From Dictatorship and Democracy, And the Socialist Transition to Communism

Part 4:
A Historical Thought Experiment:
What Would It Have Taken to Enforce Forty Acres and a Mule?

by Bob Avakian

Revolutionary Worker #1253, October 3, 2004, posted at

Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from the edited text of a recent talk by Bob Avakian, Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party. This talk was given to a group of supporters of the RCP who are studying the historical experience of socialism and the dictatorship of the proletariat, and preparing to take up the challenge of popularizing this experience and engaging in discussion and debate with others about it, particularly on campuses but also more broadly.

The entire talk is online at Footnotes and subheads have been added to this excerpt.

I often think of this when I hear all this stuff about how these basically fascistic elements in the ruling class want to build up Ronald Reagan as their patron saint and icon. We are always told about what a kindly old guy he was. I remember back in the '70s when the Symbionese Liberation Army kidnapped Patty Hearst. Now, their political and ideological line was all screwed up. There was a lot of bad shit they did. But nonetheless, here they took Patty Hearst, and one of the demands they made was that the Hearst family fund food distribution to the poor in California. And the Hearst family agreed. Right away, look what this shows you about this society. Why do you have to have a demand that a rich family fund food for the poor? Think about what that reflects about the nature and divisions in this society right there. But the interesting thing, the revealing thing about this was, when the Hearst family agreed, and they set up these distribution points where food would be distributed to poor people, Ronald Reagan came out and said that he hoped there would be an outbreak of food botulism--deadly food poisoning.

Now nobody can talk to me about Ronald Reagan the kindly gentleman. Besides all of the people he was responsible for slaughtering in the most unimaginable ways in places like Guatemala--you know, I wrote about this in the Democracy book and nothing I said there was exaggeration. In fact I don't even think I fully captured the horror of it--where, under the direction ultimately of the U.S., these regimes one after another in Guatemala, including that of the born-again evangelical butcher, Rios Montt--the army would be dispatched, they would go into a village and they would literally line up everyone in the village, execute all of the men of fighting age, rape all of the women and then kill many of them, and take the little children down by the river and bash their heads in. Time and time again. All ultimately presided over by the kindly, avuncular character Ronald Reagan.

Besides all that, what possible reason could you have for saying that you hope there is a mass outbreak of food poisoning when poor people are getting food? What possible reason could you have for thinking that is a funny joke? What kind of outlook does that reflect? What kind of position in society does that reflect? What kind of rule over society is being given expression to in something like that?

So this is a dictatorship. And the fact is that all democracies are ultimately part of and an expression of a dictatorship in the fundamental sense of what a dictatorship is, that is, the rule by one class or another. Even the democracy that develops for the masses of people under socialism--and we have to learn how to give this even better and more full expression--but even the democracy that develops for the masses of people under socialism is part of and could not exist without the dictatorship of the proletariat, the rule by the proletariat over society. Without that state power, without that political rule, the masses of people would have the same rights they have now. In other words, essentially none, when it comes down to the fundamental issues.

The Betrayal of Reconstruction

Many examples of this could be cited. One historical analogy that I think is helpful and that I have used a number of times--I read something where William Hinton, who wrote the book Fanshen,brought out this example--is the South in the U.S. after the Civil War. The Civil War involved the deaths of something like 600,000 people on both sides, which was a significant percentage of the population of the U.S. at that time. At the end of the Civil War, they had what was called Reconstruction. You see the Spike Lee movies, where it has this logo that refers to Forty Acres and a Mule--that was supposed to be the implementation of that promise made by the Freedman's Bureau, that they would give the former slaves forty acres and a mule. In other words, they would have land and rights to go with it.

There were some attempts, backed up by the federal troops who remained in the South for ten years after the Civil War, to implement programs like this. And this also benefited a number of poor white people who got land and rights that they had never had either. But in particular this was geared to meeting the needs of the former slaves.

But in 1877 this was reversed. The key thing was that the federal troops were withdrawn from the South, and the masses of people there, in particular the masses of Black people, were left to the tender mercies of the former plantation owners, the Ku Klux Klan, and the rest of the wealthy and oppressive classes, and also the northern bankers and others who were moving in to take advantage of the triumph of the North in the Civil War and to profit from the operation of the economy in the South more fully than they had before. A lot of the cotton from the South used to go to England before the Civil War. That was one of the big disputes, one of the big conflicts that led to the Civil War. Ultimately it was a question of slavery, but one of the expressions of this was a lot of the cotton that got produced in the South, or picked in the South, was sent to England instead of New England. After the Civil War that changed. The Northern interests, the developing capitalist interests centered in the North, became much more not only politically dominant, but economically invested in and increasingly dominant in the South.

And then of course another aspect of the Civil War was the battle over the opening to the West, or the expansion to the West. The whole Texas thing was a focal point of that. They've got this movie out now, The Alamo , which I haven't seen yet but I've seen the trailers, so I know what they are doing with it. But Texas was a big focal point--there were people like Jim Bowie and others who fought for the slave system, who were either slave owners or slave traders or overseers and things like this. And there were a lot of places where this struggle was being played out. Texas was one place.

Another place this got battled out was Kansas. That's where people like John Brown went, for example. Because Kansas was a state that was part of the Missouri Compromise. Missouri would be a slave state, Kansas would be decided by who got there. So a lot of people were racing to move in. Slave owners and people who wanted to have a "free" economy. And John Brown moved into that and was part of that whole struggle. I don't have time to go into all that, but it is a very interesting story about how they freed slaves and went and actually assassinated some of the leading slave owners who were coming into the state. It's a whole interesting story, but it's beyond what I can get into today. But it is worth reading about. Dubois, for example, wrote a biography of John Brown which gets into some of these things.

In any case--I'm getting a little bit far afield here--but the point is that Reconstruction, to get back to that, Reconstruction was abandoned in 1877. And it is very interesting that the federal troops that were withdrawn were used in two ways immediately. One, they were used to crush some strikes that were carried on by a largely or essentially white labor movement on the railroads and in other industries, and they were used to carry out the final defeat and slaughter of the Native Americans. In other words, this was around the time of the whole Custer thing, and although that was a victory for the Sioux and a debacle for the cavalry and all the interests it represented, this whole juggernaut was coming behind it. And it was reinforced by these federal troops that were pulled out of the South.

So the reversal of Reconstruction put an end to any kind of democratic upsurge in the South--in other words, something that would have still been within the framework of bourgeois society but would have led to something different than the sharecropping system, virtually a feudal kind of exploitation that the former slaves in their masses were subjected to, where they were always in debt, all but literally chained to the land in various ways, and subject to the tender mercies of the KKK and all that. Instead of that, you could have had a system where at least large numbers owned small parcels of land. But that was not really in the interests of the bourgeoisie. They were interested in monopolizing that land and buying their way into this new plantation system, and profiting from it. And politically they were not interested in it either.

Enforcing Forty Acres and a Mule

When you talk about a dictatorship, one way to get at this is to pose the question: what would it have taken to enforce that policy of forty acres and a mule? To be blunt, a lot of people would have had to die. I'm sorry. There were a lot of former slave owners and Ku Klux Klansmen and so on--I'm not saying that you would have just gone out and assassinated, or executed, a bunch of people--I'm saying there would have been armed resistance by the KKK and the rest of them to this system. They were already carrying out the armed terrorizing of the masses of Black people. Well, imagine if this program had actually been implemented in a thoroughgoing way. The former slave owners, who wanted to re-establish themselves as plantation owners in this now sort of feudal form of exploitation through sharecropping, would have fought this, and they would have organized forces to fight it. And they would have funded and mobilized the Ku Klux Klan. They would have gotten all their own confederate associations back together. It would have been bloody. And a lot of people would have died. It would have been necessary for a lot of people to die in order to not have the former slaves re-enslaved in all but literal terms.

It would have taken a dictatorship and that dictatorship would have had to exert violence. And the question is: which would have been better? It depends on where you sit. If you were one of those former slaves, or even among the class of poor whites in the area, it would have been objectively much better, even with the violence, to have that system. But if you are sitting where the bourgeoisie is sitting, that is something to be avoided--that turmoil, that violence--because it doesn't run in accord with your interests of re-establishing in slightly different form a system of exploitation. And it doesn't conform with your needs for a stable form of rule, then, which is not involved in a virtual continuation of the civil war, even if under new conditions where now you are dominating the South.

If you were a former slave, or someone who sympathizes with the former slaves, and thinks these kinds of horrendous oppression and terror and exploitation should be abolished, you look at this very differently. To say "Well, it's unfortunate that we had to go through this hundred years, essentially, of this literal terror, after the Civil War, but that was necessary in order to unify and stabilize the country"--to you that is an outrage, an abomination.

Most of you have probably seen on video, or heard about this speech I gave last year. I quoted a psychologist who studied Black people in the South during this historical period we are talking about, from basically the end of Reconstruction in the 1870s until the 1960s. In that period, during the early 1900s actually, he studied Black people, and made the statement that every Black person in the South lived under a death sentence. It might never be carried out, but it always could be. And it could be carried out not only through the more formal structures of the society, but in a totally arbitrary way in the middle of the night. And you never knew what you might do that would bring this horrendous kind of death down upon you. You could be--this is captured by Richard Wright in his novels and writings- -you could be a young Black boy who stumbled upon a white woman alone by herself, and be lynched for nothing more than that. And you can just go on and on.

Coming to Terms with the Reality of Black Oppression

I think we have not really come to terms with what this means. It will only be when we have a new society that we are really going to fully come to terms with what it means that a whole people have lived through this experience. And now, instead of the KKK you have the police. You have changed conditions. People don't live in rural areas, isolated. They live crowded in urban slums. And you don't have the night-riding KKK by and large, you have the police--you had them then, too, but the police now represent the concentrated form for exercising this terror.

I told a story in a speech last year about when we were doing work in the projects and meeting many young Black mothers, who would become very upset once they saw that their children, especially the boys, would grow to be physically large, because they knew that was going to be a "provocation" to the police. For no other reason than being a large Black male.

And we have not really come to terms yet, and we never will until we get to a whole new society, with what this has meant, and all the different effects this has had. The terror people have lived with--you talk about terror. I can remember stories, and reading books about lynchings and so on--like the Emmett Till case for example, a famous case of lynching in the `50s. When the night-riders came to take him away, his uncle begged them to allow him to beat Emmett Till so that they wouldn't take him off and do what they did to him. Now, imagine being in that position. Multiply that by millions of people living this, generation after generation.

Would it have been worth it to enforce a different kind of rule, even with the violence that would have been necessary to put down the armed resistance to this, in order to abolish that whole experience? Well, where you sit is going to determine how you answer that. To the bourgeoisie, the answer was no. But to those people who want a whole different kind of society, without these horrendous forms of exploitation and oppression, and all the terror and torment, psychological as well as physical that goes with it, we have a profoundly different answer. It's not that we relish violence, or want to maintain a society where one part has to dictate over another even if that "another" is a minority of former exploiters. We want to get beyond all that. But you can't get beyond all that without going through it. And whether you think that is worth it or not, or justified or not, depends on where you sit and what you think is important.

Is this sort of incidental to you, an unfortunate by-product of history that people had to go through all this, leaving aside everything else the rulers of the U.S. were doing in the world. We could talk about that all day and next week. But is it an unfortunate by-product of history, or is it something that is completely unacceptable and intolerable? Well, that depends on where you sit in the overall structure of this society, in the overall relations of production, in the overall process of the functioning of society. Not that people automatically come to an understanding of the essence of this, but once you see the essence of it then you are going to look at that differently depending on what you think is important, with what class of people you identify or sympathize with and support.

You don't have to literally be among that class to side with them. Here again comes in the role of intellectuals, most of whom don't come from among the most exploited and oppressed, but nevertheless can come to understand the role of the exploited and oppressed in changing society, and can come to identify with them and even play a role in bringing them forward to achieve these things.

So, there isn't a form of democracy which isn't part of a dictatorship. The question is what kind of dictatorship, what kind of rule, by which class, for what objectives, to accomplish what ends, to bring about what kind of society and what kind of world? And no, we don't believe--despite the constant charges and distortions, we don't believe--that "the ends justify the means." We don't believe that you can--this is part of the negative aspect of the experience of our class in ruling society that we have to sum up more deeply--you can't fall into the pragmatic argument, or the instrumentalist argument, that whatever works toward the attainment of your goals is justified. Because if you use means and methods that are fundamentally in conflict with your objectives, then they are going to undermine what you are actually working toward, and you will end up working for something else, which is going to be the same old thing, even if it calls itself something else.

So, our means have to be consistent with our ends, and the methods we use have to be consistent with and flow from and serve our objectives in a fundamental sense. Now sometimes there are contradictions in this. Like Mao said, we are advocates of the abolition of war, but it is necessary to wage revolutionary war in order to finally put an end to war. Well, some people can't understand that. But it is understandable. Because, in order to eliminate something you have to eliminate the underlying causes of it. So, it is necessary to make revolution to abolish a system which lives by exploiting and oppressing people, and which enforces that rule through all kinds of reactionary destruction and violence, namely war.

There are lots of contradictions like this. We are for abolishing a situation in which there are dictatorships, in which one class rules over another. We want to get beyond that. But, in order to get beyond that, we have to go through it.

So, in short, if you don't want the masses of people to be forever subjected to these unspeakable forms of oppression and exploitation, you have to overthrow the state as it exists, the dictatorship that exists which reinforces the relations of exploitation and oppression, and establish a new form of rule which corresponds to the process and serves the process of abolishing those relations.