Black Africans first arrived in the lands that would later become the original Thirteen States around 1619, as indentured servants, although the Spanish had brought Black slaves with them to what would later become New Mexico and Arizona as early as 1539. At that time, they were in a similar position to the many poor English people who, in exchange for passage to America, had sold several years of their labour in advance. At first, there was no distinction made between indentured servants of European or African descent. Race-based discrimination as a societal “norm” did not come into being until around the 1680s, in part as a response to Nathaniel Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676. The conception of race simply did not exist in the ancient or medieval world; racial discrimination is a product of capitalist society. Throughout history, the slave-owner or feudal lord looked down on his slaves or serfs as inferiors, but this was due to their social position, to the class relationship between them, not because of the color of their skin. Malcolm X once said: “You can’t have capitalism without racism.” We would add: “You can’t have racism without capitalism.”

The formation of a modern, international racial ideology that defines white as “good” and non-white as “bad” can be traced via historical documentation to the institution of modern chattel slavery (more specifically to the transition from indentured servitude to chattel slavery) and the formative period of capitalism. It developed for very material reasons during the course of the 16th and 17th Centuries. One can even trace the changing use of language in letters written in the colonies, i.e. the racism that came to define the American colonies did not predate the colonies. By racism is meant an international ideology of shared “racial” superiority and inferiority based on one’s skin color. This binary distinction, once developed, spreads like a disease from its American origin, framing the conception of race internationally, from the Caribbean to South Africa.

The geography and climate of the Southern US was suitable for large scale production of certain crops, but only if a vast source of cheap labour was available. However, with so much cheap land available in the western territories, it was difficult to keep indentured servants working after their term of service was up and they were free to move on and establish themselves on their own. Therefore, a system of compulsory labour had to be imposed in order to take advantage of the agricultural potential of the South. With the virtual extermination of the Native Americans, plantation owners turned to the already existing Atlantic slave trade with Africa, where agricultural labour was plentiful and accustomed to the heat and humidity of the South. In other words, slaves were brought to the US for one purpose: to create tremendous amounts of wealth for their owners.

The Atlantic slave trade, formerly dominated by the Arabs, rapidly became a massive and lucrative business, now under the control of the Europeans. In total, an estimated 12 million Black Africans were wrenched from their homelands and shipped to the Americas from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Of these, an estimated 645,000 (5.4 percent) were brought in chains to what is now the US (the overwhelming majority were shipped to Brazil). 

In 1790, shortly after the founding of the United States, there were some 700,000 Black slaves. The importation of new slaves into the US was officially banned in 1808, but illegal smuggling remained a profitable business for decades to come, and the slave population mushroomed, especially after the invention of the cotton gin in 1793. By 1840, the slave population had jumped to nearly 2.5 million, and by 1860, on the eve of the US Civil War, there were nearly four million Black slaves out of a total population of just over 12 million people in the 15 states in which slavery was legal. Another 500,000 free Blacks lived across the US.

Chattel slavery, in which the slave is the actual property of his or her owner, is an inefficient mode of production as compared to the “free” labour of capitalism, where the worker can sell his or her labour power to the highest bidder. Nonetheless, given the low cost of maintaining and keeping slaves alive, chattel slavery was profitable when pursued on a large enough scale. And with a skin color different from that of the majority of the free population, the new class of chattel slaves could be easily identified and kept in bondage, separate from the rest of society.

But in an epoch proclaiming the “Freedom, Equality, and Fraternity” of humankind, some kind of justification had to be found for the revival of slavery, a mode of production and social relationship that had died out in Europe centuries earlier, and was naturally reviled and looked down upon. Therefore, black skin, not slave labour itself, was transformed into the mark of social inferiority. It was thus that the concept of “race” based on skin color first emerged.

That different human populations have different colored skin is evident enough. Nonetheless, the concept of race as a biological category has been entirely discredited by modern genetic science. Modern humans are so similar to each other at the genetic level that it is impossible to determine “race” based only on a person’s DNA. Race, therefore, is a socially constructed relationship based on the needs of capitalist exploitation. In biology, it has ceased to have any relevance. But in society, the concept of race is alive and well, and is used by the ruling class to divide and conquer working people.

Chattel slavery was a vital component in the “primitive accumulation of capital” phase of the US capitalist class. The vast wealth created by millions of slaves enriched not only the Southern plantation owners, but also made possible the industrial revolution in the textile industry in Britain, and later on in the Northern US As Karl Marx explained in a letter to Pavel Annenkov:

“Direct slavery is as much the pivot upon which our present-day industrialism turns as are machinery, credit, etc. Without slavery there would be no cotton, without cotton there would be no modern industry. It is slavery which has given value to the colonies, it is the colonies which have created world trade, and world trade is the necessary condition for large-scale machine industry. Consequently, prior to the slave trade, the colonies sent very few products to the Old World, and did not noticeably change the face of the world. Slavery is therefore an economic category of paramount importance. Without slavery, North America, the most progressive nation, would he transformed into a patriarchal country. Only wipe North America off the map and you will get anarchy, the complete decay of trade and modern civilization. But to do away with slavery would be to wipe America off the map. Being an economic category, slavery has existed in all nations since the beginning of the world. All that modern nations have achieved is to disguise slavery at home and import it openly into the New World.”

Imposition of this system and its defense required increasingly harsh laws and inhuman violence on behalf of the slave owners. But by no means did the slaves, displaced and cut off from all ties with their former lands, families and culture, beaten, tortured, humiliated and treated like animals or worse, accept this without a fight.

Slave Uprisings

For literally hundreds of years, slave uprisings and other forms of resistance including escape to the Northern US, Canada, or Spanish Florida characterised the struggle of Blacks in the US Some 250 slave rebellions or insurrections involving ten or more slaves have been documented. As early as 1663, the first major revolt took place in Gloucester, Virginia.

These rebellions and their aftermath led to ever-increasing ruthlessness on behalf of the slave owners. One such turning point in the institutionalization of the system was the 1739 Stono Rebellion (also known as Cato’s Rebellion) in South Carolina. It was timed by the slaves to take place before the Security Act of 1739, which required all White males to carry weapons on Sundays, took effect. In the course of the rebellion, the main demand of which was “Liberty!”, seven plantations were burnt down, and over 20 Whites were killed, along with 44 slaves. After being put down by a private militia of slave and plantation owners, the surviving slaves were decapitated and their heads were spiked on every mile post between that spot and Charleston. The Stono uprising led to a 10-year moratorium on slave imports through Charleston and the enactment of a harsher slave code, which banned earning money and education for slaves.

Perhaps the most important slave uprising in terms of the impact it had on public consciousness was Nat Turner’s August 1831 uprising in Southampton County, Virginia. Starting with just a handful of trusted friends, Turner assembled over 50 slaves and free Blacks in the course of the 48 hour rebellion, killing some 57 White men, women and children. Although the uprising was swiftly suppressed, Nat was not captured until late October. He was then tried, hanged, flayed, and quartered. Another 55 Blacks were executed on suspicion of involvement in the rebellion, and another 200 who had nothing to do with the uprising were beaten, tortured and murdered by angry White mobs.

These events sharply polarized the South, accelerating the trend toward greater repression and reversing the modest growth of abolitionist feelings within Virginia itself. Fear of a repetition of Turner’s uprising led to even more repressive policies against enslaved and free Blacks, whose freedoms were severely curtailed. Questioning the slave system was forbidden on the grounds that any such discussion might encourage slave revolts.

The Abolitionists

In addition to armed uprisings by slaves themselves, the abolitionist movement also waged a struggle against slavery. Made up primarily of free Blacks and Whites opposed to slavery for a variety of religious, economic, and political reasons, some were for the immediate and unconditional abolition of slavery, whereas others favored a gradual process of emancipation. Some opposed slavery on moral grounds, but believed Blacks were inferior and should be sent back to Africa instead of being emancipated. Others were for full racial equality, and still others feared the growing Black population, believed in White “racial and moral purity” and favored the resettlement of Blacks elsewhere. The idea of resettlement was supported by a wide variety of individuals and organisations for a wide variety of reasons. In 1821–22, the American Colonization Society established the colony of Liberia in Western Africa, and over the next four decades, helped thousands of former slaves and free Blacks to move there from the US.

Some abolitionists in the South simply recognised that slavery was no longer as profitable as it had once been and that its geographic limits had been reached; further expansion of the system westward was simply not viable. Many Northern politicians resented the political domination of the country by the South, and understood that an end to the slave system would break that political stranglehold. Others in the nascent Northern capitalist class simply wanted to end slavery in order to free up millions more workers for capitalist production. Some Northern workers feared the influx of freed slaves would be used to drive down wages and conditions, while others understood that, as Karl Marx explained, “Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the Black it is branded.”

The abolition movement had begun even before the formal founding of the United States. The first pro-abolition article published in the US was written by none other than Thomas Paine, and appeared on March 8, 1775. The first formal abolitionist organisation in the US was the “Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage,” formed in April 1775 in Philadelphia, primarily by Quakers who fervently opposed slavery on religious grounds. After a brief hiatus during the American Revolution (during which, by the way, many Blacks fought on the side of the colonists for liberty against the British empire), it was reactivated in 1784, with Benjamin Franklin as its first president.

Evangelical Protestant abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison and John Brown were as fervent about the Declaration of Independence as they were about the Bible. In 1854, Garrison wrote:

“I am a believer in that portion of the Declaration of American Independence in which it is set forth, as among self-evident truths, “that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Hence, I am an abolitionist. Hence, I cannot but regard oppression in every form—and most of all, that which turns a man into a thing—with indignation and abhorrence … Convince me that one man may rightfully make another man his slave, and I will no longer subscribe to the Declaration of Independence. Convince me that liberty is not the inalienable birthright of every human being, of whatever complexion or clime, and I will give that instrument to the consuming fire. I do not know how to espouse freedom and slavery together.”

Others abolitionists were freed or escaped former slaves such as Frederick Douglass or Harriet Tubman, who fought tirelessly to emancipate their brothers and sisters still in chains. Douglass became perhaps the most renowned abolitionist of all, an inspired and inspiring speaker, in whose eloquent articles and speeches can be found the most passionate condemnation of the slave system. He believed that the United States was the rightful homeland of Blacks living here, even if they had originally been brought by force. As he put it: “All this native land talk is nonsense. The native land of the American Negro is America.” He also argued that the Constitution was an anti-slavery document, and maintained that the Civil War was a war to end slavery, not merely to “preserve the Union.” To this end, he believed that Blacks should be allowed to take up arms and fight for the freedom of all slaves. The Underground Railroad, made famous by Tubman, who personally helped free over 300 people, was an informal network of safe houses and secret routes to help slaves escape North, to Mexico, or overseas.

But it was John Brown’s failed attempt to spark a general slave uprising with his raid on the federal armory at Harpers’ Ferry in 1859 that made war over the question of slavery all but inevitable. He confronted his fate with the following words:

“Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life, for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children, and with the blood of millions in this Slave country, whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments—I say let it be done.”

On the day of his execution he wrote:

“I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.”

The South began to arm itself in earnest, and with the election of Abraham Lincoln of the anti-slavery Republican Party in 1860, the secession of the slave states, beginning with South Carolina, was a foregone conclusion. And with secession, war.

The Civil War

In the decades that followed the founding of the United States, political, economic, and social tensions were leading inexorably toward Civil War. Various compromises had been attempted to maintain a political balance between the North and South, but eventually the fundamentally opposed interests of the two sides had to be resolved by force of arms.

While those that fought the war may have waged it for or against preserving the union, for or against emancipation of the slaves, or for or against federal authority vs. states’ rights, at its root the US Civil War was a war between ascendant Northern capitalism and decaying Southern slavery. By allowing slavery to continue after the Revolutionary War that freed the U. from the British Empire, such a confrontation was eventually inevitable. No lasting co-existence between these two entirely contradictory socio-economic systems was possible. As Abraham Lincoln explained in a famous speech:

“A house divided against itself cannot stand.” I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved—I do not expect the house to fall—but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.”

A revolutionary solution to the contradiction between a system based on slave labour and a system based on free labour was necessary. Despite the terrible bloodshed, destruction, and suffering it caused, this was a progressive war—the “Second American Revolution”—which smashed the slave system and “cleared the decks” for the unfettered development of capitalism.

Capitalism has always been an exploitative and oppressive system. As Karl Marx explained in Capital: 

“The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement, and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of Black-skins, signalized the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production … If money … comes into the world with a congenital blood-stain on one cheek, capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.”

But in the late 19th Century, it still had a historically progressive role to play in developing the productive forces and strengthening the working class, thereby laying the material basis for the socialist transformation of society. The victory of the North was all but a foregone conclusion, despite the inept generals that fought for the Union. The economy of New York state alone was four times larger than that of the entire South. This, in the final analysis, determined the eventual outcome of the war. Karl Marx was a fervent supporter of the war and even wrote Lincoln, congratulating him on his re-election in 1864, urging him to continue the war even more energetically with the cry: “Death to Slavery!”

Hundreds of thousands of black people in both the North and the South participated in and played a key role in the eventual outcome of this long and bloody war. In the South, slaves were forced to build forts, dig trenches, haul artillery and supplies, set up military encampments, cook, and act as servants for Confederate officers and soldiers. Some free Blacks even fought for the Confederacy. But as Southern Blacks increasingly realized what a Union victory would mean for them, as many as 500,000 escaped to the North, many of them eventually fighting in the Union army. Others who deserted to the Northern lines served as scouts, messengers, and spies. Discipline on the plantations was rapidly breaking down as the war began to turn against the South. In response, the slave owners imposed severe restrictions on their slaves, even moving entire plantations to get as far away as possible from contact with Northern forces. The penalty for Blacks captured in Union uniform and for White officers commanding them was death.

In the North, free Blacks attempted to enlist in the Union Army from the beginning of the war. They not only wanted to fight to free their brothers and sisters in the South, but understood that their own freedoms in the North could only be assured and expanded if the Union won. Huge numbers of freemen and former slaves were used as labourers, but due to the racist fear of arming large numbers of Blacks, they were not allowed to actually fight until late in 1862.

The Massachusetts 54th Regiment was the first all-Black unit in the Union Army. Within two months, over 1,000 Black men from across the North had volunteered, and were led by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the son of prominent Boston abolitionists. The 54th’s ranks were decimated and Shaw killed in their heroic attack on Fort Wagner, but their example opened the way for thousands more Black soldiers to fight in the war. By the end of the war, some 220,000 freedmen had joined the Union Army, and 40,000 lost their lives.

For fear of sparking the secession of the slave-owning border states that had not seceded, Lincoln did not immediately free the slaves. But after the Northern victory at Antietam, he issued a preliminary proclamation stating that if the Confederate states did not rejoin the Union by January 1, 1863, he would declare their slaves “forever free.” The slaveocracy did not comply, and the Emancipation Proclamation came into effect. However, since the the proclamation affected only those states in rebellion against the Union, it didn’t actually free any slaves at first. It was the Union troops themselves that enforced the proclamation as they advanced through the South, with Texas the last state to be emancipated in 1865. It was not until the 13th Amendment, enacted on December 18, 1865, that all those held in bondage were formally freed. Freeing the slaves—who were not seen as humans but as pieces of property—was one of the largest expropriations of private property in the history of the world.

The Reconstruction

The surrender of Robert E. Lee at the Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865 marked the end of the Civil War. Less than a week later, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Now the question confronting the victorious North was how to rebuild the South’s ruined infrastructure and reincorporate it into the Union—without slavery as its economic basis. The economic and political aim of the North was to impose capitalist property relations and political domination on the South. In order to do this, they launched a program called the Reconstruction, which was energetically taken up by freed slaves and poor Whites across the South. Such was the scope of the Reconstruction that many refer to it as the “Second Civil War.”

The first phase of this period is known as “Presidential” or “Moderate” Reconstruction, and was initiated by Republican presidents Lincoln and his successor Andrew Johnson. It lasted roughly from the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 to 1866. Their goal was to quickly reunite the country, and they proposed very loose conditions for the former Confederate states’ reentry into the Union. This was opposed by the Radical wing of the Republican Party, who viewed secession as having placed those states in a status similar to newly conquered territories.

While the former slavocracy had to accept the end of the slave system, they would not accept the equality of the races. A hint of what was to come later in the form of “Jim Crow” were the “Black Codes” enacted in every Southern state in the immediate aftermath of the war. These statutes severely restricted the rights, employment opportunities, and mobility of the former slaves, or “freedmen,” who had been emancipated, but were not yet citizens of the United States. The Black Codes were the first attempt by the South to institutionalize racial segregation among “free” men and women. These codes were overturned by the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which gave freedmen full legal equality (except for the right to vote). But they were quickly replaced by an informal code of discrimination and would be reintroduced as “Jim Crow” laws after the collapse of Reconstruction.

Slavery had been overthrown, but the need for cheap, large-scale agricultural labour remained. In order to force millions of ostensibly “free” former slaves back to the plantations, they had to reestablish the social relations of the old slave system in a new form. To achieve this, they adapted the social relations of the obsolete and defeated slave system—racial discrimination, prejudice and segregation—to the needs of capitalist production. Old vagrancy laws and the Black Codes were dusted off, expanded, and given new form. Hundreds of thousands of Blacks were arrested and sentenced for the most minor offenses and put to work on the great chain gangs that built the railroads. Now marked for life as convicts, it became nearly impossible to find decent jobs, housing, or to receive an education. Thus began the era of “Jim Crow” and the legacy of discrimination, exploitation, criminalization and the vicious cycle of poverty that continues for millions of US Blacks to this very day.

Racism, which had been a necessary tool for the Southern slave system of exploitation, became a special and necessary tool of American capitalist exploitation, not only in the South, but throughout the newly re-united nation.

Socialist Revolution USA

Share this article!

Looking for the communists?

We've moved to over to a new website! Head here for communist news, theory, and activity, brought to you by the IMT! Feel free to exit this pop-up to read the MSF archives.



This will close in 0 seconds