From the field, to the factory, to the street
By Nelson Peery
Copyright November, 1992
|Society is formed on the
basis of the unity of productive forces and productive relations.
Productive relations are the laws defining property and the
relationship of people to property in the process of production. The
constant, spontaneous development of the productive forces eventually
disrupts that unity. An epoch of social revolution creates new
productive relations that reflect the level of, and are compatible
with, the newly developed productive forces.
From the viewpoint of this science of society, let us re-examine the
political fundamentals of our history as regards the African Americans'
struggle for freedom and equality.
The United States was colonized by trading companies. Some of these
companies were given grants of land equal in size to entire states.
They were entirely commercial enterprises. There was never any
feudalism in the U.S. There were, however, economic formations that
were feudal-like. The indentured servitude system and slavery were
hybrid in this respect. Hybrid because the slaves were slaves but the
masters were capitalists. This relationship, fundamental to the history
of the country, distorted everything America proclaimed it stood for.
The Northern states, manufacturing the necessities for the slave
system, grew as an appendage to the South. As the U.S. grew, the North
entered into an economic revolution, from manufacturing to industry.
This happened only in the North. In Europe, the shift to industry
caused great dislocations and tremendous struggle between the towns
(the bourgeoisie) and the countryside (the feudalists). A major part of
this dislocation was caused by the outflow of serfs into the towns. In
America, all this was avoided by importing the industrial workers from
Europe. The native-born Americans were family farmers and stayed as
such for another century. The economic and social revolution in the
North proceeded quite smoothly without any major social upheavals. This
peaceful transition from pre-industrial to industrial formations has no
The development of giant industrial enterprises and a new concentration
of money did call into question the political dictatorship of the
agricultural South. Industry, more productive than manufacture, caused
the North to break its economic dependence upon and come into political
contradiction with the South.
The South had a stranglehold on political power in the country. It
became known as "the slave power" through the constitutional provision
that slaves counted as 3/5 of a person for appropriating representation
in Congress. The North, more populous in free, voting-age males, was
constantly out-voted by the slave-owning South and its Northern
supporters. The Southern-dominated Senate, Supreme Court and Presidency
refused to pass harbor, railroad, canal and tariff appropriations. Such
legislation was necessary to the growth of industry in the North, but
not in the interests of the slave-owning agricultural South. The new
industrial productive forces in the North came into conflict with the
productive relations of slavery in the South.
Such historic contradictions of economic forces cannot be fought out in
the economic base of society. They are fought out in the social
superstructure as ideological and political struggles.
As these economic contradictions became political antagonisms, the
South militarily attacked the North to whip it back under its control.
Its aim was to reorganize the entire country and eventually the entire
hemisphere on the basis of slavery. The North responded with a war to
whip the South back into the union. Its aim was to convert the South
into an agricultural reserve of industry.
The North could not defeat the South so long as the South had the vast
manpower reserve of slaves. Every physically capable Southern white
could become a front-line soldier since the support work was primarily
done by slaves. Many people in the North were unwilling to fight for
the Union with slavery; they advocated letting the South secede. For
the North to win the war, slavery had to be abolished.
The industrial empire of the North was based on the cotton of the
South. It was not in the interest of the industrial-financial oligarchy
of the North to abolish slavery. Their aim was to abolish the political
supremacy of the slave power. Yet, the war could not be won without
Abe Lincoln had a plan to gradually abolish slavery, ending it in 1940.
This is a date to be remembered. The military and radical political
leaders would not accept Lincoln's plan; so Lincoln signed the
The abolition of slavery was a social revolution without a preceding or
corresponding economic revolution in the South. That is, the
instruments of production of the agricultural South did not advance;
but the North imposed a revolution in social relations upon the South
with the freeing of the slaves. This contradiction shaped American
politics and society for the next stage of history.
The emancipation was revolutionary. It transferred property worth some
four billion dollars in the form of slaves from the master class to the
freedmen. The next stage of the social revolution would have been to
break up the plantations and parcel them out to the freedmen and the
landless poor whites. This would have finished the planters as a class,
and such widespread ownership of productive property would have
democratized the South. This was not in the interest of the Northern
At the end of the war, there was widespread seizure of abandoned and
vacant land by the land-hungry freedmen. The Freedmen's Bureau was
supposedly set up to facilitate the transition from slave to
independent farmers, as was the Southern Homestead Act of 1866.
Actually these bureaus were set up to corral and divert the impulse of
the freedmen to take land from the defeated and temporarily politically
The transition from slave to yeoman farmer could have been possible.
There was plenty of land. Land from the traitors could and should have
been confiscated. There was plenty of abandoned and vacant land. Land
grabbed by banks at tax sales could have gone to the freedmen. Such a
transition would require the revolution be pushed to its conclusion of
radical land redistribution. The existing means of production were
applicable to small farming as the sharecropping system proved. The
reality was that an alliance with an economically dependent and
politically subordinate Southern ruling class was in the interests of
the Northern industrial ruling class. That was the only way
they could rule the South. A South consisting of independent farmers
would become a land of rebellious populism. A new class of independent
farmers in the South would pose an economic and political threat to the
industrial-financial oligarchy in the North. Furthermore, the
plantations were not entirely Southern owned. A goodly number of
Northern investors had sunk a lot of money into Southern agriculture
and were not about to give it up with emancipation.
The increasing world demand for cotton and tobacco coupled with the
absence of an economic revolution was the condition for the political
alliance of the planters with the Northern industrialists. This
alliance, in turn, made slavery in a new form inevitable. The violence
of the counterattack by the planters against the blacks was the
condition for condemning more whites than blacks to the sharecropping
system. By concentrating the attack against the blacks, the planters
made it appear that the majority of poor whites were out of the line of
fire. Centuries of white supremacy led most of the poor whites to
believe that uniting on the basis of color would give them privileged
over the blacks. The legalization of segregation and discrimination
against the blacks guaranteed that the whites could not escape the
slavery of sharecropping. After the disfranchisement of the African
Americans, the laws supposedly passed against the black tenant farmer
were then applied to the white.
The tools, the sharecropping slavery, the poverty of the South changed
very little from 1870 to 1940. 1940 was Lincoln's target date for
liberation, and it became a fact. The invention of the cotton picker in
that year and the development of weed-killing chemicals in 1952 was the
economic revolution for the social revolution of 1864 to stand upon.
The social revolution then moved forward to completion. The death of
sharecropping slavery was followed by a massive freedom movement and
the outlawing of segregation and discrimination.
The fight to destroy legal segregation was the beginning of the final
stage in this social revolution. The ongoing battle for actual economic
and social equality of the African Americans will complete it. The
integration of the former sharecroppers into the working class is
removing the last objective blocks to working class unity. The
completion of this social revolution is creating the political
conditions for the emancipation of the working class, the last
exploited class in the country.
THE AFRICAN AMERICAN PEOPLE
The social motion of the African American people of the United States
has always reflected the level of development of the productive forces,
the productive relations and the political maneuvering of the ruling
class to keep the two united. This political maneuvering and the
response of the African Americans has kept them at the center of the
England created the American colonies to guarantee primary, especially
agricultural, commodities to her growing markets. A chronic labor
shortage, crude tools and open land made indentured servitude and
eventually African slavery as a labor system inevitable.
As labor demands increased and intensified, it became impossible to
simply complement indentured servitude with slavery. The expanding
frontier and the growing rebelliousness of the slaves and indentured
servants began to threaten the productive relations of capitalism. As
white indentured servitude phased out, African slavery became the basic
plantation labor system. The consequent identification of slavery for
life with race and of race with inferiority set the conditions for the
slaves to begin their development as a class and finally as a people.
The economies of the New England states were not conducive to
slavery. The abolition of slavery in these states created a community
of free blacks. This freedom was precarious and depended upon the
abolition of slavery in the South. The abolition of slavery and the
securing of full and equal rights was the only real protection for
them. They created a press and organizations dedicated to abolition and
equality. They fought on all fronts to secure these goals. They created
the underground railroad. They fought against proposals for relocation
in Africa. They appealed to the mother churches in Ireland and England
to impose an abolitionist morality on the churches in America. This
split the churches in America on the issue of slavery. Their actions
and agitation were the foundation of the broad anti-slavery movement
that made the Civil War inevitable.
The African Americans began to coalesce into a people based on this
common political goal. The horrors of slavery in the South and the
brutal segregation and discrimination in the North forced them ever
closer together culturally, politically and physically.
The Civil War and Emancipation were the two most traumatic moments
in the history of the United States. Emancipation -- a political, moral
and military act -- constituted a great social revolution militarily
imposed upon the defeated South. The force of arms made possible and
stabilized this social revolution. This social revolution had no
objective base in a revolution of tools that has preceded every other
social revolution. The social revolution was dependent upon political
alliances and was therefore vulnerable.
For a brief moment, state-sponsored force and violence against the
African Americans was checked. The immediate result was a marked
tendency by the ex-slaves to disperse. Apart from organizing to defend
their newly won freedom, their political motion was to individually
become free and equal citizens.
Every social revolution must proceed from, stand upon and develop
from an economic revolution. It is not possible to truly liberate
slaves or proletarians without replacing them with more efficient
energy. At the time of Emancipation, there was no such economic
revolution in the means of production connected to Southern
agriculture. This truth coupled with a growing domestic and
international demand for cotton and tobacco condemned the freedmen to a
new and often more brutal form of exploitation.
The growing monopolization of industry in the North had its reflection
in the South as the defeat of post-war land redistribution and
reconstruction. The ex-slaves, freed with little more than the rags on
their backs, had a deep land hunger. There was no way for the majority
of them to purchase land. At that time, sharecropping appeared to hold
out the possibility of someday owning land. The post-war plantation
system stabilized, and sharecropping as a specific form of tenant
Sharecropping and the convict-lease system became new forms of
slavery for the African Americans. The most brutal social and political
oppression was necessary to carry out the extreme level of economic
exploitation. The sharecropping blacks, cheated by the landlords,
brutalized by the legal authorities, terrorized by the extra-legal
forces were reduced to the level of the peasants of India.
The near total isolation of the blacks through segregation laws and
Southern custom was necessary for that exploitation to take place. The
era of segregation, lasting some 95 years, isolated the mass of African
Americans to a greater degree than did slavery. This isolation and
oppression based on color was the condition for the final stages of
their development as a people.
The formation of the African American people is unique. Their
consolidation was not based on common land or religion. There is no
internal dynamic to hold them together. The force that formed the
African Americans into a people has always been the legal and
extra-legal pressure of the whites.
There could be only two tactics in the fight. One was to separate into
a political entity and, as a group, seek equality with white America.
Their physical dispersal throughout the country prevented this. The
other tactic was to fight for integration through desegregation and
equality. The natural and consistently expressed drive of the African
Americans has been to become equal members of American society. There
has been bitter struggle over tactics, but there has never been serious
struggle over goals.
The African Americans' common struggle against segregation and
inequality has been the central force in their cohesiveness as a
people. This creates a contradiction. Every victory against racial
oppression weakens this cohesion. They can protect themselves and move
forward so long as they are united as a people. Conversely, they cannot
consolidate their victories as a people. Defeat of segregation meant
the African Americans would individually enter their respective
classes. Necessarily, each social class would benefit unequally from
desegregation. There would then be greater economic and ultimately
social inequality between the African Americans of different classes
than between the individual black and white within the respective
class. This is unavoidable since the rest of the people of the United
States are unequal. The African Americans can only take advantage of
their victories as individuals becoming more equal to their white
counterparts in a fundamentally unequal society. The best example of
this is desegregation in the Army. The black private soldier is much
more equal to the white private than to his black company commander.
Segregation created the black bourgeoisie -- that is, a black petty
capitalist based on the "captive" black market. The victory over legal
segregation began to disperse this black market. The black bourgeoisie
turned to the federal government for protection against the vastly
superior forces of monopoly capitalism they were suddenly competing
against. Affirmative action in the form of government contracts and
decent jobs with the huge governmental bureaucracy turned the upper
strata of the African Americans from reliance on the black masses to
reliance on the government. Every seller has to protect his market. At
one time the black bourgeoisie sold to the black masses and had to
protect them. Today, a big section of what we call the black
bourgeoisie is well paid government bureaucrats. They sell to the
product for sale is the black masses. The government is the market and
they must protect it. This forced the black upper strata to physically,
then politically, and now morally disassociate themselves from the
black proletarian mass.
The idea of the "ghetto" as an extension of segregated plantation life
is incorrect. The mechanization of Southern agriculture drove millions
of African Americans off the land and into the central areas of the
major cities. They came as immigrants entering the Anglo-American
proletariat. They occupied a common area, the decaying central cities.
The Irish, Italian and Jewish immigrants before them had also moved
into special neighborhoods. The city central area is an extension of
the proletarian slums of former immigrants rather than an extension of
During the first stage of this migration, the African Americans raised
their standards of living as rapidly as former immigrants had done. The
migration began to end with the beginning of the application of
electronics to industry. "Last hired and first fired" took on a new
qualitative meaning. Huge masses of black workers, twice the rate of
whites, were cast into permanent unemployment and poverty. The black
workers who held on to their jobs continued to close the gap between
their living standards and those of the white workers.
These factors have tended to accelerate the stratification and
dispersal of the African Americans as a people. The black bourgeoisie
is striving for secure equality as a bourgeois. The various strata of
black workers are struggling for equality with their white counterpart.
As such equality is achieved, the tendency is to integrate. Although
the path has been especially difficult for the African Americans, it is
the general path taken by previous immigrant groups. The path seems to
desegregation to equality and then to integration. The "people" of the
"African American people" has increasingly become the mass of blacks in
the proletarian slums.
There is nothing to support a projection that this dispersal is
mechanically connected to the individual economic circumstances or
that there has been an abandoning of the culture the blacks have
created during the past 300 years. Quite to the contrary, the dispersal
has carried African American culture the length and breadth of the
Before the migrations of the late 1940s and the 1950s, there was very
little penetration of African American culture into the culture of the
Anglo Americans. Such cultural expressions as the "Blues" and the dance
of the blacks reached a high point just as the migrations began. The
concentration of blacks in the major cities, North and South, meant a
concentration and strengthening of their culture. As the blacks entered
new employment in industry, sports and entertainment, increasing
numbers of especially young Anglo Americans came in contact with this
Apart from the culture of the Native American Indians, the culture of
black America is the only "American" culture. The significance of Elvis
Presley is that more than anyone else he "Anglo-sized" the culture of
the African Americans. Since Elvis, every cultural expression of the
African Americans has with increasing rapidity become part of the
culture of a growing sector of Anglo Americans. The Mormon Choir
recorded a beautifully sung album of Negro Spirituals, and a Welsh rock
musician's recording of a Negro Spiritual outsold Mahalia Jackson's.
THE BLACK BELT NATION
The African Americans as a people and the Black Belt of the South as a
colonial nation are distinct but inter-connected, historically evolved
In order to clearly understand any historical question it is necessary
to go to the beginning of the problem, examine the context that created
it, and trace the stages of its development up to the present.
The American nation was basically Southern at its inception. Its core
area was Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, North and South Carolina and
Georgia. The New England states were shipping and manufacturing
appendages of the slave plantation system of the South.
By the late 1840s, the political leaders of the South viewed the
population and industrial growth of the North with apprehension. They
realized that the shift from manufacturing to industry was creating a
new nation in the North. This new nation was being formed as waves of
European immigration created an industrial proletariat in what a few
years before had been the north western frontier. A newrelationship was
being formed as the industrial cities produced agricultural machinery
and in turn were fed by the Anglo-American family farmers. The Northern
churches were shifting from a position that slavery was God's will to a
position that allowing slavery to exist was a sin. This position was
expressed by Lincoln saying he believed that the Civil War was God
punishing the South for having slavery and the North for allowing it.
The Southern leaders began the preparation for the irrepressible
conflict. They knew the mass of whites who did not own slaves would not
fight simply to preserve slavery. The leaders realized they must create
a separate, Southern nation based on slavery, but with social and
cultural institutions that benefited all whites. Then all whites could
be compelled to defend them.
Nations are not built. They evolve as the historical expression of a
community of people, culture, economics and land. The evolving culture
of the African American slaves had already made the South Southern. It
was clearly culturally distinct from the North. The main problem was to
create an economic infrastructure to tie the area together. They set
about creating economic intercourse between the towns and the
countryside. This demanded that more land be set aside for the
production of food rather than export crops. It demanded that factories
be built and railroads created to carry their production. It meant that
the South had to become economically independent. Above all, it would
demand more slave labor as well as free white labor for industrial
The model for the Southern leaders was the Greek and Roman slave
democracies. The concept of democracy without liberty, and
opposed to liberty, exactly suited their purpose.
Remarkable economic progress was made between 1850 and 1860. But
as the war started, the South was not a nation, nor could it be so long
as slavery prevented the consolidation of a community of people.
Slave-grown King Cotton for export prevented the necessary economic
intercourse between town and county.
The South was 15% richer than the North at the beginning of the war. At
the end of the war, it began its deep slide into regional poverty. Its
economic base came under direct and indirect control of Northern
financial interests. Just as the Black Belt had been the political base
for the control of the rest of the country by the planter elite, it now
became the base for the control of the country by emerging, aggressive,
jingoist Wall Street financial imperialism.
Although the Hayes-Tilden agreement spelt the end to efforts at
Reconstruction, it did not unleash a counterrevolution. The planter
elite, terrified by the Southern struggle for democracy crept into the
arms of the Northern bourgeoisie for protection. The Hayes-Tilden
compromise was that protection. The elite made their final surrender.
In return for protection from the democratic aspirations of the
American people, they turned the South into a region of political
reaction and transformed the Black Belt into a bastion of fascism. This
allowed US imperialism to emerge safely beyond the political reach of
the democratic masses. This was the "Birth of a Nation." As W.E.B.
DuBois noted, "Wall Street controls the South and the South controls
Thus the Black Belt, an entire section of the country -- larger than
Czechoslovakia, more populous than Canada -- became the first colony of
The forms of political control of the Black Belt colony flowed from the
historic forms of control of the blacks -- segregation, brutality and
terror. As these fascist methods of control became institutionalized,
the politically impotent blacks were used to manipulate the whites. The
blacks were used as a bogey man to force the whites into unity with the
elite -- their worst enemy. They first gave up their right to vote in
order to guarantee the blacks were denied it. Six and half million
white sharecroppers could not keep five million black sharecroppers in
the ditch of poverty without jumping in on top of them. The segregation
and discrimination against the blacks was the guarantee that the whites
could not escape colonial exploitation.
Racial antagonisms made it appear as if there was a South African-like
white settler regime dominating a black nation. The isolation of a very
large and compact mass of black people meant the isolation of an entire
area. The complete development of the African American people within
this isolation was indispensable to the development of the nation. The
blacks were the majority of the people in the historically evolved
Black Belt community. They provided the basic culture of that
community. They were the overwhelming force in its formation, but they
were not the nation. The colonial nation was comprised of an
historically evolved community of people -- regardless of their
The mechanization of Southern agriculture resulted in a massive
migration of African Americans from the Black Belt. The
migrations reduced the huge majority of blacks relative to
whites, but it did not affect the colonial position of the area. It is
still the poorest area of the country. It still has the worst schools,
the poorest health care, the greatest unemployment -- the lowest
standard of living. It is still the foundation of national political
reaction. It is still owned and exploited by Northern financial
interests. It is still a colony.
The struggles of the people in the Black Belt for political democracy
and economic equality with the rest of the country has been very
contradictory. Racism, inspired by and stabilized by the ruling class,
made it impossible for the true aspirations of the people of the area
to be expressed through elected officials. The special oppression of
the blacks facilitated the election of the most reactionary,
chauvinistic, imperialist, jingoist politicians. These politicians made
it appear as if their fascist projections were the sentiments of the
whites in the area. These reactionary politicians, however, were
elected not only on an anti-black, but also an anti-federal government
On the other hand, the African Americans were in support of the federal
government and the federal court system since they could
not get justice from the local courts.
On every level, the well-being of the whites and blacks were
counterposed. Despite these contradictions, the demand for political
democracy and equality with the rest of the country is the form that
the demand for self-determination has taken and is taking.
With the African Americans tractored off the land, the essential reason
for segregation and brutality against them was gone. The Voting Rights
Act and the registration efforts weakened the county police force as
the main base for the Klan. Black county sheriffs and city policemen
have not solved the terrible economic problems nor have they made the
Southern penal farms more democratic places.
The links between the black proletariat in the North and the Black Belt
still exist. There are family and cultural ties, but more importantly,
there are historic ties. Before legal desegregation, the states in the
North encouraged and practiced illegal segregation and discrimination
against the African Americans. This was a part of the effort to keep
the blacks on the plantations. In the North, the police played the role
of the Klan, and black unemployment was rampant. It was possible to
carry on this illegal discrimination because the racism directed
against the African Americans as a people was stabilized by the
colonial status of the Black Belt. Everywhere the African American
went, he carried the
stigma of the Black Belt with him. The abysmal poverty and economic
backwardness of the blacks in the Black Belt was and is still a
constant threat to the African Americans everywhere. Blacks are still
confronted with the seemingly irrational situation wherein they were
treated better than the West Indian in England, and worse than the West
Indian in America. The politics of imperialism is the reason.
In the post-Civil War South, as in the antebellum era, the Black Belt
dominates the entire South. Even today, the economic backwardness and
poverty of the Black Belt is a drag on the region. The struggle of the
South to raise itself up to the level of the North is constantly
frustrated by this drag. Despite the outward appearance of progress,
the region has been unable to gain parity with the North. The colonial
Black Belt is the guarantee that the South as a region is a stable
political, military and economic reserve of imperialism.
In a like manner, reaction in the South as a region is a drag against
democratic aspirations in the North. Every piece of anti-labor
legislation is first tried out in the South. The cut back in social
service was first perfected in the South. The stability of political
reaction in the South prevents progress in the nation as whole.
If any part of America is to move forward, it can only do so by
fighting for the equality of the entire country. In the Black Belt,
this equality will take the form of national liberation.
THE TASK OF THE REVOLUTIONARIES
Revolutionaries have always understood that the fight for the social
and political equality of the African Americans was key to the
revolutionary line of march. Over the years they have made heroic
efforts in this direction. They were not successful because it is not
possible to achieve political and social equality without economic
equality. Economic equality is objective. Social and political equality
are its subjective expressions. In a short ten- to fifteen-year period,
the African Americans made a massive move from agricultural labor to
industrial labor. The African Americans, for the first time, became an
integral part of the industrial proletariat. This created the minimum
of economic equality that is the objective base of the fight for social
political equality. For the first time, unity of the revolutionary
sector of the proletariat in America is possible.
The African Americans have always waged a determined, militant and
often bloody struggle for equality. The political left, always in
support of and often a part of this fight, could not make their maximum
contribution because they misunderstood the historical and political
direction of the fight and simply labeled it revolutionary. The
direction of the fight of the African Americans as a people was to
enter the existing system as equals, not overthrow it. That process has
gone as far as it can go.
Today the black proletariat is consolidating as a major part of the
fighting heart of the class. Much of the left, however, in partial
recognition of their previous error, has swung to the opposite pole.
Most of them are calling for "all-class" black unity" at a time when
the political motion of the black proletariat is revolutionary --
against all capitalism including black capitalism.
The moment revolutionaries longed for has arrived. Economic equality --
the basis for revolutionary unity amongst the unemployed, the unskilled
and semi-skilled -- has consolidated. Qualitative change in the means
of production, the material base
for revolution, is irreversible. The disruption between production
and distribution and the tightening cyclical crisis can no longer
be ignored. We have entered the epoch of social revolution. Now,
everything depends upon the revolutionary passion and spirit of
combat that counted for so little in yesteryear.
Our task is clear. We must win the revolutionary sector of the class to
the recognition of revolution. As throughout our history, the black
toilers are the key to the next step. They are in fact the sector most
engaged in combat against the system. The question of the Black Belt
nation, the oppression of the African Americans as a people, and the
exploitation of the workers are inextricably bound together in the form
of the modern black worker.
The historic dialectic has played itself out. The synthesis is being
formed amidst the flames in the streets. The decisive battle for the
hearts and minds of the combatants has begun.
Forward, comrades, to the work that we must do.