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 World-Outlook.com (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.”
Subheadings and footnotes are by World-Outlook.com. Because of its length, we are publishing this article in two parts, the second of which follows. (The first can be found here.)
By George Novack
As early as 1864, free Negroes in the North had held Equal Rights Conventions which were sharply critical of Republican policy and energetically set forth the demands of the Negroes. Southern Negroes began to organize politically as soon as they could.
Beginning with the summer and fall of 1865, Colored People’s Conventions in most Southern states outlined a new Bill of Rights which included repeal of the Black Codes, the right to serve on juries, to vote, to own land, to bear arms, to free public education, etc.
The Negroes did not always wait for sanction or approval of any constituted authorities or laws to secure these rights, especially in regard to the land and the right to bear arms. In a number of areas they seized possession of the plantations, divided the land amongst themselves, and set up their own local forms of administration. On the Sea Islands off Georgia and South Carolina, for example, 40,000 freedmen each took 40 acres of land and worked it on their own account. When the former owners came later to claim their plantations, these new proprietors armed themselves and resisted. Similar expropriations and clashes took place elsewhere, not only between planters and Negroes, but between land-hungry freedmen and Federal troops. Land seizures would have taken place on a far larger scale if the freedmen did not have faith in Republican promises and expected that land would be handed to them as it was to the homesteaders in the West.
At the same time Negro troops held on to their rifles and Negro civilians began to arm themselves. Citizens committees were formed or sprang up spontaneously to guard Negroes from actual or threatened assaults which were not always energetically repulsed by Federal commanders.
The initiative shown by the emancipated Negroes, their rapid overcoming of handicaps and achievements under the Reconstruction governments have been cited by sympathetic observers as evidence that, given equal opportunities, black citizens can prove themselves equal with the whites. It is good of them to recognize this – but there is more to the matter than that. Even Du Bois insists that the freedmen were just ordinary folks, no better and no worse than their white counterparts. This may serve to refute the doctrine of racial inferiority, but it is inadequate for a correct appraisal of the Negro’s role during Reconstruction. Conditions make people as much as people make conditions – and revolutionary upheavals place ordinary human beings in exceptional situations which make unusual demands upon their capacities, call forth greater efforts, and result in remarkable deeds. That was the case with the Southern Negroes. They became the vanguard of the revolutionary forces, not at all because they had been prepared by experience and education to assume that role, but because their social situation and the tasks of the times thrust them, willy-nilly, to the forefront of the mass movement.
The most significant aspect of Negro participation in these events is the fact that, because of their social status as the most exploited and oppressed section of the laboring population, the Negroes and their leaders were compelled to spring farthest forward in seeking satisfaction for their needs and thereby occupied the most advanced political positions and advocated the most progressive proposals.
The crucial issue of land reform
This highly radical quality was unmistakably clear on the crucial land question, the touchstone of the agrarian revolution. While the Republican bourgeoisie dickered and evaded decision, rejecting Stevens’ proposals, the most audacious Negroes proceeded to settle the issue by taking land and cultivating it. While the Republicans debated how much – or how little – liberty they could safely extend to Negro citizens, the Negroes voiced demands, not only for themselves but for the whole people, for free public education, correction of criminal codes and many other reforms which far outstripped the ideas and intentions of the Northern overlords. Throughout the South Negroes took the lead in establishing and extending the power of the masses and instituting democratic forms of administration.
As the Negroes became more independent and formidable, determined to carry democratization to its limits, they not only terrified the planters but alienated their Northern patrons. Just as the Northern capitalists held down the industrial workers and small producers in the North and West, so they strove to keep in their place the black agricultural toilers of the south. However, so long as they had not settled accounts with the “lords of the lash,” they could not completely ignore the demands raised by the black millions. These masses were a vital force which kept exerting tremendous pressure upon Washington and pushing it forward.
The Conventions of 1867-68, composed of Negro and white delegates, and the state governments issuing from them instituted a new type of government in the South. Describing their remarkable activities in Black Reconstruction, Du Bois incorrectly defines these Radically Reconstructed governments as “dictatorships of labor,” analogous to the Soviet dictatorship of the proletariat.
The Radical governments were dictatorial inasmuch as they were subject to Federal military commanders, rested on the bayonets of the Northern troops, and held down the disfranchised ex-slave holders by direct force. But they were also highly democratic and progressive because they aimed to replace the despotism of the planters with an extension of the power of the people. The main edge of the dictatorship was directed against the ex-slaveholding aristocracy, not against the Negroes; it granted greater rights and freedom to the masses, instead of restricting them; and used force against the privileged, and not for them.
Character of Radical Reconstruction governments
However, the central and dominating role in these governments belonged to the bourgeois elements. The plebeian participants were not industrial proletarians but landless agricultural workers who aspired to become small owners and producers. Thus these governments can be more properly characterized as dictatorships of the bourgeoisie, democratically supported by the Negro and white masses, actual potential small farmers.
The Southern revolution was not proletarian in its character or socialist in its aims, as Du Bois believed, but plebeian, petty-bourgeois in its social basis and bourgeois in its tasks. It did not pass beyond the foundations of private ownership, production for the market and capitalist relations. But within the broad framework of these bourgeois relations, the revolution could take on different forms and proceed in different directions, according to the forces and policies that predominated.
While the bourgeoisie debated whether to effect an immediate reunion with the landed aristocrats or to hold back the ex-slaveholders and support the freedmen until their own supremacy was nailed down, the bourgeois-democratic coalition contended over two methods of reconstructing the South. The first was the bourgeois-bureaucratic policy of those Radicals who used the masses as a counter-balance and weapon against the old rulers; the other was the plebeian democratic policy of the Abolitionists and Negroes who wanted to push democratization to the very end through united struggle against all the possessors of privilege. This struggle to determine whether the Southern revolution would be consummated according to the needs of the masses or manipulated, restrained and abated by the big bourgeoisie came to the fore during this period of Reconstruction.
What they accomplished
The Radical Reconstruction governments had tremendous achievements to their credit which proved what could be done even with the beginnings of unity between the Negro and whites. They registered progress in the field of education and in the tax system, cut down illiteracy, abolished imprisonment for debt, did away with property qualifications for voting or holding office, and instituted other progressive reforms in city, county and state governments. As Du Bois notes: “There was not a single reform movement, a single step toward protest, a single experiment for betterment in which Negroes were not found in varying numbers,” (Black Reconstruction in America, p.411.)
“The story of the last six years of the period of Reconstruction is one of counter-revolution – a counter-revolution effected under the forms of law where that was possible: effected by secrecy and by guile, where that would serve; effected openly regardless of the forms of law, with violence or – the threat of violence, where that had to be.”(The Story of Reconstruction, p.401.)
So a recent writer, Ralph Selph Henry, candidly summarizes the last chapter of Reconstruction. And he defends this historical crime in the name of the lesser evil.
“But the counter-revolution was effected, at a cost to the South and its future incalculably great, justified only by the still greater cost of not effecting it.”(The Story of Reconstruction, p.401.)
The growing conservatism of the Republican leaders changed the relation of forces in the South. The white supremacists became considerably bolder, more outspoken, unrestrained, and powerful. They revived the Ku Klux Klan in the form of “White Leagues” and applied naked terror to rob the Negroes of their rights and gains and cow them into submission. For example, in the Mississippi elections of 1875, “nearly all the Democratic Clubs in the state were converted into armed military companies,” wrote John R. Lynch, the colored representative in Congress.
The Negroes put up a stubborn and heroic resistance. But the revolutionary coalition grew weaker and within its ranks disintegration, demoralization and disillusionment set in. There was a series of splits within the Republican Party.
This process was crowned in 1876 by the deal between the managers of the Republican Party and the Democrats through which Hayes was permitted to assume the Presidency in return for acquiescence in the restoration of white supremacy to the South. Two important lessons flow from this sketch of Reconstruction. One pertains to the relations between democracy and dictatorship; the other concerns the role of the capitalist rulers of the United States.
(1.) It is customary to counterpose the bare abstractions of democracy to dictatorship as though these two forms of rule were everywhere and under all conditions irreconcilable opposites. Reconstruction demonstrates that reality is more complex. The slaveholders’ despotism smashed by the Civil War was utterly reactionary; so was the Bourbon-bourgeois autocracy which has dominated the South since the restoration of white supremacy, although both these dictatorships- tried to disguise themselves behind democratic forms.
On the other hand, the bourgeois-military dictatorship backed by the masses which dominated the South at the flood-tide of the revolution was the shield and support of democracy, the indispensable form of the people’s rule. It is an indisputable historical fact that the only time Negroes have ever enjoyed democracy in the South and effectively participated in its political and social life was under the bayonets of the Federal armies and under the protection of their own organized defense forces.
(2.) Nowadays the Trumanites advise the Negroes to look toward the liberal capitalists and their political agents in Washington for equality. Much disillusionment in regard to the current civil rights struggle might have been avoided if the following lesson of Reconstruction had been known and assimilated. If the Northern capitalists feared and failed to give real equality and enduring freedom to the Negroes during their progressive days in the mid-19th century, how then can the present imperialist autocrats at Washington be expected to grant them in the middle of the 20th century when Big Business not only tyrannizes over the South but has become the foremost foe of the liberties of the entire people at home and on a world scale?
 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: https://www.marxists.org/archive/novack/works/1950/x01.htm
Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880 by W.E.B. DuBois
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.
The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Dubois
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.
Racism, Revolution, Reaction 1861-1877 – The Rise and Fall of Radical Reconstruction by Peter Camejo
Thaddeus Stevens: Civil War Revolutionary, Fighter for Social Justice by Bruce Levine
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.
Reconstruction – America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877 by Eric Foner
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: https://www.amazon.com/Reconstruction-Updated-Unfinished-Revolution-1863-1877/dp/0062354515/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=Reconstruction+%E2%80%93+America%E2%80%99s+Unfinished+Revolution+1863-1877+by+Eric+Foner&qid=1623961190&sr=8-1