Why not tear down the monuments of the slaveholders who made the American Revolution, viz., Washington, Jefferson, and Madison? For me, a guy who teaches history for a living, the question boils down to this: what was that revolution about? It’s a good question on this fateful eve of the 4th of July, when the republic created by the revolution is endangered by features–failures–of its own design. If Gerald Horne and his minions are right to answer that it was actually a counter-revolution meant to preserve slavery, or if their “progressive” antecedents** are right to answer that the American Thermidor came between 1787 and 1789, when conservative nationalists put the republican lid called the Constitution on the democratic radicalism of the 1760s, 70s, and 80s, why then there might be a point in celebrating independence–but in mourning what followed, and in taking bids on rebuilding the Mall. Except that bestride this “progressive” narrative we find the imposing figure of Thomas Jefferson, the slaveholder who lamented slavery as Charles Bukowski the alcoholic lamented alcohol, also the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence, which claimed that “all men are created equal,” then again the man who wrote the Northwest Ordinance of 1785 and 1789, which barred slavery from territories north of the Ohio River and which in 1865 became the legal/rhetorical groundwork of the 13th Amendment–but a man who played...Read More
Author: James Livingston
My old friend Jim Oakes protests too much. I’m not going to bother with a point-by-point refutation of the charges he levels against me, because that would bore him, you, and me. But let me say emphatically that he’s plainly misreading me when he invokes “Livingston’s hostility to unions,” thus portraying me as an enemy of the most basic working-class organizations, and, by implication, an enemy of the people. That’s a cheap shot, Professor Oakes. I wrote that, like socialism itself, unions have no predictable political valence. This is an empirically verifiable fact, not a theoretical pronouncement, as witness social democracy vs. Soviet-style communism, or the Teamsters as against, say, the UAW. The form of Oakes’s argument determines its content. He portrays me as a pointy-headed academic with no grounding in the empirical realities of our straitened time, something like those PMC types both he and Adolph Reed ridicule as unconscious traitors to the multi-racial, working-class majority. Oakes writes: “Reed is discussing the empirical realities of black political life and history. Livingston responds by looking at an intellectual tradition.” Does he mean that intellectual tradition is not an empirical reality that powerfully informs and animates current debates on the past, present, and future of black life? Does he mean that ideas are not themselves material realities, forces of production in their own right–as in the political expectations that come...Read More
James Oakes is Distinguished Professor of History at the CUNY Grad Center. Among his many books are three pathbreaking works: The Ruling Race: A History of American Slaveholders (1982); The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics (2008); and Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the US, 1861-1865 (2012). ___________ Jim Livingston and I agree that we need a class politics of redistribution that has room for the politics of racial justice (and, we would also agree, gender equality). Unlike me, Jim thinks identity-based antiracist politics can achieve that synthesis and that Adolph Reed’s politics are “class reductionist” (Reed’s denial to the contrary notwithstanding), whereas I think Reed’s politics encompass racial justice by definition. Antiracism, by contrast, is not intrinsically redistributionist, which is precisely what it is daily proving itself so attractive to corporate interests. Reed no more believes that class is a blunt sociological category than does Livingston believe that race is a blunt sociological category—even though it sounds as though he does all through his essay. Of course class is a relation grounded in struggle. I learned that decades ago, not from Adam Przeworski but from E. P. Thompson and all those brilliant British Marxists. But that doesn’t mean we can’t speak of a “working class” with interests that are distinct from, say, the Professional Managerial Class. And this...Read More
How to think about the relation of race, class, and contemporary capitalism? We don’t have much choice except to, because C-19 has destroyed capitalism as we knew it–all the available ventilators are now affixed to its expiring body–and because Trump has forced us to see that the restoration of the status quo ante (“law and order”) means the subjugation of black bodies, the erasure of citizenship, the protection of property as against persons, black or white, and of course the deployment of ostensibly working-class people–the police, the military–to enforce this necromantic agenda. The practical question of the day–how to reform, “defund,” or abolish police departments–illuminates, or just is, the theoretical question I began with, asked in a different voice. For it makes us think, at the very least, about the function of labor unions in articulating and enacting working-class goals. Are unions, by definition, the instrument of class struggle and the medium of class consciousness? My short answer is, No. (Yeah, Lenin had one too, but I beg to differ.) Here’s the long answer. Until the 1960s, the American Left instinctively and rightly sided with both trade unions (the AFL) and industrial unions (the CIO). The AFL-CIO’s complicity in the imperialist idiocy of counter-revolution in Latin America and then all-out war on Indochina alienated every component of the remaining pluralist Left from the labor movement, even after the...Read More
We’re now caught between despair and hope, resignation and purpose, facts and values, between the worst and the best of times, between our historical circumstance–what simply is–and our ethical principles–what ought to be. But what if these are also times when the either/or choice between “is” and “ought” stops making sense? When doing the right thing by our fellow citizens is also the necessary thing, what we must do if we’re to dig ourselves out of the hole we’re in? It doesn’t happen very often, which is why we call the consequence a revolutionary crisis or situation. We’re in one right now because just about everybody knows that capitalism has failed, and that socialism is a utopian (or dystopian) alternative–an “ideal society” that has never stood the practical test of real time. But what if socialism is, practically speaking, the only way to salvage civilization from the ruins of capitalism? What then? At that moment, we can see how the ethical principle of socialism resides in and flows from the historical circumstance we now experience as the eclipse of capitalism–that is, how the slogan “From each according to her abilities, to each according to his need,” now makes perfect sense in social, economic, intellectual, moral, and, yes, political-programmatic terms. We can’t address the C-19 pandemic unless we deliver proper health care to everyone who needs it regardless of their...Read More
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