Thursday, June 20, 2013
A journey from the South
Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, named for two Confederate leaders, is today a Senator from Alabama fighting all out against minimal decency on immigration reform. See here. The evil that he represents goes deep into American history in slavery and segregation - and lives on, the Klan in a suit - today in the American Senate.
In my recent course on Marx's Capital, Jordan Farrar, a Ph.D. student in social work and a political theorist, wrote about her experiences growing up in the South, and Marx's views on racism. She lived in Virginia, driving to her grandmother's house and college on Jefferson Davis Boulevard and to high school on Robert E. Lee. She played with her friends on the ruins of old slave quarters. She lived near Lynchburg, named for John Lynch, the brother of a plantation owner, Charles Lynch, who "tried" and punished people, without law, on his property.
Lynch law in the South gave words to Tsarist murders of Jews and union organizers - state and Russian Orthodox Church-led mobs spoke reverently of zakon lyncha.
Authoritarians, too, have their globalism...
She also recalls the racist ditty of her childhood: "Carry me back to old Virginny," which was long (until 1997) the state song...
Many varieties of "Dixie" live on in the South...
I encourage each student in my seminars to connect what she writes on with her own life. Jordan did so in a profound way, one which casts an original light on the complex interplay of Marx's theory (Capital, among other things, is Marx's theory) and particular political or strategic conclusions - that fighting racism is primary in Marxism, the very meaning of internationalism - in novel national/international situations.
For she came upon Marx's actions, in the International Workingmen's Association, in the American Civil War.
In the course we studied chapter x of Capital on the "Working Day." At its conclusion Marx offers the thought that "labor cannot be free in the white skin where in the black it is branded." He traces the influence of emancipation - the death of slavery - on the emergence of new life: the movement for the eight hour day.
Breaking down racism is key to any decent, democratic (common good-sustaining) movement. Its opposites are the racist, "white" movements such as an early labor movement in South Africa that proclaimed "Workers of the World unite! Fight for white South Africa!" and the weakness reflected in Marx's ignoring of the genocide toward indigenous people in the United States.
In the letter to Lincoln which Jordan emphasizes, Marx sided mistakenly against indigenous people with emigrants who otherwise sought freedom for blacks and whites and to bar slavery. Campaigns against the indigenous have long been the secret of reactionary American unity in which ordinary working people and settlers frequently suffered. See Peter Silver, Our Savage Neighbors on how this pattern extended from before the Revolution to now; see also Alexander Saxton's The Rise and Fall of the White Republic for some of the true and very limited character of freedom in North America.
Working on racism in the United States, Jordan focused on Marx's letter, as corresponding secretary for the International Workingmen's Association, celebrating the reelection of Abraham Lincoln (I will put it up as a companion piece to this one). Its words, both in what the abolitionism and unity they encourage and in their forgetfulness about the ethnic cleansing which made the soil "free" to be taken, are of major importance, both about how to understand Marx - he looked to particular international situations and saw the American civil war, as well as the serf uprising in Russia as pivotal developments in the 1860s for the progress of freedom; he encouraged multiracial unity - and about a decisive evil of settler capitalism which has long been the subject of pretense and what I call a Founding Amnesia...
Marx's last unfinished work, his subtle ethnographic notebooks on Louis H. Morgan's Ancient Society (1877), emphasize the communal life and democracy of the Seneca Iroquois and contrast in detail indigenous practices and the corruption of commodity fetishism. Here, he had moved.
These notebooks were tied to his enthusiasm for the Russian mir or obshchina (the rural commune) registered in his 1882 response to the questions of Vera Zasulich about whether Russia had to undergo the stages of capitalism to achieve communism. For the full letter, see below.
If Germany did not need a gradual development of engineering to adapt the steam engine - Marx writes brilliantly - why can't the Russian mir give rise gradually but directly to collective arrangements in an advanced revolution:
"If the Russian admirers of the capitalist system denied the theoretical possibility of such a development, I would ask them this question: In order to utilise machines, steam engines, railways, etc., was Russia forced, like the West, to pass through a long incubation period in the engineering industry? Let them explain to me, too, how they managed to introduce in their own country, in the twinkling of an eye, the entire mechanism of exchange (banks, credit institutions, etc.), which it took the West centuries to devise?"
"...But where are the tools, the manure, the agronomic methods, etc., all the means that are indispensable to collective labour, to come from? It is precisely this point which demonstrates the great superiority of the Russian 'rural commune' over archaic communes of the same type. Alone in Europe it has kept going on a vast, nationwide scale. It thus finds itself in historical surroundings in which its contemporaneity with capitalist production endows it with all the conditions necessary for collective labour. It is in a position to incorporate all the positive acquisitions devised by the capitalist system without passing through its Caudine Forks [a trap - see here]. The physical lie of the land in Russia invites agricultural exploitation with the aid of machines, organised on a vast scale and managed by cooperative labour. As for the costs of establishment — the intellectual and material costs — Russian society owes this much to the 'rural commune,' at whose expense it has lived for so long and to which it must still look for its 'element of regeneration.'”
Marx here anticipates, through observation and detailed historical study, what Alexander Gerschenkron and other economic historians, call "the advantages of backwardness." It is those who understand capitalism abstractly, uniformly and thus mechanically, ideologically, stupidly (economic determinists) who object to learning from new experiences and fresh situations, who do not engage in further, relevant study.
But that was not Marx.
Stressing that his discussion of the emergence of private property among peasants was "expressly restricted to the countries of Western Europe," Marx suggested that
"The analysis in Capital therefore provides no reasons - either for or against the vitality of the Russian Commune. But the special study l have made of it, including a search for original source-material, has convinced me that the commune is the fulcrum for social regeneration in Russia."
The Preface to the second Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto (1882) co-authored with Engels, closes with a more qualified restatement - the letter to Vera Zasulich is better - of this new vision:
"Can the Russian obshchina [peasant commune] a form, albeit highly eroded, of the primitive communal ownership of the Land, pass directly into the higher, communist form of communal ownership?... Today there is only one possible answer. If the Russian revolution becomes the signal for proletarian revolution in the West, so that the two complement each other, then Russia's peasant communal land-ownership may serve as the point departure for a communist development."
Critically rethinking against Morgan and others a mechanical stage theory, thinking about the original roots of a healthier relationship to nature (h/t Ben Sopchak), is linked in Marx to fresh thinking about good features of indigenous civilizations. It is a tragedy that in Capital and in Marx's 1864 letter to Lincoln, written for the International Workingmen's Association, Marx did not grasp the second Civil War: the ethnic cleansing of indigenous people in the West from 1861-1890 - see here - or reassess this shocking, isolating weakness.
Even to see the heroic role of black soldiers (80% of the new troops following the Emancipation Proclamation, January 1, 1863 and vital in the collapse of the South) is difficult in the corporate media of America as the focus on white people in Congress in the movie "Lincoln" shows. See "'Lincoln' and Founding Myths" here. This is linked to the resistance, for instance in the New York Times to hear of the central role of black soldiers, on both sides, in the American Revolution 87 years before, emphasized in my Black Patriots and Loyalists.
But to take in the ethnic cleansing - the so-called Manifest Destiny - in which the US government dispossessed and murdered indigenous people again and again is a further step beyond what the mainstream media recognize. It is the key to the founding of Dnever, as I have now discovered. It would not have taken me long, if I had moved to the South, to see through the praise of the Confederacy - the Slave Power - and the Klan. But for a long time, though I suspected there was something awful in the relationship of Denver to indigenous people, I didn't not see "indian-killing"/ethnic cleansing as the center of Denver's founding and monuments. See here and here. I might speak of mine as a journey to the West...
Racisms are multifaceted, run deep and it is hard to shake free of then.
Jordan's paper makes a powerful start on linking her own experiences to the analysis of racism in Marx. Seeing deeply the issue of the second Civil War in the West and how Marx could have seen it differently, for instance, on the basis of the Ethnographic Notebooks, shows how couplex and dangerous racisms are (racisms are ideologies, not something given by "nature").
Jordan points out, at the end, how difficult it is to discuss racism with her cousin who blames immigrants for the loss of his job. It takes coming oneself to see the truth of these things (often a long process) and then living a different kind of life with others to begin to make some difference (this is what many of us used to call "base-building" while being active against racism).
People change over time, some are much more open than others, and some - not the best ones to judge by - deeply resistant.
Nonetheless, the civil rights struggle produced huge changes in outlook, among many surprising (and often surprised) people. As Jordan says at the end, renewed and deepened Tahrir Squares (as in Brazil or Turkey today) or Occupys are possible.
Marx on Racism, Slavery, and the Working Class Struggle
University of Denver, Korbel School of International Studies
Carry me back to old Virginny,
There's where the cotton and the corn and taters grow,
There's where the birds warble sweet in the springtime,
There's where this old darkey's heart am long'd to go,
There's where I labored so hard for old massa,
Day after day in the field of yellow corn,
No place on earth do I love more sincerely
Than old Virginia, the state where I was born.
Carry me back to old Virginia,
There's where the cotton and the corn and taters grow,
There's where the birds warble sweet in the springtime,
There's where this old darkey's heart am long'd to go.
Carry me back to old Virginia,
There let me live 'till I wither and decay,
Long by the old Dismal Swamp have I wandered,
There's where this old darkey's life will pass away.
Massa and missis have long gone before me,
Soon we will meet on that bright and golden shore,
There we'll be happy and free from all sorrow,
There's where we'll meet and we'll never part no more.
“Carry Me Back to Old Virginny”, written in 1878 by James Bland, was the official state song of Virginia from 1940 until 1997 when it was retired as state song emeritus. While some expressed concerns over the lyrics, it wasn’t until 1994 where suggestions were offered to modify some of the more overtly racist language. These modifications, however, where “dreamer’s” replaced darkey’s and “my loved ones” corrected old massa, mirror the saying “a band aid on a bullet wound” more so than they represent an actual resolution. The purpose of this paper is to provide an in depth, critical analysis of Marx’s writings on racism, slavery, and the working class struggle. I begin by briefly discussing the history of Virginia, my home state, as well as my own childhood growing up in central and southwest Virginia. I then elucidate Marx’s own views on racism and slavery as well as their connection to the working class struggle. Finally I conclude by discussing some implications of a Marxian framework relevant to race relations in contemporary society.
The romanticized view of slavery, as depicted in “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny”, is demystified by Virginia’s racial history. Some highlights of Virginia’s past and present include: the passage of a law declaring it not a crime to kill a slave during the course of punishment in 1669; Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 where innocent Native Americans were slaughtered; the passage of the Racial Integrity Act in 1924 making different race marriage illegal; the period from 1924-1979 where over 7000 people (62% female, 22% black) were sterilized for “mental deficiencies”; the closing of the entire Prince Edward County school system in 1959 to protest school integration; and more recently, the 2010 declaration of April as Confederate History Month by current Governor Bob McDonnell.
Virginia’s history is my history and sadly is not much different than most of the history of the United States. While our shared past may make us sad, angry, or even ashamed, it is important to remember. I have recently coined the phrase “to repress is to oppress”. I believe if we try to silence our history, no matter how disgusting it is, we work to actively invalidate the experiences of others; not just others but those who have been and who are in fact othered. This repression is evident in changes made to “Carry me Back to Old Virginny” (which has been changed to “Carry me Back to Old Virginia”). Changing the words may make it more palatable, easier to digest, but it does not change the history or the experience.
Growing up in Virginia
The first 18 years of my life were spent living at Inglewood plantation in Nelson County, Virginia. As a child I loved growing up in Nelson. We would walk to the James River to fish, ride our horses bareback, hike on our property, and catch lighting bugs for night time entertainment while listening to the crickets and frogs sing their sweet southern melodies. In our field we had a goose house situated between two huge stone chimneys. I remember climbing the chimneys, hiding treasures in the crevices between the stones, and using them as cover during snowball fights. To me those chimneys were remnants of a time before, but more importantly to me they were a source of joy and play. In reality those chimneys represent a history of Inglewood, of Virginia, and the United States that we rarely discuss. I learned from my parents the chimneys were part of the slave quarters. I remember crawling under the foundation of our house to find the pottery the owners hid out of fear that soldiers would raid the property during Civil War battles. I remember going to civil war re-enactments with my dad when I was little. I remember my uncle would fight in these re-enactments on the side of the Confederates. My experience with this racial history was not confined to Nelson County; it followed me throughout all of Virginia.
Even though I grew up in Nelson I would commute two hours each day down Robert E. Lee Highway to attend a small private, catholic school in Lynchburg. Lynchburg was named after John Lynch. John was brother to Charles Lynch, a Virginia landowner who frequently held illegal trials on his property for local lawbreakers, hence the term ‘lynching’ (Gado, 2013). While information regarding violence against blacks and the presence of slaves in Lynchburg is sparse, there are documented reports of both in neighboring counties. To this day de facto segregation is alive and well in Lynchburg, Virginia. When you descend upon ‘the Hill City’ you come to the end of the bridge leading into town and encounter the first traffic light. If you continue on 5th street you will notice run down houses, liquor stores on the corner, and more than likely you will predominantly see people of color as you pass. If at the light you take a right onto Rivermont, you will pass a college, restaurants, two country clubs, and two grocery stores all while passing some of the most beautiful homes you’ve ever seen. On Rivermont, unlike 5th street, you will primarily encounter white middle and upper class families and individuals. This type of separation is not unique to Lynchburg. In fact, Denver lends credence to the continued presence of de facto segregation and the concentration of races in certain neighborhoods and not others.
After high school my commute changed. Instead of relying on Robert E. Lee to get to school, I was dependent on Jefferson Davis to get me to campus. Not only did Jefferson Davis get me to college, but he also provided the path to my Nannie’s home each Sunday. On Sunday we attended Mineral Springs Baptist Church. My Nannie was a member there for 85 years. Down the road was Mineral Springs Baptist Church II. See, Mineral Springs I was the “white church” and Mineral Springs II was the “black church”. Even in god, and over150 years after the death of slavery, was Jefferson Davis working to separate people according to the color of their skin.
The college I attended, William and Mary, is the second oldest college in the nation. Instead of climbing chimneys I was perusing colonial Williamsburg with my friends looking for the best smoking spots. The same ground I stumbled on at night was the same ground where indigenous persons were massacred, where people were dispossessed, where America began. At the time, however, my privilege allowed me to stumble on, unfazed, unaware, and willfully ignorant. Luckily, I have had professors and educators in my life that refused to let me remain ignorant. I have encountered people and information that has challenged me and forced me to remember history as it happened, not how we want to remember it happening.
Growing up in Virginia, a state with a rich past, provided a unique insight into the history of the United States. It was this experience with history that created the impetus for my concentration on Marx’s writings on racism and slavery. I think all students, except for Ben, came into this course with a vague understanding of Marx, had been told they were a Marxist at some point in their life, and frankly wanted to find out whether there was any truth in that or not. I don’t quite know if I’m a Marxist, I tend not to live in absolutes, but I do think that Marx says some pretty profound things on slavery and racism that have been severely overlooked and that are very important to our world today. This next section outlines Marx’s views on race relations as they were playing out in the 19th century, with a primary focus on slavery in the United States.
Marx on Racism, Slavery, and the Working Class Struggle
While this paper provides an in depth analysis of Marx’s writings on racism and slavery primarily pertaining to America, an exhaustive review of his works is not possible for purposes of this assignment. Instead, this paper relies on the Communist Manifesto, Capital, Marx’s letter to Abraham Lincoln, and Marx’s letter to Meyer and Vogt. These works were chosen specifically because they provide a clear yet strong understanding of Marx’s views on racism and slavery as well as their effect on the working class struggle.
The Manifesto of the Communist Party, or Communist Manifesto as it is most commonly referred to, was written by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels in January 1848 (Marx & Engels, 1848). The Manifesto was created to provide a theoretical and practical party program that would form the platform of the Communist League (Engels, 1888). An important theme emanating from the Manifesto is the idea that every society has been based, built even, on dissension between opposing classes, specifically the oppressor and the oppressed. These class antagonisms, Marx and Engel contend, are one, if not the one common feature of all past societies. While most with a surface understanding of Marx understand there to be a struggle between capitalist and worker, Marx discusses antagonisms at most junctures across societal levels and spanning multiple identities. In America, for example, there were antagonisms along class and race lines. Similarly, Marx highlights the antagonisms in Ireland and England that crossed class and ethnic/national lines. Marx and Engels (1848) assert that the constant opposition between groups “each time ended either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large or in the common ruin of the contending classes” (np.). These two notions, within this paper, are best modeled in the fight over slavery in America.
In November 1864 Marx drafted a letter on behalf of the International Workingmen’s Association to Abraham Lincoln. At the time Lincoln had just been elected to a second term, was almost two years past the Emancipation Proclamation, and nearing the end of the Civil War. The letter showcases three important concepts of central importance to Marx’s overall view on racism and slavery. First, Marx explicitly details his opposition for slavery. In regards to slave labor and its relation to the land, Marx (1864) contended that if slavery is the method of labor then American soil becomes “prostituted by the tramp of the slave driver” (para. 2). Moreover Marx noted that the continued presence of slavery in American society served to “defile” the “republic” where its demise represented “a matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world” (para. 5). For Marx it is obvious that the most important struggle facing the states, and possibly the entire world, was the fight against slavery in America. Here we also see support for claims made by Marx and Engels in the Manifesto regarding the method by which opposition or opposing groups are dismantled or “reconstituted”.
Second, Marx highlights the link between slavery in America and the working class struggle in Europe. Marx (1864) asserts, “From the commencement of the titanic American strife the workingmen of Europe felt instinctively that the Star-Spangled Banner carried the destiny of their class” (para. 2). Here we see an emerging connection between a macro struggle against imperialist rule and an individual or class-based struggle against a capitalist system. Marx then goes onto to describe working class efforts to support antislavery efforts:
"for the men of labor, with their hopes for the future, even their past conquests were at stake in that tremendous conflict on the other side of the Atlantic. Everywhere they bore therefore patiently the hardships imposed upon them by the cotton crisis, opposed enthusiastically the proslavery intervention of their betters — and, from most parts of Europe, contributed their quota of blood to the good cause (para. 3)."
A little background here is important. During this time the world was entering into a globalized market economy where a slave labor-supported cotton industry in America was fueling the European textile industry. Therefore, a stoppage in trade from America would directly impact textile factory workers in Europe. What Marx (and members of the European working class) knew, and this is something that really comes to life in his later works, is that any immediate hardships were temporary, but necessary if there was to be a similar class-based revolution in Europe.
Marx’s final point builds on the link between slavery in America and the class struggle in Europe. In allowing slavery to remain a feature of American life,
"they boasted it the highest prerogative of the white-skinned laborer to sell himself and choose his own master, they were unable to attain the true freedom of labor, or to support their European brethren in their struggle for emancipation; but this barrier to progress has been swept off by the red sea of civil war (para 5)."
Marx not only reveals a commonality between slave labor and capitalistic wage labor, but emphasizes how the American labor struggle impeded any sort of support from America regarding a European labor struggle. The American Civil War, then, becomes a war against slavery in America, but also a signifier of support for the working class struggle in all industrialized nations. Before dissecting the larger working class struggle at this time, it is important to strengthen our understanding of the link between slavery and the working class struggle in America.
Perhaps Marx’s most popular work related to his critique on capitalism is his three volume work entitled Capital: Critique of Political Economy. While the bulk of this work focuses on capitalism and economics, it also provides deep insight into Marx’s views on slavery and the impact of slavery on the working class struggle. Marx believed that racism was detrimental to the working class movement as it divided the working class along ideological/race lines. Marx (1867) writes, “In the United States of America, every independent workers’ movement was paralysed as long as slavery disfigured a part of the republic. Labour in a white skin cannot emancipate itself where it is branded in a black skin” (p. 414). Here we see similarities in Marx’s opposition to slavery as found in his letter to Lincoln. Moreover, for Marx, white labor was oppressed by virtue of the existence of black slave labor because of the rupture in labor unity. Marx saw how black slave labor perpetuated racism. For black workers, even if they were free, they were still marginalized along race lines because they were viewed as inferior to the white worker. The presence of white supremacy in America at this time not only negatively impacted black workers, but members of the white working class as well. As long as the working class was divided along race lines, there would be no hope for a unified front in support of the working class struggle.
Marx believed the workers needed to become a collective with cross-racial class solidarity where they confronted racism head on. Marx continues, “However a new life immediately rose from the death of slavery. The first fruit of the American Civil War was the eight hours’ agitation” (p. 414). As shown in Marx’s letter to Abraham Lincoln (and elsewhere), it wasn’t until the labor practice of slavery was defeated that any type of progress could be made regarding the wage labor struggle. With the end of slavery the primary prerogative facing workers was the fight for the 8-hour working day. Furthermore, we see support of Marx’s views regarding the link between “the American struggle” and “the European struggle” (i.e. the working class movement). It is revealed that as the General Congress of Labour in America was working to “free the labour of this country from capitalistic slavery” (p. 414) so too was the Congress of the International Working Men’s Association in its declaration “that the limitation of the working day is a preliminary condition without which all further attempts at improvement and emancipation must prove abortive” (p. 415). With slavery defeated it was now possible for workers to successfully unite under the umbrella of class solidarity, not only in America, but elsewhere as well.
The 13th Amendment, passed December 6, 1865, abolished slavery and indentured servitude in the United States of America. With the death of slavery the working class struggle was able to gain new ground it its fight for an 8-hour working day. While Marx shows a link or ripple effect between the death of slavery in America and the working class struggle in Europe, one would be remiss to not consider the unique case of Ireland and England at this time. In his letter to Meyer and Vogt, Marx (1870) discusses Ireland’s road to emancipation in light of the events that occurred in America in the second half of the 19th century.
In April 1870 Marx wrote to Sigfrid Meyer and August Vogt on the “Irish question”. Marx was referring to “the enslavement of Ireland into a free and equal federation with Great Britain” (para. 3). At this time Ireland was under English control. The English landed aristocracy, in ruling Ireland, exploited the land as well as those who worked the land (the working class). Because work was a question of life and death, a lack of work in Ireland forced many Irish workers to emigrate to England for work. An influx of Irish workers “thus forces down wages and lowers the material and moral position of the English working class” (Marx, 1870, para. 11). Therefore we have a tension between Irish and English workers or “two hostile camps” (para. 12):
"The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself (para. 12)."
Here we see a similarity between the effects of nationalism in England and white supremacy in America on the working class movement. “This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organisation. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this” (para. 13). Just as white supremacy in America divided the working class along race lines, a strong sense of national pride divided the working class in England along nationalist lines. The capitalist class, the upper class comparatively, through this division, was then able to maintain power and domination.
In answering the “Irish question” Marx posits that a victory against the English aristocracy can only happen in Ireland. Marx viewed English aristocratic domination in and over Ireland as securing its domination in England as well; a loss of control in Ireland would disrupt aristocratic control in England. To put it simply, if Ireland were free from English rule, Irish workers could then return to their homeland to work, thereby uniting English workers once again. This blow to the English elite would serve to unravel their moral strength and transfer it to the English working class because “for them the national emancipation of Ireland is not a question of abstract justice or humanitarian sentiment but the first condition of their own social emancipation” (para. 15).
Marx’s writings to Meyer and Vogt solidify his insistence on unity and solidarity within the working class movement. His letter also shows his commitment to internationalism. Marx viewed internationalism as a highly anti-racist movement where the most oppressed come together to combat the elite. “Marx argued that the interests of most people—at least those of working people—in the rich nations coincide with those of the majority of people in the poor nations and not with the elite of their own state” (Gilbert, p. 347). Marx believed mutual support among working class movements to be crucial to their global success hence his demand that:
"A coalition of the German workers with the Irish workers (and of course also with the English and American workers who are prepared to accede to it) is the greatest achievement you could bring about now. This must be done in the name of the International. The social significance of the Irish question must be made clear (Marx, 1870, para. 20)."
Once the working class movement gained internal solidarity, the next step needed to be external or international support in order to strengthen the cause. Even if the movements were different or waged in differing political contexts, the enemy was the same—the capitalist elite.
Contemporary Implications & Concluding Thoughts
Some may wonder what Marx, whose writings occurred over 100 years ago, could contribute to our world today. I personally think that we need to go back to a more Marxist foundation in thinking about our world and the relationships and oppressions it is built on. One of the most important things that I have taken from this course, my research on Marx, and his views on racism, slavery, and the working class struggle, is his discussion of internationalism. Marx saw the world as an interconnected system. He knew that success in one working class movement could garner success or at least strengthen a movement elsewhere. Marx also highlights the commonalities among oppressed people; by virtue of their oppression they shared something important. This thinking takes us back to the Manifesto regarding class antagonisms. Society is built on two classes: the oppressor and the oppressed. While the oppression may differ, may take on another form, oppression is oppression is oppression. Because the power of the majority usually ends up in the hands of a few, it was (and is) in the best interests of the oppressed to rise up against any type of “ism”.
This type of thinking, in my opinion, aligns along a humanist, relational spectrum where human relationships, unity, and giving voice and rising up against the powerful elite are extremely radical and important. I think that’s why I enjoy the field of social work because in social work there is a focus on the person and their environment. When the person is put central, when you work to see the world through their eyes, you are able to gain a perspective you might not have otherwise had. I doubt many would have seen the similarities between slavery in America and “the Irish question”, but Marx did. I think he took an extremely humanistic perspective, which is why he was able to see the detriment of racism and nationalism on the working class movement.
In social work you tend to hear people say “I don’t see color” and all those pseudo-enlightened comments that actually reveal so much about someone and how they see the world. In our Theories of Nonviolence course we read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. I knew there were disparities along race lines in America, but Alexander’s work really opened my eyes to how big of a problem we are facing. In the end of her book she discusses the situation of poor whites and I immediately thought of Marx’s writings on white supremacy and “playing into their hands”. Audre Lorde’s piece “The Master’s Tools” also came to mind. It is so intriguing, and scary, how we are living in a reality where 1% control the 99% in terms of wealth, and the 99% continues to be divided along all the “isms” (racism, sexism, heterosexism, etc.). How radical would it be if the 99% did band together? Can you imagine the changes we could see? Would Marx be correct in thinking that some type of successful Occupy-esque movement in the United States could spread elsewhere? Did we miss the mark with Tahrir Square and Occupy Wall Street or is it just beginning?
Just as Marx described his letter to Meyer and Vogt as cyclical, I am bringing this all back to Virginia. My extended family is primarily working class, high school educated, “country folk”. It is hard having political conversations with family members that take a marxist slant. I remember my cousin, who repairs air conditioners, ranting about immigration policy. He had just lost his job and felt as though it had somehow been unfairly taken from him by some “illegal” who came here to “live off our tax dollars”. Thinking back now on Marx’s writings on “playing into their hands” and the calculated manner in which the capitalist pits worker against worker a feeling of despair comes over me. Is my cousin right in being mad? Sure. Is his anger misdirected? Absolutely. What should he do? I have no idea. Is he too far entrenched in racist thinking, something grounded in the history of Virginia, that even if there was an answer to his problem, to take the hand of his “illegal” brethren and say “enough!”, that he would even do it? Again, I have no idea. I would like to think he would. I think I am a prime example of someone who was born in an extremely racist and at times volatile environment, was able to come to terms with my own racial identity, and assume a more humanist, social justice lens through which to view the world. Just as Marx urged the working classes to confront racism head on in order to become a unified front, I think that the 99% in the United States needs to do the same. As long as we remain fragmented along the “isms” any progress forward will undoubtedly leave some behind. A Marxist lens, however, can work to mitigate the “isms” and unite the oppressed against the oppressor. Until that happens, I fear we will either remain exactly where we are or begin a decline until the only answer is violent, radical revolution.
Engels, F. (1888). “Preface to the 1888 English Edition”. Retrieved from http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/Manifesto.pdf
Gado, M. (2013). Carnival of Death: Lynching in America. Retrieved from http://www.trutv.com/library/crime/notorious_murders/mass/lynching/index_1.html
Gilbert, A. (1978). Marx on internationalism and war. Philosophy & Public Affairs, 7, 346-369.
Marx, K. (1864). “Address of the International Working Men’s Association to Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States of America”. Retrieved from https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/iwma/documents/1864/lincoln-letter.htm
Marx, K. (1867). Capital Volume 1. England: Penguin Group.
Marx, K. (1870). “Marx to Sigfrid Meyer and August Vogt in New York”. Retrieved from http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1870/letters/70_04_09.htm
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Works of Karl Marx 1881
First Draft of
Letter To Vera Zasulich
Source: MECW, Volume 24, p. 346;
Written: March 1881;
First Published: in Russian in 1924 and corrected and in the original German in MEGA, 1985;
Transcribed: by Andy Blunden.
1) In dealing with the genesis of capitalist production I stated that it is founded on “the complete separation of the producer from the means of production” (p. 315, column 1, French edition of Capital) and that “the basis of this whole development is the expropriation of the agricultural producer. To date this has not been accomplished in a radical fashion anywhere except in England... But all the other countries of Western Europe are undergoing the same process” (1.c., column II).
I thus expressly limited the “historical inevitability” of this process to the countries of Western Europe. And why? Be so kind as to compare Chapter XXXII, where it says:
The “process of elimination transforming individualised and scattered means of production into socially concentrated means of production, of the pigmy property of the many into the huge property of the few, this painful and fearful expropriation of the working people, forms the origin, the genesis of capital... Private property, based on personal labour ... will be supplanted by capitalist private property, based on the exploitation of the labour of others, on wage labour” (p. 341, column II).
Thus, in the final analysis, it is a question of the transformation of one form of private property into another form of private property. Since the land in the hands of the Russian peasants has never been their private property, how could this development be applicable?
2) From the historical point of view the only serious argument put forward in favour of the fatal dissolution of the Russian peasants’ commune is this: By going back a long way communal property of a more or less archaic type may be found throughout Western Europe; everywhere it has disappeared with increasing social progress. Why should it be able to escape the same fate in Russia alone? I reply: because in Russia, thanks to a unique combination of circumstances, the rural commune, still established on a nationwide scale, may gradually detach itself from its primitive features and develop directly as an element of collective production on a nationwide scale. It is precisely thanks to its contemporaneity with capitalist production that it may appropriate the latter’s positive acquisitions without experiencing all its frightful misfortunes. Russia does not live in isolation from the modern world; neither is it the prey of a foreign invader like the East Indies.
If the Russian admirers of the capitalist system denied the theoretical possibility of such a development, I would ask them this question: In order to utilise machines, steam engines, railways, etc., was Russia forced, like the West, to pass through a long incubation period in the engineering industry? Let them explain to me, too, how they managed to introduce in their own country, in the twinkling of an eye, the entire mechanism of exchange (banks, credit institutions, etc.), which it took the West centuries to devise?
If at the time of emancipation the rural communes had first been placed in conditions of normal prosperity; if the immense public debt, mostly paid for at the expense oi the peasants, with the other enormous sums provided through the agency of the State (and still at the expense of the peasants) to the “new pillars of society”, transformed into capitalists, — if all this expenditure had been applied to further developing the rural commune, no one would today be envisaging the “historical inevitability” of the destruction of the commune: everyone would recognise in it the element of regeneration of Russian society and an element of superiority over the countries still enslaved by the capitalist regime.
Another circumstance favouring the preservation of the Russian commune (by the path of development) is the fact that it is not only contemporaneous with capitalist production but has outlasted the era when this social system still appeared to be intact; that it now finds it, on the contrary, in Western Europe as well as in the United States, engaged in battle both with science, with the popular masses, and with the very productive forces which it engenders. In a word, it finds it in a crisis which will only end in its elimination, in the return of modern societies to the “archaic” type of communal property, a form in which, in the words of an American writer [L H Morgan] quite free from any suspicion of revolutionary tendencies and subsidised in his work by the Washington government, “the new system” towards which modern society tends “will be a revival in a superior form of an archaic social type”.
So we must not let ourselves to be alarmed at the word “archaic”.
But then we would at least have to be familiar with these vicissitudes. We know nothing about them. In one way or another this commune perished in the midst of incessant wars, foreign and internal; it probably died a violent death. When the Germanic tribes came to conquer Italy, Spain, Gaul, etc., the commune of the archaic type no longer existed. Yet its natural viability is demonstrated by two facts. There are sporadic examples which survived all the vicissitudes of the Middle Ages and have been preserved into our own day, for instance the district of Trier, in my native country. But more importantly, it imprinted its own characteristics so effectively on the commune which replaced it — a commune in which the arable land has become private property, whereas forests, pastures, common lands, etc., still remain communal property — that Maurer, when analysing this commune of secondary formation, was able to reconstruct the archaic prototype. Thanks to the characteristic features borrowed from the latter, the new commune introduced by the Germanic peoples in all the countries they invaded was the sole centre of popular liberty and life throughout the Middle Ages.
If we know nothing about the life of the commune or about the manner and time of its disappearance after the age of Tacitus, at least we know the starting point, thanks to Julius Caesar. In his day the land was already shared out annually, but between the gentes and the tribes of the Germanic confederations, and not yet between the individual members of the commune. The rural commune in Germany is therefore descended from a more archaic type; it was the product of a spontaneous development instead of being imported fully developed from Asia. There — in the East Indies — we also encounter it, and always as the final stage or final period of the archaic formation.
To assess the possible outcomes from a purely theoretical point of view, that is to say, assuming normal conditions of life, I must now point out certain characteristic features which distinguish the “agricultural commune” from the more archaic types.
Firstly, previous primitive communities are all based on the natural kinship of their members; by breaking this strong but tight bond, the agricultural commune is better able to spread and to withstand contact with strangers.
Next, in this form the house and its complement, the courtyard, are already the private property of the cultivator, whereas long before the introduction of agriculture the communal house was one of the material bases of previous communities.
Finally, although arable land remains communal property, it is divided periodically between the members of the agricultural commune, so that each cultivator tills the fields assigned to him on his own account and appropriates as an individual the fruits thereof, whereas in more archaic communities production took place communally and only the yield was shared out. This primitive type of cooperative or collective production resulted, of course, from the weakness of the isolated individual, and not from the socialisation of the means of production. It is easy to see that the dualism inherent in the “agricultural commune” might endow it with a vigorous life, since on the one hand communal property and all the social relations springing from it make for its solid foundation, whereas the private house, the cultivation of arable land in parcels and the private appropriation of its fruits permit a development of individuality which is incompatible with conditions in more primitive communities.
But it is no less evident that this very dualism might in time become a source of decay. Apart from all the influences of hostile surroundings, the mere gradual accumulation of chattels which begins with wealth in the form of cattle (even admitting wealth in the form of serfs), the increasingly pronounced role which the movable element plays in agriculture itself, and a host of other circumstances inseparable from this accumulation but which it would take me too long to go into here, will eat away at economic and social equality and give rise to a conflict of interests at the very heart of the commune, entailing first the conversion of arable land into private property and ending with the private appropriation of the forests, pastures, common lands, etc., which have already become communal appendages of private property.
This is why the “agricultural commune” occurs everywhere as the most recent type of the archaic form of societies, and why in the historical development of Western Europe, ancient and modern, the period of the agricultural commune appears as a period of transition from communal property to private property, as a period of transition from the primary form to the secondary one. But does this mean that in all circumstances the development of the “agricultural commune” must follow this path? Not at all. Its constitutive form allows this alternative: either the element of private property which it implies will gain the upper hand over the collective element, or the latter will gain the upper hand over the former. Both these solutions are a priori possible, but for either one to prevail over the other it is obvious that quite different historical surroundings are needed. All this depends on the historical surroundings in which it finds itself (see p. 10).
Russia is the sole European country where the “agricultural commune” has kept going on a nationwide scale up to the present day. It is not the prey of a foreign conqueror, as the East Indies, and neither does it lead a life cut off from the modern world. On the one hand, the common ownership of land allows it to transform individualist farming in parcels directly and gradually into collective farming, and the Russian peasants are already practising it in the undivided grasslands; the physical lie of the land invites mechanical cultivation on a large scale; the peasant’s familiarity with the contract of artel facilitates the transition from parcel labour to cooperative labour; and, finally, Russian society, which has so long lived at his expense, owes him the necessary advances for such a transition. On the other hand, the contemporaneity of western production, which dominates the world market, allows Russia to incorporate in the commune all the positive acquisitions devised by the capitalist system without passing through its Caudine Forks [i.e., undergo humiliation in defeat].
If the spokesmen of the “new pillars of society” were to deny the theoretical possibility of the suggested evolution of the modern rural commune, one might ask them: Was Russia forced to pass through a long incubation period in the engineering industry, as was the West, in order to arrive at the machines, the steam engines, the railways, etc.? One would also ask them how they managed to introduce in their own country in the twinkling of an eye the entire mechanism of exchange (banks, joint-stock companies, etc.), which it took the West centuries to devise?
There is one characteristic of the “agricultural commune” in Russia which afflicts it with weakness, hostile in every sense. That is its isolation, the lack of connexion between the life of one commune and that of the others, this localised microcosm which is not encountered everywhere as an immanent characteristic of this type but which, wherever it is found, has caused a more or less centralised despotism to arise on top of the communes. The federation of Russian republics of the North proves that this isolation, which seems to have been originally imposed by the vast expanse of the territory, was largely consolidated by the political destinies which Russia had to suffer after the Mongol invasion. Today it is an obstacle which could easily be eliminated. It would simply be necessary to replace the volost, the government body, with an assembly of peasants elected by the communes themselves, serving as the economic and administrative organ for their interests.
One circumstance very favourable, from the historical point of view, to the preservation of the “agricultural commune” by the path of its further development is the fact that it is not only the contemporary of Western capitalist production and is thus able to appropriate its fruits without subjecting itself to its modus operandi, but has outlasted the era when the capitalist system still appeared to be intact; that it now finds it, on the contrary, in Western Europe as well as in the United States, engaged in battle both with the working-class masses, with science, and with the very productive forces which it engenders — in a word, in a crisis which will end in its elimination, in the return of modern societies to a superior form of an “archaic” type of collective property and production.
It goes without saying that the evolution of the commune would be carried out gradually, and that the first step would be to place it in normal conditions on its present basis.
Theoretically speaking, then, the Russian “rural commune” can preserve itself by developing its basis, the common ownership of land, and by eliminating the principle of private property which it also implies; it can become a direct point of departure for the economic system towards which modern society tends; it can turn over a new leaf without beginning by committing suicide; it can gain possession of the fruits with which capitalist production has enriched mankind, without passing through the capitalist regime, a regime which, considered solely from the point of view of its possible duration hardly counts in the life of society. But we must descend from pure theory to the Russian reality.
3) To expropriate the agricultural producers it is not necessary to chase them off their land, as was done in England and elsewhere; nor is it necessary to abolish communal property by means of an ukase. Go and seize from the peasants the product of their agricultural labour beyond a certain measure, and despite your gendarmerie and your army you will not succeed in chaining them to their fields! In the last years of the Roman Empire, the provincial decurions — not peasants but landowners — fled from their houses, abandoning their lands, even selling themselves into slavery, all in order to get rid of a property which was no longer anything more than an official pretext for extorting money from them, mercilessly and pitilessly.
From the time of the so-called emancipation of the peasants the Russian commune has been placed by the State in abnormal economic conditions and ever since then it has never ceased to overwhelm it with the social forces concentrated in its hands. Exhausted by its fiscal exactions, the commune became an inert thing, easily exploited by trade, landed property and usury. This oppression from without unleashed in the heart of the commune itself the conflict of interests already present, and rapidly developed the seeds of decay. But that is not all. At the expense of the peasants the State has forced, as in a hothouse, some branches of the Western capitalist system which, without developing the productive forces of agriculture in any way, are most calculated to facilitate and precipitate the theft of its fruits by unproductive middlemen. It has thus cooperated in the enrichment of a new capitalist vermin, sucking the already impoverished blood of the rural commune”.
... In a word, the State has given its assistance to the precocious development of the technical and economic means most calculated to facilitate and precipitate the exploitation of the agricultural producer, that is to say, of the largest productive force in Russia, and to enrich the “new pillars of society”.
5) This combination of destructive influences, unless smashed by a powerful reaction, is bound to lead to the death of the rural commune.
But one wonders why all these interests (including the large industries placed under government protection), seeing that they are doing so well out of the current state of the rural commune — why would they deliberately conspire to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs? Precisely because they sense that this “current state” is no longer tenable, and that consequently the current method of exploiting it is now outdated. Already the poverty of the agricultural producer has affected the land, which is becoming barren. Good harvests succeed famines by turns. The average of the last ten years showed agricultural production not simply standing still but actually declining. Finally, for the first time Russia now has to import cereals instead of exporting them. So there is no time to lose. There must be an end to it. It is necessary to make an intermediate rural class of the more or less prosperous minority of the peasants, and turn the majority into proletarians, without mincing matters. To this end the spokesmen of the “new pillars of society” denounce the very wounds which they have inflicted on the commune as being as many natural symptoms of its decrepitude.
Disregarding all the miseries which are at present overwhelming the Russian “rural commune”, and considering only its constitutive form and its historical surroundings, it is first of all evident that one of its fundamental characteristics, communal ownership of the land, forms the natural basis of collective production and appropriation. What is more, the Russian peasant’s familiarity with the contract of artel would ease the transition from parcel labour to collective labour, which he already practises to a certain extent in the undivided grasslands, in land drainage and other undertakings of general interest. But for collective labour to supplant parcel labour — the source of private appropriation — in agriculture in the strict sense, two things are required: the economic need for such a change, and the material conditions to bring it about.
As for the economic need, it will be felt by the “rural commune” itself from the moment it is placed in normal conditions, that is to say, as soon as the burdens weighing on it are removed and its cultivable land has assumed a normal extent. Gone are the days when Russian agriculture called for nothing but land and its parcel cultivator, armed with more or less primitive tools. These days have passed all the more swiftly as the oppression of the agricultural producer infects and lays waste his fields. What he needs now is cooperative labour, organised on a large scale. Moreover, will the peasant who lacks the necessary things for cultivating two or three dessiatines be better off with ten times the number of dessiatines?
But where are the tools, the manure, the agronomic methods, etc., all the means that are indispensable to collective labour, to come from? It is precisely this point which demonstrates the great superiority of the Russian “rural commune” over archaic communes of the same type. Alone in Europe it has kept going on a vast, nationwide scale. It thus finds itself in historical surroundings in which its contemporaneity with capitalist production endows it with all the conditions necessary for collective labour. It is in a position to incorporate all the positive acquisitions devised by the capitalist system without passing through its Caudine Forks. The physical lie of the land in Russia invites agricultural exploitation with the aid of machines, organised on a vast scale and managed by cooperative labour. As for the costs of establishment — the intellectual and material costs — Russian society owes this much to the “rural commune”, at whose expense it has lived for so long and to which it must still look for its “element of regeneration”.
The best proof that this development of the “rural commune” is in keeping with the historical trend of our age is the fatal crisis which capitalist production has undergone in the European and American countries where it has reached its highest peak, a crisis that will end in its destruction, in the return of modern society to a higher form of the most archaic type — collective production and appropriation.
Since so many different interests, and especially those of the “new pillars of society” erected under the benign rule of Alexander II, have gained a good deal from the present state of the “rural commune”, why would they deliberately plot to bring about its death? Why do their spokesmen denounce the wounds inflicted on it as so much irrefutable proof of its natural decrepitude? Why do they wish to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs?
Simply because the economic facts, which it would take me too long to analyse here, have revealed the mystery that the current state of the commune is no longer tenable and that soon, by sheer force of circumstances, the current method of exploiting the mass of the people will no longer be in fashion. So new measures are needed — and the innovation stealthily introduced in widely differing forms always comes down to this: abolish communal property, make an intermediate rural class of the more or less prosperous minority of the peasants, and turn the majority into proletarians, without mincing matters.
On the one hand, the “rural commune” has nearly been brought to the point of extinction; on the other, a powerful conspiracy is keeping watch with a view to administering the final blow. To save the Russian commune, a Russian revolution is needed. For that matter, the holders of political and social power are doing their very best to prepare the masses for just such a disaster.
And the historical situation of the Russian “rural commune” is unparalleled! Alone in Europe, it has kept going not merely as scattered debris such as the rare and curious miniatures in a state of the archaic type which one could still come across until quite recently in the West, but as the virtually predominant form of popular life covering an immense empire. If it possesses in the communal ownership of the soil the basis of collective appropriation, its historical surroundings, its contemporaneity with capitalist production, lend it all the material conditions of communal labour on a vast scale. It is thus in a position to incorporate all the positive acquisitions devised by the capitalist system without passing through its Caudine Forks. It can gradually replace parcel farming with large-scale agriculture assisted by machines, which the physical lie of the land in Russia invites. It can thus become the direct point of departure for the economic system towards which modern society tends, and turn over a new leaf without beginning by committing suicide. On the contrary, it would be necessary to begin by putting it on a normal footing.
But opposing it is landed property controlling almost half the land — and the best land, at that — not to mention the domains of the State. That is where the preservation of the “rural commune” by way of its further development merges with the general trend of Russian society, of whose regeneration it is the price.
Even from the economic point of view alone, Russia can emerge from its agrarian cul-de-sac by developing its rural commune; it would try in vain to get out of it by capitalised farming on the English model, to which all the social conditions of the country are inimical.
In order to be able to develop, it needs above all to live, and there is no escaping the fact that at the moment the life of the “rural commune” is in jeopardy.
Apart from the reaction of any other destructive element from hostile surroundings, the gradual growth of chattels in the hands of private families, e.g. their wealth in the form of cattle, and sometimes even slaves or serfs — this sort of private accumulation is, in itself, enough to eat away at primitive economic and social equality in the long run, and give rise in the very heart of the commune to a conflict of interests which first undermines the communal ownership of arable land and ends by removing that of the forests, pastures, common lands, etc., after first converting them into a communal appendage of private property.
4) The history of the decline of primitive communities (it would be a mistake to place them all on the same level; as in geological formations, these historical forms contain a whole series of primary, secondary, tertiary types, etc.) has still to be written. All we have seen so far are some rather meagre outlines. But in any event the research has advanced far enough to establish that: (1) the vitality of primitive communities was incomparably greater than that of Semitic, Greek, Roman, etc. societies, and, a fortiori, that of modern capitalist societies; (2) the causes of their decline stem from economic facts which prevented them from passing a certain stage of development, from historical surroundings not at all analogous with the historical surroundings of the Russian commune of today.
When reading the histories of primitive communities written by bourgeois writers it is necessary to be on one’s guard. They do not even shrink from falsehoods. Sir Henry Maine, for example, who was a keen collaborator of the British Government in carrying out the violent destruction of the Indian communes, hypocritically assures us that all the government’s noble efforts to support the communes were thwarted by the spontaneous forces of economic laws!
5) You know perfectly well that today the very existence of the Russian commune has been jeopardised by a conspiracy of powerful interests; crushed by the direct extortions of the State, fraudulently exploited by the “capitalist” intruders, merchants, etc., and the land “owners”, it is undermined, into the bargain, by the village usurers, by conflicts of interests provoked in its very heart by the situation prepared for it.
To expropriate the agricultural producers it is not necessary to chase them off their land, as was done in England and elsewhere; nor is it necessary to abolish communal property by an ukase. On the contrary: go and seize the product of their agricultural labour beyond a certain point and, despite all the gendarmes at your command, you will not succeed in keeping them on the land! In the last years of the Roman Empire the provincial decurions — large landowners — left their lands, becoming vagabonds, even selling themselves into slavery, simply in order to get rid of a “property” which was no more than an official pretext for extorting money from them.
At the same time as the commune is bled dry and tortured, its land rendered barren and poor, the literary lackeys of the “new pillars of society” ironically depict the wounds inflicted on it as so many symptoms of its spontaneous decrepitude. They allege that it is dying a natural death and they would be doing a good job by shortening its agony. As far as this is concerned, it is no longer a matter of solving a problem; it is simply a matter of beating an enemy. To save the Russian commune, a Russian revolution is needed. For that matter, the government and the “new pillars of society” are doing their best to prepare the masses for just such a disaster. If revolution comes at the opportune moment, if it concentrates all its forces so as to allow the rural commune full scope, the latter will soon develop as an element of regeneration in Russian society and an element of superiority over the countries enslaved by the capitalist system.