Black History Month

Slavery: Yesterday and Today

By Bob Avakian

Revolutionary Worker #896, March 2, 1997

I want to talk about the utter bankruptcy of this system which has long since outlived any positive role, and how it does need to be brought to dust and swept from the face of earth as soon as possible. These days, one of the sharpest expressions of this in the U.S. is ways in which this system is even bringing back aspects of slavery. This is true both in a figurative and in a literal sense. In an overall way, this is increasingly being brought up by Black people. And among Black people, as well as more broadly, the slogan "We Are Human Beings--We Demand a Better World! We will Not Accept Slavery in Any Form!" strikes a deep chord with more and more of the masses. This reflects something very real--both the literal aspects of restoring slavery as well as the more figurative and general sense of enslavement--the overall intensification of various forms of exploitation and oppression.

In this connection, let's look at what has been raised by some prisoners in letters to the RW. Fairly broadly there is the phenomenon where prisoners, because of the circumstances they're in, have the opportunity--and they seize on the opportunity--to do a lot of reading. They study philosophy, politics and history, and so on. And in these letters from some prisoners something very interesting and significant was pointed to: in the Constitutional Amendments passed after the Civil War which formally abolished legal slavery, an exception was made. In those amendments it was stipulated that there cannot be any enforced, involuntary servitude, i.e. slavery, except in conditions of imprisonment. And these prisoners were making the point that this has been in the Constitution all along, and that today this is very acute--the rights that the Constitution is supposed to provide for people in society at large, do not apply to prisoners--there's no recognition of those rights for inmates. This applies not only to all kinds of everyday things in life but it also applies to labor: prisoners can be made to work in all kinds of conditions that masses outside, at least theoretically, are not supposed to be made to work in.

Now, something important to recognize with all the talk about crime is that the bourgeoisie and those who follow in its wake always like to start "in the middle of the story." They always want to start in mid-air. They always want to talk about the symptoms and effects of what their system is causing--"look at the masses into all this shit," "look at them doing all this crime," "look at them doing all this shit in the streets, "look how they're killing each other," "look at how they're having babies when they are still just kids themselves," and all this kind of stuff. The bourgeoisie doesn't want to look at the whole picture. They don't want people seeing the whole picture--they don't want to start at the beginning, at the foundation, with the cause instead of just the effects and symptoms.

What we have to do is look at the whole picture--look at it with dialectical and historical materialism--get down to the real problem, and the real solution.

Who Really Owes Whom?

I was watching a tape of a talk show--one of these tabloid talk shows, where some fool was talking about the masses, including the masses of Black people and immigrants, how they are lazy and on welfare and all this garbage you hear all the time. I was watching this tape with someone else around and I turned to them and said: "You know, this shit just makes me sick."

First of all, millions and millions of Black people in the U.S. work their asses off every day in all kinds of shit jobs as well as in more middle class positions, but especially in all kinds of jobs that the people who are talking this shit would never take in a million years. But, besides that--if you want to get right down on the ground with it, if not a single Black person ever worked a single minute for the rest of their entire lives, they've already long since paid their dues, with slavery and sharecropping and factory work and all kinds of back-breaking, low-paying jobs. So I don't want to hear anymore of this talk about how they don't want to work.

If you want to talk about who owes whom--if you keep in mind everything the capitalists (as well as the slaveowners) have accumulated through all the labor Black people have carried out in this country and the privileges that have been passed out to people on that basis--there wouldn't even be a U.S. imperialism as there is today if it weren't for the exploitation of Black people under this system. Not that the exploitation of Black people is the whole of it--there has been a lot of other people exploited, both in the U.S. and internationally, by this ruling class. But there wouldn't be a U.S. imperialism in the way there is today if it weren't for the exploitation of Black people under slavery and then after slavery in the sharecropping system and in the plants and other workplaces in a kind of caste-like oppression in the cities. So I don't want to hear this shit anymore: Black people don't have to work another single day for you bloodsuckers! Let's put it that way. You already way owe them, so let's just get that clear.

Jails and Chains

The bourgeois politicians, pundits, commentators, and all the rest always like to start in the middle of the story, but if we step back and look at it more sweepingly, we can see what's happening. They always want to talk "convicts" or whatever--they aren't working hard enough, they have too many rights to pump iron or get cable TV, and blah, blah, blah. Now the majority of people in jail are Black and Latino--they come from among the very peoples that the ruling class has most viciously exploited. Specifically in the case of the African-American people, the bourgeoisie has exploited them over generations and centuries. And now, because of the workings of the system itself, rather than exploiting and oppressing them in the ways it has, the ruling class is working out a new vicious scheme.

This is not just a paranoid notion, this is a real and conscious policy by the ruling class--it is very deliberate and it is being carried out very systematically. It is a policy that says: "We don't have any way to profitably exploit many of these people in the formal economy any longer. So what we are going to do is to criminalize a whole section of them, particularly the youth in the ghettos. We're going to give them `criminal jackets' and we're going to get them caught up in the `criminal justice system.' We're going to bust them for these little petty things and give them a criminal record. And, since we know they will have very few options--we have already declared that many of them have no future--we are going to catch them in some crime again and we're going to send them to prison. Then, when we get them in prison, we can exploit them in ways we couldn't exploit them outside in the formal economy." Now, perhaps, for awhile, there was a certain "spontaneity" to how the bourgeoisie took this up, but this has been developed into a more conscious and systematic policy.

If we look at the whole picture, this is a matter of literally picking people up from one situation where they can't be profitably exploited in the formal economy and putting them into another situation where they can not only be profitably exploited, but they are almost literally being exploited in outright slavery in certain significant aspects.

What, after all, is this thing with the revival of chain gangs if not a conscious symbol of slavery? You can't put Black people in chains and not call to mind slavery in this country! Who can see Black people in chains in Alabama, or Mississippi, or wherever, and not instantly and logically think of slavery? And, beyond the mere symbolism here--which is outrageous enough--there are real, material aspects of actual slavery in the way prison labor is exploited, whether or not it is in the form of chain gangs.

And the objective of the ruling class in all this is not just economic--it is also ideological and political. It is an all-around and intense effort to dehumanize the masses of people in the inner cities in particular--to degrade them, socially and ideologically as well as economically--and to make them appear less than human, to paint them as objects of fear, contempt, and hatred, for other sections of people, whose discontent is growing in the context of increased economic hardship and anxiety and social instability and upheaval of various kinds. It is a systematic attempt to politically surround and suppress the masses in these inner cities--to segregate and "cordon" and contain them--subjecting them to police terror and police-state conditions and directing the inevitable explosion of their anger towards each other.

Flags of Oppression

I made a point in an article awhile back about communist stand-up comedians--this is included in the book Reflections, Sketches and Provocations--that once the ruling class brought in Reagan as president, and everything that went along with him, it was hard to do a parody of the ruling class anymore. In everything they say and do these people, in effect, parody themselves. It's hard to figure out a creative way to do satire of them because they're like a walking satire of themselves. They just continually get more and more outrageous--it is hard to keep up with them. That was true then and it's becoming increasingly true. Slavery is another sharp example of this.

When I wrote the morality essays* about a year or so ago, I said that you won't find representatives of the ruling class openly defending slavery (except maybe people like Jesse Helms and Pat Robertson if you get them in the right circumstances). But then up jumps this cracker in Alabama--not just any old cracker but a member of the state senate who was also a candidate for Congress in the Republican Party primaries--and the Republican Party is one of the two main bourgeois political parties. Now there is this debate about the Confederate flag--whether they should keep it at the state capitol buildings, or something like that--and this guy not only argues that they got to keep it, but in the course of making this argument he comes out and openly defends slavery!

Now just look at the bourgeoisie in the U.S. They have this bourgeois revolution in the 18th century which they can't even complete in one stroke: they get rid of England, but they can't get rid of slavery. Then, almost 100 years later, with the Civil War, they more or less complete their bourgeois revolution by getting rid of slavery. But they can't even celebrate the Civil War.

A few years ago this movie Glory was made about a Black regiment in the Civil War--and overall it is a very good movie. But the bourgeoisie can't even glory in the Civil War. How do they present it? It's a tragedy--it's a terrible thing. Wrong! That's the one really good thing that the bourgeoisie ever did in this country--it was far more liberating than their War of Independence against England--but they can't even feel good about it, especially now.

So here they are, just a few years before the year 2000, going back on themselves. They can't even put forward the one thing they did that was really very liberating. There was that song in the Civil War, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," which was a rallying cry for the northern Union cause--"Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord..." It was wrapped up in religious garb, but on the side of the North that really was a glorious struggle. It was objectively glorious, because it was fought over the question of slavery and it resulted in the abolition of slavery. And to a large degree the motivation of those who fought in it was glorious, because many were consciously fighting and sacrificing to abolish slavery, notwithstanding the hesitations and vacillations of Lincoln and other leaders of the Union.

From the standpoint of the proletariat, and with our method of dialectical and historical materialism, we can definitely uphold that war as glorious. Whereas the bourgeoisie, proceeding from its class interests and with its class outlook, doesn't see it that way. They see it as something they had to go through to keep their country together and to come out with the bourgeois class, as opposed to the slaveowning class, firmly in control and to further unleash the development of the bourgeois mode of production. But that's as far as they can go in saying anything good about it.

And even now they can't even get rid of the Confederate flag! The American flag isn't even bad enough for them, they can't get rid of the Confederate flag. "This isn't a symbol of slavery, it's a symbol of southern culture"--that's what those who uphold the Confederate flag say (at least most of them, and at least when they are in public). Well, what is southern culture an expression of? What was that southern culture and way of life--what was it based on? Slavery! The exploitation of Black people on the southern plantations, and the many and vicious forms of social inequality and political oppression that accompanied this exploitation, not only during slavery but for generations after slavery was ended--this is the foundation of the whole "southern way of life." That is what the Confederate flag is a symbol of, and there's no getting away from that fact.

Slavery and Reality

And just to give a little more historical perspective about this country--about the nature and outlook of the bourgeoisie--when I was a kid in school (which isn't that long ago!), this same line that slavery wasn't that vicious and was even good for the slaves themselves could be found in the textbooks that we were given. Then, through the whole tremendous struggle and social upheaval of the '60s (and into the '70s), many of the textbooks were changed. The most obvious outrageous lies--like how slavery was some sort of real genteel system that was actually good for the slaves--got written out of most textbooks.

But now here comes this Alabama State Senator and Congressional Candidate dredging up all this old reactionary lie, saying that slavery was a gentle and genteel system where the children of the slaves and the children of the slaveowners played together and took care of each other--if a slave got sick they were taken care of by the master, it was really a very compassionate system! Now this on the one hand is ludicrous, but really is not funny at all--it is deadly serious. It is not just a case of some "lone nut" or a "solitary cracker," because where did this guy get the nerve to come out openly and say this shit?

The fact is that powerful forces within the ruling class are encouraging this and the ruling class as a whole sees the necessity to create the kind of political and ideological atmosphere where talk like this can be promoted.

You would think that we shouldn't have to go through this yet again--to demonstrate what the slave system was really all about and the almost unbelievable horror it represented for the slaves. But we do have to show this yet again, so we will. We are going to have to do more exposure of this once again.

Upon hearing about this whole thing with this Alabama State Senator, I wrote up some comments which were printed in the RW. I have this book by Charles Dickens, American Notes, based on his travels in the United States in the 1840s. In this book Dickens does some very good and very effective exposure. He has a chapter called "Slavery," and in the beginning of this chapter Dickens directly denounces, in very compelling terms, the horrendous and horrific character of slavery in the U.S. But then his approach is that it will be even more compelling to let the slaveowners themselves reveal the horrors of the slave system, the atrocities widely and systematically committed. So what he does is to include pages and pages and pages of descriptions, taken right from the southern newspapers of that time, where slaveowners have put in notices asking for help in tracking down and capturing runaway slaves.

There is description after description of slaves who have a bullet in their neck, runaway slaves with their manacles, neck irons, leg irons, and contraptions over their heads that sound a bell when they walk, slaves with limbs that have been broken and twisted, and on and on and on. Dickens's point is very well taken: you want to know what the slave system is like, look at this right from the slavemasters themselves.

And as I said, we shouldn't have to do exposure like this all over again, at the approach of the 21st century; but we do, so we will. We have to bring this out once again in very searing terms, to bring out from many angles what the slave system was all about, and what it had to do with the whole development of the bourgeois mode of production in this country and the world. And what its "legacy" is--what the forms of exploitation and oppression are today on which this system rests--the exploitation and oppression of the masses of Black people and of the proletariat and the masses as a whole.

See also: "How This System Has Betrayed Black People: Crucial Turning Points" RW894 and "Forced Segregation: A Neighborhood Story" RW895.

* The morality essays are "Preaching from a Pulpit of Bones: The Reality Between William Bennett's `Virtues,' Or We Need Morality, But Not Traditional Morality" and "Putting and End to `Sin' Or We Need Morality, But Not Traditional Morality (Part 2)." Excerpts from these essays--including a series on "What Is Communist Morality"--appeared in the RW from January 28, 1996 through May 12, 1996.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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