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Nelson Perry
Nelson Peery

From the field, to the factory, to the street

By Nelson Peery

(c) Copyright November, 1992
Workers Press
P.O. Box 3705
Chicago, IL 60654

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 parallel.

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 abolition.

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 Emancipation Proclamation.

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 oligarchy.

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 impotent planters.

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 status
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 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 country's history.

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 farming evolved.

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 government. 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 the plantation.

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 lead from
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 country.

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 culture.

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 African Americans as a people and the Black Belt of the South as a colonial nation are distinct but inter-connected, historically evolved entities.

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 development.

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 the nation."

Thus the Black Belt, an entire section of the country -- larger than Czechoslovakia, more populous than Canada -- became the first colony of Wall Street.

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 antagonisms.

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 platform.

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.


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 and
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.