George Novack writing as “William F. Warde”

Two Lessons of Reconstruction

Written: Spring 1950.
First Published: Fourth International (New York), Vol.11 No.3, May-June 1950, pp.86-90.
Transcription/Editing: 2005 by Daniel Gaido.
HTML Markup: 2005 by David Walters.
Public Domain:George Novak Internet Archive 2005; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.

As the Negro millions have risen up and their struggles stir America from top to bottom, students of past history and participants in current history have turned their thoughts to that epoch when the Negro question also held the center of the stage and the Negro masses first came forward as an independent political power. The forces preparing for new revolutionary collisions are, each in their own way, drawn toward a re-examination and reappraisal of the course of the Civil War, i.e., the Second American Revolution. From the foundation of the United States the Northern capitalists and Southern planters had contended for total sovereignty over the nation. By crushing the pro-slavery rebellion the capitalists at last gained their prime objective, confirming by armed force the supremacy won through Lincoln’s election. Naturally bourgeois historians incline to center their attention upon that part of the revolutionary process by which their own class conquered supreme power and to regard the revolution as virtually completed at that point.

They recoil from the aftermath of the Civil War for still other reasons. Reconstruction not only disclosed the capacities of the colored people for bold and creative deeds but exposes above all the real nature of the capitalist class. The bourgeois writers fear to dwell upon Reconstruction as a criminal dreads to return to the scene of his crime. For it was then and there that the capitalist rulers killed the hopes of the Negro freedmen for full emancipation and conspired to deliver them back into bondage.

On the other side, by a sure instinct Negro and radical writers have become increasingly absorbed in the study of Reconstruction. Their reappraisal of the period was initiated in 1935 by the Negro scholar, W.E.B. Du Bois, in his book Black Reconstruction, which remains one of the foremost contributions to American history in our generation.

As Du Bois emphasizes, after the military defeat of the Confederacy had disposed of the contest between the revolutionary and counter-revolutionary forces on a national scale, the battle for supremacy between the people and the planters, the forces of revolution and counter-revolution, had still to be fought out and decided within the Southern States. Following Lee’s surrender to Grant early in 1865, it was easily possible to proceed to a thoroughgoing renovation of the South along democratic lines. The former slave-holding potentates had been militarily beaten, economically and politically dispossessed, and were so disgraced and demoralized they could offer no serious political of physical resistance.

At that juncture there were only two real powers in the South. First and foremost was the Federal government headed by the Republican Party and controlled by the industrial capitalists. They were the victors, the conquerors, the directors of the occupying forces. They had not only the military power but, what was more important, the confidence and allegiance of the progressive forces throughout the country.

The other power was the might of the aroused masses headed by the four million Negro freedmen with their allies among the small farmers and poor whites. If these two powers had marched along together down freedom’s road, they would have constituted an invincible combination.

Three Main Stages: 1865-1876

But something quite different resulted. What started out, at the close of the Civil War, as an alliance between the Northern men of means and the black and white plebeians of the South against the landed aristocracy terminated in 1876 with a union between the capitalist magnates and the planters against the Southern masses and their Negro vanguard.

The eleven years of Reconstruction fall into three main stages. (1) The years 1865-1866 when the revolution in the South was arrested by the conservative Northern bourgeoisie, marked time, and missed its most favorable opportunities. (2) The years of revolutionary resurgence from 1867 to the early 70’s when the Radical Republicans gained full command of the situation at Washington and joined with the Negro masses and their white allies to institute through armed force the first and only, democratic regime in the South. (3) The years of revolutionary recession ending with 1876 when Northern capitalism definitively broke with the Southern masses, threw its decisive weight against their struggles, and finally concluded a pact with the planters which sealed the fate of the revolution and reestablished the “ white supremacists” in the South.

The various elements in the anti-slavery coalition were animated by different, and at times, conflicting interests and purposes. The main driving force of the revolutionary movement emanated from the four million freedmen in the South. They wanted relief from age-old oppression and insufferable exploitation. They desired land, jobs, a decent living; civil rights and political power represented by the vote; legal and racial equality; educational and cultural opportunities. These demands were eloquently voiced during the canvass for the Constitutional Convention of 1867 by a Negro voter at Selma, Alabama who held up a red (Radical) ticket and shouted: “Forty acres of land! A mule! freedom! votes! equal of white man!”

These measures necessitated turning the entire structure of the old South upside down. The confiscation of the land owned by the big proprietors, its partition and distribution among the landless laborers meant an agrarian revolution. The ballot and freedom of organization meant the transference of political power into Negro hands, especially in states where they were the majority. Ex-slaves on an equal footing with their former owners and taskmasters meant undermining the pyramid of class rule and privilege.

The Northern rulers had different aims, now that they had been lifted to the top by the anti-slavery movement.

The triumphant capitalists wanted to perpetuate their grip upon the national government, increase their control over industry and agriculture, and grab the natural resources. In order to promote this program their political representatives had to maneuver with the other forces in the country. On the right, they had to prevent the revival of the political influence of the Southern planters and their Northern accomplice, the Democratic Party. On the left, they had to curb the demands of the lower classes, North or South. The Republican bourgeoisie was willing to use any of these other classes as tools in the furtherance of its own aims, but was determined to keep them all in a subordinate position.

Most of the Republican leaders had been slow and reluctant to emancipate the slaves; during the Civil War they had tried to keep Negroes in the background and even out of the Union Army. Now that the menace of the Confederacy had been eliminated, the Republican bourgeoisie sought to hold the Negroes in leash, lest they overstep the bounds of bourgeois proprieties.

Thus, in the early part of Reconstruction, the most moderate elements through President Johnson and Secretary of State Seward moved to effect a speedy reconciliation with” the defeated planters and bring them back into the state and national administrations. They sponsored Constitutional Conventions in the Southern States in 1864-1865 toward this end.

Radical and Conservative Republicans

The conservative Republicans sought to hold reconstruction of the seceded states to the minimum without granting even voting rights to the freedmen. Johnson condoned the new Black Codes passed to police and suppress the Negroes, did little to help improve their conditions, and went so far as to veto the Freedmen’s Bureau and Civil Rights Bills. The subservience of the President to the counter-revolution endangered all the fruits, of victory. He was abusing the executive powers swollen by the war to reverse the course of the democratic revolution. Charles Sumner aptly wrote that the Negroes “should have had a Moses as a President; but they found a Pharaoh.”

President Johnson’s reactionary course encountered massive resistance from the people, both North and South, as well as in his own patty. The opponents of Johnson’s conciliatory course did not all have the same attitude toward the Negro struggle and the democratization of the South. The majority of Radical Republican leaders were primarily concerned with preventing the Democratic Party from regaining power in Washington.

Howard N. Beale explains their social motives.

“ Stevens at least was genuinely a radical. He wanted to confiscate planter property and divide it among Negroes. The Republican Party never seriously considered this, because, while it would have served certain party purposes, the majority of Republican leaders and party members had not the least interest in social revolution, even in a distant section. They were men of property who would not endanger the sanctity of property rights for Negroes or poor Southern white men any more than they would divide ownership of their own factories or farms with Northern workingmen. There were sighs of Northern relief when death removed Stevens’ troublesome radicalism. The Negro wanted forty acres and a mule, but his Republican backers had no serious thought of turning political into social and economic revolution.” (“On Rewriting Reconstruction History,” American Historical Review, July 1940.)

The more militant Radical leaders like Stevens and Sumner were the last of the great line of resolute representatives of the revolutionary bourgeoisie, like Cromwell, Robespierre, and Sam Adams. Stevens was a true friend of the Negro all his life, but he also recognized that the interests of capitalist industry could best be promoted by exterminating the slave power root and branch.

Fortunately, the Radicals had control of Congress. Directed by Stevens, Sumner and their colleagues, prodded by the Abolitionists led by Wendell Phillips and Frederick Douglass, and urged onward by the Negro masses, the Radicals set up a Congressional Committee of Fifteen. This Republican Directorate pushed through a series of measures to prolong military rule in the South; exclude the secessionist states until they had been remodeled to their satisfaction; establish regimes which gave the Negroes freedom, the vote, legal and civil rights, and aid through the Freedmen’s Bureau and similar agencies.

At the same time, the efforts of Sumner to get schools and homes and of Stevens to get land for the Negroes were turned down.

The conflict between President Johnson and the Radicals continued through 1867, during which the Radicals failed to impeach Johnson by a single vote in the Senate.

Direct Action by the Masses

While this struggle was going on in the governing circles at Washington, the masses in the South were on the move. Direct action by the insurgent people is the most salient feature of a revolution. The Negroes whose vanguard had fled the plantations to find freedom, who had fought in the Union Armies and were uplifted by the vision of a new world, started to reconstruct the South they longed for.

As early as 1864, free Negroes in the North had held Equal Rights Conventions which were sharply critical of Republican policy and energetically set forth the demands of the Negroes. Southern Negroes began to organize politically as soon as they could.

Beginning with the summer and fall of 1865, Colored People’s Conventions in most Southern states outlined a new Bill of Rights which included repeal of the Black Codes, the right to serve on juries, to vote, to own land, to bear arms, to free public education, etc.

The Negroes did not always wait for sanction or approval of any constituted authorities or laws to secure these rights, especially in regard to the land and the right to bear arms. In a number of areas they seized possession of the plantations, divided the land amongst themselves, and set up their own local forms of administration. On the Sea Islands off Georgia and South Carolina, for example, 40,000 freedmen each took 40 acres of land and worked it on their own account. When the former owners came later to claim their plantations, these new proprietors armed themselves and resisted. Similar expropriations and clashes took place elsewhere, not only between planters and Negroes, but between land-hungry freedmen and Federal troops. Land seizures would have taken place on a far larger scale if the freedmen did not have faith in Republican promises and expected that land would be handed to them as it was to the homesteaders in the West.

At the same time Negro troops held on to their rifles and Negro civilians began to arm themselves. Citizens committees were formed or sprang up spontaneously to guard Negroes from actual or threatened assaults which were not always energetically repulsed by Federal commanders.

The initiative shown by the emancipated Negroes, their rapid overcoming of handicaps and achievements under the Reconstruction governments have been cited by sympathetic observers as evidence that, given equal opportunities, black citizens can prove themselves equal with the whites. It is good of them to recognize this – but there is more to the matter than that. Even Du Bois insists that the freedmen were just ordinary folks, no better and no worse than their white counterparts. This may serve to refute the doctrine of racial inferiority, but it is inadequate for a correct appraisal of the Negro’s role during Reconstruction. Conditions make people as much as people make conditions – and revolutionary upheavals place ordinary human beings in exceptional situations which make unusual demands upon their capacities, call forth greater efforts, and result in remarkable deeds. That was the case with the Southern Negroes. They became the vanguard of the revolutionary forces, not at all because they had been prepared by experience and education to assume that role, but because their social situation and the tasks of the times thrust them, willy-nilly, to the forefront of the mass movement.

The most significant aspect of Negro participation in these events is the fact that, because of their social status as the most exploited and oppressed section of the laboring population, the Negroes and their leaders were compelled to spring farthest forward in seeking satisfaction for their needs and thereby occupied the most advanced political positions and advocated the most progressive proposals.

This highly radical quality was unmistakably clear on the crucial land question, the touchstone of the agrarian revolution. While the Republican bourgeoisie dickered and evaded decision, rejecting Stevens’ proposals, the most audacious Negroes proceeded to settle the issue by taking land and cultivating it. While the Republicans debated how much – or how little – liberty they could safely extend to Negro citizens, the Negroes voiced demands, not only for themselves but for the whole people, for free public education, correction of criminal codes and many other reforms which far outstripped the ideas and intentions of the Northern overlords. Throughout the South Negroes took the lead in establishing and extending the power of the masses and instituting democratic forms of administration.

As the Negroes became more independent and formidable, determined to carry democratization to its limits, they not only terrified the planters but alienated their Northern patrons. Just as the Northern capitalists held down the industrial workers and small producers in the North and West, so they strove to keep in their place the black agricultural toilers of the south. However, so long as they had not settled accounts with the “lords of the lash,” they could not completely ignore the demands raised by the black millions. These masses were a vital force which kept exerting tremendous pressure upon Washington and pushing it forward.

The Conventions of 1867-68, composed of Negro and white delegates, and the state governments issuing from them instituted a new type of government in the South. Describing their remarkable activities in Black Reconstruction, Du Bois incorrectly defines these Radically Reconstructed governments as “dictatorships of labor,” analogous to the Soviet dictatorship of the proletariat.

The Radical governments were dictatorial inasmuch as they were subject to Federal military commanders, rested on the bayonets of the Northern troops, and held down the disfranchised ex-slave holders by direct force. But they were also highly democratic and progressive because they aimed to replace the despotism of the planters with an extension of the power of the people. The main edge of the dictatorship was directed against the ex-slaveholding aristocracy, not against the Negroes; it granted greater rights and freedom to the masses, instead of restricting them; and used force against the privileged, and not for them.

Character of the Governments

However, the central and dominating role in these governments belonged to the bourgeois elements. The plebeian participants were not industrial proletarians but landless agricultural workers who aspired to become small owners and producers. Thus these governments can be more properly characterized as dictatorships of the bourgeoisie, democratically supported by the Negro and white masses, actual potential small farmers.

The Southern revolution was not proletarian in its character or socialist in its aims, as Du Bois believed, but plebeian, petty-bourgeois in its social basis and bourgeois in its tasks. It did not pass beyond the foundations of private ownership, production for the market and capitalist relations. But within the broad framework of these bourgeois relations, the revolution could take on different forms and proceed in different directions, according to the forces and policies that predominated.

While the bourgeoisie debated whether to effect an immediate reunion with the landed aristocrats or to hold back the ex-slaveholders and support the freedmen until their own supremacy was nailed down, the bourgeois-democratic coalition contended over two methods of reconstructing the South. The first was the bourgeois-bureaucratic policy of those Radicals who used the masses as a counter-balance and weapon against the old rulers; the other was the plebeian democratic policy of the Abolitionists and Negroes who wanted to push democratization to the very end through united struggle against all the possessors of privilege. This struggle to determine whether the Southern revolution would be consummated according to the needs of the masses or manipulated, restrained and abated by the big bourgeoisie came to the fore during this period of Reconstruction.

What They Accomplished

The Radical Reconstruction governments had tremendous achievements to their credit which proved what could be done even with the beginnings of unity between the Negro and whites. They registered progress in the field of education and in the tax system, cut down illiteracy, abolished imprisonment for debt, did away with property qualifications for voting or holding office, and instituted other progressive reforms in city, county and state governments. As Du Bois notes: “There was not a single reform movement, a single step toward protest, a single experiment for betterment in which Negroes were not found in varying numbers,” (p.411.)

“The story of the last six years of the period of Reconstruction is one of counter-revolution – a counter-revolution effected under the forms of law where that was possible: effected by secrecy and by guile, where that would serve; effected openly regardless of the forms of law, with violence or- the threat of violence, where that had to be.”

So a recent writer, Ralph Selph Henry, candidly summarizes the last chapter of Reconstruction. And he defends this historical crime in the name of the lesser evil.

“But the counter-revolution was effected, at a cost to the South and its future incalculably great, justified only by the still greater cost of not effecting it.” (The Story of Reconstruction, p.401.)

The growing conservatism of the Republican leaders changed the relation of forces in the South. The white supremacists became considerably bolder, more outspoken, unrestrained, and powerful. They revived the Ku Klux Klan in the form of “White Leagues” and applied naked terror to rob the Negroes of their rights and gains and cow them into submission. For example, in the Mississippi elections of 1875, “nearly all the Democratic Clubs in the state were converted into armed military companies,” wrote John R. Lynch, the colored representative in Congress.

The Negroes put up a stubborn and heroic resistance. But the revolutionary coalition grew weaker and within its ranks disintegration, demoralization and disillusionment set in. There was a series of splits within the Republican Party.

This process was crowned in 1876 by the deal between the managers of the Republican Party and the Democrats through which Hayes was permitted to assume the Presidency in return for acquiescence in the restoration of white supremacy to the South. Two important lessons flow from this sketch of Reconstruction. One pertains to the relations between democracy and dictatorship; the other concerns the role of the capitalist rulers of the United States.

(1.) It is customary to counterpose the bare abstractions of democracy to dictatorship as though these two forms of rule were everywhere and under all conditions irreconcilable opposites. Reconstruction demonstrates that reality is more complex. The slaveholders’ despotism smashed by the Civil War was utterly reactionary; so was the Bourbon-bourgeois autocracy which has dominated the South since the restoration of white supremacy, although both these dictatorships- tried to disguise themselves behind democratic forms.

On the other hand, the bourgeois-military dictatorship backed by the masses which dominated the South at the flood-tide of the revolution was the shield and support of democracy, the indispensable form of the people’s rule. It is an indisputable historical fact that the only time Negroes have ever enjoyed democracy in the South and effectively participated in its political and social life was under the bayonets of the Federal armies and under the protection of their own organized defense forces.

(2.) Nowadays the Trumanites advise the Negroes to look toward the liberal capitalists and their political agents in Washington for equality. Much disillusionment in regard to the current civil rights struggle might have been avoided if the following lesson of Reconstruction had been known and assimilated. If the Northern capitalists feared and failed to give real equality and enduring freedom to the Negroes during their progressive days in the’mid-19th century, how then can the present imperialist autocrats at Washington be expected to grant them in the middle of the 20th century when Big Business not only tyrannizes over the South but has become the foremost foe of the liberties of the entire people at home and on a world scale?

Last updated on: 12 April 2009