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News :: Race
Race, Class and American Populism (Spartacist)
26 Sep 2017
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Workers Vanguard No. 1118 22 September 2017
For Black Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!
Race, Class and American Populism
We print below the first part of an article based on a March 5 Spartacist League Black History forum presentation by Brian Manning in Oakland.
The term "populism" commonly means hostility to elites and the status quo. Taking issue with income distribution, populists protest against economic privilege, looking to "the people"--that is, the petty bourgeoisie, or so-called middle class. Populism, which rejects the mobilization of workers as a class, has always gotten a lot of play in the U.S. This is due in large part to the historic lack of class consciousness among workers, which is a product of the racial and other divisions sown by the capitalist rulers in order to divide and weaken the working class.
A few years ago, you had the populist Occupy movement. Its ubiquitous slogan, "We are the 99 percent," was based on a notion of "the people" against the "1 percent." According to this outlook, workers and the oppressed supposedly share common interests with managers who fire their employees, cops who gun down black people, and religious leaders who preach obedience and docility in the face of authority. Last year, the Bernie Sanders campaign drew on widespread anger against economic inequality in America with its rallying cry for "political revolution against the billionaire class." Sanders is in fact a capitalist Democratic Party politician who has long served the interests of the ruling class, particularly with his support to the bloody wars, occupations and other adventures of U.S. imperialism.
That Bernie Sanders is not a socialist of any stripe has not stopped reformist organizations like the International Socialist Organization and Socialist Alternative from fawning over him. Sanders promoted the fraudulent idea that the people can vote into office a benevolent capitalist government that will defend their interests against the big corporations and robber barons of Wall Street. Such illusions, which have long been promoted by the pro-capitalist trade-union misleaders, have served to tie the working class to the rule of the exploiters.
Then there's Trump, who ran a campaign of right-wing populism. Populism isn't inherently right-wing or left-wing; it can span the bourgeois political spectrum and is conditioned by the level of class struggle. In his inauguration address, Trump said, "For too long, a small group in our nation's capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished--but the people did not share in its wealth." Playing on economic insecurities, Trump sometimes postured as a defender of the "little man." Of course, Trump is an open representative of big capital and racist, union-busting reaction. His brand of right-wing populism represents a direct attack on black people, immigrants and the working class as a whole.
As Marxists, we struggle to impart the understanding that the barbaric capitalist system cannot be reformed to benefit working people and the oppressed but must be overthrown. The only way to ensure jobs and decent living standards, including free, quality health care and education for all, is by seizing the wealth from the capitalist class through socialist revolution and putting it in the hands of those whose labor makes society run--that is, the working class. This is also the only way to put an end to the racial oppression of black people, which is the bedrock of American capitalism. The multiracial working class cannot liberate itself from wage slavery if it does not take up the fight for black liberation. Our aim is to forge the revolutionary multiracial workers party that will fight to realize the goals of black freedom and equality. Black workers are slated to play a leading role in such a party.
The fundamental class division in capitalist society is between the working class, which sells its labor power to survive, and the capitalist class, which owns the banks and the means of production, such as the factories and the mines. The bourgeoisie is a very small fraction of the "1 percent." The interests of the working class and the bourgeoisie are irreconcilable. The international working class uniquely possesses the social power to overturn capitalism, deriving from workers' ability to shut off the flow of profit by withholding their labor. The workers have an objective interest in expropriating the bourgeoisie and reorganizing society on a socialist basis internationally.
The heterogeneous, intermediate social layers between the workers and the capitalists constitute the petty bourgeoisie, which encompasses students, professionals and shopkeepers, among others. These layers have no direct relationship to the means of production. Lacking social power and a common class interest, the petty bourgeoisie cannot provide an alternative to capitalism. If the working class, under a revolutionary leadership and program, shows that it has the resolve to lead society out of its economic and social crises, sections of the petty bourgeoisie will line up behind the workers in struggle. The upper layers of the petty bourgeoisie will gravitate toward the capitalists against the workers.
Early Populism and Black Oppression
The best-known populist movement is the one that emerged in the late 19th century, centered on poor farmers in the South. American populism, however, goes back to the slaveowner Thomas Jefferson and his glorification of the yeoman farmer. Shays' Rebellion of 1787, a revolt by debt-ridden farmers in western Massachusetts against taxes, prefigured later battles fought in the populist tradition. At the time, Thomas Jefferson said, "I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing and is as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical." Of course, when it came to black slaves rebelling, as in the Haitian Revolution, which began in 1791, the prospect of slave masters losing their heads to the slaves was a little too close to Monticello for Jefferson. He opposed the new black republic established in Haiti in 1804.
Andrew Jackson is also viewed as an early populist because he warred with banking and business elites in the name of "the people," that is, white people. Like Jefferson, Jackson was a wealthy slaveowner who held hundreds of human beings as chattel on his cotton plantation. He also slaughtered Native Americans and orchestrated their forcible removal from the southeastern United States, such as the horrific 1838-39 Trail of Tears from Georgia to present-day Oklahoma. It's entirely fitting that Trump admires Jackson.
Later expressions of American populism were conditioned by the outcome of the Civil War of 1861-65. Waged by the Northern Union Army against the slaveowners' Confederacy in the South, the Civil War was a bourgeois revolution, with all its inherent contradictions. It was one of the most progressive wars in modern history in that it smashed black chattel slavery. The Northern capitalists overthrew and abolished a barbaric and archaic social system of exploitation, paving the way for the full development of capitalism in the United States.
During the period of Radical Reconstruction beginning in 1867, the federal government for the first time extended the rights of citizenship to black people through the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. For a time, it used the power of Union Army troops in the South to protect the former slaves. In 1865, the federal government also established the Freedmen's Bureau, which oversaw the establishment of public education for black people (as well as poor whites) in the South, where previously it had been a crime to teach black people to read and write. Some Radical Republicans even mooted land reform.
But the Northern bourgeoisie was not committed to fulfilling Reconstruction's promise of social equality for the former slaves. The temporary alliance of the Northern bourgeoisie with the black slaves in the South against the slaveholders was just that--temporary. By the 1870s, it was no longer in the bourgeoisie's interest to maintain that alliance. The Northern capitalists eyed the devastated South not as a laboratory for a radical, interracial democratic experiment but as an opportunity to profitably exploit Southern resources and cheap labor. The 1871 Paris Commune, in which the working class briefly held power, helped to cohere the class consciousness of the U.S. bourgeoisie, whose prewar ideology of "free labor," premised on an identity of interest between labor and capital, had quickly dissipated after the Civil War. The bourgeoisie began to see--and fear--the intertwining of the fate of the freedmen in the South with that of the overwhelmingly white working class in the North.
Men from mercantile, banking and industrial backgrounds as well as some from the old planter families became the new rulers in the South. The Union Army's practice during the last year of the Civil War of turning over "40 acres and a mule" to freed slaves in some parts of South Carolina and Georgia had nurtured the hopes of emancipated slaves across the South that they would get their own piece of land. But such land reform was a dead letter almost from the start of Reconstruction.
At the same time, Reconstruction faced a sustained, bloody offensive by Southern white-supremacists. The federal government increasingly gave these racists a free hand in terrorizing black people and whites who supported the Republican Party and Reconstruction. With the Compromise of 1877, the new president, Rutherford B. Hayes, ordered the last of a dwindling number of federal troops in the South to remain in their barracks, ending their role in Southern political affairs. With this act, the American bourgeoisie killed what remained of Reconstruction.
Racist American Capitalism on the Rise
With the defeat of Reconstruction, the former slaveowners and other supporters of the Confederacy, organized by the white-supremacist Democratic Party, took control of local and state governments, the courts, militias, sheriffs and newspapers. The pro-slavery forces had, from the time of Reconstruction, formed their own paramilitary organizations, such as the Red Shirts and Ku Klux Klan. The Democrats who overthrew Republican governments in the South dubbed themselves "Redeemers" because they had supposedly redeemed the South from black rule, fraud and corruption. They accomplished this by violently driving blacks from the polls with nightriding attacks, lynching and bloody massacres.
New labor systems developed in the South. In the absence of land reform, various forms of peonage developed, subjugating the bulk of the Southern black population, as well as poor whites, to the white landowners and merchants. There was sharecropping, whereby the farmer had to give a certain share of his crop to the landlord when he harvested it. There was the crop lien system, whereby the merchant who furnished seeds and supplies, or the landowner, took a lien on the future crop. And there was tenancy, in which the farmer paid the landowner to farm on his land. The farmers had no claim to the crops they cultivated. Interest rates were astronomical, frequently 100 percent a year, and sometimes as high as 200 percent. Year after year, decade after decade, these farmers had to sign over their crops to merchants or the landlords.
Another trap for former slaves was the system of convict labor. The Thirteenth Amendment, which codified emancipation of the slaves, also contained an exception that served to forge new chains for freed blacks: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States" (emphasis added). To undermine the new citizenship rights won by black people, every former slave state passed a plethora of laws that criminalized all kinds of minor offenses like vagrancy, loitering, gambling, etc. These were punishable by a long sentence or a fine so high no poor person could pay it. The convict was leased out for a term of labor to pay off the fine. The savage abuse of convict laborers enabled the bourgeoisie to lay the foundations of industry in the South without having to pay for "free labor." As barbaric as slavery was, the chattel slave represented an expensive piece of property for the slaveowner. Not so the convict laborer.
In the U.S. as a whole, the overthrow of slavery led to increasing industrialization, and the working class entered the scene as a potentially immensely powerful force. Workers waged militant struggles against exploitation, such as the Railroad Strike of 1877, the eight-hour-day movement of the 1880s, the Homestead and Pullman strikes of the 1890s. The working class had gained the social power to carry out a revolution not only to end capitalist exploitation but also to achieve equality for black people and save the poverty-stricken farmers in the South and elsewhere from economic ruin and destitution.
The problem was not that the working class lacked social power but that it lacked the political leadership and consciousness to fight for its own rule. The working class was divided by ethnicity, language, religion and race. Furthermore, the leaders of the workers movement would soon tie the workers politically to the Populists, whose program was to reform, not abolish, the capitalist system. What was needed then, as today, was to break the working class politically from the idea that the bourgeoisie could be a progressive class.
The Farmers' Alliances and Southern Populism
After the Civil War/Reconstruction period, the U.S. bourgeoisie ceased to play any historically progressive role. Its Republican wing increasingly adopted the racist outlook of the Democratic Party, with the Republicans developing a "Lily White" faction in the late 1880s that aimed to drive black people out of the party leadership and elected posts. By the 1890s, the U.S. bourgeoisie had become a bloody, imperialist ruling class, going to war with Spain in 1898 under Republican president William McKinley in order to take over as the colonial oppressors of the Philippines, Cuba, Guam and Puerto Rico.
Manufacturing and financial interests in the North had almost unchallenged control over policymaking following the Civil War. Agriculture, which was made to shoulder the burdens of industrial development, was in a perpetual crisis in this period. Farmers were forced to buy all the manufactured goods they needed at artificially high prices on a market protected by tariffs. Meanwhile, farmers were forced to sell their goods in a largely unprotected market at depressed prices because of a glut of agricultural products and foreign competition.
In the 1870s, the federal government withdrew from circulation the paper money issued by the Union during the Civil War, known as greenbacks. It also returned to the gold standard--paper currency became exchangeable for gold at a fixed rate. Confederate money was of course worthless, so there was hardly any money in circulation in the South. This situation spawned the Greenback-Labor Party in 1876, which called on the government to issue unsecured paper money--i.e., not linked to the gold standard--to help farmers repay debts. By the 1880s, the movement for unlimited silver coinage into money had taken the place of the Greenback movement. Along with agrarian organizations like the Grange, the Agricultural Wheel and other cooperative organizations, the Greenbackers were the precursors to the Populist movement.
In the South, under the reign of various factions of the Democratic Party, the party of the former slaveowners, the Republicans were hemorrhaging members and supporters as black rights became increasingly circumscribed. By the late 1880s, a movement of farmers was consolidating into a broad network that came to include thousands of chapters of black and white farmers' alliances. This was the ground on which the Populist movement arose. The Populist movement in the American South had a wide scope and impact as a third-party movement. It also played a role in how the black population was consolidated as an oppressed race-color caste, the majority of which remains forcibly segregated at the bottom of society.
White small farmers were driven in some cases to join hands with their black counterparts in defense of common interests against the new cabal of masters ruling the post-Reconstruction South. The Populist program was radical-sounding: public ownership of railroads and utilities, a graduated income tax, debtor relief, increased monetary supply, a federally funded system of nationwide cooperatives, popular election of Senators. They were attempting to construct some variety of a cooperative commonwealth within the framework of American capitalism. Nonetheless, these attempts represented a significant challenge to the Republicans and Democrats, who had consolidated their position as parties of unbridled capitalist expansion and exploitation.
At the same time, as we wrote in one of the Spartacist League's founding documents, "This tentative union--the Southern Populist Movement--was doomed to failure" ("Black and Red--Class Struggle Road to Negro Freedom," May-June 1967, reprinted in Marxist Bulletin No. 9, "Basic Documents of the Spartacist League"). The document continues:
"The small farmer class itself could not be a real contender for political power in a capitalist society, while the dynamics of private farming inevitably brought about sharp competition among the farmers. This competition was exploited by the new political alliance of big planters, Southern capitalists and certain Northern financial interests, in particular, investors in Southern railroads, land, mining and timber. This bloc initiated a campaign of violent race hatred among their political opponents which succeeded in destroying the developing black-white unity."
The Colored Farmers' Alliance
Two separate farmers' groups were formed nationally--the Colored Farmers' Alliance (CFA) in 1886 and the National Farmers' Alliance (NFA) in 1887. The Southern branch of the NFA was segregated. The NFA's ranks were for the most part small farm owners and tenants, mostly from the hill country. The leaders, who tended to be bigger landowners, were deeply enmeshed in commercial agriculture and were often small exploiters in their own right. These forces wanted higher prices and lower shipping costs for goods and to drive down the wages of agricultural workers. Many were supporters of the racist Democratic Party. As likely as not, NFA members in the South had ridden with the Red Shirts, the White Leagues or the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction.
In contrast to the NFA's segregationist policy in the South, the CFA did not exclude whites willing to help build the organization. In fact, white leadership was welcomed because whites had the advantage of being able to reach out to leaders of other organizations and the government. R.M. Humphrey, a former Confederate officer turned Baptist missionary, became head of the CFA. Initially the colored alliances were non-partisan social organizations and economic cooperatives trying to provide some relief to impoverished farmers. There are few surviving CFA newspapers. But there are written accounts from the CFA's white organizers, as well as references to the alliance in the white Populist newspapers.
Black Populist organizing methods were secret, based largely in the black churches. Within the Southern caste system, black people could not just go out and have picnics and rallies like the white Populists. Heroic CFA organizers often paid for their activism with their lives. Black people risked being driven off their land or lynched just for standing up to the landlord, showing signs of literacy, ignoring racial "etiquette" or doing anything non-submissive, or doing nothing at all. Lynching was commonly the result of disputes over land and livestock or of confrontations with landlords and employers.
In 1889, Oliver Cromwell, a black CFA organizer, was recruiting black farmers in Leflore County, Mississippi. Having organized black men into a militia group in Clinton, Mississippi, during Reconstruction, he was described in the press as a "notoriously bad Negro." He organized a boycott of local white merchants, encouraging farmers to trade with the co-op store instead. When Cromwell's life was threatened, armed black men rallied around him. Whites organized posses, and the state militia suppressed Cromwell and his supporters in a sea of blood. The lynching went on for days, and dozens of black people were murdered.
By 1891, the CFA claimed a membership of 1.25 million. The CFA was largely composed of black tenants and laborers who supported the Republican Party. They wanted higher wages and an end to convict labor and lien law. Both the CFA and the NFA wanted cheaper credit and more money in circulation.
In 1891, the CFA organized a cotton pickers strike. Planters in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta and the Arkansas Delta refused to pay more than 50 cents per 100 pounds of cotton picked. Some members of the CFA persuaded R.M. Humphrey that the organization should protect them. But there was a conflict: some members thought that it was too dangerous for the black pickers to go on strike. Others opposed the strike for economic reasons--either they owned their own land or hired help to pick cotton. So Humphrey organized the Cotton Pickers League as a subgroup within the CFA. Practically nothing is known of the Cotton Pickers League. It was a secret organization, and its members were mostly illiterate.
The Cotton Pickers League tried to use the strike as a means to improve the lot of landless black people. The strike only materialized in a couple of places--in East Texas and in the Arkansas Delta near Memphis. In Arkansas, planters organized a large posse to hunt for strike leaders, which took on added urgency when the strikers killed a plantation manager. Strike leaders were hunted down and murdered. After the strike, the CFA lost members and passed from the scene as an independent organization. The brutal suppression of the CFA showed the determined and violent opposition that black laborers were up against when they challenged the white landowners.
[TO BE CONTINUED]
This work is in the public domain