From Socialist Voice, No. 2 (Winter 1976-77).
Transcribed & marked up by Damon Maxwell for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
The Presidential campaign of Jimmy Carter has given the bourgeois mythologists the opportunity to popularize the notion of the “New South” as a region emerging into the mainstream of American life out of the shadows of backwardness and (now it can be told!) racial oppression. The notion has its material roots in the industrial rise of the so-called Sunbelt, the South and the Southwest, to the extent that the South is no longer a predominantly agricultural region. Awareness of this tendency, reinforced by Nixon’s highly touted “Southern strategy,” has led a number of Northeastern and Midwestern politicians to attempt to form a bloc to redistribute federal funds from the Sunbelt to the suffering North. Business Week magazine went so far as to predict a second “war” between the states.
These issues have been taken up on the left as well among New Left and socialist theorists. The seeming accommodation between blacks and whites in the South (most recently seen in the apparent appeal of a “conservative moderate” like Carter to a black community which was on the march only yesterday) has given rise to renewed interest in whether or not the South was or is an internal colony of the U.S., whether or not blacks constituted an oppressed nation in the South and a myriad of associated questions. A number of left writers conceive of a particularly malevolent faction of the U.S. ruling class in the Sunbelt which is primarily responsible for the evils of U.S. imperialism, and some say that there has been a “power shift” to this more or less independent bourgeoisie of the “Southern rim.”
In this series of articles we will analyze the South in relation to the rest of the United States and assess the transformation which has occurred as well as its limitations. It is necessary to describe the class relations between the Northern and Southern sections of the bourgeoisie as they have developed historically. Central to the analysis is the origins and the state of the black revolution. Most critical is the condition of the forgotten social force in the South, generally ignored in the bourgeois media, the working class.
This force is actually the key to what happens with the South. It is precisely the relative political quiescence of the working class, North and South, under the tutelage of the labor bureaucracy that has been the major factor in why the changes have occurred as they have. The period of working class silence on the political scene is rapidly coming to an end. And with this the possibility of real change in the South and the country as a whole arises. The underlying purpose of our articles is to show the necessary direction the struggle has to take and to arm the vanguard tactically and programmatically for the great days of change that impend.
A seemingly small but significant event is now occurring which is receiving modest attention from both the bourgeoisie and the left.
In the late spring of 1976 a new union emerged on the American labor scene, the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU). The union is the product of a merger between the Amalgamated Clothing Workers and the Textile Workers Union and claims 500,000 members. With the merger, union leaders announced a campaign to unionize Southern textiles by declaring a national boycott of the huge J.P. Stevens Corporation “on a scale greater than that ever undertaken by the American labor movement.”
We will deal later in more detail with the strategy of the merged union and its implications. One of the more acute bourgeois observers of the working class, A.H. Raskin of the New York Times, wrote that the battle with Stevens “has important implications for the future balance of strength between all American labor and management.” Raskin is right: to organize the big textile companies or any other major non-union industry in the South would mean taking on the entire American bourgeoisie in a political struggle which would have profound revolutionary consequences. The ACTWU’s most modest drive, projected to last many years and without a strike, has begun to reveal the top of a giant iceberg. The effort has been forced upon the bureaucracy by the submerged anger and militancy of Northern workers who fear for their wage standards in the face of competition from non-unionized corporations. The drive is being handled so gingerly for the reason Raskin cites. The revolutionary strategy we propose is necessary for deciding the outcome of the “balance of strength.”
The Civil War of the last century was a class war, a conflict between industrial capitalism and that creation of developing capitalism, slavery. The emancipation of blacks from slavery was a consequence' of this struggle but not its purpose. Questions of profit, capital accumulation and the political arrangements needed to secure them were the real issues, not fundamentally the rights of man. Since freeing the slaves was a necessity for the victory of Northern industrial capitalism, it was done. And since granting the demands of the freed blacks was an obstacle, it had to be stopped.
The slaves were emancipated in order to break the power of the slaveocracy. Yet the promised extension of the rights of bourgeois democracy to the freedmen was never carried through. For a time blacks did gain effective rights beyond freedom from slavery, such as the right to vote and citizenship. But the crucial bourgeois right for an agricultural population is the division of the land; without this all the other rights are undermined and the ability to survive is brought into question. The heralded “40 acres and a mule” was continually promised and continually denied. The newly freed blacks were cast into the economic limbo between slavery and a genuine farming class – sharecropping. Also, under the emergent system millions of poor whites were forced into a state of servitude that was only marginally superior.
In the middle of the 19th century Marx had already pointed to the fact that the bourgeoisie was an increasingly conservative force and that the democratic rights made possible by the bourgeois mode of production, and previously won by the struggles of the revolutionary petty bourgeoisie of the cities and countryside, would now have to be achieved by the proletariat through a revolution “in permanence.” The change became even more pronounced as capitalism descended from its progressive epoch through a transition period in the late 1800’s passing into its epoch of decadent monopolization and imperialism.
With its growth, capitalist power became decisively urban, although even in the advanced countries the bulk of the population remained agrarian. The potential alliance between the impoverished agriculturalists and workers struck fear into the bourgeoisie. In the cities the capitalists no longer faced the opposition only of radical artisans who still held a stake in private property. Rather, “the spectre of communism haunted Europe” (and the United States to a decree) as a propertyless proletariat grew in size, combativity and organization. Under this challenge the bourgeoisie had to defend all forms of property, including the remnants of defeated feudalism in Europe and the traditions of slavery in the U.S. The patterns of capitalist development led as well to the interpenetration of the various propertied interests under the dominant bourgeoisie. A blow against one form of property was a blow against all.
Once the slaveocracy was defeated the Northern bourgeoisie recognized the harmony of its interest with the Southern bourgeoisie and not the freed blacks. It not only reneged on “40 acres and a mule” but also abandoned completely the alliance with the blacks that had characterized the Reconstruction period after the Civil War. Although the Reconstruction governments in the Southern states were agencies of capital, they harkened back to the more radical and more dangerous period. Their base was the propertyless and restive black population. The Southern bourgeoisie which was occupied with making money both for the penetrating Northern capital and on its own account had in fact been freed far more than the blacks by the war. Its interests were hostile to the black-supported Reconstruction governments and lay with the “Redemption” wing of the Democratic Party. The price paid by Northern capital for the new alliance was the abandonment of all vestiges of black rights and the remains of Reconstruction, the removal of the noxious presence of Federal troops, and certain commercial commitments. The deal received its formal codification with the Compromise of 1877, in which the Redeemers threw the Presidential election to the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and in return took over the few remaining Reconstruction governments.
Northern capital had reason to fear the volatility of the forces which led it to make the Compromise. Such forces were present and not only in the South: in the Midwest, farmers were moving into raging conflict with the railroads and big capital. The National Labor Union had been formed with a radical program in 1866. By the 1870’s major working class riots were erupting in cities around the country. Rebellion seemed to stalk the United States. The stabilization achieved by the political modus vivendi between the different sectors of capital did not prevent the class struggle from being waged but it did prevent its victory.
“Redemption” was akin to Thermidor in the French Revolution: counterrevolutionary in that it halted the evolution of gains into the hands of the plebeians and seated the conservative bourgeoisie in power, but it did not turn the clock back to slavery. The patricians who participated were thoroughly agencies of the now-dominant industrial and financial capitalism. The alliance between the Redeemers and Northern capital set a class relationship in motion which has lasted in differing forms for a hundred years. As a result of the 1877 Compromise, the Northern bourgeoisie matured to dominate the country as a whole with the aid of its junior partners, collaborators and compradors. In turn, this hegemony was ensured by the political power in Washington of the conservative Southern bastion of capitalism.
Modern imperialism began to develop slowly in the late 1800’s and began to make itself manifest in the United States, both in relation to the underdeveloped sections of the world and within the borders of the home country itself, although in a substantially altered form. The North exported capital to the South and invested there primarily in labor-intensive and extractive primary goods industries. Southern capital, while growing in size, shared in these enterprises as a junior partner. The capitalists extracted super-profits by exploiting Southern labor at a higher rate than Northern and raked in their gains most of all as a result of the oppression of the black plebeians. After 1877, tobacco and textiles were virtually the only major industries owned by Southerners, and in the 1890's even textiles succumbed to the Northern infusion of capital. All the well-known names of Northern capitalism (Morgan, Rockefeller, Gould, etc.) held a lesser-known share in Southern capital. The chain of financial investment reached from Wall Street through its Atlanta outposts into every village in the South. The poor sharecropper or tenant farmer, bargaining his family’s future for credit against crops at the general store, was linked by the chain all the way to lower Manhattan. The rural Southerners were more brutally exploited than any other social element in the United States, and Southern workers were hardly better off.
As a result in part of this super-exploitation of the South, Northern capital was able to industrialize rapidly and move steadily to fashion the most powerful capitalist state in the world. In the process it was able to grant some reforms to Northern workers to stave off the looming rebellion and thus the start was made towards creating a conservative labor aristocracy that led to the craft based American Federation of Labor. The strategy of dividing the working masses was natural to the capitalist system, spawned by its own laws of development. While there may or may not at times occur plots and conspiracies to divide the workers, the system's drive to protect itself and expand arises organically out of its compulsion to weaken and disorient the massive numbers of propertyless workers and poor farmers arrayed against it. Nowhere was this rule by division more prominent than in the South.
The freed slaves were denied their essential bourgeois-democratic rights and systematically prevented from selling their labor power on the market as free workers. It was the denial of bourgeois rights that made super-exploitation possible by forcing the freedmen to sell their labor power cheaply. The denial of land as well to the blacks – and to poor whites in the South – meant that the scramble for slivers of land and crumbs to eat subjected the blacks to merciless attacks by the poor whites, straining to get ahead by the one advantage they had. The smashing of slavery had given birth to new forms of the old bestialism. This was the origin of the Klan, the lynch mobs, the murder, rape and horror that capitalism wrought. It was the result of Redemption, of the betrayals of the blacks by their erstwhile allies who (like the liberals of today) promised them free access to the greater society and deserted them when the chips and the profits were down.
The bourgeoisie did not have its own way without a fight by any means. The resurgence of the agrarian movement led to the Populist rebellions of the late 1880’s and early 1890’s. More explosive and more explicitly revolutionary in the South than in the West, the Populists rebelled against the disastrous economic conditions and the control of Wall Street. They were defeated, but not before critical interracial experiences between black and white plebeians took place, the like of which had never before been seen in the South. It was the depression of the mid-nineties that the bourgeoisie used to rip this potential unity apart. The brutal competition between blacks and whites whipped up by the reaction turned the poor whites toward murderous conduct towards the blacks. Capitalism triumphed by paying the price of a little status and slightly lesser misery to the once radical and now venomously racist poor whites.
The bourgeoisie sought to seal off hermetically any possibility of unity between the poor of both races through the Jim Crow laws. Blacks were disenfranchised, terrorized, humiliated and isolated from white workers and farmers, forced to surrender many of even the tinier advances gained from the Civil War and their own struggles. The survival and continued struggle of the black masses under such conditions is a tribute to oppressed working people everywhere as well as to blacks in particular, and it signifies that the class struggle goes on even when capitalism seems to have conclusively won.
Subjugation of blacks through the poor white pawns meant that the latter became tools for their own subjugation as well. The bloody smashing of workers’ strikes became the norm in the South. The convict-lease system was the American Way of slave labor camps. Mill towns, mining towns, company towns dotted the landscape; the life of the worker was isolation and omnipresent control. The South as a whole was kept in backwardness and poverty. Capitalism was capable of ruthless extraction of surplus-value but not of building a modern or industrial South. Although earlier visions of a New South were rampant among the Atlanta compradors around the turn of the century, they were a myth. The region seemed doomed to meager cash crop monoculture of cotton and a near-starvation agriculture. With one-third of the American population by 1929, the South produced only one-ninth of the nation’s manufactured products and contained only one-tenth of the American working class.
The barbarous division and weakening of the Southern masses through the attack on the blacks gave the South a political stability and increasingly reactionary character from Redemption on. The smashing of Reconstruction, Populism and strike movements furnished the basis for the long term hidebound stabilization of the South. The Southern base of Northern capital, with its one-party system and petty political tyrannies held the fort both in the South and in Washington for its senior partners. Based upon this political stability the combine was able to pursue a growing imperialism abroad. Just as slavery and the slave trade had been a crucial factor in the primitive capital accumulation that laid the basis for developing capitalism in the U.S. and especially in Europe, so too was late decadent capitalism bolstered by the exploitation of the super-oppressed in the American South. And in turn, the super-profits garnered from imperialism overseas allowed American capitalism to partially transform the South at a later point.
The reactionary nature of the South became the butt of liberal, democratic, pseudo-sophisticated criticism from the Northern centers of bourgeois power. As Trotsky pointed out, democracy in the imperialist epoch is the most aristocratic system of all because it requires so many “slaves” to provide its super-profits and its consequent tolerance. The snobbish noblesse oblige of a Rockefeller is somewhat offended by the crudities of a Pinochet, but Pinochet is merely Rockefeller’s overseer in the fields; Bilbo, Eastland and Thurmond were slave drivers in his own house. Thus in many respects the relationship of North to South was and is imperialist. But political analysis by means of formal and definitional equations is always dubious and in this case can lead to absurd and disastrous political conclusions. While the relationship has been substantially imperialist it has not been one that is a fundamentally colonial or national form of subjugation.
One can speculate that a successful Confederate secession might have led to the creation of a separate nation, much as Canada developed largely as a result of the Revolutionary War. This did not occur in the South, and moreover, the South was never a colony except for the period of conquest immediately following the Civil War. When the Populist rebellion occurred it was framed in terms of rights for Americans and not in terms of a separate nation or nationality. Interrelated history, geographical affinity, early and continued commercial ties and inter-bourgeois class links, close communication, common arteries of transportation and cultural ties all played their role in preventing the South from becoming economically subordinate in the same way as the colonial countries. The decisive difference, however, lay in the political role of the South. Whereas Nepal furnished Great Britain its Gurkha troops, the South provided the core of the U.S. military’s general staff in addition to cannon fodder. Whereas France’s “overseas departments” were represented in the National Assembly, the Southern politicians dominated the Congress and became the bastion of stability in Washington. The Northern and Southern bourgeoisies were allied and their deals were quid pro quos, even though one ally was the dominant partner.
Not the least cementing factor was the despoiling of the South and its people. The very backwardness of its economy left many resources untapped. But quick-buck depredations reinforced the historic problems of the exhausted land, played-out mines, etc. Capitalism in its inevitable short-sightedness thought nothing of sacrificing even future returns on capital for the sake of immediate rapine. This policy, of course, served to maintain the backward political structure which acted as ballast for the country as a whole. However, with the advent of the Great Depression of the thirties the ballast threatened to sink the entire ship. The already impoverished South was the hardest hit region, and the New Deal regime saw the need for reforms. Franklin Roosevelt stated in 1938:
“It is my conviction that the South presents right now the Nation’s No.1 economic problem – the Nation’s problem, not merely the South’s. For we have an economic unbalance in the Nation as a whole, due to this very condition of the South.”
Certain changes were attempted, most notably the Tennessee Valley Authority and other schemes to prop up agriculture. Any serious attempt to modernize the South, would have meant division of the land and destruction of the cotton monoculture. This was impossible at the time because of the danger of an attack on property rights. In addition, the massive capital required for developing an industrial economy was not available. But the real problem was the upsurge of the working class.
Much of the AFL leadership and almost all of the leaders of the new and militant CIO were political allies of the liberal bourgeoisie clustered around Roosevelt. Both the John L. Lewis wing and the Communist Party within the CIO were often capable of industrial militancy under the pressure of the swelling rebellion of the workers. But they managed to hold the line against political independence for the labor movement which would have inevitably led toward a revolutionary confrontation with the bourgeois state. Their Popular Front tactics helped to consolidate the left-wing popular base for the New Deal. Roosevelt and the liberals could not have accepted this alliance, given the dangerous rebelliousness of the workers, without resting on the reactionary Southerners. And the Southern bourgeoisie, reactionary as it was, aligned itself to the New Deal and its sops because of the danger posed by the restive Southern masses. Any severe dislocation of race and class relations in the South, anything which allowed the unions in or gave the oppressed blacks an opportunity to move, would have hit the foundations of the ruling edifice. The capitulation to the Democratic Party of the reformist and Stalinist leaderships of the CIO upsurge maintained the coalition and enabled the Southern reactionaries to exercise their sway locally and nationally.
And yet the South now has been transformed. The New South seems to stand as a challenge to Marxists who believe that the revolution “in permanence” is the strategy for the working class in this epoch. Has not capitalism “revolutionized” a backward region? Have not both the South and the blacks now gained the bourgeois-democratic rights so long denied? And was this done by the workers and poor farmers, as the Marxists expected, or by the bourgeoisie? In fact, it is only through the theory of permanent revolution that the significance of the Southern development can be understood. The extent to which the South expanded and the bourgeoisie tolerated democratic gains was the extent to which the proletariat was defeated internationally and checked, contained and politically decapitated nationally. The limit upon this development is measured by capitalism’s fundamental decay and the proletariat’s fundamental strength, no matter what its immediate defeats and no matter how its gains are twisted and used against it. The South was transformed only when the proletariat was checked by the betrayal of the labor bureaucracy, which bases its pro-capitalist world view on the short-term interests of the labor aristocracy. World War II delayed the upsurge of the working class in the U.S. and abroad, although wartime resource allocation permitted some development in the South. The real “take-off” occurred in the aftermath of the war with the worldwide restabilization of capital built upon the imperialist strength of the U.S. bourgeoisie and the defeat of the proletariat internationally.
From capital's point of view the record has indeed been impressive. The expansion of the Sunbelt region has far outpaced the rest of the U.S. in most important areas of capital development. For example, production of goods had already increased over five times from 1939 to 1955, and manufacturing employment has nearly doubled since then. Between 1967 and 1972 alone, capital spending in manufacturing rose 21 percent. There has been some industrial diversification as well. Construction became a critical industry, employing 7.3 percent of the work force compared to 5.2 percent nationally. In the past five years the region has become an important producer of capital goods. With industry its supporting services have also arrived: financing, advertising, printing, etc.
Industrialization implies urbanization, and the center of the South’s economy has switched to the urban centers. By the late sixties, for example, the agricultural work force in North Carolina was only one-sixth of the total, in Tennessee, only one-seventh. Farm employment declined from 3.8 million in 1950 to 1.5 million by 1972, while manufacturing jobs went up from 2.4 million to 4.4 million in the same period. In addition, the old one-crop lien system has been supplanted. The mechanization and diversification of agriculture, and the application of scientific techniques to it, is in sharp contrast to the almost primitive methods used formerly to work the land. The development of the South has necessarily led to an in-crease in regional wealth. Per capita incomes are approaching national norms and sometimes exceeding them. Charlotte, North Carolina, like some other Southern cities, has surpassed the per capita income of New York and other major cities in the Northeast and Midwest.
The changes in the economic structure have profoundly affected Southern society as a whole. Health, transportation and communications have rapidly advanced. There have also been “cultural” changes: if the various patterns of Southern music, diet, idiom, etc. could have been loosely classified as an American “sub-culture” years ago (apart of course from the black sub-culture to be discussed later in this series), the South has now been penetrated by a more general Americana. The current fad among non-Southern whites for chomping grits, digging country music, and the like – “redneck chic” – should convince no one that this culture is becoming more distant from the American mainstream. Greater awareness is not greater distance. In fact, the popularity of Southern styles demonstrates how the regions have drawn closer; what were once localized customs can now be gutted, commercialized and peddled on a larger scale, North and South, as any Nashville music entrepreneur well knows.
These changes and the changing class relations within which they occurred have had significant reflections in Southern politics. After World War II, political power in the South rested with the troglodytes who largely represented plantation agriculture, extractive industry and were based in the small town and rural petty bourgeoisie. The increasingly powerful urban capitalists chafed under the domination of the reactionaries but tolerated their rule while the lingering threat of the CIO “reds” and the working class in general remained. As part of the initial post-war upsurge of the working classes internationally, the CIO threatened a massive Southern organizing drive. The fledgling New South urban bourgeoisie quivered and kept the retrograde elements in power – they, after all, knew how to string up a union organizer.
The CIO threat disappeared for a number of reasons: the setbacks to the post-war strike wave in the U.S., the decapitation of the radical and revolutionary elements from the unions in the late forties and early fifties under the attack from McCarthyism and Truman’s “Fair Deal.” Basically the drive was abandoned because of the reformist labor leaders’ recognition that organizing the South would have meant a confrontation with the whole political structure of the nation: its political regime, its dominant class alliance, its racism. Underlying the capitulation was the fact that U.S. imperialism, which had emerged from the war as the hegemonic world power and now extracted surplus-value from every corner, was able to buy off a thick layer of labor aristocrats and buttress the increasingly conservative line of the labor bureaucracy.
When the organizing threat receded, a new relationship within the bourgeoisie was made possible. The new urban capitalists resting upon an urban middle class base began to displace the reactionaries. Modern industrial development needed decent education for at least a layer of workers and an atmosphere of respectability, culture and modernity for its executives and technicians. As well, the new alignment of forces demanded a more flexible approach to general social questions. The result was New South politics. In North Carolina and Georgia, for example, this meant the landmark reapportionment cases which redefined electoral districts to better represent the urban Piedmont centers. The rural rabble-rousing Talmadge machine in Georgia crumbled. Modern middle-class politicians like Dr. Frank Graham and Estes Kefauver arose. Urban middle and upper-class voters turned to Eisenhower, who ran as a Republican. The solid Democratic South began to crumble. It was a controlled political revolution.
The most dramatic shift of social policy has been toward the race question. The rising colonial revolution taking place internationally, especially in the context of the Cold War, was an important factor in bringing the race question once more to the fore in the United States. The shift of blacks from dying agricultural employment to the cities (South as well as North) meant that the black masses were getting industrial jobs, although at the lowest rungs. A critical number of Southern black college students had their appetites whetted by increased education. The small middle class black population also sought to rise. The hope of social mobility opened up by the new development of the South contrasted with the continued disenfranchisement and segregation. An explosion took place. During the fifties, the struggle of Southern blacks against their oppression began to emerge openly, reaching the higher expression of the civil rights movement in the early sixties. The Atlanta-based financial, mercantile and real estate interests favored a policy of moderation and token reforms toward this upsurge. Racial peace was a necessity for attracting new capital investment. Industrial giants also understood the advantage of preventing racial warfare in and around their factories, and merchants were wary of black boycotts of their goods.
The withdrawal of the Southern organizing drive (and what it would have meant in terms of a united anti-racist struggle) allowed the black struggle to take place under the leadership of the black middle class. Symbolically, it was the veteran black labor leader E. B. Nixon in Montgomery who pushed a little known “sky pilot,” the late Martin Luther King Jr., to lead the historic bus boycott in 1955. The absence of working class leadership signified that the black gains so bitterly fought for would not get out of hand and threaten the rising profit margins. The white Southern labor bureaucrats played little role except to tail the white bourgeoisie. National union leaders gave moral and monetary support – and of course maintained discrimination within the unions for as long as possible to benefit the labor aristocracy. Indeed, the Southern white urban bourgeoisie was able to parade as the “progressive” section of the white population; this strengthened the racism that the bureaucrats refused to fight within the white working class.
Despite the new “progressive” image toward blacks, the Southern establishment tries to remain a bastion of conservatism and political stability for the nation. The New South bourgeoisie with its national bourgeois partners remains devoted to the old super-repressive labor policies in the still relatively cheap-labor South. This is graphically illustrated by the “right-to-work” laws; ostensibly giving workers the “right” not to join a union, their main intent is to suppress the basic right to organize by reinforcing the open shops of the South. In contrast, the now covert racism remains, but not as the central tool for defending capitalist power in the South. The collaboration of the black leadership is a far easier and more pacific solution.
For all the importance of the economic and social changes in the South, the stability and moderation that the New South proclaims is an illusion, perhaps the most powerful condemnation of the decay of American imperialism within its own borders. Southern industry still shows the marks of its origin. Despite the new plants, the old labor-intensive industries are still proportionately a huge factor. By 1971 almost half of the South’s industrial employees were still in the five lowest paying industries: furniture, lumber, food, apparel and textiles. An important bourgeois journal admitted, “Undeniably, the South has attracted and encouraged primarily low-wage, labor-intensive industry in which even the fully employed worker often exists on the margin of poverty.” (South Today, May-June 1973)
Moreover, there are important qualifications to the South's capital expansion. Tourism and the military are major enterprises in the region (tourism alone accounting for 20 percent of the gross state product of Florida), and neither “industry” fosters the self-expansion of capitalist production either locally or nationally. Nor has the transformation of the South occurred independently of Northern capital and control. Northeastern capital is national capital; it is interpenetrated with every major nucleus of industrial and financial power in the country and abroad. By all accounts the “Southern” bourgeois is as likely as not to have been born elsewhere in the country (if not the world – South Carolina claims to have more West German investment than any country in the world except Germany).
The most important way in which historical continuity has been maintained is the super-exploitation of the Southern working class. Production workers in the South take home an average of $162 per week compared to the national average of $192. The South’s reputed cheaper living costs are essentially a myth and by no means offset such a wage gap. Moreover, inflation is higher in the South than elsewhere in the nation, and Southern workers generally get lower pensions and other fringe benefits than workers nationally. This stems in part from the existence of a large reservoir of potential workers in the growing urban ghettos and on the remaining tenant farms. An enormous factor is the unions’ weakness: only 15 percent of the South’s non-agricultural work force is organized, as compared to 28 percent nationally. The New York Times (July 2, 1973) stated:
“One of the main attractions of the South for Northern industrialists has been the South’s traditional attitude against unions. An industrialist moving South from St. Louis, Detroit, Cleveland or Chicago can easily find a place in the South where he will not be bothered with union work rules, union wage scales and continuing negotiations of contracts and grievances.”
As well, in the South, even unionization is no guarantee of wages equal to the national standard. The “Southern differential” is frequently preserved in contracts. And the super-exploitation of Southern labor generally is exceeded by the level of exploitation of blacks in the South. Although socially significant only a small number of black workers have done well. Most despite their entry into industry still get the worst-paying and roughest jobs, the highest unemployment rates, the worst living conditions, the least opportunity to move up – in general, rampant inequality remains the way of life in the homeland of slavery.
Thus the New South is developing not only along the lines of the old capitalism but with the traditions of the Old South. It buttresses U.S. capitalism as a whole not only by its political role in Washington but also by offering a cheap labor area to Northern capital which is used as a lever against Northern wages as well. The Old surviving in the New is a dialectical necessity for capitalism but it generates its own contradictions. For the South has produced a very large and dangerous modern working class concentrated not simply in isolated towns but in major cities. The old migration to the North of both blacks and whites is reversing. The proletariat is more national as the cultural gaps narrow. Most crucial, capitalism has been forced out of its own needs to weaken its own weapon of racial division. It will no longer be as simple as it once was to resurrect the full venom of this tool within the Southern working class. The Southern masses were always volatile but racism could turn this to fratricide. The new proletariat, therefore, will be extremely potent. While it has less of a history of organization, it is also burdened with less of a bureaucracy and labor aristocracy. The basic unionization steps that it will naturally take will require a political onslaught against the national bourgeoisie. Such a struggle once begun can only lead to a revolutionary confrontation. But this seems far distant from the consciousness of the Southern worker, perhaps as distant as the notion of the most massive general strike in history seemed to the French worker even a few days before the May events of 1968. Right now what seems real is the appeal of politicians like Jimmy Carter.
Carter is a classic New South politician. Based in Atlanta, he blends a policy of adjusting to necessary changes in Southern society with a basic loyalty to the old order. He was hardly a staunch advocate of the civil rights movement, but he did not support the white plebeian backlash. As Governor of Georgia, he established firm links with the more conservative black leaders (like Martin Luther King Sr.) in pursuing a policy of racial moderation. But of course he had mixed his tokenism with deft appeals to racism as when he ran for Governor in 1970. He tolerates the existing docile unions in the South but is hostile to labor organizing (as in his own peanut operation) and has always fought to maintain “right-to-work” laws.
With his head in Jehovah’s austere heaven and his heart seeking the approval of the jaded, sophisticated Northern Playboy, Carter epitomizes the contradictions of the New South bourgeoisie. This opportunist, sensitive to all pressures and counter pressures, appeals to blacks while seeking to safeguard “ethnic purity.” He dutifully cajoled labor leaders wherever he campaigned, but as one Southern capitalist, Robert E. Coleman, chairman of Riegel Textile Corporation, commented (New York Times, August 15, 1976):
“As a politician, his first concern is getting elected so I don't take too seriously all his campaign promises to labor. It is inconceivable to me on his whole record that he could be anything but what he says he is, a businessman who recognizes the need for a reasonable profit.”
Carter’s contradictions affected his campaign in the form of his oft-noted capacity for talking out of all sides of his mouth. This was inevitable for such a consummate New South candidate, representing a basically contradictory class equilibrium which can hold together in its present fashion for only a historical moment. This contradictory moment in time can appear stable and long-lasting simply because the upcoming scene will be so radically different from the past. The most conservative factor in social history, consciousness frightened of the abyss, seeks to hold on to what is familiar. Southern domination of Washington politics, maintained for decades just below the topmost levels and now clambering into the White House in the person of Jimmy Carter, has grabbed for the pinnacle just at the point where its base is about to shatter. Capitalism in the pursuit of profit has once again reinforced its mortal enemy, the proletariat.
We have stated that the development of the New South was the product of the post-war defeat of the working classes which allowed imperialism to expand. We will show in future articles in this series how the development was largely sectoral, occurring at the expense of industry and growth elsewhere in the United States; and why the nature of these capital shifts is critical to the shape of the coming American revolution. The Southern take-off was certainly not the growth of a colonial or ex-colonial nation. In fact, it was financed by the rest of the world. This was a development based on imperialist-derived super-profits and far from an organic growth of capitalism. The upshot is that the South – and the North – can no longer allow the workers to keep even the relatively meager gains made in the past. The black advances arc already atrophying as black labor is thrown out of work first in the developing worldwide downturn that succeeded the post-war boom. Bourgeois democracy and equal rights were temporary concessions based upon the imperial capitalists' ability to secure super-profits. As this erodes, Carter, the “New South,” the labor bureaucracy and the whole constellation of bourgeois property will lie exposed before an undefeated working class on the march. Business Week (November 8, 1976) quoted an Arkansas businessman on the labor-black unity against “right-to work” legislation:
“What bothers me is that blacks here don’t seem to know what unions have done to them up North. If they stick with labor down here, then God only know where all this is going to stop.”
If God knows, Jimmy Carter will soon find out. And he will also find, like the Cheshire cat in Wonderland, that his ephemeral toothy grin has lost all the material reality behind it.
Continue Reading: Class Struggle in the U.S. South Part 2: Revolutionary Perspectives for Southern Labor
Last updated on 12 April 2009. This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Trotskism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.