederate officials in South Carolina reported “five to six hundred negroes” not in “the regular military organization of the Yankees” who “lead the lives of banditti, roving the country with fire and committing all sorts of horrible crimes upon the inhabitants.” Florida officials reported “500 Union men, deserters, and negroes . . . raiding towards Gainesville,” while similar groups formed to commit “depredations upon the plantations and crops of loyal citizens and running off their slaves.” At Yazoo City, Mississippi, they not only attacked such private estates but successfully burned the courthouse.

As it happens, this is the scenario of a film I saw at a press screening last night. Titled “The Free State of Jones”, it is about the pro-Union resistance of Newton Knight, a poor farmer in Mississippi who deserted from the Confederate army, and his Black allies. It is a great film just as “Free Labor” is a great book and one that I will be reviewing in a day or so.

November 30, 2012

Kate Masur on Spielberg’s “Lincoln”

Filed under: Civil War — louisproyect @ 7:46 pm


A Filmmaker’s Imagination, and a Historian’s
November 30, 2012, 1:58 pm
By Kate Masur

As viewers flock to see Lincoln, and reviewers rave about Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance, historians are raising different kinds of issues: How accurate is the film’s portrayal of emancipation? What does it leave out? The Chronicle Review asked several scholars to weigh in.

“You gave us the history from which we made our historical fiction,” Steven Spielberg recently told the historians in a crowd gathered to commemorate the 149th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. Then the filmmaker drew a distinction. Historians “gather evidence” and produce “diligently reconstructed narratives.” By contrast, he said, “one of the jobs of art is to go to the impossible places,” to “enlist the imagination to bring what’s lost back to us.” The “resurrection” of the past by filmmakers, he continued, “is of course just an illusion. It’s a fantasy and it’s a dream.”

Moviegoers and historians alike should pay attention. Spielberg’s Lincoln is a work of art, a film about morality, democracy, and human agency that tells us something about its creators and—since Lincoln will be watched and loved by millions—about ourselves. Like any other movie, novel, or painting, the film ought to be discussed and critiqued. Indeed, it should be subjected to a particularly searching analysis precisely because of its prominence and power.

I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit in the wake of an op-ed I wrote about the film for The New York Times, in which I pointed out the passivity and generic nature of the black characters in the film. I argued that the filmmakers’ “imagination” (to quote Spielberg) was one in which white men gave the gift of freedom to African-Americans.

A rich debate has developed among historians and in the greater blogosphere about this film. Some writers have agreed with my points wholeheartedly, arguing that the film underemphasized the role African-Americans played in influencing the abolition debate in Washington. Others have said that black characters are unimportant to the film’s larger goals. Some critics have claimed that I would only have been satisfied with an entirely different film—perhaps one focused on slaves’ struggle to get free, or on Lincoln’s relationship with Frederick Douglass.

To be sure, I’d like to see more Hollywood films that feature prominent and complex black characters. My point, though, was that the filmmakers’ artistic choices revealed assumptions about black passivity and white agency that are inaccurate, damaging, and difficult to dislodge.

This is not a quibble about facts. Nor am I advocating a politically correct or anachronistic interpretation of history. To the contrary, it is now received wisdom among professional historians that African-Americans—both enslaved and free—were active participants in debates about slavery and race and that slaves’ refusal to stay put or side with their owners had enormous consequences. As Eric Foner wrote in a recent letter to The New York Times: “Slavery died on the ground, not just in the White House and the House of Representatives.”

On the issue of facts, Harold Holzer, an eminent Lincoln scholar, found plenty of scenes that have no basis in the known history. Yet in an article for The Daily Beast, he concluded that, “In pursuit of broad collective memory, perhaps it’s not important to sweat the small stuff.”

I agree. It’s acceptable (even inevitable) that artists depart from the empirical evidence in order to capture something human and profound. But it is also reasonable to point out how a work of art can reveal and reinforce deeply held beliefs and unacknowledged assumptions.

In Spielberg’s treatment, Elizabeth Keckley and William Slade appear to be faithful White House servants who did little more than look after the comforts of their employers. They are archetypes rather than individuals. In reality, Keckley was a skilled dressmaker who had many different clients among Washington’s society women; she led an organization of African-American women that raised money to help needy runaway slaves; and she persuaded Mary Todd Lincoln to donate money to her cause. Slade, for his part, was president of an African-American civil-rights organization whose activities were known to members of Congress and, almost certainly, to Lincoln himself.

If evidence abounds of Slade’s and Keckley’s leadership and advocacy, then why didn’t the film allude to it? Perhaps because the filmmakers did not—or could not—imagine black servants who had lives outside their work and were activists in their own right.

To those who insist that it would have required a PBS miniseries or a wholly different feature film to portray black characters with more complexity and to suggest that African-Americans played a role in their own liberation, I offer the following dreams and fantasies of my own.

Thaddeus Stevens could have talked about politics at home with his supposed  lover, Lydia Smith, who was African-American. They might have discussed the tension between Stevens’s idealism and the president’s pragmatism; Smith could have given Stevens advice about how to handle himself during the House debate over the 13th amendment.

Robert Lincoln, strolling around Washington and mulling his conflict with his parents, could have come across a meeting of black activists who, under leadership of the editor Robert Hamilton of New York, had assembled in the capital to lobby Congress for emancipation and equal rights. Some of these men could have been among the group of African-Americans who filed into the House chamber to witness the amendment’s passage.

Keckley, in an effort to get the First Lady out of the house, could have taken Mary Lincoln to a meeting of her relief organization at 15th Street Presbyterian Church, the city’s most prestigious black church, where Slade was also a member.

A Northern black activist or two could have visited the White House to lobby for the amendment or to discuss which Democratic representatives could be persuaded to back the amendment. For that matter, Lincoln could have been shown discussing his dilemma with Slade.

Instead of showing Lincoln interacting with (passive) photographic images of slaves, the film could have shown him meeting actual fugitive slaves who had come into the city. An escaped slave might have described her decision to leave home, her calculus of the risks versus the potential rewards, and her understanding of the war itself. The interaction might have been shown to touch Lincoln emotionally. (As it stands, Spielberg imagines that Lincoln decided to prioritize the amendment over peace talks, not because anyone or any thing persuaded him, but because he meditated on a Euclidean equation.)

None of my fantastical scenes are any less accurate or more improbable than scenes that already exist in the movie. Any of them would have helped suggest that the black characters—though marginal to the film as a whole—had political views of their own. And any of them would have helped make the broader point that African-Americans participated in the abolition of slavery in a variety of ways.

Some critics argue that the film gives us powerful scenes of black men as soldiers and that these sufficiently demonstrate that African-Americans participated in the struggle for abolition. It’s worth acknowledging that there are black Union soldiers in Lincoln, though frankly, it would have been egregious if Spielberg’s vision of the military conflict in the winter of 1865 had not included them. In an appealing example of artistic license, an early scene shows two black soldiers talking with Lincoln and then, with two white soldiers, reciting the Gettysburg Address. I like how this scene lays out some of the stakes and possibilities of that historical moment. And the black soldiers’ speaking parts are probably longer and certainly more interesting than any other lines delivered by black characters in the film.

Another scene in which stoic black soldiers on horseback stare down the Confederate commissioners suggests more, I think, about the commissioners’ horror at black enlistment in the Union army than it does about the soldiers’ own agency. But I appreciate how the scene references the dramatic changes in Southern life that the Civil War would bring.

Even so, the scenes that feature soldiers—including the first one showing intense hand-to-hand combat and the later one in which the audience views, with Lincoln, scores of soldiers lying dead where they fell—mainly function to frame the film’s central concern: political deliberations in Washington. Violence, suffering, and death on the battlefield remind us of the stakes of Lincoln’s decisions and help us understand why he was (according to the film) tempted by the possibility of forging peace without emancipation.

As the political scientist Corey Robin wrote, this film de-centers Lincoln, giving us a cacophony of voices on the subject of abolition, but almost every one of those voices belongs to a white person. It is because the movie’s dramatic tension focuses on civilian life in general and on politics in particular that its creators’ failure to imagine the activities of black civilians is so disappointing.

In the end, Spielberg’s proposition that historians live in a world of facts while artists trade in dreams and fantasies is useful but incomplete. Historians use their imaginations all the time. In fact, some of the best history writing and teaching happens when we insist on exploring how our imagined version of a story stacks up against the evidence of complexity and contingency that we find in the sources. Conversely, of course, it’s hardly the case that Spielberg and Tony Kushner, who wrote the screenplay, don’t care about knowable facts. Why else would they go to great lengths to get their hands on Lincoln’s watch or to record the ring of the bells at Lincoln’s church in Washington?

Perhaps the relationship between evidence and imagination is the crux of the matter. Many readers objected strongly to the assertion that the film could have alluded to African-Americans’ abolitionist activities without diminishing the larger story. There is ample evidence that doing so would have been historically accurate and manageable in a few minutes of screen time. Yet such activities were not part of Lincoln’s world as these readers (or the filmmakers) imagined it.

Spielberg’s remarks at Gettysburg were profound on the subjects of history, loss, art, and memory; it’s clear that he and Kushner have thought deeply about their work and its meaning. But this only brings into relief their blind spots about race. By failing to portray independent and verbally astute black characters—even on the periphery—they ended up making a film that perpetuates the culturally authoritative but historically inaccurate idea that white men alone were the authors of abolition.

We’re all entitled to imagine how we would make a blockbuster film about Abraham Lincoln—what scenes we’d include and what messages we’d drive home. No one, however, commands the resources, wherewithal, and audience of Spielberg and Kushner. Their power to shape our collective understanding of race and democracy is enormous. Their historical dreams and fantasies matter more than ours. That’s why it would have been nice if they had gotten this part of the story right.

Kate Masur, an associate professor of history at Northwestern, is the author of An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle Over Equality in Washington, D.C. (University of North Carolina Press, 2010).

Paternalism and ass-kissing in Spielberg’s “Lincoln”

Filed under: Civil War,Film — louisproyect @ 4:07 pm
Counterpunch Weekend Edition Nov 30-Dec 02, 2012

Horse-Trading Versus Struggle

Paternalism and Ass-Covering in Spielberg’s “Lincoln”


Which film about the abolition of slavery was intended to burnish the reputation of a contemporary President? If you answered that it was Spielberg’s lavishly praised “Lincoln”, you were right. When asked in a November 15th NPR interview whether he saw parallels with the Obama administration, screenwriter Tony Kushner replied:

I think Obama is a great president and I feel that there is immense potential now for building – rebuilding a real progressive democracy in this country after a great deal of damage has been done to it. And I think that it faces many obstacles, and one of its obstacles is an impatience on the part of very good, very progressive people, with the kind of compromising that you were just mentioning, the kind of horse trading that is necessary.

But you would have also been right if you guessed “Amazing Grace”, the 2007 biopic about William Wilberforce, the British parliamentarian who opposed slavery. Its producer Philip Anschutz, the rightwing billionaire who also recently unleashed the toxic defense of charter schools “Won’t Back Down”, clearly intended to promote the agenda of the Christian right and the Bush administration it supported. By turning the abolitionist movement in Britain into a Church-based enterprise, Anschutz sought to legitimize new missionary operations in Africa all too familiar to people with painful memories of the bible and the gun.

The paternalism embodied in both screenplays transcends narrow party affiliations. It is wrapped up in the idea that “good people” on high delivered Black people from their oppression. The chief difference between the two films is Kushner’s decision to eschew hagiography and portray Lincoln as a kind of down-and-dirty dealmaker. This Lincoln had more in common in fact with LBJ than Barack Obama whose pugnaciousness is most often directed at his voting base rather than the billionaires who financed his campaign.

full: http://www.counterpunch.org/2012/11/30/paternalism-and-ass-covering-in-spielbergs-lincoln/

November 29, 2012

“Emancipation without affranchisement was a partial emancipation unworthy of the name.”

Filed under: Civil War,slavery — louisproyect @ 5:29 pm

Michael Vorenberg, “Final Freedom: The Civil War, the Abolition of Slavery, and the Thirteenth Amendment”:

Black abolitionists were even less likely than their white allies to throw their weight behind the amendment. By early 1864 they had begun to shift their attention away from slavery and toward the fate of the freed people. An anonymous black correspondent captured the spirit of much black abolitionist thought when, in January 1864, he complained about two recent antislavery speeches: “We have had enough of politics and slavery-of the latter we are nearly tired to death. We read it, we sing it, we pray it, we talk it, we speak it, we lecture it, and the whole United States is in arms against it. You come to tell us it is dead. Well, if that is so, I thank God. Don’t bother its carcass. Let us improve the living who have been under slavery. . . . Don’t come anymore riding that old weather beaten horse, anti-slavery.”66

African Americans well understood that a constitutional amendment that emancipated the slaves might do little to prevent economic and legal inequality. For evidence of the potential shortcomings of emancipation, black activists had only to look at free African Americans in the North, most of whom were the victims of disfranchisement and discrimination.67 An anonymous black writer derided those who agitated for emancipation, arguing that freedom for the slaves would do little to change the degraded condition of African Americans in general: “The slave bears the irons of slavery; the other [the free black] has been relieved from them, but, enclosed in the same dark dungeon with the former, they are both prisoners.”68 Nor had the military service of African Americans improved their legal status. In April 1863 Douglass had promised free blacks that “to fight for the Government in this tremendous war is … to fight for nationality and for a place with all other classes of our fellow-citizens.” But by the spring of 1864, black soldiers still did not receive the same pay as white soldiers, and Congress had yet to pass an act assuring the freedom of enslaved wives and children of black recruits.69 Far from making the antislavery amendment their primary political objective, black Americans sought empowerment in forms more immediate and tangible.70

At the very time that Congress was poised to debate the emancipation amendment, African Americans tended to look at three other objectives as more likely to secure permanent freedom and equality. The first of these was equality before the law – not merely equal pay and equal treatment in the military, but equal access to civilian institutions such as courts and public conveyances. “We at the North are contending for and shall not be satisfied until we get equal rights for all,” the prominent attorney John S. Rock told a black artillery regiment in May 1864.71 By 1864 black lobbyists already had persuaded Congress to pass laws allowing African Americans the right to carry the U.S. mail and to serve as witnesses in District of Columbia courts. African Americans now took aim at the all-white streetcars in the district. While black newspapers remained relatively silent on the amendment in the early months of 1864, they gave much publicity to the initiative of Major A. T. Augusta, a black army surgeon who tried to ride in a streetcar but was forcibly removed. Augusta’s efforts spurred Charles Sumner to introduce a bill in the Senate to desegregate the street-cars.72 But Frederick Douglass still feared for the future of African Americans, because he saw “looming up in the legislation at Washington in almost every bill where rights are to be guaranteed and privileges secured, that the word white is carefully inserted.”73 Douglass’s apprehension was justified: most of the black initiatives for civil rights legislation met with success only after the war was over.

Along with civil rights, blacks held dear the goal of economic self-sufficiency. From their experience as free but economically oppressed laborers in the North and South, those African Americans free before the war knew that emancipation did not necessarily lead to unimpeded economic opportunity. The abolition amendment might still leave African Americans as something other than free agents in the labor market. As the veteran abolitionist James McCune Smith predicted, “the word slavery will, of course, be wiped from the statute book, but the ‘ancient relation’ can be just as well maintained by cunningly devised laws.”74 Thus African American reformers focused their efforts less on the antislavery amendment than on measures promising more palpable forms of economic security. The editors of the New Orleans Tribune, for example, suggested the formation of labor courts, modeled on the French counseils de prud’hommes, composed of government-appointed officials and representatives of employers and employees.75 In their plea for courts of arbitration, the editors revealed the great extent to which African Americans, while embracing much of free-labor ideology, rejected that strain of it that envisioned labor and capital working out equitable arrangements organically, without government intervention. Eventually, the movement for an institution regulating relations between freed people and former slave holders was fulfilled – but only partly – by congressional legislation creating the Freedmen’s Bureau, which was proposed in early 1864 but not passed until 1865. By concentrating their efforts on that legislation rather than on the antislavery amendment, African Americans revealed their preference for explicit rights for free labor over a constitutional decree against slavery.

A sophisticated system of labor regulation such as the editors of the New Orleans Tribune envisioned certainly had its appeal to African Americans, but even more popular was the method most commonly asserted by blacks as the truest path to economic self-sufficiency: land owning. “When the plantations of the South shall be parcelled out to the hardy sons of toil who have made them, under the system of slavery, what they are,” exhorted one African American writer, “… war shall cease in our fair land; prejudice shall die by the force of a just moral sentiment; the descendants of Africa shall no longer be despised because God has been pleased to make them black, but . . . they will be received on the broad principles of their manhood.”76 The plea for land for the freed people arose everywhere – from the freeborn editors of the New Orleans Tribune, from the former slaves in the South Carolina Sea Islands working under new, northern planters, and from northern legislators like George Julian and Thaddeus Stevens.77 For many blacks as well as whites, land redistribution was a solution to a problem of class more than race. Reformers of all colors carried on the antebellum tradition of promoting land distribution as the key to what Lydia Maria Child termed the “individualizing of the masses.”78 The absence of any explicit promise of land for the freed people within the antislavery amendment gave black Americans another reason to regard the measure as insufficient.

Of all the reasons African Americans had for concentrating their efforts elsewhere than on the antislavery amendment, the most important was the absence of voting rights within the measure. Whereas the notion of an antislavery amendment captured the attention of northern white editors, jurists, and politicians, the question of black suffrage, even more than the issues of civil rights and land and labor reform, dominated the rhetoric of African Americans.79 “Emancipation without affranchisement,” wrote the black editor Robert Hamilton, was “a partial emancipation unworthy of the name.”80 Frederick Douglass all but ignored the proposed amendment during late 1863 and early 1864 because he believed that only suffrage would provide African Americans with the power necessary to make themselves truly free. As Americans began considering the merits of the proposed antislavery amendment, Douglass advised them to strive “not so much for the abolition of slavery . . . but for the complete, absolute, unqualified enfranchisement of the colored people of the South.”81 The amendment was for Douglass an abstraction, a promise of freedom with no teeth, whereas the right to vote translated into real equality.

The loudest calls for black suffrage came from free black communities in the South, most notably from the African Americans of New Orleans. In February 1864 white voters in Louisiana elected a slate of Unionist candidates pledged to statewide emancipation. The constitutional convention scheduled to meet in April would definitely outlaw slavery, but many of the state’s African Americans demanded as well an extension of voting rights to people of color. Northerners watched and debated among themselves as New Orleans residents took up the issue of voting rights. Leading the movement for an expanded franchise were two prominent free men of color from the Crescent City, Jean-Baptiste Roudanez and Arnold Bertonneau, who toured the North in the spring of 1864 to stir up support for their cause. They came to Washington and presented Lincoln with a petition demanding black suffrage signed by over one thousand African Americans.82 Lincoln was impressed. The day after the meeting, he wrote to the newly elected Louisiana governor Michael Hahn suggesting that intelligent African Americans and black veterans be allowed to vote.83

The struggle for equal suffrage, which yielded little in the way of actual legislation until the last months of the war, revealed the extent to which African Americans initially – and perhaps correctly – mistrusted the anti-slavery amendment. They were not interested in “authoring” the amendment, for the amendment lacked the explicit political rights that they thought necessary to end slavery. White politicians might contend that slavery was abolished once the Constitution said so, but African Americans tended to follow Frederick Douglass’s decree that “slavery is not abolished until the black man has the ballot.”84

November 27, 2012

Frederick Douglass on Lincoln

Filed under: Civil War,slavery — louisproyect @ 6:56 pm

From the September 16th 1864 “The Liberator”:

The secessionist newspapers in Great Britain are publishing with exultation a letter recently addressed by Mr. Douglass to an English correspondent, who had assisted to send out a box of clothing for the use of distressed freedmen in the District of Columbia. The following is an extract from that document:

 The more you can say of the swindle by which our Government claims the respect of mankind for abolishing slavery—at the same time that it is practically re-establishing that hateful system in Louisiana, under General Banks—the better. I have not readily consented to the claims set up in the name of anti-slavery for our Government, but I have tried to believe all for the best. My patience and faith are not very strong now. The treatment of our poor black soldiers—the refusal to pay them anything like equal compensation, though it was promised them when they enlisted; the refusal to insist upon the exchange of colored prisoners, and to retaliate upon rebel prisoners when colored prisoners have been slaughtered in cold blood, although the President has repeatedly promised thus to protect the lives of his colored soldiers—have worn my patience quite threadbare. The President has virtually laid down this as the rule of his statesmen: Do evil by choice, right from necessity. You will see that he does not sign the bill adopted by Congress, restricting the organization of State Governments only to those States where there is a loyal majority. His plan is to organize such Governments wherever there is one-tenth of the people loyal!—an entire contradiction of the constitutional idea of Republican Government. I see no purpose on the part of Lincoln and his friends to extend the elective franchise to the colored people of the South, but the contrary. This is extremely dishonorable. No rebuke of it can be too stinging from your side of the water. The negro is deemed good enough to fight for the Government, but not good enough to vote or enjoy the right to vote in the Government. We invest with the elective franchise those who with bloody blades and bloody hands have sought the life of the nation, but sternly refuse to invest those who have done what they could to save the nation’s life. This discrimination becomes more dishonorable when the circumstances are duly considered. Our Government asks the negro to espouse its cause; it asks him toturn against his master, and thus fire his master’s hate against him. Well, when it has attained peace, what does it propose? Why this, to hand the negro back to the political power of his master, without a single element of strength to shield himself from the vindictive spirit sure to be roused against the whole colored race.”


He did not have much use for the Democrats either. From an 1864 speech to an abolitionist convention in Syracuse:

“From this party we must look only for fierce, malignant, and unmitigated hostility. Our continued oppression and degradation is the law of its life, and its sure passport to power. In the ranks of the Democratic party, all the worst elements of American society fraternize; and we need not expect a single voice from that quarter for justice, mercy, or even decency.”

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