Chapter 12: Thermidor
How should the final defeat of the Radical Reconstruction period be defined? C. Vann Woodward observed that the overthrow of Radical Reconstruction was not carried out by the former slaveholding class, nor was it a “restoration” of their influence or their
pro-agricultural socioeconomic policies. He concludes therefore that “only in a limited sense can it be properly called a counterrevolution.’”
Woodward’s judgment that the prewar regime was in no way reestablished is well founded. But that does not mean that the crushing of the Radical state governments was not a counterrevolution.
To make this point clear, the nature of the redemption overthrows has to be analyzed in more precise terms. The starting point and basis for such an appraisal must be the Beards’ characterization of the Civil War period as the second American revolution. It was in fact the second and culminating stage o f the bourgeois-democratic revolutionary process on American soil.
With this conception as the key, we can turn to the comparative development of previous revolutions of the same kind in order to
comprehend the significance of the ending of Radical Reconstruction. Historians of the major bourgeois revolutions have noted certain common features in the sequence of their phases from start to finish. These spring from the diverse interests and shifting alignments of the components of the revolutionary camp.
Every bourgeois-democratic revolution has involved the collaboration of different class forces in a united front of armed struggle aimed at the overthrow of the old regime. George Novack writes in Democracy and Revolution, “All the bourgeois revolutions were made by broad coalitions of class forces which entered the fray with very different motives and ends in view…. As the struggle intensified, the original partners in the coalition often pulled apart and, at critical junctures, even moved in opposite directions and clashed headon.” The official leadership in the opening phases of the movement usually comes from the upper social strata of the nation.
However, the commercial and industrial capitalists are too few in number and too weak a social force to confront and overcome the institutional powers blocking their advancement. They are obliged to enter into collaboration with the small property owners— shopkeepers, artisans, and farmers or peasants— and call upon these plebeian elements in order to mobilize a sufficiently powerful force of fighters against the feudal or other non-bourgeois adversaries that block their path to power.
Once the struggle for supremacy between the revolutionaries and the old regime is unleashed, its further course is determined by two major interacting factors. One comes from the necessities o f defeating the counterrevolution; the other from the changing relationships among the elements on the revolutionary side. The wealthy and moderate upholders of the newly emergent order would like to triumph and consolidate their power with the least possible social convulsion and a minimum o f political reforms. They find this difficult and sometimes impossible to achieve.
On the one hand they run up against determined resistance from the receding classes, who object to being dispossessed of their positions of privilege and relegated to the scrapheap. On the other hand they must give heed to the insistent demands of the more democratic elements among the populace. Tenacious and prolonged tests of strength between the revolutionary and counterrevolutionary camps tend to thrust aside the more timid and conciliatory leaders and factions and bring to the fore bolder figures, leaning upon the insurgent masses or drawn from their midst, who are ready for more decisive and irreconcilable means and courses of action. As the plebeian layers and their representatives shoulder aside the more hesitant and well-to-do elements, groupings connected with the common people, or exceptional individuals from the upper strata of merchants and manufacturers but under popular influence, push aside the moderates and take over the leadership o f the revolutionary cause. These new leaders lifted up from below give expression to the needs and demands of the broader masses participating in the revolutionary movement and carry the changes far beyond what the upper bourgeoisie was initially disposed to grant.
The more difficult and desperate the struggle to combat the precapitalist forces becomes, the more concessions the upper crust must make to its lower-class collaborators in the coalition and the more power is placed in the hands o f the radical petty bourgeois elements. This shift in the relationship of forces is embodied in some instrument of revolutionary change and acquires specific organizational form.
However, as soon as victory looms on the horizon, the upper layers become more and more reluctant to accept or promote further social reforms sought by the plebeian masses. Their executives quickly come into conflict with the aims and aspirations of those below them in the revolutionary hierarchy. The organizational instrument created by the revolution is no longer needed and inevitably becomes an obstacle to the stabilization of the new order.
In the case of the Civil War the petty bourgeois leaders had been pushed to the fore by pressures emanating from two different sources which temporarily moved in the same direction: the need felt by the Republican bourgeoisie for more decisive actions against the enemy, and the specific needs o f the lower layers. But the leadership became torn by conflicting pressures once these forces began to move in opposite directions.
As leaders of the revolution and administrators of the Union government, the Radicals were in constant, close contact with the upper bourgeoisie— the bankers, manufacturers, new-rich military contractors, land speculators— and they became vulnerable to their corrupting influence and the privileges o f office. At the same time the demands o f the masses whence they came and by whom they were elected continued to exert a strong pull on them and in some cases impelled them to extend the social changes called for by the tasks o f the revolution.
This tug-of-war produced differentiations among the Republican tops. Some proceeded to push ahead for further changes while others hung back, trying to halt them and even to retract steps al
ready taken. This sifting out process separated the thoroughgoing Radicals from the half-hearted ones.
Once the slaveholding power was shattered, the plebeian strata in the revolutionary camp did not remain quiescent. They pressed forward in struggle, no longer against the vanquished prewar power setup, but rather against the new rulership of the conquering industrial bourgeoisie.
During such a phase of more advanced class struggle the upper layers, for purposes of self-defense, turn to their own use all those elements of backwardness left over from the overthrown order, including its traditions, ideology, and forms of organization. However, since the impact of the revolutionary events has transformed the consciousness of the people so much, these relics of the past cannot be set into motion by partisans identified with the old order— at least not in the beginning o f the effort to slow down and contain further radicalization.
At this juncture the most effective source of leadership in diverting the revolution usually comes from individuals closely connected with the formerly progressive forces, and even their left wing. These ex-revolutionary petty bourgeois figures now attached to the cause of the upper bourgeoisie change into propagandists and organizers of the counterthrust to beat back and hold down the forward move ment o f the popular masses.
This antidemocratic reaction which sets back the revolution without destroying its fundamental socioeconomic transformation has been designated as the Thermidor. The term is derived from the decisive turn o f events in the development o f the French revolution that occurred on July 27,1794, when Robespierre’s government was overthrown and the Directorate was installed in its place. (Thermidor was the name given to that month in the calendar adopted by the French revolution.) This event marked the beginning of the downward plunge in plebeian power and the end of the revolutionary democracy.
In his work Reunion and Reaction, C. Vann Woodward characterized the events around 1877 as a Thermidorean reaction of the same type as occurred in the France of 1794. He stated: “ I merely attempt to add a description of the final phase of the revolution, the phase that the French speak of as Thermidor in writing of their great revolution.” Further on he writes, “But if the Men of 1787 made the Thermidor o f the First American Revolution, the Men of 1877 fulfilled a corresponding part in the Second American Revolution. They were the men who come at the end of periods o f revolutionary upheaval, when the great hopes and soaring ideals have lagged and failed, and the fervors have burned themselves out. They come to say that disorder has gone too far and the extremists must be got in hand, that order and peace must be established at any price.
And in their deliberations they generally have been more concerned with preserving the pragmatic and practical gains and ends of revolutions than the more idealistic aims. In this respect the Men of 1877 were not unlike those who had been cast in the same his torical role before them.”
Unfortunately Woodward did not further develop this perfectly valid analogy, which is so pertinent to grasping the essential nature of the deathblow to Radical Reconstruction. Moreover, he omits
any reference to the classes involved and his remarks therefore remain much too abstract and lack concrete social content.
More basically, he gives no clue to the special character of a Thermidorian reaction in contrast to a full-blown victory of the counterrevolutionary forces. For this it is necessary to distinguish
between what happens in and to the political superstructure of the country and the economic base upon which it rests. While Thermidor represents a sharp swing to the right in the political regime on the basis of a decisive defeat for the plebeian masses, it does not
involve a restoration of the prerevolutionary socioeconomic order.
The old ruling class, its mode o f production and specific property forms, do not come back to life; they have been permanently abolished. That much o f the revolutionary conquests remains intact.
The Thermidorian turn in the bourgeois-democratic revolutionary process is essentially limited to a reversal in the political setup through which the agents of the propertied bourgeoisie dislodge the representatives o f the more democratic tendencies from the seats of power and take over sovereignty in the country.
The history of the French revolution from 1789 on provides the classical model for the study o f the internal workings of a bourgeois upheaval. During its course the shifts in the relationships of the diverse social layers in action were most clearly expressed in conflicting political groupings and tendencies and most dramatically evidenced in distinct changes o f the political regime.
In the period of revolutionary ascent, as the mass movement kept swinging more and more to the left, the Girondists, who represented the original leaders of the revolution, were themselves replaced during 1793-94 by the more intransigent petty bourgeois radicals, the Jacobins.
Robespierre’s regime had to put down the uprisings of the even more radically inclined urban poor led by the Enrages in 1793. This prepared the way for his own removal from power by the Directorate in the coup d’etat of Thermidor (July 27,1794).
Robespierre’s downfall ended the deepening of the revolution and ushered in its period of decline. Thereafter, on the descending curve of the revolution following the Directorate, came the Consulate and the Empire under Napoleon, and then in 1814 the Bourbon monarchy was called back from exile to govern France again.
Since this sequence o f political regimes begins and ends with monarchical rule, it might seem that counterrevolution had triumphed all along the line and all the gains o f the revolution had been erased. That would be a superficial and erroneous historical judgment. The restored monarchy, which marked the culmination of the recoil from the peak o f the revolution, did not do away with the basic socioeconomic changes effected by the bourgeois forces.
Socially speaking, the capitalist class had been elevated into the ruling class while the monarchy had been converted from the master of the bourgeoisie into its servant, as in England.
Thus, even the end product of the reactionary tide did not return France to its prerevolutionary status. Although after 1814 the bourgeoisie did not rule in its own right but through the monarchy, in social reality it had clinched its power as the new ruling class in place o f the old nobility. As Novack explains, “Louis XVIII governed over a fundamentally different social order than his beheaded namesake. His charter did not recognize the principle of popular sovereignty that even Napoleon tipped his tricorne to through his plebiscites; it restricted participation in the government to a very few large landowners.
Nonetheless the restoration left intact the
essential social conquests of the revolution: the abolition of feudalism and its privileges, manorialism and its tithes, the principle of equality before the law and, above all, the redistribution of landed property affected by the revolution. The Bourbon king kept his hands
off the rights of private ownership and did not interfere with the operations of capitalist enterprise. The regimes of both the revolution and the restoration held sacred and inviolate the public debt held by the men of money and private property. France had become definitively bourgeoisified; power and prestige went with wealth and no longer with birth.”
The first American revolution came to the close of its cycle with the adoption o f the Constitution in 1789, the very year in which the French revolution erupted. There was a schism between the right
and the left wings of the revolutionary coalition, between the upper classes and the lower orders, after the War of Independence had been won. No sooner had the American patriots settled the
question of home rule with Britain than they found themselves faced with two further questions: who was going to rule at home and how?
Between 1781 and 1786 a series of contests took place between the democratic agrarian masses and the conservative propertied classes both North and South to determine these critical matters.
These domestic conflicts came to a head with Shays’s Rebellion in western Massachusetts in the fall and winter o f 1785-86. This self-defensive uprising of the agrarian democracy, headed by veterans of the Revolutionary War, against the economic squeezing and oppressions of the urban plutocrats and aristocrats was quickly
crushed. This victory for the reaction set the stage for those Woodward calls the Men of 1787, the members o f the closed convention which in that year framed the U.S. Constitution. This was the
capstone of the Thermidor in the first American revolution.
In the next century the industrial capitalists engaged in a showdown with the popular masses comparable to that faced by the merchant-planter coalition in the culminating stage of the earlier revolution. However, there were distinct differences in the parallel episodes which worked greatly to the advantage of the monied men in the conclusive consolidation of their supremacy in the republic.
The industrial bourgeoisie entered the fray under the leadership of their own party after having taken possession of the national government in Washington in 1861. Although there were profound shifts among the factions comprising the Republican Party as the revolution progressed and regressed, the same parliamentary regime was still functioning at the end of the whole process under the same political organization. At no time was the Republican administration overthrown and displaced by a rival party and regime, representing different class forces, as happened in France.
One factor that has prevented many historians from recognizing that the Civil War was both a social and a political revolution was its regional aspect. The fact that the conflict between the slaveholders and the free forces of the North took place in separate territories between different systems of production, governments, and armies, has obscured many of the parallels between the last bourgeois revolution in America and its predecessor.
The second American revolution had still another peculiarity.
The merchant capitalists had been the dominant wing o f the bourgeoisie in the revolutions in Holland, England, France, and North America from the sixteenth up to the nineteenth centuries.
The plebeian forces were largely made up of small proprietors and no significant industrial proletariats had yet come on the scene.
After the industrial revolution did get into full swing and the final wave of bourgeois-democratic movements came to the fore from 1848 to 1871, the only one that awarded complete supremacy
to the industrial capitalists was that in the United States. Elsewhere, during this midcentury period of wars and revolutions, the native bourgeoisies were too frightened by the revolutionary forces they set in motion and failed to pursue their class objectives to the end.
Instead, they turned against their revolutions and came to terms with their precapitalist rivals. After the uprising o f the workers in the Paris Commune of 1871, none of the European bourgeoisies dared risk embarking upon a decisive settlement of accounts with the forces of the old order but preferred to conclude a compromise sharing of power with them. On the other hand, the capitalist class of the U.S. made a clean sweep o f the slavocracy, the last of the precapitalist formations that contested its claim to power.
In Europe, as early as 1850, on the basis of the experience of the 1848 revolutions, Karl Marx explicitly drew the conclusion that the big bourgeoisie could no longer lead even its own revolution to a successful outcome. He emphasized this lesson in an address to the central committee of the Communist League in which he counseled the workers not to subordinate the fight for their own class interests to either the big or the little bourgeoisie since neither of them could be counted upon to combat the counterrevolution with the necessary vigor. He rounded off his analysis by advising the workers that their “battle cry [should be] the Revolution in Permanence.”
Fifty years later, after witnessing the actions and reactions o f the class forces in the Russian revolution of 1905, Leon Trotsky expanded on this observation of Marx to explain the reasons why the bourgeoisie had become transformed into an utterly conservative and counterrevolutionary force since the advent of world imperialism.
In the twentieth century that meant that those peoples which aspired to emulate the democratic revolutions of the more advanced nations could achieve their aims only under the leadership and
through the triumph of the working class. The unfinished historical tasks o f the bourgeois revolution would have to be fulfilled by a socialist revolution. This was the gist of his celebrated theory of permanent revolution which he first applied to the problems of the Russian revolution and later extended on a worldwide basis.
The industrial capitalists of the United States were able to succeed where their counterparts in Europe and Japan failed because of the position of strength they held from the very beginning of the Civil War. They did not have to wrest governmental power from another class or social layer but had only to defend its possession.
They entered the struggle with state power in their hands in almost two-thirds of the nation. The Northern working class was poorly organized and extremely undeveloped politically. This can be seen in the low level of political consciousness among the workers of New York City who rose up in the antidraft demonstrations of the summer of 1863 compared with the Parisian workers o f 1871.
The cohesiveness of the Northern bourgeoisie and its allies stands out in contrast with the situation below the Mason-Dixon line during the same period. There the slavocracy, in a desperate gamble to reverse the political ascendancy o f the industrial bourgeoisie, carried through a secessionist movement which, in some cases through coup d’etats, brought eleven state governments into the Confederacy. It failed to carry along four border slave states— Missouri,
Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware— and lost part of Virginia through a split between pro-Confederate and pro-Northern forces.
As the Confederacy lost territory to the advancing federal armies,its state regimes were replaced by Union military dictatorships. Although a few steps were taken to reestablish civilian governments
prior to the Confederate surrender in April 1865, most of the areas conquered by the Northern troops were directly governed by the military as the war ended.
In 1865 this provisional military rule was replaced by officials who had served in the old governmental apparatus and politicians trained in the pre-Civil War South. These were mainly men who had opposed secession and were generally favorable to industrial development.
In less than two years these interim regimes were once again superseded by military rule, which had a different orientation and rested upon a different alignment o f class forces. These new military dictatorships extended bourgeois democratic reforms beyond the limited parliamentary regimes they had replaced and in turn gave way to far more radical and democratic regimes. In the end these progressive governments were overthrown by retrogressive regimes that severely curtailed the democratic rights of the masses, especially those of Black labor.
These complex developments in the South were part of broader political processes within the nation as a whole that must be viewed in the context o f the problems confronting the Northern bourgeoisie as it mounted to power. To assure their political ascendancy, the industrialists first had to weld together a coalition of forces, starting with the small farmers o f the Midwest and reaching into the artisans, shopkeepers, and wage-workers o f the North and ultimately bringing in the Afro-Americans.
Spurred forward by the abolitionist current emanating from the urban and rural petty bourgeoisie, the Radicals in Congress and the Union states put heavy pressure on Lincoln to abandon his moderate policies. Such figures as George W. Julian, Carl Schurz, and others like them came forward at this juncture with a program of action that went beyond what the more hesitant members o f the industrial bourgeoisie preferred.
However, as the slaveholders’ counterrevolution appeared intransigent and unconquerable, the possibility of defeat in warfare caused the upper bourgeoisie to cast off its conservatism and make greater concessions to the plebeian masses to ensure their support in winning the war. Under the circumstances, they grew more willing to
countenance the policies of the more determined wing of the revolutionary leaders. As the war unfolded, the Jacobins of the second American revolution, headed by Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner, gained more and more influence.
In 1863 the emancipation of the slaves was proclaimed, at least in the occupied territories, the ex-slaves were armed, and talk of dividing up the land of the plantation owners began to be heard.
In some limited areas the land was actually seized and distributed to its ex-slave cultivators.
This shift to the left was accompanied and implemented by the increased power of Congress in relation to the presidency. But as soon as victory came into view, the upper bourgeoisie reverted to its conservative stance and resisted further social reforms.
Consequently, the ending of the Civil War unleashed a series of conflicts among the forces of the original revolutionary combination the country, in the East, the Midwest, and the South.
Farmers sought inflationary money and credit policies and, later, regulation of the piratical railroad companies. Workers demanded higher pay, an eight-hour day, and the right to organize. The knottiest of all these struggles was the thrust o f the Southern ex-slaves for civil rights and a land reform.
These difficult problems broke up the unity of the Republican high command as some among them endorsed the demands of the masses and others opposed them. As Howard K. Beale states in The Critical Year, many of the Radicals who promoted the interests of the industrial bourgeoisie were also responsive to certain of the demands o f the farmers and workers, even on issues directed against the immediate desires of the capitalist rulers. This contradiction has puzzled certain revisionist historians. It simply reflected the fact that these Radicals were subjected to pressures from both sources.
Once they climbed to the top, these leaders in the councils of the Republican administration came into daily contact with the richest of the rich. The sweet taste o f the spoils o f office and other forms of corruption tainted almost all o f them. They were either bought or brought over to the industrialists and bankers. Few among them had so staunch an ideological commitment to the goals o f the revolution as Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, even though he himself was an industrialist. He wanted to carry the reconstruction of the South through to a sweeping democratization of its structure by means of an extensive land reform and the guarantee of democratic rights for both Blacks and poor whites.
Following Lee’s surrender it appeared that the hopes o f the Radicals would come to naught. But the way was cleared for the prosecution of their plans by the difficulties experienced by the industrial capitalists in clinching their political domination after their military and economic successes. This gave one last impetus to the revolution as the Radicals moved to the fore once again in 1866-67.
However, their full program , which had been partially put into effect during 1864-65, even before the war ended, was destined to be defeated. By 1868, when the Senate failed to remove Andrew Johnson from the presidency by impeachment, Thaddeus Stevens could
see the writing on the wall.
Disconsolately, as his death neared, while he was battling against the overwhelming opposition in Congress to land reform in the South and desperately striving to secure what rights he could for the ex-slaves, he complained that the country was “going to hell.”
As soon as the men of money felt that their political hegemony had been solidly entrenched, they began to view all the commotions in the country that were stirred up by revolutionary expectations as dangerous turmoil. The independent power of the Republican machine over Congress, which had enacted and executed the crucial measures required for the attainment of the industrial magnates’ supremacy, became a millstone around their neck. The watch word was no longer “war to the death” but “binding up the wounds of fratricidal strife.”
Only after the extreme Radicals were put in their place did the new masters of the house set about bridling the runaway corruption of the Republican administration, stabilizing labor relations in the South, curbing the rising trade union movement, and putting down the resistance of the small farmers to the exactions of the railroads and grain merchants.
Early in the seventies this coalescence of tasks led to the emergence of a new ideological current that was labeled “Liberal Republicanism” in contrast to the radicalism o f the late sixties. This tendency continued the program of the industrial capitalists under the aegis of a Republican leadership which sought an end to the “excesses” of revolutionary action in order to consolidate the reconstructed bourgeois order and permit it to operate more efficiently.
This accorded with the historical function of nineteenth century liberalism. “Historically,” explains Novack, “liberalism emerged from the bourgeois reaction against the excesses’ of the French Revolution during the rise of industrial capitalism, when the industrial and commercial bourgeoisie was consolidating its supremacy. It was a reformist and gradualist tendency whose spokesmen exalted evolution as the antithesis to disruptive revolution. Chateaubriand caught the essence o f its temper when he said: ‘We must preserve the political work which is the fruit of the Revolution…. but we must eradicate the Revolution from this work.’”
The new liberal reformism advocated by former left wing Radicals served as the ideological cover for the Thermidorian reaction
The capitalist class gained invaluable support from the association of such figures as Carl Schurz, George Julian, and Charles Sumner with its search for stabilization on its terms. As the capitalists tightened their control after 1873, reaction proceeded apace across the country.
In the West, proposals for halting assaults upon the Native Americans were shelved and their genocidal extermination became an official and even openly avowed policy. In the East, strikes were broken and unions destroyed in an antilabor offensive culminating in the massacre o f workers in 1877.
It was in the South, however, where the work o f the revolution had made its deepest impact and caused the greatest dislocation, that the severest measures to turn around the gains made by the
lowest strata o f the people were imposed. Here a veritable political counterrevolution was unleashed. The state governments which defended and extended democratic rights and social reforms for Black labor were violently overthrown and repressive regimes established in their stead.
Although the scene o f the struggle was the South, its real leaders, organizers, and beneficiaries were located in the North among the Eastern bankers, railroad barons, and industrial magnates.
The mouthpieces for the designs of this top layer of the big bourgeoisie were ex-revolutionaries such as Schurz and Julian, who now enlisted behind them thousands o f their former foes from the ranks of the Confederacy.
Thermidorian reaction invariably selects from the past many of the instruments and practices it directs against the masses. In this case the living legacy of racism was used to the hilt. That is not all.
Once the reaction gets well under way, it starts rewriting and falsifying the true record of the revolution in order to justify its acts and aims. This revision of the history of the second American revolution started in the 1880s when the myth of the paternalistic “Old South” plantation life came into vogue. Soon the genuine heroes and heroines o f the revolutionary surge, Thaddeus Stevens, Black Radicals, Northern women volunteer teachers of Black children in the new schools, were transformed into villains, while the promoters of reaction from Andrew Johnson to Confederate generals were hailed as men of vision and courage under adversity. The real revolutionary traditions were obscured and the memory of revolutionary achievements eclipsed.
First the upward, then the downward, course o f the revolution was mirrored in the factional shifts within the Republican Party.
When the revolution displayed its maximum energy, the consistent, most uncompromising bourgeois revolutionaries headed the procession. Afterwards these Radicals were shoved aside by the Stalwart wheel horses of the Republican machine. Some of the original revolutionaries capitulated and joined the liberal reformers who succeeded in ousting the Stalwarts. This “Half-breed” faction within the Republican ranks competed in demagogy with the resurrected and rehabilitated Democratic Party, still tarnished with its service as the tool of the slavocracy.
The redemption regimes in the South were often characterized as “the Bourbons,” a term derived from the consummated counter revolution in France which brought back the Bourbon monarchy and its retinue. The new Southern governments did retain a likeness in one important respect to those o f pre-Civil War times.
The slavocracy had ruled dictatorially behind the facade of an all-white parliamentary regime. The redemption regimes were eventually no less lily-white than those prior to the Civil War and, as in
the slave South, the poor whites were partially disenfranchised. Some of the old social and political relations were reconstituted— but under the new economic order.
Despite the setbacks suffered by the progressive plebeian forces, Black and white, during the climactic phase o f Radical Reconstruction, the results of their activities had not counted for nothing. They left permanent marks upon the postwar South. If the Black Codes of 1865 had not been discarded, the exploitation and oppression of millions of Blacks would have been much more severe. Those codes, for example, sought to deny to Blacks even the juridical right to own land. Some Blacks were able to set themselves up and remain as small independent farmers in certain areas around the cotton plantations. If Radical Reconstruction had not been instituted, schools for Black children, with all their limitations, would probably not have been available until a much later date.
No less significant was the tradition of struggle for the rights of the Afro-American people bequeathed by Radical Reconstruction.
This made itself felt in many unexpected ways from then on. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments to the Constitution, passed at the height of radical fervor, remained “the law of
the land” and as such stood in flagrant contradiction to the pall of reaction that descended on the South. Faint as it might be, the residual memory that Blacks had once voted, sent congressmen and senators to Washington, elected senators and representatives who did outstanding work in state legislatures, served on juries, and participated in the state militias hung over the Jim Crow system. It was a condemnation of what existed and a silent reminder that things had once been different, and could again be different, for the Black masses.
This was to be a source of inspiration for the massive civil rights actions three generations later.
Even though they were not always consciously viewed in that light, the struggles o f the 1950s and 1960s objectively took off from the achievements and the unfinished tasks of the days of Radical Reconstruction. The partisans of the civil rights crusade could see that the reality of their condition was in stark contradiction with their constitutional liberties and they aspired to close the gap between the ideals enunciated during the second American revolution and the intolerable consequences o f their degradation after the 1870s. This was one of the ideological main springs of the struggles that succeeded in eliminating the specific Jim Crow disabilities in the South.
Radical Reconstruction was undercut and fatally weakened from the start because its upswing did not bring about the confiscation of the plantations and redistribution of the land for the benefit of
the ex-slaves, its direct cultivators. Partially begun in the later months of the war, an extensive land reform program was not ruled out in advance.
Such a redivision of property would have greatly altered the subsequent development o f the South and the role of the Blacks in it.
The post-Civil War South could have arrived at social stability along two opposite lines: either through the progressive path of land reform or else through the reactionary denial o f civil rights to Blacks.
The democratic rights that the Afro-Americans acquired for a while could not survive without an adequate economic basis— and that meant “forty acres and a mule” as well as the necessary credit between crops. Thus the struggle for possession of the soil became the pivotal issue o f Radical Reconstruction.
Its crucial importance can be made clear if the steps that would have been needed to preserve the gains of Radical Reconstruction are envisaged. The terror invoked by the minority of white property-owners would have had to be met by the stern countermeasures o f the majority.
The Black-based militias would have had to be seriously organized and made ready for action. Whenever a band of racist terrorists or nightriders lynched, whipped, or otherwise maltreated Blacks, they would have had to be punished in an exemplary manner.
Hanging a few dozen of the racists on the rampage and expropriating their property would have resulted in a rapid collapse of their aggressions. To assure that they would not ride again, the militias, the apparatus o f resistance against their attacks, would have had to be permanently institutionalized. The Afro-Americans would have had to feel safe in the exercise of their constitutional rights to the full extent. Under the protection of the Black-based militias, their class struggle would have taken new and more advanced forms in defending their lives and welfare.
What would landowners have done when Black tenants refused to turn over the crop to them at the end of the farming season?
What would have happened when Black cultivators took over abandoned lands and began farming on their own account? What measures would Black majority governments in South Carolina and Mississippi have eventually undertaken in response to that majority’s cry for land? Decisive defense of Radical Reconstruction under Black leadership would inescapably have intensified the class struggle along these lines.
Furthermore, a mass movement with the redistribution of the land as its central axis would have attracted to its side huge numbers of land-hungry poor whites and created an extremely formidable force. The argument that whites could not be won over because of their deep-seated racism is disproved by the support they gave to Radical Reconstruction in its early stages. In states such as Texas and Tennessee where whites decisively outnumbered the Blacks, the Radicals triumphed because of white support.
When the Radicals took over the state government in the border state of Missouri, for example, only whites could vote. A victorious land reform in the South would have inspired the small farmers o f the Midwest and the wage workers of the North to press forward their demands more vigorously. The economic as well as political consequences of a consistent defense of democratic rights for Black labor in the South was not lost on the newly installed Northern rulers.
They were not disposed to encourage any such
drastic agrarian upheaval as a land reform, which would in principle have challenged not only the property rights o f the remaining defeated Southern planters but the private property basis of the whole bourgeois system.
Many historians have attached considerable weight to the handicaps of a people who had been held in ignorance through servitude as an explanation for the defeat of Radical Reconstruction. Although the burdens of the slave past undoubtedly held back the Blacks, this
factor was not so decisive as others. The rural dispersion and isolation of the Black population and their lack o f allies on the national level proved more important in their defeat than illiteracy and other negative legacies of enslavement.
The industrial workers were still in their organizational and political infancy and were situated in another region, mainly in the
Northeast. Even their best leaders paid little heed to the needs of landless Black labor, although the National Labor Union did open its ranks to Black wage workers. The bulk o f the white workers were infected to one degree or another with the virus of racism.
Most o f the population in the rural districts was made up of small property owners, who, as a body, had no impelling incentive to care for the interests of Black labor. The rural petty bourgeoisie was highly susceptible to racist demagogy and by and large its Southern contingent served as foot-soldiers in the ranks of the counterrevolution. The other oppressed nationalities— Chicanos, Native Americans, and Chinese— were poorly organized and defenseless, far removed from the South, and themselves hounded by the powers that be.
Under these circumstances the struggles carried on for their rights by the Afro-Americans and their sympathizers were rendered extremely difficult and finally went down to defeat. Such was the tragic outcome of Radical Reconstruction.
Today, a century later, the major factors that produced this tragic result have all undergone change. The nation is thoroughly urbanized, industrialized, and proletarianized. The traditional regional differences are fast fading. The South itself has been transformed by these processes.
Black labor is no longer dispersed through the countryside but concentrated in the cities, North and South.
The participation of Blacks in the industrial work force, which was minimal until the rise of the CIO and the advent o f the Second World War, has objectively altered the relation o f the working class as a whole to the Afro-American people.
Their integration into the ranks of organized labor forbids any repetition of what happened to them in 1877. The monopolists’ attempts to beat back gains by Afro-Americans and keep them down economically are no longer a question isolated from the rights of all working people. Such antiBlack attacks can be and often are recognized as a menace to themselves by large numbers of white workers, despite lingering racist attitudes.
Resistance from them would go hand in hand with the solidarity forthcoming from Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Native Americans, Asians, and members of other oppressed nationalities.
The American working class as a whole has never suffered a decisive and crushing defeat at the hands o f its class enemies. It has not lost any o f the fundamental social gains and democratic liberties it has won through arduous struggle. Apart from the genocide against
the Native Americans and oppression o f the conquered Chicano people o f the Southwest, there has been only one great exception to this record. That is the historical defeat inflicted upon the Afro Americans in the South culminating in 1877.
The responsibility for this defeat and continued racial oppression rests with the industrial and finance capitalists who still dominate the United States. That is the foremost lesson of the defeat of
The revolutions of the bourgeois era had a contradictory, two-sided nature corresponding to the social heterogeneity of its participants and the diversity of their objective historical tasks.
On the one side were the economic and political objectives o f the upper crust of large property owners, and on the other the goals pursued by the plebeian forces, which had a more popular and democratic character. As has been explained, these disparate aims did not necessarily coincide throughout the revolutionary process.
Although the Northern merchants and manufacturers acquired considerable power out of the War of Independence, they failed to attain undivided supremacy in the new republic.
For seventy years they had to share rulership with the representatives of the Southern slavocracy and yield to them on many issues of domestic and foreign policy.
By destroying chattel slavery, reorganizing the federal government according to their designs, and wiping out the remaining resistance of the Native Americans, the victorious industrial and financial moguls removed all the precapitalist barriers to their further progress and power. This completed the strictly bourgeois side of the second American revolution.
However, the democratic side of the revolution fell far short of its goals and defaulted most grievously in highly important respects.
The Afro-Americans, and in their wake the other oppressed nationalities, were denied their democratic rights and equal status even on bourgeois terms. They remained subordinated nationalities which, instead of being assimilated like sundry ethnic groups from Europe into the body of the American population, were depressed and repressed so harshly that they became second-class citizens.
By the same token the conditions flowing from the restoration of white supremacy in the South set a seal on the process of molding the Afro-American m asses into a distinctive national entity oppressed by the rulership of industrial and financial capital. Thus they have yet to achieve the self-determination, the control over their destiny, that peoples elsewhere won through the bourgeois and later the socialist revolutions.
Contemporary America thereby harbors two diametrically different kinds of nationalisms. One is the utterly reactionary chauvinism fostered by the masters of America; the other is the progressive striving for self-determination by the oppressed nationalities.
These opposed nationalisms which are present within the structure o f the United States likewise confront each other on a world scale. Since the rise of imperialism the entire globe has been divided between the imperialist oppressor powers and the nations and peoples subjugated and exploited by them. The patriotism of the imperialist countries like the United States, Britain, France, Canada, Portugal, and Japan is a cloak for their predatory ambitions. On the other hand, the patriotism of the oppressed peoples of Africa, Asia, and Latin America has a progressive content since it is attached to their struggles for national liberation and social advancement.
The bourgeois revolutions sought to do away with particularism and unite the separate segments of the people into one single sovereign state, such as the American federal republic. The Civil
War was fought, among other things, to preserve and protect that union.
Nonetheless, while these experiences cemented a specific American nationality, neither of the two successive American bourgeois revolutions carried the process o f assimilation to the end by welding all parts o f the population into a single homogeneous entity.
Large layers embracing millions of inhabitants have been excluded from full participation in the affairs o f the dominant nationality.
These were left unassimilated by “the melting pot.”
While this phenomenon o f an uncompleted consolidation of all the population into a single nationality is by no means peculiar to the United States, in no other major industrial country of the capitalist world has so numerous and central a layer of the population been subjected to second class status and grossly unequal treatment.
The members o f the oppressed nationalities within the borders of the United States today total some 40 million people— a gigantic force that is twice as large as the population of Canada.
The specific land question that the bourgeois revolution failed to settle in the South has since that time been solved by and large in other ways by the subsequent evolution of the U.S. economy, which has transformed the basis of agricultural production from the small family farm to enormous and heavily capitalized “factories in the
field.” All the same, this development has not disposed of the national question posed by the conditions o f existence of the Blacks.
This problem has been incorporated into the tasks to be tackled by the coming American revolution.
By virtue of the peculiar path of American history, this next revolution will necessarily have a combined character. It will primarily and predominantly consist of a new and higher“ irrepressible conflict” between the monopoly capitalists and the working masses.
This proletarian revolution will be integrally linked with the struggle of the oppressed nationalities for their democratic right of self-determination.
The socialist objectives of the working class will go hand in hand with the ending of racial oppression. The second American revolution, the crusade against the slaveholders, first raised the banner of emancipation for the Afro-Americans.
The third American revolution, aiming at the abolition of capitalism along socialist lines, can
and will realize the demand for their full liberation.