Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Carl Davidson

In Defense of the Right to Self-Determination


The correct starting point for determining a revolutionary line on the Afro-American question is to apply the method of dialectical and historical materialism to the concrete conditions in the U.S.

It begins by pointing out the existence of the Black people’s struggle and the American workers’ movement as the two main components of the class struggle in the U.S. Exploited and oppressed by the same monopoly capitalist ruling class, these two forces have common interests and a common objective in defeating imperialism. Thus they are bound to merge in the course of socialist revolution.

Class struggle, however, does not proceed in a straight line, either in its past history or in its future development. It follows a tortuous road, full of advances and reversals, with revolution and then counterrevolution gaining the upper hand.

“Make trouble, fail, make trouble again, fail again.. .till their doom; that is the logic of the imperialists and all reactionaries the world over in dealing with the people’s cause and they will never go against this logic. This is a Marxist law.. . “Fight, fail, fight again, fail again, fight again.. .till their victory; that is the logic of the people, and they too will never go against this logic. This is another Marxist law.” (Mao Tsetung: “Cast Away Illusions, Prepare for Struggle.”)

The U.S. workers’ movement and the Black people’s movement are no exceptions to this process. They have been both relatively united and divided at various times. The periods of unity have been mainly marked by great social progress for the people and retreat by the ruling classes, while disunity has brought with it retrogression and setbacks for the masses and renewed attacks by the exploiters. Thus the division of these two movements must be grasped as a negative aspect of the objective conditions underlying the Black national question.

The contemporary struggles and conditions of the U.S. workers and Afro-American people are also a continuation and development of their past struggles against exploitation and oppression. Examining this history will reveal more clearly the special features of the present and the requirements for political advances, especially if class struggle is seen as the key link in spotlighting the lessons of the past.

Africans were brought to this country in chains. About 15 million were stolen, bought or otherwise forcibly seized from various African tribes over a period of several centuries. The U.S. was the biggest market for this human cargo, much of which perished en route, and the trade supplied enormous profits to its perpetrators.


But slavery in the early history of the U.S. was not the condition of Blacks alone nor were the ranks of “free” labor open only to whites. There were white bondservants whose term of service to their masters was life and there were African laborers who were “free” to sell their labor power or services to the highest bidder. While most slaves were African and most bondservants were European, it is important to note that significant numbers of each shared the other’s conditions and that Africans were not the only ones with nothing but their chains to lose in struggle against the exploiters.

European and African labor – slave, bondservant and artisan – worked together, intermarried, ran away together, conspired and rose up in armed rebellion together –all in all making common cause in the class struggle.

The colonial masters, for their part, were required to maintain this labor in chains to develop the new world for their profit. Without special conditions of bondage, propertyless laborers, once here, would soon strike out on their own to work the vast expanses of land for themselves. The “productive forces” of Europe and Africa, chiefly their labor power, could be imported to the new world. But the old world’s “social relations” could not be wholly transported or, to the extent that they were, they were inadequate to enforce the domination of the ruling classes.

The joint struggle of African and European bondservants and slaves, however, especially at the high point of Bacon’s Rebellion in 1677, demonstrated to the exploiting classes that bondage imposed by force of arms alone was not enough to secure their rule. An additional political solution was required: the drawing of the color line between European and African labor.

The process took the colonialist ruling classes over 40 years to complete, beginning in 1622 with laws restricting intermarriage between Africans and Europeans and ending in 1705 with a law declaring, in effect, that all Africans coming into the country were slaves. Concurrently, while many Europeans still came into the country as limited-term bondservants, the same step-by-step process excluded them and their descendants from perpetual and hereditary slavery. (See “Class Struggle and the Origin of Racial Slavery” by Ted Allen in the May-June 1975 Radical America.)

The purpose of the color line was clear enough. The militia and slave patrols needed to suppress slave insurrections had to be recruited from the ranks of poor whites, since neither the upper classes themselves nor troops from abroad were adequate to the task.

All this is to indicate that racial slavery neither appeared arbitrarily or fully formed on the soil of the new world, nor was it the product of “innate racism” among Europeans. Instead it was required by the dictates of profit and developed through the process of class struggle. Slavery was both maintained and expanded, then, by creating a distinction of oppressor and oppressed within the ranks of the European and African laboring masses.

This set back their struggle and depressed the conditions of both. For whatever of the oppressor’s prerogatives the poor whites had in relation to Blacks–from whom they were now alienated after having so recently made common cause–the expansion of slavery meant they were kept in bondage as well. True, he was “free” to sell his labor power, but what price would it bring when slave labor was being auctioned on the block? Likewise he was “free” to acquire land, but was the worth of that which remained after the slaveowners had expanded their domains? Karl Marx and the rest of the leadership of the First International later summed up the situation this way in an 1865 letter to Abraham Lincoln:

“While the workingmen, the true political power of the North, allowed slavery to defile their own republic; while before the Negro, mastered and sold without his concurrence, they boasted it the highest prerogative of the white-skinned laborer to sell himself and choose his own master; they were unable to attain the true freedom of labor. . . ”

To be sure, the conditions of the poor whites were miserable. In the early colonial period it is estimated that between 50-75% of white servants perished before having a chance for independent survival. But slavery was even worse, especially as it developed in the Deep South. Here it was described by Karl Marx as a “barbaric horror” and featured the compulsory working-to-death of field hands in an average of seven years.

But this setback for the working masses, both enslaved African and “free” European, signaled the advance of their opposites: slave and merchant capital. These two groups together comprised the core of the rising American bourgeoisie. It was a class divided, at first colluding within itself in reaping the profits of the slave trade and the exploitation of the poor white farmers and laborers, but later contending within itself over which social system was to be the rule in the U.S.–slavery or free labor.


In this regard it is necessary to indicate at this point what was truly peculiar about the “peculiar institution” of slavery as it developed in the U.S. Contrary to the position put forward in the pages of the Guardian recently, neither the major antebellum American slaveowners nor the post-Reconstruction “feudal plantation owners” constituted a precapitalist class separate from the U.S. bourgeoisie.

For slavery in the U.S. was not similar in its most essential aspects to either patriarchal slavery of antiquity or to the feudal manor of the Middle Ages, although it borrowed important features from both. From the first it took physical enslavement and from the second the inheritance regulations for keeping plantations under one family’s rule. But in terms of what was produced and for whom, it was quite different. Rather than producing articles for the individual consumption and use of the master or lord, as with ancient slavery or feudalism, slaves in the U.S. mainly produced commodities, exchange values for the capitalist world market that in turn accumulated surplus value for the slaveowner.

“Those who carry on their own businesses with Negro slaves,” said Karl Marx in his “Theories of Surplus Value,” “are capitalists.” He explained this point further in Volume 3 of “Capital”:

“In this case,” said Marx, “the landowner and the owner of the instruments of production, and thus the direct exploiters of the laborers counted among these instruments of production, are one and the same person. Rent and profit likewise coincide then, there being no separation of the different forms of surplus value. The entire surplus labor of workers, which is here represented by the surplus product, is extracted from them directly by the owner of all the instruments of production to which the land and, under the original form of slavery, the producers themselves belong. When capitalist conceptions predominate, as they did upon the American plantations, this entire surplus value is regarded as profit.”

While Marx allows that slavery in the colonial period prior to the rise in the cotton trade was “more or less patriarchal” when it was “chiefly directed to immediate local consumption,” he is likewise clear as to its general trend. As he states in The Poverty of Philosophy:

“Direct slavery is just as much the pivot of bourgeois industry as machinery, credits, etc. Without slavery you have no cotton; without cotton you have no modern industry. It is slavery that has given the colonies their values; it is the colonies that have created world trade and it is world trade that is the precondition of large-scale industry. Thus slavery is an economic category of the greatest importance.” “In fact,” he added in “Capital,” “the veiled slavery of the wage workers in Europe needed for its pedestal, slavery pure and simple in the new world.”


The new world, however, was soon to rise up against the old. While slavery made possible England’s industrialization, it also gave birth to a class that strained under England’s colonial fetters. Slaveowner and merchant were thus able to unite, not only between themselves but also with the masses, in throwing off the colonial yoke. In doing so, however, they once again saw the Black and white masses begin to make common cause. “All men are created equal” stood in stark contrast to chattel slavery and the bourgeois revolution begun in 1776 saw the abolition of slavery in the North and Northwest.

Once again, however, the ruling class, despite the growing contention between slaveowner and merchant, saw a threat to its rule. And once again the two groups reaffirmed the color line in a Constitution that both upheld the Bill of Rights for whites while preserving the slave plantations and the status of “three-fifths of a man” for Blacks in the South.

The bourgeois revolution was thus stopped in its tracks. The new nation at its birth had denied citizenship to the Black masses and harbored within its bosom an “irrepressible conflict” which was bound to lead to an even greater revolutionary upheaval.