posted to on August 31, 2003


While scholarly literature has documented the political gains made by freedmen during Reconstruction such as the right to run for office, the focus in this article will be on social and economic criteria since the term "bourgeois-democratic revolution" does after all address class relations in general and land redistribution specifically.


The French revolution, which is understood by most Marxists as the classic bourgeois-democratic revolution, resulted in radical land redistribution and peasant small proprietorship. In a subsequent article in this series tensions between this model and the Brenner large estate model will become obvious within the context of a larger discussion of the "agrarian question", but for now we will accept radical land reform as a given.


Leaving aside the size of a farm or plantation, Reconstruction poses major problems for the Brenner thesis since it engendered forms of labor exploitation that do not correspond to the "free labor" model. Although the avowed purpose of the Republican Party was to foster such a development, it was undermined from the very beginning by the refusal of the Northern bourgeoisie to break the back of racist resistance. Since the North enjoyed overwhelming military and economic superiority, we must ask why it failed to follow through. If there was a "Thermidor", what were the pressures on the North? Or might an alternative explanation be that no Thermidor was necessary since a genuine social revolution had not taken place?


While I would recommend Eric Foner's "Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877" as the definitive study of this period, his discussion of "The Economics of Freedom" in Chapter Three leaves something to be desired. Acknowledging that land ownership would have "corresponded to the traditional republican ideal of a society of small producers," Foner questions the viability of such a thing, especially since the freed slaves were far more interested in subsistence agriculture than commercial production. He says that in the absence of credit guarantees and access to markets, the hold of small farmers--whether black or white-- on the land would be marked by "precariousness" and would be a "hollow victory" as well.


It is disturbing that former slave-owners identified the lack of credit in the same terms as Eric Foner. They saw their large plantations as the salvation of freedmen who did not know to look after themselves, especially if given their own land. One planter argued that to subdivide plantations would require credit that was simply unavailable since there was "no sale for large tracts of land, and the multitude who want[ed] small tracts … [had] no money to pay for them." (Staughton Lynd, "Reconstruction", p. 112)


However, that was also the case in the French Revolution. The always-perceptive James Farmelant had the following to say in an exchange over the 19th century French peasantry with the late Jim Blaut on Marxmail:


Marx also pointed out that a good portion of France's peasantry was in the process of being squeezed out of their farms. Like American small farmers they were forced to borrow money in order to keep their operations going but they were often subject to usurious interest rates. French agriculture experienced a kind of boom-bust cycle, and every time there was a bust more and more peasants would lose their lands. It is true that the French Revolution had liberated the peasants and gave them their own land. However, by the 1840s many of them were in danger of losing it, while a smaller number of well to do peasants were prospering and buying up the lands of their more unfortunate brethren. The bankers who lent them money and the merchants who sold them supplies and who marketed their produce of course prospered.


Yet would anybody use the excuse of past failures for a lukewarm attitude toward radical land reform in Dixie or Nicaragua or anywhere else? I strongly suspect that a class of black yeoman farmers in the South would have been an encouragement to their white brothers and sisters throughout the country. The refusal to confiscate plantation land merely reinforced reactionary tendencies in the country that would eventually conspire to end social reforms in the North that were seen as a counterpart of Reconstruction in the South. The relationship between economics and politics is highly dialectical and land reform should not been seen exclusively from a "bottom line" outlook.


In the early years of Reconstruction blacks rebelled against the kind of gang labor that people like General Benjamin Butler were forcing on them and that reminded them of slavery. When they learned that confiscation and land redistribution were not on the agenda, they opted for sharecropping, a compromise solution that gave them independence and relief from labor gang overseers, who more often than not were the same men who made their life hell during slavery. On the other side of the coin, sharecropping relieved the plantation owner from the costs of heavy labor supervision. They also got labor stability since a sharecropper would rely on the labor of his entire family to deliver cotton, rice or other commodities to the planter.


It should be understood, however, that Federal troops played a role in promoting sharecropping at the outset--long before the ex-slave owners became convinced of its necessity. In 1862 the US army had control of the Natchez district in Mississippi where it found itself in position of contraband cotton. Concerned primarily with the war effort rather than social transformation, the officers viewed runaway slaves as a means to an end of raising revenue.


When these blacks refused to return to the hated fields and work in labor gangs, Colonel Samuel Thomas came up with a sharecropping scheme that supposedly would give the freedmen a step up. Although Thomas was regarded as one of the most radical land commissioners in Mississippi, he could not conceive of redistribution--the one measure that could deliver true rather than formal emancipation. After the army got out of the land management business, the Freedmen's Bureau picked up where it left off. It too fostered sharecropping and for pretty much the same reason: it was a way of controlling black labor. (Ronald Davis, "The US Army and the Origins of Sharecropping in the Natchez District--a Case Study", Journal of Negro History, Jan. 1977)


Neither Foner, nor other historians as far as I can tell, place sharecropping into broader historical context as a form of labor exploitation. According to Foner, the planter saw it as a form of wage labor, while the ex-slave saw themselves as "partners in the crop". Neither understanding really gets to the heart of the system.


Sharecropping is as old as recorded history and coexisted with slavery as a form of labor exploitation in ancient societies such as Rome. In second century Rome Pliny the Younger contemplated a shift from a slave-run estate to sharecropping because of "declining returns from his north Italian farms". This is from a letter to T.J. Byres by G. St. Croix; cited in Byres's "Sharecropping in Historical Context", which is part of a collection titled "Sharecropping and Sharecroppers". St. Croix's letter considers sharecropping to represent a stage in:


the intermediate period ... between the general use of slave labour as the principal way in which the propertied class obtained its surplus, and large-scale serfdom, which ... did not come into existence until the very end of the third century and in some areas was not complete until the late fourth century (as in Palestine) or even the early fifth (as perhaps in Egypt).


He even notes the "partnership" aspect to this form of labor exploitation, stating "The share-cropper [colonius partiarius] has a sort of partnership, and shares both the profit and loss with the landlord."


If it seems odd that Reconstruction would end up with a form of exploitation that had been around since the Roman Empire, it might have been expected since slavery itself was another hallmark of the Roman economy. As Brazilian sociologist Carlos Rebello noted on Marxmail, such "antiquated" forms were given new class content when deployed in capitalist society:


The form historically found to do that [begin capital accumulation] was in Brazil as well in the American South to tie the manpower to a single directing management center, by means of the re-invention of --chain-gang slave labor-- which in Europe had disappeared well before the demise of the Roman Empire, when chain-gangs had been replaced by generalized tenancy ('colonate'). The resumption of this most archaic form of labor-management, tied as it was to commodity-production responded to specifically capitalist needs and has nothing to do with historical backwardness 'strictu sensu'. In Spanish speaking Latin America, depending on place, we have the same process (as in the Caribbean, the Peruvian coastal line) or then, in Mexico and upland Peru, a form of servitude including centralized management of the Amerindian 'serfs' in the interest of capitalist production (peonaje, etc.).


If sharecropping resulted from a temporary stalemate in the class struggle, the planters would soon gain the advantage through a Northern indifference that would eventually be transformed into betrayal. From the very beginning, despite the presence of Federal troops and black political power, attacks on black labor were mounted by the formerly slave-owning class. While it may no longer owned human beings as a commodity, it still retained the land that gave them economic power.


Closely related to the sharecropping system was debt peonage, another form of labor exploitation that was pervasive in Spanish-speaking America, including the Chiapas of B, Traven's novels, and that also had ancient roots. Basically, this was a system that forced poor people to work off debts that were often the result of desperate attempts to keep a roof over one's head. When the landlord was the same person who was looking for de facto slave labor, there was of course an incentive to drive up the cost of housing or to outright cheat an illiterate ex-slave through extortionary debt contracts.


Nobody knows the full extent of debt peonage in the South because it typically occurred in the backcountry far from public scrutiny. But A.J. Hoyt, an expert on the subject, estimated in 1907 that "investigations will prove that 33 1/3 per cent operating from five to one-hundred plows, are holding their Negro employees to a condition of peonage, and arresting and returning those that leave before alleged indebtedness is paid." (Pete Daniel, "The Shadow of Slavery: Peonage in the South 1901-1969)


As it turns out, debt peonage was sanctioned by Federal legislation enacted in 1867. If the Federal government was resolute in its opposition to slavery, it was obviously less so when it came to debt peonage, which amounted to the same thing.


Pete Daniel demonstrates how the economic power of the landlord facilitated turning a sharecropper into a debt peon:


The line that divided the cropper from the peon was a thin but crucial one. It depended on the compulsion that forced a man to remain on a plantation year after year. Sometimes planters discounted the inflated and partly fictitious bills that the croppers owed. For example, one planter might claim that a cropper owed him $300 but let a neighboring planter have him for $150. The second planter continued to record the indebtedness as $300. This practice, nailed as it was to the high interest rates prevailing through the cotton and tobacco areas, kept the workers in constant debt. Yet harsh as this system was, it did not constitute peonage. Peonage occurred only when the planter forbade the cropper to leave the plantation because of debt. If, at settlement time, the planter told his cropper that he remained in debt and could not move from the plantation, then the system became peonage. Peonage rested on debt, but the debtor had to be restrained for the legal definition to be fulfilled. Some planters were paternalistic in extracting forced labor, while others used threats and violence, and, as reflected in their complaints, only the most abused laborers sought relief.


The violence that went along with debt peonage served to terrorize the entire black community. From Richton, Mississippi, William Moffett wrote his sister how white people punished one debt peon attempting to flee a plantation. They "took a colored man out last night and tied him to a tree and blindfolded him and they beat him until the blood run down on the ground and they shot they guns till the people thought war had began and the people went today and looked at where the blood soked [sic] in the ground, and I am afriad [sic] my time next I cant sleep at night when I go to bed so do Some thing at once and get me away from this place."


While the KKK was formed primarily to terrorize blacks from political participation, an important part of the Klan's activity was labor control, especially of debt peons. As early as 1866, masked bands "punished Negroes whose landlords had complained of them." According to Congressional testimony of one planter, when blacks "got together to emigrate… disguised men went to them and told them that if they undertook it they would be killed," in order to prevent "the country from being deprived of their labor." In the words of a Southern lawyer, the Klan was "intended principally for the Negroes who failed to work" and pursued blacks who "violat[ed]…labor contracts by running away." (Jonathan Wiener, "Class Stucture and Economic Development in the American South, 1865-1955, The American Historical Review, Oct., 1979)


As many contemporary commentators point out, including Christian Parenti who I took to task here last Thursday, the USA has a prison-industrial system, which amounts to a form of slavery. Although the common impression is that slavery was abolished with the Emancipation Proclamation, there was an exception made in the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."


Out of that loophole for "punishment for crime", the Southern planters created a superhighway. In the introduction to H. Bruce Franklin's "Prison Writing in 20th Century America", we learn:


The former slave states, led by Mississippi in late 1865, immediately devised legislation defining virtually every former slave as a criminal. Known as the Black Codes, these laws specified that many vaguely defined acts--such as "mischief" and "insulting gestures" --were crimes, but only if committed by a "free negro." Intermarriage was a crime to be punished by "confinement in the State penitentiary for life." Mississippi's Vagrancy Act defined "all free negroes and mulattoes over the age of eighteen" as criminals unless they could furnish written proof of a job at the beginning of every year. In other states, "having no visible means of support" was a crime being committed by almost all the freed slaves. So was "loitering" (staying in the same place) and "vagrancy" (wandering). "Disturbing the peace," "creating a public nuisance," "lewd and lascivious conduct," "using profane language," "drunkenness"-- all provided highly subjective and convenient definitions of crime.


Convicts were leased out to railroad companies, coalmines, canal companies, plantation owners, brickyards, and sawmills in Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and the Carolinas. You can observe the same patterns in the B. Traven jungle novels set in early 20th century Chiapas. Time after time a drunken Indian is sent to jail, and onwards to a work crew in the mahogany forests or on mule trains to pay off his debt to society. Since "extra-economic" coercion generally arises as a function of a labor shortage, we can safely assume that the convict leasing system was one of the first reactions to the relative freedom and self-sufficiency that went along with sharecropping.


If sharecropping, debt peonage, convict leasing and KKK terror do not add up to "extra-economic" coercion, than I do not know what does. All of these counter-revolutionary methods of labor control were instituted *during* reconstruction and half-hearted measures from the Federal government did nothing to stop their steady progress.


While it is beyond the scope of this article to explain why the North began to pull back from Reconstruction, even on the basis of defending black political rights such voting, we can agree with mainstream radical and left historians who attribute this to a growing class affinity between the Northern bourgeoisie and its counterparts in the South. Economic development, including the construction of railroads, was on the agenda. This involved deeper economic penetration of the South by such Robber Barons as Henry Flagler, a founding partner of Standard Oil with John D. Rockefeller. Flagler was able to buy millions of prime Florida real estate at fire sale prices while freedmen were denied loans to buy land for their own subsistence and modest commercial farming.


When rising labor militancy in the North and the example of the Paris Commune sent a chill down the spines of the Northern ruling class and its ideologists, Radical Republicanism gave way to liberalism, which was much more conscious of the class interests of industrialists and bankers in the North and their merchant and planter allies in the South. Forming a common front against the North American rabble would eventually lead to newer radical movements like the Populists, Progressives and eventually a socialist movement.


In my next posting, I will review the Marxist literature on slavery, Civil War and Reconstruction. This will shift gears away from the academy and focus on the contributions of Marx, Engels, Lenin, George Novack, Max Shachtman, Peter Camejo and others possibly.