Not long after the guns fell silent on the battlefields of the Civil War, an experiment in interracial democracy and inequality in the states of the Confederacy began. But this experiment, as noble, just, and necessary as it was, lasted less than a decade before it was savagely routed and uprooted by a counterrevolution. At the head of this nasty about face was, no surprise, the former slave owners and a hardscrabble gang of other white allies.
Employing the lethality of the gun, the terror of the hangman’s noose, the weapon of systematic political disenfranchisement, and the language and fog of a racist counter narrative, this motley collection of Southern Redeemers with the complicity of the federal government crushed Reconstruction and then established a regime of racial servitude and oppression — Jim Crow — in the South. While this regime didn’t restore slavery, it surely wasn’t a regime of “free wage” labor either in which the buyer of labor confronts the seller on a level playing field and political rights are enjoyed by all.
Instead, what took root was a coercive and racialized mode of accumulation, exploitation, and governance that rested on tenant sharecropping, convict labor, hyper segregation, the systematic denial of political rights, and state sanctioned and extra legal violence. In other words, while the mode of extraction of labor power and method of rule were different, it wasn’t that different. The former slaves were still the “hewers of wood and drawers of water,” mercilessly exploited, and their freedom and autonomy were narrowly circumscribed. It was this lurch backward, this historical retrogression from the achievements and promise of Reconstruction that provoked W.E.B. Dubois to write, “. . . the slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.”
But not willingly, not without a fight. They resisted this racist, anti-working class, and anti-democratic counterrevolution, notwithstanding the imbalance of power and the widespread use of terror against them. So much so that it took more than two decades to fully institutionalize this new system of racial oppression. Once institutionalized, however, it proved durable and only began to wobble and then fracture under the impact of changes wrought by World War II and the ascension of U.S. to the apex of the post WWII global order.
But these changes by themselves, of course, were not enough to bring down this pernicious racial order. In fact, this regime would have persisted for much longer than it did were it not for the courageous intervention of the descendants of former slaves.
All of which goes to prove that regimes of exploitation and oppression don’t voluntarily exit the stage of politics on their own initiative, but rather require a concerted push from a determined coalition of people and classes, equipped with able leaders, a sound strategy, flexible tactics, and a message and vision of democratic, progressive, and egalitarian change. That lesson still resonates today, as we face our own version of a white nationalist, anti-democratic authoritarian counterrevolution. But this time on a national scale and orchestrated by Trump and his Republican allies, all of whom are every bit as racist, anti-democratic, and anti-egalitarian as their distant forebears in the South.
But our good luck is that we fight on ground that is far more favorable than that on which the newly freed slaves found themselves a hundred and fifty years ago. But this only matters if the diverse, cross class coalition opposing Trump and Trumpism utilizes this “ground” to enlist more and more people in this existential struggle.
Front and center at this moment is the struggle to impeach Trump for high crimes and misdemeanors. Even if Trump in the end isn’t impeached, thanks to the Republican majority in the Senate, his star can be considerably weakened in the course of this titanic clash. And this, in turn, will give Democrats and the larger anti-Trump coalition a leg up in their struggle to decisively beat back Trump, the extreme right, and their authoritarian counterrevolution at the ballot box.