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The Revolutionary Socialist Case For Reparations

Reparations for slavery has become a talking point in the 2020 elections. Democratic Party candidates Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Julian Castro now advocate for reparations for slavery—a strange twist coming from politicians who never talked like this when their party was in power. Their transformation is probably motivated by the specter of Bernie Sanders. Sanders advocates pro-worker reforms that he believes can be achieved under capitalism. His rivals are thus obliged to make their own promises, even if they do not actually believe in them. Sanders illustrated his illusions in a modest reformist program by greeting the reparations talk with skepticism and equivocation, which supplied ammunition and a litmus test to cynically minded opponents.

Marxists approach reparations differently. The historical struggle for “forty acres and a mule” demonstrates that inequality, racism, and oppression are hardwired into capitalism. We understand that genuine restitution and atonement for the crimes of the past can never be achieved within capitalism. This is why we demand reparations on the radical premise of a socialist revolution.

Revolution and Reconstruction

Chattel slavery always brought with it tumultuous class struggle. The interior of the Amazon rainforest has long been inhabited and cultivated by the mixed descendants of quilombolas (escaped slaves) and Indians. The nation of Haiti was founded by revolutionary slaves who launched a great beacon of human progress to the world. At that time, the United States were a bastion of bondage, and Southern cotton fueled industrial revolutions in Northern states like Massachusetts and foreign markets like England. However, just as the Southern ruling class sought to filibuster and conquer the West and half of the Mexican Republic, with designs on Cuba, Central America, and beyond, so too it sought to dominate the federal government in its own interests. The slaveholders’ property relations came into conflict with the industrialized North, and in time followed the US Civil War, a revolution embracing millions of ordinary people, chiefly among them the slaves of the South.

The Union war effort evolved to the necessity of waging war on the very foundations of Confederate society. Reconstruction began as the Union Army made contact with Confederate territory and continued under Union occupation. Just as slave uprisings and fugitive slaves had polarized the country and posed fundamental questions in antebellum times, runaway slaves drove the war forward to become the largest slave rebellion in transatlantic history. What was a Union general to do with the runaway slave who crossed his lines? Enforce the Fugitive Slave Law? At first, the runaway was awkwardly returned. Then the runaway was kept as “contraband” as labor for the Union Army. Then they were given rifles and blue uniforms. When the Confederates won battles like Fort Pillow, The Crater, and Poison Spring, hundreds of freedmen were targeted for punitive atrocities. The Union Army ranks, white and black, remembered them as hallowed martyrs.

Freedmen Crossing Lines 1963Runaway slaves drove the war forward to become the largest slave rebellion in transatlantic history. / Image: State Archives of North Carolina Raleigh, NC on Flickr

Nearly two hundred thousand combat-age male slaves deserted their master’s land and joined the Union Army, and many more slaves deserted without becoming soldiers. W. E. B. Du Bois described the movement as a “general strike” that devastated the Confederate war effort. As General William T. Sherman marched across Georgia, tens of thousands of escaped slaves followed in his wake.

In this revolutionary context, after meeting with local black leaders and the radical Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Sherman issued Special Field Orders No. 15, granting plots of “forty acres and a mule” to freedmen. Meanwhile, the Treasury Department, military officers, and private investors poured in to claim land for themselves. Unstable and variegated property relations arose alongside conflict between all over what to do with the land and the freedmen. The freedmen had plans of their own. They smashed the cotton gins, took over plantations, and planted corn to eat. Many Northerners preferred they grow cotton and behave “industriously.” Cotton was big business, after all, and the plantation with it.

In the rich sugar plantations of Union-occupied southern Louisiana, reconstruction began even before Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. General Benjamin Butler ordered the slave population to continue working for their masters. Plantations abandoned by rebel stalwarts were bought by Northern investors. However, all slaves were paid wages, given rights, and could not be corporally punished. Butler’s successor, General Nathaniel P. Banks, coalitioned with Louisiana moderates to install a curious form of emancipation, prohibiting slavery while binding freedmen to mandatory labor contracts forbidding travel without a pass from the planters. For his hostility to Louisiana radicals, Banks quickly earned the enmity of Radical Republicans in Washington. For their part, the freedmen semi-slaves voted with their feet and focused their time on their gardens, families, and soon, politics.

Even in antebellum times, New Orleans was a political and cultural anomaly. The Confederacy ousted, the city became a fountain of Radical Republicanism. The Tribune, headed by the mixed-race Dr. Louis Roudanez and the Belgian revolutionary Charles Houzeau, expressed a popular mood: “Every man should own the land he tills.” The white socialist Thomas Durant and the freedmen Oscar Dunn and James Ingraham led mass meetings in support of black suffrage. Soon political organization engulfed the state, and rural freedmen from inland sugar plantations came to the fore, more radical than even the Tribune. According to Durant, “There could be no middle ground in a revolution. It must work a radical change in society; such had been the history of every great revolution.” Louisiana Reconstruction became a national issue and a touchstone for Radical Republicanism. In this way, plantation freedmen like Dunn and Ingraham directly influenced federal policy and debate.

Freedmen Voting in New Orleans 1867 The Confederacy ousted, New Orleans became a fountain of Radical Republicanism. / Image: 19th century illustration via New York Public Library Digital Collection (Public Domain)

Similar processes played out across the South. The existence of black Union Army veterans with experience, prestige, and firearms had profound effects long after the war ended. During the war, a freedman Union soldier, looking over the prisoners of war, spotted his master among them. His greeting “Hello Massa, bottom rail top dis time!” marvelously summed up the epoch.

In the following years, radical and moderate Republicans fought a political civil war of their own. General Saxton, a prewar abolitionist, headed the Freedmen’s Bureau and defied President Andrew Johnson’s order to halt land redistribution in places like the South Carolina Sea Islands. Johnson eventually succeeded in removing Saxton. Three years later Johnson was impeached by Radical Republicans. But a national program of agrarian reform never came.

The freedmen felt tremendous loyalty for the Union flag—not the loyalty demanded of slaves but the loyalty voluntarily given by revolutionary masses who feel history in their hands. Outsiders had long pondered what would be best for them. But they had no interest in “repatriation” to Africa or participation in the white society they had experienced as slaves. That is not to say they were indifferent to whites. Freedmen organized Union Leagues in the towns and the countryside as mass organizations expressing their political life. They recruited poor whites and thoroughly integrated the busy and meticulous assemblies. But the freedmen wished to organize their churches, mutual aid societies, schools, families, labor, and lives free from the white domination of the Southern planters as well as the paternalistic Northern elite.

This aspiration was incompatible with private land ownership by planters and Northern investors. Radical Reconstruction founded black suffrage and Republican state and municipal governments throughout the South, effectively installing a Jacobin bourgeois-democratic dictatorship over the protesting planters. But as long as rich whites owned the levers of the Southern economy—land, credit, and farming implements—the planters were not truly defeated. No former slaveholder would regard as his equal a man he could contract as his sharecropper.

In war, Confederates raided Union territory to target the homes of black laborers and terrorize them. On the first days of Union occupation, the planters sought to physically punish blacks for the situation. During the war and immediately afterwards, thousands of racial murders were reported by organizations like the Freedmen’s Bureau.

Radical Reconstruction extended black equality as far and wide as possible without touching the property rights of landowners. The Civil War had furnished a massive expropriation of slave property in the form of Emancipation. But two problems barred Republican land redistribution. First, land reform would unleash the full social weight of the revolutionary freedmen outside the channels of the Northern bourgeoisie. Secondly, the Northern capitalist supported free labor, not as a democrat but as an employer. Northern capitalists abolished chattel slavery to promote wage labor, not self-sufficient farmers.

Plantation Slaves South CarolinaNorthern capitalists abolished chattel slavery to promote wage labor, not self-sufficient farmers. / Image: Henry P. Moore via Library of Congress (Public Domain)

Thanks to both the nature of the bourgeois nation-state and bourgeois property relations, the Jacobinism of the Radical Republicans had no social basis in their class for the parts of their program which threatened planter landownership. Necessarily halfway and incomplete, Reconstruction could only survive by the energy of the freedmen and the poor whites and the tolerance of the Republican Party for such a constituency. During the war’s great mobilization, mighty robber barons and financial institutions were born and with them the postbellum constituency of the national Republican Party. By the late Gilded Age, the Klan had won, the planter ruling class escaped liquidation, and they again held power as partners with their Northern counterparts. Black America has yet to recover.

What do reparations mean?

Ta-Nehisi Coates brought the question of reparations to broader public attention in his 2014 essay “The Case For Reparations,” in which he explained the fundamental levers of Jim Crow: land theft and debt peonage. He recounted the conditions that awaited black Americans in the Northern destinations of the Great Migration: redlining, segregation, predatory markets, and legal robbery. By the end of his essay, Coates covered five hundred years of black labor and degradation, citing historians like Eric Foner.

However, Coates limits his political program to the bourgeois Jacobinism of the Radical Republicans and does not challenge the problem’s root foundation: private ownership of the means of production and the capitalist nation-state. Coates describes how the ruling class sold out Reconstruction, but he appeals to the same system to amend wrongs today. In important ways, his position is even inferior to the labor reformism of A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, which he criticized for promoting “broad class struggle” instead of “antiracist struggle.” Coates orients to federal policy, litigation, and an amorphous “national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.” The idea of black workers taking matters into their hands in united struggle with the rest of their class is conspicuously absent.

Coates thereby leaves the door open to the likes of John Conyers, the perennial Congressional sponsor of reparation legislation and a glowing reference point in “The Case For Reparations.” However, as Bruce Dixon has explained, Conyers chaired the powerful House Judiciary Committee from 2007 through 2011—and buried the bill in his own subcommittees until the 2010 midterms erased the Democratic House majority. Then Conyers promptly resumed submitting the bill in a transparent ploy of futile showmanship.

President Barack Obama in Selma, AlabamaCoates embraces the Obamas, who are, factually speaking, class enemies to black workers. / Image: The White House (Public Domain)

Coates advances an eclectic, idealist conception of race and of class which necessarily excludes a holistic, revolutionary solution to racism and class exploitation. He embraces the Obamas, who are, factually speaking, class enemies to black workers. The Obama era saw a historic transfer of wealth from black households to finance capital, an atrocious UN dictatorship against the Haitian people, imperialist intervention in Africa and Latin America, record-setting deportations (including many black workers from Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean), the brutal repression of Black Lives Matter with the participation of the federal government, and more. Michelle Obama, according to Coates, “makes Barack black” and “makes him American.” In reality, before the White House, Mrs. Obama was a sophisticated operative for private healthcare and schemed to push low-income South Side patients out of Chicago hospitals to make room for patients on high-end insurance plans.

Concretely, Coates proposes the adoption of “new policies” by the capitalist state and its two-party system. Despite Coates’ best wishes to the contrary, this strategy is concretely summed up by the charlatanry of Kamala Harris, a functionary of mass incarceration who ran to the right of the Republicans on “three-strikes” legislation. Harris once gloated, while advocating criminal prosecution for the parents of truant schoolchildren: “If you don’t go to school, Kamala’s going to put you and me in jail!” Far from offering a genuine and comprehensive reparations plan, Harris’s proposals amount to cheap measures like tax cuts for lower-income earners and mental healthcare treatment for intergenerational black trauma—a patronizing idea coming from the former “smart on crime” California Attorney General, who made her career meting out present-day racial trauma.

Compare this to the fiery words of Marcus Garvey, the charismatic leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association: “Hand back to us that which you have robbed and exploited us of in the name of God and Christianity for the last 500 years!” His vision was national self-determination—not through revolutionary struggle in the Black Belt, but repatriation to Africa. He told his followers: “We [can] get the American Government, along with the governments of Europe, to acquiesce in the demand of creating for the Negro a government in [Africa].”

Marcus GarveyGarvey’s vision was national self-determination—not through revolutionary struggle in the Black Belt, but repatriation to Africa. / Image: A&E Television Networks via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Garvey offered a militant veneer to Booker T. Washington’s pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps economics and the age-old repatriation plans of moderate abolitionists. He openly favored white capitalists over white worker-activists, opposed socialism, and collaborated with the Klan. Nevertheless, Garveyism reestablished black struggle as a mass movement for the first time since Reconstruction’s murderous defeat. And although he did not use the word himself, Garvey’s proposed reparations were at least concrete.

Out of the awakening of Garveyism emerged a generation of activists who would find a political home in the Communist Party. The Communist-linked Sharecroppers Union in Alabama organized black sharecroppers against Jim Crow peonage, inheriting the legacy of the struggle for “forty acres and a mule.” Many of Garvey’s followers did migrate, not to Africa but to factory jobs in the North and West. The Communists organized integrated unions and Unemployment Councils alongside a nationwide campaign for the Scottsboro Boys. The Stalinist leadership would later abandon the black struggle to orient to FDR and the Democrats, but the 1920s and the 1930s forged the cause of socialism and labor with the black struggle.

The black struggle movements from the 1950s into the 1970s organically trended to revolutionary conclusions. “The Case For Reparations” gives special attention to civil litigation efforts, but that was a small part of a movement that had its center in mass working-class struggles. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. were moving towards socialism at the time of their assassinations. By the time the Black Panthers were formed, any reparations proposal involving collaboration with the ruling class was unpopular compared to struggle and radical demands.

The Black Panther Ten-Point Program declared: “Forty acres and two mules was promised 100 years ago as redistribution for slave labor and mass murder of Black people. We will accept the payment in currency which will be distributed to our many communities.” The heading of this passage said, “We want an end to the robbery by the capitalists of our black and oppressed communities.” The program advocated the expropriation of the means of production to be “placed in the community so that the people of the community can organize and employ all of its people and give a high standard of living.” This is very different from the amorphous picture given by Coates or the cheap pandering of the Democrats!

Black Panther PartyThe black struggle movements from the 1950s into the 1970s organically trended to revolutionary conclusions. / Image: Fair Use

Reparations through socialist revolution

In 1867, the US Army evicted the Virginia freedman Bayley Wyat and other black farmers from their newly-awarded lands. He said this:

We has a right to the land where we are located. For why? I tell you. Our wives, our children, our husbands, has been sold over and over again to purchase the lands we now locates upon; for that reason, we have a divine right to the land . . . And den didn’t we clear the land, and raise de crops ob corn, ob cotton, ob tobacco, ob rice, ob sugar, ob everything. And den didn’t dem large cities in de North grow up on de cotton and de sugars and de rice dat we made? . . . I say dey has grown rich, and my people is poor.

Mr. Wyat’s words are even truer today, as the rich are richer and the poor—his grandchildren’s grandchildren’s grandchildren likely among them—are poorer. As part of the defeat of Reconstruction, freedmen were rounded up and put in chain-gangs. This was called convict-leasing, and it was later defeated by the Knights of Labor. In the 1970s, precisely the same kind of practice reemerged and massively expanded, described by Michelle Alexander as “the new Jim Crow.” The largest correctional facility in the country was originally a cotton plantation. The Louisiana State Penitentiary, with nicknames like “Angola” and “The Farm,” remains a plantation today, but the workers are inmates, not chattel slaves.

Our time is different from Mr. Wyat’s. In any given part of the country, the means of production comprise far more than plantations and land. In addition to big agribusiness, titanic industries in every sphere of economic life wrap around the country and throughout the world, all possessed some way or another by finance capital. Forty acres and a mule are more relevant than before. Only today, “forty acres and a mule” means “the expropriation of big business and the banks under public ownership and democratic workers’ control.”

The word “reparations” is fairly new, gaining prominence in the last several decades, but the idea itself is much deeper. A majority of black Americans and roughly half of all Millennials support reparations. This indicates a deep-seated hostility towards racism and inequality.

Monetary recompense for individual descendants of slaves is logistically unimplementable. Too many generations have passed to determine individual claims, and any such program would be trapped in the courts for decades. Besides, the relatively new idea of individual cash payments obscures what “forty acres and a mule” actually meant—a radical transfer as to which class owned the means of production, the most important form of wealth.

Bernie SandersSanders falls short on reparations not because he takes a class perspective, but because he advocates class collaboration. / Image: Michael Vardon on Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

When asked about reparations, Sanders avoids the word itself and talks about federal policies to address inequality. Some criticize Sanders for not addressing the specific need to recompense black Americans. However, reparations are owed, for that matter, to Native Americans, Mexican-Americans, Mexico itself, Haiti, and others. Sanders’s fault involves more of a failure to specify who should pay reparations than who should benefit from them.

In the same way that freedmen organized poor whites in Union Leagues, poor whites would have enormously benefited from a Reconstruction-era land redistribution with subsidies to small farmers. Reparations will benefit everyone, and always would have, at the expense of the propertied rich. Sanders falls short on reparations not because he takes a class perspective, but because he advocates class collaboration. Sanders proposes pro-worker reforms without challenging the rights of capitalist ownership. In contrast, reparations come down to precisely the question of ownership.

Given the popularity of the reparations demand among youth and black workers, Bhaskar Sunkara’s negative engagement with reparations—attacking liberal proposals without mentioning the revolutionary reparations proposed by the Black Panthers, providing left cover for Sanders’s vacillation and moderation, and counterposing reparations with “social democratic” “universal programs” that do not include expropriations or a revolutionary overthrow of capitalist society—is a mistake. The Black Panthers intuitively expressed the ideas of revolutionary socialism, albeit with ambiguous and unclear language. From their Program, we can derive two concrete points: 1) recompense should be monetarily administered to “our many communities” and 2) these “communities” must be vested with control and ownership of the “means of production” expropriated from “the businessmen.”

Today, black households and neighborhoods suffer an enormous ongoing transfer of wealth into the hands of Wall Street finance capital. Reparations, then, would not be a historical, legal restitution, but an active reversal of this rapacious wealth transfer. When the Black Panthers demanded that working-class “communities” control “the means of production,” we would add that the only way this is possible is through a socialist revolution. Mass assemblies in every workplace and proletarian neighborhood would be organized as part of a revolutionary state holding power and the means of production in its hands. The transformation of conditions as we know them would necessarily entail a massive transfer of liquidity into disproportionately poor black neighborhoods as a core component of the broader revolutionary process.

Black Lives Matter ProtestThe defeat of racism requires the defeat of the capitalists—the same ruling class that engendered racism and promotes it today. / Image: Pixabay

We reject the legislation proposed by Conyers. We do not believe that an authentic national discussion on reparations can begin in the halls of Congress—a den of thieves—to be argued by Democrats and Republicans. This discussion must be taken up by the working-class movement to be transformed into a tool of agitation for revolutionary demands. For example, following the acquittal of the cop who murdered Antwon Rose Jr., reparations means that not a single dollar or cent of value should be left in any police department in Allegheny County.

Like Malcolm X said, “you can’t have capitalism without racism.” The defeat of racism requires the defeat of the capitalists—the same ruling class that engendered racism and promotes it today. Today, reparations can only mean the expropriation of capital and the collective return of society’s vast wealth to the class that created it. This would inaugurate the beginning of the transformation of conditions and culture as we know them.

We demand the abolition of a capitalist housing market of redlining and gentrification, the abolition of a job market featuring racist hyperexploitation and underemployment, the abolition of the capitalist state responsible for police brutality and mass incarceration, and the abolition of US imperialism which enslaves whole countries today. We fight for socialist revolution in our lifetime. This is how we will win reparations for five hundred years of exploitation and oppression.

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