Chapter 11: Racism and historical mythology
[How the CPUSA falsified the history of Reconstruction-JR]
In the 1930s the first “Marxist” interpretation of Radical Reconstruction and its overthrow, written by James Allen, codified this error. Allen wrote two books: the first, titled The Negro Question, was published in 1936, though it appears to have been prepared a few years earlier; the second, Reconstruction: The Battle for Democracy, printed in 1937, is of more interest for the present discussion.
Allen completely accepts the traditional concept of the return to power of the ex-slavocracy. He argues that the slave owners lost the Civil War but were able to “revive” and “regather” their forces. As the Northern industrial bourgeoisie became conservatized it acquiesced in the resurgence o f the ex-slaveowners. An agreement to this effect was reached in 1877 by which the old ex-slaveowning cotton planter class returned to power.
Insofar as Allen rejects the concept of Black inferiority and sees Radical Reconstruction as a progressive period, his book was more accurate than almost all of the histories on the subject available at the time. The important exception was the monumental work of W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction.
Black Reconstruction remains unsurpassed for a descriptive, informational history of Radical Reconstruction. It is far more accurate in its factual content than any history of Radical Reconstruction written prior to its publication in 1935. In this sense, Allen’s book added nothing fundamentally new except its faulty analysis.
Du Bois employed Marxist categories in a number of places in his book, in some cases in an inaccurate and anachronistic manner. For instance, he referred to the Radical
Reconstruction governments as being, in effect, workers’ regimes. Scientifically, that would mean the triumph of a socialist revolution. Because of Du Bois’s use of certain Marxist categories, many bourgeois historians mistakenly refer to Black Reconstruction as a Marxist analysis.
Du Bois’s analysis of the fall of Radical Reconstruction is superior to Allen’s because he places it more in the context of the general triumph of industrial capitalism and less as the result of a settlement between two specific ruling class sectors, Northern industrial-banking capitalists and Southern planters. In any case, Du Bois did not explicitly refute the thesis that the old ex-slaveowning planter ruling class had returned to power.
Allen made this mistake explicit. Referring to the policies of Andrew Johnson and the danger of a restoration o f the ex-slaveowners, Allen writes, “No other class was present to seize the reins of state power in the South. It was equivalent, as later events showed, to restoring the former ruling class to the seat of government.” Regarding the federal treatment of the Confederate leaders and exslaveowning planters he comments, “As a class defeated in civil war and, for a time at least, deposed from power, the former slave masters enjoyed unprecedented leniency.”
Continuing his analysis, Allen adds that this leniency “gave this class a breathing spell in which to revive and regather its forces.” This class o f planters “came to an understanding with the industrial bourgeoisie.” The industrial capitalists bargained away the gains of the second American revolution, finally making a pledge to leave the South in the ex-slaveowners’ hands, so, according to Allen, “The bourgeoisie had bargained away the revolution in step after step.... It has kept its pledge, as given to the Bourbons o f 1876, to the present day.”
Finally, the refusal of the Northern industrial bourgeoisie to defend democratic rights in the South led to the growth of the counterrevolution. “Such were the consequences of a whole series of fatal retreats which culminated in the peace agreement o f 1876 and in the resulting victory o f the coup d'etat governments of the planters.”
Allen’s error could possibly be explained by the fact that the histories on the period then available contained the same conclusion. But this is only partial mitigation. Historians who dealt with the Populist period, which had come right after redemption, had clearly established that the new Southern governments represented the interests of Eastern money and railroads rather than agricultural interests. Allen could not have been unaware of this. Other writers contemporary with Allen, such as Louis M. Hacker, Paul Lewinson, and Du Bois, had a more accurate view of the class nature of the counterrevolutionary overthrow of Reconstruction and of the redemption regimes. In the late 1930s Hacker wrote that the redemption regimes “represented a combination of landlordism and the new capitalism allied with northern financial, railway and mineral interests.” Another historian writing in 1922 and quoted by Lewinson wrote, “The new Bourbon regime in Georgia was essentially a business man’s regime. To a greater or less extent this was doubtless true of other Southern States.”
But there is another, more important observation that must be raised. Marxists define classes by their relationship to forms of property. What primarily characterized the ruling class of the Confederacy? Was it land ownership or the ownership of slaves? It is fundamental for a correct analysis to recognize that the ownership of slaves is what gave the slavocracy its specific class character as compared with the capitalist class proper. But even if we were to base ourselves on land ownership as the criterion, we would have to pose another question. If the industrial bourgeoisie triumphed militarily, politically, and economically, why did it have to “negotiate” or make a deal with any other sector o f the bourgeoisie over the control of one-third of its territory? Negotiations and deals stem from power relations. Allen, and the Communist Party (CP), whose views he represented, agree that the Civil War made the industrial bourgeoisie dominant throughout the United States. Allen even implies in a footnote that the landowners were replaced by other capitalists as the dominant force in the South.
So according to the CP’s theoretician, the slavocracy was overthrown and expropriated, the industrial capitalists extended their domination economically and politically, but once having consolidated their power they opened up negotiations with a defeated and expropriated class which in spite of its weakness was now leading a powerful counterrevolution. The industrial bourgeoisie, we are asked to believe, offered these ex-slaveowners control of one-third of the nation in return for placing Rutherford Hayes, instead of Samuel Tilden, in the presidency!
Since World War II the evidence presented by historians that the ex-slaveowners were not returned to power has been rather conclusive. But the CP, in William Z. Foster’s book, The Negro People, first published in 1954, continues to cling to the thesis of the return of the ex-slaveowning planters to power. He writes, “Southern reaction, based upon the big cotton planters, waged a long, complex, and bitter struggle to capture the state governments in the South from the people’s forces. This process the reactionaries called the ‘redemption’ or the ‘restoration.’” Foster continues, “During the eight years o f the Grant Administration, there was an increasing tendency in Northern capitalist ranks to conciliate the ex-slaveholders.... this new attitude was to come to fruition in an agreement with the Southern reactionaries, among whom the cotton planters were dominant, that put an end to the revolution in the South.”
After repeating Allen’s basic analysis, Foster takes up the challenge presented by recent historians to Allen’s views. He quotes C. Vann Woodward to the effect that the redemption regimes were dominated by industrial capitalist interests having little to do with the old planter regimes. Foster accepts this conclusion only for recent times, but reasserts his support for Allen’s conclusions.
Regarding the penetration of Northern capital he writes, “This general trend, which became marked after the Civil War, was to continue until, in our times, not the planters but the financial-industrial capitalist interests control the South.” He rejects the conclusion that the industrial capitalists conquered the South in the period of Radical Reconstruction by recalling Allen’s arguments: “Allen correctly remarks, however, that, ‘Industry in the South developed very slowly during the Reconstruction period.’” From this Foster concludes that “the Northern bourgeoisie in the 1877 Hayes agreement, chose a different, reactionary route, betraying the Negro people and coming to a settlement with its erstwhile cotton planter enemy and the budding Southern middle class. After this betrayal, as we shall see later on, some industrialization of the South was pushed vigorously by the Northern capitalists.”
Foster correctly notes that the Northern capitalists opposed a land reform and instead “chose a different, reactionary route.” But he interprets the failure to industrialize the South to the same degree as the North to mean that the industrial-finance capitalists were not dominant in that region. This is faulty thinking, to say the least. When the United States extended its control to the Caribbean area it failed to industrialize any of the countries it conquered. This in no way meant that industrial-finance capital did not control them or dominate their economies. Likewise, for the South after the Civil War and Radical Reconstruction the dominant class was the triumphant industrial bourgeoisie, not the planters.
In the last analysis the cause of this theoretical error is to be found in the peculiar political end Allen’s and Foster’s books served. They were not aimed at presenting an accurate interpretation of the class struggle as it unfolded during and after the Civil War. Instead they used “Marxist” categories and rhetoric to defend the then current “theories” and policies being advocated from Moscow.
With each new turn of Moscow’s foreign policy, the policy of the CP toward Blacks in America has shifted, and with it the CP’s historical analysis. At the time Allen wrote his first book, he was trying to justify a line handed down by the Kremlin which was best supported by having the “slave owners return to power.” It was based on a thesis that a special separate majority-Black nation actually existed in the cotton-growing black belt, that this nation was a remnant of slavery, and that only a revolution could alter the peculiar sharecropping form of labor existing within it. To maintain this thesis it was necessary to reject any evidence that Blacks might ever become a minority in the indicated area or that the black belt could be industrialized or mechanized under capitalism.
Thus Allen “proves” in The Negro Question that no significant number of Blacks will migrate North or to the cities, that the South will not be industrialized, and that Southern agriculture will not be mechanized. Yet all three o f these changes were already occurring and would sweep the South in the two decades following Allen’s prediction of their impossibility.
This “black belt nation” theory was fostered during what the Communist International called the “third period.” This was the period of Stalin’s ultraleft thesis that capitalism was breathing its last and would soon expire. Accordingly for Communists to struggle for almost any reforms would be illusory because they could no longer be granted under capitalism . All studies that backed up Stalin's line, such as Allen’s first book, were hailed as brilliant applications of Marxism, while any views questioning or contradicting them were declared counterrevolutionary and their advocates expelled from the CP.
But the third-period policy, which lasted from 1928 to 1935, was suddenly altered after the Seventh World Congress of the Communist International and a new line advanced. Stalin now “discovered” that reforms could be won under capitalism. He further declared that in every country some sections of the capitalists were progressive and should therefore be supported by the workers. Thus began the “popular front” period. Allen's second book is tailored to the popular-front line.
The new premium was on proving that there were different and conflicting wings o f the ruling class— progressive and reactionary. The thesis that the slave owners had returned to power in the South now was useful to justify the new instead of the old line. According to the new policy American capitalists included liberal-progressive, as opposed to reactionary— especially the “Southern ruling-class”— elements. The task of the workers and their leadership was to support the liberal-progressive wing. The thesis about the ex-slaveowners’ return to power was retained. But the projection of a separate majority-Black nation in the black belt could only get in the way of a bloc with the “progressive” imperialists and it was therefore quietly filed away.
Then one day in 1939 the Kremlin announced it had concluded a non-aggression pact with Hitler and that the progressive capitalists in the United States weren’t progressive after all, but reactionary imperialists, in particular Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Once again the CP made a 180-degree turn. The Black nation theory was dusted off, as well as the superheated third-period rhetoric. Then, lo and behold, the Soviet Union was invaded by Hitler and yet another 180-degree shift was effected. Out went the Black nation theory, back came the progressive capitalists opposed to the Southern and other reactionaries. Roosevelt became the leader f a struggle for “national liberation.” The CP insisted that everyone, including Blacks, subordinate their demands to the needs of American imperialism under Roosevelt.
The Communist Party went so far with the new procapitalist capitulation during the war that it supported the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans, opposed the Black March on Washington movement for equality in 1942, tried to break the miners’ strike of 1943, and demanded more sacrifice by workers than capitalists.
After the war the CP tried to clean up its image a bit. It blamed the policies it had followed during the war period on its own erstwhile commander in chief, Earl Browder, expelled him, and made some adjustments in its theory regarding the Afro-American people. But up to the present the CP has stuck to the return-of-the slaveowners line to help justify its search for the progressive bourgeoisie. After Roosevelt, the leading progressive was Henry Wallace, then Adlai Stevenson, and after him John F. Kennedy. Lyndon Baines Johnson, being the leader o f the “Southern ruling class” in the early fifties, was opposed by the CP right up to his nomination for vice president in 1960. By 1964 the CP had discovered that Johnson was actually a progressive capitalist politician after all and had apparently handed over his stewardship o f the reactionary capitalists to Barry Goldwater.
Though the Black nation theory was put on the shelf and later openly repudiated, the CP still clings to the thesis of the return of the planter-slave owners in Foster’s book, last reprinted in 1973. Unfortunately, the predominance of the Communist Party in the American left during the 1930s, 40s, and 50s caused Allen’s works to be accepted as Marxism. To this day his book on Radical Reconstruction is regarded as an authentic Marxist interpretation of that period. His interpretation has enjoyed general acceptance within the American left even after C. Vann Woodward’s documentation, in his book Origins of the New South, refuted the return-of-the-slave-owners myth.