By Jonathan Palameda
In Durham, North Carolina on the afternoon of August 14th, 2017, a gathering of activists including elements from the Workers World Party climbed a statue greased by cops to impede climbing, tied a rope around the statue of a confederate soldier, and pulled it to the ground.
The collapse of the crumbled and soon mauled statue was heralded with shouts of elation from the crowd, and its ruin brought with it a litmus test of the growing American resistance against fascism and its historical legacy in the United States. The liberals have been quick to condemn the action, defending their sacred property from damage and quickly conflating fascists and anti-fascists, as is their custom. But as Lenin counselled the Bolsheviks in 1913 in the aftermath of a labor strike in Belgium, “Look less to the Liberals, trust them less, and have more confidence in the independent and whole-hearted struggle of the proletariat.”
An increasing number of working class Americans have declared their intentions to secede from the violent legacy of white supremacy represented by these statues, and communists working in areas with these statues can and should make them a hot point for anti-racist and anti-fascist activism. The history of the Civil War is often misunderstood and misrepresented by white supremacists and liberals alike, and militant activism around destroying and removing these monuments to slavery is essential to, as Abraham Lincoln once hoped at the burial of over 20,000 Americans at Gettysburg, create a “new birth of freedom” in the United States.
The ultra-reactionary nature of the confederacy and the cause it made and lost is unquestionable, yet romantic histories scribed by southern apologists have corrupted the popular narrative of the Civil War to revolve around absurdities and tacit support for white supremacist propaganda. The reconstruction era historiography coming from the south rendered the conflict as a political disagreement rather than a counterrevolution, and underplayed the essential nature of white supremacy to the confederate cause even though the first document of secession, South Carolina’s, mentions slavery 18 times. Lee apologists, from his former aides to Shelby Foote, barely mention that both campaigns into the North, Antietam and Gettysburg, saw the brutal recapture and enslavement of free blacks. Lee also repeatedly refused prisoner exchanges involving black troops, and oversaw the brutal slaughter of surrendering black troops at the Battle of the Crater. This apologism and total rewriting of history is what led to the the construction of these statues as emblems of the a new white ruling class in the south under Jim Crow. White supremacy was continuous with the new south, because the south had seceded not for its right to brutalize millions of people, but to protect its culture and freedoms—a familiar rhetoric for contemporary activists.
The reactionaries are not the only ones willing to sweep the brutal racist nature of the Confederate state under the historical rug. Liberals, following post-Lincoln reconstructionist republicans, often render the conflict as a moment of house-splitting passion in an otherwise moderate and compromise-driven national history. The reunification is given more prominence than the militant struggle for freedom waged by freed blacks and immigrant communities. Added to this moderate appraisal of history is the nearly ubiquitous equation of damage to property and damage to lives and bodies at the heart of American liberalism; a crime against property is greater and more serious to the liberals than the crime against humanity represented by the statues. This equation is made easier for the liberals because of their idealistic vision of history. The bronze and stone statues do not live and breath in the present as symbols of white supremacy, but are instead distant reminders of a dead history. Liberalism, a faith in reform, must render systemic white supremacy as a thing in the past. As materialists, we know better: until we actively excise the rot of white supremacy that actively takes lives in the present, these statutes will only continue to drive and normalize white supremacist mythos.
The Civil War must also represent not a mere bourgeois conquest of the feudal economic mode as Howard Zinn suggested. Inside this class struggle was a popular movement of newly liberated slaves and abolitionists against racism that at times escaped the bounds defined by those members of the bourgeoisie leading it. Historian Barbara Fields argued (Slaves No More) that while the war began for union and economic conquest, it developed a new, revolutionary character after the Battle of Antietam and the subsequent Emancipation Proclamation. By the end of the war, 180,000 black troops, nearly 20% of the Army of the Potomac, were serving in frontline positions. Black troops were the first to enter Richmond. Confederate troops increasingly committed war crimes against black troops at Petersburg and Fort Pillow, the latter committed by Nathan Bedford Forrest, eulogized by a park and statue in Memphis.
Liberated slaves wrote to their former masters, threatening violent reprisals for their atrocities. Of course, Marxists know this revolutionary activity was betrayed and dissolved by the bourgeois state during Reconstruction as all emergent anti-capitalist movements were in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, but these trends are important for the contemporary struggle against the fascist legacy of the Confederacy. This is our legacy as militant anti-racist activists, and we cannot let it escape the popular narrative of the Civil War and American history at large. There is nothing new or unique about anti-racist action against the legacy of the Confederacy, activists have only picked up the banner in light of a resurgent American fascism that seeks to reclaim the legacy of the Confederacy written by the same people who enshrined Jim Crow.
Just as the Civil War sought to resolve the contradictions of “all men are created equal” and the 3/5ths Compromise, modern activists must seek to resolve the contradiction of empowered black liberation movements that blazed their way through plantations and cities alike and the toleration and creation of Jim Crow—and they must seek to do it on and around the police-greased statues of reactionaries.
The American Party of Labor has taken a strong stand against the legacy of white supremacy in the United States and joined movements for the removal of Confederate statues in Memphis, Texas, and Florida. This is not merely a historical concern, but an intensification of the struggle against reactionary politics and liberal idealism. To remove and destroy these statues is not to destroy history or mere property, but to rectify a century and a half of white supremacist apologism and once and for all complete that wish sung by millions of Union troops in their Battle Cry of Freedom: “Down with the traitor, up with the star!”