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Vol. 74/No. 5      February 8, 2010

Vanguard place of Blacks
dates to Reconstruction
(feature article)
The Militant is running excerpts from the newly published Pathfinder book Malcolm X, Black Liberation, and the Road to Workers Power, by Jack Barnes, national secretary of the Socialist Workers Party. We encourage our readers to buy, read, and discuss it.

The excerpt below is taken from the chapter “Radical Reconstruction: Its Conquests and the Consequences of Its Defeat.” It explains how the vanguard place of workers who are Black in leading broad, proletarian-based social and political battles in the United States goes back to the closing years of the U.S. Civil War, and especially to the postwar battle for Radical Reconstruction. Blacks provided leadership in substantial parts of the South both to freed slaves and to exploited farmers and antislavery workers who were white. Copyright © 2009 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.

The U.S. ruling class, its schools, and bourgeois historians hide or distort what happened during Radical Reconstruction. But this revolutionary experience of the producing classes is a story that needs to be told by a proletarian party in the United States, as an example of what many of our predecessors fought for a century ago—a forerunner of the kind of fighting workers and farmers alliance we are struggling for today. This story will find a ready audience among fighters in the factories and on the farms.

The most advanced of these Radical Reconstruction regimes, such as those in South Carolina and Mississippi, adopted immediate and democratic demands in the interests of working people. This progressive social legislation included the barring of racial discrimination; universal suffrage for males regardless of race; property taxes that fell heaviest on plantation owners and the moneyed classes; the first free public schools in the South (including desegregated and tuition-free university education in South Carolina); public hospitals and medical care for the poor; public-relief systems; the elimination of whipping and other cruel and inhuman punishments; and expanded grounds on which a woman could obtain a divorce.

Working farmers and artisans who were white faced the same exploiters as the freed slaves. Many of them had opposed secession from the Union, hated the privileged slavocracy that ruled the Confederacy, and supported emancipation. During the Civil War, Marx and Engels closely followed reports in the southern press of resistance by farmers and small-town and city working people against conscription and taxation. Substantial numbers of these toilers welcomed the measures carried out during Radical Reconstruction and joined in defending them.

None of the Reconstruction governments, however, had both the will and the power to enforce an expropriation of the big plantation owners that could have made possible a radical land reform, since the appointed Union Army commanders in each state held effective veto power over legislation and its enforcement. While some of these officers were more radical than others, none were willing to countenance a broadside attack on the landholdings of the southern property owners… .

The aspirations of the liberated and proletarianized Blacks, and their allies among southern white working people, were blocked by the growing power of the U.S. capitalist class, which during those same postwar years was landing significant blows against the working class and young labor movement. The final defeat of Radical Reconstruction required a bloody counterrevolution. The deal between the Democratic and Republican parties to withdraw Union troops from the South in 1877 accelerated a reign of terror by the Ku Klux Klan, the Knights of the White Camelia, and other racist gangs beholden to the interests of the exploiters.1

Farrell Dobbs explained this culminating chapter of the defeat of Radical Reconstruction in the first volume of Revolutionary Continuity: Marxist Leadership in the U.S.

Farrell wrote:

By 1877, Radical Reconstruction had gone down to bloody defeat and not only Afro-Americans but the entire working class had suffered what remains the worst setback in its history. The defeat was engineered by the dominant sectors of industrial and rising banking capital, a class that was incapable of carrying through a radical land reform in the old Confederacy and rightly feared the rise of a united working class in which Black and white artisans and industrial workers would come together as a powerful oppositional force, allied with free working farmers.

The rural poor and working class were forcibly divided along color lines in the years following 1877. The value of labor power was driven down and class solidarity crippled. Jim Crow, the system of extensive segregation, was legalized. Racism spread at an accelerated pace throughout the entire United States.

This defeat was suffered not only because the freed slaves, who aspired to get land in order to become working farmers, were betrayed by the bourgeoisie and both capitalist political parties. It also occurred because the U.S. working class and its organizations were as yet still too weak and politically inexperienced to provide a labor leadership for the kind of class-struggle social movement that could have made possible a massive expropriation and redistribution of land to the freed slaves.

The defeat of Radical Reconstruction was devastating for prospects to build a fighting alliance of workers and farmers, Black and white, in this country. Any united action by the oppressed and exploited more and more also had to confront the development of U.S. imperialism during the final decades of the nineteenth century. The robber barons of rising finance capital encouraged racist poison as part of their ideological justification for imposing U.S. domination on the black-, brown-, and “yellow”-skinned peoples of Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Philippines, and Hawaii.2

Moreover, the defeat of Radical Reconstruction dealt a devastating blow to Blacks and other U.S. working people. The U.S. working class became more deeply divided by the national oppression of Blacks that was institutionalized in the South on new foundations in the bloody aftermath of 1877. U.S. labor’s first giant step toward the formation of major industrial unions did not come for another six decades, and the formation of a labor party, anticipated by Marx 108 years ago, remains an unfulfilled task of our class to this day.

Nonetheless, Marx could not have been more correct about the alliance of social forces that would have to be at the center of a successful revolution in the United States—the working class, toilers who are Black, and exploited farmers.

1. In the 1876 presidential election, the Democratic Party candidate Samuel Tilden won more than 51 percent of the popular vote, but neither Tilden nor the Republican Rutherford Hayes tallied the required 185 electoral votes to become president. A deal worked out by a commission of Democratic and Republican members of the U.S. Congress handed the White House to Hayes in return for a pledge to withdraw all Union troops from the South, a promise Hayes rapidly fulfilled.

2. In 1898, at the dawn of the imperialist epoch, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines, former colonies of Spain, were seized by Washington as victor’s booty in what the U.S. rulers called the Spanish-American War. That same year, U.S. imperialism militarily seized, and later annexed, the then-independent country of Hawaii.

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