LOOKING AT THE WHITE WORKING CLASS HISTORICALLY


This article originally appears at the Kerspebedeb Publishing and the original Redneck Revolt blog site.

One of the supreme issues for our movement is summed-up in the contradictions of the term “white working class”. On one hand there is the class designation that should imply, along with all other workers of the world, a fundamental role in the overthrow of capitalism. On the other hand, there is the identification of being part of a (“white”) oppressor nation.

Historically, we must admit that the identity with the oppressor nation has been primary. There have been times of fierce struggle around economic issues but precious little in the way of a revolutionary challenge to the system itself. There have been moments of uniting with Black and other Third World workers in union struggles, but more often than not an opposition to full equality and a disrespect for the self-determination of other oppressed peoples. These negative trends have been particularly pronounced within the current era of history (since WW2). White labor has been either a legal opposition within or an active component of the U.S. imperial system.

There have been two basic responses to this reality by the white left. 1) The main position by far has been opportunism. This has entailed an unwillingness to recognize the leading role within the U.S. of national liberation struggles, a failure to make the fight against white supremacy a conscious and prime element of all organizing, and, related to the above, a general lack of revolutionary combativeness against the imperial state. More specifically, opportunism either justifies the generally racist history of the white working class and our left or romanticizes that history by presenting it as much more anti-racist than reality merits. 2) Our own tendency, at its best moments, has recognized the leading role of national liberation and the essential position of solidarity to building any revolutionary consciousness among whites. We have often, however, fallen into an elitist or perhaps defeatist view that dismisses the possibility of organizing significant numbers of white people particularly working class whites.

There is very little analysis, and even less practice, that is both real about the nature and consciousness of the white working class and yet holds out the prospect of organizing a large number on a revolutionary basis. This fissure will not be joined by some magical leap of abstract thought – either by evoking classical theories of class or by lapsing into cultural or biological determinism. We must use our tools of analysis (materialism) to understand concretely how this contradiction developed (historically). But an historical view can not be static. In seeing how certain forces developed, we must also look (dialectically) at under what conditions and through what means the contradiction can be transformed.

In this review, I want to look at three historical studies that contribute to the needed discussion: 1) Ted Allen’s two essays in White Supremacy (a collection printed by Sojourner Truth Organization); 2) W.E.B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction (New York: 1933) 3); J. Sakai, Settlers: The Mythology of the White Proletariat (Chicago: 1983)

A) Ted Allen’s White Supremacy In The U.S.; Slavery And The Origins Of Racism

Allen’s two essays provide us with a very cogent and useful account of the development of the structure of white supremacy in the U.S. He shows both how this system was consciously constructed by the colonial (“Plantation Bourgeoisie”) ruling class and what was the initial impact on the development of the white laborers. Contrary to the cynical view that racism is a basic to human nature and that there always have been (and therefore always will be) a fundamental racial antagonism, Allen show that systematic white supremacy developed in a particular historical period, for specific material reasons.

“Up to the 1680’s little distinction was made in the status of Blacks and English and other Europeans held in involuntary servitude. Contrary to common belief the status of Blacks in the first seventy years of Virginia colony was not that of racial, lifelong, hereditary slavery, and the majority of the whites who came were not free”. Black and white servants intermarried, escaped together, and rebelled together.” (p.3)

A rapidly developing plantation system required an expanding labor supply. The solution was both to have more servants and to employ them for longer terms. A move from fixed-term servitude (e.g., 7 years) to perpetual slavery would be valuable to the ruling class of the new plantation economy. The question for analysis is not so much why there was a transition to chattel slavery but why it was not imposed on the white servants as well as on the Blacks. To analyze this development we need to understand that any method of exploiting labor requires a system of social control.

There were a series of servile rebellions that threatened the plantation system in the period preceding the transition to racially designated chattel slavery and white supremacy. Allen cites numerous examples. In 1661 Black and Irish servants joined in an insurrectionary plot in Bermuda. In 1663, in Virginia, there was an insurrection for the common freedom of Blacks, whites and Indian servants. In the next 20 years, there were no fewer than ten popular and servile revolts and plots in Virginia. Also many Black and white servants successfully escaped (to Indian territories) and established free societies.

Allen places particular emphasis on Bacon’s rebellion which began in April 1676. This was a struggle within the ruling class over “Indian policy”, but Bacon resorted to arming white and Black servants, promising them freedom. Allen says “the transcendent importance” of this revolt is that “the armed working class, Black and white, fought side by side for the abolition of slavery.” He mentions, but doesn’t deal with the reality, that Bacon’s cause was to exterminate the Indians. Allen’s focus is on the formation of chattel slavery, but it is a problem that he doesn’t analyze the other major foundation of white supremacy: the theft of Native lands through genocide.

The 20 year period of servile rebellions made the issue of social control urgent for the plantation bourgeoisie, at the same time as they economically needed to move to a system of perpetual slavery. The purpose of creating a basic White/Black division was in order to have one section of labor police and control the other. As Allen says, “The non-slavery of white labor was the indispensable condition for the slavery of black labor”. [ 1 ]

A series of laws were passed and practices imposed that forged a qualitative distinction between white and Black labor. In 1661 a Virginia law imposed twice the penalty time for escaped English bond-servants who ran away in the company of an African life-time bond-servant. Heavy penalties were imposed on white women servants who bore children fathered by Africans. One of the very first white slave privileges was the exemption of white servant women from work in the fields and the requirements through taxes to force Black children to go to work at twelve, while white servant children were excused until they were fourteen. In 1680, Negroes were forbidden to carry arms, defensive or offensive. At the same time, it was made legal to kill a Negro fugitive bond-servant who resisted recapture.

What followed 1680 was a 25 year period of laws that systematically drew the color line as the limit on various economic, social, and political rights. By 1705, “the distinction between white servants and Black slavery were fixed: Black slaves were to be held in life long hereditary slavery and whites for five years, with many rights and protections afforded to them by law.” (p.6)

We can infer from these series of laws that white laborers were not “innately racist” before the material and social distinctions were drawn. This is evidenced by the rulers’ need to impose very harsh penalties against white servants who escaped with Blacks or who bore them children. As historian Philip Bruce observed of this period, many white servants “...had only recently arrived from England, and were therefore comparatively free from... race prejudice.”

The white bond-servants now could achieve freedom after 5 years service: the white women and children, at least, were freed from the most arduous labor. The white bond servant, once freed, had the prospect of the right to vote and to own land (at the Indians’ expense).

These privileges did not come from the kindness of the planters’ hearts nor from some form of racial solidarity. (Scottish coal miners were held in slavery in the same period of time.) Quite simply, the poor whites were needed and used as a force to suppress the main labor force: the African chattel slaves. The poor white men constituted the rank and file of the militias and later (beginning in 1727) the slave patrols. They were given added benefits, such as tax exemptions to do so. By 1705, after Blacks had been stripped of the legal right to self-defense, the white bond servant was given a musket upon completion of servitude. There was such a clear and conscious strategy that by 1698 there were even “deficiency laws” that required the plantation owners to maintain a certain ratio of white to African servants. The English Parliament, in 1717, passed a law making transportation to bond-servitude in the plantation colonies a legal punishment for crime. Another example of this conscious design is revealed in the Council of Trade and Plantation report to the king in 1721 saying that in South Carolina “Black slaves have lately attempted and were very nearly succeeding in a new revolution – and therefore, it may be necessary to propose some new law for encouraging the entertainment of more white servants in the future.”

It would be important to have a concomitant analysis of the role of the theft of Indian land and of the impact of the slave trade itself. Allen’s analysis[ 2 ] of early plantation labor, however, provides an invaluable service.

When Black and white labor were in the same conditions of servitude, there was a good deal of solidarity. A system of white supremacy was consciously constructed in order to 1) extend and intensify exploitation (through chattel slavery) and 2) have shock troops (poor, but now privileged, whites) to suppress slave rebellions. Thus the 1680-1705 period[ 3 ] is a critical benchmark essential to understanding all subsequent North American history. As Allen tells us, “It was the bourgeoisie’s deliberately contrived policy of differentiation between white and Black labor through the system of white skin privileges for white labor that allowed the bourgeoisie to use the poor whites as an instrument of social control over the Black workers.” (p.5)

Allen refers to, but doesn’t fully develop, the impact of white supremacy on the white laborers. His general analysis is that by strengthening capitalist rule it reinforced exploitation of whites too: “...white supremacy (was) the keystone of capitalist rule which left white labor poor, exploited and increasingly powerless with respect to their rulers and exploiters.” But since “the mass of poor whites was alienated from the black proletariat and enlisted as enforcers of bourgeois power.” (p.40), it would be useful to have more analysis of the interplay of these two contradictory roles: exploited/enforcers. In any case, the overall effect was to break the white workers from their proletarian class struggle alongside Blacks and to bind them more tightly to their own ruling class.

B) W.E.B. DuBois Black Reconstruction 1860-1880

DuBois’ work is a classic study, an absolutely essential reading to understanding U.S. history. The book deals not only with the Reconstruction period that followed the Civil War but also with the War itself and the period of slavery preceding it. This review will only focus on the insights about the relationship of white labor to Black people and their struggles. There are, however, two essential theses that DuBois puts forward that should be pointed out here.

  1. The slaves were not freed by Lincoln’s or by the Union’s benevolence. The slaves essentially freed themselves. First they fled the plantations in great numbers, depleting the South of labor for its wartime economy. Secondly, they volunteered to fight with the Union to defeat the slavocracies. The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 came only when Lincoln realized that he needed to use Black troops in order to win the war. (It applied only to states at war with the Union). 200,000 Black troops made the decisive difference in the war.

  1. Reconstruction was not this period of unbridled corruption and of heartless oppression of the noble (white) South that has since been depicted by the propaganda of history. Not only did Reconstruction see the active role of Black people in the government, but also, based on that, it was an era of democratic reform that brought such things as free public education, public works, and advances in women’s rights to the South. At the same time, DuBois shows how Reconstruction was defeated by a systematic campaign of terror, with the complicity of the capitalist North.

DuBois’ analysis of the pre-war south, starts with the basic structures (whose origins Allen described) in place and well developed. The system of slavery demanded a special police force and such a force was made possible and unusually effective by the presence of poor whites. By this time there were “more white people to police the slaves than there were slaves”. (p.12)

Still, there were very important class differentiations within the white population. 7% of the total white Southern population owned 3/4 of the slaves. 70% owned no slaves at all. To DuBois, a basic issue is why the poor whites would agree to police the slaves. Since slavery competed with and thereby undercut the wages of white labor in the North, wouldn’t it seem natural for poor whites in general to oppose slavery?

DuBois presents two main reasons: 1) Poor whites were provided with non-laboring jobs as overseers, slave-drivers, members of slave patrols. (DuBois doesn’t indicate what percentage of whites held jobs like this). 2) There was the “vanity” of feeling associated with the master and the dislike of “negro” toil. The poor white never considered himself a laborer, rather he aspired to himself own slaves. These aspirations were not without some basis. (About 1/4 of the Southern white population were petty bourgeois, small slave-owners).

“The result was that the system was held stable and intact by the poor white... Gradually the whole white South became an armed and commissioned camp to keep Negroes in slavery and to kill the black rebel.” (p.12)

There was another factor that had heavy impact on both poor whites in the South and the Northern working class. In early America, land was free (based on genocide of the Indians) and thus acquiring property was a possibility for nearly every thrifty worker. This access to property not only created a new petty bourgeoisie emerging out of the white working class, it also created an ideology of individual advancement rather than collective class struggle as the answer to exploitation.

The Northern working class tended to oppose the spread of slavery but not oppose slavery itself. If slavery came to the North it would compete with and undercut free labor. If the plantation system spread to the West, it would monopolize the land that white workers aspired to settle as small farmers. But there was very little pro-abolition sentiment in the white labor movement. Northern white labor saw the threat of competition for jobs from the fugitive slaves and the potentially millions behind them if abolition prevailed in the South. There was considerable racism toward freed Blacks in the North.

The most downtrodden sector of white workers – the immigrants – might seem to have had the least stake in white supremacy. But the racism had its strongest expression among these sections because at the bottom layer of white labor, they felt most intensely the competition from Blacks for jobs,[ 4 ] and blamed Blacks for their low wages. During the Civil War, the Irish and other immigrant workers were the base for the “anti-draft” riots in the Northern cities. These were really straight out murderous race riots against the local Black population.

For DuBois, the position of the Northern working class, appears somewhat irrational. Freed slaves did represent, its true, potential competition for jobs. However, DuBois argues, “What they (white workers) failed to comprehend was that the black man enslaved was an even more formidable and fatal competition than the black man free.” (p. 20)