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Sunday, November 1, 2009

The working-class fight for power






U.S. Civil War, rise and defeat of Radical Reconstruction,
and working-class fight for power: talk by Mary-Alice Waters
at international conference in Mexico

The following presentation was given by Mary-Alice Waters at the International Conference on Martí, Juárez, and Lincoln in the Heart of Our America, held October 15-17 in Monterrey, Mexico (see front-page news article on conference). Waters is the editor of the Marxist magazine New International and president of Pathfinder Press. Copyright © 2009 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission. Subheadings are by the Militant


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BY MARY-ALICE WATERS
The decisive battles waged in the second half of the nineteenth century by popular forces under bourgeois leadership, which Juárez, Lincoln, and Martí exemplified, ended the reactionary colonial ambitions of the European monarchies in Mexico, Cuba, and the United States and abolished the institutions of chattel slavery and indentured labor. These were no small accomplishments. They were, in fact, historic, sweeping away the greatest obstacles not only to the expansion of industrial capital but also, along with it, to the development of a fighting, class-conscious proletarian movement.

In all three countries, however, the plebeian masses, who had paid dearly for these revolutionary conquests, soon found their victories drowned in blood.

Others participating in this conference have addressed some of these same questions, concentrating on the history of the class struggle in Mexico and Cuba. My remarks will focus on what we in the United States often refer to as the Second American Revolution—the Civil War of 1861-65 and the postwar decade of Radical Reconstruction—and the lasting consequences of Reconstruction’s bloody defeat.

What they don’t teach us … and why
Radical Reconstruction was born in the revolutionary war that was necessary to abolish slavery and the system of production based on it across the states of the South and to prevent its expansion into the territories, including those that are now the U.S. Southwest, lands taken from Mexico in the 1846-48 Mexican-American War. What I want to emphasize here is that Radical Reconstruction remains to this day the best example in U.S. history of the kind of fighting alliance of rural toilers and the working class that we must build if there is to be a future for humanity.

This is something they don’t teach us in school, and you won’t find in many books either. That’s because history is written by the winners, and the Reconstruction state governments went down to defeat by 1877, betrayed by the northern industrial bourgeoisie and its political parties. That still rising class feared above all the potential that was developing for an expanding alliance of free working farmers with a united working class—artisans and industrial workers alike, urban and rural, Black and white. Their fears were not without foundation. They saw their gravedigger being born—something that had been precluded, to paraphrase Marx, as long as labor in a Black skin was in chains.

The crushing of these popular revolutionary regimes that arose in parts of the South was facilitated, above all, by the refusal of the ruling families of the North to countenance any broadside attack on private property beyond the abolition of slavery. This was the course implemented by their appointed Federal Army commanders in the occupied South, who exercised veto power over legislation adopted by state legislatures during Reconstruction. In particular, the capitalist rulers opposed any sweeping intrusion on the landholdings of southern property owners. Land reform—“forty acres and a mule” for former slaves, and land for the rural poor—was blocked. As a result, former slaves were forced into conditions of virtual peonage throughout the South. The value of labor power was driven down, and the toilers were forcefully divided along race lines for nearly a century to come.

The U.S. rulers and their apologists, in the press, pulpit, and academy, do all they can to hide the truth about Radical Reconstruction because that history explodes every racist and anti-working-class notion they try to instill in us. It shows the opposite—the vanguard role in the U.S. class struggle of toilers who are Black, the potential to forge a fighting alliance between working people who are Black and white, and much more.

Reconstruction state governments
The elected Reconstruction legislatures—especially those of South Carolina (with a sizeable Black majority), and Mississippi and Louisiana (both, for a time, with large numbers of legislators who were Black)—established what with substantial accuracy can be called popular revolutionary dictatorships. Backed by the power of well-organized local militias, drawing their troops from working people who were white as well as Black, as well as by the Federal Army, these governments adopted and implemented broad programs of immediate and democratic demands in the interests of working people.

These measures included abolition of the infamous Black Codes former slave owners had imposed in the immediate aftermath of the war; 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 free university enrollment in South Carolina); public hospitals and medical care for the poor; public-relief systems; the elimination of whipping and other cruel and inhuman punishments; expanded grounds on which women could sue for divorce and enactment of other measures to advance women’s equality. And more.

Such measures were popular with working people of all skin colors.

None of the Reconstruction governments, however, had the power or the will to enforce an expropriation of the big plantation owners, the measure that could have made possible a radical land reform. It was too late in history for the ascending industrial bourgeoisie in the United States to lead such a revolutionary struggle. Inroads on private ownership of the means of production threatened the foundations of its own class domination. At the same time, the U.S. working class and its organizations were too weak and too politically inexperienced to provide leadership for the kind of class-struggle social movement that could have waged an effective battle to expropriate and redistribute land to the freed slaves, rural toilers, and urban poor.

Necessary alliance of class forces
As the Federal Army was withdrawn state by state from the South a decade after the end of the Civil War, and Radical Reconstruction governments were crushed by spreading counterrevolutionary terror, the first great labor struggles of the post-Civil War years exploded. In 1877 a battle against wage cuts by West Virginia rail workers turned into the first nationwide general strike in the history of the United States—spreading from there to Maryland, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, Missouri, Indiana, and Illinois.

In a letter to Frederick Engels, Karl Marx underscored the significance of that development, pointing to the alliance of class forces whose foundations had been laid over the previous decade.

“What do you think of the workers of the United States?” Marx asked Engels. “This, the first outbreak against the associated oligarchy of capital that has arisen since the Civil War, will, of course, be suppressed,” he noted. Then, referring to the withdrawal of Federal troops from the South and the bourgeoisie’s betrayal of the Reconstruction regimes, Marx added that “the policy of the new President [Rutherford Hayes] will turn the Negroes … into militant allies of the workers,” just as “the big expropriations of land (exactly of the fertile land) for the benefit of the railway, mining, etc., companies” (which was accelerating rapidly across the western territories) will bring free farmers in the West to their side.

Marx and Engels could not have been more correct about the alliance of class forces that would have to stand at the center of any revolutionary struggle in the United States from that day forward. But with the bloody defeat of Radical Reconstruction, it was soon clear that not only African Americans but the entire U.S. working class had suffered what would be its worst setback to this day. The consequences have shaped the course of the class struggle in the United States ever since.

Jim Crow and Uncle Sam
Contrary to widespread misconceptions in the United States, legislation imposing the most extreme Jim Crow segregation was not adopted in the immediate aftermath of this defeat. Codification of the U.S. form of institutionalized segregation (on which South Africa’s 1948 apartheid laws were later modeled) was intertwined with the growing dominance of finance capital in the final decades of the 1800s and the emergence of the United States as an imperialist power.

Anti-Black race riots, pogroms, and lynchings expanded murderously throughout the 1870s and 1880s, reaching their highest point in the opening years of the 1890s. The wave of anti-Black terror surged again at the close of World War I and into the postwar economic crisis of the 1920s.

Jim Crow and Uncle Sam advanced hand in hand. Institutionalized segregation and discrimination dividing the toilers at home was the domestic face of Washington’s expansionist course the world over. The racist poison against the black-, brown-, and “yellow”-skinned peoples of Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Philippines, and Hawaii—ideological rationalizations for U.S. imperial designs—reinforced the spreading reign of bigotry and terror within the United States. United action by the oppressed and exploited was crippled. And development of the class alliance pointed to by the founders of the modern working-class movement was postponed for decades.

These were the conditions that gave birth to the first war of the imperialist epoch. Known to Washington as the “Spanish-American War,” U.S. military forces dispatched to Cuba in 1898 not only stole from the Cuban people the independence they had conquered in thirty bitter years of war. They established the battle lines of the class struggle in the Americas for the coming century and beyond.

From bourgeois to proletarian leadership
As the interests of the ever-expanding power of industrial and banking capital came more and more into conflict with the Second American Revolution, in 1877 Washington’s counterrevolutionary course accelerated. With that turning point, revolutionary leadership in the Americas could no longer be exercised by any force other than the working class—which wrested its first decisive triumph some eight decades later with the taking of state power in Cuba. That was the opening in our hemisphere of the trail first blazed in October 1917 by the toilers of tsarist Russia, under the leadership of Lenin and the Bolshevik Party. The unfinished struggle of Martí was redeemed in 1959 by this revolutionary act of the workers and farmers of Cuba. Even more, the unparalleled steadfastness of the Cuban people in face of Washington’s half century of imperialist aggression has transformed the Americas for all time.

For us today, that unparalleled steadfastness is demonstrated to the world by the dignity and unwavering convictions of our five Cuban brothers and comrades unjustly imprisoned for more than eleven years now in the United States. They are being held hostage by Washington to the refusal of the people of Cuba who conquered the first free territory of the Americas to surrender to the U.S. rulers’ imperial demands.

The capitalist depression and social crises that are unfolding worldwide are today bringing home to growing numbers of working people an understanding of where we will sooner or later end up so long as we live under the dictatorship of capital. We have watched as the U.S. ruling families, using their state, have cranked out literally trillions of dollars to save the moguls of finance capital from ruin, at the same time that tens of millions of workers and their families are thrown onto the streets and expelled across borders, with accumulating plant closings, home foreclosures, and bankruptcies. The overstuffed prisons of the United States are becoming ever more dehumanizing. And imperialism’s wars, today focused in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq, continue to expand.

In Mexico and the United States, the goals of the unfinished revolutionary struggles inherited from the times of Juárez, Lincoln, and Martí are yet to be redeemed as they have been by the working people of Cuba.

As we are being taught anew with each morning’s breaking news, however, only the conquest, and exercise, of state power by the working class and its allies, and the expropriation of finance capital, can lay the foundations for a different kind of world. A world based not on exploitation, violence, racial discrimination, and dog-eat-dog competition, but on solidarity among working people worldwide that encourages the creativity and recognition of the worth of every individual, regardless of sex, national origin, or skin color.

The class alliance pointed to more than 130 years ago by Marx and Engels, together with the living example of Cuba’s socialist revolution, shows the road for the Americas and the world. The line of march is clear. What’s more, this class alliance has today been strengthened in the United States and Mexico by the tens of millions of workers from Mexico who are part of the fighting vanguard of the labor movement north of the border. We have witnessed the manifestation of that power in the millions-strong mobilizations demanding “Legalization, now!” that swept cities and towns across the United States in the May Day demonstrations of 2006 and 2007, and the broad working-class resistance that has met factory raids and deportations by the immigration police.

The exploration of that class line of march is the most lasting and fruitful contribution this conference is making to struggling humanity.

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