The struggle for the meaning of history

September 19, 2017

Berkeley, Calif.−On Aug. 27 thousands came out to protest an “alt-right,” “No to Marxism,” demonstration. Black Lives Matter, feminists, Muslims, immigrants, leftists, and ordinary citizens against “hate,” including a 95-year-old holocaust survivor, Ben Stern, filled the streets. Anarchists broke down police barriers and drove out the few “alt-righters” who dared to show up. Fresh in everyone’s mind was the neo-Nazi terror in Charlottesville, Va., against anti-fascist demonstrators, where the “alt-right” united behind the swastika, the Confederate battle flag and the burning torches of the Ku Klux Klan.

Some of the thousands who came out on Aug. 27, 2017 to protest the "alt-right," "No to Marxism" demonstration. Photo: Ron Kelch

Some of the thousands who came out in Berkeley, Calif., on Aug. 27, 2017 to protest the “alt-right,” “No to Marxism” demonstration. Photo: Ron Kelch/News & Letters.

Millions have been shocked, and hundreds of thousands have protested across the U.S. The “alt-right’s” professed concern in Berkeley was “free speech” and opposition to multi-cultural diversity, which they tag “cultural Marxism.” In Charlottesville their “concern” was “heritage,” signified by a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The struggle over meaning of history and the idea of freedom demands a closer look at both Confederate monuments and not “Marxism,” but Karl Marx himself.

In November 1863 Robert E. Lee, the leader of the Confederate army, invaded Pennsylvania. His defeat at Gettysburg resulted in over 23,000 casualties. President Abraham Lincoln delivered a brief, now famous, address at the scene of the slaughter. The only way to honor the dead, he said, was with “a new birth of freedom.” Lincoln’s reference, on the eve of issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, was not to the U.S. Constitution, which codified slavery, but the 1776 Declaration of Independence and a “new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” For Marx, the slave revolt, on whose shoulders the Abolitionists arose, was a new birth of the idea of freedom. When Lincoln came up short of that, Marx criticized him. But Marx appreciated Lincoln, a “son of the working class” and leader of the U.S. republic, for standing up to the South that declared war to uphold and spread slavery.

Marx began a January 1865 letter to Lincoln congratulating him on his re-election by a large majority, adding, “If resistance to Slave Power was the reserved watchword of your first election, the triumphant war-cry of your re-election is, Death to Slavery. From the commencement of the titanic American strife the workingmen of Europe felt instinctively that the Star-Spangled Banner carried the destiny of their class.” Today’s historians are only now approaching the meaning of what Marx captured in real time in a concise history included in his January 1865 letter sent to Lincoln and signed by the whole General Council of the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA).

The freedom projected in the 1776 American Revolution remains unrealized. Post-Reconstruction, slavery returned to the South in the form of racial segregation, disenfranchisement, sharecropping and the terror of the Ku Klux Klan. During this counter-revolution, the prominent monuments of Confederate generals like Robert E. Lee were constructed and installed to celebrate Southern “heritage.” The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s returned the nation to the unfinished promise of being conceived in liberty for all.

“Liberty for all,” for Marx, encompassed difference and absolute diversity, beyond legal equality as the universal. Today’s multiculturalism extols diversity and physical difference but denies any universal. Marx began from, and followed through with, an unchanging unifying principle: freedom in everyday life activity. This universal human essence, which Marx first declared in contrast to alienated labor that turns labor into a mere means to life, gets particularized in multiple ways, including the most fundamental man/woman relation.

Writing to Engels on Jan. 11, 1860, Marx singled out “the movement of the slaves in America started by the death of John Brown” as one of the “biggest things happening in the world today.” For Marx, the Black struggle for freedom was a vanguard of the struggle against 19th century globalized capitalism, which was built on a racialized slavery. Marx’s Capital cites that freedom struggle as having “sounded the tocsin” for a proletarian global awakening, which helped inspire the birth of the International Workingmen’s Association in which Marx was a leading voice.

In the U.S. the workers’ movement took off after the victory over slavery in a widespread struggle for an 8-hour working day. The equality of legal right was no help in addressing the question of the inhumanly extended working day in which 19th century capitalism used up three generations of workers in one. Workers had a “right” to sustain and replenish daily their own labor power, which for the capitalist is a commodity he owns by “right,” having purchased it with wages. Workers, alienated from their everyday life activity which belongs to another, went deeper than “right,” asking “when does my time become my own?” Marx felt that question was a greater, more concrete, concept of freedom than the highfalutin abstractions about freedom that came out of all the 18th century political revolutions. [Editor’s note: See American Civilization on Trial: Black Masses as Vanguard for more on the history taken up in this article and its meaning.]

In short, an ongoing “new birth of freedom” encapsulates what Marx meant by revolution in permanence. The goal is not merely political freedom but everyday freedom especially in one’s working life. That means freedom is not putting in one’s time for the capitalist but valuing the whole of workers’ life activity wherein time becomes “the space for human development.”

Marx’s unchanging universal is open to the new because it is never defined only by what it is against or by negating immediate barriers to freedom. Marx’s universal concept of freedom is a negation that returns to itself as the source of its movement—the ever expanding drive to realize, and mutually recognize, everyday life activity as free, conscious activity. As before, the Black dimension, whether demanding recognition that Black lives matter in the face of murderous police or now opposing the tolerated presence of neo-Nazi and Klan terror, has brought home anew the incomplete, unfinished promise of freedom in the American Revolution. Our age of multiple total crises, from ecological to impending total war, cries out for a new birth of freedom on the humanist ground of life activity in solidarity with others’ lives.

–Ron Kelch

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