Revolution#120, February 17, 2008
Cold Truth, Liberating Truth
Part 2: New Forms of Oppression Under Capitalism
On the occasion of Black History Month, Revolution is running a three-part series of excerpts from Cold Truth, Liberating Truth: How This System Has Always Oppressed Black People, And How All Oppression Can Finally Be Ended . This pamphlet was originally published as a series in Revolutionary Worker (former name of Revolution ) in 1989. While there have been changes in some of the statistics cited in the pamphlet, the overall analysis continues to be very relevant today. Part 1 went into slavery in the U.S.
New Forms of Oppression Under Capitalism
Even though slavery was finally ended, after almost 250 years, Black people were still subjected to vicious forms of oppression—and still blamed for their own oppressed condition. First of all, Black people’s own major and heroic role in fighting against slavery is denied or downgraded by the “official histories.” The facts are that there were over 200 slave revolts, including the more famous ones led by Nat Turner in Virginia and Denmark Vesey in South Carolina, as well as other revolts that were covered up and “written out of history” by the slavemasters. And what about the Civil War that finally ended slavery? Once they were allowed to, masses of Black people flooded into the northern (Union) army in that war and fought courageously and with great sacrifice on the front lines—even though they were still subjected to segregation and discrimination, even down to the level where their pay as soldiers was only about half that of the white soldiers! Nearly 200,000 Blacks fought in the Union army and one out of every five (almost 40,000) gave their lives in this fight—a much higher casualty rate than for whites in the Union army.
It is a lie that “Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves” because he was morally outraged over slavery. Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves (and not all the slaves at first, but only those in the states that had joined the southern Confederacy) because he saw that it would be impossible to win the Civil War against that southern Confederacy without freeing these slaves and allowing them to fight in the Union army. Lincoln himself said clearly that:
“My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy Slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could do it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.”
Lincoln claimed it was his “personal wish that all men, everywhere, could be free,” but at the same time he said that the idea of “Negro equality” was nonsense (“a low piece of demagogism”) and he insisted that whites were, and must be, superior to Blacks.
“There is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. . .and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race,” said Lincoln.
Lincoln spoke and acted for the bourgeoisie —the factory-owners, railroad-owners, and other capitalists centered in the North—and he conducted the war in their interests.
The Civil War came about because of the clash between two different economic and social systems—slavery, based on plantation farming in the South; and capitalism, based on factory and other wage-labor centered in the North. Things had gotten to the point where these two systems could no longer peacefully coexist within the same country. The slaveowners and the capitalists were battling each other for control of the country, they were battling each other as the USA expanded westward. This expansion was carried out by slaughtering the native peoples (“Indian savages,” they were called) and grabbing their lands and waging a war to steal a huge chunk of land from Mexico. The slaveowners needed more land because their plantation system of farming was using up the land so fast, and the northern capitalists especially wanted the gold, oil, and other rich resources to the West. All this exploded into the Civil War.
To isolate and defeat the southern slaveowners, the northern capitalists had to promise the slaves their freedom and had to promise them (and poorer whites in the South) that they would get land and rights when the war was won. For a few years after the Civil War, some parts of these promises were kept, but even then the U.S. government used its federal troops to put down Black people (and poor whites who sometimes joined with them) who tried to get their promises paid in full. And before long, Black people were forced back onto the same plantations they had slaved on.
Now if they weren’t actually slaves, things were still not all that different. Now the masses of Black people were exploited as sharecroppers and farm laborers, still working for The Man from “can’t see in the morning till can’t see at night.” They were held down by debt they could never seem to get out of, and they were terrorized by scum like the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and a whole set of laws and codes—all working to chain them in new ways to the plantation system.
Where was the U.S. government and what was it doing about this? It was doing what it has always done—protecting and enforcing the interests of the ruling class. The northern capitalists had gotten what they wanted and needed out of the Civil War: domination over the whole country and greater openings for the expansion of their capitalist system. Equality for Black people and an end to the plantation system—keeping the promises made during the Civil War—was in conflict with these capitalists’ interests. So the promises were broken and brutal force was used to keep Black people poor, exploited, segregated and discriminated against, treated like peons on the plantations, now under the ultimate control and domination of the capitalists. And what excuse was given for this—what Big Lie was told then to try to justify this? The lie that Black people were “not ready” for full freedom and equality!!
Once Again: The Form Changed But Oppression Remains
It was not until World War 2—nearly 100 years after the Civil War—that a basic change began to be brought about in the situation of Black people in the U.S. Millions of Blacks went from a rural life to an urban setting. They went from being peasants (tied to the land as sharecroppers and poor farm owners) to being mainly proletarians —not tied to any one place or any one job but forced to live by selling their labor power (their ability to work) to the capitalists, or going unemployed if the capitalists could not get enough gold by working these proletarians.
Actually, the mass migration of Black people off the southern plantations to the cities of the North (and the South) began during World War 1. At that time there was a big demand for workers in the defense plants and other factories, and the war cut off the huge flow of immigrants from Europe who had come to America for years before that war. In short, the capitalists needed a lot of workers and there weren’t enough white workers to fill the need, so some Black people were allowed in—on the bottom floor.
But not long after World War 1 the great economic depression of the 1930s forced a slowdown of the migration of Black people to the cities—with massive unemployment everywhere, the cities no longer seemed to offer hope of a better life. Yet when World War 2 broke out at the end of the 1930s, and as production and employment soared through this war, masses of Black people once again began moving to the cities, especially in the North—away from the plantations, open segregation, and terror of the South.
The biggest change came in the years after World War 2. Southern agriculture was drastically changed. Tractors were brought in on a large scale, and mechanized methods of planting and picking were also introduced in a big way. Machines were replacing human labor, and patterns of land ownership were being changed. Millions of Black people were uprooted from the land and pushed toward the cities by the “invisible hand” of capitalism and its supreme commandment: profit, and more profit. Even for those Black people who wanted to stay—who maybe owned their own land and were trying to make a go at farming it—the great majority were forced to give it up anyway. Before, the interests of the capitalists dictated that Black people be forced and terrorized to remain on the southern plantations. Now, these same capitalist interests dictated that Black people leave the southern farmlands.
On the basis of these economic changes, certain political and social changes had to be brought about also. Segregation was brought under fire. Battles were waged, and barriers were knocked down. Black people could no longer be legally denied the right to vote or to eat in the same restaurants or even use the same bathrooms and drinking fountains as white people. Lynchings of Black people, which had been a common thing in the plantation South, became much more rare, though they did not stop completely.
Next: The ’60s Upheavals and Changes Since Then
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