Liberation Road

Black Freedom Frees Us All

This Juneteenth, let’s remember Reconstruction for what it was: a Revolution!

by Aaron Jamal

One hundred fifty-nine years ago, dignified Black people and our allies won a massive victory against oppression in the United States. Juneteenth is a grand reminder, now permanently etched into the fabric of US American cultural life, that Black freedom frees us all. 

The Reconstruction Revolution (and I do mean revolution), which includes the US Civil War of Liberation (1861–1865) and the subsequent program of democratization (1865–1877), must be counted as the most significant movement towards socialism in the history of the United States. ‘Movement towards socialism‘ is defined here as long-term revolutionary advances that will include forward motion and setbacks, victories and retreats. It may be explicitly anti-capitalist, but has historically often first been anti-imperialist, anti-feudal, or anti-slavery while holding out the possibility of becoming anti-capitalist.

In 1935, the grand Black internationalist W.E.B. Du Bois wrote Black Reconstruction in America, a tremendous historiography that de-centered the racist and shallow understanding of Reconstruction dominant at that time and correctly centered the Reconstruction Revolution on those principally responsible for the social transformation: dignified Black people. With Black Reconstruction, as it would later be called, Du Bois made extensive use of primary sources and data to call into question the racist myth that after the destruction of the Old Confederacy the South descended into a Black tyranny and despotic terrorism. Du Bois says:

Reconstruction was an economic revolution on a mighty scale and with worldwide reverberation. Reconstruction was not simply a fight between the white and black races in the South or between master and ex-slave. It was much more subtle; it involved more than this…. It was a vast labor movement of ignorant, earnest, and bewildered black men whose faces had been ground in the mud by their three awful centuries of degradation and who now staggered forward blindly in blood and tears amid petty division, hate and hurt, and surrounded by every disaster of war and industrial upheaval. Reconstruction was a vast labor movement of ignorant, muddled and bewildered white men who had been disinherited of land and labor and fought a long battle with sheer subsistence, hanging on the edge of poverty, eating clay and chasing slaves and now lurching up to manhood. Reconstruction was the turn of white Northern migration southward to new and sudden economic opportunity which followed the disaster and dislocation of war, and an attempt to organize capital and labor on a new pattern and build a new economy. Finally Reconstruction was a desperate effort of a dislodged, maimed, impoverished and ruined oligarchy and monopoly to restore an anachronism in economic organization by force, fraud and slander, in defiance of law and order, and in the face of a great labor movement of white and black, and in bitter strife with a new capitalism and a new political framework.

Du Bois here is making reference to the historic bloc needed to smash the southern slave system—a multiracial, cross-class alliance that brought together multiple social forces. Big northern business interests felt threatened by the Slave Power’s resistance to government funding for banks and taxes on foreign goods. Small farmers in the south and west felt threatened by slavery’s expansion because plantations were massive, and slavers would buy up all the best land. After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act (which deputized white people as slave catchers and created the potential for the enslavement of any Black person) and the Dred Scott case (which crushed all court strategies for ending chattel slavery), free Black people fought the slave power with incredible courage. And of course, dignified enslaved Africans fought directly for their own liberation—joining the radical Republican party and the newly integrated Union armed forces—and were the key social force that turned the abolitionist movement from a vocal militant minority into a powerful political majority.

In short, the Reconstruction Revolution was the result of the forging of a multiracial cross-class united front—a front including not only formerly enslaved Black people, but free Black people, poor southern whites, midwestern farmers and northern white business classes. The cohering of this front began a revolutionary sequence that resulted in fundamental transformations of the US government, economy, and society. As genuine revolutionaries in the US, we must study this revolution for what it was: a genuine advancement towards the freedom of all peoples

Take for instance the tremendous social and political victories of the Revolution. Black abolitionists like Harriet Tubman and Abraham Galloway infiltrated the Union Army in order to bury the slave system in the sands of history. After the destruction of the Old Confederacy at the hands of Black people and their allies, the Radical Republicans (the leaders of a mass left political movement committed to building a genuine multiracial democracy) seized control of the US Congress. This Radical Congress passed three constitutional amendments that would enshrine the massive victories of the Revolution as the supreme law of the land.

For the first time in the history of the US, the Reconstruction Revolution made public education a right for all peoples. Likewise, public health was a right that was funded by acts of Congress. The Revolution put at the forefront of its initiatives a left-agrarian land reform. The federal government actively pursued and crushed right-wing paramilitary organizations like the Ku Klux Klan. 

In some states, the gains of the Reconstruction Revolution were even greater. In Tennessee, close to 80,000 Confederate officers were systematically disenfranchised, allowing for newly freed Black people to participate in the transformation of the political process. In North Carolina, a multiracial united front seized governing power and ratified a revolutionary state constitution that established free public education for all, while passing state laws that expanded the franchise by eliminating racial, wealth, and religious qualifications for voting and holding office. At the same time, it transformed the criminal justice system by abolishing imprisonment for debt, reducing the terms for other sentences, and establishing direct elections of the judiciary. 

Ultimately, the Reconstruction Revolution was defeated. The united front that the abolitionists built was fragile, tenuous, and full of contradictions, holding together just long enough to defeat a common enemy (the white southern planter class) and not long enough to pursue a more revolutionary advance than that. Vicious white-supremacist terrorism and armed right-wing militias destroyed revolutionary governments in Louisiana, Mississippi, and North Carolina. Industrial capital and racist paramilitary soldiers seized control of the federal government. Formerly enslaved Black people were pitted against each other and against poor whites by the united effort of a triumphant industrial capitalist class. While sections of this class were won over to the need to destroy the slave system, industrial capitalists did not intend to fight for a genuine revolutionary democracy and ultimately abandoned the revolutionary process. This abandonment left freed Black peoples to deal with freedom from slavery and the famine of wage and convict labor at the same time. As Du Bois famously remarked, “The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.”

Was the defeat of the Reconstruction Revolution inevitable? We cannot say. History is not about what we wish had happened but rather about learning from what was in order to transform what is into a future we know must come to pass. 

What we can say is that the Reconstruction Revolution was a genuine social revolution, unlike the much heralded American Revolution of 1776. The founding of the United States was rooted in the genocide of indigenous nations, the enslavement of dignified Africans, and open terrorism against gender oppressed people. These war strategies were deployed by reactionary Protestant sects who, after generations of British rule over the colonies, aspired to overthrow the British ruling class and establish a new, ‘American’ dominion. In essence, the American Revolution of 1776 was nothing more than the transfer of political power from one form of bourgeois rule to another. 

After the defeat of the British, the new ruling class struggled over the form of government that would best protect its class interests. The US Constitution was the ultimate result: a negotiated social contract designed to protect the property and power of creditors who wanted to collect debts and slave owners who wanted to defend the institutions of slavery. This is why the pPresident is appointed by an electoral college and not elected by popular vote. This is why there is a bi-cameral national legislature (the US Congress) with long Senate terms and high property qualifications to control popular majorities. This is why property qualifications were used to exclude poor people from serving in office. The wealthy were clear: democracy was a threat to their ability to maintain the bourgeois right to private property. And so, US political culture is the product of this history. To this day, a racist and reactionary Protestantism and the systematic destruction (over generations) of a potential class consciousness (through forced migrations, ideological control, and open violence) are forms of domination the ruling classes use to keep revolutionary transformation off the table in the United States.

The abolitionists of the Haitian Revolution (and to a lesser degree, the Jacobins of the French Revolution) put the question of revolutionary democracy at the center of modern politics. Here in the US, the Reconstruction Revolution attempted to enact a genuine revolutionary democracy that pushed past the limits of the white republic towards a radical democratization of the economy, government, and society. This revolutionary process involved the forging of a multiracial, cross-class united front very similar to the one needed to break the dictatorship of today’s racial capitalism. The Reconstruction Revolution must be studied by 21st century US revolutionaries. We must realize that to be a revolutionary is to build democratic majorities and have the audacity to govern society. Anything less is woefully inadequate for the challenging times ahead.

Aaron Jamal is an organizer in North Carolina and is committed to the socialist transformation of the United States.

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