The key to the unity of the working class within itself, and with its allies among all the oppressed as well
The socialist left in the United States is currently in a phase of expansion. However, it is expanding with separations between organizations that are largely composed of the young white precariat on one hand, and Black and Indigenous peoples and other people of color, on the other.
This is neither new nor a secret. This separation has existed in varying degrees for at least the last 50 years. It has existed within the lifeworlds of most of us from the 1968 New Left generation to Millennials in the Next Left generation.
It doesn’t have to continue this way. None of us want to remain separated. If we all confess an urgency to change, I am convinced that this separation can be bridged. It can be done. I am also convinced that it will require some deep reflection on who we are as a people, and what we have become as a country. That task requires us to start at the beginning and consider the root of the problem.
‘Going to the root’ has always been the core meaning of radical. And what is demanded of us is indeed a radical rupture with the way many of us have understood ourselves up until now. It may seem easy, but it is not. Making this break requires a difficult and protracted mental shift from all of us.
To put it briefly, we have to change the viewpoint from which we understand the United States. We must reconsider our understanding of our place and role within American national narratives. Most of us are shaped by the narrative taught in our schools. It is one that is told from the viewpoint of the European explorer and settler. This narrative creates settler eyes behind our eyes. From the viewpoint of Columbus or his crew, we see exotic peoples we call ‘Indians’ and search for their hidden treasures or ponder how we might make them work for us. If Columbus is not used, it is Cortez, or Pizarro, or Ponce de Leon. Lest we forget, we are reminded of them all the time by holidays, street names and monuments.
To create the settler eyes behind our eyes many start with the Pilgrims and Puritans: the military adventurers, gentlemen, and servants of the Jamestown colony. Others may start with Dutch traders, landlords, and servants in New Amsterdam and the Hudson Valley. Still others begin with Quaker shopkeepers, German farmers, or Scots-Irish ‘Pioneers’ in Appalachia. We may find our own family histories among these settlers or among others that came later, driven here by famine or war. In all of these narratives we will find risk, failure, suffering, success, exploitation and persistence in trying to find a means to survive and thrive in a strange New World. This would still be wrong.
So what change do we have to make in order to set these narratives aside? What must we do in order to place them on a shelf in the background? To put it simply, we have to shift our initial viewpoint to that of the expropriated, the native peoples, and the enslaved. We will soon add the viewpoint of the exploited, but this must be our starting place.
We must start here because that is how our capitalism begins. Even though we make regular use of abstract generalizations to explain and understand its inner workings, capitalism never develops in general. Different types of capitalism always develop in some place, at some time, and in some given circumstances. These characteristics can vary widely. For example, In England and Wales capitalism begins with the enclosure movement. Most of the tenant farmers of a given manor are evicted during the lord’s expropriation of the commons on his estate. This allowed for larger, open fields for the grazing of sheep and cattle. The resulting increase in wool made for the growth of supply for woolen textile mills. At the same time, the expulsion of larger numbers of former tenants created a property-less mass of rural beggars headed to the towns. They sought work in the mills, selling the only thing they had: their labor power. In this case expropriation of land from tenant farmers and the exploitation of a newly created industrial wage-earning proletariat was created with nearly the same stroke of violent class robbery.
The capitalism in British North America began differently. American capitalism began as ‘war capitalism’, best described in Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton. First, settler militias simply expropriated the lands occupied by the Native Peoples. Settlers declared them subhuman devils for extermination by sword, guns or disease. The initial settler-colonists then tried to import labor from the prisons or landless paupers from Europe, bringing them in as indentured servants. This worked, but not on a large enough scale. They turned to the wholesale expropriation of unfree labor from Africa, working them as prisoners without wages or allotments. The slave owners with their prison camps euphemistically called plantations were indeed capitalists. Despite the lack of a wage, unfree labor produced commodities such as tobacco, rice, sugar, and cotton for profit in the world markets. Slave owners used these profits to seize more land and unfree African laborers. This created further spiraling cycles of misery, death and profit.
The key early problem of the master class was putting down the common rebellions of toilers—free, indentured or enslaved. They solved it by drawing a ‘color line’ of social control between those expropriated, enslaved and exploited, nearly always with darker skins, and those simply exploited, imported from Europe. The former would nearly always be subjects, while the latter were on a path to citizenship. This two-tiered status of advantage and disadvantage, took dozens of legislative and court decision to create over decades But by 1705, an African slave, and all the children of an African slave, were bonded to their master in perpetuity. Thus, both the white race and the Black race were invented, as a means to keep all laborers under the rule of our early capitalism’s master class.
From day one our capitalism has been racial capitalism. That means white supremacy is both its main prop and its Achilles heel and Black people’s struggle for full freedom is at the center of the class struggle here in the United States and beyond. The full freedom of all proceeds out of it which Marx highlighted in Capital by arguing that “labor in the white skin can never free itself as long as labor in the black skin is branded.”
Slavery was not a minor byway in a broader antebellum U.S. economy. At its height, slavery was a $3 billion-plus industry and a major engine of the growth of US capitalism:
The economy of slavery wasn’t relegated to the South: it crossed state lines, and even states with low slave-holding populations were profiting from the labor of the enslaved. From tobacco cultivation in Virginia to shipbuilding in Rhode Island, industries throughout the states both supported, and were supported by, slavery. By 1850, 80% of American exports were the product of slave labor. The estimated value of enslaved people increased 500% between 1790 and 1860, from $200 million to around $3.059 billion. Slavery’s profitability far outweighed the moral outrage it engendered… The American South before the Civil War was the low-wage—actually, the no-wage—anchor of the firstThe Montpelier Website
Our task then is to get the clearest understanding of ourselves as Americans in all our diversity. It is to develop a new national narrative seen primarily from the bottom up, through the eyes of the enslaved and the exterminated. Only after that, through the eyes of all the exploited. This required looking anew not only at the colonial period, but also the Revolution, the Civil War, the Gilded Age and so on.
For example, take the period of FDR and the New Deal. If we view it through the eyes, say, of a trade union, we’ll mainly see partial concessions won through struggle. This offered some needed help to many alongside us. But if we look at the same New Deal through the eyes of Black American toilers in the Deep South, we’ll mainly see barriers designed to keep us out, and only a few lesser concessions to ease our lot. For instance, the first draft of the Wagner Act applied to all labor. But at the insistence of both the Southern oligarchy and the AFL, nearly all Black labor in the South was excluded. Here is W.E.B. Du Bois writing at the time in Black Reconstruction:
Here is the real modern labor problem. Here is the kernel of the problem of Religion and Democracy, of Humanity. Words and futile gestures avail nothing. Out of the exploitation of the dark proletariat comes the Surplus Value filched from human beasts which, in cultured lands, the Machine and harnessed Power veil and conceal. The emancipation of man is the emancipation of labor and the emancipation of labor is the freeing of that basic majority of workers who are yellow, brown, and black.
Fortunately, we now have more resources that complement Du Bois’s seminal and groundbreaking works to assist our shift in consciousness. I’ve picked out three that stand out—The Half Has Never Been Told, by Edward Baptist; Slavery by Another Name by Douglas A. Blackmon; and The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander. The first book covers slavery and capitalism from the 1700s through the Civil War. The second starts with the close of the Civil War, through Reconstruction, up to the 1950s. The last starts in the 1960s and ends with the present day.
These three books then, taken together, offer us the full range of U.S. history and how capitalism and all its subaltern classes developed and changed in different phases. In each one, we learn to see through the eyes of the enslaved, the convict laborer, the debt peon, the ‘felon’, the excluded, and the incarcerated. And through their eyes, we also see the white worker and the labor movement, both as ally and adversary, and middle class and upper class reformers as well. In short, we get to look at ourselves as a people, in all our complexity, but with severe restrictions on, if not the elimination of, the ‘white blindspot.’ With the help of book study classes at our library here in Aliquippa, Western PA, we’ve created three sets of PowerPoint multimedia slideshows to go with each book, chapter by chapter. They have proven very effective, and can be used with each book on its own, or taken together as a complete series. They are available for download at the Study Guides section of the Online University of the Left.
The white blindspot,” a phrase coined by both W.E.B. Du Bois and Ted Allen, is perhaps the primary obstacle to the development of a revolutionary class consciousness, and multinational/ multiracial unity. It emerges out of the conflicted consciousness of everyday common sense. However, changing our thinking is only one step. We must take a second step. We must take common action in struggle, however minor or small. We must use this change in thinking to reflect on our actions in a new way. The more clarity we gain in knowing who we are, the more we can see how to make a new order doing away with exploitation and oppression altogether.
Beckert, S. (2015). Empire of Cotton: A Global History. Vintage.
Du Bois, W. E. B. (2001 ). Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880. New York.
Marx, K. (2004 ). Capital: Volume I. Penguin UK.