Workers Vanguard No. 1107
10 March 2017
Black History and the Class Struggle
The Nat Turner Rebellion and the Fight Against Slavery
We print below, edited for publication, the concluding part of a presentation given by Spartacist League/U.S. Central Committee member Alan Wilde to the New York Spartacus Youth Club on January 28. Part One appeared in WV No. 1106 (24 February).
Nat Turner’s 1831 revolt in Virginia tears apart the myth that there is no history of slave rebellion or resistance in colonial America or the United States. This is a lie often promoted by racist apologists for American slavery. But it is also untrue to think that the U.S. has a history of slave rebellions similar to the massive uprisings that convulsed the Caribbean, most notably the Haitian Revolution.
As historian Eugene Genovese put it in his work From Rebellion to Revolution (1979): “Were the slaves in the United States unwilling or simply unable to rise in large numbers? The question ultimately collapses into absurdity. If a people, over a protracted period, finds the odds against insurrection not merely long but virtually certain, then it will choose not to try.” In fact, “the wonder,” he later writes, “is not that the United States had fewer and smaller slave revolts than some other countries did, but that they had any at all. That they did, in whatever proportions, demonstrated to the world the impossibility of crushing completely the slaves’ rebellious spirit.”
It is useful to contrast American and Caribbean slavery. The slavery of the Caribbean’s sugar plantations was notorious for its brutality. It was also marked by absentee landlords who did not live on their plantations: they hired overseers to lord it over a population that was overwhelmingly black and slave. In fact, prior to the American War of Independence (1775-83), the center of slavery for the British Empire, which dominated the slave trade, was not the American colonies but the Caribbean. Between the 16th and 19th centuries, 10 to 12 million Africans were “traded” as slaves; 95 percent of them ended up in the Caribbean or Latin America, especially Brazil. A relatively small fraction went to North America.
Slavery in the U.S. was horrific, but it also differed from the Caribbean. Slavery in Virginia, the birthplace of the American slave system, was initially largely based on white indentured servants brought over from the British Isles—in fact, it was not until the 1660s that you started to see laws that significantly differentiated between black and white indentured servants. The problem for the rulers with the system of indentured servitude was that as the term of service expired (usually after five years), a layer of dissatisfied, unruly and impoverished white former servants was being created, destabilizing the colony.
A clear example of this was the 1676 rebellion led by Nathaniel Bacon. While Bacon’s Rebellion had a clear anti-Indian component, it also included an alliance of white indentured servants and black slaves (as well as free blacks). There was another similar uprising in Maryland later that year. It was in the wake of such disturbances that the ruling class hardened the racial caste of slavery in an attempt to divide the two races and forestall subsequent united uprisings. At the same time, it should be noted that the number of Europeans coming to America as servants was declining—due to both economic development in Britain and news spreading of the brutality of the indenture system.
By the end of the 17th century, Virginia began importing African slaves—i.e., slaves for life—in greater numbers, so that by the first decade of the 18th century, it went from a society in which slavery existed to one in which slavery was the central mode of production—a slave society. As brutal as slavery was in North America, it had a certain stability that did not exist in the Caribbean—the unspeakable conditions of slavery in Jamaica, for example, meant that the average slave died within seven years of arrival. As Jacob Zorn noted in “Slavery and the Origins of American Capitalism” (see Black History and the Class Struggle No. 22, July 2012), “The slave population in North America became a lot more stable, tended to live a lot longer and have more children” than in the Caribbean. The slave trade provided North America with about half a million people; by the time of the Civil War, that population had grown to four million.
In the Caribbean, slaves lived on great estates of 100 to 200 slaves. In the U.S., half the slaves lived on farms, not plantations, and another quarter lived on plantations of 50 or fewer slaves. Thus, the common, popular perception of a sharp division between house and field slaves was really only true in the big plantations of the Deep South—like Mississippi, South Carolina and Georgia. In Virginia, most plantations were of medium size, where the necessities of fieldwork demanded the labor of all. All able-bodied adults went to the fields. Other tasks in the master’s house and slave quarters were assigned to those either too young or too old for demanding farm work. At the same time, within the slaves’ own social ranking, literate slaves were held in the highest regard. Thus, Nat Turner, who worked the fields, was a highly admired leader among his fellow slaves.
The fact that America was colonized en masse by Europeans meant that, unlike in the Caribbean, the overwhelming majority of slaveowners lived on or near their plantations. Every contingent of slave gang labor must be policed lest it rebel. The American slave population was among the most policed of the New World’s slaves—from slave patrols and local and state militias to the federal Army and Navy. This is really important, because it rendered a slave revolution akin to Haiti very difficult to conceive. As Genovese pointed out, “As they came to view revolt, under the specific conditions of life in the Old South, as suicidal, they centered their efforts on forms of resistance appropriate to their survival as a people even as slaves.”
Another important factor is that the U.S. stopped the importation of slaves through an act of Congress in 1807. In December 1806, as the bill was moving along, President Thomas Jefferson, a slaveowner, spoke before Congress to declare with his usual eloquence and hypocrisy:
“I congratulate you, fellow-citizens, on the approach of the period at which you may interpose your authority constitutionally, to withdraw the citizens of the United States from all further participation in those violations of human rights which have been so long continued on the unoffending inhabitants of Africa, and which the morality, the reputation, and the best interests of our country, have long been eager to proscribe.”
In reality, this bill had little to do with “human rights.” First of all, it was based on the perception—common at that time—that slavery was in decline in the United States, and rulers like Jefferson did not want any more black people in this country. Eli Whitney’s cotton gin was invented in 1793, but was not really produced until the early 1800s. It would take time for its effects to be felt: as late as 1830, cotton production was at 750,000 bales, compared to 2.85 million in 1850. Moreover, the 1807 law in effect gave American slave-traders exclusive access to the lucrative internal slave trade, which produced huge profits for slavers in states like Virginia.
There was also a political calculation to Jefferson’s humanitarian facade. America’s rulers learned something from events like the Haitian Revolution: It was far better for them to have slaves who were born in bondage, who knew nothing else but slavery, than slaves imported from Africa.
In fact, North American slavery saw far greater destruction of the various African cultures the first slaves brought with them than was the case in the Caribbean. It is fashionable today for the black petty bourgeoisie to dress up black American culture in African garb. In many ways, this is a disservice to the unique culture created by black Americans and its profound impact on the U.S. As veteran American Trotskyist Richard S. Fraser put it in “The Negro Struggle and the Proletarian Revolution” (1953), black people, forced to this continent as slaves, “came to know no other homeland than the United States, knew no other language than English, held no foreign allegiance.... They are essentially American.” Fraser continued:
“In this position, the Negroes developed a powerful folk culture. But this culture did not take the road of an independent national development. Because it was virtually the only real American folk culture, the slaves’ music, ‘accent,’ folklore and religion filled a cultural need for the American people as a whole. First the slave culture inundated the original Anglo-Saxon culture of the South, virtually destroying it. From there it went on to fuse with the whole national culture until today those aspects of the national culture which are considered to be ‘typically’ American are largely the result of Negro influence.”
—“In Memoriam—Richard S. Fraser,” Prometheus Research Series No. 3, August 1990
Slavery, New World and Ancient
In his book, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South (1956), Kenneth M. Stampp noted, “An essential point about the South’s peculiar institution was this: its slaves were Negroes.” Indeed, it is with modern slavery—and only with modern slavery—that race as a concept really develops. There is no biological basis for race—we are all Homo sapiens. But race as a social fact is real and is embedded into every aspect of this country’s past and present.
As Marxists, we are historical materialists. We recognize that ideas and concepts do not simply emerge from the heads of people, but are rather a reflection of their material reality. Racism is not an inherent idea that developed out of the minds of evil people. Rather, it is an ideological expression of a material reality that equated black skin with slavery. It came to serve as the justification for slavery, equating a class status—slave—with skin color: not all black people were slaves, but all slaves were black people. In turn, slaves were deemed to be not simply unfortunate people who had lost their freedom, but inherently “inferior” beings suited for nothing else.
As a contrast, one can look at ancient slavery, which had nothing to do with skin color. For those interested, the late historian Frank M. Snowden Jr. wrote two books on “race” in the ancient world that are worth reading, Blacks in Antiquity (1970) and Before Color Prejudice (1983). One of the points he underlines in these books is that the view of, say, the ancient Romans toward dark-skinned Africans was conditioned by the fact that most of the black people they encountered were warriors, traders, statesmen, mercenary fighters—not slaves. As such, there was no particular social status attached to skin color.
Though Roman slavery was largely based on agricultural production—while also including mining, quarrying and other industries—it was an all-encompassing social order. In other words, it had a far more variegated caste system than anything you would have found in the New World—from latifundia or plantation slaves to household servants to physicians and educators. For example, it was fashionable for Roman aristocratic families in the late Republic and early Empire to have their children taught by highly educated Greek slaves. I don’t think it’s conceivable that an American slaveowner would have had a slave teach his children Aristotelian logic.
Notwithstanding these caste divisions within the ancient slave population, the bulk of slaves lived brief and miserable lives. In the city of Rome in the first century A.D., the average age of recorded deaths for slaves was only about 17.5 years. Even worse were conditions for those in the mines. In Roman Hispania—roughly modern-day Spain and Portugal—untold numbers of slaves labored under appalling conditions extracting minerals; most of those forced into the mines lived the remainder of their short lives underground, without ever seeing daylight again. The Romans designated the slave, especially in the agricultural field, an instrumentum vocale—i.e., a speaking tool. Most slaves were acquired through conquest. Ancient sources estimate that Julius Caesar during the period of the Gallic Wars (58-50 B.C.) enslaved over one million people—i.e., these wars brought in more slaves than lived in the whole of the United States in the late 18th century. By the end of the first century B.C., it was estimated that up to 40 percent of the people in the Italian peninsula were slaves.
There is an inherent contradiction in a system in which all useful work—from manual to administrative—was done by slaves and that required a constant influx of slaves through war. It could not be sustained. In time, many of the descendants of slaves in the higher castes came to play increasingly prominent roles in the workings of the Empire—in the army and government administration, including at the highest levels—while the supply of slaves for agricultural and other kinds of large-scale production continued to decline.
There are other key differences between ancient slavery and New World slavery. The latter, while a distinct social system, existed within the framework of world capitalism. The former was really the only social system that could sustain production on the scale of the ancient Roman Empire. Thus, Rome never had to justify slavery as the New World did through the concept of race; slavery simply was the dominant form of production. When slave rebellions broke out, like the First Servile War (135-132 B.C.) and the Second Servile War (104-100 B.C.), the slaves who managed to set up their own colonies in Sicily essentially replicated the Roman system—they became the new slaveowners or traders.
I want to make a brief digression here. In the first issue of Spartacist (February-March 1964), we explained that we call ourselves Spartacists “after the name, Spartakusbund, taken by the German revolutionary left wing led by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht during the First World War.” Luxemburg and Liebknecht adopted that name from the leader of the Third Servile War (73-71 B.C.), Spartacus. Spartacus, most likely from Thrace (in what is now the Balkan region of East Europe), was enslaved as a gladiator. He led a heroic rebellion that recruited some 120,000 slaves from the countryside of the Italian peninsula and defeated multiple Roman armies before his forces were ultimately crushed. The slaveowning aristocracy in the U.S. saw itself as the inheritors of Roman slavery. This was not just a literary allusion. I mentioned earlier (see Part One) that the heads of suspected participants in Nat Turner’s rebellion were put on pikes at crossroads in Virginia. This harks back to the suppression of the Spartacus uprising, after which some 6,000 slaves were crucified along the Appian Way—the main road to Rome—to terrorize any potential slave rebels.
But for the Romans, none of this had anything to do with skin color: even when they referred to others as “barbarians,” it was not based on skin color. It had to do with class status. In fact, the absence of any kind of color bar in ancient slavery meant that as the system collapsed with the demise of the Western Empire in the fifth century A.D., the former slaves were able to become serfs as decentralized feudal economies emerged. A comrade recently made the point that that option was not available to the former black slaves given the entrenched centrality of the color bar in America. One can view the period of Reconstruction following the Civil War as such an attempt, but it could not overcome anti-black racism. Behind this failure lay the fundamental fact that once slavery was overthrown through the war, the Northern capitalist rulers and the former slaves no longer shared any common interests.
The Fight for Black Liberation Today
I have repeatedly asserted that slavery in North America was fundamental to the development of American capitalism. In fact, New World slavery was fundamental to the development of the world capitalist system. Slavery and capitalism were two different social systems. But they were deeply interrelated.
The slave order had a dialectical relationship with capitalism, helping to unleash its growth while also restraining that growth and being restrained by it. The key role played by slavery and all-around bloody plunder in the primitive accumulation of capital was powerfully captured by Karl Marx in Capital: “The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the indigenous population of that continent, the beginnings of the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of blackskins, are all things which characterise the dawn of the era of capitalist production.” Concluding that capital comes into this world “dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt,” Marx asserted: “The veiled slavery of the wage-labourers in Europe needed the unqualified slavery of the New World as its pedestal.”
“King Cotton”—the key crop of the Southern plantation system, which provided some 75 percent of the cotton for the British textile industry—supplied the principal exports for the early American bourgeois state, providing the financial resources for the growth of mercantile and industrial capitalism in the North. At the same time, it must be emphasized that the Southern plantation system acted as a brake on the growth of industrial capitalism. A number of historians and academics have challenged some of these assertions; they point to the “profitability” of slave production. Some of them do so to highlight the brutal exploitation suffered by slaves, which is beyond question, and to point out that slavery was key to the forging of American capitalism, which is also undeniable.
But the issue is not simply one of “profitability”; it is of interrelated but, in the end, competing social systems. At a fundamental level, slavery acts as a brake on development. It degrades all labor by equating it with the status of bondage. Historian Perry Anderson captured this when speaking of the ancient slave system in his work Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism (1974). While noting that “no mode of production is ever devoid of material progress in its ascendant phase,” he nonetheless asserted, “Slave relations of production determined certain insurmountable limits to ancient forces of production, in the classical epoch. Above all, they ultimately tended to paralyze productivity in both agriculture and industry.” He later underlined that “no major cluster of inventions ever occurred to propel the Ancient economy forward to qualitatively new forces of production.”
Anderson’s observation about ancient slavery was also true about slavery in the American South. For example, take the invention of the cotton gin, which strengthened the economic foundation of American slavery. It was not invented by a Southern plantation owner, but by Eli Whitney, born in Massachusetts.
The American War of Independence, far from resolving the issue of slavery, enshrined in the very root of the new republic the contradiction of two social systems. Each social order, capitalist and slaveowning, sought expansion. For the South, expansion was a question of life and death, not least because slave-based plantation agriculture often overworked the soil, requiring the acquisition of new land to maintain crop production. Hence, the long history of “compromises” and the 1846-48 Mexican-American War, which was basically a land grab by the slaveowners.
The contradiction came to a head with the Civil War of 1861-65. As Marx underlined, the war was “nothing but a struggle between two social systems, the system of slavery and the system of free labour,” adding that it “can only be ended by the victory of one system or the other.” The Northern victory in the Civil War effected one of the greatest acts of expropriation in history—the freeing, without compensation, of four million people branded as property—an act necessary for the further development of American capitalism.
Shortly after the Civil War came the period of Radical Reconstruction, the most radical period of interracial democracy in U.S. history. But the Northern bourgeoisie was not interested in a thoroughgoing social revolution in the South. By 1877, the last elements of Reconstruction were dismantled by the capitalist ruling class, consolidating the black population as an oppressed race-color caste. With that, the potential for black equality in capitalist America was gone. It was this period of the Civil War—the Second American Revolution—and Reconstruction that shapes the fundamental contours of modern capitalist America.
So, what lessons to draw today from Nat Turner’s heroic rebellion? The fight for black liberation cannot be separated from the struggles of all the exploited and oppressed in America. Fighters against slavery like Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner and John Brown lit the embers that eventually became the fire of abolition. But they did not succeed until the intervention of a social class, the capitalist class, which mobilized the war that smashed slavery. Key to that victory was the 200,000 black soldiers and sailors who helped ensure Northern victory, and also the multitudes of black slaves who, with the coming of the Union armies, fled the plantations and thus destroyed the very foundations of the South’s slave economy.
Today, the fight for the full integration of black people into the country they built and the society they defined cannot be achieved within the framework of a social system based upon their oppression. Black liberation demands the intervention of a social class, the multiracial proletariat. It demands a socialist revolution to smash capitalist rule. Key to that victory will be black people. While it also contains prisoners, declassed proletarians, petty-bourgeois elements and a thin layer within the bourgeoisie, the black population’s central juncture of integration is at the point of production as part of the multiracial working class. Black workers are slated to play an exceptional leadership role in an American social revolution.
Black oppression is the bedrock of U.S. capitalism and to touch it in any serious way is to touch the question of revolution. As a caste, black people face oppression regardless of their social class. At the same time, black oppression is deeply and fundamentally intertwined with class in this country. For the bourgeoisie, racist poison is an invaluable tool to keep the working class—white, black, immigrant—divided and its potential revolutionary power checked. For the American proletariat to free itself from wage slavery, it must answer the unresolved question of racial oppression by fighting for black liberation through socialist revolution. Our aim is to build the revolutionary multiracial workers party that will fight to complete the goals of freedom and equality of the “First War” launched by Nat Turner.