James Oakes on What’s Wrong with The 1619 Project – #46
Corey: Our guest today is James Oakes, distinguished professor of history, and graduate school humanities professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York where he teaches history courses on the American Civil War and Reconstruction, slavery, the Old South and abolitionism, along with U.S. and world history. He’s the author of six books, including, The Ruling Race, History of American Slave Holders, Slavery and Freedom: An Interpretation of the Old South, Freedom National, The Destruction of Slavery in the United States 1861-1865, and The Scorpion’s Sting: Antislavery and the Coming Civil War.
Corey: However, he’s perhaps best known for his book, the Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics. Eric Foner recently described Freedom National as “The best account ever written of the complex historical process known as emancipation.” Jim won the Lincoln prize for both The Radical and the Republican and Freedom National.
Corey: He’s also the author of numerous articles and op-eds. Most recently, he was among a number of prominent historians to criticize a number of claims in the New York Times 1619 Project. He has taught previously at Princeton University and Northwestern University. Welcome to Manifold, Jim.
James: Thank you. Glad to be here.
Corey: So let’s begin to jump into what we were always planning to talk about, which is the 1619 Project, your response to it and some of the broader issues that it raises. So I want to start by trying to rephrase the basic premise of the project and I’d like to get your response to the rephrasing and then ask you a question. So for our listeners who may not know, the 1619 Project, it’s a ongoing project by the New York Times, started in August 2019, they had the goal of reexamining the legacy of slavery in the United States.
Corey: It’s time for the 40th anniversary of the arrival of Africans in Virginia. More broadly, it seeks to explore aspects of contemporary life, which the authors believe have roots in slavery in its aftermath. The authors of the 1619 Project compared that year to 1776. In 1619, 20 to 30 black people who had been stolen from a Portuguese ship where they’re taken against their will from Angola, were brought to Virginia and sold. The project authors write that this was the beginning of slavery in the United States. And point of fact is numerous historians have pointed out the people on that ship became indentured servants, not slaves. But seems to me that there’s still a category error here in the sense of 1619 was a year which people arrived someplace. Nothing politically dramatic happened in that year. 1776 was when the U.S. declared independence from Britain. So 1619 is more comparable to say 1607, start of Jamestown or 1620 when the pilgrims arrived in Plymouth or even in the 16th century when the Spanish arrived. It seems like the [crosstalk] sorry, go ahead.
James: Well 1493 when the first Africans came, or decades before when the first African slaves were brought to Florida, which really are the first ones to be enslaved in what became the United States, or 1626 when they first arrived in New York, or 17-whatever when they first arrived in Louisiana. You can pick any number of dates other than 1619. Go ahead. I interrupted you. I’m sorry.
Corey: No, no. Those are all right, but suppose you say, look, the politically significant period was appointed which indentured servitude became hereditary slavery for black people brought to the States. It’s thought, correct me if I’m wrong, that happened sometime in 1660s at least in Virginia. That point in time it kind of hardened, but whatever date you pick, whatever you pick for that. Okay, so I’m trying to make analogy. There’s some point at which you became, slavery got established, right? As a general principle, whatever that date is or that period, what if someone said that’s what you want to compare to 1776 that’s the really important date, whatever that is and how would you respond to that?
James: I think that’s actually a factual error. In this case, I think the 1619 project is correct and more compatible with recent scholarship. Show me the indenture contracts for those Africans in 1619. They were brought as slaves. They were purchased as slaves, and in a world in which the English were fully aware of the existence of an Atlantic slave trade–that has been in existence since 1493. Before then, actually, because the Portuguese were buying and selling slaves on the African coast even before then. The Atlantic slave trade had been in existence for a century and everyone knew what the slave trade was, and it wasn’t indentured servitude. So they were slaves, but it wasn’t the beginning of slavery.
The problem I really have with using 1619 is that reverses one of the most important intellectual historical developments in the study of slavery over the past 50 years, which is to deprovincialize the history of the United States by demonstrating that the least exceptional thing about the United States is slavery.
So the project opens with an argument that everything that made the United States exceptional comes from slavery. When in fact, as I said, slavery is the least exceptional thing in American history because slavery was something that had existed throughout the history of the world. And by the time those slaves arrived in Virginia, the Dutch were enslaving people and the Portuguese were enslaving people and the Spanish were enslaving people and the French were enslaving people and they were enslaving people in Brazil and in Curacao, in Barbados, and in Hispaniola and Saint-Domingue. So to make American exceptionalism depend on something that was so unexceptional–which is one of the things that makes the history of slavery in some ways tragic, is that it was completely unexceptional–jt’s a mistake.
I think there were aspects to the history of slavery in the United States that are different from the history of slavery in other parts of the new world and in earlier forms of slavery. But slavery itself is not an exceptional institution in the world of the 1600s. So one of the problems that I have, begins with the very premise on which the 1619 project is based, which is that slavery is something that stands out this way. And that’s to say nothing about how terrible slavery is. It was a terrible thing. It was horrible, slavery was. I don’t have a problem with calling slavery a barbaric institution. I just have a problem with saying that it’s the source of every single thing that’s wrong in the United States today.
Corey: So Jim, on our disagreements I want to get clear. So for example, in Nell Irvin Painter is one of the people argued that the people arrived were indentured servants. So you think that view is wrong actually or should not be…
James: I was surprised that she said that. And I think it’s a function of the fact that she hasn’t worked in the field in the last 20 or 30 years because that view has long since been discredited by most starting to work to read a synthesis like the most popular synthesis of the last generation, is probably Ira Berlin’s Many Thousands Gone. He freely acknowledged this, that the first Africans brought to Virginia in 1619 were slaves. So the question isn’t, how did those people go from being indentured servants to being slaves? The story is how did the system of slavery that was put in place initially, become the kind of slave society that the colonies did become, which is different. Initially it looked like a typical slave society in the first decades in that some proportion of the slaves managed to work their way to freedom.
We have histories of blacks who were free and bought slaves of their own, Anthony Johnson, for example, stories things like that. And those avenues of manumission were common in Brazil and Haiti and all slave societies whose legal systems are based ultimately on Roman law, the Siete Partidas, the Code Noir. It was fairly common for large numbers of slaves to buy their own freedom. And that’s what it was like in the very first decades in Virginia, although we’re talking about very small numbers.
Slavery later takes on the characteristics more typical of American slave society, in which property rights were far more absolute, the church has far less influence, and the economies and polities were more self-governing. As the property rights became so absolute the avenues of self manumission were closed off. That’s what happened. The disappearance of slaves freeing themselves through manumission is a function of the shift in the nature of this slave economy, not a shift from indentured servitude to slavery. Again, I’ll repeat the question I asked: Where are the contracts? Indentured servants signed contracts; show me where they are. There’s no evidence that there were signing contracts that say, “I’ll be free after seven years of working for you.” It’s not the case.
Steve: Corey, could I ask you on behalf of the audience to frame this a little bit? I think there are probably plenty of people listening to the podcasts who are not familiar with the 1619 projects. So maybe you could start there.
Corey: So I think the 1619 project was an initiative by, it was in fact an initiative by a New York times reporter. I forgot her name.
James: Nicole Hannah-Jones.
Corey: Nicole Hannah Jones. Yes. And as I said, I think she wanted to draw attention to the sort of broader political motivation, I think behind it, which was to draw attention to the inequities in current American society and to try to trace their historical roots. But then it turned from then into a fairly detailed series of essays about U.S. History and claims about what happened at the founding, the motivation for the U.S. To declare independence from Britain, the character of, at least the nature of Abraham Lincoln’s beliefs about Africans and the potential future in the U.S..
Corey: I think it was roughly a hundred pages when it was published. There were about 15 essays in it, and it since expanded become a high school curriculum. It’s becoming a book. You know, what happened after it was published is it was published, I think, a great fanfare and, but then people began to look much more closely at it and it began to attract critics. And Jim was one of the people who wrote into the New York times with a number of his colleagues, Victoria Bynum, James McPherson, Gordon Wood, and Sean Wilentz to address what they thought were weaknesses in the project. Although you, you do say that as much of the project you’d agree with, but you then began to focus on certain historical inaccuracies. Is that a fair characterization of-
James: Yes, yes, that’s correct.
Corey: So before we actually started recording, you said that you thought, a Times letter’s not long and so you don’t go into a lot of detail in your criticism, but you know, in this podcast our audience is pretty sophisticated, often more than Steve and I are. And so we want to go into some detail with your critiques of the project and to get a general sense of the state of the debate. Because after you wrote in asking for correction, the Times responded largely saying we’re not going to change anything. But then they did change a few things. So I’d like to at least go through some of your central criticisms in the letter and if you could add to it the important, perhaps the most explosive claim in the project was that it wasn’t quite hedged that well, that the colonies declared independence in part to preserve slavery because it looked like Britain was going to outlaw slavery in the colonies and they wanted to protect it. What’s right or wrong in that claim?
James: [Inaudible] There is no evidence that there was a substantial anti-slavery sentiment in Britain at the time of the American Revolution. Very little or no evidence that the reason the colonists declared their independence was to protect slavery. There was no real threat to slavery from coming from Great Britain. It’s a standard… it’s a standard understanding among historians of the abolitionist movement in Great Britain erupts later, in the 1780s, as a consequence of the American Revolution, and not sooner than that. There were people before who were opposed to slavery; there were Quakers and there were radicals during the English Civil War who were raising philosophical objections. There had always been philosophical objections. But there’s no such thing as an anti-slavery movement, an abolitionist movement, in Great Britain until after the American Revolution, in large measure because of the American Revolution.
If you’re going to make a claim about the relationship between slavery and the sources of independence, you’d be on firmer ground to say that it was the opposite. The colonies had–several of the colonies had–tried several times to ban the slave trade, which they understood to be the first step in the ultimate abolition of slavery, and were overruled repeatedly by London, by the British officials, and they were not able to stop importing slaves, to stop the importation of slaves. The importation of slaves was largely a British enterprise. Britain was the largest slave trading nation in the world at the time, and many of the colonies that didn’t depend heavily on slavery, wanted to stop it and couldn’t. It was one of the complaints about Great Britain that they had tried to stop this and couldn’t. So there’s a stronger argument to be made that the colonists objected, or at least that the northern colonies complained [about slavery.]
So, in fact, part of the reason they objected to being ruled by London was because London didn’t allow them to stop the importation of slaves. It was not a major source of independence. It was one of a number of complaints about being ruled by London and by the British empire, but it’s a stronger argument than a proslavery motive. The answer The Times came back with was to focus on this event in late September, in late 1775 which was a British commander in Virginia [Lord Dunmore] issued an invitation to slaves to come into British lines where they would be emancipated if they would fight for the British army. And, and the problem with using that is that the guy who did it was not anti-slavery. He was trying to suppress the rebellion and the rebellion was already underway. That’s why he issued the proclamation.
One of the stories that the 1619 project tells is of the first person to die in the American Revolution–Crispus Attucks in Boston, a fugitive slave. It was five years before Dunmore’s Proclamation. The independence movement, the rebellion, was well underway and to say that one of the primary reasons they rebelled was because of something that happened five years into the rebellion makes no logical sense. So the emerging revolution is the other thing that’s missing.
There was no such thing in the history of the world is abolition until the last quarter of the 18th century and the first place, there were one or two minor places where it was happening, but the first significant place that abolition starts was in the United States. In 1777 Vermont adopted a constitution abolishing slavery. In 1780 Pennsylvania adopted the first abolition statute and the history of the world, and it’s followed by Connecticut and Rhode Island, Massachusetts abolished slavery in 1780.
The significance of the American Revolution for slavery, and what makes America exceptional in that sense, is that it was the first place that abolition starts to happen. Without that happening, you didn’t have that happen, if you didn’t have ultimately New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire…. You have all those states abolishing slavery, followed by all the Midwestern States abolishing slavery because the federal government kept slavery out of the Northwest territory… Without that there’d be no North and no South. Now imagine American history without a North that had no slavery and the South with slavery. So it’s really the abolition of slavery that stands out as the most significant event in the history of the American revolution as far as slavery is concerned.
Corey: Jim, at the time of the revolution, was there any North South split with regards to slavery?
James: Not in 1776. Thirteen slave colonies declared their independence from Great Britain and became thirteen slave states. It was during the revolution [that the split develops]. The next year  you start to get the northern states, inspired by the revolution largely, but also because slavery was never a major part of their economic system. They begin to abolish slavery over and against the objections, the strenuous objections, of the slaveholders within those states.
Corey: Another claim that was pretty important was criticized again, was that largely blacks have fought for their freedom alone. Now, are you familiar with Benjamin Lay, being that there’s a recently biography of him, I think about two years ago, and he was presented as really the first radical abolitionist. He’s a Quaker and sort of fascinating character. He was born in Britain, caused enormous trouble there because he objected to many of the hierarchies and features of kind of hypocrisies of religious life. Lands in Pennsylvania and then basically it goes on as one man a war against slavery and other things in favor of animal rights, women’s rights, et cetera, et cetera. Kind of a fascinating character, but people claim him as the first radical abolitionist pushing for abolition. His earliest, the early 1700 mid-1700s but one of the things you did disagree with in the letter also, was the claim that African Americans have largely fought for their freedom on their own. Is there anything you’d like to add to the claims and the letter?
James: Well, again, think about it: If 13 slave states abolish … slave states withdraw and declare their independence and then they begin to abolish slavery. What is the role that slaves can play in that series of events? They certainly support abolition to the extent that they can, but they are completely excluded from the political system. What did they have to do with Pennsylvania legislature’s decision to abolish slavery in 1780?
They did in the sense that that everyone knew slaves didn’t like being slaves. Everyone knew that when slaves had a chance [to be free] they would accept because they didn’t like being slaves. Everyone knew that when they had chance to accept freedom, they would accept it. They had the experience not only of Lord Dunmore, but they had the experience of slaves running away all the time. Everyone knew that slaves didn’t like be slaves, and to the extent that they understood that, they fought against slavery.
But it [abolition] was something that always required white allies. One of the things that makes the abolitionist movement in the United States so important and so interesting, and that historians have commented on repeatedly, is that it was a biracial movement for a biracial democracy to create a multiracial democracy. It was a movement of blacks and whites, and it could not have succeeded if it was blacks fighting alone against a more or less united group of whites in opposition to them. At some point, the only way it could work logically, was if blacks persuaded enough whites to go along with it. But it still required, even in that very limited sense, it would still require allies, white allies.
It’s part of the larger problem, it’s one of the largest analytical problems I have with the project: It eliminates the conflict that slavery creates within American political and social life. Not a conflict between blacks and whites, but a conflict between people who supported slavery and people who opposed slavery. The people who opposed slavery were not uniformly black people, they’re also whites. The issue of slavery arose repeatedly. I’ll give you an example, there were about a hundred votes in the House of Representatives on slavery between 1790 and 1860. In 95 out of those a hundred of those, a majority of northerners in the House of Representatives voted anti-slavery. Anti-slavery commitment of the North is pretty consistent. The majority of northerners didn’t like slavery.
James: And the difference between 1790 and 1860 is that by 1860 the North was much bigger, much stronger, much more economically powerful, had a much larger population because the Northern economy attracted large numbers of people to it and made it more powerful in a representative government. So you ended up, start with 1776 there are, as I said, 13 slave colonies withdrawing form a nation of 13 slave States. By 1860, the number of slave States has gone from 13 to 15, and the number of free States has gone from zero to 18. And one of the reasons the slave states secede in 1860 is because they can see the handwriting on the wall. They’re about to be overwhelmed by a number of free States, the majority of who’s voting population didn’t like slavery and would like to stop it.
Corey: I would like to get into the origins of Northern power, because many people see it as being part of the success of Northern capitalism, which really drove that rise and wealth. I think there is something that people find very puzzling. I think it’s trying to understand the Framers mindset when you can write something like all men are created equal, have inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, when quite a few of them were slaveholders. I think the authors of a 1619 Project described this as the founders lying. But it’s more and more complex because you think it’s true that everyone has a right to life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, and all men are created equal, that’s not a lie. So how are people to think about these characters, who could write these words in the same time, even some of them own slaves?
James: Think about it the way Abraham Lincoln thought about it: It [‘all men are created equal”] is not a description of reality, it’s an ideal that’s set up toward which we aspire. He knew that equality was not the way people actually lived in any given time. It’s what you aspire to build as a nation. And I think even someone like Thomas Jefferson who wrote it, and is in many ways a hypocrite for having written that, I suppose, but he did believe that in the long run “nothing is so clearly written in the Book of Faith then that these people must be free.” That he depended on those people for his life, for his livelihood, yes. That he never was able to extricate himself from that system, that’s correct. Was he a hypocrite for that reason? Fine.
If you’re interested in hypocrisy, well hypocrites are a dime a dozen. If you have no ideals… What if they had said, “All men are not created equal. Some are going to be high and mighty and others to be low and despicable. Some are born slaves and some are born free.” Well, we’s have there a very different nation, but they wouldn’t be hypocrites. At least they wouldn’t be hypocrites. Right? You set this up as a standard, and we don’t live by that. You don’t have a nation that lives by that standard today, and we have a nation that aspires theoretically to that standard.
Steve: Is there a third possibility in which the word all was not meant to include non-Europeans?
James: Well, that’s what it eventually became a debate about. No, I wouldn’t say… Yes, by the 1850s that is the debate that Abraham Lincoln is having with Stephen Douglas who’s not slave-holder. He’s a northerner, Lincoln’s chief rival in the 1858 debate, and it was precisely that issue that you raise… Douglas’ position was that the Declaration of Independence meant all white men are created equal. It did not mean all blacks and whites are created equal. Lincoln’s position was, “No, I’m sorry. It didn’t say that. They didn’t mean that. They meant all men are created equal, and that’s where we have to start.” So it was a debate over what it meant.
But I don’t think at the time, I don’t think Jefferson meant only white people. I think the problem he had was that he thought black people were inferior. Not that they weren’t entitled to the right of life, liberty, and property, but that since they were inferior to white people, he couldn’t imagine freeing them and letting them live in the United States. He was trapped by his own racial logic. He’s committed to the idea that all men, inferior or not, are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but his racial prejudices prevented him from acting on them.
You can believe that all men are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness or property, and still not think: that blacks and whites should not be allowed to get married, that blacks should not be allowed to serve on juries, that blacks should not be allowed to vote and things like that. Because those are not natural rights, those are civil rights that are granted by States and nations, some things like that. So you could believe in fundamental human equality and not believe in full racial equality.
Corey: So Jim, this is a big part of, well, this claim is made a number of times in your book, The Radical and the Republican, that Abraham Lincoln did believe that the Declaration of Independence was a universal document. My, perhaps, uninformed impression was he’s wearing rose-colored glasses. He’s imposing, perhaps, his own view of the Declaration on the Founders. Is there clear evidence that they believed that this was universal proclamation, or he thinks it should have been taken that way?
James: Some did and some didn’t. I think, as I said, I think Thomas Jefferson actually did believe that.
Corey: Why? Why do you believe that?
James: Because he says it, he says, in the quote I gave: Nothing’s more clearly written in the Book of Faith and that these people must be free. When he was younger, he introduced gradual abolition laws into the Virginia assembly and they failed. He advocated the Northwest Ordinance which would ban slavery from the Northwest. The Ordinance produced five free states. So there’s enough evidence that even he, and he’s hardly the most radical on that issue.
But I think if you go further north, then you look at… If you read the first paragraph of the 1780 Pennsylvania Abolition Statute, I think this is the first, I mentioned earlier, the first statute ever in the history of the world to abolish slavery somewhere. The entire first paragraph is an attack on the notion of racial inequality, and its impact on people who were claiming blacks are not equal to whites. That statute gave slaves the rights of due process that white servants had.
I think there’s plenty of evidence that plenty of people did actually believe [in universal equality]. There’s a new book just out by Paul Polgar that says that the goal of the first abolition movement that produced these free States in the North was to incorporate the emancipated slaves into the United States as fully equal citizens. And he’s got abundant evidence. So, those Founders certainly did believe that the Declaration of Independence meant it, meant what it said about fundamental human equality. And others in South Carolina, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who would say that. They’re all founders but…
Corey: I think it’s from your interview with the world socialist website, you talk about there being, I guess, initial optimism after the revolution or expectation that slavery would eventually go away and that this optimism could be faded over the two decades after the revolution. What was going on during that period that you think stalled the movement that they all thought was coming?
James: Cotton. Cotton, and I suppose Haiti, as well, scared them, but it was cotton. The American Revolution destroyed the indigo economy in South Carolina and Georgia. The tobacco economy had been foundering. One of the reasons you get so many Virginians willing to sign off on vague, highfalutin statements about fundamental human equality and the end of slavery was because the tobacco economy was foundering. They were all in debt, and they thought slavery was dying. It looked to them like slavery was dying, that they were switching over to wheat (which could be grown by free farmers as efficiently as by slaves).
There’s no cotton, there’s virtually no commercially produced cotton in the United States until around 1785. Nobody can even, they cannot imagine [the cotton kingdom]. And [in the 1780s] it can’t be grown in any part of the interior of the south. They could only grow Sea Island Cotton on the coastline, because the inland cotton that became so famous had too many seeds in it. They didn’t have a gin until the 1790s, that could make that kind of cotton commercially viable.
And once they had it, it booms. And once it boomed, cotton gave slavery a new lease on life, but it hadn’t happened [during the Revolution]… No one in 1776 much less 1787 could have imagined it. Why would you think they could have imagined it. They had every reason to think slavery was–they had good reason to think it was dying. They looked at them–they looked at those States that were abolishing slavery one by one. They looked at the state of the economy, of the tobacco economy, and they had–it was a reasonably good bet that slavery was going to disappear. And the problem was then what are we going to do with all these free black people?
Corey: So I guess, I want to get in a little bit about the economics, because it sounds like cotton bolls saved the South. It saved the Southern economy to some extent, but there are forces also which accelerated growth in Northern economy, far beyond what was happening in the South. What were those forces? The 1619 Project argues that the economic drive was largely slavery. But if there’s something very different in the North, that’d be another factor basically which accounted for Northern growth. Do we know anything about the growth rates of the economy at that stage in both regions?
James: Yeah, pretty much. So we have this paradox where on one hand the cotton economy is growing by leaps and bounds. On the other hand, the northern economy is growing by bigger leaps and bigger bounds. But they’re growing in very different ways. That is, one way to say that this is a slave economy grew, but the Northern economy developed. The claim being made–this was actually my first objection to the 1619 Project, is the essay by Matthew Desmond–which summarizes an interpretation of the relationship between slavery and capitalism that I find not supported by the evidence: the wealth of the North is fueled by slavery. Slavery creates enormous sources of wealth, and Desmond makes a logical leap from the fact that the slave holders were rich to the claim that that’s why all of Northern wealth and all of American growth, all American economic development [depended on slavery].
But, again, step back the way I did earlier in this discussion and look at the larger history of Atlantic slavery: Ask yourself why the largest slave economies in Brazil, and Cuba, and in Haiti all ended up impoverished. And why the first countries that were most heavily involved in the slave trade, Portugal, Spain, and [later] France did not develop as a result of their slave colonies. If slavery is the source of capitalist development, then why didn’t those most heavily involved in slavery develop out of slavery? They didn’t.
The countries that developed were the countries like England and later the North, in large part. It was their [internal capitalist] development that I think in large part drove the emergence of new world slavery. The countries that had already started to be developed in a capitalist way–they had free labor and the free laborers were working for wages. And they became consumers, and they were rationalizing agriculture in the countryside, and then throwing off workers who were moving to the cities. England in 1700 has more large cities than the entire rest of Europe has at that point. So they have a large consumer base.
The same thing was happening in the North, even before the revolution. It’s the transformation of that economy into a consumer-based capitalist economy, in which the consumers were buying. What were they buying? They were buying sugar. They were buying cocoa. They were buying coffee, and ultimately they were buying cotton. Right? And it’s the economic development of the Northwestern part of Europe and the Northern United States that is propelling the development of the slave economy. The bonds of dependency go the opposite way from what the 1619 Project would have you believe. It’s in that sense, capitalism is causing the rise of slavery, not slavery that’s causing the rise of capitalism. You could make a different claim for the specific ways in which the profits of slavery did or did not help the industrial revolution, but the industrial revolution in the Northeast is a broad based phenomenon in which the cotton textile mills, and Slater’s Mills, and the Lowell Mills were actually outliers.
The basis of industrialization in the North is in localities that are making clocks, and silverware, and plates, and hats, and all sorts of things that are being built, iron and other things. The industrial revolution was a broad-based phenomenon in which those cotton textile mills were unusual, and they not the major—let’s say indispensable–part of the process of industrialization. In that sense I would say, along with Gavin Wright who is I think the best economic historian of slavery alive, it was the abolition of slavery in the North–not slavery, but it’s abolition–that set the North off on a course of economic development very different from the South.
Because free laborers who become wage laborers or who keep the fruits of their own labor, and producers who become commercial farmers, become consumers on their own. They develop a relationship between the city and the countryside. The dynamic relationship between city and the countryside in the North is not happening in the South. And it’s the history of those northern economies becoming increasingly independent of the South that makes it possible for the North to go to war and not worry about the destruction of slavery. No, what they wanted from the South was cotton. They didn’t care whether it came from slaves, or indentured servants, or free laborers. All things considered, they preferred that it came from free laborers who were earning wages.
Given their ideological orientation, they were convinced that if you emancipated the slaves–because slaves don’t work hard, they have no incentive to work hard and no prospects of getting ahead by being saved–if you switched to a system of free labor, the freed people will work twice as hard, and cotton will flow more abundantly than ever. So if they’re interested in cotton, they would be more likely to say, “We’ll be better off with free laborers than slave laborers.” So, they watch their economies flourish. They watch their economy suck in millions and millions and millions of immigrants, right? Hundreds of thousands of white Southerners are pouring out of the South into the Midwest, and they come to the conclusion that an economy based on free labor is more dynamic, more equitable, more progressive than an economy based on slave labor. There’s every reason for them to prefer a free labor economy to a slave labor economy.
James: Why anyone would think that they wouldn’t care about slavery or not think that free labor was superior is odd to me. The same logic… I used to have trouble teaching my students to not ask questions like, “How could the slaveholders do what they did?” Because they grew up… just imagine: Slavery is a normal part of human history. It’s existed for tens of thousands of years in every major society. Greeks had slaves, Egyptians had slaves, the Romans had slaves. The African societies–one of the reasons Africa was so vulnerable to the demand for slaves from the New World is because those were slave societies too, and they just began capturing more slaves than selling them. So, it’s normal to grow up in slavery. It’s not normal to grow up in anti-slavery societies. But what happens in the United States by 1860, is several generations of people who have grown up in an extraordinarily prosperous society coming to the conclusion that it’s a much better way to organize things. And it works.
Corey: Yeah. I ask the same question to people whenever they look at any, what we look upon is any historical atrocity of things like that. The number of people who deviate from the behavior of the majority is always extremely tiny. The number of Germans who radically protested and rebelled during World War II was extremely small. Yeah, you can’t expect that you’d be unique in some sense.
Corey: Yeah. You can’t expect that you’d be unique in some sense. We’ll link to your article about Capitalism: Slavery in the Civil War because there was a reactive debate as to what drove things. Did slavery help make capitalism possible, providing raw materials, or did the Industrial Revolution, at least, provide the demand for cotton.
Corey: In the 1619 project, it seems that there is an issue that I find elsewhere in discussion of capitalism, which is, it’s incredibly vague. It’s what capitalism is. And so it just seemed like in the 1619 author’s view, capitalism was any sort of regimented system of production.
James: Sure. Right. For long distance trade.
Corey: Exactly. Yeah. And I just want to get your sense, is that something that you find … It seems like a problem of many debates about capitalism, which is no one actually says what it is. It often tends to be whatever it is that the author doesn’t like or it seems particularly heartless. I’m being a little uncharitable that way, but sort of a regimented system that doesn’t treat labor very well.
James: That’s a problem all through the project and it’s a problem that’s a reflection of, to some extent, what historians have been doing. And it’s a series of logical ellisions in which you see analogues being made. It’s an example in Hannah-Jones’ initial essay. She says her grandfather grew up on a plantation in Greenwood, Mississippi, where they stooped in the hot sun and picked cotton just as their enslaved ancestors had done until recently.
James: Well, no. The likelihood is that he didn’t pick cotton just as his enslaved ancestors did. He likely produced cotton as a sharecropper who had his own plot of ground and worked with his family, not under the direct supervision of an overseer and was able, as a majority of sharecroppers were gradually able to do, save up enough money to buy his own plot of land, which is what you see in the biographies of the … in the histories and genealogies of the law students profiled at the end of the project. Their ancestors were landowners who managed to buy land and in the postbellum South. And that’s one of the misleading analogues: Convict laborers after the Civil War were treated cruelly. Slaves were treated cruelly. Therefore, the convict lease system is slavery by another name.
James: But slavery isn’t just about … Slavery allows you to treat people cruelly, but lots of systems allow you to treat people cruelly. And it’s not the cruelty of slavery that defines what a convict lease system is. In some ways, it’s more physically cruel than slavery for the simple reason that the planter leasing a convict had no economic investment in that convict’s wellbeing. It was well-known that … All slave holders understood that the greatest source of their wealth was the slaves themselves, as valuable property, as saleable property.
All discussions of the best way to manage a plantation describe the good crop as one that’s good, taking into consider everything including the fences, the barn, the animals, the condition of the cotton crop, the size of the corn crops so that the slaves could be fed, and the number and wellbeing of the slaves. You want the number of slaves increasing year after year after year because you have a commercial investment in the slaves as saleable property. That incentive is gone when someone is leasing convicts. And so one of the essays tells this horrendous story of a planter in Louisiana in the late 19th century who leased 25 prisoners, and in a year, 12 of them were dead. Something like that. Well, slaveholders were not in the business of killing off their slaves. That’s not what slavery is. The convicts’ children aren’t slaves. The convict is not a slave for life. It’s not perpetual. It’s not slavery. It’s horrible. It’s terrible, but it’s not slavery.
But the whole project … In order to make these claims for the continuous treatment of blacks from slavery to the present, there are a series of these definitional confusions that are required in order to make this argument for continuity. And it happens all the time through that project because the commitment, the political commitment, she’s saying, is that everything we are right now, including rush hour traffic, comes from slavery. And that tendentiousness imposes requirements on the essays that create all sorts of logical flaws and equations of two different kinds of systems with different kinds of systems of aggression that are anti-historical in the sense that the material conditions that give rise to a convict lease system are fundamentally different in the late 19th century and early 20th century than the material conditions under slavery.
James: And the conditions that create mass incarceration, that started to create mass incarceration in the last 20 or 30 years [inaudible] don’t have very much to do with slavery. They have virtually nothing to do with slavery. They have to do with the conditions in the United States and the political history of United States in the 1970s and ’80s and ’90s that could produce these changes of laws. And it created an enormous increase in incarceration rates in which the majority of those incarcerated are white, not black. It’s that push to make everything we are come from slavery that distorts that project for me and creates a series of, as I said, logical leaps, analytical confusions, definitional failures.
James: The Desmond essay on slavery and capitalism is based on a body of literature that is widely criticized for precisely the reason you raise. They’re going to write about capitalism, but they’re not going to say what capitalism is. And you really can’t do that. I’m not saying you have to have one particular definition of capitalism. There are lots of them out there, and each of them has strengths and well-understood weaknesses. But you can’t say you’re writing about the relationship between capitalism and slavery and not say what capitalism is, and not say what slavery is. They do know that slavery is a chattel principle, but the chattel principle isn’t … The convict lease isn’t based on the chattel principle. There were no slave auction houses left.
Corey: I have a friend who’s an intellectual historian and we had him on the show a little while ago. And at some point in time, we were arguing about … He was making certain broad political generalizations and I’m like, “Well … ” Basically about alliance between left-wing politics and ethnic groups. And I’m saying, “Andrew,” it was Andrew Hartman. I’m like, “Andrew, this doesn’t really fit the picture.” My grandparents who were both black and held what sounded like pretty traditional conservative positions, were you to ask … They might look in various respects like Republican and his response was, he said, “Some historians are lumpers. Some are splitters.” He says, “I’m basically a lumper.” And so you’ve got to make certain kind of generalizations. But what sort of surprised me as I’ve dug into this a little bit is even if you don’t get into very, very fine, great historical arguments, a lot of what’s taught to people is sort of inaccurate.
Corey: I’m going to give you kind of a personal example of this, at least that I’ve learned about. I had just a detailed discussion with my father and uncle about family history this past week. And I was asking about our family history of Mississippi. My dad’s family is from West Point, Mississippi, which is in the northern part of the state. It’s close to Alabama border. And my image, of course, from what I studied in school, was that my ancestors were probably sharecroppers because that’s what I assumed most blacks were. And it turned out that they weren’t. They never were.
Corey: They had small plots of land, and it’s not quite clear how they had them. My guess is it looks like my great, great grandfather appears to be half Irish, perhaps the son of a slaveholder and slave woman. But since all of his descendants had their own plots of land and his description of their life … They were children back then, so they spent time with their grandmother who was … In fact, their step-grandmother, their grandmother turns out to be partly Native American, which is something that’s often not quite discussed as explicitly. The racial lines weren’t quite as hard and fast. She was born just after slavery probably.
Corey: And they lived in a community in which whites really were not present. I’m trying to get, what was his sense of interact with white people, and they said, “We really didn’t.” You’d go into town once a week to buy some general store, but for the most part, you just lived in this sort of small village. And the image of kind of this constant encounter with this sort of oppressive force wasn’t there. It may be worse because it was fully separate, but it was just a society in which … They said, “We ran into white people when we went to the theater.” And they had to sit in the balcony, but that was the extent of it. It was just a very different picture than I’d had from my education. And it wasn’t such a clean picture, so maybe it didn’t get taught because it didn’t fit under our [inaudible] theory, but I began asking various questions such as, where in the …
Corey: They seemed like … I used the term middle-class. My uncle made very clear they were not middle-class. He said they’re stable, but I was trying to fit where in the economic distribution they fell among blacks. Were they exceptional or not? He said it was probably very hard to know, but seemed like it was not an uncommon system in that area, to have a certain amount of labor. It was, again, a complicated picture. Similar to a kind of picture you paint in your description of The Ruling Race, which is that most slaveholders were not large plantation owners. It seems like that’s part of what’s being missed in a lot of this discussion. History is extremely diverse and the plantation system was in fact, not the norm for at least whites.
James: For slaveholders, it wasn’t the norm. Right.
Corey: Yeah, and it wasn’t clear if it was-
James: It was more of the norm for slaves. The majority of slaves lived in plantations, but the majority of slaveholders were not planters.
Corey: But afterwards, it was unclear to me whether sharecropping was the norm for blacks or this is it small landholder. Do we know, actually, whether the majority blacks were sharecroppers or not?
James: In the early years, virtually all of them would have to be sharecroppers because there was no access to land. The point that I was making when I suggested that you look at those biographies [at the end of the 1619 Project] is that over time, the black population in the South, the emancipated population in the South, increasingly owned its own land. And that’s the goal in an agricultural society, to get your own land. And again, one of the logical confusions in the project is here… The piece on the racial wealth gap, for example, talks about the pattern of black “dispossession.” But it’s hard to know what that means when you’re talking about a population of four million people who come out of slavery possessing nothing, when the history is of possession among those people from the moment they’re emancipated up to the early 20th century–the gradual possession of land.
And this happens, and it happens, [black landownership] leaps in particular in the very years that disfranchisement is happening, when lynching peaks, when the worst forms of racial oppression that is the nadir of black life after the Civil War. All of that happens at the same time that blacks in the South are increasingly buying and getting hold of their own plots of land. Now, an argument has been made, and it’s plausible, that those two things are actually connected. There’s actually a reference to it in 1619 Project to the effect that what causes the white backlash from the 1890s and early 1900s is not the failure of blacks, but the success of blacks. The two things go hand in hand.
You can’t say black dispossession goes hand in hand with the rise of racial discrimination and disfranchisement because in fact, the opposite seems to be happening. Black possession seems to be going hand in hand hardening racial oppression. It’s one of those logical flaws in the argument that confuses economic patterns with these patterns of racial discrimination. There’s all sorts of things like that, even the better essays …
That essay on slavery and capitalism is the one that upset me the most, because I know the most about that, and it’s so riddled with factual errors. It’s the reason I agreed to do the interview with the world’s most socialist website. But take a relatively good essay, the one by Jamelle Bouie, who’s … He’s not a historian. He’s a journalist. And it’s about the origins of the anti-democratic onslaught that we’re witnessing right now, the attempts to … voter suppression and gerrymandering and things like that. These have a very long history. And he traces back to John C. Calhoun’s repudiation of democracy in defense of slavery.
James: Well, John C. Calhoun was not the first anti-democrat in American history. And his nemesis in the nullification crisis–where John C. Calhoun justifies South Carolina’s decision to notify federal tariffs on anti-democratic grounds–his nemesis is Andrew Jackson, who is a slave holding planter and the representative of a new kind of democracy in which is strongly associated with universal white manhood suffrage [the elimination of property qualifications.] The story of anti-democracy isn’t so simple.… It’s another example of attempting to shoehorn all the things that are terrible right now, that we all agree are or probably agree are terrible, into the history of slavery when …
And what’s frustrating for me about this is … You know enough of my work. I have devoted my scholarly life, 40, 50 years now to studying the history of slavery and making sure we all understand how important the history of slavery and racial ideology has been to American history. The very first research paper I ever did as a first-year graduate student at Berkeley was a study of the new Orleans race riot of 1866 in which a black convention meeting to demand equal rights was attacked by a group of whites and the blacks were slaughtered on the streets of New Orleans. I’ve been studying this stuff for my entire life.
And so the frustrating thing about the 1619 project is that it’s as though people like me didn’t exist, and there hasn’t been a whole lot of this kind of thing among scholars. But we want to get the facts right. And we want it to be logical, and we’re historians.
We want to understand that racism [is not a transhistorical force]. You shouldn’t be talking about racism as something built into the DNA of the United States, because that suggests an unchanging, timeless unhistorical understanding of what racial ideology is all about. When you should be asking questions like, “What are the particular historical conditions in which you’re likely to get an upsurge of racism? And what are the conditions that explain to us why, in the immediate aftermath of the American Revolution, anti-racism was a dominant force in Northern life? And why, during the middle of the 19th century, suddenly there was anti-racism and then in the late 19th century, an upsurge of racism?”
You can’t just say there was this unchanging thing called racism because racism exists in very specific historical contexts and gives rise to very different kinds of problems, political and social and economic problems. And it’s used in the 1619 Project, because of this determination to trace everything back to slavery, it’s used in a way that I say is not just ahistorical, it’s anti-historical. It’s to show that nothing changes, even to the point where you have these reductio ad absurdum. To say that traffic jams in Atlanta come from slavery is crazy. Not even the essay from which Hannah-Jones drew that observation in her introduction to the 1619 Project, not even the essay which is by Kevin Cruse, a good historian at Princeton says that.
The essay she’s drawing that conclusion from says exactly the opposite, that under slavery, the incentive for whites was to keep blacks close, that with emancipation, an entirely different calculus emerged in which keeping blacks and whites separated from one another took charge and you started to get patterns of racial segregation in cities and that the use of the Interstate highway to block off, separate blacks from whites in cities creates these odd configurations of highways that are jammed up like that. The essay actually ends up saying exactly the opposite of what she says the essay says.
Corey: I often wonder whether this might just be a … Steve and I have had this long discussion about cultural wars, and to some extent, they may be a luxury for people for whom life is not all that difficult, to worry about certain kinds of things. But I often wonder whether this is a generational phenomenon. I talked to my father. My father says quite openly, he’s like, “Look, I grew up in Apartheid.” My dad’s now a retired professor at University of Massachusetts living in Amherst, Massachusetts. And he’s like, look, it’s utterly astonishing the changes that happened since he was a kid. He was born in West Point, Mississippi, moved to East St. Louis. At the time, East St. Louis was doing pretty well, but later, things went bad but ended up with Rutgers and then at UMass. He couldn’t really imagine the kind of change that happened.
Corey: But even if you go back, even you go back to Mississippi at that time, and this is something I learned in this conversation with them, which is … And I think there’s a certain picture of white-black relations as being really like there’s a wall between them. My grandfather, who was born in 1915, had a white friend. And in the early … When they were about 15 years old, they start a business together and they bought a cow and they slaughtered it. And turned out that my grandfather had pretty good skills at slaughtering, so they carved the and they sold it. They basically took a kind of wheelbarrow, something large around, sold the meat and bought another cow. And they built this thing into a pretty significant business. I was just sort of surprised because they didn’t expect this type of relationship to exist.
Corey: At some point around early 30s, my grandfather was 20 or so, the business was booming, but he realized he actually couldn’t be a full partner in this business. It just wasn’t in the cards in West Point, Mississippi at that time. But the guy said, “Look, but you always have a job. You may not be partner, but you’ll always have a job.” My grandfather eventually left the area, but this business, which grew to what’s called Brian Foods, was eventually bought by Sarah Lee in the late ’60s. It was one of the largest meat packers in the region at the time.
Corey: But it kind of showed a complexity to relations, which were just unheard of. And it’s quite clear that life got better over time for black people. But even at the time, there were these really complex interactions. My father describes his grandmother … Well, he’d go back for the summer from East St. Louis to West Point Mississippi. His grandmother would take …
Corey: Where from East St. Louis to West Point, Mississippi, his grandmother would take them around. And this was probably the mid-40s. At some point, he’s described as being in town, and these young white kids invited him to play baseball with them, and he just starts playing with them, and she comes out of the store, basically grabs him by the collar and rips him away. It’s like, this is not something you should be doing. But it’s her basically imposing that line rather than the kids at that time. Again, things weren’t great back then, but it was a very different picture, a much more complicated picture of actual human relations. And I really wonder if people who are in their eighties would have the same view, that things have not changed, because I don’t think they do. And so I wonder whether you’ve sensed this is a generational gap in people where they’re just not aware.
James: I don’t think it’s generational, so much as it’s… I tend to see that kind of argument about nothing’s changed as most prominent in what black political scientist, Adolph Reed, calls the black professional managerial class. And Nichole Jones who is working as a very well paid reporter for the most prestigious newspaper in the world saying, “Nothing’s changed.” I’ve heard of a tenured professor at the University of Chicago, an African-American professor, wonder “whether we’ve ever been emancipated,” a tenured professor at the University of Chicago making a statement like that. It can only be rhetorical. You can’t be serious unless you’re…
This is what a Marxist would call idealism here. It’s taking an idea, where white supremacy or racism or whatever, and tracing it through time and seeing the same basic idea, and with no sense that there are underlying conditions that change, political conditions that change, that change the valence of that idea, that change the meaning of that, that make it salient in one context and not in another context.
You could do that with any idea that persists. You could say that everything that’s terrible about the United States, and there’s lots of things that I think are terrible right now about the United States, and say it all goes back to the fact that the United States is basically a Christian country. I can finger Christians at every step along the way, defending slavery, defending this, defending inequality, defending all sorts of terrible things. And it’s the same idea right now of Fundamentalist Protestants saying we’re going to have church services on Sunday, despite the coronavirus or something like that. You could trace an unbroken line, if you want, to ideas because ideas are easier to do that with.
James: It’s the material conditions of life that are changing dramatically and affecting different people in different ways. But it’s that when you start saying that something like an idea is built into the DNA of the United States, and that becomes your through line, you’ve erased historical change for particular purposes, to make certain claims in contemporary politics. And that’s most most attractive as an idea, I think… For example, there’s no such thing as “the black community.” . There was no such thing—this is one of the things that my friend Adolph Reed insists on—there is no such thing as “the black community.”
Corey: I say that too. Actually. I say that too all the time.
James: There’s no such thing, right? [It means] that what the black professional managerial class talks right now isn’t necessarily what working class blacks talk, and need, and things like that. I think that what we’re getting in the 1619 project is a distillation of a certain [class]. Look for example, the way they deal with the well-known fact of the rising economic inequality of the last generation. Everybody knows that this has happened. Everybody can think of the various reasons why this has happened. But they [the Project editors] really aren’t focused on why that has happened. They are focused on one particular aspect of it, which is the disparity between whites and blacks, which is not [the same thing as] explaining why the the wealth gap has happened.
The financialization of the economy, the shift of jobs overseas, all the things that have real meaningful effects on the lives of working people who are disproportionately black. By focusing on disparity rather than the sources of the inequality itself you’re focusing on the idea of racial inequality and racial difference that you can trace through longterm without actually having to deal with the critical question of what is causing this to happen right now. Why did this happen over the last years? And things like that. And that is again something I associate with a particular class of people, not with any uniform black community or uniform white community.
Corey: You know it’s funny when people talk about the black or the white communities because it’s obviously a kind of ridiculous notion on its face. A community consisting of tens to millions of people, but it seems to be… It’s easy for an ideological generalizations to be made on that basis. Let’s just draw back. So I know we’ve taken a lot of your time. Let’s step back and begin to try to look at the significance of this debate. And what I’d like to understand is what do you think the significance is of the debate over the 60 19 project? Is this something? Why should this be of interest to non-historians and non-academics? What’s at stake here fundamentally?
James: I would start with a specific. The thing I liked about Jamelle Bouie’s, his essay on the struggle over democracy and anti-democracy is because he frames it as a conflict that has existed in various ways over time. And you don’t have to locate it solely in the defense of slavery, but if you frame these issues as persistent conflicts that erupt in different ways, in different times, and have different consequences then you’re closer to being historically grounded and specific and then you can explain things much better. And why in one set of conditions do the anti-racist’s succeed, and why, in another set of conditions that are racists winning.
James: I mean that’s a little simplistic too, but at least it at least it stops you from talking about entire groups of people who are monoliths, right?
James: When all the evidence suggests that, I mean… Look at what happened in the South Carolina primary. It’s clear from the outcome of that vote that blacks in South Carolina, like whites in South Carolina are much more conservative than blacks and whites in Detroit. And so you cannot assume that all blacks are going to vote one way and all will think one way. One of the points that Nicole Hannah Jones makes, and it’s a good point, is that African Americans are more likely than any other group to support a Medicare for all or universal healthcare. But in South Carolina, Jim Clyburn famously said, “nothing comes free.” Right? And he objected strenuously to the idea of Medicare for all in his endorsement of Biden over Sanders, right?
James: So you’re not going to find uniformity and you can’t wish it into existence by talking about the whites are this and blacks are this, when all throughout US history, there have been these conflicts over democracy, over economic inequality, over racial inequality like that. So I would just say, if you’re going to start from a premise that’s different from the way this one is starts, start from the premise that things are always contested, that these ideas are never stable and they’re never consensual.
Corey: And I guess I’d add that people are variable and that even people who have the same skin color quite variable it’s sort of an obvious point. But you spend time in any region of the country and you’re going to get very different attitudes on whether it’s any contentious issue of the day.
James: Right. And young people are more in favor of… Including young blacks are much more in favor of Sanders than older people. That’s a generational divide. It’s just that you have to be careful about your historical specifics. You can make generalizations and you have to make generalizations, but they have to be, they have to be grounded in facts. So when you asked me in the email, you sent back about The Atlantic which said, this is about interpretation, not facts. Well, I suppose in a sense it’s right, except that you interpret facts, and if your facts are wrong, you can’t have a reasonable interpretation except by accident. You know, if your facts are all wrong…
Corey: I think the Atlantic piece was going… I think they’re basically trying to… I saw it as kind of a political response to the conflict where they didn’t want to take a side. They don’t want to take your side because it might seem politically inappropriate. They want to essentially ally the issue, but there’s, if it’s not facts, it’s just spin. It seems like it’s not just spin. Right. They’re actually real questions as to what led, motivated the colonies to declare independence. What were Lincoln’s actual views about black people? I mean it’s often hard to get those out.
Corey: I guess was partly fascinated me with this project is the political angles of the people who have commented on it and you talk about your interview with the world socialist website, which was out. It was really, it’s one of the best interviews I’ve seen a long time. Very thorough, very, very detailed. But I could see quite easily why they’d be critical, right. You might think at first that they would not be critical given their orientation, but you know, they’re very, very opposed to anything that’s going to distract from the role of class in American society and it’s historical force. And this project essentially pushed class aside in place of race and so it was sort of shredding on their territory.
Corey: But I think they run a slight risk, right. Just focusing exclusively on class and not race of missing a whole other dimension. Cause it seems to be quite obvious that both are factors and that trying to have a theory which exclusively focuses on one is going to encourage this type of a historical character. So anyway, but you got the Atlantic, you got people on the world socialist website, conservatives like the National Review, all taking a really strong interest in this topic. And it’s my sense was this was in some sense a good thing. It’s rare you get active intellectual debate in many publications in America. And I just want to get your reaction as a conclusion on that point, which is what my sense is for whatever disagreement was raised and whatever factual inaccuracies they were, it spurred intellectual debate of a kind that does not often happen in mainstream publications in the U S.
James: I think it’s been a more effective as a debate in mainstream publications, or even like The World Socialist Web Site. When that interview first came out, Eric Foner who’s a friend of mine, a prominent historian read it. Somebody sent it to him and he said, it’s too bad it appears in the worldwide social website. Nobody’s going to read it. And or course it went viral.
Corey: I’ve sent to all my friends.
James: Right. But the frustrating thing, the sad thing for me is that it has not produced that kind of robust debate among historians. It’s almost entirely a public debate and it’s a good debate as you say, it’s a necessary debate. I would not say that the Trotskyist website–I’m not sure what the Trotskyist is by the way; I had never heard of the WWSW. But I don’t think the issue for them is simply class because they’ve always been ready to see the relationship between racism and class.
James: I think what they’re concerned about is the erasure of revolution. They believe change happens often and necessarily through revolution. And that the American revolution was an important turning point in the history of the modern world. It overthrew monarchy, hereditary legislatures, primogeniture and entail. It overthrew all sorts of ways of organizing political and social life that were important. It set in motion the debate over slavery. And they feel the same way about the American Civil War. That was the largest, most significant social revolution in American history among other things. And that the tendency to erase the American revolution and erase the consequences of slavery’s abolition, to say there was this brief pleading moment of reconstruction, then everything went back to slavery again. Something like that, that’s what they’re upset about, the claim that there is no change over time. And for them as Marxists, there has to be a bourgeois revolution before there is a socialist revolution. And if you erase bourgeois revolutions we’re never going to have a socialist revolution. In a sense that’s right.
You could frame it differently. I said this in the closing pages of one of my books that emancipation: You win the struggle, this decades-long struggle, 88 year long struggle to get slavery abolished, and it doesn’t mean conflict goes away. It just shifts the terms of the conflict. All of a sudden there are debates over civil rights for free people, over voting rights for free, people, over economic justice for free people, things like that. Things that you would never have in a debate over slavery because that’s not the way you debate slavery. You debate slavery on the legitimacy or illegitimacy of property rights and human beings. Once that’s gone all the terms of debate over conflict change and the conflict resumes in a completely different set of material circumstances with completely different terms of debate, right. And that’s what they’re objecting to. The worldwide socialist people, I think.
You know if things do change and if you don’t understand how they change and why they change, you’re not going to understand where we all right now. So why did a generation ago, the wealth gap suddenly becomes so much more severe? Why did middle-class and working class wages stagnate starting around 1978 right? Why did mass incarceration start around 1980, 1990? Things like that. These are recent developments that require that they be put in the context of, what would we say, neoliberal ascendancy or something like that. They’ll have very specific explanations for why these things arose at specific moments in the recent history of the United States, and to emphasize through lines that go all the way back to slavery is to misdiagnose the problems we’re facing right now. That’s what I think they’re interested in. That’s what I’m interested in as well.
James: Now, as someone who, again, is the last person on earth to say, we should not be studying slavery and we should not see the significance of slavery and racism in American history, but that we do it correctly and we do it with some sense of historicity rather than this timeless idea of continuity.
Corey: Well, Jim, thank you very much. This has been a really, really fascinating, informative discussion we’ve missed. We failed to cover about half the things I sent you in the email and I was hoping that at some point you’ll come back to the topic of Frederick Douglas. We can talk about identity, politics, history, et cetera, et cetera. But I want to thank you for Steve. He had to hop onto another call, but again, thanks for your time and stay safe.
James: Sure. Thank you.