[Marxism] Slavery and Race [was: Notes on David Brion Davis'review]

Mark Lause MLause at cinci.rr.com
Sat Nov 4 08:51:39 MST 2006

The problem is that "white identity" is an easily smudged concept.  The idea
of racial superiority predated slavery and the subsequent legislation that
codified a distinctive "whiteness."  However--AND FOR RADICALS THIS SEEMS AN
ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL POINT--it was not (and never really became) a
universally held idea or practice.

Historians try to explain why things are the way they are.  All else being
equal, it's often an agenda with very conservative implications...in the
sense that conservatives talk of history in absolutes...that is, "Things are
the way they are because it's the only way they can be or could have

The point is not just to explain the world but to change it.

On the question of race, radical and liberal eagerness to deplore racism
often draws them into the kind of sweeping overgeneralizations about the
past that minimize human agency and the very real alternatives that
presented themselves...and were taken.

Negligence with regard to the maroons and their character was an important
failing...in that blacks, whites and native peoples (where they were still
around) opted regularly and systematically to live in common communities
beyond the control of the Euro-American power structure.  They did this
almost as soon as the people of these races came into contact with each
other and continued to do it so long as there was an enslavement from which
to flee or autonomous Indian groups to which you could flee.  They did this
over generations and from one end of the Americas to another.  Conservatives
accord this no importance.  Neither do most historians, because we are,
after all, living in a civilization that came from the racially exclusionist
colonies on the seaboard, and not from the genuinely multi-racial and
pluralistic cultures of the maroons.

Or to take the question of the "underground railroad" and direct action
against slavery..."Radical Abolitionism" in general.  This was not only
multi-racial ideologically, but multi-racial in practice...and it had a
tremendous impact on those parts of the United States that did not live
under the innately repressive legal and cultural restrictions mandated by
slavery.  Even their most seemingly respectable-looking meetings provided
opportunities, time after time, for white Americans to see African-Americans
as brilliant speakers, writers of resolutions, organizers, etc.  This
project is almost entirely ignored by radical scholars who are predisposed
to follow the liberal/conservative assumptions of the universality of
racism...even to the point of understanding black self-emancipation in
racially exclusive terms.

And this had a tremendous impact on the early workers movement.  It was,
after all, these "radical abolitionists" who made the most solid connection
between "chattel slavery" and "wage slavery."  Workers and their
organizations responded.  All of that is almost always ignored by radical
scholars who will, in quite liberal fashion, cast the white workers as the
real villains in the case of slavery or even Indian Removal, without even
the figleaf of pretending to unearth, analyze and present evidence--and
ignoring entirely massive amounts of information confirming the arguments of
Marx and other contemporaries that the working class was, by virtue of its
position, innately antislavery...or the kind of evidence that's finally
emerging in the last twenty or thirty years that the base of the
abolitionist movement was, in fact, working people.

One obvious result of this is the utter invisibility in our history of an
American radicalism that was actually there, vibrant, doing things, and
achieving things.

I could continue, but basic arguments are there.  History has to be read
from the inside out, taking meaning from the sources...rather than to get
caught up in theoretical generalizations that can then be superimposed on
the past, regardless of what's really there.  This is, I think, especially
important on matters of race, where radical scholars should be wary of
finding their basic assumptions so indistinguishable from those of liberals,
conservatives, and the academic establishment.

Mark L.

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