Revolution#125, April 6, 2008
Response to Obama’s Speech “On Race”:
Slavery, Capitalism, and the “Perfect Union”
“Historic.” “Unprecedented.” In such terms, Barack Obama’s March 18 speech is being compared both in the establishment media and on the streets to “classic American speeches” like Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
The immediate impetus for the speech was pressure on Obama to condemn statements by his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright. The statements under attack were basically incontrovertible facts: Wright said, for example, speaking of Black people, that “The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and wants us to sing God Bless America.” And, “We bombed Hiroshima. We bombed Nagasaki. And we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon and we never batted an eye.”
By contrast, John McCain’s trip to “kiss the ring” of the now-dead Christian fascist Jerry Falwell and others of his ilk is just treated as politics as usual. Falwell, remember, claimed after the 9/11 attacks that “the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way—all of them who have tried to secularize America—I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen.’”
Obama’s speech also came as his rival for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton, was increasingly appealing to white racism. For example, her fundraiser and supporter, former Democratic vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, made and refused to apologize for the Archie Bunkerish statement that “If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position.”
Obama’s speech was not just a campaign speech. It was a major event in American politics. And with its unusual acknowledgement of some of the history and even present-day reality of discrimination and inequality, it connected with the aspirations of many who feel alienated by the direction of things, and who want real change. But Obama’s speech poses an upside-down and seriously wrong analysis of the character and causes of the oppression of Black people and, flowing from that, a very deadly trap rather than a road forward.
In Part I of our response, we focus on the nature of what Obama called “America’s improbable experiment with democracy,” up through and past the Civil War. In Part II, we’ll examine Obama’s call to get beyond the ’60s and how this speech fits into the real “larger meaning” of the Obama candidacy.
Flanked by no less than eight American flags, Barack Obama chose to speak on March 18 directly across the street from the place where the U.S. Constitution was signed. His speech begins by invoking the opening of the U.S. Constitution: “We the People…in Order to form a more perfect Union….”
He said, “Two hundred and twenty one years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street, a group of men gathered and, with these simple words, launched America’s improbable experiment in democracy. Farmers and scholars; statesmen and patriots who had traveled across an ocean to escape tyranny and persecution finally made real their declaration of independence at a Philadelphia convention that lasted through the spring of 1787.
The “Perfect Union” and Slavery
Obama avoided mentioning that in addition to “farmers and scholars…,” 12 of the 39 signers of the Constitution owned or managed slave-operated plantations. The principal “founding fathers” George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison owned slaves.
Obama does acknowledge what he calls the “stain” of the “original sin of slavery.” In Part II of this response, we will speak to Obama’s continued use of religion to mystify and mislead people. But here it is necessary to say specifically that this “original sin” invocation—with its implication that slavery was a violation of the commandments of (the non-existent) god—is both a whitewash of slavery and of the role of religion in sanctifying it. Slavery is not a “sin” according to the Bible. Slavery as a system is accepted and justified throughout the Bible. In all of Jesus’ many so-called miracles, not once did he ever free a slave from bondage. The only time slavery is condemned in the Bible is when “god’s” so-called chosen people are enslaved by non-believers. Further, the implication of “original sin” is that everyone shared in it. In fact, slavery was a horrific and foundational crime, committed against tens of millions of African and African-American people, instituted by and carried out in the interests of the original ruling classes of the United States, as we shall examine more closely in a moment.
Obama goes on to say that, “Of course, the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution—a Constitution that had at its very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law.”
The enshrinement of slavery in the Constitution reflected something fundamental about the nature of U.S. society at the time. In “Making Revolution and Emancipating Humanity, Part 1: Beyond the Narrow Horizon of Bourgeois Right” (available at revcom.us), Bob Avakian identifies that “[T]he laws themselves (and the Constitution which sets the basis for the laws) reflect and reinforce the essential relations in society, and most fundamentally the economic (production) relations of capitalism.” And later in that talk, Avakian emphasizes one of the most fundamental contributions of Karl Marx: “...Marx brought forward the materialist and dialectical understanding that the most basic and essential of all human activity is the production and reproduction of the material requirements of life, and that people can only carry out the struggle to produce, and reproduce, the material requirements of life by entering into very definite relations of production, and that on the basis of these production relations there arises a definite legal, political and ideological superstructure.”
In that light, we can solve the apparent paradox of why the Constitution of the United States did, at one and the same time, uphold slavery and the ideal of equal citizenship under the law. The answer lies in the fact that the British colonies in North America that rebelled against British rule were based on two different modes of exploitation.
In the southern states especially (but not exclusively), exploitation mainly took the form of slavery. Slaves were the literal property of their owners. Given only enough food and shelter to work and reproduce, they labored under the overseer’s whip, growing cotton, sugar, tobacco, indigo and rice on the plantations of the South.
In the North, the main mode of exploitation was capitalist wage slavery. Here, workers were—and had to be—“free” to sell their ability to work to a capitalist. That capitalist had to be “free” to appropriate the product of that worker’s labor, paying him only enough to live and reproduce. Capital had to be free to invest—now in shipping, now in manufacturing—to hire, fire, and move on in a dog-eat-dog quest for profit. The dynamic merchant and manufacturing capital in the North would not have been able to function based on slaves, or a constitution that systematized slave relations. Capitalism required a more flexible, more competitive, and in that sense more “free” market, including a “free” labor market. As Bob Avakian points out in Away With All Gods! Unchaining the Mind and Radically Changing the World, “If you buy a slave, and you don’t get back your initial investment, plus an additional amount, you will be in trouble economically. If you get rid of that slave before you’ve made back what you’ve invested in buying the slave, you’ve lost on your investment.”
These two modes of exploitation—capitalist wage slavery and chattel slavery—conflicted with each other but they also fed each other. And that is why the same Constitution that defined laws, a vision of society, and ideas suited to the “free” exchange of a worker’s labor power for an employer’s wages also legalized slavery, where the laborer was the literal property of the slavemaster.
The emergence of capitalism in the U.S. was built to a great degree on the wealth extracted from slaves. “New York Divided: Slavery and the Civil War,” a virtual display of the New York Historical Society (nydivided.org) gives a glimpse of the particular role of New York City in all this: “Raw cotton dominated the role of the United States in world trade. In some years, it constituted 60% of the nation’s total exports. Southern cotton supplied 7/8 of the world supply. Shrewdly, New York merchants became middlemen between planters in the American South and the cloth-making mills of Britain and France. Although slavery in New York ended in 1827, the city profited from slave-grown cotton.”
The coexistence (even with tension) of capitalist wage slavery with chattel slavery in the South had a profound impact not just in the realm of the economics, but also in the politics and collective mentality of whites in the United States. The literal dehumanization of Black slaves was accompanied by and enforced through pervasive white supremacist laws and racist thinking. The “New York Divided: Slavery and the Civil War” display exposes how all this was reflected in the laws and ideas of the time: “Economic interest slanted New York politics and public opinion toward the South. White newspaper editors praised slavery as a benevolent system of labor and the only fit condition for people of African descent in America. Discrimination and ridicule greeted black New Yorkers every day.”
Here we see how, on the economic foundation of slavery, laws were passed, and thinking promoted through the media and so on, that justified slavery on the basis of lies about Black people being inferior. And that all permeated society very broadly, to the extent that a Black man walking down the street of New York City was subjected to both overt discrimination and racist ridicule “every day.”
Obscuring Class Divisions
The stamp of slavery impacted everything in developing U.S. society. In the South, and the North, it ameliorated and blurred the distinctions between oppressed and oppressor among whites. Even though in some cases free Blacks and white workers toiled together, the branding of Native Americans and Blacks as subhumans and pariahs (social outcasts), contributed to exploited white workers and other whites identifying with the system.
In fact, if you want to talk about the real “genius” of the U.S. Constitution, much of that lies in the ability of Jefferson and others, as ideologues of upholders of slavery, to fashion a coherent shared “we the people” mentality and sense of community between exploited whites and the U.S. ruling class based on both the economic enslavement of Black people and the pariah status of Blacks (and Native Americans) who were not part of “we the people.” And in doing so, Jefferson obscured the foundational divide in society between the classes that own and monopolize the means of producing great wealth on the one hand, and those who do not and were forced, either by whip or by hunger, to produce that wealth. That foundational divide in society remains today, around the world. (For an in-depth exposure of the nature of Jeffersonian democracy and its role in the history and present day reality of the United States, listen to Bob Avakian’s talk “Communism and Jeffersonian Democracy” available at bobavakian.net and at revcom.us.)
In short, the appearance of a relatively harmonious “we the people,” in search of a “perfect union” was not stained by slavery, as Obama claims, it was sustained by slavery—that is, it was framed by, conditioned by, and built on slavery (and the brutal dispossession of and near genocide of Native Americans). And this had economic, legal, and ideological implications.
This was true in spite of the fact that there were real and even violent divisions between the new U.S. ruling class and white workers as well as other strata of whites. Shay’s Rebellion, for example, was an armed uprising of poor white farmers against egregious taxation in 1786 and 1787. It was brutally suppressed by over 4,000 troops. That uprising served as something of a wake-up call to the new American ruling class to the need for a unified national government and army to “ensure domestic tranquility.”
And yet, conflicts like this were in large part subsumed by the fact that even such poor white farmers were supposedly part of the “we” in “we the people.” Shay’s Rebellion was violently suppressed, but the reaction to Shay’s Rebellion was not to paint white farmers with the kind of brush applied to Blacks and Native Americans. They were not slaughtered wholesale and dehumanized as a people (as in the case of Native Americans). They did not face the level of institutionalized terror and pariah status that was applied to Blacks.
The Civil War
In his speech Obama says: “[W]ords on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States. What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk—to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.”
First, it must be noted that Obama leaves out rebellions that went up against slavery from the onset. Rebelling slaves were subjected to the most horrific beatings and brutal deaths. South Carolina authorities arrested Denmark Vesey, accused him of plotting an uprising, and hung him and 35 of his followers. And yet, again and again, slaves rose up against slavery. As opposed to the official narrative that Black slaves were passive, there were over 200 slave revolts. This very critical part of the struggle is apparently something Obama does not want to include in the “national conversation about race.”
Later movements against the oppression of Black people, the protests and civil disobedience Obama acknowledges (and the uprisings and rebellions he does not), were met with Klan terror (often orchestrated by the FBI), police dogs, and overt government repression. Many of those who “were willing to do their part” did so at the cost of their lives. And while some of those who rebelled against this may have seen this as an attempt to “narrow the gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time,” as Obama says, many others gravitated to and came to take up and develop a very radical critique of this society and the need for revolution in one form or another. In 1964, for example, Malcolm X said, “No, I’m not an American. I’m one of the 22 million black people who are the victims of Americanism. One of the 22 million black people who are the victims of democracy, nothing but disguised hypocrisy. So, I’m not standing here speaking to you as an American, or a patriot, or a flag-saluter, or a flag-waver—no, not I. I’m speaking as a victim of this American system.”
Obama claims that “The answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution—a Constitution that had at its very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time.”
In fact, the “answer to the slavery question” was exactly NOT“embedded in our Constitution”—that’s why a Civil War had to be fought! The Constitution—which laid out the legitimating norms and rules of politics—could no longer contain the way that antagonisms that had been intensifying between capitalism and the southern slaveholding system were finding expression in the political sphere. This crisis finally had to be settled in the realm of political power; and when the Civil War broke out, the battle in the military sphere became decisive. Underlying the political crisis, and the subsequent war, was the developing antagonism between the two modes of production.
For example, the huge cotton crop produced in the slave South—60% of all exports from the U.S.—went to the textile mills in Europe instead of the growing textile industry in New England. An even more fundamental contradiction was that the slave system was driven to expand to find new land. The primitive nature of slave agriculture did not involve significant investment in technology or modern farming techniques; it depended on the brutal exploitation of slaves—the most important “tool” in the process. Further, as these primitive forms of agriculture depleted farmland, slave states where the land was exhausted had a tendency to become areas for breeding slaves who were “sold down the river” to regions where slave agriculture had not yet exhausted the land. And all this created tremendous pressure on the slave system to expand west. It was this westward expansion of slavery that was behind the U.S. war on Mexico—“Remember the Alamo”—and the theft by the U.S. of a huge portion of Mexico.
Meanwhile, capitalist manufacturing advanced rapidly in the North. In a ten-year span, from 1850 to 1860, the amount of capital invested in U.S. factories doubled—to one billion dollars in 1860. The capitalists—centered in the North—also felt tremendous pressure to expand west, to claim new markets for their products, and to exploit the land and resources—especially gold. The slave system and the rapidly developing capitalist system were bumping into each other. For example, in “Bloody Kansas,” abolitionists clashed violently with pro-slavery forces in a protracted guerrilla war during the 1850s, in which John Brown played an important role on the anti-slavery side. The battle focused on whether Kansas would enter the union as a “free state” or a slave state—the decision of which would affect the balance of political power in Congress and the Electoral College.
When war finally broke out, the northern capitalists pursued the Civil War initially to save the Union with their mode of exploitation in the dominant position and slavery subordinate to that, and to firmly settle the question of political power—with themselves in the dominant position. But once things go to war, new dynamics come into play and new things emerge, and as the war went on with the ferocity and duration unexpected by any of the original parties, the northern ruling class came to the conclusion that the Confederacy would have to be thoroughly defeated. It was not until 1863, nearly two years into the war, that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation (that freed the slaves in the Confederate states) went into effect. And the North did not launch decisive military assaults on the South until late in the war.
On the other hand, Blacks, as well as many whites, made great sacrifices in the Civil War, fighting to end slavery. Former slaves ran away from their plantations at great risk in order to enlist in the Union Army. Many white farmers, workers, and anti-slavery intellectuals enlisted to end slavery. Initially Lincoln refused to allow Blacks to fight. When he did, they were paid—for most of the war—less than half the pay of white soldiers. But Black soldiers fought with unique determination and courage. By the end of the Civil War, 200,000 Blacks fought and almost a fifth of them died—a much higher death rate than white soldiers in the Union Army.
The Civil War set loose far greater societal changes than either the southern slave owners or the northern capitalists aimed for or envisioned. A war launched to settle the conflict between oppressive ruling classes provided an opening for the masses to fight in their own interests, although their ability to do that was hindered by the still nascent nature of the proletariat, the class whose interests lie in overthrowing all oppression, as well as the lack of organized communist leadership. It was this struggle of different classes, in contention, and not the “gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time”—as Obama claims—that drove forward this Civil War.
Obama wraps up his version of the Civil War by saying, “This was one of the tasks we set forth at the beginning of this campaign—to continue the long march of those who came before us, a march for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America.”
The Civil War did, for the last time in the history of the United States, represent, in part, a convergence of the struggle against oppression, the interests of the proletariat—the oppressed and exploited workers of all nationalities—with the interests (conflicted as they were) of the U.S. ruling class. But that momentary convergence of interests came to an end with the end of the Civil War.
After the defeat of the Confederacy, Union troops remained in the South for about ten years. During that period, those troops backed up Black ex-slaves and some poor whites in their struggle for land and political rights. But once northern capital had secured new terms for its arrangement with the overseers of southern agriculture, and established its dominant position politically in the United States, they withdrew their troops. A new, “more perfect union” was formed: capitalism was to dominate the entire country; the white plantation owners were to be given free reign in the South within that larger economy; and Black people were to be reduced to semi-feudal, near-slave conditions as sharecroppers.
The oppression of Black people evolved into new, but still ferociously exploitive, forms. The sharecropping system that followed the Civil War was barely a cut above slavery. Black people still worked from “can’t see to can’t see” for white masters and lived in abject poverty. After the withdrawal of federal troops, Black people again lost all rights, including the right to vote. And these conditions were enforced by law and lynch mob—over 5,000 people were lynched in this era in gruesome barbaric spectacles often involving thousands of whites. The racist mythology that justified the enslavement of Black people, including invoking Biblical scripture, continued—now to justify segregationist terror and Jim Crow inequality. The history of the Civil War was rewritten in the North to be a “tragic fight between brothers”; while in the South, it was recast as a trial by “god” for his (new) “chosen people,” the southern whites.
And this went on for decades, until another wave of dramatic changes in the mode of exploitation drove Black people off the land in the South and into the cities and factories of the North.
All this got challenged during the turbulent years of the 1960s. Through that rebellious era, racist attitudes were broadly and sharply challenged. Society split down the middle. You were either part of the problem—the system—or you were part of the solution. Millions of whites “deserted” the system, and as part of that, supported and took up the struggle against the oppression of Black people.
In Part II of this response to Obama’s speech, we’ll address his central claim that especially now, the legacy of the ’60s is “divisive” and must be moved beyond. We will bring out why it is that between the oppressor and the oppressed, between the ruling class and the people, there can be no “perfect union.” And we’ll take up how Obama’s candidacy, far from promising any sort of “better day” for the people, is actually designed to, and working to, put the chains on even more tightly.
Revolution newspaper suggested further reading:
Bob Avakian, Democracy: Can’t We Do Better Than That? (Chicago, Banner Press, 1986).
People always have been the foolish victims of deception and self-deception in politics, and they always will be until they have learnt to seek out the interests of some class or other behind all moral, religious, political and social phrases, declarations and promises. Champions of reforms and improvements will always be fooled by the defenders of the old order until they realise that every old institution, however barbarous and rotten it may appear to be, is kept going by the forces of certain ruling classes.
V. I. Lenin, The Three Sources and Three Components of Marxism, 1913
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