[Marxism] Nathan Newman on the end of Reconstruction

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Nov 18 10:41:33 MST 2004

Nathan Newman is a rather ubiquitous figure on the Internet with a 
highly visible and frequently accessed blog:


He is also an active participant on Doug Henwood's LBO-Talk mailing 
list, which has become quite the pole of attraction for the 
anticommunist left.

Newman has evolved over the past 10 years or so. He started out as a 
student activist with the Committees of Correspondence, a self-described 
Marxist formation that came into existence as a split from the CPUSA. (I 
was a member myself for about a month or two until I discovered that its 
commitment to the Democratic Party was as great as the CP's.) In more 
recent years as his career ambitions as a lawyer and DP operative have 
deepened, his politics have begun to look more like James Carville's 
than Lenin's.

That being said, I found his recent article titled "A New Birth of 
Freedom: The Forgotten History of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments" 
(co-written with J.J. Gass) for the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU's 
law school to be of some interest as a supreme expression of liberal 
folly. The article can be read at:


You can also follow the exchange between Yoshie Furuhashi and Nathan 
over the article at:


(Look for the thread titled "End of Black Reconstruction".)

Basically, Newman blames the Supreme Court for the end of Reconstruction:

"What had turned federal prosecutors’ optimism of 1872 into their 
surrender of 1876? The severe depression beginning in 1873 bears some 
blame for shifting federal attention away from racial violence. However, 
continuing indictments by the Justice Department and passage of the 
Civil Rights Act of 1875 show that many national Republicans were still 
committed to civil rights. Their commitment was finally destroyed by the 
Supreme Court’s determined opposition to equality. When the Court 
overturned Reconstruction statutes and allowed terrorists to go free, it 
not only hamstrung the federal government but also signaled that anyone 
fighting for civil rights in the South would die. Denied any realistic 
hope of contesting elections in the South, the Republican Party gave up 
on Reconstruction."

Newman makes no effort to conceal his real goals in writing such a 
blinkered version of American history. Basically he is arguing that 
progressives should spare no effort in keeping the Supreme Court out of 
the hands of reactionaries. Implicitly, the election of John F. Kerry 
would have had as momentous an impact on American society as a different 
composition of the Supreme Court would have had in the 1870s.

"We need to recover the accurate history of Reconstruction, to honor 
those who fought in the Civil War and sacrificed their lives afterwards 
in the struggle for civil rights. And we need to debunk the idea that 
contemporary “federalist” jurisprudence has a claim, or even a monopoly, 
on historical accuracy. One need not believe in a living constitution to 
oppose the Rehnquist Court’s assault on federal civil rights 
legislation; the 14th Amendment as it was passed in 1866 and ratified in 
1868 will do just fine."

For Marxists, however, the explanation for the end of Reconstruction and 
the radical shift to the right over the past 30 years or so must be 
found in class relationships. The bourgeoisie, both north and south, 
found it necessary to beat back a challenge of newly emancipated slaves, 
poor white farmers and northern workers in the 1870s. Today, it needs to 
attack the standard of living of workers in the same fashion. Then, as 
now, the two parties worked together to defend the class interests of 
the big bourgeoisie that supported it. Now, as then, the main need is to 
create independent and radical challenges to the ruling class and the 
two parties that they use against us.

I did a fair amount of research on the civil war and Reconstruction in 
the course of answering Charles Post, a sociology professor who had 
tried to examine this period from the standpoint of the Brenner 
thesis--quite wrongly, in my estimation. Nearly everything I read 
persuaded me that the Northern and Southern bourgeoisie saw eye to eye 
when it came to putting an end to Reconstruction. Basically, the retreat 
was part of an overall shift to the right under the impact of a rising 
tide in the class struggle internationally.

Despite the liberal interpretations of the end of Reconstruction, we can 
see close class affinities between the Northern bourgeoisie and its 
purported deadly enemy, the plantocracy, revealed in a number of places. 
At its best, the Northern elite had *no interest* in creating a class of 
yeoman farmers in the south from the emancipated African population. 
While swearing allegiance to free labor, free soil was another matter 

One of the most revealing aspects of this was the editorial footprints 
of the Nation Magazine, founded in 1865 by abolitionist E. L. Godkin. As 
I pointed out in an article I posted a while back on the Nation 
Magazine, Godkin was a *liberal* in the late 19th century sense. He was 
for free trade, competition and all the sorts of economic measures 
associated with people like Alan Greenspan today. He opposed slavery 
because it was inimical to his own economic philosophy.

That being said, Godkin and his associates were not at all predisposed 
to an all-out assault on the plantation system, as long as it was based 
on *free labor*. In 1867, President Johnson had run into a conflict with 
the Radical Republicans in the Congress, who passed legislation to break 
the back of Southern reaction. When Johnson kept cutting deals to 
maintain white power in the South, he was impeached. In a December 5th 
1867 editorial on the impeachment, the Nation spelled out its opposition 
to the impeachment:

"It must now be confessed those who were of this way of thinking [namely 
that the Radical Republicans were going too far], and they were many, 
have proved to be not very far wrong. It is not yet too late for the 
majority in Congress to retrace its steps and turn to serious things. 
The work before it is to bring the South back to the Union on the 
basis-of equal rights, and not to punish the President or provide farms 
for negroes or remodel the American Government."

If the abolitionist Nation Magazine was opposed to providing farms for 
negroes [sic] and remodeling the US government, then which class was it 
speaking for? And what was its political and economic agenda? Not much 
has changed in 125 years evidently.


The Marxism list: www.marxmail.org

More information about the Marxism mailing list