The “irrepressible conflict:” Slavery, the Civil War and America’s second revolution


The following lecture was delivered on Tuesday, November 5 at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. It was the second in a series of three lectures at the U of M in response to the New York Times’ “1619 Project,” which presents a falsified, racialist interpretation of American history. Lectures on this topic are being held across the country under the titleRace, Class and the Fight for Socialism: Perspectives for the Coming Revolution in America.The first lecture, titled “Slavery and the American Revolution: A Response to the New York Times’ 1619 Project,” was held November 1.

Slavery and the American Revolution: A Response to the New York Times’ 1619 Project

The purpose of this lecture series, hosted by the Socialist Equality Party, is to address the falsifications of the New York Times’ “1619 Project” and undertake a historical materialist analysis of American history, and in this lecture, the Civil War. Our purpose is not academic. Our aim to elaborate the strategy for socialist revolution.

The “1619 Project” is a politically motivated attack on historical truth. Through this initiative, the Democratic Party seeks to present race, and not class, as the essential dividing line in American and world society.

This historical falsification has a clear political value for the American financial aristocracy. In the US, the wealthiest 1 percent of households now owns 40 percent of the wealth. The next 9 percent owns another 30 percent, meaning the top 10 percent owns 70 percent of all wealth. The bottom 50 percent—160 million people—owns less than 2 percent. That’s less than the 3 percent owned by the richest 400 Americans.

Only an oligarchic society such as this one could produce a figure like Trump, who epitomizes in his reactionary politics and personal depravity all the characteristics of the degenerate financial aristocracy.

In a country of 320 million people, roughly 285 million—the bottom 90 percent—constitute the working class. Of those, roughly 40 million are identified as black, 170 million are identified as white, 50 million are Hispanic, 17 million are Asian, and 4 million are Native American. Of all categories, roughly 40 million are foreign born, while another 35 million are second-generation immigrants. And, of course, within each category there are younger and older workers and women and men. Within this diverse working class, there exist various levels of stratification—from highly skilled workers with higher incomes to those living below or at the very fringes of solvency.

These are just the figures for the working class in America. Across the world the working class comes from all different national and cultural backgrounds. The workers’ position in society, however, is determined not by the color of their skin, their religion, their language or their gender, but by their class—by the fact that they sell their labor power in order to survive. The task of socialists is to break down the racial myths, clarify the historical record and bring workers of all the backgrounds together in a common, united struggle for social equality.

Historical falsification and identity politics are strategic weapons in the hands of the ruling class, which deliberately employs these tools to weaken the objective position of the working class by pitting workers against each other and thereby suppressing the class struggle. Trump opts for the openly fascistic method, scape-goating immigrants, excoriating socialism and appealing to the most openly racist elements of American society.

But this lecture will address the Democratic Party and its history, its use of racial politics—today and in the decades leading up to the Civil War. Today, this brand of racialism is in no way a progressive alternative to the fascism of Trump. In fact, as an ideology, the Democratic Party’s identity politics shares much in common with the party’s racist roots and with fascist racial and irrationalist theories of the early 20th century. It is an extremely dangerous and right-wing ideology and it must be opposed.

This critique will focus on two articles in the 1619 Project, the first by journalist and Times staff writer Nikole Hannah-Jones, the originator of the project, titled “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true,” and the second, by Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond, titled “In order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation.”

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