FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Countering the Propaganda of History

by RON JACOBS

In a manner that seems typical of the way the powerful in the US perceive the Black population of the country, the history of African-Americans is relegated to one month. That month is, of course, February. While I won’t go so far as those who, half-seriously note that not only is only one month given to studying the history of African-Americans, but that month is also the shortest one, it is a curious fact. That being said, and in spite of my objection to this thing called “Black History Month,” the arrival of Ahmed Shawki’s recently published history titled Black Liberation and Socialism provides me with the opportunity to review this comprehensive survey of the history of black-skinned residents of the United States.

Shawki, who is also an editor of the International Socialist Review–the theoretical journal of the International Socialist organization–presents a study of the relationship between the socialist movement in the United States and the Black population. He also does a good deal more here. Given the special history and relationship of African-Americans to the power structure and white-skinned US citizens in general, this is more than a study of that relationship. It is also a history of the African-American struggle for freedom. This history is not the first book to examine this historical relationship. However, it is certainly one of the few that predicates the fundamental elements of that relationship on the economic realities of slavery and the necessity to construct a rationale for the racial nature of African-American bondage and the racist structure that followed emancipation.

Shawki notes early on in his history that the “dominant historical view of slavery places ideas–in particular, racial ideas–as the motor force of history.” By doing so, argues Shawki, historians completely underestimate the economic connection between “capitalism and the development of racism.” Echoing Karl Marx, Shawki notes how the slave trade and the plantation system of the American South enabled the accumulation of capital and the development of industrial capitalism in the United States and those parts of Europe that also took part. Because of this fundamental economic reality, and the necessity of slavery to the US economy, racial (neé racist) ideologies were developed to rationalize the continued enslavement of other humans. As noted above, once slavery was finally outlawed, these rationales were further developed to restrict and discriminate against black skinned US residents. Sometimes they were encoded into laws regarding employment, voting, housing, and marriage and–more often–they were just part of the dominant belief system in US society. This is a belief system that enabled employers to break strikes with African-American scabs, create fears that led to lynchings, and helped elect men and women whose interest run counter to the economic interests of workers no matter what their skin color.

How did this racist philosophy become part of the national psyche? How could a country supposedly founded on the equality of all humanity rationalize slavery and racial hatred? Shawki explains this by writing that the white founders merely made non-whites non-citizens. Indeed, male slaves were considered 3/5ths of a man and that was only for taxation and representation purposes. The very same men who had begun their rebellion against the Crown because they were denied representation turned around and denied a similar representation to black-skinned men (and all women). As time went on, this legal designation that African-Americans were less than human was provided moral justification by preachers, schools and the courts.

As Black Liberation and Socialism continues past the Civil War and into the Twentieth Century, the presence of the labor movement begins to be noted. Racism was the norm there, too. It is the exceptions that stand out and Shawki details a couple of them. He details the use of African-American scabs in strikes but also tells the story of strikes that united workers across racial divisions. Interestingly, at least two of the better known ones occurred in the South: a lumber strike in Louisiana and a widespread coal miners strike in West Virginia and Kentucky. Despite the hesitancy of union leadership to cross the racial divide, the rank and file often forced the issue, innately understanding the strength such solidarity would create.

As the socialist and communist movement grew around the world and in the US, the situation of Black Americans became a central question in the various parties. Within the Communist Party USA, African Americans’ status as a nation was debated. Indeed, this debate continues to today, with some of its major development occurring in the 1960s via the writings and speeches of Malcolm X, various Black Power groups, the Black Panther Party, and other New Left formations. Although this question is rarely raised today, the debate quietly continues, as does the nature of African-Americans’ oppression. In addtion, the question of which segment of the black population should be the primary focus of leftist organizing–the lumpen or the workers–is unresolved. Shawki presents both elements of the latter debate in his chapter on the Black Panthers and the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement–two Marxist revolutionary Black nationalist organizations of the 1960s and 1970s.

This book is a comprehensive look at the history of the struggle for Black liberation in the United States. Shawki’s effort is well worth the read, especially for those who are looking for a good introduction to this underexplored part of US history. The fundamental importance of the nature of US capitalist economics to the oppression of African-Americans is never forgotten in this book, but neither is this nature pressed to the point of pedanticism.

If racism is the chicken and economics the egg, Shawki makes a compelling argument in these pages that the egg definitely came first. Quite readable, Black Liberation and Socialism adds an important analysis to the bookshelf of Black history. It doesn’t merely belong in the study group or the library. It should be part of the slowly growing canon on that topic.

RON JACOBS is the author of The Way the Wind Blew, a history of the Weather Undergrouind. He can be reached at: rjacobs3625@charter.net

More articles by:

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

Weekend Edition
February 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
American Carnage
Paul Street
Michael Wolff, Class Rule, and the Madness of King Don
Andrew Levine
Had Hillary Won: What Now?
David Rosen
Donald Trump’s Pathetic Sex Life
Susan Roberts
Are Modern Cities Sustainable?
Joyce Nelson
Canada vs. Venezuela: Have the Koch Brothers Captured Canada’s Left?
Geoff Dutton
America Loves Islamic Terrorists (Abroad): ISIS as Proxy US Mercenaries
Mike Whitney
The Obnoxious Pence Shows Why Korea Must End US Occupation
Joseph Natoli
In the Post-Truth Classroom
John Eskow
One More Slaughter, One More Piece of Evidence: Racism is a Terminal Mental Disease
John W. Whitehead
War Spending Will Bankrupt America
Dave Lindorff
Trump’s Latest Insulting Proposal: Converting SNAP into a Canned Goods Distribution Program
Robert Fantina
Guns, Violence and the United States
Robert Hunziker
Global Warming Zaps Oxygen
John Laforge
$1.74 Trillion for H-bomb Profiteers and “Fake” Cleanups
CJ Hopkins
The War on Dissent: the Specter of Divisiveness
Peter A. Coclanis
Chipotle Bell
Anders Sandström – Joona-Hermanni Mäkinen
Ways Forward for the Left
Wilfred Burchett
Vietnam Will Win: Winning Hearts and Minds
Tommy Raskin
Syrian Quicksand
Martha Rosenberg
Big Pharma Still Tries to Push Dangerous Drug Class
Jill Richardson
The Attorney General Thinks Aspirin Helps Severe Pain – He’s Wrong
Mike Miller
Herb March: a Legend Deserved
Ann Garrison
If the Democrats Were Decent
Renee Parsons
The Times, They are a-Changing
Howard Gregory
The Democrats Must Campaign to End Trickle-Down Economics
Sean Keller
Agriculture and Autonomy in the Middle East
Ron Jacobs
Re-Visiting Gonzo
Eileen Appelbaum
Rapid Job Growth, More Education Fail to Translate into Higher Wages for Health Care Workers
Ralph Nader
Shernoff, Bidart, and Echeverria—Wide-Ranging Lawyers for the People
Chris Zinda
The Meaning of Virginia Park
Robert Koehler
War and Poverty: A Compromise with Hell
Mike Bader – Mike Garrity
Senator Tester Must Stop Playing Politics With Public Lands
Kenneth Culton
No Time for Olympic Inspired Nationalism
Graham Peebles
Ethiopia: Final Days of the Regime
Irene Tung – Teófilo Reyes
Tips are for Servers Not CEOs
Randy Shields
Yahoomans in Paradise – This is L.A. to Me
Thomas Knapp
No Huawei! US Spy Chiefs Reverse Course on Phone Spying
Mel Gurtov
Was There Really a Breakthrough in US-North Korea Relations?
David Swanson
Witness Out of Palestine
Binoy Kampmark
George Brandis, the Rule of Law and Populism
Dean Baker
The Washington Post’s Long-Running Attack on Unions
Andrew Stewart
Providence Public School Teachers Fight Back at City Hall
Stephen Cooper
Majestic Meditations with Jesse Royal: the Interview
David Yearsley
Olympic Music
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail