Notebooks for Making a Marxism with American Characteristics
How good history makes for better strategy and tactics
By Carl Davidson
One divides into two—This classic phrase for dialectics is a good way to begin this project, with its condensed shorthand for a critical method for studying history, political strategy, and nearly everything else. So it is with ‘USAmerica’s’ long history, from the earliest days to the present. Our country has always contained ‘Two Americas’ within its ever-changing boundaries, so I’ll emphasize this and other internal contradictions unfolding in our complex history. First, I’ll start by dividing history from above and history from below. But other methods will be used as well. There are many rich lessons to learn from our revolutionary forebears. Studying other parts of the world is always beneficial, but importing dogmatic models or heroic leaders from abroad is unnecessary.
The somewhat clunky ‘USAmerica’ is occasionally used to indicate that ‘our America’ is one of many ‘Americas’ in this hemisphere. But I won’t always use the term since the point is made upfront. Sometimes, I’ll use ‘Turtle Island,’ the name many Native peoples gave to North America. More important, I use dialectical divisions in subdividing broader populations into a class struggle of what I’ll call the ‘Four Es’–the Exterminated, the Expropriated, the Exploited, and the Enclosed. These are separated and combined in various ways in their battles and other tensions with the distinct upper and overlapping master classes of all of the ‘E’s.’
As the label suggests, the Exterminated are all the Native peoples of ‘Turtle Island,’ the name many of them gave to our now-shared North American continent. After the first contacts, no one knows for sure how many were wiped out by European diseases or by slaughter in warfare—a conservative estimate is some 50 million. Apart from direct killings, many mass killings and deaths were indirect, such as trading infected blankets or from the near extermination of the Buffalo herds, a food source for many tribes. A smaller proportion was worked to death as enslaved workers, either on plantations, in the mines, or at sea. The Apachchee in the Southeast all but disappeared from disease. In New France and elsewhere, the settler-colonialists profited from as many as they could in the fur trade, and for those they could not, they killed them or left them to perish by other means.
Two things are certain: the Native peoples never ceased to resist, they were hegemonic in the homelands for longer than we are told, and those remaining today, around five million in over 500 tribes, are due a considerable degree of self-determination and reparations to enable their future generations to thrive.
The Expropriated are those captured in Africa, taken from their homes, sold to masters of slave ships, and brought here in chains, at least those who survived the grim Middle Passage, and their latter offspring. By 1705 in Virginia, nearly all African bondservants and their children had been redefined as the permanently enslaved. This meant they produced wealth for their masters ‘in perpetuity,’ save for a relative few who established themselves as ‘free’ workers, small producers, or business owners. As chattel-bond labor, they were exploited for profit in world markets in cotton and other commodities, and they were subjected to torture, abuse, rape, and indignity in the process. As enslaved people, they frequently rebelled or escaped to found ‘maroon’ territories with degrees of self-government beyond the reach of their enslavers. Even after emancipation, the Freedpeople suffered a multi-tiered labor market and social exclusion, where their lower tier was segregated by both custom and terror. On the bottom, they resisted and had to be forcefully kept there.
The Exploited were those who came or were brought here, mainly from Europe, to work as indentured servants, only to become ‘free labor’ after five, seven, or twelve-year terms. At least half perished from disease, warfare, or overwork before their terms of indenture ended. So in these years the lives of the simply exploited, in many circumstances, were not that far removed from the enslaved. Once their terms of indenture were up, they were supposed to get a final payment and a bit of land to work, although many never did. They might be kidnapped and impressed as seamen. Or if they could move to a town, they could contract themselves again as an apprentice or journeyman to a master artisan. Many would not see anything close to a decent living as a wage worker or artisan until their contracts were up. European-American workers in East Coast cities were among the first to form the hundreds of small unions that emerged in the antebellum era. Unfortunately, their unions often excluded free Black workers. They likewise held conflicting views on Native peoples and slavery, both North and South of the Mason-Dixon line.
The Enclosed, finally, are all those peoples who have had the U.S. draw its borders around their countries, territories and regions, whether for shorter or longer terms. Think of Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Guam, American Samoa, and Hawaii, and well as the remaining Native peoples on their ‘reservations.’
Varieties of Class Struggle
All four of the ‘Four E’s. ’ nonetheless, had much in common with each other in waging a class struggle against their various masters. In certain conditions, all four categories were worked and exploited together, such as those who made up the ‘motley crews’ of ships at sea or Cortez’s use of enslaved Natives, Blacks, and even Native free wage labor to work his silver mines in what is now Mexico. As seamen, the ‘motley crews’ often did combine to improve their lot and sometimes even seized the ‘floating factories’ for themselves, striking out as pirates. In New Sweden, settlers tried a co-op version of socialism. Quakers, Native Peoples, and escaped slaves intermarried and formed a democratic ‘Albemarle republic’ for a few decades in North Carolina. Enslaved and free African workers, European and European-American workers intermingled in New Netherland’s New Amsterdam, now New York City. In large part elsewhere, however, their lives were separate—African slaves labored on isolated plantations, Native peoples worked in the fur trade or remote mines, and the formerly indentured, given a new identity as ‘white,’ made their way to the workshops in the towns or tried to get a bit of land on ‘the frontier,’ the regions bordering Native lands or lands held by Spain or France.
The Four E’s often found themselves in contradiction—poor Europeans working as overseers or patrollers for the enslavers on their plantations or as ‘frontier ‘scouts’ driving Native peoples from their lands. Or the colonized people of Puerto Rico or Guam. Native peoples, for their part, often ‘adopted’ runaway or captured Africans (and Europeans) into their tribes and families. But they also held them as enslaved people for themselves or as war booty for sale or trade to others. For 200 years or so after the ‘first encounters,’ the European settlements were only a string of small coastal or river towns, often fortified. But they subsisted in a vast sea of indigenous hegemonies, large and small. One Native people, the Comanche, held off the Europeans for more than 150 years.
After the Civil War and Reconstruction, expanding capitalists often employed African Americans as strikebreakers against European-American labor trying to organize or waging strikes. In these cases, some of the latter ‘white’ workers got a ‘repayment’ of defeat for excluding Blacks from their unions. A few times, the reverse happened, where white workers were hired as strikebreakers against Black workers. The racialized divisions and identities held them all down, whatever status or privileges were imposed. Next Page