Thursday, July 11, 2013

Letters on Marx and racism from Tracy Strong, John Bracey and August Nimtz, part 3

That Marx saw the stigmatization of otherness of ordinary people as basic to capitalism engages many contemporary readers. See my "A Journey from the South" here and Marx’s letter to Lincoln: against one genocide, supporting ethnic cleansing here. This is the third part of that series.


For Marx, workers, considered as individuals aside from participation in class struggle, are rendered “other” in capitalist society (Brecht’s and Weill’s musical The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny , makes the one crime one can commit, for which the protagonist is executed, the failure to have money…). Democracy supposedly encompasses ordinary people. But in fact, predatory companies like Keystone XL or banks like AIG and Goldman Sachs own Congress (Senator Dick Durbin, commenting on Obama’s efforts to save capitalism from a repeat of the 2008 financial collapse which resulted from the abolition of Glass-Steagall –commented in frustration of the Senate: “the banks own this place”).

Workers and other protestors are effective only when they protest as a group. American parliamentary “democracy” does not include “the people” without this.


And that is the “majority.” For blacks, Chicanos and indigenous people, the racism, the othering, the making of enemies or criminals (consider the murder of Trayvon Martin and the attitudes – very broad ones – which initially shielded the murderer from being charged and which led to the propagation, in “Republican”-led states of “Stand your Ground Laws – is more extreme (note that I am simply connecting certain sometimes Marxian-inspired insights of postmodernism back to refining or naming features of Marx’s own argument).


About my comments on Capital’s chapter on the Working Day, Tracy Strong and John Bracey make important observations. I had emphasized the passage: “Out of the death of slavery, a new life arose” and cited the post-Civil War struggle for the 8 hour day. At a great rally at Haymarket in Chicago in 1886, a bomb was thrown (perhaps by a cop) and the German and Italian speakers at the march, “othered” or demonized, and sentenced to hang.

After four hangings of innocents, the new governor John Altgeld pardoned 4 of these men. Many saw – and those who know still see – Altgeld’s greatness in American politics. Tracy Strong sent me a stanza of Vachel Lindsay’s poem which names their insight:

“from the last sad part of Lindsay's 'Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan':

Where is Altgeld, brave as the truth,
Whose name the few still say with tears?
Gone to join the ironies with Old John Brown,
Whose fame rings loud for a thousand years.

Tracy B. Strong”

The last stanza names “Altgeld the eagle” (consider Thoreau’s comparable comment on John Brown as a kind of eagle or hero, a William Tell, during his speech about Brown’s capture and trial and hanging). Lindsay’s poem can be found below. (the poem is, however, thoughtlessly racist about indigenous people and weak on blacks; Bryan was a sometimes anti-imperialist populist leader and a very important figure).

John Bracey, a professor of African American Studies in the W.E.B. Dubois Institute at U. Mass. Amherst, and a fellow Marxian about racism, send the following beautiful story of C.L.R. James, the great West Indian Marxist, talking about the chapter on the “Working Day” to teenage gang members in Chicago in 1969-70. James wrote The Black Jacobins, the first and greatest book on the only successful slave insurrection in all of history, the one that created Haiti led by Toussaint L’Ouverture (it was to celebrate the black Jacobins that James’s so named them; but actually the revolution in Saint Domingue was far more radical socially than the French Revolution; Robespierre and Hebert and Danton would have been fortunate to be The White Toussaintians).

‪”Dear Alan:

I don't have time to read every word of all your postings. There are only so many hours in the day (smile).

I was fascinated by the Marx references because I have been pointing students to several of the same works, or segments of works, for many years now. In recent times with all the talk of globalization, and how Marx didn't talk about race, I have gone back to the "basics " and have students read The Communist Manifesto (for globalization) and the relevant chapters in Capital on how race/slavery and the origins and development of capitalism are related. The chapters on "primitive accumulation" and on "The Working Day" are my favorites.

I witnessed C.L.R.James give a talk based on "The Working Day" to a group of Black youth in Chicago during 1969/1970. I wasn't sure that he could pull it off, but after walking them through Marx's argument, one of the young men blurted out "Is that why we call a job a ‘slave’"? James said “Precisely, you have grasped through your experiences the exploitative nature of wage labor and resist having to submit to it with every fiber of your being. That you see a better way to live and survive by joining a gang or developing your own hustle is not a failure of your morals, but the failure of the morals of capitalism.”

With no viable alternatives to gang life and hustling, we have the world that we live in today. You can't talk young people past capitalism, there has to be a sustained struggle-political, educational, etc. so that alternatives make sense. We are not there yet, but the older I get, the more I am convinced that we should keep on pushing in that direction.

Enough already. Just some ramblings. Pass on my compliments to Ms Farrar. She wrote a very interesting and perceptive paper.


John B.”

That black and Chicano young people (and many poor whites) have been consigned to the prison system is revealed in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. The US now holds 25% of the world’s prisoners by itself, and anyone jailed for possession of marijuana several times over has trouble getting a job, surviving in civilian life, even as a “slave”.


John rightly points to the importance of movements as well as the section in Capital on original accumulation (“making Africa a commercial warren for the hunting of black skins”); these are made more precise by Marx’s activity in the first International (see chapter four of my Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy?).

Chapter 25 of Capital on the general law of capitalist accumulation which focuses on the English devastation of Ireland and is linked to the elite furthering the division of English workers from Irish immigrants – divide and rule -something Marx made central to the program of the International Workingmen’s Association, might be added to John’s valuable list.


John honors Jordan Farrar’s paper as does August Nimtz, a fine Marx scholar at Minnesota. Robin Blackburn’s book, which August mentions, emphasizes that Marx, along with many other Germans, sought an Auswanderungschein (emigration certificate) from the Mayor of Trier. Of course, he went to London, played a leading role in the International Workingmen’s Association and worked in the British Museum on Capital. But he could easily have joined his friend August Weydemeyer in emigrating to America and perhaps even fought in the Civil War (Weydemeyer did). Marx wrote a famous 1852 note to Weydemeyer, saying that his distinctive contribution, up to that time, was the idea of a dictatorship of the proletariat – he meant a democratic one, as it would turn out, to be modeled on the Paris Commune, as opposed to the formally democratic oligarchy (dictatorship of the bourgeoisie) which was revealed revealed recently in the Democrats' “bail out” of most of the top banks but no help to foreclosed poor people (after the crash, blacks had but 1% of American wealth, Chicanos 2%...).

The democrat Carl Schurz would also make a contribution in the United States as would the great Franz Boas, the first anti-racist anthropologist (anthropology began with people like Evans Pritchard studying the Nuer under the “protection” of British guns…The labels attached to the “primitives” studied by early anthropology were an artefact of the stupid, eugenic mentality of many early anthropologists).

August kindly regrets my not writing a second volume of Marx’s Politics, and I apologize for this. But I did write the long “Storming of Heaven,” an account of the theoretical revolution in Capital from the point of view of Marx’s activity in the International Workingmen’s Association (see J. Roland Pennock, ed., Nomos, Marxism Today, 1986 for the American Society for Legal and Political Philosophy). It shows, for example, how the Chapter on the “Working Day” feeds into the IWA's resolution for shorter hours, and the fight developing in the United States leading to Haymarket, or how Marx’s shift on a social element in subsistence, permitting class struggle to shape the level of wages and living standards for a time defended unions against the Manifesto’s view that wages would decline to bare physical subsistence. Marx fought “the iron law of wages” (Lassalle) because it discouraged radicals from joining the ways most workers, everywhere, came to organize themselves (what Marx called “the real movement”). But Capital shows how capitalism erodes union gains over time, a point increasingly visible in Detroit and Southern Europe…

Marx also sought, as in the International Workingmen’s Association, “the future of the movement,” how unionized workers need to support those more oppressed than themselves and might substitute for the slogan “a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work” (no such fairness is possible under capitalism, given its basic exploitative character) the “revolutionary watchword: Abolition of the wages-system.” It is this aim, to do away with commodity fetishism and restore and develop a more human (eudaimonist) practice and vision of life, which the Marxian project begins and still holds out, with major changes and in darkening times, as a promise.

August rightly celebrates Marx’s movement away from racism, toward the Ethnographic Notebooks. But Marx’s attitude toward the Civil War was, on the one hand, a great insight into it, from the first, as a war against bondage and an increasing admiration for Lincoln after the Emancipation Proclamation (he did not quite see the greatness of “old John Brown”; that would be left to one of his great and creative followers, W.E.B. Dubois). On the other hand, however, his attitude toward the second Civil War of ethnic cleansing extending from Minnesota into Colorado in the early 1860s and then on, through the Sand Creek massacre of the most determinedly friendly Indians, into the “Indian wars” till 1890 is abjectly wrong. I am not aware that Marx ever renounced this. Marx could have; this "amnesia" is against Marx’s own insights into the necessity of fighting racism (unity against the “Indian enemy” was basic even to Bacon’s rebellion uniting whites and blacks in the 1680s). It is a shame, given what he arrived at in the Ethnographic Notebooks, that he did not say that the great new nation rising across the Atlantic was guilty of twin genocides (or ethnic cleansings – both later terms), the one against indigenous people as lasting and horrific as the one against blacks, or suggest what anti-racists and other decent people might have done to fight them (including even in the 1880s, freedom of movement for individuals and the "reservations"/concentration camps).

“Dear Alan Gilbert,

My colleague Bud Duvall shared with me your recent "A Journey from the south." I really enjoyed it and was glad to see that you continue to inspire students via Marx; your Marx's Politics (which some of us hoped would be followed by a second volume on post-1848-50) inspired, along with the works of Hal Draper, my Marx and Engels: Their Contribution to the Democratic Breakthrough (2000). Three years later I wrote Marx, Tocqueville, and Race in America, a work relevant to what you and your very perceptive student, Jordan. That Jordan was able to distill the significance of Marx's congratulatory letter to Lincoln on his reelection in 1864 and, most importantly, its relevance to politics today speaks positive volumes about her and her mentor; she should wear the "Marxist" label deservedly and proudly. I'm attaching my article that distills the argument of the second book; please share with Jordan. Robin Blackburn's An Unfinished Revolution: Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln is also relevant to her paper.

Re your point about Marx and the indigenous question, I think it useful to put him in the context of his times. I argue in my Marx-Tocqueville book, on the basis of three cases, Algeria, India and Mexico, that he indeed did overcome the Eurocentric-immigrant bias contra "the natives" so common to the world in which he operated. As you correctly point out, it's no coincidence that at the end of his life he was deeply immersed in the literature about indigenous peoples in the Americas.

August Nimtz”

Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan


In a nation of one hundred fine, mob-hearted, lynching, relenting, repenting millions,
There are plenty of sweeping, swinging, stinging, gorgeous things to shout about,
And knock your old blue devils out.

I brag and chant of Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan,
Candidate for president who sketched a silver Zion,
The one American Poet who could sing outdoors,
He brought in tides of wonder, of unprecedented splendor,
Wild roses from the plains, that made hearts tender,
All the funny circus silks
Of politics unfurled,
Bartlett pears of romance that were honey at the cores,
And torchlights down the street, to the end of the world.

There were truths eternal in the gap and tittle-tattle.
There were real heads broken in the fustian and the rattle.
There were real lines drawn:
Not the silver and the gold,
But Nebraska's cry went eastward against the dour and old,
The mean and cold.

It was eighteen ninety-six, and I was just sixteen
And Altgeld ruled in Springfield, Illinois,
When there came from the sunset Nebraska's shout of joy:
In a coat like a deacon, in a black Stetson hat
He scourged the elephant plutocrats
With barbed wire from the Platte.
The scales dropped from their mighty eyes.
They saw that summer's noon
A tribe of wonders coming
To a marching tune.

Oh the longhorns from Texas,
The jay hawks from Kansas,
The plop-eyed bungaroo and giant giassicus,
The varmint, chipmunk, bugaboo,
The horn-toad, prairie-dog and ballyhoo,
From all the newborn states arow,
Bidding the eagles of the west fly on,
Bidding the eagles of the west fly on.
The fawn, prodactyl, and thing-a-ma-jig,
The rackaboor, the hellangone,
The whangdoodle, batfowl and pig,
The coyote, wild-cat and grizzly in a glow,
In a miracle of health and speed, the whole breed abreast,
The leaped the Mississippi, blue border of the West,
From the Gulf to Canada, two thousand miles long:-
Against the towns of Tubal Cain,
Ah,-- sharp was their song.
Against the ways of Tubal Cain, too cunning for the young,
The longhorn calf, the buffalo and wampus gave tongue.

These creatures were defending things Mark Hanna never dreamed:
The moods of airy childhood that in desert dews gleamed,
The gossamers and whimsies,
The monkeyshines and didoes
Rank and strange
Of the canyons and the range,
The ultimate fantastics
Of the far western slope,
And of prairie schooner children
Born beneath the stars,
Beneath falling snows,
Of the babies born at midnight
In the sod huts of lost hope,
With no physician there,
Except a Kansas prayer,
With the Indian raid a howling through the air.

And all these in their helpless days
By the dour East oppressed,
Mean paternalism
Making their mistakes for them,
Crucifying half the West,
Till the whole Atlantic coast
Seemed a giant spiders' nest.

And these children and their sons
At last rode through the cactus,
A cliff of mighty cowboys
On the lope,
With gun and rope.
And all the way to frightened Maine the old East heard them call,
And saw our Bryan by a mile lead the wall
Of men and whirling flowers and beasts,
The bard and prophet of them all.
Prairie avenger, mountain lion,
Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan,
Gigantic troubadour, speaking like a siege gun,
Smashing Plymouth Rock with his boulders from the West,
And just a hundred miles behind, tornadoes piled across the sky,
Blotting out sun and moon,
A sign on high.

Headlong, dazed and blinking in the weird green light,
The scalawags made moan,
Afraid to fight.


When Bryan came to Springfield , and Altgeld gave him greeting,
Rochester was deserted, Divernon was deserted,
Mechanicsburg, Riverton, Chickenbristle, Cotton Hill,
Empty: for all Sangamon drove to the meeting-
In silver-decked racing cart,
Buggy, buckboard, carryall,
Carriage, phaeton, whatever would haul,
And silver-decked farm wagons gritted, banged and rolled,
With the new tale of Bryan by the iron tires told.
The State House loomed afar,
A speck, a hive, a football, a captive balloon!
And the town was all one spreading wing of bunting, plumes, and sunshine,
Every rag and flag and Bryan picture sold,
When the rigs in many a dusty line
Jammed our streets at noon,
And joined the wild parade against the power of gold.
We roamed, we boys from High School,
With mankind, while Springfield gleamed, silk-lined.
Oh, Tom Dines, and Art Fitzgerald,
And the gangs that they could get!
I can hear them yelling yet.
Helping the incantation,
Defying aristocracy,
With every bridle gone,
Ridding the world of the low down mean,
Bidding the eagles of the West fly on,
Bidding the eagles of the West fly on,
We were bully, wild and woolly,
Never yet curried below the knees.
We saw flowers in the air,
Fair as the Pleiades, bright as Orion,
-Hopes of all mankind,
Made rare, resistless, thrice refined.
Oh, we bucks from every Springfield ward!
Colts of democracy-
Yet time-winds out of Chaos from the star-fields of the Lord.

The long parade rolled on. I stood by my best girl.
She was a cool young citizen, with wise and laughing eyes.
With my necktie by my ear, I was stepping on my dear,
But she kept like a pattern without a shaken curl.
She wore in her hair a brave prairie rose.
Her gold chums cut her, for that was not the pose.
No Gibson Girl would wear it in that fresh way.
But we were fairy Democrats, and this was our day.

The earth rocked like the ocean, the sidewalk was a deck.
The houses for the moment were lost in the wide wreck.
And the bands played strange and stranger music as they trailed along.
Against the ways of Tubal Cain,
Ah, sharp was their song!
The demons in the bricks, the demons in the grass,
The demons in the bank-vaults peered out to see us pass,
And the angels in the trees, the angels in the grass,
The angels in the flags, peered out to see us pass.
And the sidewalk was our chariot, and the flowers bloomed higher,
And the street turned to silver and the grass turned to fire,
And then it was but grass, and the town was there again,
A place for women and men.


Then we stood where we could see
Every band,
And the speaker's stand.
And Bryan took the platform.
And he was introduced.
And he lifted his hand
And cast a new spell.
Progressive silence fell
In Springfield, in Illinois, around the world.
Then we heard these glacial boulders across the prairie rolled:
'The people have a right to make their own mistakes....
You shall not crucify mankind
Upon a cross of gold.'
And everybody heard him-
In the streets and State House yard.
And everybody heard him in Springfield, in Illinois,
Around and around and around the world,
That danced upon its axis
And like a darling broncho whirled.


July, August, suspense,
Wall Street lost to sense.
August, September, October,
More suspense,
And the whole East down like a wind-smashed fence.
Then Hanna to the rescue, Hanna of Ohio,
Rallying the roller-tops,
Rallying the bucket-shops.
Threatening drouth and death,
Promising manna,
Rallying the trusts against the bawling flannelmouth;
Invading misers' cellars, tin-cans, socks,
Melting down the rocks,
Pouring out the long green to a million workers,
Spondulix by the mountain-load, to stop each new tornado,
And beat the cheapskate, blatherskite,
Populistic, anarchistic, deacon-desperado.


Election night at midnight:
Boy Brian's defeat.
Defeat of western silver.
Defeat of the wheat.
Victory of letterfiles
And plutocrats in miles
With dollar signs upon their coats,
Diamond watchchains on their vests and spats on their feet.
Victory of custodians, Plymouth Rock,
And all that inbred landlord stock.
Victory of the neat.
Defeat of the aspen groves of Colorado valleys,
The blue bells of the Rockies,
And blue bonnets of old Texas, by the Pittsburg alleys.
Defeat of alfalfa and the Mariposa lily.
Defeat of the Pacific and the long Mississippi.
Defeat of the young by the old and the silly.
Defeat of tornadoes by the poison vats supreme.
Defeat of my boyhood, defeat of my dream.


Where is McKinley, that respectable McKinley,
The man without an angle or a tangle,
Who soothed down the city man and soothed down the farmer,
The German, the Irish, the Southerner, the Northerner,
Who climbed every greasy pole, and slipped through every crack;
Who soothed down the gambling hall, the bar-room, the church,
The devil-vote, the angel vote, the neutral vote,
The desperately wicked, and their victims on the rack,
The gold vote, the silver vote, the brass vote, the lead vote,
Every vote?...
Where is McKinley, Mark Hanna's McKinley,
His slave, his echo, his suit of clothes?
Gone to join the shadows, with the pomps of that time,
And the flames of that summer's prairie rose.

Where is Cleveland whom the Democratic platform
Read from the party in a glorious hour?
Gone to join the shadows with pitchfork Tillman,
And sledge-hammer Altgeld who wrecked his power.

Where is Hanna, bulldog Hanna,
Low-browed Hanna, who said: Stand pat'?
Gone to his place with old Pierpont Morgan.
Gone somewhere...with lean rat Platt.

Where is Roosevelt, the young dude cowboy,
Who hated Bryan, then aped his way?
Gone to join the shadows with might Cromwell
And tall King Saul, till the Judgement day.

Where is Altgeld, brave as the truth,
Whose name the few still say with tears?
Gone to join the ironies with Old John Brown,
Whose fame rings loud for a thousand years.

Where is that boy, that Heaven-born Bryan,
That Homer Bryan, who sang from the West?
Gone to join the shadows with Altgeld the Eagle,
Where the kings and the slaves and the troubadours rest.
Vachel Lindsay

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