Chapter 3: Racism, Revolution and Anti-racism
Bourgeois revolution the challenge beginsAt a time when the bourgeoisie was proclaiming all Men are created equal, that they are
endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights, many white people reconciled the subjugation of black slaves and colonial peoples by rationalising that somehow they were, by nature, not fully human. However, on the other side of the ideological struggle, many white people also sought to extend the universalising principles of bourgeois democracy to the slaves. In the revolutionary ferment of late 1700s United States, lifelong and hereditary enslavement of some 20% of the population began to stand out as a monstrous aberration. In response to a slave revolt in Boston in 1774, Abigail Adams told her husband John Adams, the later US president, it always appeared a most iniquitous scheme to me to fight ourselves for what we are daily robbing and plundering from those who have as good a right to freedom as we have.1
Prominent bourgeois revolutionaries like Benjamin Rush and James Otis fiercely opposed slavery and countered the racist charges of black inferiority. Otis wrote in his Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved (1764):
The Colonists are by the law of nature free born, as indeed all men are, white or black. Does it follow that tis right to enslave a man because he is black? Will short curld hair like wool, instead of christian hair, as tis called by those, whose hearts are as hard as the nether millstone, help the argument? Can any logical influence in favour of slavery be drawn from a flat nose, a long or a short face? Nothing better can be said in favour of a trade, that is the most shocking violation of the law of nature, has a direct tendency to diminish the idea of the inestimable value of liberty, and makes every dealer in it a tyrant from the director of an African company to the petty chapman in needles and pins on the unhappy coast. It is a clear truth, those who every day barter away other mens liberty will soon care little for their own.2
The Reverend Isaac Skillman even asserted in 1772 that the right of slaves to rebel conformed to the laws of nature.3 Benjamin Rush wrote in the following year:
I need hardly say any thing in favour of the intellects of the Negroes, or of their capacities for virtue and happiness, although these have been supposed by some to be inferior to those of the inhabitants of Europe. The accounts which travellers give us of their ingenuity, humanity, and strong attachment to their parents, relations, friends and country, show us that they are equal to the Europeans. All the vices which are charged upon the Negroes in the southern colonies, and the West Indies, such as Idleness, Treachery, Theft, and the like, are the genuine offspring of slavery, and serve as an argument to prove that they were not intended by Providence for itFuture ages, therefore, when they read the accounts of the slave trade (if they do not regard them as fabulous) will be at a loss which to condemn most, our folly or our guilt, in abetting this direct violation of the laws of Nature and Religion.4
It was in the birthplace of racial oppression that some of the most ardent and radical critics of slavery first emerged under the driving force of revolution. In order to wage their revolutionary struggle, the American bourgeoisie had to rally the mass of (white) plebeians under the banner of universal natural rights and liberties. The seething, uncontrollable ferment and upheaval that was then unleashed naturally threatened to reach into the ranks of the black 1 Herbert Aptheker, A History of the American People: The American Revolution 1763-1783, International Publishers, New York, 1960, p. 2092 Louis Ruchames (ed.), Racial Thought in America Volume 1: From the Puritans to Abraham Lincoln, Grosset & Dunlap, New York, 1969, p. 1383 Aptheker, op. cit.4 Ruchames, ibid., pp. 140-41
Ch. 3: Racism, Revolution and Anti-racism, by Iggy Kim 1
toilers themselves. In any revolution, cracks can spread throughout the edifice of the ruling order. Indeed, large numbers of African-Americans did take part in the upsurge. At least 5000 were regular soldiers in the revolutionary army,5 many distinguishing themselves in combat like the famous Salem Poor. Some were freed and even awarded land and pensions. Still many others participated in a civilian capacity. The whole process even radicalised some slaveholder revolutionaries. John Laurens, a South Carolinian lieutenant-colonel and son of a slaveholder, was an early advocate of freeing and arming 3000 slaves in exchange for military service. He won support from Congress in 1779 but was vetoed by the South Carolina assembly. Laurens father had written to him four years earlier to tell him that he was freeing his slaves and cutting off the entail of slavery.6
Ultimately though, the American revolution was limited to the political sphere. Unlike the more far-reaching social revolution in France a few years later, the Americans were out to secure political independence from London, another bourgeois state, without touching the existing social-economic system. As such, the revolutionary alliance of class forces was founded on the interests and structures of US capitalism at that time not only the mass of petty bourgeois artisans, farmers, and the mercantile (and some manufacturing) bourgeoisie in the north, but also the profitable slave-worked plantation empire in the south. Northern capitalists and southern slaveholders had distinct interests, but these had not yet become antagonistic. The original US constitution of 1777 had confederated the thirteen colonies into a union of sovereign states and protected the southern slave system from outside interference. In the immediate years after the revolutions victory in 1783, central government was kept to a minimum, lacking even a national army. When a Constitutional Convention came together in 1787 to devise a new federal system, everyone was well aware of the delicacy of negotiating a national government that would preserve harmony between north and south. The convention eventually came up with a state structure that would allow the two wings of the ruling class to work together while protecting their separate interests. Congress was split into two houses, with only the lower house subject to direct election. Both the Senate and president were to be indirectly elected. There were also property qualifications placed on voters. This was all codified in a new Constitution that embarrassedly avoided the words slave and slavery and, instead, used the euphemism of other persons. The Constitution counted each slave as three-fifths of a person so that the number of southern representatives in Congress matched those from the North with its greater number of white men.
The compromise of 1787 gave the southern slavocracy a confidence boost. They had, for now, brought partly under their control what was potentially the biggest threat to their power and legitimacy a new revolutionary government resting on the allegiance of a mass of non-slaveholding free citizens. In fact, the slavocracy deliberately worked to foster a political alliance with the small farmers the majority of the population not in support of slavery, but around trade, tax and monetary policies that favoured their shared agricultural interests. Leading slaveholder politicians of this time, such as Thomas Jefferson, who won the presidency in 1800, continue to be eulogised today as a champion of the little people.
The free, white plebeian citizenry were generally hostile to slavery. In the North, where the weight of small freehold farmers and artisans was much greater, new settlements banned slavery. But this hostility to the institution of slavery was not necessarily matched by a sense of solidarity with the slaves (or former slaves). Foreshadowing later racism elsewhere against servile immigrants of colour, many free white towns in the Midwest excluded blacks, free or slave. Even anti-slavery revolutionaries like Tom Paine had reservations about extending full and equal citizenship to African-Americans. Blacks were seen as alien to the organic bonds of free smallholding community which the revolution rested on. Even those who went as far as advocating full emancipation saw a solution in resettling blacks outside the United States. The new plebeian democracy was undoubtedly tainted by a racially exclusionist streak.
To foster their alliance with the farmers, slaveholder politicians settled for some restrictions on the expansion of slavery while fiercely defending its preservation in the southern states. The importation of slaves was outlawed in 1808, although the law was hardly enforced. Some northern states abolished the slave trade but not slavery itself. Some states decreed freedom for future generations born to slaves, but only after they had served out a period of servitude into their adult years, ostensibly to repay their masters for their keep.
5 Aptheker op. cit., p. 2266 Ruchames, op. cit., p. 157
Ch. 3: Racism, Revolution and Anti-racism, by Iggy Kim 2
Two subsequent developments in 1793, one at home, the other abroad, were to simultaneously crank up the slave economy and eventually produce the conditions of its destruction. At home, in that year, the invention of the cotton gin allowed the mass production of that commodity so vital to the emerging Industrial Revolution. Cotton exports soared, from 500,000 pounds in 1793 to 18 million pounds in 1800 and 83 million by 1815. In 1801-5 40% of British cotton imports came from the US.7 Cotton became the USs most important crop and came to overshadow all others in the plantation economy. The southern slave zone became the driving engine of the US economy. However, in a dialectical twist, this very prosperity was to eventually upset the delicate alignment of class forces that had produced the 1787 compromise and allowed the slavocracy to survive.
The anti-racist Haitian RevolutionAlso in 1793, the French Revolution entered its radical Jacobin phase. With moves toward a
constitutional monarchy in shambles and a mass movement of poor sans-culottes mobilised, a section of the revolutionary bourgeoisie was to lead the most far-reaching social and political revolution to date. In the Jacobin phase, the revolution spread to Frances slave colony in St Domingue (present-day Haiti) and racial oppression was dealt its first major blow. In the words of the West Indian Marxist, C.L.R James, in his classic work, The Black Jacobins:
Paris between March 1793 and July 1794 was one of the supreme epochs of political history. Never until 1917 were masses ever to have such powerful influence for it was no more than influence upon any government. In these few months of their nearest approach to power they did not forget the blacks. They felt towards them as brothers, and the old slave-owners, whom they knew to be supporters of the counter-revolution, they hated as if Frenchmen themselves had suffered under the whip. It was not Paris alone but all revolutionary France. Servants, peasants, workers, the labourers by the day in the fields all over France were filled with a virulent hatred against the aristocracy of the skin. There were many so moved by the sufferings of the slaves that they had long ceased to drink coffee, thinking of it as drenched with the blood and sweat of men turned into brutes.8
A complex hierarchy of racial castes had governed St Domingue, the jewel of the French colonies. The white colonial-settlers were vastly outnumbered by the slaves. As such, unlike mainland North America, people with both black and white parentage, the mulattoes, were freed and coopted into functioning as an intermediate social buffer on behalf of the white slaveholders, who were an even smaller minority among the general white population. People of mixed colour formed the backbone of the marchause, a police force for capturing fugitive slaves. Throughout the slave-worked Americas, a growing population of mixed ancestry was produced by the male slaveholders treatment of slave women as sexual chattel. However, in the French Caribbean, just to be sure to know on which side they ultimately stood, 128 formal categories recognised the huge permutations of intermixture while clearly dictating that they all belonged to the status of mulatto. Thus, even the whitest of the mixed coloureds, the sang-ml with 127 parts white ancestry and one part black, was still a person of colour.9 They suffered all sorts of discrimination and legally occupied a subordinate position.
Nevertheless, people of mixed ancestry were incorporated into the free population and could thereby climb the social ladder to a certain extent. Many even became slaveholding planters. From the outset then, the racial caste system in St Domingue was inherently less stable than in the US. When the revolution came, the wholesale discrediting of privilege by birth began to further shake up the racist assumptions of this caste system. The choice of criterion for political representation was ultimately posed between racial or property privilege, one having been acquired by birth, the other including those many bourgeois who had acquired it by social mobility. The planters wanted narrow political representation to protect their economic interests against the diktats of Paris; the free, propertied people of colour wanted political and legal equality with the rest of their class; the petits blancs (small whites) wanted liberty, equality and fraternity for all white men and resented any prospect of propertied people of colour getting representation at their expense. The slaves as yet were beyond any consideration.
Therefore, the radical democracy of the white plebeians in St Domingue was initially synonymous with preserving the racial caste system. Once again, fulfilling their role of social buffer, many people of mixed colour were drawn into an alliance with the counter-revolutionary 7 Robin Blackburn, Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, Verso, London, 1988, p. 2768 C.L.R James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint LOuverture and the San Domingo Revolution, Random House, New York, 1963, pp. 138-39. In this passage James relies on a revealing primary source a book published in 1802, written by a French colonist who opposed emancipation.9 ibid., p. 38
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forces of the colonial administration, against the white plebeian masses. Governor De Peynier instructed the commandants of the districts, It has become more necessary than ever not to give [people of mixed colour] any cause for offence, to encourage them and to treat them as friends and whites.10
In France itself, the colonial question came to occupy a key position in the shifting tides of the revolution. An abolitionist group had emerged during the growth of the political movement of the French bourgeoisie,...