Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Carl Davidson

In Defense of the Right to Self-Determination


The time was fast approaching when the first should be last and the last should be first. –Nat Turner, commenting on the three years before the Black slave insurrection he led in 1831.

Set fire to the city. . . By doing so we poor whites can get work, as well as slaves or colored.. . So push on, boys, push on. –Williamson Mann, conspiring in a letter to a Black slave friend at the time and in the area of Turner’s insurrection.

The first 100 years of American political life turned on the question of slavery and the struggle to abolish it.

Every class, stratum and section of the country was drawn into the battle and compelled to line up on one side or the other, revealing their various strengths and weaknesses and finally settling the matter by force of arms.

The revolution reached its peak in the latter years of the Civil War and the attempt to consolidate its gains in Reconstruction. Old and new reactionary forces, however, reunited and reasserted themselves in the counterrevolution of 1876, an event which sealed in blood the development of two nations on American soil: a dominant imperialist oppressor nation and an oppressed nation of Afro-Americans in the Deep South.

How did this happen? What factors compelled a rising American industrial bourgeoisie first to fight against slavery and then to betray its promise of creating one nation with liberty for all?

At the heart of the “irrepressible conflict” was the struggle of the slaves themselves. Whether by running away, feigning illness, destroying tools and crops, organizing slowdowns and strikes, poisoning food or engaging in arson and armed insurrection, Afro-Americans persistently and repeatedly fought to throw off the yoke of their masters.


This resistance presented the slaveowners with a dilemma. On the one hand the “inefficiency” of slave labor required its concentration on large, fertile and militarized plantations in order to secure sufficient profits. On the other hand the rapid exhaustion of the soil and the growth of the Black population relative to whites that followed from this method of production forced the slaveowners constantly to disperse and expand into new territory, first throughout the rich land of the Black Belt and later further West. “Intensive cultivation,” wrote Karl Marx in 1861, “which depends less on the fertility of the soil than on investment of capital, intelligence and energy of labor, is contrary to the nature of slavery.” The slave system, then, initially required by capital to set in motion its plunder of the new world, at a later stage turned into a retrogressive force, a fetter on capital’s further development, since the latter required free labor as its basis.

This meant that slavery was both expansionist and ruinous at the same time. It placed the slaveowners in conflict with various classes and strata throughout the country. Their most direct enemy, apart from the slaves themselves, were the free Blacks, whose very existence stood as a refutation of racial slavery.

The free Blacks’ ranks were expanded by those slaves who bought, fought or stole their way to freedom. Contrary to the position argued in the Guardian recently, it is not true that “until the Civil War, 99% of Blacks in America were slaves; that is, they were a definite social class.”

Slaves were a definite social class, but “99% of Blacks” were not slaves. In the pre-Civil War decades, about one out of eight Blacks, or 12%, were free and in 1860 about 5% of Blacks living in the South were free. Among free Blacks there were also various classes and strata. Most were laborers and small farmers, but they also included businessmen, intellectuals, artisans and even a small number who owned slaves themselves. Among the slaves, there was also a division of labor, the basic line being between “house” and “field” slaves. Out of the former the masters recruited a network of spies, paying them for their services and enabling some to buy their freedom. Out of the latter were recruited gangs of laborers hired out to work in mines, build railroads and produce in small factories. From these, as well as Black labor, came the leaders of many slave rebellions. (See William Z. Foster, “The Negro People in American History.”)

Why is it important not to view Afro-Americans in this period simply as an undifferentiated mass of chattel slaves? There are two main reasons. First, because it covers over the vanguard political role of free Blacks in the antislavery struggle. Second, because it covers over the beginning process of class differentiation leading to the development of Afro-Americans as an oppressed nation, rather than simply as a subjugated class.

It is likewise important to view the initial development of a common Afro-American language and culture in this period from the viewpoint of struggle between slaves and their masters. Contrary to the view argued in the Guardian recently, the fact that Blacks came to speak English is neither “relatively unimportant” nor a factor in their national development only in “an abstract, metaphysical way’.”

Africans come to this country speaking the languages, unknown to their owners, of different tribes. While many could not communicate with each other, those who could used the slaveowners’ ignorance of their tribal tongues to plot escapes and rebellions. The slaveowners in turn suppressed this by separating slaves of the same language group and compelling all to speak English. Even this was adapted as a special dialect to confuse the masters. Once some slaves became literate in the new tongue, they made use of it to make antislavery propaganda in writing. The slaveowners again retaliated by outlawing the teaching of reading and writing to slaves. Thus began the development of Afro-American culture, with its oral tradition, as a distinct product of both oppression and resistance.


The Black people, free and slave, did not long stand alone in their struggle. The growth of the slave system placed the slaveowners in sharp conflict with the mass of impoverished whites, whose ranks it constantly expanded and whose desire for “free soil” it constantly thwarted. While some poor whites were compelled or bought into the slave patrols, often with the vain hope that they could “work their way up” to owning slaves themselves, many more hated the slaveowners and acted accordingly. With increasing frequency in the two decades prior to the Civil War, slave conspiracies and rebellions in the South included poor whites as well. The ferocious repression that followed in their wake recorded many instances of slave, free Black and poor white hanging together on the same gallows.

These are some of the key objective and subjective conditions that facilitated the growth of a mass antislavery movement in the U.S. Spearheaded by the free Blacks and the Negro Convention movement, hundreds of thousands of white workers, farmers, women, intellectuals and small businessmen mobilized throughout the North and Northwest under the banners of free soil and abolitionism. In the West armed conflict broke out between pro- and anti-slavery forces over whether new territories would enter the union as slave or free states. This latter question was viewed as critical in Washington in the contention between slave and merchant capital over who would control the government.

The growing power of the slaveowners had seen them control the presidency, the Supreme Court and half of the Senate. Merchant capital had come to dominate the House, mainly due to the population growth in the Northwest. Thus the outcome of a battle over whether a new state was slave or free could tip the balance either way.


What was the role of merchant capital on the slavery question? The struggle revealed its ambivalence and conflicting interests. On the one hand they were united with the slaveowners as capitalists in protecting private property, even slaves. On the other hand the growth of their private property in industry required free labor as its basis. In New York the bankers involved in the foreign cotton trade were proslavery, even through the Civil War. Others whose future was bound up in the domestic market, especially in the West, opposed the expansion of slavery outside the South.

Thus the main tendency of merchant capital was to try to compromise with slave capital. They offered it one concession after another and, with a few exceptions, joined with the slaveowners in suppressing the abolitionist movement.

But slave capital knew no such ambivalence. They could not accept any compromise since they had to expand or die. In their view the entire continent had to become a Slave Republic. They knew they could not coexist with free labor and some even aimed at dropping the color line in slavery by enslaving white labor as well, even in industry.

“The struggle is one for ascendency,” declared Frederick Douglass in the 1850s. “Slavery aims at absolute sway, and to banish liberty from the republic. It would drive out the schoolmaster, and install the slavedriver, burn the schoolhouse and erect the whipping post, prohibit the Holy Bible and establish the bloody code, dishonor free labor with its hope of reward, and establish slave labor with its dread of the lash.”

The slaveocracy launched its armed bid for total power when, with the election of Lincoln, they saw the White House pass from their hands. Now northern capital had to defend itself or be crushed. It entered the war weakened by division into three factions: the reactionary New York-based “Copperheads” who sought capitulation; the Lincoln centrists who sought to preserve the Union with slavery intact; and the Radicals who sought to wage the war by revolutionary means of freeing and arming the slaves. While Lincoln’s centrist view initially predominated, both Confederate victories and the demands of the antislavery masses compelled him to shift to the left, adopting the line of the Radicals and suppressing the political activity of the Copperheads.

This struck at the heart of the slaveowner’s power. Despite their arrogance, they faced an internal crisis. As the slave leader Scipio put it: “When dey fight de Norf wid de right hand, deyll hev to hold de ’nigga’ wid de leff.”

They could not hold on. The Civil War saw the greatest slave insurrection of all. In tens of thousands, year after year, Black slaves struck the plantations, headed for the Union lines and demanded and won the right to bear arms against their former masters. Poor whites pressed into the Confederate army likewise deserted in the thousands, with many either joining the Union ranks or linking up with runaway slaves in the swamps and fighting guerrilla battles deep in Confederate territory.

The slaveowner’s power was thus broken militarily. With the Radicals temporarily dominant in Congress and with an army composed mainly of white workers, farmers and Black ex-slaves occupying the South, the question posed in 1865 was whether the bourgeois revolution would be carried through to the end politically and economically. It demanded equality and full democratic rights for Blacks and the overthrow of the plantation owners through agrarian revolution. The Black and white masses needed, in brief: rifles, the ballot, 40 acres and a mule.


The next decade saw a noble effort and a tragic defeat in the struggle to secure these aims. On the one hand the rise of the Reconstruction governments in the South represented an alliance of revolutionary classes, led by the Radicals in Congress. On the other hand they were contested by a reactionary alliance of the planter-organized Ku Klux Klan in the South and the Copperhead bankers in the North. In several states governments of both types existed side by side for a time in a state of armed conflict, with one or the other having the upper hand.

Reaction won out in the end. It was facilitated by the fact that the same war that had changed slaves into freedmen had likewise changed the U.S. bourgeoisie. Bank capital and industrial capital-vastly expanded, concentrated and fattened by war production and profits-had begun their merger into monopolies and finance capital. The latter was now ascendant and it needed to isolate the Radicals and to break the resistance of workers and farmers, Black and white, to its plunder.

This required the smashing of Reconstruction and the consequent restoration of the former slaveowners, whose bourgeois nature facilitated their “redemption,” to use the term of the time, in the subordinate form of landed capital rather than as antagonistic slave capital. The possibility of agrarian revolution was thus foreclosed and Northern monopoly was guaranteed a reliable local ally in the planter class.

The mechanism needed to defeat Reconstruction was white supremacy from within and the unrestricted terror of the Klan from without. It was accomplished through the contested presidential election of 1876, where Rutherford B. Hayes was given the White House in exchange for the final withdrawal of Union troops from the South.

The counterrevolution was thus unleashed. Poor whites and Blacks still fought a heroic but losing battle to maintain their gains. For a few years the Klan lynched as many poor whites as Blacks in order to consolidate planter rule. It took at least a decade more to resurrect the old slave codes in the new form of Jim Crow laws, adding the yoke of national oppression to the class exploitation of the Black masses in the South.

In this process U.S. imperialism and an oppressed Black nation were constituted side by side on the stage of history. The two had opposing fates, however, as the U.S. bourgeoisie had failed to heed the prophetic demand and warning made by Karl Marx in 1865:

“Declare your fellow citizens from this day forth free and equal. If you refuse them citizen’s rights, while you exact from them citizen’s duties, you will sooner or later face a new struggle which will once more drench your country in blood.”