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International Socialist Organization
of
Hunter College

 

Open Meeting:
Wednesday, September 5 @ 6:30pm
TH 305B (see directions below)

Join the Hunter International Socialist Organization as we begin our new school year with discussions about women’s oppression and staging an on-campus fight against racism.

As we draw closer to the elections, Republicans are echoing one lunacy after the other about “legitimate rape” and have declared an outright war on women.  Meanwhile, Democrats attempt to pose themselves as an alternative, but any casual look at their actual record reveals they have time and again failed to deliver on one promise after the other and have continually compromised with the right-wing fanatics when it comes to women’s rights.  The need to find solutions outside the two-party system has never been greater, and we will be discussing the questions around why women are commonly regarded as second-class citizens in our society and what can be done about it.  What are the origins of women’s oppression and how have those led to the current status of women in society?  Why are women still paid 77¢ on the dollar to men?  What will it take to halt these attacks and bring together a struggle which can successfully win real rights for all women?

With the fight against the racially-profiling stop and frisk policies of the NYPD and the onslaught of high-profile cases of police brutality in the news, coupled with skyrocketing mass incarceration rates of people of color alongside a wholesale gutting of social services in our communities, the need for an on-campus fightback against racism has never been greater.  Take part in a discussion on how to build this struggle at Hunter College. Help us prepare to bring a panel to our school of speakers who have lost family members to the violence of the NYPD, so they can share their stories about how they are fighting for justice and how we can become part of the solution.

Topics for Discussion:

1)    Women’s Oppression and the Elections

2)    Anti-Racist Orientation and Work
(
Ramarley Graham & Family On-Campus Event)

 

Readings for Discussion on Women’s Oppression:                                   


Engel’s and the Origins of Women’s Oppression
http://www.isreview.org/issues/02/engles_family.shtml
They Care About Abortion… Every Four Years
http://socialistworker.org/2012/08/15/they-care-about-abortion-every-four-years 
Akin Speaks for Them All
http://socialistworker.org/2012/08/23/akin-speaks-for-them-all 

Supplementary Reading:
Turning Back the Clock? Women, Work and the Family Today
http://www.isreview.org/issues/38/women_family.shtml

 

 


Directions to TH305B
:
Walk up to the 3rd floor of Hunter West.  Walk through the skybridge to Hunter North. Enter into Thomas Hunter Hall through the door on your right and go up one flight of stairs to the 3rd floor. TH305B is the first door on the left side of the hallway.

 

 

www.socialistworker.org • www.hunterinternationalsocialists.wordpress.com

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Students fill the streets protesting tuition hikes in March
Students fill the streets protesting tuition hikes in March
Originally posted here
————————————————————————————————————————–
Québec students organized a protracted strike earlier this year against the government’s plan for a massive tuition hike, and they plan to continue action in the fall. The leading force in the student strike was the Coalition of the Association for Student Union Solidarity (Coalition large de l’association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante, or CLASSE).

In this manifesto issued in July, CLASSE calls on unions and other social struggles to join in the rejection of neoliberalism and build a different kind of future for students and workers.

————————————————————————————————————————

FOR MONTHS now, all over Québec, the streets have vibrated to the rhythm of hundreds of thousands of marching feet. What started out as a movement underground, still stiff with the winter consensus, gathered new strength in the spring and flowed freely, energizing students, parents, grandparents, children and people with and without jobs.

The initial student strike grew into a people’s struggle, while the problem of tuition fees opened the door to a much deeper malaise–we now face a political problem that truly affects us all. To find its remedy and give substance to our vision, let us cast our minds back to the root of the problem.

The way we see it, direct democracy should be experienced every moment of every day. Our own voices ought to be heard in assemblies in schools, at work, in our neighborhoods. Our concept of democracy places the people in permanent charge of politics, and by “the people,” we mean those of us at the base of the pyramid–the foundation of political legitimacy. This becomes an opportunity for all those who are never heard. It is a time for women to speak up as equals and to raise issues that are too often ignored or simply forgotten about.

The democracy we see does not make promises: it goes into action. Our democracy banishes cynicism, instead of fuelling it. As we have shown many times over, our democracy brings people together. Each time we take to the streets and set up picket lines, it is this kind of democracy that at last breathes free. We are talking about shared, participatory democracy.

Democracy, as viewed by the other side, is tagged as “representative”–and we wonder just what it represents. This brand of “democracy” comes up for air once every four years, for a game of musical chairs. While elections come and go, decisions remain unchanged, serving the same interests: those of leaders who prefer the murmurs of lobbyists to the clanging of pots and pans.

Each time the people raises its voice in discontent, on comes the answer: emergency laws, with riot sticks, pepper spray, tear gas. When the elite feels threatened, no principle is sacred, not even those principles they preach: for them, democracy works only when we, the people keep our mouths shut.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

OUR VIEW is that truly democratic decisions arise from a shared space, where men and women are valued. As equals, in these spaces, women and men can work together to build a society that is dedicated to the public good.

We now know that equal access to public services is vital to the common good. And access can only be equal if it is free.

Free access does more than simply banish prices: it tears down the economic barriers to what we hold most dear. Free access removes the stumbling blocks to the full flowering of our status as humans. Where there is free access, we share payment for shared services.

By contrast, the concept of price determination–the so-called “fair share”–is, in truth, no more than veiled discrimination. Under the supposedly consensual “user-payer” principle, a surtax is in fact charged to people whose needs are already at the bottom of the heap. Where is justice, when a hospital can charge the exact same fee from a lawyer as from a bag clerk? For the lawyer, the amount is minimal; for the bag clerk, it is a backbreaking burden.

This burden is one that we all shoulder, each and every one of us, whether we are students or not: this is one lesson our strike has taught us. For we, students, are also renters and employees; we are international students, pushed aside by discriminating public services.

We come from many backgrounds, and, until the color of our skin goes as unnoticed as our eye color, we will keep on facing everyday racism, contempt and ignorance. We are women, and if we are feminists, it is because we face daily sexism and roadblocks set for us by the patriarchal system; we constantly fight deep-rooted prejudice. We are gay, straight, bisexual, and proud to be. We have never been a separate level of society. Our strike is not directed against the people.

We are the people.

Our strike goes beyond the $1,625 tuition-fee hike. If, by throwing our educational institutions into the marketplace, our most basic rights are being taken from us, we can say the same for hospitals, Hydro-Québec, our forests, and the soil beneath our feet. We share so much more than public services: we share our living spaces, spaces that were here before we were born. We want them to survive us.

Yet a handful of greedy persons, answering to no one, is hard at work devastating these spaces–and they are getting away with it, with projects such as Plan Nord, shale gas and more. For these few, who view the future in terms of the next quarter’s profit, nature has value only when measured in economic spin-offs.

Blind to the beauty of the common good, this clique is avid and unpredictable, with eyes only for its faraway stockholders. It caters to those stockholders’ whims in colonial style, with no consultation. The primary victims of this wholesale sell-off are Native women, far from the media, poor and easily ignored.

Fortunately, though our Native peoples are displaced each and every time wealth is found under or on their land, they have kept up the fight. Some of these ruthless exploitation projects have been put on ice due to the women and men who have dared to defy them. These men and women have stood their ground against this plunder of resources, despite dire warnings that our economic survival depends on the speedy exploitation of our underground wealth, whatever the price.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

TOGETHER, EACH and every one of us will be affected by the waste of our resources, because we are concerned, not only for those who will come after us, but also for the people with whom we now share these spaces–we want to think better thoughts: we want to think ahead.

This is the meaning of our vision, and the essence of our strike: it is a shared, collective action whose scope lies well beyond student interests. We are daring to call for a different world, one far removed from the blind submission our present commodity-based system requires. Individuals, nature, our public services, these are being seen as commodities: the same tiny elite is busy selling everything that belongs to us. And yet we know that public services are not useless expenditures, nor are they consumer goods.

Together we have realized that our underground wealth cannot be measured in tons of metal, and that a woman’s body is not a selling point. In the same way, education cannot be sold; it ought to be provided to each and every one of us, without regard to our immigration status or our condition. Our aim is for an educational system that is for us, that we will share together.

Because education is a training ground for humanity, and because humanity does not bow to economic competitiveness, we refuse to allow our schools to bend under the weight of well-stocked portfolios. Together, we call for an egalitarian school system that will break down hierarchies, one that will pose a threat to all those men and women who still think they can rule over us with a free hand.

In providing everyone with the resources they need to develop their full capacities, we will succeed in creating a society where decision-making and the ways in which we organize our lives with one another are shared. This is the heart of our vision. Education is not a branch of the economy, nor is it a short-term training service. Our educational system, which is at the root of all knowledge, can allow us to pave the way towards freeing society as a whole; it can provide a liberating education that will lay the foundation for self-determination.

We believe that if our educational system is to be seen as a space where universal knowledge is shared, it must banish all forms of gender-based discrimination and domination. And yet a woman in the current educational system walks a path just as difficult as the one she walks in today’s society.

It is futile to believe that unequal status is no longer reproduced in the halls of academe: we are disgusted to see that the professions traditionally associated with women are still undervalued, and that it is still mostly women who study for these professions. We women are numerous in Bachelor’s-level classrooms, but how many of us climb to the highest rungs of the academic ladder?

We are against prolonging this discrimination against women as well as against people who are in any way shunted aside by society. Our aim is to make our educational system well and truly a space where equality reigns and differences are respected. Our fervent wish is for an educational system that allows each and every one of us to blossom.

In choosing to strike, we have chosen to fight for these ideas. We have chosen to create a power relationship, the only mechanism that will allow us to tip the scales. Sharing this responsibility together, we can accomplish a great deal: but in order to do this we have to speak up, and speak up forcefully.

History has shown us eloquently that if we do choose hope, solidarity and equality, we must not beg for them: we must take them. This is what we mean by combative syndicalism.

Now, at a time when new democratic spaces are springing up all around us, we must make use of these to create a new world. Now is no time for mere declarations of intent: we must act. In calling for a social strike today, we will be marching alongside you, people of Québec, in the street tomorrow. In calling for a social strike today, we hope that tomorrow, we will be marching, together, alongside the whole of Québec society.

Together, we can rebuild. Share our future.

Translated by Tamara Loring for Rouge Squad. First published at StopTheHike.ca.

Elizabeth Schulte explains what the Republicans’ voter ID laws are really about.

African Americans lined up to vote in Philadelphia in 2008

August 2, 2012
originally posted here

 

MORE THAN a million people in Pennsylvania alone might not get to vote in November if a new voter ID law goes into effect in that state.

They won’t be alone, because voter ID laws–which require that voters show a photo identification in order to cast a ballot–are spreading from state to state, sponsored by Republican lawmakers who claim they’re preventing “voter fraud.”

But the only thing these laws are preventing is Black and Latino people’s right to vote.

Some 32 states have some form of voter ID law on the books right now. But if it makes it through a court challenge this month, Pennsylvania will be the most restrictive yet.

So was there an epidemic of stuffed ballot boxes or fraudulent registrations in Pennsylvania’s recent elections? Nope. There have been no incidents or investigations of in-person voter fraud in the past, according to state officials themselves.

That’s right, absolutely none.

In Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker is trying to pass a voter ID law, an investigation of the 2004 elections revealed just seven substantiated cases of individuals knowingly casting invalid votes. That’s a rate of 0.0002 percent for the state. And each of these seven cases were people with felony convictions who were attempting to vote when they were banned from doing so–something a photo ID law probably wouldn’t have stopped.

Pennsylvania Republicans were hardly covert about the real reason behind the new law. “Pro-Second Amendment? The Castle Doctrine, it’s done. First pro-life legislation–abortion facility regulations–in 22 years, done,” said state House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, boasting of his party’s recent “accomplishments.” “Voter ID, which is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done.”

Clearly the Republicans will stop at nothing. They will lie, cheat and, yes, steal to win elections.

How many people will be affected if the Pennsylvania proposal becomes law? Estimates run anywhere from half a million, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, to as high as 1.6 million. According to an investigation by the City Paper, 437,237 people, or 43 percent of city voters, may not have the proper ID to vote under the law.

A valid photo ID can be difficult to obtain, especially for people who don’t have financial resources. The Pennsylvania law requires documentary proof of citizenship, a Social Security card and proof of address to get a photo ID. According to a study by Matt Barreto, director of the Washington Institute for the Study of Ethnicity, Race and Sexuality, who is testifying against the Pennsylvania law in court: “Among eligible voters who currently lack a valid ID, 27.6 percent do not have at least one of the three required underlying documents needed to obtain a valid photo ID.”

Viviette Applewhite, the 93-year-old lead plaintiff in the case initiated by the ACLU and NAACP against the Pennsylvania law, says she can’t come up with the documentation she needs in time for the election. After 50 years of voting, the African American grandmother could be barred from taking part in voting because she no longer has the official papers she needs after her purse was stolen.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

ACCORDING TO the Brennan Center for Justice, in the 10 states with the most restrictive voter ID laws (Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin), more than 10 million eligible voters live more than 10 miles from the nearest office that provided IDs and was open more than two days a week. That’s a hardship for voters without access to transportation.

The Brennan study found that:

1.2 million eligible Black voters and 500,000 eligible Hispanic voters live more than 10 miles from their nearest ID-issuing office open more than two days a week. People of color are more likely to be disenfranchised by these laws since they are less likely to have photo ID than the general population.

The Center emphasized the difficulties imposed by the cost of obtaining the documentation needed to obtain the ID, concluding:

Birth certificates can cost between $8 and $25. Marriage licenses, required for married women whose birth certificates include a maiden name, can cost between $8 and $20. By comparison, the notorious poll tax–outlawed during the civil rights era–cost $10.64 in current dollars.

Stealing the minority vote is hardly a new idea for Republicans. In 2000, the disenfranchisement of African American voters in Florida delivered a narrow 537-vote victory for Republican George W. Bush. According to a Civil Rights Commission reportreleased in June 2001, this was a premeditated act orchestrated by Florida officials, including George W. Bush’s own brother.

Two years before the 2000 election, Gov. Jeb Bush authorized a purge of “possible” and “probable” felons from voter registration lists. Blacks made up 44 percent of the list of 58,000 people who were purged, many of them without cause. Then, after the Black votes were stolen, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against a full recount of ballots in an election that Bush barely won. Al Gore conceded, and Bush became president.

The GOP has plenty of other tricks to disenfranchise the most vulnerable–like attacking groups that work to make voting more accessible. A right-wing campaign against Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN–claiming among other things that the group’s volunteers engaged in “voter fraud” during the 2008 election–forced a grassroots community organization that provided invaluable assistance to millions of poor people to shut down in 2010.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

WITH A new set of restrictive voter ID laws, the right to vote could become an illusion for millions of people this year. Democrats are leading the opposition to these reactionary laws for the obvious reason that they mainly affect the party’s loyal supporters.

But even without voter ID laws, millions of people have had the ballot stolen away from them, and with almost no complaint at all from Democrats–because of punitive laws aimed at potential voters with felony convictions.

Some 5.3 million Americans with felony convictions–and in several states, with misdemeanor convictions–are barred from voting. Of those, most were convicted of nonviolent offenses, and 39 percent have fully completed their sentences, including probation and parole. More than 1.4 million of the disenfranchised are African American.According to the ACLU, “In 11 states, you can lose your right to vote for life.”

Fifty years ago, civil rights activists stood up, risking their lives in the face of racist vigilantes, to win the right to vote. They took on poll taxes, literacy tests and racist harassment and intimidation at voting stations. Their activism put a nail in the coffin of Jim Crow segregation in the South.

Recently, civil rights and immigrants rights activists have begun organizing solidarity actions to take on the right-wing attack on the right to vote. They are part of the movement against the new Jim Crow–with a call for the right for every person’s vote to be counted, whether they have been a victim of the criminal justice system, whether they are undocumented, and whatever the color of their skin.

While working people continue to suffer declining living standards, Bankzilla is feasting on massive profits, explains Eric Ruder.

July 31, 2012
Originally posted here

Bankzilla vs. the rest of us (Eric Ruder | SW)

THE YEAR is 2009. Home values were in free fall, and tent cities were springing up in cities like Seattle andReno as a wave of foreclosures began to wash over U.S. homeowners. The unemployment rate was shooting up, and anxiety stalked the lives of tens of millions of people who wondered if their job might be next on the chopping block.

Stock trader Steven Schonfeld, on the other hand, wasn’t worried at all.

He told a Wall Street Journal reporter that he had “earned” $200 million the year before and his net worth was around $1 billion. He had just moved into a $90 million mansion near Long Island Sound, with its own nine-hole golf course. No one could use the golf course if he wasn’t home. “It’s not a private golf course,” Schonfeld explained. “It’s a personal golf course.”

Schonfeld was making a few upgrades to the estate–like erecting a poolside cabana designed to look like the Cove Atlantis resort in the Bahamas. “I don’t think it’s putting anyone’s face in it,” he said. “I live in this house.”

Welcome to the Great Recession–as in great wealth for the already super-rich, and the worst recession since the crisis of the 1930s for the rest of us.

A year earlier–while Steven Schonfeld was making $200 million–the entire world economy teetered on the brink of a financial meltdown brought on by the crisis of American banks. The U.S. and other power governments hastily assembled bailouts that they said would save the world economy.

The $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) passed Congress with the support of then Sen. Barack Obama and the Democrats and was signed by then-President George W. Bush.

It’s likely that only a few minutes passed before the titans of Wall Street began popping corks.

Mega-bank Morgan Stanley received $10 billion in TARP money. Its profits were down by 41 percent by October 2008–but it still managed to set aside $6.44 billion to pay out in bonuses for executives. Goldman Sachs also got $10 billion from TARP and paid out $6.85 billion in bonuses for 2008.

Sure, those numbers were down compared to the record-setting bonuses paid out in 2007, but at more than $200,000 per employee–and certainly far more for the top executives–that’s pretty spectacular compensation for wrecking the global economy and the lives of tens of millions of people.

TARP funds were used to purchase toxic assets like subprime mortgage bonds, making the American taxpayer the proud owner of billions of worthless financial instruments that the risk-taking bankers had invested in. Still, the bailout was supposed to spur banks to begin lending again and get the gears of capitalism moving again.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

TO THIS day, Bankzilla continues to terrorize whole communities of homeowners while feasting on massive profits.

In May 2012, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation reported that U.S. bank profits were the highest in nearly five years–a total of $35.3 billion in the first three months of the year, which represented a $6.6 billion increase from the same quarter a year earlier and nearly double the figure from two years before.

And the “too big to fail” banks that got us into this mess in the first place just keep growing. In 2002, the 10 largest U.S. banks accounted for 55 percent of U.S. banking assets. Today, the top 10 banks control 77 percent of banking assets. The “big six” U.S. banks–Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Bank of America and Wells Fargo–control assets equivalent to about 60 percent of the entire annual economic output of the U.S.

But did the bailout at least get the economy moving again? Are the banks loaning out money again?

Nope. In the first three months of the year, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Bank of America and Citigroup cut their lending by a collective $24 billion. That almost completely reverses the $34 billion increase in lending at the four banks in all of last year.

The slowdown was concentrated in the “consumer-lending sector”–that is, the rest of us. Credit card loans fell nearly 6 percent and home equity credit lines by more than 2 percent. While mortgage lending was up slightly, most of the increase came from refinancing by homeowners seeking lower interest rates, not new loans.

That’s just one more sign of what most ordinary people recognize–that while those at the top might still be making big profits, the economy is still stagnant or worse for the rest of us.

A study by Northeastern University researchers found that during the first two years of the recovery following the official end of the recession in June 2009, “corporate profits captured 88 percent of the growth in real national income while aggregate wages and salaries accounted for only slightly more than 1 percent” of the increase.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

IT DIDN’T have to be this way. Consider the fact that billionaire investor Warren Buffett, one of the richest men in the world, also invested $5 billion in Goldman Sachs–shortly before the U.S. Treasury gave Goldman $10 billion in bailout funds.

In return for his investment, Buffett got a portfolio of preferred stock as well as warrants to purchase common stock in the future. The preferred shares pay a 10 percent dividend, and the warrants to purchase stock in the future would make him a windfall when Goldman’s stock price rebounded.

About three weeks later, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson forked over $10 billion of taxpayer cash to Goldman Sachs. But the deal that Paulson negotiated got only a 5 percent dividend and a fraction of the warrants–plus those toxic assets that the federal government was now responsible for.

Of course, it could be that Paulson just wasn’t as shrewd an investor as Buffett. But a more likely explanation is the fact that Paulson himself made $37 million in 2005 as CEO of Goldman Sachs before becoming treasury secretary. Therefore, Paulson would havewanted a bad deal for taxpayers, which translated into a great deal for his friends at Goldman.

In fact, many mainstream economists thought the whole concept of TARP–handing mountains of cash over to banks in exchange for taking responsibility for toxic assets–was foolhardy. Many economists argued for a stock injection plan–the same kind of deal that Buffett got–instead of making the toxic assets the property of the Treasury Department.

The bailout bill passed by Congress actually gave Paulson the option of using the stock-injection approach. Not surprisingly, Paulson didn’t exercise his “discretion” in this regard–and the main reason, according to economics correspondent Adam Davidson of National Public Radio, was opposition to the plan among powerful constituencies with a stake in the outcome.

One group is conservative Republicans. “They just don’t fundamentally, in their guts, don’t like the idea of the U.S. government owning shares of private companies,” [Davidson] says. “It just smells like socialism to them and they can’t support it.”

Perhaps more importantly, banks really hate the idea. When the government took over insurance giant AIG, it essentially bought a huge share of the bank’s shares and zeroed them out. All the shareholders lost billions of dollars and the chief executive of AIG was fired to boot.

Of course, the fate of AIG–whose gambling on esoteric investments pushed them into bankruptcy–is an example of how the free market is supposed to work, according to its defenders. They explain that their expertise and willingness to take big risks is what justifies their obscene compensation, and of course they insist that the essence of a free market is that bad investments should not be insulated from bad outcomes by non-market forces, including government bailouts.

But as the Wall Street bailout demonstrated, all this flies out the window when it’s the bankers’ necks on the line. Suddenly, the only “reasonable” approach is to push the losses off onto taxpayers–because the banks are just too big to fail.

This outcome wasn’t left to chance, either. According to Richard Eskow, a senior fellow at the Campaign for America’s Future:

The banks have paid Washington lobbyists $50-60 million per year for the last few years–and they’ve gotten their money’s worth. The White House has yet to indict a single banker for the events leading up to the financial crisis, although billions have been paid out in settlement fees for criminal activity. When you look at it in context, $150-200 million over three years is one of the best investments Wall Street has ever made.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

THE SAME corporate criminality that plunged the banking sector into crisis five years ago continues unabated. The Libor scandal and the attempt by JPMorgan Chase to hide at least $2 billion in losses from investors are only the latest examples.

The story behind the scandals is that federal regulators and the political establishment continue to look the other way as the financial industry and its executives return to profitability–and turn institutional positions into private fortunes.

But apart from the criminality and cronyism, the latest economic turmoil is also being milked for another purpose–to bolster the dynamic of exploitation at the heart of the capitalist system.

Corporate profits are up 22 percent since 2007, while employers continue to shed jobs. This has created healthy corporate balance sheets–and unhealthy lives for workers.

Sylvia works in a massive warehouse in the middle of a California desert. In an interviewwith a reporter from Mother Jones, she described the conditions:

It’s way bigger than a Wal-Mart, but with no air conditioning. Our temperature gets up to 115 degrees. Sometimes it feels so hot in there that you just can’t breathe. You have a lot of people go home sick from the heat. To stay cool, people put towels around their necks. They go back and forth getting ice to chew on.

We’re given orders by scanning our badges and totes into a computer system, which tells us what to pull and how quickly it has to be done. Back when I started in 1999, the rate wasn’t so bad, but for about a year, they’ve been gradually ratcheting it up. Say the old rate was 100 orders a day. Now they’re up to 160, sometimes even higher.

I’ve talked to some of the coordinators who add up the numbers at night. They’ve told me that it’s impossible to meet the rate that they want with the amount of people that we have. So we have to work longer. We already worked 10 hours a day. Now we work another hour or two hours overtime, sometimes with last-minute notice. If we refuse to stay longer, we get disciplined.

This same intensification of work–falling on the people who still have jobs–is true across the economy, whether in blue-collar occupations or the service sector or in highly skilled professions like doctors.

According to an air traffic controller named Steven:

You make a thousand decisions a day. Any one of them could not only cost you your job, it could cost lives or money…Now with all the publicity about fatigue issues, more facilities are doubling up on controllers. Well, where did that second person come from? They don’t have enough guys, so some other shift is now short to backfill the midnight shift. For some people, it has made an unsustainable situation even worse…

I can’t tell you about all the suicides and the accidental deaths where I work. One year we lost more than a tenth of our controllers due to burnout. One guy was 38. He went home after a really long day, poured himself a drink, sat down in his armchair, and died.

Stress hurts your body. When my dad retired in his late 50s, he looked like he was 90 years old. I’m only 45, and when I visit old friends they go, “You look from a distance like you are physically healthy, but when I see you up close…” And it bothers me because I love the job, and I’ve made this commitment that I’m going to see through to retirement, I hope. But at what cost?

As far as Corporate America is concerned, this is the new normal–lay off workers and get the remaining employees to do the work they used to do.

According to economist Brad DeLong:

[It used to be that] businesses would hold on to workers in downturns even when there wasn’t enough for them to do–would put them to work painting the factory–because businesses did not want to see their skilled, experienced workers drift away and then have to go through the expense and loss of training new ones. These days firms take advantage of downturns in demand to rationalize operations and increase labor productivity, pleading business necessity to their workers.

From the Con Ed workers in the private sector to Chicago teachers in the public sector, the pressures to do more for less are relentless. Needless to say, the surge in productivity hasn’t translated into higher wages. If median annual household income had kept pace with the economy since 1970, it would now be nearly $92,000, not $50,000.

Instead, those gains have gone to the top of the income scale. Between 1979 and 2007, income growth for the top 1 percent of U.S. households was a jaw-dropping 390 percent, according to the Economic Policy Institute, but only 5 percent for the bottom 90 percent.

And even this slim increase in income for the rest of us has been more than offset by the massive destruction of wealth–in home values and retirement accounts, for example–since the onset of the Great Recession.

According to Christian Weller, a public policy professor at UMass-Boston:

American families lost a total of $19.4 trillion (in 2010 dollars) in household wealth from June 2007 to March 2009, when the stimulus started to take hold. First, it was the housing market, and then it was the housing and the stock market together that tanked. American families lost $6.4 trillion in home value during this period.

Trillions of dollars are sometimes hard to grasp, so think of it this way: One complete house (at 2008 prices) was lost every 1.7 seconds during the Great Wealth Destruction. And this doesn’t even count what happened to American families’ rainy day funds and retirement savings.

This completes the story of the great bankers and bosses’ robbery–of how Bankzilla made out while we lost out. We’re the ones who must tell it because it’s seldom told in the mainstream media.

Instead, when it comes time to find blame for the nation’s economic woes, the media tells us to blame ourselves for not working hard enough–while CEOs who do nothing constructive pay themselves millions of dollars.

We’re told to blame “greedy” public-sector workers–instead of the greed of the bankers who manipulated the Libor rate to make handsome profits for themselves, and in the process drained billions of dollars in fraudulent interest payments from municipalities now struggling to make ends meet.

And we’re asked to blame the unemployed–instead of the bankers who shifted their losses onto taxpayers while keeping the profits for themselves.

One of the greatest indictments of capitalism is fact that while people are unemployed, while millions desperately need goods and services, while factories and offices lay empty, corporations are sitting on a record $1.7 trillion of cash that they won’t invest to put people to work.

No wonder most people think the system is broken. It is–for them. But the system is working exactly as it’s supposed to for those at the top. Capitalism puts profits and power ahead of all other considerations. We need a different system altogether–a socialist society that puts the lives of working people ahead of profits.

The last couple of months have seen heightened activity in the struggle and as a result, thousands around the world have become active participants by throwing their bodies and minds into these struggles. As organizers, we must take advantage of the free time we have from school and/or work to study the politics, traditions and history of the movements that we belong to and organize in. This is all done so that the organizer has a clearer understanding of the political, economic, historical, and social context in which the struggle is based in.

With these insights, an organizer can better understand the relationships between the different agents in the struggle and make proposals, plans and strategies that will allow the movement to overcome its contradictions and push it forward.  For this reason, The Hunter International Socialist Club invites you to a Meaning of Marxism study group starting next Monday January 2nd at 4pm in Cafe Mercato

Meaning of Marxism Study Group
Date: Monday, Jan 2nd
Time:  4pm
Location: Cafe Mercato located on Broadway and Bleecker Street downtown (4,5,6 to Bleecker or B,D,F,M to Broadway-Lafayette Street)
Study Group plan:  We will be discussing the first 2 chapters,  pages 1 – 33

That being said, for the winter, the International Socialists will be embarking on a  nationwide study series that is intended to address some of the historical, economic and political questions organizers may have encountered reflecting on their experiences over the past few months. Marxism also relates many of these questions to topics such as the question of Unions, the debate over Reform or Revolution, and identifying Oppression. This Winter study series in conjunction with the The Meaning Of Marxism study group will provide, those who participate in both study groups, a more comprehensive understanding of the state of our movement and the role we can play within it. Below are the dates for when we will be meeting with others for these collective discussions.

 

Winter Study Series Dates & Readings

SATURDAY, JAN 14TH:
Marxism & Trade Union Struggle

Reading: “Marxism, Unions and Class Struggle” by Sharon Smith (ISR 78)
http://isreview.org/issues/78/feat-marxism&unions.shtml

 

SATURDAY, JAN 21TH:
Reform or Revolution 

Reading: “Reform or Revolution” by Rosa Luxemburg
http://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1900/reform-revolution/index.htm

Background SW Article by Helen Scott
http://socialistworker.org/2008/07/08/reform-or-revolution

 

SATURDAY, JAN 28TH:
Marxism & Oppression

Reading: “Marxism and Oppression” by D’Amato
http://www.isreview.org/issues/09/marxism&oppression.pdf

 

SATURDAY, FEB 11TH:
State & Revolution 

Reading: State and Revolution by Lenin
http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/staterev/

Background SW Article by Shaun Harkin
http://socialistworker.org/2008/07/22/state-and-revolution

 

SATURDAY, FEB 18TH:
Marxism & Anarchism

Reading: “Contemporary Anarchism” by Eric Kerl (ISR 72)
http://www.isreview.org/issues/72/feat-anarchism.shtml

Bonus Reading: “On Authority” by Frederick Engels
http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1872/10/authority.htm

 

SATURDAY, FEB 25TH:
What is the Real Marxist Tradition? 

Reading: What is the Real Marxist Tradition? by John Molyneux
http://www.marxisme.dk/arkiv/molyneux/realmarx/index.htm

SATURDAY, MAR 3RD:
The Revolutionary Party

Reading: “Lenin” by Jim Higgins
http://www.marxists.org/archive/higgins/1970/04/lenin.htm

Reading: “Toward a Revolutionary Socialist Party” by Duncan Hallas (ISR 24)
http://www.isreview.org/issues/24/hallas.shtml

 

SATURDAY, MAR 10TH:
The United Front: Socialist Strategy & Tactics

Reading: Trotsky on the United Front (ISR 17)
http://isreview.org/issues/17/unitedfront.shtml

 

SATURDAY, MARCH 17TH:
Lenin on Strategy & Tactics

Reading: Ultra-Left Communism: an Infantile Disorder by Lenin
http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1920/lwc/

Background ISR Article: “Disorders of a Left Kind” by Adam Turl (ISR 37)
http://isreview.org/issues/37/infantile.shtml

In the first article in a series on “Socialism and Black Liberation,” Lance Selfa explains the origins of slavery at the dawn of capitalism and the ideology of white supremacy.

Originally posted here

An ad for a slave auction in 1840
An ad for a slave auction in 1840

IT’S ONE of the oldest truisms around. Racism, it’s said, is as old as human society itself. As long as human beings have been around, the argument goes, they have always hated or feared people of a different nation or skin color. In other words, racism is just part of human nature.

If racism is part of human nature, then socialists have a real challenge on their hands. If racism is hard-wired into human biology, then we should despair of workers ever overcoming the divisions between them to fight for a socialist society free of racial inequality.

Fortunately, racism isn’t part of human nature. The best evidence for this assertion is the fact that racism has not always existed.

Racism is a particular form of oppression. It stems from discrimination against a group of people based on the idea that some inherited characteristic, such as skin color, makes them inferior to their oppressors. Yet the concepts of “race” and “racism” are modern inventions. They arose and became part of the dominant ideology of society in the context of the African slave trade at the dawn of capitalism in the 1500s and 1600s.

Although it is a commonplace for academics and opponents of socialism to claim that Karl Marx ignored racism, Marx in fact described the processes that created modern racism. His explanation of the rise of capitalism placed the African slave trade, the European extermination of indigenous people in the Americas and colonialism at its heart. In Capital, Marx writes:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the indigenous population of the continent, the beginnings of the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of black skins are all things that characterize the dawn of the era of capitalist production.

Marx connected his explanation of the role of the slave trade in the rise of capitalism to the social relations that produced racism against Africans. In Wage Labor and Capital, written 12 years before the American Civil War, he explains:

What is a Negro slave? A man of the black race. The one explanation is as good as the other.

A Negro is a Negro. He only becomes a slave in certain relations. A cotton spinning jenny is a machine for spinning cotton. It only becomes capital in certain relations. Torn away from these conditions, it is as little capital as gold by itself is money, or as sugar is the price of sugar.

In this passage, Marx shows no prejudice to Blacks (“a man of the black race,” “a Negro is a Negro”), but he mocks society’s equation of “Black” and “slave” (“one explanation is as good as another”). He shows how the economic and social relations of emerging capitalism thrust Blacks into slavery (“he only becomes a slave in certain relations”), which produce the dominant ideology that equates being African with being a slave.

These fragments of Marx’s writing give us a good start in understanding the Marxist explanation of the origins of racism. As the Trinidadian historian of slavery Eric Williams put it: “Slavery was not born of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery.” And, one should add, the consequence of modern slavery at the dawn of capitalism. While slavery existed as an economic system for thousands of years before the conquest of America, racism as we understand it today did not exist.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

From time immemorial?

The classical empires of Greece and Rome were based on slave labor. But ancient slavery was not viewed in racial terms. Slaves were most often captives in wars or conquered peoples. If we understand white people as originating in what is today Europe, then most slaves in ancient Greece and Rome were white. Roman law made slaves the property of their owners, while maintaining a “formal lack of interest in the slave’s ethnic or racial provenance,” wrote Robin Blackburn in The Making of New World Slavery.

Over the years, slave manumission produced a mixed population of slave and free in Roman-ruled areas, in which all came to be seen as “Romans.” The Greeks drew a sharper line between Greeks and “barbarians,” those subject to slavery. Again, this was not viewed in racial or ethnic terms, as the socialist historian of the Haitian Revolution, C.L.R. James, explained:

[H]istorically, it is pretty well proved now that the ancient Greeks and Romans knew nothing about race. They had another standard–civilized and barbarian–and you could have white skin and be a barbarian, and you could be black and civilized.

More importantly, encounters in the ancient world between the Mediterranean world and Black Africans did not produce an upsurge of racism against Africans. In Before Color Prejudice, Howard University classics professor Frank Snowden documented innumerable accounts of interaction between the Greco-Roman and Egyptian civilizations and the Kush, Nubian, and Ethiopian kingdoms of Africa. He found substantial evidence of integration of Black Africans in the occupational hierarchies of the ancient Mediterranean empires and Black-white intermarriage. Black and mixed race gods appeared in Mediterranean art, and at least one Roman emperor, Septimius Severus, was an African.

Between the 10th and 16th centuries, the chief source of slaves in Western Europe was Eastern Europe. In fact, the word “slave” comes from the word “Slav,” the people of Eastern Europe.

This outline doesn’t mean to suggest a “pre-capitalist” Golden Age of racial tolerance, least of all in the slave societies of antiquity. Empires viewed themselves as centers of the universe and looked on foreigners as inferiors. Ancient Greece and Rome fought wars of conquest against peoples they presumed to be less advanced. Religious scholars interpreted the Hebrew Bible’s “curse of Ham” from the story of Noah to condemn Africans to slavery. Cultural and religious associations of the color white with light and angels and the color black with darkness and evil persisted.

But none of these cultural or ideological factors explain the rise of New World slavery or the “modern” notions of racism that developed from it.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

The African slave trade

The slave trade lasted for a little more than 400 years, from the mid-1400s, when the Portuguese made their first voyages down the African coast, to the abolition of slavery in Brazil in 1888.

Slave traders took as many as 12 million Africans by force to work on the plantations in South America, the Caribbean and North America. About 13 percent of slaves (1.5 million) died during the Middle Passage–the trip by boat from Africa to the New World. The African slave trade–involving African slave merchants, European slavers and New World planters in the traffic in human cargo–represented the greatest forced population transfer ever.

The charge that Africans “sold their own people” into slavery has become a standard canard against “politically correct” history that condemns the European role in the African slave trade. The first encounters of the Spanish and Portuguese, and later the English, with African kingdoms revolved around trade in goods. Only after the Europeans established New World plantations requiring huge labor gangs did the slave trade begin.

African kings and chiefs did indeed sell into slavery captives in wars or members of other communities. Sometimes, they concluded alliances with Europeans to support them in wars, with captives from their enemies being handed over to the Europeans as booty. The demands of the plantation economies pushed “demand” for slaves. Supply did not create its own demand.

In any event, it remains unseemly to attempt to absolve the European slavers by reference to their African partners in crime. As historian Basil Davidson rightly argues about African chiefs’ complicity in the slave trade: “In this, they were no less ‘moral’ than the Europeans who had instigated the trade and bought the captives.”

Onboard, Africans were restricted in their movements so that they wouldn’t combine to mutiny on the ship. In many slave ships, slaves were chained down, stacked like firewood with less than a foot between them. On the plantations, slaves were subjected to a regimen of 18-hour workdays. All members of slave families were set to work. Since the New World tobacco and sugar plantations operated nearly like factories, men, women and children were assigned tasks, from the fields to the processing mills.

Slaves were denied any rights. Throughout the colonies in the Caribbean to North America, laws were passed establishing a variety of common practices: Slaves were forbidden to carry weapons, they could marry only with the owner’s permission, and their families could be broken up. They were forbidden to own property. Masters allowed slaves to cultivate vegetables and chickens, so the master wouldn’t have to attend to their food needs. But they were forbidden even to sell for profit the products of their own gardens.

Some colonies encouraged religious instruction among slaves, but all of them made clear that a slave’s conversion to Christianity didn’t change their status as slaves. Other colonies discouraged religious instruction, especially when it became clear to the planters that church meetings were one of the chief ways that slaves planned conspiracies and revolts. It goes without saying that slaves had no political or civil rights, with no right to an education, to serve on juries, to vote or to run for public office.

The planters instituted barbaric regimes of repression to prevent any slave revolts. Slave catchers using tracker dogs would hunt down any slaves who tried to escape the plantation. The penalties for any form of slave resistance were extreme and deadly. One description of the penalties slaves faced in Barbados reports that rebellious slaves would be punished by “nailing them down on the ground with crooked sticks on every Limb, and then applying the Fire by degrees from Feet and Hands, burning them gradually up to the Head, whereby their pains are extravagant.” Barbados planters could claim a reimbursement from the government of 25 pounds per slave executed.

The African slave trade helped to shape a wide variety of societies from modern Argentina to Canada. These differed in their use of slaves, the harshness of the regime imposed on slaves, and the degree of mixing of the races that custom and law permitted. But none of these became as virulently racist–insisting on racial separation and a strict color bar–as the English North American colonies that became the United States.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Unfree labor in the North American colonies

Notwithstanding the horrible conditions that African slaves endured, it is important to underscore that when European powers began carving up the New World between them, African slaves were not part of their calculations.

When we think of slavery today, we think of it primarily from the point of view of its relationship to racism. But planters in the 17th and 18th centuries looked at it primarily as a means to produce profits. Slavery was a method of organizing labor to produce sugar, tobacco and cotton. It was not, first and foremost, a system for producing white supremacy. How did slavery in the U.S. (and the rest of the New World) become the breeding ground for racism?

For much of the first century of colonization in what became the United States, the majority of slaves and other “unfree laborers” were white. The term “unfree” draws the distinction between slavery and servitude and “free wage labor” that is the norm in capitalism. One of the historic gains of capitalism for workers is that workers are “free” to sell their ability to labor to whatever employer will give them the best deal. Of course, this kind of freedom is limited at best. Unless they are independently wealthy, workers aren’t free to decide not to work. They’re free to work or starve. Once they do work, they can quit one employer and go to work for another.

But the hallmark of systems like slavery and indentured servitude was that slaves or servants were “bound over” to a particular employer for a period of time, or for life in the case of slaves. The decision to work for another master wasn’t the slave’s or the servant’s. It was the master’s, who could sell slaves for money or other commodities like livestock, lumber or machinery.

The North American colonies started predominantly as private business enterprises in the early 1600s. Unlike the Spanish, whose conquests of Mexico and Peru in the 1500s produced fabulous gold and silver riches for Spain, settlers in places like the colonies that became Maryland, Rhode Island, and Virginia made money through agriculture. In addition to sheer survival, the settlers’ chief aim was to obtain a labor force that could produce the large amounts of indigo, tobacco, sugar and other crops that would be sold back to England. From 1607, when Jamestown was founded in Virginia to about 1685, the primary source of agricultural labor in English North America came from white indentured servants.

The colonists first attempted to press the indigenous population into labor. But the Indians refused to be become servants to the English. Indians resisted being forced to work, and they escaped into the surrounding area, which, after all, they knew far better than the English. One after another, the English colonies turned to a policy of driving out the Indians.

The colonists then turned to white servants. Indentured servants were predominantly young white men–usually English or Irish–who were required to work for a planter master for some fixed term of four to seven years. The servants received room and board on the plantation but no pay. And they could not quit and work for another planter. They had to serve their term, after which they might be able to acquire some land and to start a farm for themselves.

They became servants in several ways. Some were prisoners, convicted of petty crimes in Britain, or convicted of being troublemakers in Britain’s first colony, Ireland. Many were kidnapped off the streets of Liverpool or Manchester, and put on ships to the New World. Some voluntarily became servants, hoping to start farms after they fulfilled their obligations to their masters.

For most of the 1600s, the planters tried to get by with a predominantly white, but multiracial workforce. But as the 17th century wore on, colonial leaders became increasingly frustrated with white servant labor. For one thing, they faced the problem of constantly having to recruit labor as servants’ terms expired. Second, after servants finished their contracts and decided to set up their farms, they could become competitors to their former masters.

And finally, the planters didn’t like the servants’ “insolence.” The mid-1600s were a time of revolution in England, when ideas of individual freedom were challenging the old hierarchies based on royalty. The colonial planters tended to be royalists, but their servants tended to assert their “rights as Englishmen” to better food, clothing and time off. Most laborers in the colonies supported the servants. As the century progressed, the costs of servant labor increased. Planters started to petition the colonial boards and assemblies to allow the large-scale importation of African slaves.

Black slaves worked on plantations in small numbers throughout the 1600s. But until the end of the 1600s, it cost planters more to buy slaves than to buy white servants. Blacks lived in the colonies in a variety of statuses–some were free, some were slaves, some were servants. The law in Virginia didn’t establish the condition of lifetime, perpetual slavery or even recognize African servants as a group different from white servants until 1661. Blacks could serve on juries, own property and exercise other rights. Northampton County, Virginia, recognized interracial marriages and, in one case, assigned a free Black couple to act as foster parents for an abandoned white child. There were even a few examples of Black freemen who owned white servants. Free Blacks in North Carolina had voting rights. In the 1600s, the Chesapeake society of eastern Virginia had a multiracial character, according to historian Betty Wood:

There is persuasive evidence dating from the 1620s through the 1680s that there were those of European descent in the Chesapeake who were prepared to identify and cooperate with people of African descent. These affinities were forged in the world of plantation work. On many plantations, Europeans and West Africans labored side by side in the tobacco fields, performing exactly the same types and amounts of work; they lived and ate together in shared housing; they socialized together; and sometimes they slept together.

The planters’ economic calculations played a part in the colonies’ decision to move toward full-scale slave labor. By the end of the 17th century, the price of white indentured servants outstripped the price of African slaves. A planter could buy an African slave for life for the same price that he could purchase a white servant for 10 years. As Eric Williams explained:

Here, then, is the origin of Negro slavery. The reason was economic, not racial; it had to do not with the color of the laborer, but the cheapness of the labor. [The planter] would have gone to the moon, if necessary, for labor. Africa was nearer than the moon, nearer too than the more populous countries of India and China. But their turn would soon come.

Planters’ fear of a multiracial uprising also pushed them towards racial slavery. Because a rigid racial division of labor didn’t exist in the 17th century colonies, many conspiracies involving Black slaves and white indentured servants were hatched and foiled. We know about them today because of court proceedings that punished the runaways after their capture. As historians T.H. Breen and Stephen Innes point out, “These cases reveal only extreme actions, desperate attempts to escape, but for every group of runaways who came before the courts, there were doubtless many more poor whites and blacks who cooperated in smaller, less daring ways on the plantation.”

The largest of these conspiracies developed into Bacon’s Rebellion, an uprising that threw terror into the hearts of the Virginia Tidewater planters in 1676. Several hundred farmers, servants and slaves initiated a protest to press the colonial government to seize Indian land for distribution. The conflict spilled over into demands for tax relief and resentment of the Jamestown establishment. Planter Nathaniel Bacon helped organize an army of whites and Blacks that sacked Jamestown and forced the governor to flee. The rebel army held out for eight months before the Crown managed to defeat and disarm it.

Bacon’s Rebellion was a turning point. After it ended, the Tidewater planters moved in two directions: first, they offered concessions to the white freemen, lifting taxes and extending to them the vote; and second, they moved to full-scale racial slavery.

Fifteen years earlier, the Burgesses had recognized the condition of slavery for life and placed Africans in a different category as white servants. But the law had little practical effect. “Until slavery became systematic, there was no need for a systematic slave code. And slavery could not become systematic so long as an African slave for life cost twice as much as an English servant for a five-year term,” wrote historian Barbara Jeanne Fields.

Both of those circumstances changed in the immediate aftermath of Bacon’s Rebellion. In the entire 17th century, the planters imported about 20,000 African slaves. The majority of them were brought to North American colonies in the 24 years after Bacon’s Rebellion.

In 1664, the Maryland legislature passed a law determining who would be considered slaves on the basis of the condition of their father–whether their father was slave or free. It soon became clear, however, that establishing paternity was difficult, but that establishing who was a person’s mother was definite. So the planters changed the law to establish slave status on the basis of the mother’s condition.

Now white slaveholders who fathered children by slave women would be guaranteed their offspring as slaves. And the law included penalties for “free” women who slept with slaves. But what’s most interesting about this law is that it doesn’t really speak in racial terms. It attempts to preserve the property rights of slaveholders and establish barriers between slave and free which were to become hardened into racial divisions over the next few years.

Taking the Maryland law as an example, Fields made this important point:

Historians can actually observe colonial Americans in the act of preparing the ground for race without foreknowledge of what would later arise on the foundation they were laying. [T]he purpose of the experiment is clear: to prevent the erosion of slaveowners’ property rights that would result if the offspring of free white women impregnated by slave men were entitled to freedom. The language of the preamble to the law makes clear that the point was not yet race.

Race does not explain the law. Rather, the law shows society in the act of inventing race.

After establishing that African slaves would cultivate major cash crops of the North American colonies, the planters then moved to establish the institutions and ideas that would uphold white supremacy. Most unfree labor became Black labor. Laws and ideas intended to underscore the subhuman status of Black people–in a word, the ideology of racism and white supremacy–emerged full-blown over the next generation.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

“All men are created equal”

Within a few decades, the ideology of white supremacy was fully developed. Some of the greatest minds of the day–such as Scottish philosopher David Hume and Thomas Jefferson, the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence–wrote treatises alleging Black inferiority.

The ideology of white supremacy based on the natural inferiority of Blacks, even allegations that Blacks were subhuman, strengthened throughout the 18th century. This was the way that the leading intellectual figures of the time reconciled the ideals of the 1776 American Revolution with slavery. The American Revolution of 1776 and later the French Revolution of 1789 popularized the ideas of liberty and the rights of all human beings. The Declaration of Independence asserts that “all men are created equal” and possess certain “unalienable rights”–rights that can’t be taken away–of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

As the first major bourgeois revolution, the American Revolution sought to establish the rights of the new capitalist class against the old feudal monarchy. It started with the resentment of the American merchant class that wanted to break free from British restrictions on its trade.

But its challenge to British tyranny also gave expression to a whole range of ideas that expanded the concept of “liberty” from being just about trade to include ideas of human rights, democracy, and civil liberties. It legitimized an assault on slavery as an offense to liberty. Some of the leading American revolutionaries, such as Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin, endorsed abolition. Slaves and free Blacks also pointed to the ideals of the revolution to call for abolishing slavery.

But because the revolution aimed to establish the rule of capital in America, and because a lot of capitalists and planters made a lot of money from slavery, the revolution compromised with slavery. The Declaration initially contained a condemnation of King George for allowing the slave trade, but Jefferson dropped it following protests from representatives from Georgia and the Carolinas.

How could the founding fathers of the U.S.–most of whom owned slaves themselves–reconcile the ideals of liberty for which they were fighting with the existence of a system that represented the exact negation of liberty?

The ideology of white supremacy fit the bill. We know today that “all men” didn’t include women, Indians or most whites. But to rule Black slaves out of the blessings of liberty, the leading head-fixers of the time argued that Blacks weren’t really “men,” they were a lower order of being. Jefferson’s Notes from Virginia, meant to be a scientific catalogue of the flora and fauna of Virginia, uses arguments that anticipate the “scientific racism” of the 1800s and 1900s.

With few exceptions, no major institution–such as the universities, the churches or the newspapers of the time–raised criticisms of white supremacy or of slavery. In fact, they helped pioneer religious and academic justifications for slavery and Black inferiority. As C.L.R. James put it, “[T]he conception of dividing people by race begins with the slave trade. This thing was so shocking, so opposed to all the conceptions of society which religion and philosophers had, that the only justification by which humanity could face it was to divide people into races and decide that the Africans were an inferior race.”

White supremacy wasn’t only used to justify slavery. It was also used to keep in line the two-thirds of Southern whites who weren’t slaveholders. Unlike the French colony of St. Domingue or the British colony of Barbados, where Blacks vastly outnumbered whites, Blacks were a minority in the slave South. A tiny minority of slave-holding whites, who controlled the governments and economies of the Deep South states, ruled over a population that was roughly two-thirds white farmers and workers and one-third Black slaves.

The slaveholders’ ideology of racism and white supremacy helped to divide the working population, tying poor whites to the slaveholders. Slavery afforded poor white farmers what Fields called a “social space” whereby they preserved an illusory “independence” based on debt and subsistence farming, while the rich planters continued to dominate Southern politics and society. “A caste system as well as a form of labor,” historian James M. McPherson wrote, “slavery elevated all whites to the ruling caste and thereby reduced the potential for class conflict.”

The great abolitionist Frederick Douglass understood this dynamic:

The hostility between the whites and blacks of the South is easily explained. It has its root and sap in the relation of slavery, and was incited on both sides by the cunning of the slave masters. Those masters secured their ascendancy over both the poor whites and the Blacks by putting enmity between them. They divided both to conquer each. [Slaveholders denounced emancipation as] tending to put the white working man on an equality with Blacks, and by this means, they succeed in drawing off the minds of the poor whites from the real fact, that by the rich slave-master, they are already regarded as but a single remove from equality with the slave.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Slavery and capitalism

Slavery in the colonies helped produce a boom in the 18th century economy that provided the launching pad for the industrial revolution in Europe. From the start, colonial slavery and capitalism were linked. While it is not correct to say that slavery created capitalism, it is correct to say that slavery provided one of the chief sources for the initial accumulations of wealth that helped to propel capitalism forward in Europe and North America.

The clearest example of the connection between plantation slavery and the rise of industrial capitalism was the connection between the cotton South, Britain and, to a lesser extent, the Northern industrial states. Here, we can see the direct link between slavery in the U.S. and the development of the most advanced capitalist production methods in the world. Cotton textiles accounted for 75 percent of British industrial employment in 1840, and, at its height, three-fourths of that cotton came from the slave plantations of the Deep South. And Northern ships and ports transported the cotton.

To meet the boom in the 1840s and 1850s, the planters became even more vicious. On the one hand, they tried to expand slavery into the West and Central America. The fight over the extension of slavery into the territories eventually precipitated the Civil War in 1861. On the other hand, they drove slaves harder–selling more cotton to buy more slaves just to keep up. On the eve of the Civil War, the South was petitioning to lift the ban on the importation of slaves that had existed officially since 1808.

Karl Marx clearly understood the connection between plantation slavery in the cotton South and the development of capitalism in England. He wrote in Capital:

While the cotton industry introduced child-slavery into England, in the United States, it gave the impulse for the transformation of the more or less patriarchal slavery into a system of commercial exploitation. In fact, the veiled slavery of the wage-laborers in Europe needed the unqualified slavery of the New World as its pedestal. Capital comes dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt.

The close connection between slavery and capitalism, and thus, between racism and capitalism, gives the lie to those who insist that slavery would have just died out. In fact, the South was more dependent on slavery right before the Civil War than it was 50 or 100 years earlier. Slavery lasted as long as it did because it was profitable. And it was profitable to the richest and most “well-bred” people in the world.

The Civil War abolished slavery and struck a great blow against racism. But racism itself wasn’t abolished. On the contrary, just as racism was created to justify colonial slavery, racism as an ideology was refashioned. It now no longer justified the enslavement of Blacks, but it justified second-class status for Blacks as wage laborers and sharecroppers.

Racist ideology was also refashioned to justify imperialist conquest at the turn of the last century. As a handful of competing world powers vied to carve up the globe into colonial preserves for cheap raw materials and labor, racism served as a convenient justification. The vast majority of the world’s people were now portrayed as inferior races, incapable of determining their own future. Slavery disappeared, but racism remained as a means to justify the domination of millions of people by the U.S., various European powers, and later by Japan.

Because racism is woven right into the fabric of capitalism, new forms of racism arose with changes in capitalism. As the U.S. economy expanded and underpinned U.S. imperial expansion, imperialist racism–which asserted that the U.S. had a right to dominate other peoples, such as Mexicans and Filipinos–developed. As the U.S. economy grew and sucked in millions of immigrant laborers, anti-immigrant racism developed.

But these are both different forms of the same ideology–of white supremacy and division of the world into “superior” and “inferior” races–that had their origins in slavery.

Racism and capitalism have been intertwined since the beginning of capitalism. You can’t have capitalism without racism. Therefore, the final triumph over racism will only come when we abolish racism’s chief source–capitalism–and build a new socialist society.

How is the struggle against racism connected to the struggle for socialism? SocialistWorker.org writers explain what Marxists have to say.