MIA: History: ETOL: Documents: International Communist League/Spartacists—Fraser

Fraser and American Scholarship
on the Black Question

by  David Dreiser

Written: 1990
Source: Prometheus Research Library, New York.
Transcription/Markup/Proofing: John Heckman, Prometheus Research Library
Public Domain: Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line 2006/Prometheus Research Library. You can freely copy, display and otherwise distribute this work. Please credit the Marxists Internet Archive & Prometheus Research Library as your source, include the url to this work, and note the transcribers & editors above.

Academic scholarship regarding U.S. history has gone through several phases. After the failure of Reconstruction, scholarship went through a very reactionary period. Beginning in the 1890’s, William Dunning of Columbia and a host of his students spread the view that Reconstruction was the shame of U.S. history and represented military despotism, the evil of “Africanization,” and unrestrained corruption against which a noble but defeated South tried to defend itself. Claude Bowers’ The Tragic Era (1929) was the most influential work of this ilk.

Ulrich Phillips presented a view of slavery as relatively benign. Slaves were well treated and well fed, and the system was productive. Justin Smith presented a view of the Mexican War in which the arrogant Mexicans were totally to blame. These reactionary and pro-Southern views of U.S. history dominated the academies and formed the basis for the teaching of U.S. history in high schools and universities for decades following.

The Civil War was regarded as some terrible mistake in which the issue of slavery was minor. Abolitionists had been self-seeking rabble-rousers whose comments on slavery and the politics of their day can be ignored. The defamation of the radical Republicans, Charles Sumner, Thaddeus Stevens, etc., as power mad psychotics became a cottage industry.

Even in those days there were other voices. In 1913 John R. Lynch, former slave and later congressman from Mississippi, wrote The Facts of Reconstruction in which he tried to tell some truth, but his excellent work was lost in a sea of racist “scholarship.” A few words from the introduction to a reprint of his book are instructive:

“These scholars contended that the Reconstruction governments in the South were controlled by base, power-hungry carpetbaggers and scalawags who cynically used the newly enfranchised blacks to gain power and to sustain their debauchery in office. Without the votes of naive and illiterate Negroes, who were easily led to the polls to vote the Radical ticket, these scoundrels would never have had an opportunity in any of the states to plunder the public treasuries and incite blacks against whites, according to the Dunning-school historians.

“Therefore the fundamental mistake in the Radical or congressional plan of Reconstruction was the enfranchisement of the freedmen. Happily, however, according to the established version of the story, during the mid-1870’s decent whites in both sections of the nation rose in indignation over the spoliation of the Southern states, and through the heroic efforts of local Democrats the Radical Republican regimes were overthrown and good government restored.”

After 1960 a new wind blew in the colleges and a number of honest scholars began to chip away at the mountain of pro-Southern reactionary propaganda that still dominated. C. Vann Woodward, Eugene D. Genovese and James M. McPherson are prominent. Other outstanding names are Kenneth Stampp, George Fredrickson and Herbert Gutman, not to mention John Hope Franklin, A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr., Henrietta Buckmaster, and other black scholars.

So what is missing? Hasn’t everything been straightened out? I don’t believe so. Let’s take the issue of the nature of slavery. In 1974 a Harvard scholar, Robert Fogel, wrote Time On the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery, a study of slavery based on “cliometrics” which is a computerized technique of examining statistical data. Fogel concluded that slave labor was more efficient than free labor and hence more productive. The slaves were well off and better fed than free workers in the North. Fogel has written a new work in 1989 expanding on this theme. C. Vann Woodward has reviewed Fogel’s new book and seems at a loss to know how to criticize it even if he seems uncomfortable with Fogel’s conclusions.

In the meantime, Fogel and his new toy, cliometrics, are the rage in academic circles and a new generation of scholars using the technique are collecting their PhDs at Harvard and are fanning out around the country. I asked a Harvard history student if the slaves’ own view of slavery might not paint a different picture of how well off they were. Patiently he explained to me that the slaves’ stories were largely taken down by abolitionists, and of course nothing they wrote can be believed! How, one might ask, could the words of slaves hold up to data manipulated by a computer? One might also ask in studying the Holocaust if it would be permissible to consider the recollections of the survivors, whose views would obviously be biased, or only the views of the guards and administrators who ran the camps?

Thirty years of new scholarship haven’t had much effect on the views of history taught in our schools, although there has been some correction. For instance, students of Mexican history at Stanford U. are now taught that the Mexican War was started with an unprovoked attack by U.S. forces ordered by President Polk. Well, that’s true, but it is not enough. What were the class forces that caused the Mexican War? The new scholars not only fail to answer such questions, but consider such a question improper.

The best academic scholars are committed to a view of history that regards any kind of economic determinism as quaint. History is regarded basically as narrative. There was no bourgeois revolution in England. The French Revolution had many causes, but it was not a clash between class forces. The view that struggles between classes is a determining factor in history is Marxist fantasy. In fact in the sense that Marx meant, there are no classes.

This crass empiricism did not always dominate U.S. scholarship. There used to be at least a counter-current of materialism that had legitimacy as in Charles Beard’s day. But, if anything, methodology has deteriorated since then. For instance, Kenneth Stampp has written The Era of Reconstruction, 1865-1877 (1965) as a total revision of the Dunning school. His work is excellent in many ways, but he says, “DuBois’s attempt at a full-scale revisionist study, Black Reconstruction (New York, 1935), is disappointing. Though rich in empirical detail, the book presents a Marxian interpretation of southern reconstruction as a proletarian movement that is at best naive. The Marxist historian James S. Allen in Reconstruction: The Battle for Democracy, 1865-1876 (New York, 1937) offers an interpretation that is more credible but equally schematic.”

It is no longer necessary to refute Marxism which is simply dismissed as naive, quaint and schematic. In spite of this I believe a thorough class analysis has been written regarding Reconstruction by Eric Foner. His Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877 (1988) is Marxist in content if not in name and meets the most strict demands of scholarship.

Who has spoken in like voice for the antebellum period? Dick felt no one has, that is no one lately. Charles Beard was accused of being a Marxist in his economic interpretation of the Constitution, but he replied that if so, then so was James Madison from whom he drew much of his “economic” view. In like manner Dick’s and my view of the period between say 1776 and 1860 is drawn very largely from Horace Greeley, Charles Sumner, John A. Logan (The Great Conspiracy: Its Origin and History [1885]), Henry Wilson, Benjamin Lundy (The War in Texas [1836]) and other radical Republicans and abolitionists. I submit that their penetrating analyses of the events of their day have never been refuted, but have been dismissed and forgotten.

Even today the abolitionists are regarded in scholarly circles with great suspicion. People committed to a cause cannot be objective observers or commentators, it is said. Black scholars have largely tackled the issue of restoring the role of slaves and black leaders to proper perspective. A class analysis has largely been absent. In a sense Dick wanted to restore the views and scholarship of the radicals of those days. That is not an unworthy purpose.

A brief word about “revisionism” may be needed. Kenneth Stampp regards himself and other post-1960 liberal scholars as revisionists, that is compared with the Dunning school. But, Dunning a generation before had considered himself a revisionist of the views of the mid-19th century. Robert Fogel might be called a new revisionist of the revisionists of the revisionists. I think it is better not to use the term.

I know that a lot of “Marxists” in our movement have tended to take scholarship lightly. Substituting theory for research, they generalize at the drop of a hat. However, it is not always necessary for research to be original to be used in a valid general analysis. For instance Edward Diener is a U. of Illinois scholar who wrote a commentary on U.S. history (Reinterpreting U.S. History [1975]). The book is not annotated and makes no pretense of original scholarship. His book just expresses a point of view which is an altogether legitimate practice. His view happens to be fairly conservative. Dick wanted to make reasonable use of available scholarship to express a point of view about U.S. history.

Briefly, Dick’s view was that after the invention of the cotton gin the slave system took on new life and the compromise between the planters and the merchant capitalists in the North and expressed in the U.S. Constitution fell apart. The planters wanted state power for themselves, and effectively won it with the election of Andrew Jackson. In the main, they controlled the presidency and Congress from then until 1860. Their power was based on a class alliance between themselves and the free farmers of the North who had similar interests on some questions such as soft money and low tariffs.

This alliance operated to stunt the growth of capitalism. The power of the planters was expressed through their control of the Democratic Party. The Whig “opposition” was about as effective as the Democratic opposition to the Republicans today. The subservience of the Whigs gave the planters effective state power.

When the abolitionists spoke of the Slave Power they were not being inflammatory but analytical.

The Republican Party was a revolutionary party which led the nation through the Civil War to an overthrow of planter power and the ascendency of the capitalist state. The failure of that social revolution to proceed through Reconstruction to a resolution of the land question in the South by giving land and the franchise to the freedmen set the stage for the racist nation we have inherited.

Dick would have wanted to cover a broad sweep going on to the aftermath of Reconstruction, but that is all over with his passing. But, certainly it is appropriate to finish his beginning treatment covering the ascendency of the Slave Power.

I further believe that the best of current academic scholars have not told Dick’s story. They have made a major effort to reduce the blatant racism that dominated the academies for 80 years, but in method, empiricism is today more dominant in the study of history than ever before.

David Dreiser
16 April 1990