Thursday, June 27, 2013
The Sie Center in Denver, near Tattered Cover, just showed Rick Rowley and Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars with a discussion afterwards led by David Sirota, Scahill’s friend, and a pathbreaking independent journalist in his own right.
This is no ordinary movie and barely seems – though it is plainly – a documentary (Scahill has also written a long book also called Dirty Wars about his findings).
The film is framed as a powerful detective story. Scahill goes to dangerous places and as one discovers in an undercurrent, often risks his life. He escapes the embeddedness of American "reporters" in Kabul to view American murders at Gardez. He has to drive during the day; the night "belongs to the Taliban." In a particularly unsettling scene, Scahill is taken, under armed guards and with a decoy car as well, to see killer\torturer war lords who collaborate with those whom they name American “teachers,” “masters of war.”
The danger parallels the experience as a war reporter described by Chris Hedges in War is a Force that Gives us Meaning. War is high adrenaline. It hooks people and often makes civilian life normal and a bore.
Hedges describes one of his colleagues from Salvador trying to leave, coming back again, knowing that he would get killed, and being shot within a day. He describes his own madness. He raged about an airplane ticket in Salvador, and the clerk, frightened of him, stabbed him in the cheek with his pen.
Hedges left his cheek bleeding all the way to Switzerland as a reminder to himself of his own madness.
In Scahill, this theme is muted. But danger is part of high stakes war reporting.
Partly because of his discoveries about Blackwater, Scahill interviews many people in intelligence and testifies before John Conyers committee in Congress. Conyers, the only honorable representative on that committee, alone was there to hear him.
What Scahill found in Gardez, Afghanistan is that a secret, bearded team of American killers had come in to a house at night and murdered a police chief, Mohammed Daoud, trained by the Americans, a loyalist, as well as two pregnant women.
The father tells the horrific story, underlining that he and the family were pro-American, not remotely Taliban.
But a brother now wants to go on a suicide bombing against the Americans. One can see why the brother has this reaction and in fact, if he got those responsible and not civilians - suicide bombings usually murder innocents, the same crime of war they often respond to - would even have - this should be especially frightening to and hard to deal with Americans; it is for me - a kind of justice (it would not be, however, a wise response or a way out, but that is a different matter).
In the discussion following the movie, a woman from Colorado Springs asked what she might say to get people there off being hooked on the military. Sirota wisecracked that the “conservatives” in Colorado Springs combine hatred for the US government, at least for Obama, and any decent things the government does (expenses on social security, education, medical care and the like), with complete dependence on the government. One-third of the economy of Colorado Springs is military-related.
Sirota gave only one response: highlighting the brother’s reaction to the American murder of his family. The counterproductiveness of JCOS attacks (the killing of Bin Laden excepted) and drones – that they make many more enemies for the United States, produce every lengthening kill lists for Obama to select the hits on, as Obama was publicized for doing in a Scott Shane and Jo Becker article "Secret Kill Lists Test Obama Principles" in the New York Times before the election to prove his "toughness", is a huge matter. See here.
For Scahill's movie shows each new kill list, ever longer, replacing a shorter one. The story of murdering innocents with the JCOS and drones, under Obama, is that of the Sorcerer's Apprentice (though the military/"security" establishment/war complex which Obama is forced to work with as President, is even less a sorcerer than Obama...).
Through this secret army - one bigger than the army of most nations - and drones, these unchecked practices strengthen tyrannical, executive power in the United States. Obama does not want to be a tyrant, and yet he has arrogated to himself terrible powers, even a large private army, and is again, somewhat despite himself, morphing into one.
No sorcerers here...
But the secret killing, by the Joint Special Operations Command and by drones, does not make Americans more secure. Instead, it increases repulsion toward the American government from ordinary people in many countries, and worse yet, justified repulsion. As the recent Congressional hearings after so much damage has been done, have emphasized, it needs to be halted. See the testimony of the Yemeni Farea al-Muslimi, a student who studied and lived in America, a pro-Amerian whose village was anti-Al Qaeda until terrorized by a drone hovering overhead for a day and then taking out a villager. See here.
Schaill saw a cell phone video of a man who turned out to be the head of the Joint Spcial Operations Command, Admiral William McRaven, personally apologizing to the family for the murders.
JSOC has some 66,000 troops as reported in the press around the operation taking out Bin Laden. It is otherwise a secret army, reporting directly to the President, not to any military command. Scahill found this secret body operating outside of/unknown to the commanders in the military zones in Afghanistan.
Scahill then traced their operations, ultimately through the reports of a rightly disgruntled leader within JCOS talking with him secretly, to 12 operations a night (at least) in 75 countries. Most of these countries the US is not formally at war with.
Imagine if a drone missile from a late 21st century power, say a Saudi-China, had come down and taken out every person in Tattered Cover next door to the Sie Center where we were watching the movie..
Americans, as I – see "Imagine" here – and Ron Paul emphasize, would rightly feel aggressed against and often join the fight against the foreign power as well as a subservient corrupt government, even if we had little in common with and little liking for the group that did (Mohammed Daoud's brother had initially been repelled by, willing to fight against the Taliban).
Under Article 2 section 4 of the UN charter which bars acts of war by one state against the people of another, a clause once fought for by the United States and the charge under which the US government conducted the Nuremburg Trials, these acts by the Obama administration - both JCOS killings and the drones - in, for example, Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia are the crime of aggression. By American law, Article 6 section 2 of the Constitution, the Supremacy Clause, treaties signed by the United States are the highest law of the land.
In addition to aggression, the JSOC under McRaven often targets innocents, the second great crime of war as Michael Walzer shows in Just and Unjust Wars.
What Scahill found then still in the dark became partially public when Obama took out Bin Laden. The JSOC did it and it was actually McRaven’s assistant who sat at the head of the table at the White House, with Barack and Hilary and Biden and Panetta and others scattered around, watching intently, the kill as it unfolded.
Suddenly, there was a flash of favorable publicity on this good operation – Bin Laden was a big killer of innocents. See here, here and here. But taking him out and dropping him in the deep blue sea also displayed contempt for the rule of law, primarily as a result of the dysfunction of American politics and the fact that Bin Laden on trial would have revealed a lot of dirty stuff about the original Amerian war in Afghanistan - the CIA then trained Bin Laden to cultivate jihad against the Soviet Union, an action which has come back to haunt the United States - thirty years ago under Reagan.
But the depredations of the JSOC, bigger and much more efficient than the army of almost any other power in the world – and no other government is waging 12 missions, more or less, every night, in 75 countries, are on a vast scale.
Scahill spoke with the father of Anwar Al-Awlaki, once an all-American boy, and a go-to person for the Bush administration, as a Muslim cleric, to attack the perpetrators of 9/11. Awlake was turned by the American aggression in Iraq, feeling that the US was wagng war on Muslims. He was wrong (though Obama's speech against him - though, otherwise, warning against militarism - see "Obama's Turning Point" here - reports evidence which has not yet been looked at independently or by anything like a legal process).
Scahill shows tragically how Obama took out innocent American citizens, not only Awlaki, but as if in a Greek tragegdy (or a Machiavellian nightmare) his 16 year son and his cousin, both Americans. Abdulrahman Awlaki was looking for his father (the Obama administration does not allege that he had committed any crime). They and 10 other innocents were at a food stand in a rural village in Yemen consumed by drones.
The wrong policy metastasizes from killing proAmerican police chiefs and two pregnant women in Gardez to killing American citizens, without any judicial proceeding against them – no rule of law – at the behest of a, in this respect, "thoughtful" (so Obama sometimes is, so the New York Times presents his "careful" control of drones) tyrant. Here is the neocon doctrine of exectutive/commander in chief power at its reprehensible authoritarian height.
Scahill also talked with a general who alone in the “security establishment” would speak to him about the Gardez killings. The general insisted that the government should not investigate them. Mohammed Daoud, the American-trained police chief, he suggested, might have been working both sides. The general himself has been shot at by women who thus become combatants…
David Sirota referred to him aptly as Darth Vader and he is better otherwise unnamed (the film immortalizes him...)
Between drones and the JSOC, the President Barack Obama is waging a hidden war off the books against nonwhite people in 75 countries. That goes along with illegal spying on all Americans, as Edward Snowden has courageously revealed: what I call anti-democratic feedback of foreign wars in Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy? and what Barack rightly named, following James Madison, as the danger of authoritarianism arising from permanent war. See here.
As the question period emphasized, there are a thousand companies who profit from this. The JSOC spends, Sirota guessed, 20-50 billion dollars a year (it is a secret organization...): A lot of armor, vests, weapons, helicopters or planes, etc. The program has therefore a life of its own beyond the will of any President.
Unlike Bush, Obama is sometimes a semi-competent killer. He did, after all, take out Bin Laden. But arguably, as the film reveals, because the technical capability has grown since Cheney, Obama is even a worse killer than Bush. He does not seize and torture prisoners (though there is a serious undercurrent here of danger in the secret operations and prisons, particularly of cooperating regimes to whom the US may still make "renditions"), he kills suspected enemies.
In Obama’s recent speech emphasizing the authoritarian consequences domestically of these policies – what I call Obama’s turning point here – he says that his preference is to capture and try not to kill.
But the practices shown in “Dirty Wars” reveal this as deception and self-deception.
As I raised in the discussion, however, in the context of American aggressions in Afghanistan and Iraq, there is a positive point about this terrifying policy. Obama has moved away from large scale American invasions of other countries. Despite great pressure from Netanyahu and Romney, among others, Obama has not bombed Iran. He has not invaded Libya or Syria, and is working to get US forces out of Afghanistan having taken them – except some of the secret Blackwater/mercenaries – out of Iraq. (A note on the corruption here: in the surge in Afghanistan pushed publicly by the insurgent General Stanley McChrystal, Barack didn’t just send the official 30,000 troops; he sent 100,000, 70,000 mercenaries secretly from the American people though approved and known by Congress - again, part of the blocking of Congressional authority and even speech - and 30,000 "official" troops. Thus, the secret wars of JSOC and the mercenaries as well as drone killings – again, kept secret from the American people, go on massively and make ordinary people, as the brother of Mohammed Daoud, the pro-American police chief murdered in Gardez, said, want jihad against Americans)
The private Presidential army, operating in secret - save for Bin Laden - does horrific and counderproductive things, amking Americans less safe every hour.
Still, Obama did this while deescalating the main wars, creating some obvious possibility – as he said in the speech about ending the war on terror and turning away the dangers of authoritarianism at home – of doing some nation-building in America, for instance, some spending on education and health care...
That Obama may be gradually trying to turn the ship of American militarism does not alter, however, Scahill’s point about the horror and danger of the JCOS/drone policy.
But it does allow one to hope that further movements from below – like the anti-Iraq War movement (or speaking out against Afghanistan, as I did in 2001 then at small rallies and in writing; see "New Institutions for Peace and Democracy" in Sir Roland Kittrie et al, eds., True Seeds of Peace: Responding to the Concerns of a Global Community and the movement to elect and reelect Obama, as well as Madison and Occupy – might expose and stop this.
For this purpose, Scahill’s movie, book and reporting are as good as it gets. "Dirty Wars" is thus a great public service, in the face of a corrupt and murderous American war complex, Democrat as well as Republican.
I have been working a lot on the American genocide, from East to West, against indigenous people. It is as grim and merciless a story as there is in history. If red men, women and children are people, then the aggression of the settlers and the US government – and the stunningly horrific treatment which made many other Americans like Silas Soule sympathize with and try to help indigenous people – is clear as a bell…
It is impossible for me to look at the JSOC murders in Gardez and the operations in so many nonwhite countries, the taking out of women and children, the even blinder than usual signature strikes (where anyone in a “dangerous” area gets killed; so much for Barack’s and John Brennan’s carefulness in “selecting targets”), all flow from this original genocide as well as the racism involved in slavery (see my Black Patriots and Loyalists) and segregation.
A colonel on the eve of the Iraq invasion tried to shape up his men, three of whom, one a Shawnee, did not have their helmets on. He strode up to them, pointed to the desert, and said “Gentlemen, this is Indian Country>” See here.
The JCOS named the killing of Bin Laden "Code Name Geronimo." Geronimo was a great resister against the barbarism of the government of Mexico (they murdered his wife, mother and daughters...) as well as the United States. He is today rightly and increasingly - outside of US military circles - celebrated as a hero.
The curse of American racism lives on in the current nightly JSOC murderousness, shown in Jereme Scahill’s Dirty Wars. It would be wise for each of us to take this in and do everything we can to stop it.
Sunday, June 23, 2013
In the correspondence with Gary Roberts here, I included a summary of the three leading points against John Evans as an Exterminator which I have discovered in analyzing, line by line, his own statements. The phrase "party of Exterminators" comes from Major Edward Wynkoop, explaining his original commonality with Evans and Chivington and repudiating it.
When I began this research, I did not expect such an exact and harsh finding. Evans was, after all, absent from the Colorado territory when the Massacre occurred. I had thought that he was an evil character - one who incited to some extent and then defended the Massacre, but not, as it turns out, an instigator of Extermination (after all, he temporarily settled as Indian Agent the Tagebuche Utes as shepherds under Chief Ouray). He would not, I imagined, be as bad as Chivington.
Given his steady collaboration with and failure to repudiate Chivington or the Massacre (he did try to distance himself from the act for an Eastern audience but treated it as just another aspect - it mostly actually was - of the settlers' war against "hostile indians"; read: ethnic cleansing), I, nonetheless, thought Evans was, deeply, a part of the evil or genocide.
Academics often foolishly praise Evans' founding of Universities - but it is a little like saying, after all, Hitler was a vegetarian...
And he loved dogs...
Even as so far unearthed, the case is, however, worse than that. Three facts define Evans' special role in provoking the massacre at Sand Creek and then claiming it his - the "higher civilization's," the US government's or at least, since the Federal Government denounced and fired him, the territorial Governor's - right to do it.
First, he ordered "the destruction and killing" of "all hostile Indians" without distinction of warriors and civilians, of man, woman or child, even toddlers. See his First and Second Proclamations here. That is a crime of war, and one largely ignored in the Federal indictment of Sand Creek. The Proclamations were published by the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War but not commented on; the Congressional representatives were appalled at the murders of toddlers and mutilations of women among friendly Indians, as they recognized the victims at Sand Creek to be.
Of course, this kind of slaughter of women and children and the elderly marks much of American history (see Dee Brown, Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee on all the tribes, particularly the Poncas who were a) agricultural as the US government supposedly wished, and b) did not fight back against US encroachment), and was not, just be itself, exceptional in the eyes of - also ethnic cleansing, but less irrational and bloodthirsty - Congressional representatives.
But second, Evans and Chivington met with Black Kettle and other indigenous leaders who had risked their lives to come in to Camp Weld in Denver with Major Wynkoop. They thus obeyed Evans's Proclamation calling for friendly Indians to come to named forts. Subsequently, they did everything Evans, Wynkoop and Major Scott Anthony requested and were given the impression they had succeeded. At the least, they did not expect, peacefully encamped under an American flag and a flag of truce, to be sneakily (and cowardly) butchered...
At the Camp Weld meeting, Governor Evans had refused to make peace with them, saying that it was up to General Samuel Curtis. That sent the message to Chivington, who was also a participant in that meeting - see here - that these peaceful indigenous people were "fair game" to be murdered.
Worse yet, Chivington, with Evans present, told Black Kettle and Bull Bear to go to Major Edward Wynkoop at Fort Lyon as if that would make peace. It seemed - except that Chivington and Evans were monsters - that obeying his words meant at least protection from him as a war leader of the US military.
The indigenous people moved to Fort Lyon and turned in their weapons.
Once again, they had, as the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the Civil War reported - see here - every reason to think they were at peace. The statement of the Joint Committee, wondering how "beings in human form" could have carried out a massacre of friendly and determinedly peaceful indians, camped under an American flag and a flag of truce, is worth reading in depth. See here.
As the Commmittee said, if these were not friendly indigenous people, there were no such people. This terrible indictment - "it is not clear who Evans would have considered friendly" - echoes like a sudden gunshot from the report and even appears - Evans tries to mock it - in his letter of response to his firing by Secretary of State Seward to the people of Colorado. See here.
The Committee also judged Evans the slipperiest "prevaricator" it had examined in four years of hearings:
"His [Evans] testimony before your committee was characterized by such prevarication and shuffling as has been shown by no witness they have examined during the four years they have been engaged in their investigations; and for the evident purpose of avoiding the admission that he was fully aware that the Indians massacred so brutally at Sand creek, were then, and had been, actuated by the most friendly feelings towards the whites, and had done all in their power to restrain those less friendly disposed."
See here and here.
To the Joint Committee, Captain S.M. Robbins, one of the witnesses who supported the atrocity, spoke in "the Chivington interest." He suggested that Chivington, hoping, with Evans, to get elected as Republican Congressman and Senator when Colorado became a state. did it to appeal for votes. Here are his words:
"I should like to say a friendly word...in the Chivington interest...The point I wish to make is, that perhaps Colonel Chivington may have been forced into this by the sentiment of the people.
Question: Would the sentiment of the people lead a man to attack Indians who were known to be friendly, and who were known to be trying to avert hostilities?
Answer: I should say it would. They wanted some Indians killed; whether friendly or not they did not stop to inquire." (See Joint Congressional Committee Report here; Alexander Saxton, The Rise and Fall of the White Republic, p. 281)
That is Chivington's "defense." If a Thoreau, a Gandhi or a Socrates calls for being a "majority of one" against a mob (the latter is a defective- or pseudo-democracy, one opposing a common good and acting in a reprehensible, particular, tyrannical interest), John Chivington was the Satan (I am speaking of him as a long celebrated Methodist, though the Methodist Church has now recognized and repudiated its role in the ethnic cleansing of indigenous people; last year, that Church denounced the "doctrine of discovery" of the Catholic Churches, the John Marshall Supreme Court and the murders of indigenous people across America - see here), leading the mob which murdered toddlers, cut babies out of wombs, and mutilated women for "trophies"...See here.
The Joint Committee's Report, speaking in horror and revulsion, can hardly imagine that "beings in human form" could do this...
That there was something out of the ordinary here was clear. The Federal government did not see what it was routinely doing to indigenous people as something decent human beings would and should have been repelled by...It was hard to stand out in the way Sand Creek did.
The third pillar of the case against Evans is from an interview with H.H. Bradford, for whom the University of California at Berkeley Library is named, in 1888. Bradford did an interesting kind of oral history. This interview, as Carl Smith, on the Northwestern Committee to investigate the relationship between the massacre, the railways and the development of the University, discovered, bizarrely cuts off abruptly before the discussion of Sand Creek. It does so both in the Northwestern copy and in the Bradford library copy of the University of California.
But in doing research for The Rise and Fall of the White Republic (h\t Tracy Mott), Alexander Saxton studied the whole version. Saxton was a great historian, a radical and novelist, who went back to UCLA to get a Ph.D., and focused on the racism of the leadership of the early American labor movement, notably the AFL and Samuel Gompers, toward Asians. He was one of the initiators of Asian-American studies. What I have done in this series of documents on Evans is to analyze Evans's own words to make the case above about who he was. Until we can get hold of the original document, I will, however, use Saxton's citations on this.
Evans had been raised a Quaker and Quakers, as with opposing bondage, opposed settler barbarities toward indigenous people (See my Black Patriots and Loyalists, ch. 2; Peter Silver, Our Savage Neighbors: How Indian War Transformed Early America, p. xx-xxii). But Evans had, partly for political reasons, become a Methodist. He was an industrial entrepreneur, profiting from the railways, and a would-be political one. He was appointed Indian Agent as well as Governor of the Colorado territory by Abraham Lincoln. He needed a justification for wiping out even friendly indians, driving them from the Colorado territory.
Evans saw white civilization in a Lockean vein as more productive and indigenous people as being merely under the control of a higher civilization, allowed but temporarily to hunt on but with no right to the land they lived on. He reworded the "doctrine of discovery" with this Lockean point. See Locke's Second Treatise in which Locke maintains falsely that the poorest he in England lives better "than a King in America." Actually, day laborers lived in misery in England, exploited and often tyrannized by their employers; indigenous people lived freely and communally as part of tribes in the United States. The racism in Locke's view is thick. See the decisive correction of Locke - that men in the state of nature are free, "red, white and black," by the English pamphleteer against bondage J. Philmore, Two Dialogues Concerning the Man-trade, 1760 discussed in my Black Patriots and Loyalists, ch. 2.
Evans thus thought all treaties signed with indigenous people were unnecessary, overridden by a "higher right of civilization." He deemed them harmful (from the settler point of view) as well. He even attributed the "indian wars," the fact that indigenous people resisted conquest, to the U.S. government offering any legitimacy to their right to the land through treaties. The bizarrely patriarchal and arrogant stupidity of Evans - a murderous one - needs to be taken in here. As Saxton reports on the Bradford interview:
"It can hardly come as a surprise, then, to find Evans in later years mulling over arguments already well used in the days of Jefferson and Adams. Rightful possession of land must rest on effective agricultural practice in supporting a population. Thus justified, Evans could ridicule 'the proposition that a country a thousand miles long and five hundred miles wide, one of the most fertile in the world, should belong to a few bands of roving Indians, nomadic tribes in fee as their property' (Evans Interview, P-L 329, folder 2-6, Bradford Library). Given the self-evident absurdity of such a proposition, was it not perverse to reinforce it by negotiating treaties of purchase with Indians? National sovereignty should have no truck with purchase. Burned clean by the struggle against secession, the nation, for Evans, had become the only source of right."
Evans insists that the US government simply steal the land, without any treaties or pretense of recognition of the people who were there.
"Knowing that his Quaker heritage must cry out against such a doctrine, he found himself obligated to settle accounts with that heritage. William Penn, he told an interviewer in 1888, had been mistaken to teach that Indians owned the land they lived on:
'...nearly all the Indian wars have resulted from the fact that the Indians took in that doctrine which was acknowledged by the U.S. government...and that we had to buy it of them by treaty or purchase, instead of teaching them...that they had a right to hunt on the land, but that right must be subject to the higher occupation of the land, for a larger population and for civilization. Their wildness should have been impressed upon them from the beginning...'" (Interview, ibid, pp. 19-20; Saxton, pp. 284-85)
That this is a monologue in Evans's head is revealed by the mind-boggling racism of this statement. What people, living on land, would be convinced by aggressors coming and proclaiming: "we are civilized and you are WILD...we are more productive than you, therefore give us your land and retire into reservations..."
Evans was an extremist, as Major Edward Wynkoop names it, in the party of Exterminators. That name summarizes why all the dubbing of towns - Evanston - and mountains and boulevards and professorships for John Evans is a mistake.
Evans kept trying to tell himself a story that would sanction his rapacity.
There is no such story...
But Evans saying against the Government, "we can just take the land - it is ours - without even a treaty with the people who live there" is the enemy of morality, law, civilization and decency...It underlines the horror of what he did in licensing all women and children to be killed, no "hostile" ones allowed to come in with friendly ones, by the forts, and to designate Black Kettle and the others "hostile" in spite of all their actions to the contrary. To put in a Christian way (Evans, Chivington and Byers, publisher and editor of the Rocky Mountain News were Methodist founders of the Colorado seminary, which became the University of Denver and the Iliff School of Theology), one could not plead, with a John Evans, a John Chivington, a Ralph Byers for mercy. Even toddlers...
Evans's retrospective Lockeanism is an attempt, as a Methodist, to banish the reality that he had, effectively, sent Chivington to do the atrocities at Sand Creek.
Even more remarkably, the US government which broke every treaty with indigenous people - destroyed by violence every attempt to make peace by indigenous people who were in constant retreat, emblemized by the five tribes in Georgia and Mississippi driven out by the Indian Removal Act of 1830 - see Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams - appears more decent than Evans.
In the case of Sand Creek, the government knew the right thing to do. Even the ethnic cleansing Treaty of Little Arkansas in 1865, expelling indigenous people out of their homelands and to the South, promised reparations for the Massacre.
These have, however, never been paid...
John Evans stood for genocide without a facsimile of law, and against all such treaties. He was, once again, an extremist even among "the exterminators."
Evans said he was for self-defense against Indian attacks. From an aggressor and conqueror, this is an apology. He did not hunt particular killers (often acting in self-defense) for particular incidents. Evans was, instead, for ethnic cleansing-scale ravaging - "punishment" - of native Americans of which Sand Creek is the emblem.
Evans was good on the evil of slavery. As a Quaker and then a Methodist, he sometimes sought to "do good." But he also got into the railways. And as an Indian Agent, his desire to clear indigenous people out for "civilization" - to become an "Exterminator" grew.
Many Americans, particularly ordinary ones, when not in a paroxysm of racism (see Peter Silver, Our Savage Neighbors) did not go along with this genuine savagery. In the middle British colonies before the American Revolution, Silver (pp. xvi, xvii-xviii, xxi), traces the standard campaigns to build, through displays of mutilated bodies, a revulsion at indigenous people, based on fear, and an attempt to exterminate them.
Similarly, near Denver in 1864, the bodies of the Hungate family were buried and dug up twice - something very strange - before being taken to the town to be displayed. They were put out by the leading Methodists John Evans, John Chivington and Ralph Byers, to mobilize the fear and passion of the settlers, once again not just to capture particular killers, but to murder all - including peaceful - indigenous people. That was the root of Captain Robbins' testimony "in the Chivington interest."
Displaying bodies was thus part of a longstanding way - a kind of artificial drama - of building sentiment for Extermination.
Jeff Broome has shown that Hungate himself had shot a native american for stealing horses. See here. Hungate and his family were then attacked. But David Halaas told the DU committee looking into Sand Creek, basing himself on the detective work of Jeff Campbell who is now looking into this with intensity, that there are further mysteries to be unravelled here. Campbell located the place of the massacre, as Ari Kelman records at the conclusion of The Misplaced Massacre - 2012. For instance, a large number of moccasins were ostensibly found at the Hungate residence, but there were not a large number of indigenous people running off horses, let alone leaving moccasins - this seems planted "evidence"....
In 1888, Evans' words expressed madness, though they could also be used to "justify" the many Sand Creeks all across the country, something routine though not quite with the Chivington mutilation of babies, foetuses and women.
Evans' memory of Sand Creek had not faded. The particular horrors of Sand Creek follow from and are "licensed" by Evans' view that the US government could do with "lesser human beings" what it wished. For an account of what was actually done in the West, see Dee Brown, Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee and my "Seeing anew" on the Civil War of genocide in the West, 1861-90 here.
It is hard to take in the roots of Denver and even where it is agreed that a Massacre occurred, there is a tendency to take the edge off and not to include or listen to the representatives of indigenous people. Currently, the Colorado History Museum is meeting with previously excluded indigenous leaders to reassess its exhibit on Sand Creek called a "Collision" rather than a Massacre. See here.
"Joint statement on progress of Tribal Consultation regarding Sand Creek Massacre Exhibit at History Colorado
DENVER — Wednesday, June 19, 2013 — A Tribal consultation convened with the assistance of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs at History Colorado, June 18-19, 2013, where official Tribal representatives from the Northern Cheyenne of Montana, the Northern Arapaho of Wyoming and the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, along with National Park Service Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site and History Colorado officials, reviewed the History Colorado Center exhibit about the Sand Creek Massacre.
“The purpose of the Tribal consultation was to begin addressing concerns from the Tribes regarding the exhibit, as well as develop a plan for future relations between History Colorado and the Tribes. All of the participants agreed that this was an encouraging and productive meeting,” said Denver attorney Troy Eid, who mediated the consultation. Eid donated his time as a public service.
Participants agreed to meet again later this summer for further consultations regarding the exhibit and that the exhibit will remain closed during these ongoing Tribal consultations. The parties are also developing a joint Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to guide their current and future relations. The purpose of the MOU will be to educate the public about the Cheyenne and Arapaho people and the Sand Creek Massacre and to prevent such tragedies from ever happening again.
Media may direct questions to Troy Eid at 303-572-6521 (office) or 303-918-6298 (cell), or email firstname.lastname@example.org."
Friday, June 21, 2013
That Marx's letter below, on behalf of the General Council of the International Workingmen's Association, to President Lincoln on his reelection in 1864 is right, in a certain decisive respect, and epochal - that it grasps the world-significance of the American Civil War, that slavery and racism are not on for the flourishing of workers and other human beings everywhere and why they must be fought to the death - is very powerful.
But there is simultaneously a deep moral and political error in the letter.
Marx offers two conflicting lines of thought. The first is the fiercely anti-racist position that the Slave Power must be swept away in the red sea of Civil War.
The second begins from a simple contrast of the rule of the Slave Power in the West as against the settling of free emigrants. But this settling also involved ethnic cleansing of indigenous people. See here and here.
By the same principle as his first point - an internationalist one - Marx should have seen an alliance against American expansion and "progress" with indigenous people as crucial (he should, at least, have reached for some sort of worked out, nonmurderous settlement with indigenous leaders, many of whom, given the overwhelming numbers and brutality of the US government/settlers, were often willing, with little luck, to work one out).
Marx's writing here - and the International Workingmen's Association's endorsement of Lincoln - does not even acknowledge the existence of indigenous people. Instead, it endorses the Founding Amnesia of a settler government (America is "the new world"; the US government can murder and displace all the people who live there and pretend, successfully even to the First International, that it just didn't happen; settlers can pretend that they are "Christians," forgetting their own rapaciousness).
In this respect, Marx identifies the cause of workers with that of an ethnic cleansing settler government. He thus makes a deep and terrible moral and political error,
In chapter 10 of Capital, volume one, on "The Working Day" Marx was right that out of the death of slavery, a new life arose. This is his sentence about the Baltimore Congress of Labor endorsing the 8 hour day in 1866 and the great, 20 years struggle for shorter hours which culminated in the Haymarket massacre in Chicago. There on May 4, 1886, the police threw a bomb (probably - who set off the bomb has never been determined) and started shooting in the falling darkness. Many demonstrators were wounded, 7 officers were killed (many be "friendly fire").
Chicago then tried 8 of the speakers at the demonstration, mainly German immigrants and union leaders, and sentenced them to death. Judge Gary was nakedly prejudicial toward the defendants and the Chicago press was filled with bloodthirsty headlines. This is a stunning example of the miscarriage of justice and the rule of law, one of many toward radicals and immigrants (the rule of law is a frail thing, canceled by racism - lynch law, for example - in the American South toward blacks, and also weak to nonexistent toward immigrants and radicals; one might say that in a democracy, the rule of law exists, though sometimes fleetingly, for middle class people, and much more rarely, for poor people and immigrants...).
August Spies and Charles Parsons, an anarchist was the husband of Lucy Parsons, a great black organizer who had come out of the fight for abolition, were among the condemned. Spies said defiantly at his hanging, "You may silence this voice, but my silence will be more terrible than speech."
On June 26, 1893, Governor John Peter Altgeld, himself a German immigrant, in an act of decency and even nobility, pardoned 3 of those sentenced to death, calling them victims of "hysteria, packed juries, and a biased judge" and noting that the state "has never discovered who it was that threw the bomb which killed the policeman, and the evidence does not show any connection whatsoever between the defendants and the man who threw it."
This pardon cost him reelection, making him one of the few comparatively honorable people among American politicians. That there is something one will not do, and which one will fight even at the potential cost of one's job is, I think, the measure - unfortunately rare - of an honorable politician.
On May 1, 1886, the American labor movement had held demonstrations for shorter hours of which the Haymarket protest, on May 4, was a part. The Second International of Socialist Parties was formed in 1890 and celebrated May Day, commemorating and making global the movement against slavery and for shorter hours, through demonstrations in each country where it had a following (Chile as well as Germany) on May 1, four years to the day from the American demonstrations.
But the failure to stand with indigenous people against genocide and to build alliances has crippled the American radical movement. Some have seen the beginnings of, or suggested the need for such alliances (see, for example, Lerone Bennett, The Road not taken, here).
Though Marx's unfinished Ethnographic Notebooks praise Louis H. Morgan's Ancient Society (1877) on Seneca Indians and study closely and admiringly - compared to commodity fetishism - the practices of indigenous people - see "A journey from the South" here - he never reexamined or criticized his earlier comments on the Civil War. There is some tendency in Marx's and Engels's views to pit an abstract economic determinist general conception based on European developments - economic forces, registered in the unfolding of capitalism, will make the currently few and isolated radicals strong (Engels wrote to Bebel, the leader of the German Social Democrats in 1875, that in the revolution of 1848, he and Marx were the only radicals on the European continent to favor trade unions...; see here; Engels had learned this in England; this was the mistake of whistling to keep one's spirits up when one is part of a still small political movement under life-threatening attack...) against a moral and political one.
Marx's idea, however, was to adapt to particular international situations and local circumstances. Influenced by Morgan, he wrote a letter to Vera Zasulich in the 1880s that the Russian mir, the peasant communes, might lead directly to communism without any intervening period of capitalism. See here. Such a contrast, focused on Marx's strategy for a proletarian revolution immediately following a democratic one in 1848 in Germany - then four-fifths composed of peasants - is also the theme of my Marx's Politics: Communists and Citizens.
During the first International, Marx shifted his views on the racism toward Irish immigrants which divided the English working class. Only the liberation of Ireland and directly combatting racism would lead to serious radical movements. Mere reliance on economic forces, as some misinterpreted Marx's theory, would lead to reaction.
Marx's change on Ireland - see his 1870 letter to Meyer and Vogt here - identifies with the most oppressed. Through his leadership in the International Workingmen's Association and the cooperation of British unions, he organized big demonstrations in support of Ireland and to vanquish prejudice toward Irish workers.
More deeply, Lenin's adoption of a sweeping approval of anti-colonial revolt makes this possibility clear in many cases.
But on indigenous people in the United States, Marx's imagination failed him. Perhaps he identified with settler emigrants like his friend Joseph Weydemeyer who became an officer in the Union army. After the defeat of the democratic revolution in 1848, many Germans went to settle in the United States, and Marx may, as an alternative to emigrating to London, have considered this.
Marx's achilles heel on indigenous people - his endorsement of settler colonialism in his letter to Lincoln - is a mistake which scarred both in vision and in program much of the later socialist and communist movement.
The International Workingmen's Association 1864
Address of the International Working Men's Association to Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States of America
Presented to U.S. Ambassador Charles Francis Adams
January 28, 1865 [A]
Written: by Marx between November 22 & 29, 1864
First Published: The Bee-Hive Newspaper, No. 169, November 7, 1865
We congratulate the American people upon your re-election by a large majority. If resistance to the Slave Power was the reserved watchword of your first election, the triumphant war cry of your re-election is Death to Slavery.
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. The contest for the territories which opened the dire epopee, was it not to decide whether the virgin soil of immense tracts should be wedded to the labor of the emigrant or prostituted by the tramp of the slave driver?
When an oligarchy of 300,000 slaveholders dared to inscribe, for the first time in the annals of the world, "slavery" on the banner of Armed Revolt, when on the very spots where hardly a century ago the idea of one great Democratic Republic had first sprung up, whence the first Declaration of the Rights of Man was issued, and the first impulse given to the European revolution of the eighteenth century; when on those very spots counterrevolution, with systematic thoroughness, gloried in rescinding "the ideas entertained at the time of the formation of the old constitution", and maintained slavery to be "a beneficent institution", indeed, the old solution of the great problem of "the relation of capital to labor", and cynically proclaimed property in man "the cornerstone of the new edifice" — then the working classes of Europe understood at once, even before the fanatic partisanship of the upper classes for the Confederate gentry had given its dismal warning, that the slaveholders' rebellion was to sound the tocsin for a general holy crusade of property against labor, and that 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.
While the workingmen, the true political powers of the North, allowed slavery to defile their own republic, while before the Negro, mastered and sold without his concurrence, 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.
The workingmen of Europe feel sure that, as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American Antislavery War will do for the working classes. They consider it an earnest of the epoch to come that it fell to the lot of Abraham Lincoln, the single-minded son of the working class, to lead his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world. [B]
Signed on behalf of the International Workingmen's Association, the Central Council:
Longmaid, Worley, Whitlock, Fox, Blackmore, Hartwell, Pidgeon, Lucraft, Weston, Dell, Nieass, Shaw, Lake, Buckley, Osbourne, Howell, Carter, Wheeler, Stainsby, Morgan, Grossmith, Dick, Denoual, Jourdain, Morrissot, Leroux, Bordage, Bocquet, Talandier, Dupont, L.Wolff, Aldovrandi, Lama, Solustri, Nusperli, Eccarius, Wolff, Lessner, Pfander, Lochner, Kaub, Bolleter, Rybczinski, Hansen, Schantzenbach, Smales, Cornelius, Petersen, Otto, Bagnagatti, Setacci;
George Odger, President of the Council; P.V. Lubez, Corresponding Secretary for France; Karl Marx, Corresponding Secretary for Germany; G.P. Fontana, Corresponding Secretary for Italy; J.E. Holtorp, Corresponding Secretary for Poland; H.F. Jung, Corresponding Secretary for Switzerland; William R. Cremer, Honorary General Secretary.
18 Greek Street, Soho.
[A] From the minutes of the Central (General) Council of the International — November 19, 1864:
"Dr. Marx then brought up the report of the subcommittee, also a draft of the address which had been drawn up for presentation to the people of America congratulating them on their having re-elected Abraham Lincoln as President. The address is as follows and was unanimously agreed to."
[B] The minutes of the meeting continue:
"A long discussion then took place as to the mode of presenting the address and the propriety of having a M.P. with the deputation; this was strongly opposed by many members, who said workingmen should rely on themselves and not seek for extraneous aid.... It was then proposed... and carried unanimously. The secretary correspond with the United States Minister asking to appoint a time for receiving the deputation, such deputation to consist of the members of the Central Council."
Ambassador Adams Replies
Legation of the United States
London, 28th January, 1865
I am directed to inform you that the address of the Central Council of your Association, which was duly transmitted through this Legation to the President of the United [States], has been received by him.
So far as the sentiments expressed by it are personal, they are accepted by him with a sincere and anxious desire that he may be able to prove himself not unworthy of the confidence which has been recently extended to him by his fellow citizens and by so many of the friends of humanity and progress throughout the world.
The Government of the United States has a clear consciousness that its policy neither is nor could be reactionary, but at the same time it adheres to the course which it adopted at the beginning, of abstaining everywhere from propagandism and unlawful intervention. It strives to do equal and exact justice to all states and to all men and it relies upon the beneficial results of that effort for support at home and for respect and good will throughout the world.
Nations do not exist for themselves alone, but to promote the welfare and happiness of mankind by benevolent intercourse and example. It is in this relation that the United States regard their cause in the present conflict with slavery, maintaining insurgence as the cause of human nature, and they derive new encouragements to persevere from the testimony of the workingmen of Europe that the national attitude is favored with their enlightened approval and earnest sympathies.
I have the honor to be, sir, your obedient servant,
Charles Francis Adams
Thursday, June 20, 2013
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
Marx, K. & Engels, F. (1848). “The Communist Manifesto”. New York: Prometheus Books.
United States Census Bureau. (2013). Nelson County, Virginia. Retrieved from http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/51/51125.html
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.