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Colin Barker

In Red and Black

(May 1973)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.58, May 1973, p.26.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

In Red and Black: Marxian Explorations in Southern and Afro-American History
Eugene D. Genovese
Vintage/Wildwood House, £1.25

The emergence of a revolutionary movement among American Negroes has been one of the most important developments of the post-war world. The struggles of Negro people in the United States have simultaneously revealed the depth of the crisis of American capitalism and opened a path to the recreation of a revolutionary socialist movement. To socialists everywhere, the American Negro experience is of exceptional significance. American capitalism has proved incapable of overcoming domestic racism of the most vicious kind. Not only did the growth of European capitalism depend on the slave trade and on slave cotton production, but the victory of the Northern bourgeoisie over the South in the Civil War and afterwards, and the development of American imperialism, were deeply bound up with the spread of racist segregation and lynch law in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The twentieth century migration of Negro workers out of the South to the Northern cities, exposed the inability of a society plagued with unemployment, slum housing, and a narrow right-wing labour movement to ‘integrate’ black workers.

The American Negro experience has fused ‘class’ and ‘nation’. While the inherent contradictions of American society can be overcome only by a mass working-class socialist movement, the absence of such a movement, the deeply entrenched racism of South and North alike, have given the Negro people of the United States a deep sense – derived from long and very bitter experience – of their own national and cultural identity.

This sense of national identity has manifested itself in every major mass movement of American Negroes, both in the passive and accomodationist policies of the followers of Booker T. Washington and in the militant stance of the Muslims, the Black Power and Panther movements. At the same time, the American Negro is inescapably American: within the framework of contemporary state monopoly capitalism, the Negro ‘national question’ is incapable of resolution in national terms.

A separate Negro economy, even if it could be established, could not avoid being a semi-colonial client of American capitalism. American culture as a whole is incomprehensible without the enormous Negro contribution in every sphere of life. Yet no socialist can deny the relevance of ‘national’ or ‘black’ consciousness to the Negro experience, nor the vital role that ‘Black Power’ and similar ideologies have played in the development of Negro self-awareness and self-confidence.

This collection of essays by Professor Genovese is generally very fine. Genovese, author of The Political Economy of Slavery (1965) and The World the Slaveholders Made (1969), gives us here a set of writings characterised by its sensitive and undogmatic approach to Marxist analysis. Several essays take issue – sharply, and yet exactly from the vantage of fundamental solidarity – with some theoretical approaches of Black Power intellectuals. Genovese offers a spirited defence of the white Southern novelist William Styron’s Confessions of Nat Turner, which deals with an historical slave uprising, insisting that the Negro people cannot be free without an accurate understanding of their real past history, not some essentially mythical history in which every struggling Negro was automatically either an Uncle Tom or a saint of the revolution.

Above all, every revolutionary movement needs the truth, not a romantic and sentimental account. Thus the exceptional essay, American Slaves and their History, explains at one and the same time – through a marvellously close and imaginative recreation of the social world of the plantation – why slave revolts were not widespread in the South and yet how in practice the Negro slaves did struggle, individually and collectively, against the slave-owners’ oppression and shaped the very world of the Southern gentry.

The book is also impressive in its principled assertion of the vital necessity of revolutionary socialist politics in America. Genovese reacts sharply and properly against that ‘radical’ version of paternalism that puts the Negro at the centre of the struggle for a socialist America and panders uncritically to him, and that does not centre its politics on the need for a white working-class socialist movement.

It may be that American comrades will complain to us about Genovese as a practical socialist – the book reveals little of that aspect. But it would be nice to think that there are many in the black and socialist movements in the United States who call the author of this fine book, comrade. In any case, Genovese deserves to be widely read.

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