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How America Bought and Sold Racism, and Why It Still Matters

jimcrow_alligatoreatsboy

By Lisa Hix
Collectors Weekly
November 10th, 2015

Today, very few white Americans openly celebrate the horrors of black enslavement—most refuse to recognize the brutal nature of the institution or actively seek to distance themselves from it. “The modern American sees slavery as a regrettable period when blacks worked without wages,” writes Dr. David Pilgrim, the Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion and a sociology professor at Ferris State University and the author of Understanding Jim Crow: Using Racist Memorabilia to Teach Tolerance and Promote Social Justice, who has spent his life studying the artifacts that have perpetuated racist stereotypes.

“If you’re trying to convince the nation that black people are not equal, then you come up with ideas like this: Black people don’t feel pain the same way white people do.”

The urge to forget this stain on our nation’s history is everywhere. In Texas, McGraw-Hill recently distributed a high-school geography textbook that refers to American slaves as immigrant workers. At Southern plantation museums that romanticize the idea of genteel antebellum culture, the bleak and violent reality of enslaved plantation life is whitewashed and glossed over. Discussions about how slavery led to modern-day racism are often met with white defensiveness. How many times have black people heard this line? “Slavery happened a long time ago. You need to get over it.”

The truth is when President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863, the economic subjugation of African Americans, and the terrorism used to maintain it, did not come to a grinding halt. The Jim Crow racial caste system that emerged 12 years after the Civil War ended in 1865 was just as violent and oppressive as slavery—and it lasted nearly a century. Up through Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968, black people across the country, in Northern states as well as Southern ones, were routinely humiliated, menaced, tortured and beaten to death, and blocked from participating in business and public life. Thanks to smartphone and social-media technology, we’re seeing how such violence continues in 2015, 50 years after the height of the Civil Rights Movement.


















Top: Graphic images of black children being eaten by alligators were popular souvenir postcards,
even in the 1930s. Above: This 1960s license plate mocked Lyndon B. Johnson’s
presidential campaign slogan, “All the Way With L.B.J.” (Images from Understanding Jim Crow)

Just last month, Ben Fields, a white sheriff’s deputy in Columbia, South Carolina, responded to an uncooperative African American schoolgirl by putting her in a chokehold, dragging her out of her school desk, and throwing her body across the room. In June, Eric Casebolt, a white police officer in McKinney, Texas, was recorded grabbing Dajerria Becton, a seated 15-year-old black girl in a bikini, turning her over, and pinning her down, even though she was not involved in the incident at hand. Nearly a year ago, Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old black boy, was shot and killed by police in Cleveland, Ohio, for carrying a toy gun, and when his 14-year-old sister ran to him, police wrestled her to the ground and handcuffed her. In 2013, a Sanford, Florida, neighborhood watch crime captain George Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder, for fatally shooting Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old black boy walking home from the store.

To understand why black kids like these are subjected to so much hostility and abuse, you have to look at the toxic beliefs white Americans embraced during slavery and throughout the Jim Crow era, which still pollute our culture today. These include the absurd notions that black people don’t feel pain, that without strict control black people are inclined to violence, and that black children are not innocents, but wild, unruly animals that need to be tamed. The ugly history of such ideas are documented in explicit detail at the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, located at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan, a place Dr. David Pilgrim, the museum founder, sometimes refers to as a “Black Holocaust museum.” The museum is featured in Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s PBS documentary series, “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross.”

To justify the exclusion of and violence toward African Americans after the Civil War, pop culture—encompassing everything from mass media and entertainment to product advertising and tchotchkes—churned out objects, images, songs, and stories designed to reinforce widespread beliefs about white supremacy and black inferiority. Pilgrim has pulled together some 12,000 examples of such so-called “black memorabilia,” and he clearly explains the meaning and purpose behind them—both at the museum and in his new book, Understanding Jim Crow, published by the nonprofit wing of PM Press, Friends of PM, which funded the book through a Kickstarter campaign this fall.

A

A “Running Nigger Target,” with bullet holes, from the 1960s. (From Understanding Jim Crow)

America has a long history of casual brutality toward African Americans, and Understanding Jim Crow puts the current violence into context. It explains, for example, how in the late 19th century, nearly every city had a carnival with a game known as “African Dodger” or “Hit the Coon,” in which white revelers paid to throw baseballs, or rocks, at a black man’s head—not a fake wooden head, but an actual person sticking his head through a painted canvas in the booth. Even children were desensitized through toys, like the McLoughlin Brothers’ board game Chopped Up Niggers.

“If you’re trying to convince yourself, the nation, and black people themselves that black people are not equal, then you come up with ideas like this: Black people don’t feel pain the same way white people do, black people deserve to be hit, it’s fun to hit black people,” Pilgrim tells me.

African Dodger wasn’t even the worst of it. The public lynching of black people was also a popular, savage spectacle: According to the book, scholars have recorded 3,440 public lynchings of black men and women on American soil between 1882 and 1968, which doesn’t account for undocumented lynchings or those that happened under the cover of night. The descriptions of these lynchings are shockingly, upsettingly gruesome. How horrific did they get? A mob of hundreds of white people would participate in slowly torturing the victims, first humiliating and mutilating them, then beating them until they were disfigured, and finally killing them.

This piece is an undated “book” of dart targets. (From Understanding Jim Crow)

“In 1930s Florida, Claude Neal was accused of sexually assaulting a white woman,” Pilgrim tells me. “He probably didn’t. But either way, we don’t know because he never got a trial. A mob took him from jail, brutally beat him, and eventually hanged him and drug his dead body through town. During the beating, someone from the crowd—and we’re talking about hundreds and hundreds of people—cut off his genitalia and then made him eat it and say he liked it. This happened in the light of day. That brutality seems almost incomprehensible to our brains today, but it happened thousands of times all over this nation.”

This story and others in the book are painful to read, but Pilgrim thinks it’s important that Americans examine the evidence our nation’s racist history, even if it hurts. In the museum, he’s gathered appalling souvenir postcards of lynchings and “whites only” segregation signs alongside depictions of black people as docile, hapless buffoons or inherently violent or sexually aggressive subhuman creatures.

Stock caricatures such as Mammy, Uncle Tom, Sambo, pickaninny children, coon, Jezebel, Sapphire, and the black brute were employed to spread these messages to millions of people. Companies mass-produced these images in every form—including postcards, cleaning products, toys and games, ceramic figurines, ashtrays, cast-iron banks, children’s books, dinnerware, songbooks, tea towels, cookie jars, matchbooks, magazines, movies, gag gifts, salt-and-pepper shakers, planters, fishing lures, trade cards, ads, records, and tobacco tins. If you lived during the Jim Crow era, you’d encounter such caricatures everywhere, in your newspaper, on restaurant walls, on the shelves at stores, and at the cinema or live theater.

Children's target games with African American caricatures taught kids it was fun to hurt black people. (From

Children’s target games with African American caricatures taught kids it was fun to hurt black people. (From Understanding Jim Crow)

“If you believed that black men were Sambos, childlike buffoons, for example, then why would they be allowed to vote?” Pilgrim says. “Why would they be allowed to hold office, serve on a jury, or attend public schools with whites? If black men were brutes who were a threat to white women, why would they be allowed to share beaches, public-school classes, or taxicabs? If black women were Mammies whose best roles in life were serving white families, why would they be allowed in other occupations when the society needed them for that? So the caricatures, and the stereotypes which accompanied them, became rationalizations for keeping blacks at the bottom of the racial hierarchy. Perpetuating these caricatures was a way to make sure you didn’t have to compete against black people economically. In short, it was a way of sustaining white supremacy.

“Some people are surprised when they see two dozen objects on President Obama, where he’s portrayed as a monkey, a Tom, a coon, or a Sambo. If you don’t know history, then you don’t know what those things are.”

“At the Jim Crow Museum, our goal is not to make some people look right and some people look wrong, or make some people feel good and some people feel bad,” he continues. “It’s simply just to deal with what was, and what is. If you are in higher education, you have to believe in dialogue. We do have people come in who lack a solid knowledge about history. But the museum is presented in a very academically sound way, so we can then have those discussions about, for example, what was blackface entertainment, how did immigration impact blackface entertainment, and how did Jim Crow become a synonym for the ways of acting, thinking, and feeling throughout the whole nation. Obviously, because it’s race, it’s sometimes hard for people to separate the emotional pieces, but there’s a way you can study race intelligently, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Pilgrim grew up in Mobile, Alabama, at the tail end of the Jim Crow era. He was 5 when the African-American 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was bombed, killing four schoolgirls. He was 7 years old in March 1965, when Martin Luther King, Jr., and other Civil Rights activists marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, as a protest against local laws that prevented African Americans from voting. Newspaper photographers and television cameramen captured state troopers and sheriff’s possemen attacking the protesters, causing a national uproar that prompted President Lyndon B. Johnson to push Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act in August. Pilgrim was 10 years old when King was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968.

























Dr. David Pilgrim with some of the items he’s collected. (From Understanding Jim Crow)

Thanks to the Brown vs. Board of Education desegregation ruling of 1954, “most of the segregation signs were taken down in the 1950s, but a few lasted into the ’60s,” he says. “I mostly ran across the residue of Jim Crow, especially in the practices. My elementary school was all black; my high school was all black. It was still two worlds—a white world and a black world. My ancestry is mixed, so I grew up thinking about race a lot.”

Pilgrim first encountered a piece of so-called “black memorabilia” at flea market in Mobile when he was a little kid. “I remember purchasing a ceramic Mammy salt-and-pepper shaker, and I broke it in front of the seller,” he recalls. “I would like to think it was an act of philosophical integrity, but in reality, I probably just hated the thing, if you can hate an object.”

But Pilgrim, who sometimes refers to himself as a “garbage collector,” became fascinated with these grotesque racial caricatures, and by the time he was a teenager, he had accumulated a small collection of them. When he attended Jarvis Christian College in the late 1970s, a historically black college near Hawkins, Texas, he got more serious about his collection, buying what he could afford on a tight budget—the most brutally racist objects were usually prohibitively expensive. At the same time, his studies at Jarvis delved into the history of black activism, from the well-known heroes like Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Booker T. Washington, and W.E.B. Du Bois, to the sharecroppers and domestic workers who put their lives on the line to fight segregation.























David Pilgrim’s first piece of black memorabilia was a Mammy figure like one of these. He
destroyed it in front of the seller. (From Understanding Jim Crow)

“At Jarvis, we talked a lot about the Jim Crow period,” he says. “We talked about this new America that was being created, that we were transitioning to, after the Civil Rights Movement. So my collection became less of a personal fascination and more of a question of ‘How does this relate to all the discussions that I’m having about race?’ During that period, it also became really functional because I started giving presentations on race in America, where I would use the objects that I collected as visual aids.”

Pilgrim went on to study sociology at Ohio State University’s graduate school. There, Pilgrim learned that racist memorabilia was not just a Southern phenomenon. “Some of the more significant pieces in my collection were actually collected in the North,” Pilgrim says. “It’s hard sometimes to know where a piece originated. At summer flea markets and antiques shows in the North, some of the dealers are from the South or from border states. But it is also the case that every place I’ve gone, these objects have also been manufactured, not just sold and distributed. I have pieces that originated in every state, including New York and Michigan, and outside the country.”

While in grad school, Pilgrim would peruse antiques shows and purchase low-dollar items like a postcard depicting a black man being devoured by an alligator, or a matchbook with a Sambo-type caricature with a huge penis. In Understanding Jim Crow, he writes, “My years at Ohio State were, I realize now, filled with much anger. I suppose every sane black person must be angry—for a while.”























This 1920s “Alligator Bait” postcard is a variant of a 1896 print. (From Understanding Jim
Crow
)

In 1990, Pilgrim joined the sociology faculty at Ferris State in Big Rapids, Michigan, and a year later, he sought out an elderly black woman who was a small-town antiques store owner rumored to have a huge private collection of black memorabilia. “If I live to be a hundred, I will never forget the feeling that I had when I saw her collection; it was sadness, a thick, cold sadness,” he writes. “There were hundreds, maybe thousands of objects, side-by-side, on shelves that reached to the ceiling. … Every conceivable distortion of black people, our people, was on display. It was a chamber of horrors.” Right there, Pilgrim resolved to start a museum.

“What I hoped by building this museum was that we could talk about race, even the more painful things, in ways that are intelligent. That is what a mature nation does.”

The woman explained to Pilgrim that in the 1960s and ’70s, chagrined white people would give her these objects, as they wanted to distance themselves from such blatant racism after the Civil Rights Movement. Other whites, wracked by liberal guilt, destroyed their Mammy cookie jars and Uncle Tom ashtrays. But in the mid-1980s, publishers like Schiffer and Collectors Books released price guides devoted exclusively to “black collectibles,” which helped establish the current market for racist antiques. (The promotional text for the 2008 edition of Jan Lindenberger’s Black Memorabilia for the Kitchen, first published in 1992, reads, “An avid group of loyal collectors, spanning generations and races, can’t get enough of these rare and quirky antiques.”) Black celebrities including Oprah Winfrey, Spike Lee, Whoopi Goldberg, and Anita Pointer of the Pointer Sisters started collecting these items for much the same reason Pilgrim did.

“Before the ’80s, you could buy a lot of these objects very inexpensively,” Pilgrim tells me. “The new collectors books artificially increased the market, both the demand and the prices that people were asking. In just a couple of years, things that I had been buying for a nickel and a dime were selling for tens of dollars, and in some cases, hundreds of dollars.”



A collection of coon- and Tom-type objects in the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia. (From Understanding Jim Crow)

The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia became a reality in 1996, after Pilgrim donated his full collection to his employer, Ferris State University, with the stipulation the items would be displayed and preserved. “Most collectors are soothed by their collections, but I hated mine and was relieved to get it out of my home,” Pilgrims writes in Understanding Jim Crow. “I had small children. They would wander to the basement and look at ‘daddy’s dolls’—two mannequins dressed in full Ku Klux Klan regalia. They played with the racist target games. One of them, I do not know which, broke a ‘Tom’ cookie jar. I was angry for two days. The irony is not lost to me.”

In Understanding Jim Crow, Pilgrim writes that he reached new heights of outrage in the late 1990s, when he read The Turner Diaries, a piece of violent white-nationalist propaganda written in 1978 by William L. Pierce, the founder of National Alliance. He had a difficult time containing his feelings while giving a museum tour to a group of students. To his surprise, afterward, a middle-aged white man who had been in the group said to him, without prompting, “I am sorry, Mr. Pilgrim. Please forgive me.”

“He had not created the racist objects in the room, but he had benefited from living in a society where blacks were oppressed,” Pilgrim writes. “Racial healing follows sincere contrition. I never realized how much I needed to hear some white person, any sincere white person, say, ‘I am sorry, forgive me.’ His words took the steam out of my anger.”






















Dr. David Pilgrim gives a talk to visitors at the Jim Crow Museum. Behind the crowd is part
of Jon McDonald’s 2012 mural “Cloud of Witnesses,” which honors some of the people who
were killed in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. (From the Jim Crow Museum Facebook
page
)

Of course, no amount of apologizing can undo the past, but Pilgrim believes that looking at the horrible truth and having an open, thoughtful conversation about race could go a long way toward healing this nation.

“I had a chance to talk to Naomi Tutu—who is a daughter of Desmond Tutu, the chairman of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” a court-like government organization established in 1996 to address the horrific crimes of the Apartheid, Pilgrim says. “I’m starting to hear more and more Americans, especially grassroots activists, saying that what we need to do as a country is stop for a minute, look at some of the atrocities committed here, and own up to them.”

In order to own up to one’s history, though, one needs to know it. And a big gap in modern knowledge starts with where the name of America’s punishing post-Civil War hierarchy comes from. The term “Jim Crow” originated an 1828 comedy sketch created by Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice, a white actor who performed little skits between play acts at the Park Theater in New York decades before for the Civil War. Considered the “father of blackface,” Rice darkened his skin with burnt cork, dressed in rags, and performed a song-and-dance routine in exaggerated black vernacular. Legend has it Rice encountered an impoverished black stablehand in the city who inspired the character and his namesake tune. A smash hit, Rice’s Jim Crow became his signature character and then a full-blown one-man show, which took him all over the country in 1832. Comically incompetent, constantly smiling, and childlike, Jim Crow evolved into a caricature similar to the one known as “Sambo.”

Famous white blackface performer Bert Williams posed for Raphael Tuck & Sons'

Famous white blackface performer Bert Williams posed for Raphael Tuck & Sons’ “Coon Studies” postcard series, produced in 1904. (From Understanding Jim Crow)

Thanks to Rice’s success, other white burlesque actors, clowns, and comedians began corking their faces and adopting his Jim Crow character. Others came up with more stock blackface characters such as Zip Coon and Jim Dandy, both of which mocked well-dressed free blacks for “putting on airs.” Chronically lazy and given to malapropisms, these onstage “coons”—named after raccoons—tried, and failed, to prove their intelligence.

“In most instances, the black facilities were grossly inferior—generally older, less well-kept. In other cases, there were no black facilities.”

In 1843, four white actor-musicians with experience as blackface circus clowns came together and created a feature-length show of blackface entertainment, incorporating songs, dances, and comedic riffs using a supposed slave dialect. Calling themselves the Virginia Minstrels, they took their popular act all over the United States, launching the theatre genre known as the minstrel show. In 1845, Christy’s Minstrels took the concept further and developed the standard minstrel-show format—which was the first unique art form to originate in the United States.

In 1848, William Henry Lane became the first African American minstrel performer, and in the 1850s, all-black minstrel shows, featuring at least a few performers who corked their faces, became a curiosity for white theatergoers. At that point, playing up these caricatures was the only way for black actors to get a job in theater, and they were paid a fraction of what the white actors made. But after the Civil War, some sly black minstrels were able to exploit the format to subtly mock white people at their shows, which were heavily attended by newly freed blacks but rejected by the black intellectual class.

This Minnesota

This Minnesota “High School Minstrel Book” was published in 1938. (From Understanding Jim Crow)

“Even when enslavement ended in the U.S., the minstrel shows did not end,” Pilgrim says. “The professional shows lasted another two decades, but amateur shows lasted even until the 1900s.”

After the Civil War ended in 1865, Republicans in Congress pushed for what became known as Radical Reconstruction in the 11 Southern states that had seceded from the Union. Following Emancipation, these states had passed “Black Codes” restricting the freedom of former slaves to move through public places, conduct business, and own land and guns. New “vagrancy” laws allowed police to arrest freed people for the smallest of arbitrary infractions and then force them to do free labor under the “convict-lease system,” the forerunner to the current penal system.

“Poor blacks were rounded up and placed in prisons so that they could be worked for free,” Pilgrim says. “Some of them were locked up in these places for 20 or 30 years. But unless you put that history in a movie, most Americans won’t know it occurred.”


























A photo from a small-town minstrel show in 1947. (From Understanding Jim Crow)

Other former slaves—who never got paid for their pre-war labor—became indebted sharecroppers at the plantations that had formerly enslaved them. The federal government’s Freedmen’s Bureau, which often negotiated these sharecropping contracts, also attempted to round up so-called black “vagrants” and put them to work, either through the prison system or through sharecropping. Many white people in the South irrationally feared that, without labor to keep them busy, black people would “regress” into dangerous savages, running rampant in the streets, overcome by lust for sex and blood.

“If you believed that black men were Sambos, childlike buffoons, then why would they be allowed to vote?”

Gaining more power in Congress in 1867, Radical Republicans put former Confederate states under the control of the U.S. Army. They imposed punishments on former Confederate leaders—even removing most Southern representation from Congress—protected the rights of newly freed black men, and sought to squelch resistance from the Ku Klux Klan and other vigilante groups. Passing the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, the Republicans granted black men citizenship and the rights to vote and hold political office under the Constitution. The Reconstruction state legislatures, made up of blacks and whites, created the earliest public school systems in the South and many charities. U.S. president Ulysses S. Grant, who was in office 1869-1877, promoted Radical Reconstruction and aggressively employed the military to protect African Americans in the South.

But when less-radical Republican Rutherford B. Hayes took office in 1877, in the name of reuniting the country, he abandoned Reconstruction, pardoning Confederate leaders and pulling the U.S. Army out of the Southern states—which promptly passed a series of anti-black laws, like poll taxes, that became known as “Jim Crow” laws. In the 1890s, Southern states, under Democrat control once again, passed new constitutions that made it even more difficult for black men to vote.

A sinister 1910 postcard. (From

A sinister 1910 postcard. (From Understanding Jim Crow)

“If ever you had a Hall of Shame, Rutherford B. Hayes would be in it,” Pilgrim says. “But the truth of the matter is if you look at the period right after the Civil War, the period of Reconstruction, there were a lot of whites who were tired of the whole anti-slavery piece. Quite frankly, a lot of the abolitionists would be racists by today’s standards. They also thought blacks were inferior intellectually and morally. So I think the end of Reconstruction wasn’t just because of Rutherford B. Hayes. The North was tired of dealing with it. I think many white people in North recognized that they, too, had benefited from slavery. The nation, as a whole, turned its back on black people.

“After Reconstruction ended in 1877, the next two decades were a downward spiral,” he continues. “You had all the Southern states rewriting their constitutions to return to segregation. You had the creation of a number white vigilante and racist groups. Lynchings became a tool to keep blacks in line. A historian named Rayford Logan called the time between 1897 and 1906 ‘the nadir of American race relations.’ It was absolutely the worst for black people, because it was almost as if their entire nation hated them.”

A new kind of variety show known as vaudeville emerged 1881. More tame than the bawdy burlesque that came before, vaudeville was designed to appeal to the tastes of the middle class. Each show would include at least one song-and-dance blackface routine known as a “coon song.” While minstrels largely depicted black men as jolly, dim-witted fools, coon songs portrayed them as more sinister characters, lazy, razor-wielding petty criminals, given to drinking and fighting. Thanks to the explosion of the sheet-music industry, white Victorians could purchase copies of their favorite coon songs to play at home, which became a trendy thing to have on the piano stand.

The sheet music for a 1901 song that helped establish the derogatory term

The sheet music for a 1901 song that helped establish the derogatory term “coon” in the American vocabulary. (From Understanding Jim Crow)

“This form of entertainment did as much to defame black people as the minstrel shows had,” Pilgrim says. “At first, coon songs, like with the minstrel performances, were done by whites only, but later by blacks, too. These songs were all about black people as coons who stole chickens and watermelons, fought one another constantly, carried razor blades, and got drunk all day—pretty much every nasty stereotype that you can think of. By the 1900s, those songs weren’t just a national fad; they were shaping future conceptions of black people.”

The second Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act of 1890 was the first federal law that legitimized segregation, allowing states to build separate but equitable educational facilities for blacks and whites, which led to the establishment of what are now known as historically black colleges. Some states even passed local laws banning whites and blacks from being educated together. That same year, the state of Louisiana passed the Separate Car Act, which required railroad companies to provide different train cars for blacks and whites.

In 1892, an activist group made up of African American, white, and Creole New Orleans residents came together with the East Louisiana Railroad, which didn’t want to purchase more cars. They asked a free-born mixed-race man Homer Adolph Plessy, who was seven-eighths European and one-eighth African descent, to buy a “whites only” ticket and had him arrested as soon as he sat down in the car. In his court case, Plessy’s defendants argued that the law violated his rights under the 13th and 14th Amendments of the Constitution, which abolished slavery and offered African Americans citizenship and equal protection of the law. State judge John Howard Ferguson struck down that argument. The case went to the nation’s all-white Supreme Court in 1896, which upheld the legality of “separate but equal” services, public facilities, housing, health care, education, jobs, and transit.

Segregation signs like this one were widespread in the Jim Crow South. (From

Segregation signs like this one were widespread in the Jim Crow South. (From Understanding Jim Crow)

The “separate but equal” doctrine “was a smirk-in-your-face lie,” Pilgrim writes in Understanding Jim Crow. “In most instances, the black facilities were grossly inferior—generally older, less well-kept. In other cases, there were no black facilities—no colored public restroom, no public beach, no place to sit or eat. [The Plessy vs. Ferguson ruling] gave Jim Crow states a legal way to ignore their constitutional obligations to their black citizens.”

“The caricatures, and the stereotypes which accompanied them, became rationalizations for keeping blacks at the bottom of the racial hierarchy.”

In his June 2014 “Atlantic” cover article, “The Case for Reparations,” Ta-Nehisi Coates lays out how, in the South, former slaves and their families were often trapped in a system of debt peonage to the cotton planters, who served as the landlords, employers, and merchants. Their white employers took most of the money for their work, saddling them with debt and taxes, and usually ended up reclaiming their land and other property, too. In a state like Mississippi, where a majority of the population was poor and black, their tax money went to fund white schools and libraries that African Americans were not allowed to use. And there was no recourse since they were regularly denied the right to vote.

In addition to living under this anti-black economic system and anti-black laws, African Americans were deluged by messages from white Christian pastors, phrenologists, eugenicists, Darwinists, and politicians, who all preached that black people belonged to a lower race than white people. In particular, white people believed that if African Americans and whites had sexual relationships, it would create an “impure” race that would lead to the downfall of America. Jim Crow social etiquette demanded that blacks not shake hands with whites; eat, sit, or socialize with whites; or publicly show affection toward other black people.



















A 1928 poll-tax receipt from the state of Texas. (From Understanding Jim Crow)

While blacks were being politically, economically, and socially disenfranchised in the Jim Crow South in the late 1800s, coon songs were at the height of their popularity, and public lynchings were regular events. At the same time, American industry was making significant developments in tin-stamping and lithography processes, which gave birth to a wide range of novelty advertisements and product packaging. Advertisers printed promotions for their products on everything from horse blankets and shoe horns to pencils and yard sticks. As novelty advertising and printing exploded, so did images showing black people as wide-eyed, big-lipped subservient idiots, lazy “coons,” shameless seductresses, and cannibalistic savages.

“The proliferation of these racist items after the Civil War had to do with advances in technology like printing, specifically printing on tin,” Pilgrim says. “New manufacturing techniques also made it easier to mass-produce objects, whether they were ceramics, postcards, or tins. I’ve always said that if you show me the things that a society produces, I can tell you a lot about their attitudes, tastes, and values—which may also shape attitudes, tastes, and values in the future.

“If you hate a people, it’s going to show up in the images that you have of that race or ethnic group,” he continues. “When you draw a picture of a person of that race, you’re going to draw them a certain way. When you put the images on a can of Niggerhead Oysters, that makes sense. The stereotypes and all the other stuff just become expressions of that hatred.”

This

This “nigger milk” joke was a popular gag in 1920s cartoons. (From Understanding Jim Crow)

The invention of Kinetoscope films in the 1890s offered another medium for whites to reinforce black caricatures and support white supremacy. For example, in the 1900s, film pioneer Thomas Edison produced racist short films such as “Watermelon Contest” and “Ten Pickaninnies.”

“As with color lithography, some of the early usages of the Kinetoscope to spread racism,” Pilgrim says. “I don’t think Edison set out in some way to defame African Americans. That’s just the world he knew and what he believed. Every time there is a new technological advancement, it increased our ability to share our ideas, whether those ideas were good or bad. It’s like YouTube today. You can share both good things and bad things, so now we have more racist videos than we’ve had at any other time in America’s history.”

Racist objects and packaging latched onto a standard set of characters, each meant to justify a particular aspect of discrimination. In Understanding Jim Crow, Pilgrim breaks down these caricatures—where they come from, how they developed and evolved, where they showed up in advertising and film, and where we still see them today.






















A Mammy in a 1910 edition of The Story of Little Black Sambo, published by Reilly &
Britton, one of many knockoffs of Helen Bannerman’s 1899 book. (From Understanding
Jim Crow
)

One subset promoted the idea of black people as natural servants who were most happy and productive as slaves. To white collectors, antiques with these portraits might seem cute or affectionate because the characters are docile, loyal to the point of being self-sacrificing, and nearly members of the white family. The not-so-cute reality is these caricatures were used to defend and romanticize slavery, and the characters were never shown as particularly smart or able to function well outside their role as domestic servants, as they neglected their own rowdy families. After slavery, these stereotypes encouraged employers to restrict African Americans to low-income drudgery work.

“During enslavement, the most popular caricatures would’ve been ones that were viewed as not being a threat to the dominant society—Mammy, Tom, Sambo, and pickaninny,” Pilgrim continues. “These characters would be mostly loyal, not a threat to the social order at all. After enslavement ended, there were great fears. I mean, there were always fears among whites that blacks would attack them, rebel, or create a black nation. But after Reconstruction began, those fears grew, and caricatures that were seen as dangerous, like the coon and the brute, became more popular.”

Mammies, like this Aunt Dinah on a 1905 postcard, were depicted nurturing white people. (From

Mammies, like this Aunt Dinah on a 1905 postcard, were depicted nurturing white people. (From Understanding Jim Crow)

A Mammy is an obese, do-rag-wearing, smiling, motherly figure who cooks and cleans for a white family, but doesn’t care for her own family, as Pilgrim details in Understanding Jim Crow. Her portrayal is dark-skinned, middle-aged or elderly, intentionally ugly, and lacking sex appeal and desire so she’s never a threat to the white wife. She originated in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin as Aunt Chloe, but she was quickly adopted by slavery apologists. And she was a stark contrast to the reality: Only the wealthiest planters could afford to keep slaves in the house and not working in the field. The women put in charge of the kitchen were usually young and mixed-race, and not very well-fed. Plus, all female slaves, attractive or not, lived with the risk of being raped by their owners.

With names like Aunt Delilah and Aunt Dinah, the inarticulate and superstitious Mammy grew in popularity during the Jim Crow era, when middle-class white women could afford to pay for black servants. Depicted as content to perform menial labor, Mammies appeared on household products like cleaners and baking ingredients. In 1893, the R.T. Davis Company took its patented self-rising flour—which it named “Aunt Jemima’s flour” after a popular vaudeville Mammy—to the world’s fair in Chicago. They hired a black actress named Nancy Green to play Jemima at the fair, cooking pancakes, singing, and telling stories that described the slavery era as a pleasurable time for the enslaved and their masters alike. While Mammies also appeared in the movies “The Birth of a Nation” and “Gone With the Wind,” Aunt Jemima remains one of the most enduring.

A ceramic piece, possibly a creamer, from the 1940s shows Uncle Tom as a dutiful servant. (From

A ceramic piece, possibly a creamer, from the 1940s shows Uncle Tom as a dutiful servant. (From Understanding Jim Crow)

Mammy’s male equivalent, of course, was Uncle Tom. In Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom is a perfect Christian, a hard-working “broad-chested, strong-armed fellow,” who stays loyal to his masters, but refuses to betray his fellow slaves. Because of this, his master has another slave beat him to death, making him the wide-eyed innocent and Christ-like figure in the book. When Uncle Tom’s Cabin was adapted for the stage (49 theater companies toured with their version of the book in 1879), Tom became a physically weak, elderly, passive character, a “happy darkie,” who always bends to his master’s will, instead of Stowe’s noble Christian who puts his commitment to God first.

“I remember purchasing a ceramic Mammy salt-and-pepper shaker, and I broke it in front of the seller. I would like to think it was an act of philosophical integrity, but I probably just hated the thing.”

In the 1890s, Pilgrim writes, nonthreatening, acquiescent Toms appeared as on products as cooks, butlers, waiters, porters, and fieldworkers. Smiling, eager-to-serve, and dependent on whites for their self-esteem, Toms have appeared in ads for products ranging from stove polish and Listerine to Uncle Ben’s Rice and vitamin drinks. Probably the most well-known commercial Tom is Rastus, the Cream of Wheat cook, created in 1893 by Emery Mapes. In early ads, Rastus is depicted as an ignorant, grammatically challenged servant who only has a wholesome breakfast to offer the world. A particularly offensive 1921 Cream of Wheat ad shows an elderly Rastus pulling a white boy in a rickshaw. The subservient Tom and Mammy caricatures undermine the fact that, from enslavement through the Jim Crow era, there were plenty of black people who fought back and resisted subjugation at great personal risk.

Tom and Mammy’s neglected children are known as “pickaninny” or “picaninny”—they’re unruly, dirty, and dressed in rags with wild, kinky, and matted hair, bulbous eyes, and exaggerated mouths. Like their parents, they take great liberties with the English language. Thought of as unambitious future coons and left on their own with no caretaker, they’re shown as good-for-little, grubby, untamed animals stealing watermelons and fried chicken. In many images of pickaninny children, Pilgrim explains in Understanding Jim Crow, they’re often in clothes so worn out that they’re nearly naked with large, sexualized genitals or butts. They’re sometimes shown being stalked or consumed by alligators. Topsy, an enslaved girl first described in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is the first well-known pickaninny. While Stowe intended Topsy to be a sad, heart-rending character, she was quickly adopted for minstrel shows where she became a devil-may-care fool who delighted in her low status. In the 20th century, Hal Roach’s “Our Gang” and “Little Rascals” film series featured multiple pickaninnies, including Sunshine Sammy, Pineapple, Farina, Stymie, and Buckwheat.

This 1906 postcard expresses nostalgia for the days of slavery, when little black girls would be put to work babysitting their masters' children. (From

This 1906 postcard expresses nostalgia for the days of slavery, when little black girls would be put to work babysitting their masters’ children. (From Understanding Jim Crow)

Outside of Mammy, caricatures of black women show them as either Jezebels—sexually predatory or promiscuous women who birth many children—or Sapphires—also known as “angry black women.” In Understanding Jim Crow, Pilgrim explains that the idea that black people are hypersexual goes back to the days of early European explorers, who didn’t know what to make of the scantily clad Africans they encountered and the tribes’ polygamous lifestyles. In America before the Civil War, enslaved black women were considered property and thus, legally, the concept of rape didn’t apply to them, but the Jezebel was used to rationalize the planter’s dalliances. She was depicted as so irresistibly animalistic, lascivious, and sexually available that she didn’t even have to be raped—she was “asking for it.”

Many of the stereotypes about black women’s promiscuity came from the nature of the slavery institution itself, Pilgrim writes. Enslaved women who rejected the sexual come-ons of their owners would be flogged, raped, or sold away from her family, so some would consent to avoid these dire consequences. When men and women were sold, they were often stripped and scrutinized by potential buyers, a practice that sometimes took a tone of sexual abuse. Working in the hot sun, slaves often wore minimal clothes that were so ragged that their bodies were exposed, while Victorian fashion dictated that “morally upright” white women cover up as much as possible. Enslaved women, called “breeders,” were pushed to have sex with enslaved men at an early age and then incentivized to have as many children as possible so that the plantation owner’s slave holdings would increase. When it came to their own preferences, historical record shows that most slaves sought marriage-like monogamous relationships and condemned cheating.
























A ceramic depiction of a Jezebel sold in the 1950s. (From Understanding Jim Crow)

Starting in the late 1800s, Jezebels appeared on drinking glasses, figurines, ashtrays, postcards, swizzle sticks, sheet music, fishing lures, and even a metal nutcracker shaped like a woman’s body, where they nut is cracked between her legs. In these objects, the Jezebels are sometimes depicted as ugly, pitiable, and desperate for the white male attention they can’t get. Other times, they’re shown as exotic, beautiful temptresses with loose morals. Even images of little black girls from the period describe them as sexually experienced and depict them naked, even pregnant.

A Sapphire is a shrill, rude, emasculating, and overbearing version of Mammy. In the beginning, only her weak, “morally defective” black husband and children would be subjected to her derision. During the Jim Crow period, fictional “sassy Mammies” would be portrayed as almost impertinent to their white families, in the same manner a blood relative might be, to make the case that slavery wasn’t so bad. In real life at the time, a black servant would be assaulted, arrested, or murdered for talking back. This negative caricature of assertive and opinionated black women has been—and is still—used to silence and undermine African Americans who stand up for themselves or speak their minds.

A 1910 postcard shows an immodest Sapphire beating and berating her husband. (From

A 1910 postcard shows an immodest Sapphire beating and berating her husband. (From Understanding Jim Crow)

Another caricature was inflicted upon mixed-race women: the “tragic mulatto,” which is based on the “one-drop rule” that says any African American blood in your lineage makes you a black person. In this story, the mixed-race woman grows up living as a privileged white person. When her white father dies, her black heritage is revealed, and she’s enslaved and subjected to violence by white men. Rejected by both racial groups, she’s often suicidal and alcoholic, and she in particular loathes her black side.

Reality, of course, tells a different story. In Understanding Jim Crow, Pilgrim says it’s true that in the days of slavery, mixed-race slaves (usually the illegitimate sons and daughters of their owners), sometimes sold for higher prices, and masters saw these women as particularly sexually desirable, claiming their beauty drove them to rape. Enslaved mixed-race women were also frequently sold into prostitution, and freeborn mixed-race women sometimes became the mistresses of white men under the “plaçage system.” Some people with “Negro blood” worked to “pass” as whites, which helped them get better education, pay, and homes. But throughout history, mixed-race people—who had the slur “mongrels” hurled at them by whites—have been well accepted in the black community: Take for example, W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, Mary Church Terrell, Thurgood Marshall, Malcolm X, Louis Farrakhan, Langston Hughes, and Billie Holiday.

Puerto Rican actress Rita Moreno played the

Puerto Rican actress Rita Moreno played the “tragic mulatto” in the 1960 film “This Rebel Breed.”(From Understanding Jim Crow)

While some caricatures of black men are subservient like the hard-working Tom and the idle, simple-minded Sambo, two other caricatures played on whites’ worst fears about freed African Americans. The coon was similar to Sambo, except he was not contented to be a servant. While he was also a slow buffoon, the coon—usually a hedonistic young, urban man—disrespected whites, fought with other blacks, and was prone to criminal behavior.

The belief that African Americans are naturally lazy comes from enslavement, as Pilgrim explains in Understanding Jim Crow. The planters wanted their slaves to produce as much as possible. If enslaved people were not able to run away, they protested quietly by moving slowly, doing low-quality work, sabotaging their tools, or playing sick. Slave masters decided this meant all African Americans must be naturally dumb, incompetent, and shiftless—in other words, coons. Historical records show slaves generally worked hard, from dusk to dawn, and if they got time off on Saturday or Sunday evening, they spent it tending their own gardens, washing their garments, cleaning their quarters, and cooking. Describing slaves as childlike and helpless was another way to push against abolitionists calling for their freedom.

This 1907 vinegar-valentine postcard characterizes the coon caricature. (From

This 1907 vinegar-valentine postcard characterizes the coon caricature. (From Understanding Jim Crow)

After Radical Reconstruction, white Americans started to pine for “good ol’ darkies,” who, according to slavery advocates, adored their enslavers and had no interest in freedom, Pilgrim writes. At that point, coon went from describing all black people to specifically insulting “uppity” young black men who didn’t disguise their scorn of white people.

Dressed like a dandy, a coon would misuse words and employ logical fallacies as he evaded honest labor and pursued pleasure from women and watermelons. In 1920s Hollywood, the coon character was embodied by black actor Stepin Fetchit, a superstitious, strutting, work-averse fool who spoke and moved in a ridiculously slow manner, unless he was frightened. Fetchit’s coon felt comforting to white audiences because he was deferential and never resorted to violence. However, the coon songs from vaudeville had depicted a more menacing character, a blade-carrying nitwit with no honor.
























This 1904 postcard suggests that even little black children are inclined toward violent
behavior. (From Understanding Jim Crow)

While the coon had the potential to become violent, the black brute caricature is inherently violent, Pilgrim explains. Like Jezebel, the brute goes back to the reports of European explorers who described Africans as overly sexual heathens. Perceived as an animal unable to control his sexual urges, the black brute is constantly threatening to rape white women. The brute is also a homicidal, sociopathic fiend, bent on destruction.

At the beginning of the 20th century, anti-black propaganda spread through newspapers, magazines, books, and scientific papers, claiming that black brutes were raping white women in alarming numbers. According to Understanding Jim Crow, this fixation on rape came from an obsession with keeping white women, and the white race, “pure,” and it was used as a justification for lynching blacks, a practice similar to ritualistic torture. However, only a fraction of those lynched were even accused of rape. Still the myth lived on in portrayals like the 1915 racist propaganda film “The Birth of a Nation,” which was based on a 1905 novel about a “black beast” viciously raping a white virgin.

“There were black rapists with white victims, but they were relatively rare; most white rape victims were raped by white men,” Pilgrim writes. “A black man would be risking his life even having a consensual sexual relationship with a white woman. In fact, it was far more common for white men to rape black women.”

In 1900, Charles Carroll published

In 1900, Charles Carroll published The Negro a Beast; or, In the Image of God. Carroll claimed that white people were made in God’s likeness, and black people were soulless, immoral beasts. He asserted race-mixing would wreck God’s plan. (From Understanding Jim Crow)

“During enslavement, you had groups like the Patrollers and others who regularly went out and raped black women,” he tells me. “After Reconstruction, you had a number of black women who were raped by vigilante groups. If you look at a lot of the race riots of the 20th century, black women were raped then, too. Oftentimes, black men fought even to the death to try to keep the women from being hurt. But there was no legal recourse for these women because all of the major societal institutions supported white supremacy.”

One unintended consequence of Jim Crow segregation was that African Americans had to found their own separate businesses and institutions—and therefore, establish their own professional class, including doctors, merchants, barbers, professors, and pastors. Some of these professionals did reasonably well for themselves, so they could afford cars, but they had to be extremely carefully where they drove. In Understanding Jim Crow, Pilgrim recounts the story of having a black professor at Jarvis walk into class wearing a chauffeur’s cap and explaining how black professionals had to wear these hats while driving to avoid white rage. A black man was expected to look like a servant and not someone ostentatious enough to own his own car. The Green Book, published regularly between 1936 and 1966, gave black motorists further tips on how to stay alive while traveling.

The fall 1956

The fall 1956 Negro Travelers’ Green Book lists hotels, motels, and restaurants that were safe for black families on the road. The cover warns, “Carry your GREEN BOOK with you—you may need it.” (Via Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library)

“Having a car has always been a big deal in the U.S.,” Pilgrim says. “If you were a black person with a beautiful new car, you didn’t know your place. ‘Social equality’ were considered dirty words. Especially in the Deep South, you could not imply that blacks and whites were equal, because it was considered a threat to the Jim Crow system.”

“By the 1900s, coon songs weren’t just a national fad; they were shaping future conceptions of black people.”

Jim Crow started to break down, very slowly, during World War II. Desperate for workers, shipbuilders in the San Francisco Bay Area began to employ African Americans in 1943, albeit at a much lower pay rate than their white counterparts. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, a long-time civil-rights activist, pushed for the U.S. military to remove its restrictions how on African Americans could serve—most were limited to lowly labor like driving delivery trucks and serving in mess halls. As American forces were ravaged overseas, in 1944, General Dwight Eisenhower agreed to allow black soldiers to fight in combat for the United States, a first step toward desegregating the military. Segregated black units were among the troops sent to Normandy Beach on D-Day on June 6, 1944. After the war, in 1948, President Harry S. Truman ordered the military to integrate. In 1954, a lawsuit in Topeka, Kansas, that became known as Brown vs. Board of Education exposed the drastic inequities between black and white schools, prompting the Supreme Court to overturn “separate but equal” segregation.

While slow progress toward racial integration was being made in the 1940s and 1950s, city and state governments around the country were redlining districts to divide cities up into race-based neighborhoods, as Coates explains in “The Case for Reparations.” Irrational fear of an imagined black menace, the black brute, had a real affect on home prices in neighborhoods, while predatory lending practices kept black people impoverished, constantly on the brink of losing their homes.
























The hand-written message on the back of this postcard, dated 1924, says “This picture
shows what they do to the bad people of Del.” (From Understanding Jim Crow)

The idea of the black rapist stalking and threatening to defile white women was alive and well. In 1955, Emmett Till, a black 14-year-old boy from Chicago was visiting Mississippi and may have called a white female store clerk, “baby.” For that, her husband and brother dragged the kid out of his uncle’s house, attacking and pummeling him until they crushed his head. Then they dumped his limp body into a river. When the men were tried, the all-white jury found them innocent. This case—and the lack of justice for this murdered boy—became a defining moment the new Civil Rights Movement rallied around.

During the 1960s, the Civil Rights protesters, most of whom adopted King’s philosophy of nonviolence, sacrificed their bodies to the cause. Seeing black adults and children getting savagely attacked on television and in newspapers caused many white people to reconsider black people as the subjects, not perpetrators, of violence, Pilgrim explains in Understanding Jim Crow. Lynchings stopped being popular public spectacles but rather “hate crimes” that took place in secret.

As the 1960s Civil Rights Movement marched forward and the country began to desegregate, fears about black criminality only increased, and President Richard Nixon launched his “war on crime” and “war on drugs”—which was expanded by President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Not surprisingly, the black brute caricature returned, first in 1970s blaxploitation films, B-films that supposedly portrayed a more realistic world of corrupt authorities, pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers, and tough, gun-toting criminals than the Stepin Fetchit movies had. While these films countered the decades of sexless and disempowered Toms and Mammies, featuring powerful black revolutionaries fighting racist forces, in reality, they were written, directed, and financed by whites who relied on old caricatures of blacks as overtly sexual and violent animalistic beings.




























Two cards from the 1930s game 72 Pictured Party Stunts. (From Understanding Jim Crow)

“When you get to the 1970s, I think black people had grown tired of seeing Mammies, Toms, Sambos, and pickaninnys, these ignorant, one-dimensional characters, in the movies,” Pilgrim says. “And so they embraced a whole new set of racial caricatures, reflected in the so-called blaxploitation movies. The black pimp, the black radical, the dope dealer, and the hustler emerged out of these films. One set of stereotypes was substituted for another.”

Then the lurking black menace became a staple of television cop shows, meant to embody the cruelty of city streets. Hard-hearted and remorseless brutes plundered, assaulted, raped, and murdered innocent victims on “Law and Order,” “NYPD Blue,” and “Homicide: Life on the Streets.” New channels drummed up fear of black-on-white crime, to the point that white people who murdered their families would cover their crimes by trying to pin them on nameless black criminals. In a recent Salon article, Chauncey DeVega writes that in contrast to the exaggerated reports of “black crime,” “there is no equivalent language of ‘white crime’ in America’s dominant political discourse.” In 2001, Denzel Washington won the Academy Award for playing the vile, back-stabbing cop Alonzo Harris in “Training Day,” who, as Pilgrim explains in Understanding Jim Crow, is a modern version of the brute sociopath.

A postcard from the Bamforth series

A postcard from the Bamforth series “Black Kids,” produced in London from 1907 to 1915. (From Understanding Jim Crow)

While all these crime dramas depicted mostly white cops fighting black drug lords and homicidal monsters, in the real world off the big and little screens, black men were also more frequently arrested than white men for the same crimes and being punished more severely. In his October 2015 “Atlantic” cover story, “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” Ta-Nehisi Coates explains, “From the mid-1970s to the mid-’80s, America’s incarceration rate doubled. From the mid-’80s to the mid-’90s, it doubled again. By 2007, it had reached a historic high of 767 people per 100,000. In 2000, one in 10 black males between the ages of 20 and 40 was incarcerated—10 times the rate of their white peers. In 2010, a third of all black male high-school dropouts between the ages of 20 and 39 were imprisoned, compared with only 13 percent of their white peers.”

According to the NAACP, African Americans now make up nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population, and black people are imprisoned at nearly six times the rate of white people. Even though the rates of drug use are similar across all races in the United States, according to the Sentencing Project research, “African Americans serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offense (58.7 months) as whites do for a violent offense (61.7 months).”

At the time of the Civil War, roughly 4 million African Americans were enslaved, providing labor that kept the American economy afloat. In Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, she explores how the penal system is not unlike slavery: Federal and state prisons contract out their inmates as laborers to big corporations, while other prisons are simply owned by corporations. Prisoners make as little as $.17 per hour to minimum wage, if they’re lucky. After they’re released, ex-cons are stripped of their rights to vote and often have a difficult time finding jobs.

The

The “Be-Bop” toy from the 1950s. (From Understanding Jim Crow)

And other Jim Crow caricatures still haunt our culture, as Pilgrim explains in Understanding Jim Crow. In the 1970s, we saw them on TV: J.J. Walker on “Good Times” was an updated version of the coon, while his sister Thelma played the withering Sapphire role. Other sitcoms had their own sharp-tongued Sapphires: Aunt Esther on “Sanford and Son” and Florence Johnston in “The Jeffersons.” Today, we still have women depicted as Sapphires, as Omarosa was on the reality show “The Apprentice.” Like the black brute, the Jezebel re-emerged in 1970s blaxploitation films, wherein male pimps became folk heroes, but the women were demeaned. Even when the lead was a fierce woman, like Pam Grier in “Foxy Brown,” Pilgrim argues, she was still portrayed as a sexual deviant. The insatiable, sex-addled Jezebel caricature lives on today, particularly in online porn and music videos, as well as complaints about “welfare queens” who have too many children.

“I’m starting to hear more Americans saying that what we need to do as a country is look at some of the atrocities committed here and own up to them.”

“Today, I would say the dominant image of young black men is probably a son of a brute, expressed as a hip-hop ‘gangsta,’ with sagging pants and an Uzi,” Pilgrim tells me. “The Jezebel has resurfaced today as a ‘hoochie mama’ or ‘ghetto whore.’ The caricatures don’t really die; they morph. The ‘thug’ is an updated version of the coon. You can go back and look at those coon songs from the 1890s, the depiction is not that different from what you see today.”

What’s unique about “Uncle Tom” as a slur is that it’s most frequently invoked by blacks to describe black men, sometimes those in the unfortunate position of working for a white boss while overseeing black employees, Pilgrim explains in Understanding Jim Crow. Also called “race-traitors” and “white men’s negroes,” African Americans ranging from 1960s civil-rights leaders willing to work with white people to modern-day Republican politicians have been labeled Uncle Toms. In conservative arenas, public figures who embrace “respectability politics” like Bill Cosby and presidential candidates like Ben Carson can say things that their white colleagues believe but don’t vocalize. They assert black people are to blame for their communities’ problems and that the history of deeply entrenched white racism has nothing to do with it, often calling up caricatures of lazy “thugs” and “welfare queens” to make their cases.

This May 10, 1941,

This May 10, 1941, “Liberty” magazine cover shows a black porter as a Tom or a lazy, dumb coon. (From Understanding Jim Crow)

The “hoochie mama” Jezebel caricature is still being wrestled with in discussions about respectability politics. On one hand, in hip-hop music videos, many male artists surround themselves with beautiful, scantily clad young women, who are only there to serve as objectified props. Female pop, hip-hop, and R&B stars, however, often wear skimpy costumes and present themselves as powerful seductresses. The difference being that in the latter case, the woman is in control of her image and talking about her own desires—breaking free of the notion that black women’s sexuality is something that is dangerous and must be policed.

“Maybe three weeks ago, I was watching an infomercial selling Motown CDs,” Pilgrim tells me. “Middle-class and upper-class African Americans were in the audience, and these iconic musicians were on the stage. This is going to sound really corny, but just for a second, I thought to myself, ‘Why not just forget about all this stuff and just dance?’ And I chided myself about that a little bit, because I have heard that so much.

“Giving presentations on the road, I often will have someone say to me, ‘If you didn’t travel this country talking about race, racism would go away,’” he continues. “That doesn’t even make stupid sense. The reality is we talk about race all the time. We talk about it in our restrooms, in our living rooms, at work. We talk about it in places where our ideas are not challenged. If I didn’t build a museum, we wouldn’t stop talking about race. What I hoped by building this was that we could talk about it, even the more painful things, in ways that are intelligent and sometimes difficult. But that is what a mature nation does. Race-based struggles and conflicts still occur in our country. Race still matters in the U.S., in ways that serve to limit people, that serve to shape and, forgive the pun, color interactions between people.”

In this 1916 Cream of Wheat ad, a pickaninny boy who's stolen apples runs from a dog that has torn open the backside of his pants. (From

In this 1916 Cream of Wheat ad, a pickaninny boy who’s stolen apples runs from a dog that has torn open the backside of his pants. (From Understanding Jim Crow)

As foreign as these Jim Crow artifacts may look to us now, we’re still living in a country where white people irrationally fear a black menace will kill them, which has led to the murders of Oscar Grant in Oakland, California; Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida; and countless others. It’s still a nation where African American children are viewed as wild, unruly animals destined for a life of crime—just look at the treatment of the teenage girl in Columbia, South Carolina; Dajerria Becton in McKinney, Texas; Tamir Rice and his sister in Cleveland, Ohio. In a recent survey by the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture at the University of Chicago, more than half of African American men and women ages 18 to 34 said they or someone they knew had been harassed or brutalized by the police.

“One of the more powerful sections of the museum is a section on objects that have been made in the last 10 years,” Pilgrim says. “Because our name implies we’re only about another era, some people are surprised when they see two dozen objects on President Obama, where he’s portrayed as a monkey, a Tom, a coon, or a Sambo. If you don’t know history, then you don’t know what those things are. But if you understand history, you see that even though the United States has made a tremendous amount of progress, the old stereotypes and some of the old patterns of relations between different groups still exist. That’s why we should talk look at it, study it, talk about it. It’s a history that, in some ways, has not ended.”





















Dr. David Pilgrim shakes hands with famed Harvard professor Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.,
at the Jim Crow Museum. Gates visited the museum with a PBS film crew while working
on his award-winning 2013 documentary series, “The African Americans: Many Rivers
to Cross.” Gates also wrote the foreward for Understanding Jim Crow. (Via the Jim Crow
Museum Facebook page)

(To learn more, pick up a copy of “Understanding Jim Crow: Using Racist Memorabilia to Teach Tolerance and Promote Social Justice” or visit the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, 1010 Campus Drive, Ferris State University, Big Rapids, Michigan, open noon-5 p.m. Mondays-Fridays. The museum is featured in Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s PBS documentary series on the black American experience, “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross.” The Jim Crow Museum also offers a touring exhibition “THEM: Images of Separation,” which addresses objects used to stereotype and discriminate against other groups, including homosexuals, immigrants, and Arabic and Jewish people.)


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C.L.R. Jame's Modern Politics in Marx and Philosophy

By Michael Lazarus
Marx and Philosophy
September 2nd, 2015

In the Preface to his 1938 book Black Jacobins, C.L.R James writes of the contemporary state of world affairs: ‘It was in the stillness of a seaside suburb that could be heard most clearly and insistently the bombing of Franco’s heavy artillery, the rattle of Stalin’s firing squads and the fierce shrill turmoil of the revolutionary movement striving for clarity and influence. Such is our age and this is of it, with something of the fervour and the fret.’ (James 1963, xi) Much of this remains true for James in 1960. But now it is the menacing rumble of Stalinist tanks rolling through the streets of Budapest that punctuates Modern Politics. For James, the revolutionary movement that saw the establishment of the workers councils in Hungary in 1956 embodies the essence of the modern world.

Modern Politics is the publication of a lecture series James gave at the Adult Education Centre in his native Bay of Spain, Trinidad throughout August 1960. At the outset James makes clear his aim is not to propagandize, but rather to introduce the attendees to the problems of contemporary politics. This is done through the prism of the history of Western political thought, underscoring the centrality of Marxism as both a historical and philosophical project. James’ tone in these speeches is markedly more restrained than his lyrical historical writings (Black Jacobins being the most remarkable). While popular and introductory, Modern Politics sheds significant light on the theoretical underpinnings of James’ Marxism. Simultaneously, its republication challenges the arid academic view of James as just another cultural critic. Although the interest in James’ work has been relatively constant since the 1980s, this book is a strong reminder of his importance and his dynamism as a Marxist thinker and a reaffirmation of the breadth and effortlessness of his oratory.

The lectures were given by James in the immediate period before his resignation from editorship of the Trinidad People's National Movement’s organ The Nation. The betrayals of the P.N.M. had seen the pro-independence party move considerably to the right and James came into conflict with his old co-thinker turned political foe, Eric Williams, now Premier. James was a popular figure at this time and Trinidadian politics was at boiling point; the transition from colonialism to independence was in its most crucial stages. And after twenty-six years abroad James returns to Trinidad. It comes as no surprise that the halls were filled for this event. However, the initial publication was suppressed and only released in 1973. Its reissue has been long overdue. Regrettably the new introduction by Noel Ignatiev, is overly workerist and oddly misses the opportunity to discuss much of this crucial (and fascinating) contextual detail. Instead, Ignatiev leaves the original 1973 Introduction by Martin Glaberman to sketch the context in just one page and prefers to spend considerable time explaining his own experiences as a militant worker. This seems a pity.

These lectures, delivered in a popular style (like that of Marx’s Labour, Prices and Profits) were designed for an audience largely unfamiliar with Marxist jargon and untrained in the technical language of specialists. Still, the characteristic profundity of James is present throughout these lectures. Like any great popularizer, James does not bastardise his argument in the name of simplification but introduces a nuanced perspective, aimed at adding political clarity and comprehensibility. To achieve this and at the same time provide a deeper elaboration of philosophical insights has always been the test of the socialist intellectual.

To give a sense of how James attempts this, it is worthwhile first offering an overview of the content of the lectures.

In Lecture I, we learn of the remarkable virtues of the ancient city-state: the legacy of direct democracy, the unity of the individual and society, and the establishment of the fields of human thought established by the Greeks and still pertinent today. From here we are taken from Rome to the Renaissance city to Cromwell and the Levellers, culminating in the Enlightenment and Rousseau. The second lecture judges the inheritance of Hegel and Marx to the Enlightenment, tracing the development of Marxism, through 1848, the Paris Commune, the betrayal of the Second International to the banner of the Third International and October 1917. Lecture III outlines the importance of the form of the Soviets and covers the period between the wars, including comments on those twins of totalitarianism Fascism and Stalinism. To understand one, you must understand the other. (In an appendix, James speaks very favourably of Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism (157). While Arendt was also a keen supporter of the Hungarian Revolution, James is well aware she might have preferred the workers councils without the workers.) The fourth lecture concerns World War II and the operations of the modern market, here he ties his analysis of politics to Marx’s labour theory of value. In Lecture V James critiques the compromises of the welfare state and deals with the exploitation of sex, class and race. And finally in the last lecture, advancing from a discussion of the great modern artists, James brings the disparate themes together to suggest the only way out of our current predicament is the movement of the masses and the establishment of a new form of class rule.

The narrative of the lectures is framed by the central questions of political theory; his starting point, the great achievement of Classical Athenian democracy, is used to advance his conception of history and political thought. Here the ‘good life’ is first elaborated, tied intrinsically to the organisation of society that allows for the active political life to be realised.

The historical (and slightly idealised), example of Athens provides an example of the possibilities of direct democracy that is the yardstick that is used to connect democracy, ancient and modern. A ‘return’ to the polis, in this conception, can only be achieved with the total democracy of worker’s councils.

James takes up, perhaps unexpectedly, Aristotle and Rousseau to make this case. He insists that ‘you should always have with you’, The Politics and The Social Contract on top of the Marxist classics like State and Revolution and Capital (155, cf. 32). In Aristotle, we find the individual defined in relation to society. To be human is to be a polis-dweller. This conception of society before the individual, the whole defining the part, is taken up crucially by Marx.

Rousseau returns the question back into political thought, ‘seeking a form of political organisation in which the individual will feel himself in relation to a government in much the same way that the Greek citizen felt in relation to the city-state’ (34). Rejecting representative democracy and the Age of Reason, Rousseau’s social contract is between people to form a society, and when a government refuses to do what is satisfactory, the ‘general will’ is broken. James sees in this doctrine ‘profound revolutionary implications’ (33). James’ usage of these two thinkers, interestingly, is a forerunner to the debates over the philosophical foundations of Marx that became a staple of the scholarship by the early 1970s.

The bourgeois and industrial revolutions frame James’ discussion of the history of philosophy that precedes Marx. Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume are touched upon before more substantial engagement with Kant and Hegel. The theoretical developments are centred around the relation between intellect and experience. James’ Hegelianism is evident, in his (albeit brief) discussion of the master. It was of course, Hegel who ‘brought philosophy to an end’, coming to a point that ‘if he had of gone on, he would have been compelled to say that the only solution to these problems was the proletariat establishing a new regime and laying the basis of human equality’ (43). In this discussion, the relationship that Marxism has to the Enlightenment is opened up. James suggests that Marx could claim to be both the heir and solution ‘to the finest currents of thought and action of five hundred years of European history’ (44). This background of inheritance and rupture is embodied in the composition and the tone of the lectures; a sophisticated philosophical theme laid out in an introductory way.

Further, after outlining the development of philosophy, James can more fully furnish the other legacy of the French Revolution, the birth of the workers movement. ‘The new doctrine of Marx was not the doctrine of the age of the men of Reason; it was not the doctrine of Rousseau either. It sprang from the socialism which evolved at the last stage of the French revolution’ (44). James can now deal fluidly with a history of 1848 onwards, which to him is a battle between the defenders of capitalism and the proponents of Marxism (56-7).

Repeatedly, James emphasises the inherent capacity of workers to make their own history. In the form of the worker’s councils, he completes his Aristotelian insistence that the ‘the good life’, is the one to which workers strive. It signals ‘the end of the capitalist mode of production’, the ‘vindication of our theory and a guarantee of a high destiny for the great mass of mankind’ (146). The significance of the events of Hungary in 1956 are repetitively used to demonstrate James’ unequivocal belief in workers councils as ‘the ultimate form of modern political development’ (98).

James is able to remain faithful to ‘socialism from below’ due to his rejection of Stalinism and his uncompromising internationalism. Linking the triumph of Nazism with the tragic failure of the German Revolution in 1923, James shows ‘there is no history of any single country anymore’ (66). From this defeat and through the savage rise of the bureaucracy, Stalin presided over the ‘destruction of the Leninist Bolshevik Party’ (67). What form of state the USSR was became a key question for socialists. Trotsky and the mainstay of Trotskyism saw the USSR as some form of a ‘workers state’, whereas James and the Forrest-Johnson Tendency, argued that the USSR was actually ‘state capitalist’ (73). This was a seriously minority position, held previously by few. However, this analysis led James to relatively drastic anti-party conclusions (despite Trotsky remaining a key figure in his politics). This hostility is reflected in his abandonment of the dialectical necessity of the party as the mediator between revolutionary theory and practice. James places an over-emphasis on spontaneity rather than seeing the two-sided relation spontaneity has with organization (58, 97-100).

Modern Politics is a quality introduction to Marxism by a major theorist. Although clearly not a work of academic scholarship, James’ heavily textured approach to Marxism and its social context is refined and enjoyable. This task is seldom accomplished well but James, with the elegant turn of phrase and clarity that is so characteristic of his style, manages. What is most clear throughout these lectures is the importance of looking at the movement of history as the insatiable desire for human agency within the structures that define the possibilities of action. The conclusion: the self-activity of the working-class to make their own history is the hope of modern politics.

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Politics and the City: A Badly Bifurcated Left

by Geoff Eley
H-Socialisms
June 2015

The volume under review presents a fascinating mosaic of urban squatting and “autonomous” politics in Europe since the 1970s. After an excellent scene-setting introduction, the volume comprises nine discrete case studies, each authored by scholar-activists directly familiar with the respective histories on the ground. They range from the better-known cases of Amsterdam (Nazmir Kadir), Copenhagen (René Karpantschof and Flemming Mikkelsen), London (Lucy Finchett-Maddock), and Berlin (Alex Vasudevan) to far less documented instances like Athens (Gregor Kritidis), Barcelona (Claudio Cattaneo and Enrique Tudela), Poznan (Grzegorz Piotrowski), and Vienna (Robert Foltin), supplemented by a chapter on the much smaller Brighton with its rather different urban polity (Needle Collective and the Bash Street Kids). The essays vary somewhat in form and quality. Those in the first cluster and the one on Barcelona reap the benefit of building on far more elaborate existing literatures, enabling a more densely contextualized and more analytically substantial account. Lacking the same advantages, Kritidis, Piotrowski, and Foltin have to build up their narratives from scratch, writing the events for the first time into history without being able to deliver the generalized meta-commentary available to Vasudevan, Kadir, or Karpantschof/Mikkelsen. In contrast with the far thicker micro-political treatments of the other essays, to mention another difference, Kritidis devotes more space to the deeper historical context, beginning from the legacies of the Greek Civil War, while focusing on the breadth of the current anti-austerity activism rather any particular set of squats or autonomist center. The Brighton chapter is again rather different, using its far smaller scale to develop an arresting micro-political account of activist rhythms at the level of the town per se.

What emerges out of this important collection? First, it falls somewhere between the agitational corpus of the squatters and autonomists themselves and the engaged academic scholarship generated around the New Social Movements (NSMs) in the 1980s, which itself then graduated into a fully institutionalized field of the sociology of contentious politics and collective action. Powerfully shaped by a handful of key influences, including Charles Tilly, Alberto Melucci, and Sidney Tarrow, the sociological literatures have proliferated all but unmanageably in the meantime, seeking to map systematically the incidence, effects, and generative circumstances of social movement politics, with an emphasis on cycles, repertoires, and opportunity structures.[1] While certainly informed by these perspectives, the present volume opts instead for a more concretely bounded, case-based approach, which emphasizes rather the aesthetic possibilities, especially the pleasures and excitements, and spatial ontologies of living inside the city, including the experience of becoming an activist, which sociologists rarely pause very long to consider. In that sense this book gets us much closer to “the subjective factor.” It provides valuable access to an arena of Left politics no longer captured by most of the parties still claiming to carry the name. As such, it belongs with George Katsiaficas’s singular survey, The Subversion of Politics: European Autonomous Movements and the Decolonization of Everyday Life (1997) and George McKay’s brilliant anthology, DiY Culture: Party and Protest in Nineties’ Britain (1998), still the best single account of the new political forms of the 1990s.[2]

Second, the transnational quality comes through strongly in the accounts. It consists partly in chains of equivalence--replications and repetitions of idioms, forms, ideas, and practices--and partly in demonstrable direct influences, in the concrete circulation of ideas, people, and texts, and in the demonstration effects of events and actions traveling from one place to another, relayed via the immediacies of the new electronic media and methods of communication. This can be shown in some ways most clearly inside a particular country--the Kreuzberg Squatters’ Council and Autonomist Plenary were modeled directly on those in Hamburg, for example. But the broader northern European connections were also close, for example with Fristaden Christiana (Freetown Christiana) in Copenhagen originally founded in 1971, or with the Dutch kraakers in Amsterdam and elsewhere, whose actions went back to 1968. The City Is Ours might have done more to explore these transitive connections. Autonomist militancy arguably flowed from the Italian actions surrounding the Metropolitan Indians’ Manifesto of March 1, 1977 (interestingly unmentioned), eventually detonating northwards via the Zurich youth protests of 1980-82 toward the northern cycle of radicalization in German cities, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, London, and elsewhere. Showing how these transnational circuits actually worked would require building a more detailed narrative than this volume provides, one that reconstructs the active biographical, textual, and organized connections as concretely as possible. A chapter specifically addressing this transnational dimension would have greatly enhanced the volume.

Third, the generative relationship to “1968” is completely apparent--whether as specific antecedents, a source of positive inspiration, or the trigger for complicated reaction formations.

Few of the essays develop an argument very extensively in this regard. Kadir briefly mentions the Dutch Provo movement and Kabouters (Gnomes), active in the late sixties and early seventies; Kritidis gives considerable space to the earlier context of student activism and anarchism in seventies and eighties Greece. Yet overall the deeper contextualizing remains thin. The lines running from 1967-69 down to 1977-82 were extremely complex and crooked, requiring much careful reconstruction and analysis. The Metropolitan Indians’ Manifesto showed this very well, for example. It demanded squats of all empty buildings as a means of creating alternatives to the family, along with free drugs, destruction of zoos, destruction of patriotic monuments, destruction of youth prisons, and the “historical and moral reevaluation of the dinosaur Archeopterix, unfairly constructed as an ogre.”[3] Such rhetoric directly marshaled issues and ideas from the earlier time, but the tones were already different: angrier, more flamboyant, militantly uncompromising, less interested in dialogue. Many of the actions captured in The City Is Ours expressed the countercultural agitprop strand of the radicalism of “1968”--the politics of spectacle that arrived especially through Women’s Liberation and the Gay Liberation Front. But others picked up a different thread, that of the streetfighting maximalism. This occurred first in the pitched battles in Frankfurt, Hamburg, and Berlin, the actions of the Danish BZ-movement, and the long siege warfare in Amsterdam, all in the 1980s. The British direct-action cycle followed in the early 1990s: from the Poll Tax resistance of 1989-90 to the campaign against the Criminal Justice Act of 1994, along with massed anti-roads protests, animal rights blockades, and the cultural activism of the acid house/rave scene, northern warehouse dances, and free parties. In yet a third dimension, the squatting and autonomist movements carried forward the legacy of the Situationists, the most self-consciously resonant of the efforts of the 1950s and 1960s at constructing connections between anticapitalist politics and the public disruptions of an aesthetic avant-garde. Embedded in the detail of the volume’s various chapters is a large amount of fascinating evidence for each of these strands.

Fourth, a sociology of the European social-movement militancy of the past fifty years will need to explore a central contrast. The activism of the 1970s and 1980s presumed a mass of young people who found themselves marginal to mainstream society, whether socially by lack of employment and predictable career paths or culturally by a kind of existential disaffection: highly educated, yet displaced from career paths and partially employed, they were stylistically rebellious, while living and working inside distinctive collective arrangements and informal economies, often with bohemian or multicultural links, as in the Hafenstraße in Hamburg’s St Pauli or Kreuzberg in West Berlin.[4] This was a transitional society, one still subsisting on the long aftermath of the affluence of the postwar prosperity, before the neoliberal onslaught of privatization had dismantled the only recently institutionalized machinery of income supplements, social services, unemployment benefits, retraining schemes, work creation, and public subsidies for the arts, museums, and local cultural initiatives. In the starkest of contrasts, the new sociology of the contemporary metropolitan scene, already coalescing during the 1990s, confirmed in the 2000s, and made spectacular since 2008, reflects a fundamentally different set of labor markets and career prospects for the young. Whereas in the 1970s young people were able to postpone the future of a completed and settled adulthood for a variety of consciously chosen reasons, the time of “youth” today has been brutally elongated, disabled in its relation to a future now indefinitely deferred. Most of the book’s chapters offer much helpful material in fleshing out this contrast.

This leads to a fifth point concerning periodization. In their introduction, Van der Steen, Katzeff, and von Hoogenhuijze distinguish an earlier “heroic” phase of militancy in the 1970s and 1980s from the more variegated practices developing between the 1990s and today. With its propensities for direct-action violence, rhetorical provocations, and confrontational challenges to authority, it is the earlier time that more commonly shapes perceptions, they suggest. As they say, citing Kadir’s reportage of the Amsterdam movement in particular, many activists and researchers remain too easily in thrall to “a linear narrative [based] on one specific protest cycle that covers the years 1979-1988” rather than seeing the more complicated dynamics of development since: “The 1980s movement is idealized and projected onto the imaginations and desires of activists who envision the perfect movement as massive, militant, and capable of spectacular occupations and street fights. The image of the movement has thus become static, blind to the movement’s evolution, and the cause of many of the current activists’ experience of a ‘schizophrenic’ world, in which the real movement and its myth continuously clash” (pp. 7-8). While the temporalities certainly overlap, with frequent reversions to confrontationalism and volence, not least in response to changes in policing, new fields of political maneuvering and negotiation have been opening over the past two decades. These involve conflicts over gentrification, urban renewal, homelessness, and preservation of public space, but also opportunities for creative planning and design and new institutional forms that make use of protections under the law. Vasudevan in particular sees the new politics crystalizing from the spatial practices and aesthetics of contemporary city living, with “the micro-practices of squatting” giving access to “wider debates about the practice of urban politics and the emancipatory possibilities of the built form” (p. 133). Using the example of Kastanienallee 77 (K77), an abandoned three-story building in East Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg occupied in 1992, he shows activists creatively claiming and redefining urban space, so that “principles and practices of cooperative living intersected with juggled political commitments, emotional attachments, and the mundane materialisms of domesticity, occupation, and renovation” (p. 132). On a larger political scale, Cattaneo and Tudela show contemporary struggles over urban space in Barcelona articulating with politics at the levels of both the city and the regional state. In the London chapter, Finchett-Maddock is especially interesting on the subject of legal activism, where advocacy and engagement with local and national government, in the guise of SQUASH (Squatters Action for Secure Homes) and ASS (Advisory Service for Squatters), produce a quite different field of negotiated political relations. As these examples make plain, the politics of emancipation and popular interest have no easy or straightforward boundary. The tensions between the more militantly “heroic” and separatist forms of autonomism and the more “realist” reform-oriented social-movement advocacy--for example between building institutional resources around a legally recognized social center and on the other hand declaring a TAZ (Temporary Autonomous Zone)--can be extreme.[5]

Finally, autonomism attains its highest significance once placed in the widest setting of its times. Most palpably, the autonomist militancies of 1977-86 coincided with far wider popular rebelliousness. Thus West German extraparliamentary action peaked over exactly the same period, notably in the massively spectacular antinuclear movements at Whyl, Kalkar, Brokdorf, Gorleben, and Wackersdorf, in the Frankfurt runway protests, and in the peace movement climaxing in 1981-84; inside that larger context, West Berlin’s 1978 Tunix festival and the organized densities of the big-city alternative scenes supplied one among these other strands. Likewise, the British miners’ strike, the peace movement, and the urban riots of the early 1980s linked back to the Rock Against Racism carnivals of 1977-78, the punk explosion, and the Free Festivals dating from 1971-74, all complexly interconnected with the rise of the new urban Left of the Greater London Council and other city governments in the early 1980s. This was a politics simply not legible for the existing mainstream Left. It collided violently with the latter too: the Italian autonomist upsurge of 1977-78 defined itself via huge confrontations with the PCI in Bologna and Rome. It was a politics of refusal, with at best an ambivalence against parliamentary politics, at worst a profaning of democratic values. The new extraparliamentary activists had few affinities with older Left parties, which in the 1980s seemed exhausted, despite a capacity for continuing success in elections--a Eurocommunism (Italy, France, Spain) that failed to break through; a sclerotic social democracy (West Germany, Low Countries, Britain) stuck in its accommodations to capitalism; and a technocratic socialism (France, Spain, Greece) shedding all relation to labor movements.

In the intervening years, between the 1980s and the present, this gulf in the Left has grown ever deeper. On the one hand, long-term capitalist restructuring has destroyed the infrastructures making the earlier broadly based socialist cultures possible, so that socialist parties have become only shells of their former selves, existing only for the fighting of elections. In extraparliamentary arenas, on the other hand, an inventively vigorous social-movement activism remains alive and well, collectively organized at the grass roots, to be sure, yet highly localized and mainly disconnected from any national party political framework. So we now have two quite distinct Left formations with separate but overlapping existence, each deriving from a different period of the Left’s history. If in the first two thirds of the twentieth century the city was the site of the stable working-class formation that sustained the Left’s earliest successes, it has now become a fundamentally different space of sociality, employment, everyday practice, and political identification. The City Is Ours does a fine job of delineating some of the resulting political boundaries, while describing the new ground where politics can occur. Certain of the essays (for example, Cattaneo/Tudela on Barcelona, Kritidis on Greece) begin to suggest how the bifurcated arenas of contemporary Left politics might be reconnected: Podemos (We Can, founded 2014) and SYRIZA (Coalition of the Radical Left, 2004) each specifically bypass the existing parties, seeking a different ground from which to win support; Ada Colau, newly elected Left mayor of Barcelona, entered politics via housing activism, becoming a leading voice for the Platform for People Affected by Mortgages that was formed in 2009. Given their disappearance as the membership parties of old, their narrowing around a purely bureaucratic and propagandist electoralism, their almost wholly deradicalized centrism, and their dismal showing in recent elections, existing socialist parties are less and less capable of offering any solution. No Left seeking to take their place can ignore the distinctive grounds of democracy and active citizenship addressed by The City Is Ours.

Notes
[1]. The potential citations here are endless. For an indication, see the following summations: Charles Tilly, Social Movements, 1768-2004 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2004); Alberto Melucci, Nomads of the Present: Social Movements and the Needs of Contemporary Society (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989); and Sidney Tarrow, Power in Movement: Social Movements and Contentious Politics, 3rd rev. ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011). For a representative sample of the wider literatures, see: Hans Peter Krisi, ed., New Social Movements in Western Europe: A Comparative Analysis (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995); Marco Guigni, Doug McAdam, and Charles Tilly, eds., How Social Movements Matter (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999); Doug McAdam, Sidney Tarrow, and Charles Tilly, Dynamics of Contention (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Maria Kousis and Charles Tilly, eds., Economic and Political Contention in Comparative Perspective (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2005); and Donatella Della Porta and Mario Dani, Social Movements: An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006).
[2]. Interestingly, McKay’s volume appears in none of the sociologists’ bibliographies. Examples of the activist genre include Notes from Nowhere, eds., We are everywhere: the irresistable rise of gobal anticapitalism (London: Verso, 2003); and Claire Soloman and Tania Palmieri, eds., Springtime: The New Student Rebellions (London: Verso, 2011); also the biographical interviews collected in Tom Mertes, ed., A Movement of Movements: Is Another World Really Possible? (London: Verso, 2004). For a recent work thinking across the genres, see Manuel Castells, Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012).
[3]. Katsiaficas, Subversion of Politics, 39.
[4]. According to Katsiaficas, Subersion of Politics, 87-88, 99-100, 128-131, Kreuzberg had an alternative scene of 40,000, along with 40,000 Turks and 50,000 “normals” in 1989.
[5]. See Hakim Bey, TAZ: The Temporary Autonomus Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism (Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia, 1991), 106: TAZs were “‘pirate economics,’ living high off the surplus of social reproduction--even the popularity of colorful military uniforms--and the concept of music as revolutionary social change--and finally their shared air of impermanence, of being ready to move on, shape-shift, relocate to other universities, mountain-tops, ghettos, factories, safe houses, abandoned farms--or even other planes of reality.”
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the list discussion logs at: http://h-net.msu.edu/cgi-bin/logbrowse.pl.
Citation: Geoff Eley. Review of Van der Steen, Bart; Katzeff, Ask; Van Hoogenhuijze, Leendert, eds., The City Is Ours: Squatting and Autonomous Movements in Europe from the 1970s to the Present. H-Socialisms, H-Net Reviews. June, 2015.
URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=42709

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Cazzarola! reviewed in Anarchist Studies

by Peter Seyferth
Anarchist Studies 23-2

In a time when xenophobia and racism gain weight in European politics and some boneheads ‘rebelliously’ reproduce relationships of hierarchy and oppression by setting fire to refugee camps, a novel like Cazzarola! is very relevant because it brings to life both the history of real rebels (anarchists) and the story of recipients of hate crimes and state crimes (Romani).

Cazzarola! tells the stories of Antonio Discordia, his love, and his family. Antonio is a student, a musician, and an anarchist. He lives his punk rock life-
style with beer and activism, like many of us. But then he falls in love with Cinka Dinicu, a beautiful violin player. Cinka is a Romani, and this makes their love very complicated. Romans and Romani do not easily fit, they live in different, almost incompatible worlds. While Antonio is not rich (he has to share a flat), Cinka is bitterly poor. She lives in a slummy camp with naked soil for a floor in the shoddy shed she shares with her whole family. She has to earn a living for all of them by playing her violin in public places, always being on the lookout against dangerous Italians who might attack her. Cinka has not chosen a romantic ‘Gypsy’ lifestyle, she’d rather live in a comfortable home, accepted by her neighbours – but Italy won’t let her. Cazzarola! made me feel the difficult and dangerous situation in which Romani people have to live. Bored youths, agitated neo-fascists, and greedy politi- cians beat them up, torch their homes and shops, tear down their camps, murder them. Cinka is in constant fear. Antonio brings her food and mattresses and job opportunities, and can even give her a day and a night of bliss – but he cannot save her. From his privileged perspective he sees opportunities where Cinka sees dangers. When Cinka gets pregnant, Antonio has no idea of the vengeance this might evoke: Cinka was promised to a Romanian village guy when she was a girl. And when Antonio and his friends increase their anti-fascist and anti-racist actions in an attempt to help the immigrants and the disenfranchised, they may just make things more dangerous ...

Activism is the second storyline of the novel. The Discordias are a family of anar- chists. Antonio’s great-grandfather tells the tales of long, hard strikes in the nineteenth century, resistance to Mussolini’s blackshirts and to the Duce himself, autonomous actions in the 1970s, and anti-fascist action in our times – this is the continuing tradi- tion of the struggle for liberation. Nawrocki contrasts this to short descriptions of the way old and new fascists plan and carry out their violent crimes – this is the contin- uing tradition of oppression. In his blurb on Cazzarola!, Davide Turcato compares Nawrocki’s novel to Bertolucci’s movie 1900. That is not far-fetched, although in Cazzarola! the Communist Party is much more clearly exposed as the class traitor it actually was. Sometimes I had the suspicion that Nawrocki wanted to smuggle history lessons into his novel, but then he subverts his teaching with dizzying changes between storylines, and with intense descriptions of colours, temperatures, sounds, and smells. Cazzarola! is not a book from which to learn facts about Italian anarchism or Romani culture (for that, visit the information-rich websites Nawrocki lists in the back of the book). Rather, Cazzarola! touches the heart, shakes it between wrath and sympathy. It depicts Italy as a beautiful and horrible country. It made me wish Italy and the world could be pushed towards more beauty. And it clearly identified xeno- phobia, racism and fascism, along with their accomplices capitalism and state, as the source of ugliness.

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Until the Rulers Obey: A review on Anarchist Studies

by Roy Krøvel
Anarchist Studies 23

This book is a brilliant idea: the two editors (in addition to some friends) take us
on a journey into ‘the magical world of Latin America’ (p xxviii). It is a trip starting
in Mexico, moving into Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua before it continues to Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, Chile and Argentina. Along the way the authors introduce us to all sorts of social and political activists, including leaders of political parties of the left, environmentalists, indigenous activists, feminists and trade unionists.

This is a commendable effort for several reasons.

Understanding Latin America
is in itself important as a wave of change has rolled through the area since the turn
of the century. At the same time, Latin American social movements have undergone significant development and change over the last two or three decades, as Raul Zibechi describes in his foreword. Many of these new movements, for instance the Landless Movement of Brazil, the Zapatistas in Mexico, and various indigenous movements in the Andes, have come to play a vital role globally as they stimulate and inspire new social movements around the world.

No wonder Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein heap plaudits on the cover: ‘This is the book we have been waiting for’. Others call it a ‘wonderfully edited collection’. And still others ‘cannot imagine a more important and timely volume for scholars and activists who wish to understand the transformations that are sweeping the subconti- nent’ (William Robinson).

Until the Rulers Obey is at its best when the authors ponder the difficult relation- ship between the ‘new’ leftist regimes in Nicaragua, Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, and social movements. Raul Zibechi has already reminded us that state policies tend to dissolve the self-organisation of those from below, turning many into clients of the regimes. The new presence of the state tends to ‘smother’ the movements (Zibechi,
p xiv). Still, the editors do express some sympathy with the governments of the
‘Pink Tide’ in Latin America. However, the picture that seems to emerge from the interviews with activists is not very flattering for these governments, as the editors readily acknowledge. The interviews with activists living under the watchful eye of self-declared leftist regimes are a valuable contribution to our understanding of recent political processes in Latin America. Unfortunately, the volume does not reflect thoroughly on the profound implications of the conflicts between social movements and leftist regimes. In one instance, for example, the editors thank the ‘Sandinista police’ in a manner reminiscent of the camaraderie between solidarity activists and the Sandinista regime in the 1980s. In the chapters on Nicaragua, however, activists demonstrate how the current regime has succeeded in converting both the Sandinista party and the Nicaraguan state into a family affair, using the full repressive machinery of the state to exclude and marginalise opposition. It is difficult to understand why the Nicaraguan police should be celebrated for being ‘Sandinista’ under the current circumstances.

A more serious problem lies with the introductory chapters to each section. These are mostly old fashioned histories with very state-centred analyses of the political game between national political parties of left and right. This state-centred perspective is not very helpful for the reader who wishes to understand the emergence of new social movements from below. The focus on the political competition within states frames the interviews so that important features such as transnational aspects of environ- mental and indigenous movements become less salient than they should be.

In such a broad and ambitious undertaking, dealing with 15 countries and numerous organisations, it is of course almost impossible not to make the odd factual mistake.

Nonetheless, for readers of this journal the assertion that the Zapatistas (EZLN) emerged out of an encounter between ‘left Maoists and indigenous peoples’ might nevertheless be of particular interest (p xix). This claim is probably caused by a mix-up between the Maoist Linea Proletaria, headed by Adolfo Orive, an organisation that left Chiapas before the Zapatistas emerged, and the more Cuba oriented Fuerzas de Liberación Nacional (FLN), which later evolved into EZLN.

The editors are also too quick to label Augusto Sandino an ‘anarcho-syndicalist’ (p 116). While it is likely that Sandino encountered syndicalism on his journeys to Mexico, he remained a loyal supporter of the Nicaraguan Liberal Party until his death. Sandino welcomed support from anyone who could help in the struggle against the US supported regime, from liberals to Moscow communists, but he never seems to have contemplated the possi- bility that his movement could have had a leader other than himself.

These comments notwithstanding, this is a very sympathetic book which deserves to be read and discussed.

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Peter Linebaugh's Stop, Thief!: A Review in Anarchist Studies Journal

by Martin Parker
Anarchist Studies 23-1

According to Peter Linebaugh, if a radical speaker wanted to get attention in the hurly burly of a street, one tactic was to shout ‘stop thief!’ loudly and repeatedly until a crowd gathered and began to pay attention. In this megaphone of a book, we are reminded just how much thieving has been going on, and for how long. In its dense series of interconnected essays, most published elsewhere but definitely benefit-
ting from their collection here, the theme of enclosures and commons is repeated in different places and times until we can be in no doubt that the argument is a general one. Thieves have been stealing our stuff for a long while now, and it’s time to start noticing and doing something about it.

We don’t need to run through the general features of the commons argument here, but it’s worth making one point clear. For Linebaugh, commoning is a rela- tionship (p 18), and ‘the commons’ is something produced by that relationship. It’s important to bear that in mind when reading these essays, because otherwise we would easily end up in a series of unhelpful dichotomies. For example, the wide open spaces of the country ended by the confinements of the city; the field replaced by the factory; and freedom by institutions. Though Linebaugh is often enough a romantic when it comes to wild flowers and long walks, he knows that ‘the city itself must be commonized’ (p 40).

The essays here touch on topics which will be familiar to those who know Peter Linebaugh’s work – crime, Marx, history, romanticism, slavery, women in men’s clothing and vice versa – a list of all the ways in which the word ‘common’ becomes a slur in the English language. This books adds Godzilla, cowboys, witches and the importance of rest ‘because earth, air, water and fire, formerly common, are utterly exhausted by the world’s privatizers who call their exploitation “business”. But business is the opposite of rest.’ (p 135)

It’s a tremendous book, bursting with astonishing detail, bizarre entanglements, autobiographical excursions and firebrand rhetoric. It is a most ill-disciplined read too, one that refuses to stay within its constituent disciplines – history and politics – and that instead oscillates between Ripley’s ‘Believe It or Not’ scholarship and a tub thumping condemnation of the present. Circumnavigating the shores of the Atlantic, Linebaugh forces his readers to think about communing, communism and the deep tides of history that connect ‘then’ with ‘now’. It’s a great read.

This leaves questions, of course, because as Linebaugh says ‘in true dialectics ... each party in the discussion is changed by it’ (p 255). So sometimes, as I read, I wondered what the boundaries of this commons might be. As someone who is interested in organisations, I began to wonder whether Linebaugh would regard all institutions as enclosures, as attempts to channel and restrict the flows of human action. As we might expect from a thunderer on a soapbox, variants of good commons and bad enclosures are conjured with enthusiasm, but there is little reflection on what a more relational account of this politics might look like. In other words, could we consider what sorts of enclo- sures are good and useful, and what sorts of commons might be a problem? For example, when he describes the division of labour as a form of enclosure (p 80), does that mean that any allocation of tasks to different people is an offence to the commons? I hope he wouldn’t argue that, and that the sort of radical history and explosive writing that this book encloses can be turned to the practical business of building the future, as well as re-telling the past for a crowd who will probably roar their agreement anyway.

 
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New Forms of Worker Organization reviewed in Anarchist Studies

by Jim Donaghey
Anarchist Studies 23-2

Bureaucratic, class-compromise unions have had their day – they are ineffective
at best, totally treacherous at worst, they are no longer trusted to represent the interests of workers, and their memberships are at an all-time low. In their stead alternative unions and workers’ assemblies based on democracy, direct action, and prefigurative revolution are popping-up across the globe, informed by anarchist, syndicalist, autonomist, and council-communist traditions. This is the argument that weaves its way through the collected contributions that make-up New Forms of Worker Organization.

There are thirteen case studies here, with a broad range of contexts, styles
and approaches. They include historical pieces such as Steven Manicastri’s brief history of Operaismo in 1970s Italy, Gabriel Kuhn’s overview of the centenarian SAC in Sweden, Burgmann, Jureidini, and Burgmann’s case studies of workers’ control experiments in 1970s Australia, and Genese Marie Sodikoff’s ethnographic work from 1990s Madagascar. Throughout the chapters, comparisons are also frequently made with the early twentieth century, both in terms of socio-economic circumstances and the syndicalist and worker-run unions which emerged at that time. However, one of the key assertions of this volume is that the qualitative step- change from traditional to alternative union organising is eminently current, and as such most of the chapters take a contemporary focus. Editor Ness writes in his introduction that this focus sets the volume apart, as he argues that ‘[l]iterature on anarchism and syndicalism is almost entirely historical, drawn from the late nine- teenth to early twentieth centuries’ (p6). I’m not sure that this assertion is entirely accurate, especially considering the body of literature on contemporary activism that has been produced in recent years, but the up-to-date focus is very welcome all the same. In addition to the historical perspectives on Italy, Sweden, Australia, and Madagascar there are contemporary case studies from across the global north and global south, with chapters on Russia, China, India, South Africa, Colombia, Argentina, the UK, and the US.

The diversity of case study contexts is reflected in the mixed-bag of approaches and analyses. The most engaging chapters are those which make use of interview material and correspondence with struggling workers, or those written by participants in struggles themselves. Aviva Chomsky’s chapter on miners’ solidarity with indig- enous communities in Colombia, Darío Bursztyn’s chapter on underground train drivers in Buenos Aires, and Jack Kirkpatrick’s account of IWW cleaners in London all benefit from first-hand testimony. Erik Forman’s chapter on IWW organising in the Jimmy John sandwich chain in Minnesota is worthy of special mention, making use of a highly engaging narrative style to recount the details of the struggle from a participant’s perspective, as well as incorporating a good deal of insightful analysis. Other chapters are somewhat dry and overly descriptive. Bizyukov and Olimpieva’s chapter on Russia suffers from this especially with a death-by-data of graphs and tables. While a distaste for this approach is likely to be highly subjective, their data set only extends from 2008 to 2011, and the analysis of a shift in labour relations is quite limited as a result.

Anarcho-syndicalist, autonomist-Marxist, and council-communist analyses all rub-along together in this volume but are united in a shared disdain for ‘traditional’ unions, and an enthusiasm for the democratic, self-directed, and revolutionary forms of worker organisation that they describe – and as Ness stresses in the introduction, there is no ‘ideal type’ being proffered here (p2). It is notable, however, that Shawn Hattingh’s is the only chapter to suggest taking over the mainstream unions as a worthwhile aim (p112), with all the other authors placing their optimism firmly in organically formed workers’ assemblies and councils, and in the (re)emerging ‘scrappy little DIY unions’ (as Kirkpatrick describes the IWW, p246).

This volume will certainly be of interest to those researching labour struggles in diverse global contexts, but the overarching argument of the book should appeal to workplace activists and a wider audience as well. Against the backdrop of rapacious neo-liberalism, the spread of precarious employment, and a nadir for class-conscious- ness, the new forms of worker organisation described here really do give hope for a democratic and militant reinvigoration of struggle which extends out from the work- place and into society as a whole.

Can recent experiments with alternative forms of organizing, such as worker centers and minority strikes, offer a solution to the labor movement’s long half-century of decline?

Racked by globalization, union-busting, and weak legal protections, unions in the U.S. have fallen from representing 35 percent of the working population in the 1950s to 12 percent today. Other countries have seen similar trends.

An excellent new book, New Forms of Worker Organization: The Syndicalist and Autonomist Restoration of Class-Struggle Unionism, presents examples of present-day organizing around the world—inside and outside of unions.

What these efforts have in common is an approach that editor Immanuel Ness calls “autonomous worker organizing,” which is largely a renewal of an old form of unionism called syndicalism. He promotes it as the best way forward for labor, in the U.S. and globally.

Revival of Syndicalism?

Syndicalism arose in late 19th-century Europe as a more revolutionary alternative to the traditional unions of the time. Its goals were to improve working conditions in the near term, while organizing in the long run to overthrow capitalism.

It’s characterized by a participatory structure, use of direct action in the workplace, embrace of class struggle, rejection of electoral politics, the organizing of general strikes, and advocacy of workers’ control of production. This model rejects any partnership between workers and bosses, and sees the government as on the bosses’ side, not a neutral party.

The new book’s case studies take place in Italy, China, Russia, India, South Africa, Madagascar, Colombia, Argentina, Sweden, Australia, the U.S., and England. Most have a militancy that’s lacking in many traditional union fights. For instance, they use wildcat strikes and occupations. Ness suggests these diverse efforts share some of the core principles of syndicalism, particularly member-initiated direct action in the workplace.

The book’s U.S. example is fascinating: a detailed, firsthand account by a worker who participated in the Industrial Workers of the World fast food organizing campaign at Jimmy John’s in the Twin Cities.

The campaign demonstrates the IWW’s “solidarity unionism” model. Without relying on union staff, workers run their own campaign, developing demands and using direct action tactics to fight for them. Jimmy John’s workers created an organizing committee, listed their demands, stopped work, marched on the boss, picketed and occupied the store, published a campaign website, ran a campaign for paid sick days—and over time, made improvements to wages and working conditions.

They also held a National Labor Relations Board-supervised union election, which they narrowly lost after a union-busting campaign by the boss. This raised questions among workers about the utility of the established procedures for organizing.

Bottom-Up Organizing

In many of the book’s case studies, nonunion workers organized independently because of disinterest or hostility from established unions. In others, though workers were unionized, their unions didn’t offer adequate channels to resolve their workplace grievances, so they had to take their own initiative.

Official unions often did little to help the workers, and sometimes even worked to undermine them. This was true in the chapters about several groups of auto workers—at Honda in China, Ford in Russia, and Suzuki in India. Despite the opposition of the official All-China Federation of Trade Unions, the Honda workers held a successful and high-profile strike for better wages, inspiring actions at many other plants.

When mineworkers in South Africa launched a wave of wildcat strikes and sit-ins, they faced interference from the National Union of Mineworkers on top of severe repression from the government, which killed dozens of workers in the mining town of Marikana.

Workers organizing independently within mainstream unions are covered in chapters on the militant subway workers caucus within the transportation union in Argentina and on workplace takeovers in the construction, garment, and mining industries in Australia. Workers took over the construction site at the famous Sydney Opera House and ran it for over a month—with greater productivity. They won higher pay and shorter hours.

Two chapters discuss autonomous workers’ movements or organizations that cross industries within a country: the Confederazione dei Comitati di Base (Cobas) in Italy and the SAC syndicalist federation in Sweden.

This book provides a great overview of the non-traditional part of the global labor movement, which needs more attention. A common thread: workers are building power in ways that rely on worker initiative and solidarity, not on formal legal certification or union contracts.

It raises crucial questions about the role of rank-and-file power in a union revival, and offers a challenge to traditional union practices.

Much-Needed Spark

To solve the labor movement’s problems, first you have to understand their origins. In the U.S., mainstream unionists tend to believe the era after the 1935 enactment of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) was a golden age for organizing.

That law is seen as a progressive breakthrough that protected workers’ rights to organize and bargain collectively. In this version of the story, our current troubles are the result of a renewed corporate anti-union offensive begun in the ’70s and ’80s, coupled with a lack of enforcement of labor rights.

If that’s true, then the solution is reformed labor law and better enforcement. But Ness ends the book with a compelling essay that critiques this traditional understanding.

He sees the NLRA as a loss for the labor movement. It created a bureaucratized industrial relations system that stifled workers’ initiative and militancy on the shop floor. Unions traded away their disruptive rank-and-file power for an NLRA that shackled unions as contract administrators and eventually enabled their decline.

Ness shares the syndicalist view that disrupting production is what makes employers yield. Empowered workers should be free to stop work at any time, not hindered by the no-strike clauses and multi-step grievance procedures contained in most union contracts. Without this kind of militancy, he believes, there’s little chance of a revived labor movement.

If Ness is correct, the initiatives the U.S. labor movement has developed over the last few decades—more resources for new organizing, better corporate campaigns, increased turnout for elections—will not be enough. Instead, to make room for the widespread, combative workplace activism we need, unions will have to rethink our attitude toward rank-and-file power.

Of course this is risky. Strikes are often hard to win. Workers can usually be fired easily, no matter how organizing is done or who does it. But the resurgence of a participatory, syndicalist approach to organizing could provide a much-needed spark for labor.

Eric Dirnbach is a union staffer and labor activist in New York City.

- See more at: http://www.labornotes.org/blogs/2014/10/review-alt-labor-or-not-it-will-take-rank-and-file-power-revive-us#sthash.pEZlw0kP.dpuf

Can recent experiments with alternative forms of organizing, such as worker centers and minority strikes, offer a solution to the labor movement’s long half-century of decline?

Racked by globalization, union-busting, and weak legal protections, unions in the U.S. have fallen from representing 35 percent of the working population in the 1950s to 12 percent today. Other countries have seen similar trends.

An excellent new book, New Forms of Worker Organization: The Syndicalist and Autonomist Restoration of Class-Struggle Unionism, presents examples of present-day organizing around the world—inside and outside of unions.

What these efforts have in common is an approach that editor Immanuel Ness calls “autonomous worker organizing,” which is largely a renewal of an old form of unionism called syndicalism. He promotes it as the best way forward for labor, in the U.S. and globally.

Revival of Syndicalism?

Syndicalism arose in late 19th-century Europe as a more revolutionary alternative to the traditional unions of the time. Its goals were to improve working conditions in the near term, while organizing in the long run to overthrow capitalism.

It’s characterized by a participatory structure, use of direct action in the workplace, embrace of class struggle, rejection of electoral politics, the organizing of general strikes, and advocacy of workers’ control of production. This model rejects any partnership between workers and bosses, and sees the government as on the bosses’ side, not a neutral party.

The new book’s case studies take place in Italy, China, Russia, India, South Africa, Madagascar, Colombia, Argentina, Sweden, Australia, the U.S., and England. Most have a militancy that’s lacking in many traditional union fights. For instance, they use wildcat strikes and occupations. Ness suggests these diverse efforts share some of the core principles of syndicalism, particularly member-initiated direct action in the workplace.

The book’s U.S. example is fascinating: a detailed, firsthand account by a worker who participated in the Industrial Workers of the World fast food organizing campaign at Jimmy John’s in the Twin Cities.

The campaign demonstrates the IWW’s “solidarity unionism” model. Without relying on union staff, workers run their own campaign, developing demands and using direct action tactics to fight for them. Jimmy John’s workers created an organizing committee, listed their demands, stopped work, marched on the boss, picketed and occupied the store, published a campaign website, ran a campaign for paid sick days—and over time, made improvements to wages and working conditions.

They also held a National Labor Relations Board-supervised union election, which they narrowly lost after a union-busting campaign by the boss. This raised questions among workers about the utility of the established procedures for organizing.

Bottom-Up Organizing

In many of the book’s case studies, nonunion workers organized independently because of disinterest or hostility from established unions. In others, though workers were unionized, their unions didn’t offer adequate channels to resolve their workplace grievances, so they had to take their own initiative.

Official unions often did little to help the workers, and sometimes even worked to undermine them. This was true in the chapters about several groups of auto workers—at Honda in China, Ford in Russia, and Suzuki in India. Despite the opposition of the official All-China Federation of Trade Unions, the Honda workers held a successful and high-profile strike for better wages, inspiring actions at many other plants.

When mineworkers in South Africa launched a wave of wildcat strikes and sit-ins, they faced interference from the National Union of Mineworkers on top of severe repression from the government, which killed dozens of workers in the mining town of Marikana.

Workers organizing independently within mainstream unions are covered in chapters on the militant subway workers caucus within the transportation union in Argentina and on workplace takeovers in the construction, garment, and mining industries in Australia. Workers took over the construction site at the famous Sydney Opera House and ran it for over a month—with greater productivity. They won higher pay and shorter hours.

Two chapters discuss autonomous workers’ movements or organizations that cross industries within a country: the Confederazione dei Comitati di Base (Cobas) in Italy and the SAC syndicalist federation in Sweden.

This book provides a great overview of the non-traditional part of the global labor movement, which needs more attention. A common thread: workers are building power in ways that rely on worker initiative and solidarity, not on formal legal certification or union contracts.

It raises crucial questions about the role of rank-and-file power in a union revival, and offers a challenge to traditional union practices.

Much-Needed Spark

To solve the labor movement’s problems, first you have to understand their origins. In the U.S., mainstream unionists tend to believe the era after the 1935 enactment of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) was a golden age for organizing.

That law is seen as a progressive breakthrough that protected workers’ rights to organize and bargain collectively. In this version of the story, our current troubles are the result of a renewed corporate anti-union offensive begun in the ’70s and ’80s, coupled with a lack of enforcement of labor rights.

If that’s true, then the solution is reformed labor law and better enforcement. But Ness ends the book with a compelling essay that critiques this traditional understanding.

He sees the NLRA as a loss for the labor movement. It created a bureaucratized industrial relations system that stifled workers’ initiative and militancy on the shop floor. Unions traded away their disruptive rank-and-file power for an NLRA that shackled unions as contract administrators and eventually enabled their decline.

Ness shares the syndicalist view that disrupting production is what makes employers yield. Empowered workers should be free to stop work at any time, not hindered by the no-strike clauses and multi-step grievance procedures contained in most union contracts. Without this kind of militancy, he believes, there’s little chance of a revived labor movement.

If Ness is correct, the initiatives the U.S. labor movement has developed over the last few decades—more resources for new organizing, better corporate campaigns, increased turnout for elections—will not be enough. Instead, to make room for the widespread, combative workplace activism we need, unions will have to rethink our attitude toward rank-and-file power.

Of course this is risky. Strikes are often hard to win. Workers can usually be fired easily, no matter how organizing is done or who does it. But the resurgence of a participatory, syndicalist approach to organizing could provide a much-needed spark for labor.

Eric Dirnbach is a union staffer and labor activist in New York City.

- See more at: http://www.labornotes.org/blogs/2014/10/review-alt-labor-or-not-it-will-take-rank-and-file-power-revive-us#sthash.pEZlw0kP.dpuf

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Black Flags and Windmills in Anarchist Studies Journal

by John DuBose
Anarchist Studies 23-1

In August 2005 Mother Nature unleashed the destructive force of Hurricane Katrina. Massive damage was wreaked as Katrina moved inland over New Orleans but the government’s total neglect of the people there was the true devastation. Parts of New Orleans were below sea level and the levees that the Army Corps of Engineers built could not withstand the force of 100mph+ winds. The levees broke, Mother Nature took over, and afterwards, the government abandoned its people. Not just any of its people, but mostly the poor and the working class of the Lower 9th Ward.

Scott Crow’s journey begins in this devastated and neglected community ‘with a question of life and death’ concerning his friend Robert H. King. King (a.k.a. Robert King Wilkerson) is a former Black Panther Party member who was unjustly sentenced to twenty-nine years in Louisiana’s Angola Prison and it was Crow’s ties to King that drew him into the recovery and aid efforts in the Lower 9th Ward in the aftermath of Katrina. What he found in New Orleans was that the government was doing little to help, and even less to account for its own neglect and inability to help. This void was filled, among others, by the Common Ground Collective.

The Common Ground Collective’s story is of a political activist and social organ- iser bringing help to those in need while government agencies fight over who will be in charge and people starve because aid is stalled. Against a background of landlords selling off people’s homes and vigilante groups of racist whites running rampant, it is a story of the strength of the socioeconomic class that is forged when they are forgotten by the government machine. It is a story of hope within anarchy.

As one is taken on this journey with Scott Crow, one can feel the rage of a govern- ment out of its depth and out of touch with the needs of a people it has forgotten. One sees the horror of the events, not as told in the local and national news, but the truthful perspective as experienced on the ground. Scott Crow is not a saviour, nor is he the champion who swooped in to ‘save the day’, he is a person like any other. But he continuously fought for what was right for the people who lived through Hurricane Katrina. He listened to the needs of the people in the area and accepted the help and support of those the government turned away (Michael Moore and others). Black Flags and Windmills is about looking at disaster from the point of view of those who are always forgotten: the poor. The past struggles of the Black Panther Party and the Zapatistas (EZLN) are where Scott and others draw their political activist strength. These groups have to fight against a system that sees them as unimportant and must survive on their own terms. Black Flags and Windmills is not a testament about fighting and winning against the system, rather it a testament of what people can accomplish when they meet collectively on a common ground.

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Black Flags and Windmills in Maximum Rock n Roll

by John Stehlin
Maximum Rock n Roll
July 2015


In Black Flags and Windmills, scott crow tells the story of the formation of the Common Ground Collective in New Orleans amid the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in fall 2005, which disproportionately affected African-American communities already made vulnerable by disinvestment, poverty, and state inaction. Equal parts memoir, movement history, anarchist polemic, and organizing handbook, the book traces the early months of Common Ground’s efforts to build collective power and self-sufficiency among residents of the predominantly black Algiers neighborhood, working under the banner of “Solidarity Not Charity.” These efforts came at a time when the emergency response by federal and state agencies often ignored and even terrorized poor communities of color while residents contended with trauma, illness, violence, and the loss of homes and lives. The Common Ground story, as the many pages of glowing reviews attest, is a modern narrative of heroism without heroes, demonstrating the vitality and effectiveness of anarchist principles in the face of emergency.

This edition adds a new foreword and rewritten epilogue, photographs from the early days of the CGC, two interviews with the author, a collection of emails and communiqués from crow to supporters, CGC founding documents, and a list of the actions CGC undertook. Though I haven’t read the first edition, I think these parts alone merit another look at the book (though probably not a purchase) from people who have. They show how crow at the time envisioned and related the actions of the CGC to activist solidarity networks. This complements the main narrative, which retells the history based on recollections and oral histories from several years later. The less-than-initiated (like myself) will also appreciate the breadth of the list of tasks the CGC worked on, reproduced in the appendix. Collective members and volunteers pursued these efforts with an “emergency heart” (crow’s phrase), a horizontalist spirit, and a willingness to serve local black leaders that demonstrates anarchism at its best and least dogmatic.

Unfortunately many of the things that make this book great are also shortcomings, and because it’s justly lauded I’ll permit myself to be picky. To begin with, as a memoir the book works almost too well. crow is clearly wary of presenting the story of forming the CGC without accounting for his own formation as a white, male solidarity activist who entwined his fate with those of black residents of New Orleans. Thus, after the first few pages, in which crow and now-infamous Brandon Darby journey to inundated New Orleans in search of their comrade King, a former Black Panther Party member and community activist, the book turns to crow’s personal history and how he came to call himself an anarchist. To be very clear: this is a very important part of the story and shouldn’t be omitted. But at times it can be jarring, and, as crow clearly understands, can play into the mainstream media’s desire for a figurehead and hero. During these sections he also enters brief excurses on the Spanish anarchists of the 1930s, the Black Panther Party, and the Zapatistas. Readers already familiar with the histories of these movements will tire of these reminders. By the same token, for people new to anarchism and social movement history, these are valuable sections the book can’t do without.

Furthermore, because the story is told—rightly—from crow’s own perspective, we miss out on how the CGC evolved in the years that followed. crow left New Orleans to return to Austin after nearly two months of intense labor, punctuated by the trauma of grief, loss, and threats of violence from the state. He returned frequently thereafter, but was no longer involved on the ground in the day-to-day. From the epilogue, we know that as the emergency receded, the CGC slowly transformed into a more stable and traditional non-profit agency, while retaining a radical culture and its “Solidarity Not Charity” mission. crow seems ambivalent on this point, at times calling it cooptation and at times celebrating the valuable work the CGC still does. But we don’t get any sense of how this happened. It’s not enough to assert that Power (which crow capitalizes, in my view gratingly, to refer to the state and capital) by necessity coopts and controls. To understand what the CGC story means for future dual power organizing (both resisting the capitalist state and prefiguring its non-coercive alternative), it would help to see the steps by which it became integrated into the “non-profit industrial complex.” As a movement history, the book does not do this.

This means there are gaps in its usefulness for anarchist political theory as well. We don’t get a larger sense of why anticapitalist and anti-state movements for collective security and prefiguring a better world flourish in the gaps left by disasters, whether socio-ecological (as in Katrina) or socio-economic (as in Detroit). crow asserts that Power and the state exist only to control. But despite being punctuated by hostile interventions by the police and military, as well as ineffective ones by FEMA and the Red Cross, Algiers and the Lower Ninth Ward are places the state seemed to abandon at the time. Power (with a capital P) does control, but also controls by ignoring. This is important for anarchists to understand, but there isn’t much space devoted to these finer nuances of power. Nor is there a longer discussion of one of the most interesting aspects of the book: the sharp contrast between violent, racist, and hostile police force, and the somewhat friendlier, more cooperative military. This contrast shows in practice more shades of grey within the state than crow’s theoretical discussions sometimes admit.

Lastly, while crow never celebrates the horrific and totally avoidable disaster that created the conditions for Common Ground’s emergence, we must wonder what it takes to build dual power without some traumatic breakdown. Both anarchist solidarity activists and vulture capitalists can rush into the vacuum left by state neglect, as New Orleans since Katrina shows. At times, statements crow makes about the superiority of the horizontal tactics of the former sound eerily resonant with what you might hear from a right-wing libertarian. What the people of New Orleans deserve is a set of durable, democratic and non-hierarchical institutions that deliver the necessities of life, not a shoestring organization of overworked, committed militants on one hand and Blackwater on the other. Indeed, when CGC tried to buy public housing that was slated for demolition, really threatening capital and the state that facilitates it, their efforts were apparently sabotaged (http://wagingnonviolence.org/feature/repression-against-grassroots-hurricane-relief-lingers-in-new-orleans/). And speaking of the state, readers hoping for dirt about scumbag FBI informant Brandon Darby (now a conservative columnist at Breitbart, unsurprisingly), this isn’t the place. Darby gets just a few paragraphs, mostly about his rash egotism and crow’s regrets about defending him.

I would strongly recommend this book to people less familiar with anarchism and social movement history than your average well-read punk or anarchoid is. For the person in your life who thinks anarchists only wear black and smash windows, or doesn’t know who the Zapatistas are, or sees no place for the kind of armed self-defense (yes, with guns) that the immediate post-flood situation required, this is a perfect book. If you don’t know much about the grassroots efforts post-Katrina (and I didn’t), it’s a compelling read, and crow’s passion and heart comes through on every page. I don’t want to accuse crow of not writing the book I want him to have written. But for the reasons I discussed above, I think we still need another history of the CGC, one that brings us up to the present, perhaps told by Malik Rahim, crow’s comrade and former Panther who co-founded Common Ground with him. Without such a history, we have a detailed snapshot told by one man of heroic efforts in traumatic times, instead of a tool we can continue to return to for guidance in similar situations as emergency wanes and the status quo creeps steadily back in.

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Anarchism, Marxism and Victor Serge on Counterpunch

by Staughton Lynd
Counterpunch
August 24th, 2015

Andrej Grubacic and I have suggested the importance of synthesizing two radical traditions, anarchism and Marxism. (Wobblies and Zapatistas, pp. 11-12, 98-99.)

In search of efforts in this direction in the United States, we called attention to the “Chicago idea” of two of the Haymarket anarchists, Albert Parsons and August Spies. Speaking to the jury and a packed courtroom before he was sentenced to death, Parsons distinguished two forms of socialism: state socialism, which meant government control of everything, and anarchism, an egalitarian society without a controlling authority. (James Green, Death in the Haymarket, p. 238.)

Twenty years later, the Industrial Workers of the World, or Wobblies, presented their own rich mixture of ideas, practices, and songs, drawn from these two traditions.

This essay presents the lifelong efforts to synthesize anarchism and Marxism by a man who wrote under the name “Victor Serge.”

A New Book

Victor Serge was born in Brussels in 1890. His given name was Victor Kibalchich; he adopted “Serge” as a pen name. His parents had left Tsarist Russia after the assassination of Alexander II in 1881. A distant relative, N. J. Kibalchich, a chemist, made the bombs that killed the tsar, and was executed. Thus Serge shared a biological connection to the terrorist act with Lenin, whose older brother was executed also.

In his best-known book, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, Serge recalled: “On the walls of our humble and makeshift lodgings there were always the portraits of men who had been hanged.” All political differences aside, the martyrs of the People’s Will movement set a standard for self-sacrificial conduct to which later Russian revolutionaries aspired. In a history of the first year of the Russian Revolution, Serge would say of the Narodniks and Social Revolutionaries of the previous generation that they “gave heroes and martyrs in hundreds to the cause of revolution.”

Serge wrote primarily in French. About twenty of his books, divided more or less equally between fiction and non-fiction, have been translated into English. Twenty-seven boxes of documents, mostly unpublished, are housed (improbably) at the Beinecke rare books library of Yale University.

It must be kept in mind that while living in the Soviet Union from 1919 to 1936 Serge wrote in difficult circumstances. In anticipation of interference by the Soviet government, he sent much of his writing to French publishers segment by segment. An international outcry caused him to be released from confinement and allowed to go into exile, but the Soviet secret police confiscated manuscripts that were never recovered. Moreover, Serge had always to assess the personal and political context of a particular work. Thus, when he arrived in Mexico soon after Trotsky’s assassination and wrote a biography of the Old Man jointly with Trotsky’s widow, he understandably did not include the fact that he had “broken” with Trotsky a few years earlier (see below).

Anarchists Never Surrender offers precious documentation of Serge’s early career as an anarchist. Initially, it seems, he considered himself a “socialist.” Predictably disgusted with the tepid parliamentary activity of European Social Democrats, he became an anarchist of a more and more individualist variety. At this early point in his trajectory, Serge thought that workers were hopelessly caught up in immediate materialistic objectives, hence a revolution requiring mass participation and support was impossible.

Young Serge apparently drew a line at bank robberies and shoot-outs with the police. However, close friends of his were deeply involved and more than one was eventually guillotined. At their trials Serge refused to snitch. He received a five year prison sentence as an accomplice, and memorably described his experience in his first book, Men in Prison.

Released from behind bars, Serge wrote to a friend that he no longer championed the “sectarian intransigence of the past” and was prepared to work with all those who were “animated by the same desire for a better life . . . even if their paths are different from mine, and even if they give different names I don’t know to what in reality is our common goal.” In January 1919 he found his way to the insurgent Soviet Union. There he attempted to give unconditional support to a Communist government while never abandoning an anarchist concern to protect what Rosa Luxemburg called “the person who thinks differently” (der Andersdenkender).

The first great treasure in this book is a group of messages Serge wrote to French anarchists in 1920-1921. Here he seeks to explain why he “joined the Russian Communist Party as an anarchist, without in any way abdicating my ideas, except for what was utopian.” These documents attempt to communicate the almost indescribable suffering in St. Petersburg (later Leningrad) during the civil war. A young Jewish student from Kharkov matter of factly described to Serge half a dozen moments when he was almost killed by anti-Semites, whereas wherever the Communists established themselves “the pogroms cease.”

Serge concedes in these messages that the Russian revolution “has earned many criticisms, but I don’t know who has earned the right to make them.” He sees clearly that the “greatest danger of dictatorship is that it tends to firmly implant itself, that it creates permanent institutions that it wants neither to abdicate nor to die a natural death.” But the struggle against dictatorship, Serge was convinced, had to wait until after the revolution was secure. He pleads for a new anarchism that “will doubtless be very close to Marxist communism.”

Many years later, but in the same spirit, Serge asked Trotsky’s son Leon Sedov to take to his father a call for Trotskyists in the Fourth International to explore a “fraternal alliance” with Spanish anarchists and syndicalists.

Anarchists Never Surrender ends with a 26-page Serge essay on “Anarchist Thought,” to which I shall return in conclusion. It is a critical document if we are to understand how Serge viewed the possible synthesis of Marxism and anarchism.

Memories

Let’s go back to Serge’s own explanations, in his Memoirs, of the impact of the Russian revolution on the impressionable young anarchist from western Europe.

Serge was enormously impressed by Lenin. It was characteristic of the anarchist in Serge closely to study the conduct, even the physical characteristics, of individuals. Here is what he had to say about Lenin:

In the Kremlin, he still occupied a small apartment built for a palace servant. In the recent winter he, like everyone else, had had no heating. When he went to the barber’s he took his turn, thinking it unseemly for anyone to give way to him. An old housekeeper looked after his rooms and did his mending.

Moreover, according to Serge, Lenin kept looking for ways to introduce democratic elements into the dictatorship of the proletariat. In April 1917, before the seizure of state power in November, Lenin proposed:

1. The source of power does not lie in law . . . but in the direct initiative of the popular masses, a local initiative taken from below.

2. The police and the army . . . are replaced by the arming of the people.

3. The functionaries are replaced by the people itself or are, at the very least, under its control; they are named by election and may be recalled by their constituents.

Lenin also advocated a Soviet form of free press, pursuant to which “any group with the support of 10,000 votes could publish its own organ at the public expense.” Serge insisted: “I know that . . . in May 1922, Lenin and Kamenev were considering . . . allowing a non-party daily to be published in Moscow.”

Victor Serge was of great value to the vulnerable young Bolshevik Revolution because he apparently was at home in French, Russian, German, Spanish, and English. But the comradely honeymoon or close working relationship between Serge and the Bolshevik Party lasted less than three years. Also included in Anarchists Never Surrender are fragments concerning the fundamental differences between Trotsky and Serge concerning the savage repression of an uprising by workers and sailors in 1921 at the military base in Kronstadt, near St. Petersburg. I remember being told when I was much younger that Trotsky ordered the rebels to surrender or he would lead the Red Army across the ice and “shoot them down like pheasants.”

For Serge, looking back in 1938, Kronstadt was only the tip of the iceberg. An earlier “black day” occurred in 1918, when the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party decided to permit the Cheka (the secret police) “to apply the death penalty on the basis of secret procedure, without hearing the deceased who could not defend themselves” (italics in original).

So what went wrong? Looking back, Serge found the error in dogmatism, in a Marxist conviction of scientific correctness in all that the Party undertook. Serge wrote in his Memoirs, “Bolshevik theory is grounded in [a belief in] the possession of the truth. Totalitarianism is within us.In the 1930s, according to one of his editors, Serge began to emphasize Bolshevism’s “natural selection of autocratic temperaments,” an emphasis sharply criticized by Trotsky.

In the early 1920s, Serge at first sought to deal with his growing uneasiness by serving the revolution abroad as an underground organizer. In this capacity he witnessed the failure of the 1923 would-be revolution in Germany. That failure sealed the destiny of the Russian Revolution: it would need to find a way to survive in a single country. Serge returned to the Soviet Union to become part of the Trotskyist opposition.

According to Serge’s Memoirs, Trotsky, as commander of the victorious Red Army, could have settled his conflict with Stalin by seizing power. But

Trotsky deliberately refused power, out of respect for an unwritten law that forbade any recourse to military mutiny within a socialist regime . . . . Rarely has it been made more sharply obvious that the end, rather then justifying the means, commands its own means, and that for the establishment of a Socialist democracy the old means of armed violence are inappropriate.

Yet, in the end, Serge broke with Trotsky. He offered three reasons. First, he thought the idea of establishing a Fourth International in the mid-1930s was “quite senseless.” Second, he deeply disagreed with Trotsky’s approval of the suppression of the Kronstadt rebellion. And third, he also condemned Trotsky’s refusal to admit that the establishment of the Cheka was “a grievous error . . . incompatible with any Socialist philosophy.” Serge considered that Trotsky exhibited “the systematic schematizing of old-time Bolshevism.”

Serge believed that his critique of Trotsky was shared by Lenin. According to Serge, Lenin wrote to the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party on December 25, 1922, in a document sometimes referred to as Lenin’s “Last Will,“ that Trotsky was “attracted to administrative solutions. What he undoubtedly meant was that Trotsky tended to resolve problems by directions from above.”

For Serge, it all came down to the following, written at the end of 1932: “I mean: man, whoever he is, be he the meanest of men – ‘class enemy,’ son or grandson of a bourgeois, I do not care. It must never be forgotten that a human being is a human being.”

A Theory and a Way of Life

Probing further, one concludes that the conflict between Marxism and anarchism is essentially not a conflict between two theories, two schemes for understanding present dilemmas and for predicting the future.

Without question Marxism is such a scheme. Despite a tendency to expect events to occur earlier than they actually come about, Marxism offers a sturdy analysis of long-run trends in capitalist economies. The flight of investment in manufacturing from the United States in the 1970s and 1980s to societies where wages are much lower is the latest illustration of the essential accuracy of this engine of analysis.

Anarchism, however, is not such a theory, and anarchists misrepresent what they can and should contribute by presenting Bakunin and Kropotkin as theoretical rivals to Marx.

Anarchism is an affirmation of values, of a way of life. Serge, in his memoirs, writes of “the first symptoms of that moral sickness which . . . was to bring on the death of Bolshevism.” Serge repeatedly attacks a belief that the end justifies the means. In a book entitled From Lenin to Stalin he argues that

moral criteria sometimes have greater value than judgments based on political and economic considerations . . . . It is untrue, a hundred times untrue that the end justifies the means. . . . Every end requires its own means, and an end is only obtained by the appropriate means.

Hence “a sort of moral intervention becomes our duty.” Serge is at his best when he describes the moral dimension of decisions.

In the late 1920s, after Trotsky had been ordered into exile and Serge was expelled from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Serge (in the words of one of his editors) decided to turn from agitation to more permanent forms of political and artistic testimony.

An early product was a history of the Russian revolution in the year 1918. Serge was not yet in Russia during that year and the book has a curious flatness, an almost academic two-dimensionality. (He also wrote a history of the revolution’s second year, when Serge was present and deeply involved. But this was one of the manuscripts that was confiscated by the secret police and has disappeared.) In a later work entitled Twenty Years After, Serge sketched the destinies of an endless list of individuals he knew and what happened to them. He sought to justify his approach as follows:

Yes, this struggle of the revolutionists against the machine that grinds down everything has about it something depressing when you think of it . . . in the abstract, without seeing the . . . faces, without being well acquainted with their lives, without the Russian land, the walls, the windows. I would like to efface this impression. Every one of these men has his true grandeur. They are not vanquished, they are resisters and they often have victorious souls.

The corpus of Serge’s work is not free of contradictions. In the book drawn from his experience in prison, Serge condemned the death penalty and the sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole, but justified the death penalty when “we need it.”

Unlike many prison reformers in the United States today he saw that guards too are imprisoned, in France at that time from age twenty-five to retirement at sixty, and as a group are “no better and no worse than the men they guard.” Upon release after serving his five-year sentence, Serge wrote: “We wanted to be revolutionaries; we were only rebels. We must become termites, boring obstinately, patiently, all our lives. In the end, the dike will crumble.”

It is also unclear where Serge came down as to a desirable economy. In the last book he wrote, the novel Unforgiving Years, D, a sympathetic protagonist, says: “The planned, centralized, rationally administered economy is still superior to any other model. Thanks to that, we survived in circumstances that would have made short work of any other regime.”

However, a decade earlier Serge had written in his Memoirs that in the New Economic Policy of the Soviet Union in the early and mid 1920s,

small-scale manufacture, medium-scale trading, and certain industries could have been revived merely by appealing to the initiative of producers and consumers. By freeing the State-strangled cooperatives, and inviting various associations to take over the management of different branches of economic activity, an enormous degree of recovery could have been achieved right away.

. . . In a word, I was arguing for a “Communism of associations:” – in contrast to Communism of the State variety. The competition inherent in such a system and the disorder inevitable in all beginnings would have caused less inconvenience than did our stringently bureaucratic centralization, with its muddle and paralysis. I thought of the total plan not as something dictated by the State from on high, but rather as resulting from the harmonizing, by congresses and socialized assemblies, of initiatives from below.

The Final Novels

One forms the strong impression that Serge can say what he feels most fully in fiction. And so the reader turns to The Case of Comrade Tulayev, written in Marseilles, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico in 1940-1942, and to Unforgiving Years. The inscription at the end of the latter is “Mexico, 1947,” the place and year of Serge’s death.

The novel about “Comrade Tulayev” was prompted by the assassination of a leading Bolshevik, named Kirov, in 1934. At the end of the book three men are executed for the assassination of Comrade Tulayev. All are wholly innocent. Two are presumably typical ascending Soviet bureaucrats, venal but not murderous. The third must be one of the most attractive figures in Victor Serge’s fiction. He is Kiril Rublev, an historian who, together with his equally stalwart wife Dora, hopes to be “present at the moment when history needs us.”

There is a relentless integrity about this book, rather like Professor Rublev’s. The workers do not get a free pass. Four thousand women workers at a factory demand the death penalty for those who killed Comrade Tulayev.

Two things about the book stand out for me. I first encountered Serge and this novel seventy years ago. The single thing I remembered over time was the reflection of a character named Stefan Stern, murdered by Soviet agents in Spain. Before he disappears to his death, Stern reflects:

After us, if we vanish without having had time to accomplish our task or merely to bear witness, working-class consciousness will be blanked out for a period of time that no one can calculate . . . . A man ends by concentrating a certain unique clarity in himself, a certain irreplaceable experience.

Not yet twenty, I read this passage with detachment. It seems much closer to me now.

Still more extraordinary is the novel’s portrait of Stalin, known in its pages as “the Chief.”   One old Bolshevik says to another: “The Chief has been at an impasse for a long time. . . . Perhaps he sees farther and better than all the rest of us. . . . I believe he has decided limitations, but we have no one else.” Amazingly, an old comrade named Kondratieff says the same thing directly to the Chief. He makes an appointment with the Chief to plead for Stern’s life. As the two men pace about the Chief’s enormous Kremlin office, Kondratieff says: “History has played us this rotten trick, we have only you.” And amazingly, the Chief does not dispatch Kondratieff to the cellar where the NKVD (successor to the Cheka) is executing a generation of Bolshevik leaders. Kondratieff is sent to manage gold extraction in furthest Siberia.

And where, then, lies hope, for the author whose own hourglass is almost out of sand?     The Case of Comrade Tulayev ends with disjointed acts of individual generosity.

Xenia, daughter of an aparatchik, manages to go to Paris where she revels in bourgeois plenitude. Somehow, in a newspaper that comes her way, she sees next to the announcement of a sports event a note that three men are to be executed for Tulayev’s murder, including Professor Rublev, a sometime friend of the family. Distraught, she goes to see a well-known French fellow traveler. She telephones Russia. She is persuaded to get in a car, then in a plane, and we last see her under arrest, ominously on her way to an unknown destination.

Out on the steppe a collective farm named “Road to the Future” is at a standstill.

There have already been two purges. Famine is at the door. There are no seeds, no horses, no gasoline. They send messages to the regional center but no help is forthcoming. Kostia, a Young Communist, and an agronomist named Kostiukin, come up with an idea. The entire village will walk to the regional center 34 miles away and seek help by means of this direct action. It works! And on the way Kostia holds Maria in his arms and learns that she is a “believer.” In what? She cannot put it into words.

Before his execution, Professor Rublev has asked for the opportunity to take a few days to write a memorandum. He does so and it vanishes into papers connected with his death. Miraculously, these papers come into the hands of one of the very top bureaucrats in the secret police, named Fleischman.

First, Fleischman reads a letter from a young man who does not sign his name. The letter states persuasively that the author, acting alone, killed Tulayev. Fleischman burns the letter.

Then he reads Rublev’s memorandum. It includes the words: “we bear                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  witness to a victory which encroached too far into the future and asked too much of men.” Fleischman finishes the memorandum with appreciation.

Then he leaves his office to attend the sporting event mentioned in the newspaper next to the notice of the execution of Rublev and the others. This is the end of the book.

Five years after Serge finished Tulayev, he finished Unforgiving Years. Very much in contrast to the editor who translates and introduces the work, I believe that the end of this novel is melodramatic, clunky, and altogether unworthy of its author. (Example:   D, the sympathetic character quoted earlier, ends as the proprietor of a Mexican “plantation” at which, he says, “I work my peons.”) But in a first section, before the novel and Serge himself seem slowly to go to pieces, Victor Serge offers some incisive reminders of the synthesis of anarchism and Marxism to which he devoted his life.

Early in the book, D reflects: “When all is said and done, we did this to ourselves.” More at length he reflects:

I have nothing left to invoke but conscience, and I don’t even know what it is. I feel an ineffectual protest surging up from a deep and unknown part of me to challenge destructive expediency, power, the whole of material reality, and in the name of what? Inner enlightenment? I’m behaving almost like a believer. I cannot do otherwise: Luther’s words. Except that the German visionary . . . went on to add, “God help me!” What will come to help me? (Emphasis added.)

He also thinks to himself:

We can trust no one any longer. No one will trust us, ever again. That terrible bond, that most salutary of human bonds, those invisible threads of gold and light and blood attaching men sworn to a common endeavor—those bonds, we’ve broken them.

D and his colleague Daria seek to imbed their anguish in economic analysis.

Daria lectures D on the theme that “Production will bring about justice.” But he is nagged by doubt, thinking:

Should one not, while attending to all those pillboxes and blast furnaces, have a thought for man? A thought for the poor devil of today . . . who cannot content himself with straining under the yoke while waiting for tomorrow’s medicines and railway lines? The end justifies the means. What a swindle. No end can be achieved by anything but appropriate means.

Daria says: “The days of primitive accumulation are behind us.” D responds:

“Not in our country. And the days of destruction lie ahead.”

In the end Daria appears to have come around to D’s perspective, saying:

“Sacha, I’m going to ask a question that might seem irrational or infantile, but listen to it anyway. Didn’t we forget man and the soul?”   D responds:

Our unpardonable error was to believe that what they call soul – I prefer to call it conscience – was no more than a projection of the old superseded egoism.

There’s a stubborn little glimmer all the same, an incorruptible light that can, at times, shine through the granite that prison walls and tombstones are made of, an impersonal little light that flares up inside to illuminate, judge, refute, or wholly condemn. It’s no one’s property and no machine can take the measure of it; it often wavers uncertainly because it feels alone.

. . . We committed our mortal error . . . when we forgot that only this form of conscience can accomplish the reconciliation of man with himself and with others. . . . I’ve boned up on the relevant literature. . . . [The revolution] should have meant the release of what is best in man, but that got smashed along with everything else, I fear. And we’ve become captives of a new prison . . . . I’m getting out.

Conclusion

“Anarchist Thought,” in Anarchists Never Surrender, pp. 202-228, is Serge’s own conclusion as to how anarchism and Marxism might be synthesized.   It was written at the end of the 1930s when he had left the Soviet Union but remained fully at the height of his powers.

Serge accepts Marxist economic analysis. He says of anarchism that it was “the ideology of small-scale artisans” and that as industrial development became more marked in southern Europe “anarchism surrendered its preeminence in the revolutionary movement to Marxist workers’ socialism.”

On the other hand, the workers’ movement of the late nineteenth century and the years before World War I was

stuck in the mud in a capitalist society in a period of expansion. Vast union organizations and powerful mass parties, of which German social democracy is the best example, in reality became part of a regime they claimed to combat. Socialism became bourgeois, even in its ideas, which deliberately suppressed Marx’s revolutionary predictions. The working-class aristocracies and the political and union bureaucracies set the tone for working-class demands that were either toned down or reduced to a purely verbal revolutionism. . . . This socialism has lost its revolutionary soul . . . .

The theory of communist anarchism,” Victor Serge continued, “proceeds less from knowledge, from the scientific spirit, than from an idealistic aspiration.” But as “for how this is to be accomplished, there is not a word of explanation.” Thus at the beginning of the Russian Revolution “events inexorably posed the sole capital question, one for which the anarchists have no response: that of power.” At considerable length Serge demonstrates that when the possibility of insurrection presented itself in Fall 1917, “[o]ne would seek in vain in the abundant anarchist literature of the period for a single practical proposal.”

There is a long discussion of the Ukrainian revolutionary Nestor Makhno (a subject about which I know little) in which Serge appears to be at pains to present both sides of a complex controversy, and to attribute some truth to each. Who was responsible for strangling this “profoundly revolutionary peasant movement?” Serge asks. He answers that it was not this or that person, not one or another group; it was “the spirit of intolerance that increasingly gripped the Bolshevik Party from 1919; . . . the dictatorship of the leaders of the party, already tending to substitute themselves for that of the soviets and even of the party.” Whoever was responsible, Serge continues, it was “an enormous error.” A chasm had been dug between anarchists and Bolsheviks that would not be easy to fill. “The synthesis of Marxism and libertarian socialism, so necessary and which could be so fertile, was rendered impossible for the indefinite future.”

Victor Serge ended his remarkably even-handed assessment by quoting the famous last message of Vanzetti, and continuing:

This moral strength . . . is not diminished by the intrinsic weakness of anarchist ideology. It offers little room for doctrinal criticism. It simply is. If, having learned from all we are living through [,] the libertarian socialism it animates would be strong enough to assimilate the gains of scientific socialism, this synthesis would guarantee revolutionaries an incomparable effectiveness.

Staughton Lynd is a historian, attorney, long-time activist and author of many books and articles. He can be reached at salynd@aol.com.

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