Friday, November 25, 2022

Slavery, Socialism, and the 1619 Project

I am quite sure that this is the only time I have linked to the World Socialist Web Site since starting this blog in late 2005. They interview the historian James Oakes, who was one of many historians who were critical of the New York Times' 1619 Project. (We should not forget that it was the NYT that pushed this nonsense, not merely reported on it.)

Conservatives can get themselves all tied up in nonsense of their own, believing that all on the left are in cahoots with each other.  But actual socialists, rather than the milk-and-water version that claims centrality in North America (and even Europe) are not at all fond of narratives that trace all Western ills to slavery and pretend to see little difference between 1619 and 2019. They see the American Revolution and the Civil War as clear, important revolutions in the overthrow of monarchy, the protecting of rights of many previously dispossessed, and introducing new ideas of equality. They want more revolutions like that, not denying that the old ones counted for very much.  So interviewing Oakes makes sense for them, even though he is not a socialist.

There’s been a kind of standard bourgeois-liberal way of arguing that goes all the way back to the 18th century, that whenever you are talking about some form of oppression, or whenever you yourself are oppressed, you instinctively go to the analogy of slavery. At least since the 18th century in our society, in western liberal societies, slavery has been the gold standard of oppression. The colonists, in the imperial crisis, complained that they were the “slaves” of Great Britain. It was the same thing all the way through the 19th century. The leaders of the first women’s movement would sometimes liken the position of a woman in a northern household to that of a slave on a southern plantation. The first workers’ movement, coming out of the culture of republican independence, attacked wage labor as wage slavery. Civil War soldiers would complain that they were treated like slaves.

Oakes' first objection right out of the gate is that even the choice of "1619" suggests that there is some sort of American exceptionalism that should be central to the discussion of slavery, while the overwhelming scholarship in the past fifty years has focused on its original similarity to everyone else's slavery, and then its emergence from the pack of everyone else to embrace such ideas as Abolition. From such a question-begging beginning, he believes very little good will ever come, even when individual portions and arguments (he allows that there are some) are solid scholarship and interpretation.

One can find a throughline of ideas back into history to argue for whatever you might like. One can blame everything on Christians, or the Spanish, or capitalism, or property rights, and find examples to support your thesis somewhere in any given decade and country. One can do the same with opposite points of view.  Retrospective throughlines mislead as much as the inform, or more.


Grim said...

I’ve linked multiple times to the World Socialist Website. They particularly hate the 1619 Project because from a Marxist perspective it is a sort of heresy. Marxism is still taken seriously by many historians, so they were able to assemble many interesting critiques of it by major thinkers in the field.

That said, their real objection to it is that it undermines the dialectic that Marx asserted was the driving force of history. If the international slave trade that underlay the rejection of late medieval feudalism was in fact worse than said feudalism, and if America was therefore a step backwards from the British monarchy, then Marx’s basic argument is false. The idea, which Marx stole from Hegel, is that contradictions arrived at are inevitable and good, because they reliably produce a transcendental progress. Things therefore get better, even though the new system contains a new contraction and is also imperfect in a new way.

1619 threatened the whole model with its argument—in danger of wide acceptance at one point— that America was really worse than early modern Britain, which preserved a feudal aristocracy based on the needs of an agricultural system even as it strove for modernism. America has to be better; bad, but an improvement. Otherwise Marx was wrong about the fundamental force of history, which is the one thing that they cannot let go.

Christopher B said...

I also got the impression that some of the more politically pragmatic socialists are quite upset at the substitution of race for economic class in a quasi-Marxian power analysis. If Michelle Obama and Oprah are oppressed but a West Virginia (ex)coal miner is not, that upends the whole idea of class solidarity and class struggle, and I don't think they view 'intersectionality' as a way around it.

Grim said...

Yes, that’s true also. It’s not as threatening to the intellectual project, but it does make the practical project of fomenting class revolution harder. I read an argument on the World Socialist once that the CIA must be behind Critical Race Theory precisely because it undermines proletarian revolution by dividing the working class on racial lines.