Black Struggle

Two Lessons of Radical Reconstruction (I)

The following essay by Marxist scholar George Novack was written in 1950.

World-Outlook is publishing it to celebrate Juneteenth (short for June 19th), an annual holiday marking the end of slavery at the conclusion of the Civil War. On June 17, 2021, more than a century and a half since African Americans began celebrating Juneteenth, the U.S. government declared it a federal holiday.

Celebrate Juneteenth! The New Federal Holiday!

The post-Civil War period known as “Radical Reconstruction” is among the most important in U.S. history. It receives far too little attention in the country’s educational system. Its promise of genuine democracy was enormous. The “struggle to determine whether the southern revolution would be consummated according to the needs of the masses or be manipulated and restrained by the big bourgeoisie, came to the fore during this period,” wrote Novack (August 5, 1905 – July 30, 1992). Novack was a leader of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) for decades.

The result of Radical Reconstruction’s “bloody defeat,” said long-time SWP leader Farrell Dobbs, was that “not only Afro-Americans but the entire working class… suffered the worst setback in its history.”

Novack’s article draws two key political lessons and serves as a concise introduction to the direct relevance of this history for today. “Much disillusionment in regard to the civil rights struggle,” wrote Novack over 70 years ago, “might have been avoided if the… lesson of Reconstruction had been known and assimilated.” Knowledge of these lessons is as important today, when ongoing struggles against police brutality and racism have generated renewed interest in these chapters of American history.

Novack calls attention to the classic work Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880 by W.E.B. DuBois, which, he explains, “remains one of the foremost contributions to American history.” Two other essential contributions to this history are worth noting: Reconstruction – America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877 by Eric Foner, and Racism, Revolution, Reaction 1861-1877 – The Rise and Fall of Radical Reconstruction by Peter Camejo.

As we noted in the introduction to an essay by Novack on the U.S. Civil War, written in 1961 and recently reproduced on (LINK), “the term ‘Negro’ used in the article to refer to African-Americans may sound anachronistic, or even offensive, if taken out of context. At the time this article was written, the term was still commonly used among many Black people. Some of the staunchest opponents of white supremacy like Marcus Garvey, Frederick Douglas, and W.E.B. Dubois did not consider it derogatory after the abolition of slavery and used it extensively in their speeches and writings.” Since then, the term has generally been replaced in popular usage by “Black” or “African American.”

This essay was first published in 1950 in the Fourth International magazine under the title “Two Lessons of Reconstruction.” The text is taken from the online library “George Novack Internet Archive 2005.”[1]

Subheadings and footnotes are by Because of its length, we are publishing this article in two parts, the first of which follows.


By George Novack

As the Negro millions have risen up and their struggles stir America from top to bottom, students of past history and participants in current history have turned their thoughts to that epoch when the Negro question also held the center of the stage and the Negro masses first came forward as an independent political power. The forces preparing for new revolutionary collisions are, each in their own way, drawn toward a re-examination and reappraisal of the course of the Civil War, i.e., the Second American Revolution. From the foundation of the United States the Northern capitalists and Southern planters had contended for total sovereignty over the nation. By crushing the pro-slavery rebellion the capitalists at last gained their prime objective, confirming by armed force the supremacy won through Lincoln’s election. Naturally bourgeois historians incline to center their attention upon that part of the revolutionary process by which their own class conquered supreme power and to regard the revolution as virtually completed at that point.

They recoil from the aftermath of the Civil War for still other reasons. Reconstruction not only disclosed the capacities of the colored people for bold and creative deeds but exposes above all the real nature of the capitalist class. The bourgeois writers fear to dwell upon Reconstruction as a criminal dreads to return to the scene of his crime. For it was then and there that the capitalist rulers killed the hopes of the Negro freedmen for full emancipation and conspired to deliver them back into bondage.

On the other side, by a sure instinct Negro and radical writers have become increasingly absorbed in the study of Reconstruction. Their reappraisal of the period was initiated in 1935 by the Negro scholar, W.E.B. Du Bois, in his book Black Reconstruction, which remains one of the foremost contributions to American history in our generation.

The 15th amendment to the U.S. Constitution extended the right to vote to African Americans. This engraving depicts at its center the May 19, 1870, march of 20,000 in Baltimore, Maryland, celebrating ratification of the amendment. The image also includes U.S. president Abraham Lincoln and African American leaders like Frederick Douglass. (Image: New York Historical Society)

As Du Bois emphasizes, after the military defeat of the Confederacy had disposed of the contest between the revolutionary and counter-revolutionary forces on a national scale, the battle for supremacy between the people and the planters, the forces of revolution and counter-revolution, had still to be fought out and decided within the Southern States. Following Lee’s surrender to Grant early in 1865, it was easily possible to proceed to a thoroughgoing renovation of the South along democratic lines. The former slave-holding potentates had been militarily beaten, economically and politically dispossessed, and were so disgraced and demoralized they could offer no serious political of physical resistance.

At that juncture there were only two real powers in the South. First and foremost was the Federal government headed by the Republican Party and controlled by the industrial capitalists. They were the victors, the conquerors, the directors of the occupying forces. They had not only the military power but, what was more important, the confidence and allegiance of the progressive forces throughout the country.

The other power was the might of the aroused masses headed by the four million Negro freedmen with their allies among the small farmers and poor whites. If these two powers had marched along together down freedom’s road, they would have constituted an invincible combination.

Reconstruction’s three main stages: 1865-1876

But something quite different resulted. What started out, at the close of the Civil War, as an alliance between the Northern men of means and the black and white plebeians of the South against the landed aristocracy terminated in 1876 with a union between the capitalist magnates and the planters against the Southern masses and their Negro vanguard.

The eleven years of Reconstruction fall into three main stages. (1) The years 1865-1866 when the revolution in the South was arrested by the conservative Northern bourgeoisie, marked time, and missed its most favorable opportunities. (2) The years of revolutionary resurgence from 1867 to the early 70’s when the Radical Republicans gained full command of the situation at Washington and joined with the Negro masses and their white allies to institute through armed force the first and only, democratic regime in the South. (3) The years of revolutionary recession ending with 1876 when Northern capitalism definitively broke with the Southern masses, threw its decisive weight against their struggles, and finally concluded a pact with the planters which sealed the fate of the revolution and reestablished the “ white supremacists” in the South.

The various elements in the anti-slavery coalition were animated by different, and at times, conflicting interests and purposes. The main driving force of the revolutionary movement emanated from the four million freedmen in the South. They wanted relief from age-old oppression and insufferable exploitation. They desired land, jobs, a decent living; civil rights and political power represented by the vote; legal and racial equality; educational and cultural opportunities. These demands were eloquently voiced during the canvass for the Constitutional Convention of 1867 by a Negro voter at Selma, Alabama who held up a red (Radical) ticket and shouted: “Forty acres of land! A mule! freedom! votes! equal of white man!”

African Americans vote in West Virginia in this 1868 illustration. “The main driving force of the revolutionary movement emanated from the four million freedmen in the South,” says Novack. “They wanted relief from age-old oppression and insufferable exploitation. They desired land, jobs, a decent living; civil rights and political power represented by the vote; legal and racial equality; educational and cultural opportunities.”

These measures necessitated turning the entire structure of the old South upside down. The confiscation of the land owned by the big proprietors, its partition and distribution among the landless laborers meant an agrarian revolution. The ballot and freedom of organization meant the transference of political power into Negro hands, especially in states where they were the majority. Ex-slaves on an equal footing with their former owners and taskmasters meant undermining the pyramid of class rule and privilege.

The Northern rulers had different aims, now that they had been lifted to the top by the anti-slavery movement.

The triumphant capitalists wanted to perpetuate their grip upon the national government, increase their control over industry and agriculture, and grab the natural resources. In order to promote this program their political representatives had to maneuver with the other forces in the country. On the right, they had to prevent the revival of the political influence of the Southern planters and their Northern accomplice, the Democratic Party. On the left, they had to curb the demands of the lower classes, North or South. The Republican bourgeoisie was willing to use any of these other classes as tools in the furtherance of its own aims, but was determined to keep them all in a subordinate position.

Most of the Republican leaders had been slow and reluctant to emancipate the slaves; during the Civil War they had tried to keep Negroes in the background and even out of the Union Army. Now that the menace of the Confederacy had been eliminated, the Republican bourgeoisie sought to hold the Negroes in leash, lest they overstep the bounds of bourgeois proprieties.

Thus, in the early part of Reconstruction, the most moderate elements through President Johnson and Secretary of State Seward moved to effect a speedy reconciliation with” the defeated planters and bring them back into the state and national administrations. They sponsored Constitutional Conventions in the Southern States in 1864-1865 toward this end.

Radical and conservative Republicans

The conservative Republicans sought to hold reconstruction of the seceded states to the minimum without granting even voting rights to the freedmen. Johnson condoned the new Black Codes[2] passed to police and suppress the Negroes, did little to help improve their conditions, and went so far as to veto the Freedmen’s Bureau[3] and Civil Rights Bills. The subservience of the President to the counter-revolution endangered all the fruits of victory. He was abusing the executive powers swollen by the war to reverse the course of the democratic revolution. Charles Sumner aptly wrote that the Negroes “should have had a Moses as a President; but they found a Pharaoh.”

President Johnson’s reactionary course encountered massive resistance from the people, both North and South, as well as in his own patty. The opponents of Johnson’s conciliatory course did not all have the same attitude toward the Negro struggle and the democratization of the South. The majority of Radical Republican leaders were primarily concerned with preventing the Democratic Party from regaining power in Washington.

Howard N. Beale explains their social motives.

“Stevens at least was genuinely a radical. He wanted to confiscate planter property and divide it among Negroes. The Republican Party never seriously considered this, because, while it would have served certain party purposes, the majority of Republican leaders and party members had not the least interest in social revolution, even in a distant section. They were men of property who would not endanger the sanctity of property rights for Negroes or poor Southern white men any more than they would divide ownership of their own factories or farms with Northern workingmen. There were sighs of Northern relief when death removed Stevens’ troublesome radicalism. The Negro wanted forty acres and a mule, but his Republican backers had no serious thought of turning political into social and economic revolution.”

(“On Rewriting Reconstruction History,” American Historical Review, July 1940.)

The more militant Radical leaders like Stevens and Sumner were the last of the great line of resolute representatives of the revolutionary bourgeoisie, like Cromwell, Robespierre, and Sam Adams. Stevens was a true friend of the Negro all his life, but he also recognized that the interests of capitalist industry could best be promoted by exterminating the slave power root and branch.

Fortunately, the Radicals had control of Congress. Directed by Stevens, Sumner and their colleagues, prodded by the Abolitionists led by Wendell Phillips and Frederick Douglass, and urged onward by the Negro masses, the Radicals set up a Congressional Committee of Fifteen. This Republican Directorate pushed through a series of measures to prolong military rule in the South; exclude the secessionist states until they had been remodeled to their satisfaction; establish regimes which gave the Negroes freedom, the vote, legal and civil rights, and aid through the Freedmen’s Bureau and similar agencies.

At the same time, the efforts of Sumner to get schools and homes and of Stevens to get land for the Negroes were turned down.

The conflict between President Johnson and the Radicals continued through 1867, during which the Radicals failed to impeach Johnson by a single vote in the Senate.

1867 impeachment trial of U.S president Andrew Johnson, during which the Senate failed to impeach Johnson by one vote. As Radical Republican and U.S. Senator from Massachusetts Charles Sumner aptly put it at the time, African Americans “should have had a Moses as a President, but they found a Pharaoh.” Johnson, a conservative Southerner and former slaveholder, was Vice President in Abraham Lincoln’s administration. He assumed the presidency after Lincoln’s assassination on April 15, 1865, and remained in office until 1869. (Illustration: Theodore R. Davis / Harper’s Weekly, 1868)

Direct action by the masses

While this struggle was going on in the governing circles at Washington, the masses in the South were on the move. Direct action by the insurgent people is the most salient feature of a revolution. The Negroes whose vanguard had fled the plantations to find freedom, who had fought in the Union Armies and were uplifted by the vision of a new world, started to reconstruct the South they longed for.

(To be continued)


[1] Written: Spring 1950. First Published: Fourth International (New York), Vol.11 No.3, May-June 1950, pp.86-90. Transcription/Editing: 2005 by Daniel Gaido. HTML Markup: 2005 by David Walters. Public Domain: George Novack Internet Archive 2005; This work is completely free:

[2] Black codes, wrote W.E.B. DuBois in Black Reconstruction, were a “plain and indisputable attempt on the part of the Southern states to make Negroes slaves in everything but name.” These laws were first enacted in late 1965 in Mississippi and South Carolina. Other states soon followed.

“The original codes…were an astonishing affront to emancipation,” said DuBois, “and dealt with vagrancy, apprenticeship, labor contracts, migration, civil and legal rights.

“The Negro’s access to the land was hindered and limited,” DuBois continued, “his right to work was curtailed; his right to self-defense was taken away when his right to bear arms was stopped; and his employment was virtually reduced to contract labor with penal servitude as a punishment for leaving his job. And in all cases the judges of the Negro’s guilt or innocence, rights and obligations were men who believed firmly for the most past that he had ‘no rights which a white man was bound to respect.’”

[3] Freedmen’s Bureau: The full name for this federal agency, in existence from 1865 to 1872, was the U.S. Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands. In Racism, Revolution, Reaction, 1861-1877, Peter Camejo points to its “double role: on the one hand it protected Blacks from being cheated of their wages and on the other it reinforced their status as a non-landowning labor supply.”

However, when first established, DuBois wrote, the Freedmen’s Bureau “loomed as the greatest plan of reasoned emancipation yet proposed.” The Bureau was the result of the American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission, created by the Union War Department in 1863, which traveled to the Union-occupied South. James McKaye, one of the three commission members, urged the goal of “the confiscation and redistribution of the planters’ land,” wrote Eric Foner in Reconstruction – America’s Unfinished Revolution. He cited McKaye favoring a thorough “social reconstruction of the Southern states.” But as DuBois explained, the Bureau was “finally emasculated and abolished.”

Recommended Books

Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880 by W.E.B. DuBois

The pioneering work in the study of the role of Black Americans during Reconstruction by one of the most influential African American leaders of his time.

This pioneering work was the first full-length study of the role Black Americans played in the crucial period after the Civil War, when the slaves had been freed and the attempt was made to reconstruct American society. Hailed at the time, Black Reconstruction in America 1860–1880 has justly been called a classic.

Available at:

The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Dubois

“A founding text of the civil rights movement.” Robert McCrum, The Guardian

The Souls of Black Folk is a 1903 work of American literature by W. E. B. Du Bois. It is a seminal work in the history of sociology and a cornerstone of African-American literature.

The book contains several essays on race, some of which the magazine Atlantic Monthly had previously published. To develop this work, Du Bois drew from his own experiences as an African American in U.S. society. In particular, DuBois presents in this volume a very touching portrait of the conditions of Black farm workers after Radical Reconstruction under conditions of debt slavery.

Available at:

Racism, Revolution, Reaction 1861-1877 – The Rise and Fall of Radical Reconstruction by Peter Camejo

The challenges—ranging from literacy drives to land reform—confronted by the popular revolutionary governments of Radical Reconstruction that arose in the United States following the Civil War, and the counterrevolution that subsequently overthrew them.

Available at:

Thaddeus Stevens: Civil War Revolutionary, Fighter for Social Justice by Bruce Levine

The definitive biography of one of the 19th century’s greatest statesmen, encompassing his decades-long fight against slavery, his key role in the Union war effort, and his postwar struggle to bring racial justice to America.

Thaddeus Stevens was among the first to see the Civil War as an opportunity for a second American revolution—a chance to remake the country as a true multiracial democracy. One of the foremost abolitionists in Congress in the years leading up to the war, he was a leader of the young Republican Party’s radical wing, fighting for anti-slavery and anti-racist policies long before party colleagues like Abraham Lincoln endorsed them. It was he, for instance, who urged Lincoln early on to free those enslaved throughout the US and to welcome Black men into the Union’s armies.

During the Reconstruction era following the Civil War, Stevens demanded equal civil and political rights for Black Americans, rights eventually embodied in the 14th and 15th amendments. But while Stevens in many ways pushed his party—and America—towards equality, he also championed ideas too radical for his fellow Congressmen ever to support, such as confiscating large slaveholders’ estates and dividing the land among those who had been enslaved.

In Thaddeus Stevens: Civil War Revolutionary, acclaimed historian Bruce Levine has written the definitive biography of one of the most visionary statesmen of the 19th century and a forgotten champion for racial justice in America.

Available at:

Reconstruction – America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877 by Eric Foner

From the “preeminent historian of Reconstruction” (New York Times Book Review), the prize-winning classic work on the post-Civil War period that shaped modern America.

Eric Foner’s “masterful treatment of one of the most complex periods of American history” (New Republic) redefined how the post-Civil War period was viewed.

Reconstruction chronicles the way in which Americans—Black and white—responded to the unprecedented changes unleashed by the war and the end of slavery. It addresses the ways in which the emancipated slaves’ quest for economic autonomy and equal citizenship shaped the political agenda of Reconstruction; the remodeling of Southern society and the place of planters, merchants, and small farmers within it; the evolution of racial attitudes and patterns of race relations; and the emergence of a national state possessing vastly expanded authority and committed, for a time, to the principle of equal rights for all Americans.

This “smart book of enormous strengths” (Boston Globe) remains the standard work on the wrenching post-Civil War period—an era whose legacy still reverberates in the United States today.

Available at:

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