[Marxism] The Enduring Struggle, For Frederick Douglass, the work of democratic politics was never-ending.

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Mar 19 08:40:03 MDT 2017


The Nation, MARCH 14, 2017
The Enduring Struggle
For Frederick Douglass, the work of democratic politics was never-ending.
By Matt Karp


The Lives of Frederick Douglass
By Robert Levine

The Portable Frederick Douglass
By John Stauffer and Henry Louis Gates Jr., eds.

“AFTER FRED. DOUGLASS.—” barked an October 1850 headline in the 
Mississippi Free Trader, the state’s leading Democratic newspaper. The 
article below it went on to note: “We are very much pleased to learn 
that a party of Marylanders are in pursuit of the sweet pet and fragrant 
expounder of the white negroes of the North. He is a fugitive slave, and 
the intention is to reclaim him under the late Fugitive Slave Law.”

This was an outstanding antebellum example of what we have lately come 
to call “fake news.” After eight years as a fugitive, Frederick Douglass 
had been legally emancipated in 1846 when a group of British 
abolitionists collected funds to purchase his freedom. No party of 
Maryland slave-hunters was headed north to pursue him, even after the 
passage of the Fugitive Slave Act. The Free Trader wasn’t reporting on 
events; it was indulging in a kind of vicarious hate crime.

Yet in its mix of gossip, malice, and braggadocio, the Free Trader’s 
false report was characteristic of the opposition that Douglass faced in 
his lifetime of political struggle. For Mississippi’s Slave Power, 
Douglass presented an existential threat in two dimensions. First, his 
physical person, as an ex-slave turned celebrity abolitionist, was a 
dramatic personification of his radical belief in human equality. To 
adapt what W.E.B. Du Bois once said of John Brown, Douglass didn’t just 
use argument, he was himself an argument. Second, Douglass was feared 
because his oratory had dangerous implications: It might help generate a 
popular political movement against the slaveholding South. Thus the 
Mississippi Free Trader reserved equal scorn for the “white negroes of 
the North”—Douglass’s anti-slavery allies and the larger Northern public 
that they hoped to awaken.

The power of the antebellum slaveholding class, after all, resided not 
only in its direct domination of black slaves, but in its ability to 
divide and exploit an even larger multiracial working class. Douglass 
knew how well this system worked from bitter personal experience: As a 
hired slave in Baltimore, he was assaulted by white dockworkers with 
bricks and handspikes. Yet he remained clearheaded about who benefited 
from this racial violence. As he wrote in 1855: “The slaveholders, with 
a craftiness peculiar to themselves, by encouraging the enmity of the 
poor, laboring white man against the blacks, succeeds in making the said 
white man almost as much a slave as the black slave himself…. Both are 
plundered, and by the same plunderers.”

To uproot these plunderers required democratic organization in both the 
North and South. The obstacles were enormous, Douglass knew, for he 
seldom underestimated the tenacity of American racism—the prejudices and 
powers wielded by those Americans “who happen to live in a skin which 
passes for white.” Nevertheless, the basic premise of his career was 
that slavery and white supremacy, for all their fearsome might, could be 
defeated through a political struggle that transcended racial and 
regional divisions. Only a broad popular movement, led by an 
abolitionist vanguard but embracing “the masses at the North,” could 
overthrow “the slave-holding oligarchy” and establish a government truly 
devoted to liberty and equality for all.

Douglass had no patience for those in the antislavery camp who argued 
for withdrawal from a hopelessly tainted Union, or for the abandonment 
of a hopelessly degraded democratic politics. “If I were on board of a 
pirate ship,” he declared, “I would not clear my soul…by jumping in the 
long boat, and singing out no union with pirates.” Instead, 
abolitionists must dig in and fight, trusting in their ability to build 
a democratic alliance against slavery across the free states. “[T]he 
slaveholders are but four hundred thousand in number,” he noted, “and we 
are fourteen millions…we are really the strong and they are the weak.”

For Douglass, political effort without radical moral principle was 
futile, doomed to a slow, unwholesome demise amid “the swamps of 
compromise and concession.” But moral courage without political 
engagement—­and without movement-building—was equally barren. “If there 
is no struggle, there is no progress,” Douglass declared in 1857. The 
apothegm is justly famous as a defense of left-wing agitation, but it is 
worth remembering that both of its keywords received equal weight. 
Douglass did not celebrate struggle for struggle’s sake. He struggled 
because he believed he would win.

In our own troubled times, with reaction regnant and the formal 
opposition frail and confused, Douglass’s belief in progress may strike 
readers as something of a quaint anachronism. But two new books—The 
Lives of Frederick Douglass, by Robert S. Levine, and The Portable 
Frederick Douglass, edited by John Stauffer and Henry Louis Gates 
Jr.—help underline just how urgently his vision of political struggle is 
needed today.

Both books pay tribute to Douglass’s immense literary talents. In three 
decades, he went from the dirt floor of a Maryland slave cabin to a 
private audience in the White House, where he helped recruit slaves into 
an army whose mission was the destruction of the master class. His was 
one of the most remarkable and revolutionary lives of the 19th century, 
and he did not shy from writing about it: first in Narrative of the Life 
of Frederick Douglass (1845), published seven years after his escape 
from slavery; then in My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), written after 
his break with William Lloyd Garrison; and finally in The Life and Times 
of Frederick Douglass (1881 and 1892), which brings his story through 
the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Levine’s book, which takes these autobiographies as its primary subject, 
retraces Douglass’s lifelong effort to tell and retell his own 
astonishing story. Pushing back against the idea that Douglass’s early 
intimacy with Garrison means that the Narrative should be read as a 
“black message” inside a “white envelope,” Levine shows how their 
collaboration—not at all a simple student-teacher relationship—gave the 
Narrative much of its power.

Levine also chronicles the dissolution of this collaboration. By the 
late 1840s, Douglass had become dissatisfied with Garrison’s brand of 
abolitionism, in part because it abjured electoral politics in favor of 
a nonviolent form of resistance that placed moral principle above 
political competition. Levine shows how My Bondage and My Freedom 
reflects Douglass’s growing sense that the battle against slavery 
required ballots, and might ultimately demand bullets as well. Above 
all, he describes the antislavery firebrand as a mind in constant 
motion: “identity is never stable in Douglass; it is tied to the 
contingencies of the historical moment.” Politics, ultimately, was about 
timing, and Douglass subordinated his quest for autobiographical 
self-understanding to his desire to make political change.

In the introduction to their new volume of Douglass’s writings, Stauffer 
and Gates extend this argument, discovering in his shifting 
self-representations something of a philosophical principle. Just as 
Douglass “rejected the idea of a fixed self, so too did he repudiate 
fixed social stations and rigid hierarchies.” With his own family tree 
shrouded in mystery—he never knew the identity of his father—Douglass 
responded by actively embracing fluidity, change, and the wholesome 
convulsions of a life devoted to struggle and progress.

Born into slavery on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Douglass learned that he 
could shift his shape, in a fashion, by imitating the voices around him. 
He preached barnyard sermons on the plantation, affecting the style and 
cadence of white ministers and addressing his master’s pigs as “Dear 
Brethren.” His talent for verbal mimicry evolved into a lifelong gift 
for satirical public speech. Later, on the abolitionist lecture circuit, 
Douglass would leave crowds in stitches with his canting impression of a 
hypocritical Southern preacher.

Among their selections, Stauffer and Gates include a previously 
unpublished 1864–65 speech, “Pictures and Progress,” that highlights 
Douglass’s own dual sense of himself as an activist and an artist, 
always striving to remake the boundaries of his world. “Poets, prophets, 
and reformers,” Douglass argued, “are all picture-makers—and this 
ability is the secret of their power.”

Douglass himself was especially attracted to the new art of photographic 
picture-­making—­a form in which the sitter, as much as the camera 
operator, could shape the portrait. It was no coincidence, as Stauffer 
and Zoe Trodd have noted in a recent collection of Douglass’s portraits, 
that he became the most photographed American of the 19th century.

As a former slave who claimed his psychic freedom in the course of a 
two-hour fight with the slave-breaker Edward Covey, Douglass well 
understood the connection between the physical and the political. It was 
a duality that demanded both heroic acts of courage and tremendous acts 
of primping. “A man is ashamed of seeming to be vain of his personal 
appearance,” he observed in “Pictures and Progress,” “and yet who ever 
stood before a glass preparing to sit or stand for a picture without a 
consciousness of some such vanity?”

Paying close attention to his own person—­a regime that involved 
meticulous grooming, fashionable dress, and even weight training late in 
life—wasn’t just Douglass’s concession to Victorian notions of 
self-improvement: It was a core element of his political character. With 
his body continually in danger, Douglass responded not by withdrawing 
into private life, but by carefully fashioning an ever stronger and more 
confident public physical presence.

For Douglass, while politics flowed inevitably through the private and 
the personal, it always returned to the public and the collective. 
“Neither self-culture, nor any other kind of culture, can amount to much 
in this world,” he asserted, “unless joined to some truly unselfish and 
noble purpose.”

This is the danger in approaching Douglass as a primarily 
autobiographical writer. Most Americans today know him through the 1845 
Narrative, the single-most-assigned book in US history surveys, 
according to a 2005 study. But a focus on Douglass’s individual odyssey 
shouldn’t cause us to forget that he devoted his life to a shared 
struggle against oppression.

Douglass’s own career would be unthinkable without his collaborations 
with activists and politicians, from Garrison and Martin Delany and 
Susan B. Anthony to Charles Sumner and Abraham Lincoln. In his popular 
antebellum lecture “Trials and Triumphs of Self-Made Men,” Douglass 
began by acknowledging that there was no such thing: “all had begged, 
borrowed, or stolen from somebody or somewhere.” As Levine shows, even 
his autobiographies were chiefly political documents. They were less 
concerned with exploring his private identity in formation than with 
exposing public crimes and inspiring a mass movement against them.

It is fitting, then, that Stauffer and Gates have put Douglass’s 
speeches and journalism at the heart of their new volume. Douglass 
himself considered his time as a newspaper editor the most important 
period of his career. “If I have at any time said or written that which 
is worth remembering,” he concluded in Life and Times, “I must have said 
such things between the years 1848 and 1860, and my paper was a 
chronicle of most of what I said during that time.”

Douglass founded his newspaper, The North Star, in Rochester in 1848, on 
the heels of his ideological split with Garrison and his Massachusetts 
Anti-Slavery Society. Douglass had grown skeptical of Garri­sonian 
nonviolence, but the essence of the disagreement was about electoral 
politics: While Garrison and his allies thought abolitionists should 
boycott elections organized under a pro-slavery Constitution, Douglass 
came to believe that the ballot box could and must become a vital tool 
in the struggle against slavery. “Garrison sees in the Constitution 
precisely what John C. Calhoun sees there,” he wrote—an impregnable 
fortress against antislavery political action in the United States. But 
Douglass believed that abolitionism must reject such rigidities, and he 
insisted that it become a movement that was as creative, forceful, and 
open to possibility as democratic politics itself.

A great theme in Douglass’s antebellum writing was the necessary 
subordination of the past—dead, frozen, irrevocable—to the present: 
alive, fluid, subject to change. Politics must keep up with its times. 
“We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the 
present,” he declared in his famous 1852 address on slavery and the 
Fourth of July. “To all inspiring motives, to noble deeds which can be 
gained from the past, we are welcome. But now is the time, the important 
time.”

Douglass aimed his remarks at the conservative cult around America’s 
founders, already well in evidence by the 1850s: “men seldom eulogize 
the wisdom and virtues of their fathers, but to excuse some folly and 
wickedness of their own.” But his words were also, in their way, a 
message to his comrades in the antislavery struggle. If abolitionism was 
to grow from a moral position into a political movement, its advocates 
could not let themselves be paralyzed by the weight of past horrors. The 
bloodstained history of slavery in America—200 years of pillage, 
torture, and domination—did not drive his thoughts upward, toward the 
promises of a peaceful heaven, or inward, toward the safety of a 
beautiful despair. Instead, Douglass turned outward, toward the daily 
rigors of struggle and the political possibilities of what he called 
“the ever-living now.”

For Douglass, the American future was not foreclosed. Seldom beguiled by 
the mythology of national exceptionalism—“Americans are remarkably 
familiar with all facts which make in their own favor”—Douglass 
nevertheless rejected the view, as fashionable then as it is now among 
some quarters of the left, that his homeland was somehow 
constitutionally impervious to change. “I know of no country,” he 
declared in 1857, “where the conditions for affecting great changes in 
the settled order of things…are more favorable than here in these United 
States.”

This confidence in that dark hour stemmed from a specific political 
calculation. Reaction, he believed, had overreached itself. The Fugitive 
Slave Act, the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, and the Dred Scott decision, all 
“measures devised and executed with a view to allay and diminish the 
anti-slavery agitation, have only served to increase, intensify, and 
embolden that agitation.” The advance of the Slave Power, red in tooth 
and claw, had torn up the old rotten compromises, exposed the bankruptcy 
of the old party system, and given new vindication to slavery’s most 
radical opponents. “Hence, the wolfish cry of ‘fanaticism,’ has lost its 
potency,” Douglass declared in 1855, “indeed the ‘fanatics’ are looked 
upon as a pretty respectable body of People.”

A new organized power in American politics, the Republican Party, had 
emerged from the ruins of the antebellum party system. For Douglass, 
“the great Republican Movement, which is sweeping like a whirlwind over 
the Free States,” showed that the North was ready to “bury party 
affinities…and also the political leaders who have hitherto controlled 
them; to unite in one grand phalanx, and go forth, and whip the enemy.” 
Even so, Douglass never became an unconditional supporter of the 
Republican Party, and often, before the Civil War, he appeared as one of 
its most scorching critics. Yet in a deeper sense, the electoral triumph 
of Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans in 1860 fulfilled one of his 
fundamental premises: that slavery in the South could only be challenged 
through a democratic alliance with “the masses at the North.”

When Southern slaveholders responded to Lincoln’s victory with armed 
rebellion, Douglass understood it as a reaction to the emancipatory 
potential of this new alliance. The “war of the Rebels,” he declared in 
1863, “is a war of the rich against the poor. Let Slavery go down with 
the war, and let labor cease to be fettered, chained, flogged, and 
branded…and then we shall see as never before, the laborers in all 
sections of this country rising to respectability and power.”

Douglass lived to see his cross-sectional alliance of laborers—what Du 
Bois later called “the abolition-democracy”—successfully crush the 
rebellion, destroy slavery, and drive the most profound social 
revolution in American history. He lived, too, to see that alliance 
undone, and many of its achievements rolled back, by the resistance of 
white Southerners and the connivance of a Northern leadership that, as 
he wrote in 1894, had “converted the Republican party into a party of 
money rather than a party of morals.”

Struggle begat progress, and progress begat more struggle. This was the 
work of politics, of public agitation and democratic organization: It 
never ends. Douglass himself never tired of the fight or lost sight of 
his horizon—a political force “broad enough, and strong enough, to 
support the most comprehensive plans for the freedom and elevation of 
all the people of this country, without regard to color, class, or 
clime.” For Douglass, that meant ceaseless resistance to all forms of 
entrenched hierarchy, including the exclusion of women from politics. 
When he died suddenly on a February evening in 1895, his final day had 
been spent with Susan B. Anthony and Anna Shaw at a women’s suffrage 
meeting in Washington, DC.

Douglass devoted his life to eternal war on both “the system” and “the 
spirit of slavery.” The system went down in 1865, but the spirit, of 
course, lives on with us today, reorganized and remastered with all the 
perennial shrewdness of the ruling classes. It lives in every social 
order that contrives to elevate one group at the expense of another, 
every economic order that exalts capital and degrades labor, and every 
political order that denies the possibility of great change.

“This doctrine of human equality,” Doug­lass wrote in 1850, “is the 
bitterest yet taught by the abolitionists.” The struggle for that 
doctrine remains the central struggle of our day. It requires political 
as well as moral action, organizing as well as orations. Just as in 
Douglass’s day, we can only prevail if we believe we will win.



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