Last August, the New York Times Sunday Magazine devoted an entire issue to Project 1619, an attempt to root today’s racism in the institution of slavery dating back to the seventeenth century. In 1619, British colonists in Point Comfort, Virginia bought twenty African slaves from Portuguese traders who had landed there, fresh from a body-snatching expedition. Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote the introduction to ten articles in the magazine that focused on different aspects of Black oppression, such as Traymaine Lee’s on the wealth gap between black and white Americans.
Four months later, five prominent historians of the Civil War signed a letter demanding that the newspaper correct “errors” and “distortions” in Project 1619. Rumor has it that Princeton professor Sean Wilentz wrote the letter and lined up four others to co-sign: Victoria Bynum, James M. McPherson, James Oakes, and Gordon S. Wood. I would only add that Bynum wrote a book that chronicled the armed resistance to wealthy slave-owners by poor white southerners and served as a consultant for the inspiring movie “The Free State of Jones”.
As an example of what irked the five historians, the letter complains about the project asserting that colonists declared independence from Britain “in order to ensure slavery would continue.” Given the world-class reputation of the five historians, I was surprised to see that no such quote appears in a Lexis-Nexis or New York Times archives search. Yet, it was clear that they were singling out Ms. Hannah-Jones who did write:
Conveniently left out of our founding mythology is the fact that one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.
They were also stung by her pointing out that when five, free black men visited the White House in 1862, Abraham Lincoln told them that emancipation would create a “troublesome presence” incompatible with a democracy intended only for white people. Once again, without mentioning her by name, they sought to refute her by calling attention to Lincoln’s agreement with Frederick Douglass that the Constitution was, in Douglass’s words, “a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT.” One impudent tweet said that was equivalent to saying that some of Lincoln’s best friends were Negro.
Besides these grievances, the historians suspected that they were the victims of racism-in-reverse, as some overly sensitive liberals used to put it in the 1960s. They took offense at Nikole Hannah-Jones labeling them “white historians,” even though this was mild in comparison to an H. Rap Brown sound-bite. Now, it is true that the five historians are white and that Nikole Hannah-Jones and most of the contributors to Project 1619 were African-American. However, there is another dimension to this controversy that we have to take into account. There is a distinct generation gap between the five letter signers and younger historians, black or white, whose heart does not beat quicker when gazing upon portraits of James Madison or Abraham Lincoln.
One of the revisionists is Gerald Horne, whose title for his newly-published “The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America” speaks for itself. It also includes younger white historians like Nicholas Guyatt, who eviscerated Sean Wilentz’s new book “No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation’s Founding” in the June 6, 2019 New York Review of Books. Wilentz’s book had the same perspective as the letter to the New York Times. Not believing the hype, Guyott found Wilentz’s portrait of James Madison as an abolitionist far too worshipful. Yes, he was on record as opposing “property in men,” just like the slave-owner Thomas Jefferson.
Like Ishmael Reed’s debunking of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical that lionized Hamilton, Guyott reminded New York Review of Books readers that “Madison failed to free any of his slaves during his lifetime, supported the extension of slavery into the West during the Missouri crisis of 1819–1821, and ended his life as president of the American Colonization Society, an institution dedicated to the permanent relocation of African-Americans to another continent.”
There has been an overlapping two-pronged attack on Project 1619, one from the five historians and the other from the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS.org). Alongside Wilentz, et al, the sectarians earned a spotlight in the bourgeois press for their campaign against Project 1619. On December 17th, the Wall Street Journal celebrated the WSWS’s denunciation of Project 1619 as a “racialist falsification” of history. It was good to see the WSJ standing up against racialism in keeping with publisher Rupert Murdoch’s well-known progressive editorial outlook.
WSWS interviewed every one of the historians except for Sean Wilentz, who got a clean bill of health from a website bent on exposing “pseudo-leftists,” including me on numerous occasions. Despite their failure to interview Wilentz, they see eye to eye on the “racialist” charge:
In 2015, the Times published an article written by Sean Wilentz, in its opinion section, in which the historian opposed “the myth that the United States was founded on racial slavery.” Wilentz described this myth as “one of the most destructive falsehoods in all of American history.” The Times did not challenge Wilentz’ views at the time. But it failed to consult Wilentz in the preparation of the 1619 Project essays. This was not an accidental mistake, but a conscious decision to exclude from the Project all countervailing arguments.
They say that politics makes for strange bedfellows. As such, this united front between a spittle-flecked, ultraleft website like WSWS and Bill and Hillary Clinton’s pal Sean Wilentz deserves an entry in the 2020 edition of Ripley’s “Believe it or Not.” In Guyott’s review, he tries to put Wilentz’s spin-doctoring for Madison and company into perspective:
Wilentz has long been a liberal activist. For more than a quarter-century, he faithfully supported Bill and Hillary Clinton. During the Lewinsky scandal in 1998, he warned Congress that “history will track you down and condemn you for your cravenness” if Bill Clinton was impeached. In a 2008 editorial in The New Republic, he accused Barack Obama and his campaign team of keeping “the race and race-baiter cards near the top of their campaign deck” during their battle with Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. He has been a particularly sharp critic of those who’ve rallied behind candidates to the left of the Clintons. In a recent article lamenting the Sanders phenomenon, Wilentz accused the left of being irresponsible in its economic promises, solipsistic in its embrace of identity politics, and disrespectful toward the achievements of the liberal tradition. Trashing the Founders is, for Wilentz, another sign of progressive immaturity. [Emphasis added]
The Wall Street Journal accepts WSWS “Trotskyist” credentials at face value. So does Atlantic Monthly’s Conor Friedersdorf, whose long and generally insightful article chastised Hannah-Jones’s reference to them “claiming to be socialists.” Friedersdorf found this “needlessly personal and uncharitable” since it doubted “the Marxist ideological commitments of people who have been publishing Trotskyist polemics for years.”
Indeed, nobody has published more “Trotskyist polemics” than them, as long as you are using the term Trotskyist without regard for what Trotsky stood for. An examination of the record will place Trotsky firmly in the Project 1619 camp. When Trotsky was living in Prinkipo, an island near Istanbul, in 1933, he met with Arne Swabeck (who coincidentally was one of the talking heads in Warren Beatty’s “Reds”). Swabeck asked, “How must we view the position of the American Negro: As a national minority or as a racial minority?” Trotsky’s reply probably would have made both Wilentz and his friends at WSWS beet-red with fury. He urged his comrades to support self-determination for Blacks even if it antagonized white workers, who were far more radical in 1933 than they are today:
But today the white workers in relation to the Negroes are the oppressors, scoundrels, who persecute the black and the yellow, hold them in contempt and lynch them. When the Negro workers today unite with their own petty bourgeois that is because they are not yet sufficiently developed to defend their elementary rights. To the workers in the Southern states the liberal demand for “social, political and economic equality” would undoubtedly mean progress, but the demand for “self-determination” a greater progress. However, with the slogan “social, political and economic equality” they can much easier be misled (“according to the law you have this equality”).
After he relocated to Coyoacán, Trotsky met with his comrades once again in 1939 to discuss the Black struggle. As part of the delegation, C.L.R. James (known outside the party as J.R. Johnson) confessed his misgivings about self-determination:
Then in 1936 came the organization of the CIO. John L. Lewis appointed a special Negro department. The New Deal made gestures to the Negroes. Blacks and whites fought together in various struggles. These nationalist movements have tended to disappear as the Negro saw the opportunity to fight with the organised workers and to gain something. The danger of our advocating and injecting a policy of self-determination is that it is the surest way to divide and confuse the worker’s in the South.
J.R. Johnson was impressed with the economic gains Blacks made in the New Deal at the time. He overlooked how the FHA promoted segregation by discouraging home loans in areas “infiltrated” by “inharmonious racial or nationality groups,” according to Richard Rothstein, the author of “The Color of Law.”
Even today, there are some historians on the left that minimize New Deal racism. One of them is Adolph Reed, an African-American professor at the University of Pennsylvania who identifies with Sean Wilentz, WSWS, and company. He wrote an article for The New Republic denying that the New Deal was intrinsically racist and followed that up with a congenial WSWS interview bashing Project 1619.
Trotsky stuck by his guns in his meeting with C.L.R. James/J.R. Johnson. He assured him that Black people had the right to self-determination like any other oppressed nationality. He even saw Marcus Garvey’s movement as having a progressive dynamic:
The American Negroes gathered under the banner of the ‘Back to Africa’ movement because it seemed a possible fulfillment of their wish for their own home. They did not want actually to go to Africa. It was the expression of a mystic desire for a home in which they would be free of the domination of the whites, in which they themselves could control their own fate. That also was a wish for self-determination. It was once expressed by some in a religious form and now it takes the form of a dream of an independent state. Here in the United States the whites are so powerful, so cruel and rich that the poor Negro sharecropper does not dare to say, even to himself, that he will take a part of his country for himself. Garvey spoke in glowing terms, that it was beautiful and that here all would be wonderful. Any psychoanalyst will say that the real content of this dream was to have their own home. It is not an argument in favor of injecting the idea. It is only an argument by which we can foresee the possibility of their giving their dream a more realistic form.
Trotsky’s writings on Black nationalism remained in obscurity until the 1960s when Malcolm X became a prominent spokesman for the Nation of Islam and eventually a revolutionary nationalist. Basing itself on Trotsky’s recommendations to Swabeck and J.R. Johnson, the Socialist Workers Party supported Malcolm X and did everything in its power to work with younger Black nationalists following in his footsteps as well. Not everybody was happy with this. James Robertson, who went on to form the Spartacist League, and Tim Wolforth, who launched the Workers League, a forerunner of WSWS, led a faction in the SWP that viewed Fidel Castro and Malcolm X as “petty-bourgeois”, a favorite epithet in the sectarian world.
In his history of American Trotskyism , Wolforth wrote off what most people on the left regarded as a promising development:
The movement in the ghettoes was a class movement directed against unemployment, poor housing, decaying schools and the racism which forces such conditions upon the Blacks. But the struggle took the form primarily of the movement of Blacks as Blacks and in the neighbourhoods rather than in the shops and through the unions. This is turn encouraged an even more distorted political expression of this movement in Black nationalism – first of Malcolm X and then of the Black Panthers. [Emphasis added]
By 1980, Black nationalism had run its course. A combination of police repression and ultraleft mistakes, so prevalent at the time, left the Panthers and other nationalist groups fighting to stay alive. Today, Black nationalism might seem even more outdated, given the powerful magnetic grip that electoral politics has on both white and black young leftists.
Yet, Black nationalism persists to a small degree as the second cousin of “identity politics” or “intersectionality.” These terms are scare-words both socialists and liberals use when making amalgams of groups like Black Lives Matter and the doomed Hillary Clinton campaign in 2016.
In an article titled “The 1619 Project and the falsification of history: An analysis of the New York Times’ reply to five historians”, WSWS regulars David North and Eric London make the case against “identity politics.” It does not differ from what Tim Wolforth and Jim Robertson argued sixty years ago:
During the past several months, since its publication in September 2019 of its initial critique of the 1619 Project, the Socialist Equality Party and the World Socialist Web Site have been asked by journalists representing bourgeois publications to explain why we oppose the New York Times’ initiative. These questions, which generally arise from genuine curiosity rather than political malice, reflect the extent to which the “left” is identified with “identity politics.” In response, we explain that the exaltation of such politics has nothing in common with the theory, principles, and political program of the socialist movement. The historical slogan of the socialist movement is “Workers of the World, Unite!” not “Races of the World, Divide!”
It reminds me of what Malcolm X once said after being asked for his opinion on Black-white unity. His response: there has to be Black unity beforehand. Whites are united, but Blacks are not. His goal was to unite Black people even if it upset the likes of Tim Wolforth or David North.
Even if Black Lives Matter had very little in common with the nationalism of the 1960s, its focus on Black issues made it vulnerable to criticisms from WSWS and Adolph Reed. WSWS blasted Black Lives Matter as a “pseudo-left” organization hiding behind a racial narrative to account for the crisis of police violence. For his part, Reed wrote a Progressive Magazine article stating that “as a political strategy exposing racism is wrongheaded and at best an utter waste of time.”
You get the same class-reductionist analysis from Sean Wilentz. In a May 20, 2019 article for The Nation, Timothy Shenk describes the political odyssey of the Princeton professor. During a youthful fling with Jacobin-style class-exclusive “democratic socialism,” he eulogized Eugene V. Debs: “Amid the cacophonies of today’s interest and identity politics, it is hard to imagine a reinvented sense of comradeship upon which some future Debs might build.”
Later on, Bill Clinton replaced Eugene V. Debs as a model of practical politics. Shenk writes:
The balance that Wilentz had tried to maintain between socialist ideals and liberal politics collapsed. A romantic streak had always run just beneath his superficial cynicism, and he still had the idealist’s hunger for a glorious crusade. Now, he channeled that energy into a new cause. Liberalism became an end in itself, while faith in democracy’s radical potential turned into hostility toward critics of Clinton, who, Wilentz suggested, were motivated by “a deep-seated contempt for American politics.”
I have no idea what kind of conversations went on between Wilentz and his partners at WSWS. Still, one imagines that the sectarians never broached the subject of his miserable service on behalf of Democratic Party neoliberalism and war. Collaboration with the academic celebrity justified discretion, the better part of opportunism.
Wilentz even raked Bernie Sanders over the coals—a reform Democrat by all conventional norms. In 2015, Wilentz became as furious at Sanders as he is now at Nikole Hannah-Jones. It seems that Sanders told an audience that the United States “in many ways was created, and I’m sorry to have to say this, from way back, on racist principles. That’s a fact.” In other words, he lined up with Project 1619. Using the same language as in the letter to the New York Times, Wilentz wrote an op-ed piece for the newspaper stating that “as far as the nation’s founding is concerned, it is not a fact.” He accused Sanders of spreading a dangerous “myth” that could “poison the current presidential campaign.”
The only poison I see is in Wilentz’s letter to the Times and the crude class-reductionism that masquerades as Marxism in the WSWS. While recognizing the New York Times’s apparent, market-driven bid for respectability among Black Americans by publishing Project 1619, it has done more to advance a class-based analysis of this racist system than its detractors.