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Vol. 74/No. 23      June 14, 2010

Black nationality forged
in victorious struggles
(feature article)
The following is the 21st in a series of excerpts the Militant is running from Pathfinder Press’s latest 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 study, discuss, and help sell the book. This selection, from the chapter “Black Liberation and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat,” takes up Radical Reconstruction, a period following the U.S. Civil War when the exploited producers—led by formerly enslaved Blacks and backed by Union troops—took strides toward establishing popular democratic governments that advanced the class interests of all freedmen, small farmers, and other working people.

These governments implemented laws barring race discrimination, establishing free public schools, taxes on large landholders, universal male suffrage, expanded rights for women, and public relief. The withdrawal of the Union army from the South in 1877 led to bloody crushing of these popular regimes. Copyright © 2009 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.


If Radical Reconstruction had not been defeated, of course, and if the fight for “forty acres and a mule” had succeeded, then it wasn’t foreordained that the freed slaves would have emerged as an oppressed nationality by the late 1800s. That’s true. They would have been part of a vast, fighting proletarian social movement of workers, free farmers, and former slaves.

But what forged the Black nationality in the United States was not what Farrell [Dobbs] had accurately called “the worst setback” in the history of the U.S. working class! The Black nationality was forged not by a defeat but by the capacities, the vanguard class-struggle activity, and the social and political consciousness of the emancipated slaves. It was forged as they used their freedom to transform themselves from slaves into vanguard workers and farmers, into makers of history, into those who act.

The smashing of Radical Reconstruction was a bloody counterrevolution carried out by armed rightist gangs such as the Ku Klux Klan, Knights of the White Camelia, and others. Following adoption of the Reconstruction Acts of 1867, federal troops were stationed throughout the South in order, among other things, to enforce the citizenship and voting rights of freed slaves under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. By the mid-1870s these federal forces initially began being ordered not to intervene to defend elected Reconstruction state governments, and by 1877 the troops were withdrawn altogether.

That defeat not only closed the door to any further radical, popular, plebeian extension of the American bourgeois revolution deepened by the Civil War and the elimination of slavery; it threw the gears into reverse for nearly a century.

Don’t forget, we have always recognized the Civil War, together with Radical Reconstruction, as the Second American Revolution. By the closing years of the 1800s, however, it was already too late in the United States for any additional successful advances of the bourgeois revolution. With the growth of capitalist monopolization and the rising dominance of finance capital during the three decades following the Civil War, the United States emerged as an imperialist power by the end of the century. What is called in the United States the Spanish-American War was the world’s first imperialist war. From that point forward, further advances in the struggle for Black rights—despite repeated defaults and betrayals by the class-collaborationist officialdom of the unions and misleaders of social democratic and Stalinist organizations—have been inextricably bound up with the line of march of the working class toward the conquest of power and establishment of the proletarian dictatorship.  
Record of accomplishments
Coming out of the Civil War, toilers who were Black fought to stop the reimposition of slavery-like contract gangs in the fields across the South. They fought for land. They waged battles during Radical Reconstruction for schools, for suffrage, for cheap credit and agricultural extension services, and other needs of the toilers as a whole. They organized armed resistance to violent rightist assaults on the Reconstruction state governments.

The capitalist rulers try to hide the history of Radical Reconstruction, just as they try to hide the history of labor battles in this country. In school most of us were taught little more about Reconstruction than tales of the scandalous “scalawags” from the South and notorious “carpetbaggers” from the North. They want to hide the truth because it explodes every racist and anti-working-class notion about what Blacks can accomplish, about the potential of fighting alliances between toilers who are Black and white, and much more. That falsification only began to be undone on a broad scale by the rise of a mass proletarian movement led by Blacks.

Radical Reconstruction also marked the high point of the fight to recognize Asian immigrants—especially the large numbers of Chinese laborers brought here to build the transcontinental railroad—as human beings, worthy of the same rights to citizenship and property as those whose skin was black, white, or any other shade in the spectrum. Political equality for Asian workers too was set back for nearly a century by the defeats of 1877. (The publication of Our History Is Still Being Written [The Story of Three Chinese-Cuban Generals in the Cuban Revolution] should remind us of how the U.S. rulers also hide the true story of the accomplishments and oppression of immigrant Chinese labor in this country, as they have falsified history with regard to Native Americans and Mexicanos for many decades too.)

Small farmers and wageworkers who were white became involved in the struggles that marked Radical Reconstruction as well. The social conquests of the most advanced Reconstruction regimes, as in South Carolina, were extremely popular among toilers, whatever their skin color. Many working farmers and wageworkers in the mountains and elsewhere throughout the South had never supported slavery. They resisted the Confederacy during the Civil War, including sometimes by refusing conscription and payment of special taxes. After the war, they recognized they had never had local governments like many that arose during Reconstruction. They had never had governments that provided free public education, that helped them obtain low-interest loans, that set up agricultural schools and sent itinerant farming consultants into rural areas. All this was very popular.

After the defeat of Radical Reconstruction, Blacks waged countless skirmishes—during the 1880s and 1890s, and on into the twentieth century—against the imposition of Jim Crow segregation and racist terror across the South. They fought to hold onto their land, and continue to do so. And they have been in the vanguard of all the proletarian-led social and political struggles of the twentieth century that we’ve pointed to.

This record of struggle is what initially forged the Black nationality. It was the product of a positive political conquest, not a great historic defeat. The Black nationality was carved out of these accomplishments, not out of its own oppression. It was a registration of consciousness of political worth.

We have to recognize both pieces of what happened. We need to understand the defeat of Radical Reconstruction, which laid the basis for the bloody imposition of Jim Crow terror and segregation. That was when the oppressed character of the Black nationality was settled, something that will not be undone short of a successful proletarian revolution. But we must also see the struggles before, during, and since Radical Reconstruction that forged a nationality that has produced generation after generation of vanguard militants in the weightiest, the most plebeian, social and political struggles in this country.

We need to be clear when we talk about the forging of the Black nationality. Because what toilers in this country, Black and white, laid the historic foundations for during the Civil War and Radical Reconstruction, the Second American Revolution, is one of the great pledges of what mass proletarian and popular movements can achieve when working people establish governments that truly act in the interests of the exploited and the oppressed.
Related articles:
Bill to compensate Black farmers for discrimination goes to Senate
Sweden: Cafe meeting discusses Malcolm X  
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