[Marxism] Exchange about Project 1619 on my blog

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Dec 27 20:45:59 MST 2019

Anna wrote: This is not a serious treatment of the issues involved. At 
the center of the WSWS criticisms, and the historians’ letter to the 
Times, and Wood’s reply to Silverstein, as well as the interviews with 
Reed & Janiewski, is the claim of falsification of the history of the 
American Revolution. These include claims that the Revolution took place 
in order to preserve the institution of chattel slavery against British 
interference, and that racial hatred are in the DNA of the country, and 
therefore permanent.

Eric Foner was also critical of the latter aspect of 1619 Project in a 
recent podcast.

Bradley Mayer replied:

Anna: While the 1619 Project may contain errors in historical fact and 
theory, and I certainly think it does, the point of the dispute fostered 
by the "right-liberal" historians and WSWS is a political one. WSWS 
reductively sees the Project as a mere tool of NYT-style liberal 
identity divide and conquer politics. But the content of the Project 
differs from the content of NYT's editorial politics. As far as this 
goes, we are to oppose the appropriation of this history by liberal 

Since the WSWS deed is done, however, we first critically sweep it out 
of the way. That will make it clear where we stand. Proyect and others 
have already done so, but just to cite one example, Gordon Wood claims 
that absence of chatter around slavery by the planters is evidence that 
they were not motivated by concerns that British abolitionism would soon 
come to a plantation near them. But there is plenty of historical 
evidence that it was already established custom South and North not to 
speak too much of the institution of slavery, a "custom" that persisted 
throughout the early history of the United States until the slaveowners 
resorted to the State to maintain that suppression from the 1830's on. 
So lack of evidence does not guarantee lack of concern on the part of 
the slaveowners. And there is no doubt plenty of evidence of practical 
measures taken to preserve slavery, carried out with tight lips.

The above-mentioned infamous passage by Jefferson from the Declaration 
of Independence is prima facie evidence of this. Note the studied 
vagueness of "He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us". Did he 
mean the Regulator movement in the Carolinas of the 1760's-70's?, some 
of whose participants later fought as Loyalists against their own 
Charleston planter oligarch "revolutionaries"? Or does it refer to the 
legacy slave rebellions in New York province between 1712-1741, or the 
Stono Rebellion of 1739 in South Carolina?

In contrast, Jefferson is much more forthright with naming names in the 
very next clause: "and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of 
our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, 
is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions". 
This reflects the actual priorities of the Anglo-Americans, and that can 
be easily backed by the historical facts of the course of the 
Revolutionary War. Washington's army always sought to avoid head on 
battles with the British Army that he knew he'd likely lose, and most of 
the time hung out in the back country to wait them out. Not so with the 
Indians. There an all-out genocidal war of "merciless savagery" was 
systematically launched all along the Appalachian frontier from the 
Cherokee to the Iroquois Confederacy lands, laying waste to towns and 
crops and ultimately destroying the Iroquois Confederacy entirely.

So I'd say the main priority of the colonial Anglo-Americans in the War 
was to attack the Indians and take their land. That was their strategic 
offensive move. Maintaining the security of their slave property was a 
second, and very defensive, concern. Indeed, I'd say that "America 
began", not in 1619, but when the first English settler at Jamestown or 
Plymouth murdered the first Indians and stole their wives and children 
into Anglo Indian slavery while they also stole their land, and it is 
likely the North American Indian slave trade was more important in the 
early to mid-17th century than that from Africa or the Caribbean, until 
the indigenous population was so depleted by slaving raids and the 
epidemics so conveniently transmitted by this trade in distressed human 
beings that the settlers had no alternative but to turn to more 
expensive Black slaves. That is a thesis I seek to prove. See "Indian 
Slavery in Colonial America, Alan Gallay ed. (2009) or "Brethren by 
Nature: New England Indians, Colonists, *and the Origins of American 
Slavery*" (**my emphasis).

So how revolutionary was the American bourgeois revolution? All 
bourgeois revolutions necessarily contain within them their own 
counterrevolutionary moment, after all, the bourgeoisie are a class of 
exploiters who must stop the revolutionary Ferris wheel when their own 
cart reaches the top. It is only a question of the balance between 
revolution and counterrevolution, where different bourgeois revolutions 
can be observed to have different mixes. The American Revolution was a 
bourgeois revolution: Even at its supreme Thermadorian moment, the 1787 
Constitutional movement, it enacted the abolition of State grants of 
titles of nobility, not to "abolish feudalism" but to prevent what they 
then called "Old Corruption", the Royal influence peddling in titles. 
Hence it appears in the now much talked about Emoluments clause - too 
bad it's failed. I must read "Counter-Revolution of 1776", though the 
thesis is doubtful. Court cases and books don't change history, 
movements change history, and Wilberforce's Committee for the Abolition 
of the Slave Trade did not appear until 1787, after the revolutionary 
war. Likewise, but counterfactually, actual abolition began to first 
take hold in the states north of Maryland, between the 1780's until 
about 1810, with New York lagging until the 1830's, while slavery was 
formerly abolished in the Northwest Territory in the 1780's, well before 
the British Empire in 1833. Perhaps these early abolitions were 
motivated by the same craven fear of slave revolt rather than noble 
progressive impulse? Revolutionary events usually send out progressive, 
if not revolutionary, ripples. And Britain itself doesn't count, as 
there was no appreciable slavery institutionalized there in the first 
place and the court decisions were more of a Dred Scott situation with 
the opposite result.

Perhaps the American Revolution was a "shallow" bourgeois revolution 
with relatively "weak" revolutionary and counterrevolutionary moments, a 
Category 1 or 2 hurricane rather than a 5. I can certainly agree that 
measures taken to preserve slavery during the Revolutionary War were its 
strongest counterrevolutionary moment, as political economy should 
inform us concerning the preservation of any retrograde mode of 
production. And political economy might also tell us that the American 
Revolution was conservative in a much broader sense: the Americans 
wanted to preserve the existing merchant capitalist dominated system at 
the precise time when metropolitan Britain had begun to move onto the 
Industrial Revolution (Watt steam engine, developed 1763 to 1775). But 
what of the genocidal war against the Indians? Revolutionary or 
counterrevolutionary? Wasn't it more revolutionary to fight the British 
head on with the likelihood you and your revolution would lose, rather 
than slaughter Indians you were sure to defeat? Or perhaps this genocide 
formed the great chasm or void at the heart of this "shallow" event. I 
haven't made my mind up as can be seen, but the genocidal heart of the 
American Revolution is another, perhaps the largest, bucket of blood, 
guts and dirt to dump upon the "exceptional" head of the "grand 
experiment", as the liberals call the United States.

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