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Fighting from below for recognition as human

3:AM: Currently there is the ongoing uprising in Syria and a massive state constriction of that uprising as the latest phase of the so-called Arab Spring. An interesting feature has been the way the West has only selectively and in a very limited way supported certain aspects of the revolution. So with Libya there was military support, but nothing in Syria and elsewhere. What do you make of these uprisings? Do you find parallels between these Islamic movements and Marxist ones important? Would you characterise them as Islamic even?

AG: These revolutions are democratic movements, largely nonviolent, in Tunisia and Egypt, against massive oppression – military dictators sustained by imperialism. The US was on the wrong side of these movements, giving $1.3 billion per year in military “aid” to Mubarak, for example, for 29 years, largely in order to sustain Israel as an outpost of American imperialism in the Middle East (the increasing development of a quasi-fascist administration there with increasing expansion into the occupied territories, however, has placed Israeli policies decisively against any element of a common good/genuinely national interest in the United States which is to restrict the settlements, seek a two state peace and try to foster, for the first time, decent relations with ordinary Arabs; the Israeli government’s policies also endanger ordinary Israelis who would probably like to live in peace and not to be looked upon aptly by everyone who values human rights as oppressors). Now, the US tried to hold on to Mubarak long into the revolution. Hilary Clinton reprehensibly fought for this policy. Obama finally moved to support and protect the democracy (his six minute speech when Mubarak fell, focused on the power of nonviolence, was admirable). But the US is still sustaining military tyranny.

These uprisings inspired others because of their startling democratic and nonviolent character, and the initial protests, largely done by young people and workers – there has been a huge strike wave in Egypt, a very important role for women who often brought their families to picket lines – swiftly and shockingly brought down the regimes. Though nonviolent, this explosion of political creativity, set Europe as well as the Middle East spiritually afire – the indignados in Spain, the Greek workers, and students and workers in England – and has sparked Madison and Occupy. The Islamists held back initially, but have benefited in Egypt from the recent elections. But one should not call these movements or the impact Islamic. Many people, particularly working people and farmers, learned from the revolution. One of my students talked with people in the countryside, and told me that in a meeting, one of the peasants spoke, self-consciously in the vein of Marx’s Class Struggles in France, of “revolutions as the locomotives of history.” Perhaps this radical impulse will take time to gather strength. The people who made Tahrir Square a symbol of democratic revolution are much less organized than the Islamists, who, except for the young, moved in once others had risked everything…Nonetheless, there is likely to be a continuing fight for democracy from below – what we might call a radical democracy with social demands and demands for participation – throughout the region.

Note, however, that the near-fascist government of Israel, with some popular support, seeks, against the interests of ordinary Jews (consider the new movements against the costs of housing and against the barbaric spitting on an 8 year old girl by “orthodox” settlers) to launch a new “Iraq” aggression against Iran. Obama has not been tempted by this so far, but the Republicans, Ron Paul excepted, are in chorus about launching such a war. It is a great danger that the US or Israel, in conducting such a strike, will produce a far larger and more dangerous war in the Middle East and deflect the impact of domestic movements for change, including inside Iran. I should note as well that Israel grotesquely supported Mubarak to the last against democracy (Egypt had helped make Gaza a “large open-air concentration camp” in the apt words of my friend Tom Farer). In this respect, Obama’s policy of welcoming and even naming the power of nonviolence, despite the US’s retrograde military role, stands out as something decent among American imperialist politicians. In America, Jews are about 80% against the Iraq aggression/occupation and against a potential aggression in Iran (they are second only to blacks in opposition to these wars). There is a growing divide between those who honor the prophets, speak truth to power, oppose the Israeli government’s policies, and want a decent agreement with the Palestinians, and an elite, supported by the fanatic Christian right, which backs Israel as a restrictively Jewish state (increasingly, an orthodox and male-dominated state), one which treats Arab Israelis as second class citizens and which is engaged in a second expansion or transfer. Sadly, the right is strong in Israel and among the settlers.

As a jew by ethnic origin (a “scion of an accursed race” as my grandfather J.J. Cohen, the anarchist once wrote of himself), it is particularly important to me to fight against the oppression of Palestinians. Edward Said in Orientalism points out that the racist European ideologies against Jews and Arabs are exactly the same (German “scholars” wrote about the supposed rigidity and lack of creativity in the languages). More than in South Africa, there is a threat of regional war and in the mid-term nuclear war (Israel has several hundred nuclear bombs). So the need for a nonviolent and multiracial movement to stop Israel and produce a two state solution (or if this fails, a single democratic state guaranteeing equal basic rights to every citizen) is a pivot not just for the Middle East but for the future of humanity. The renewed movement of Palestinian leaders to a nonviolent campaign against the occupation – the boycott and divestment campaign – is striking and hopeful, and will draw broad support, including over time, in Israel. Desmond Tutu’s No Future Without Forgiveness talks about the possibilities of Truth and Reconciliation, of nonviolent healing in a post-revolutionary setting.

3:AM: You talk about the “anti-democratic feedback” to explain the increased militarism and inegalitarianism of current policies of the USA. Can you explain what you mean by this and give examples of how it works? Of course, military intervention has been a huge feature of first world politics. You see war as an enemy of the people and support the anti war demos and ask questions as to what should be done when governments commit their citizens to actions against their will. Even John Locke supports revolution when he writes “if a long train of abuses, prevarications, and artifices, all tending the same way, make the design visible to the people, and they cannot but feel what they lie under and see whither they are going, it is not to be wondered that they should then rouse themselves and endeavour to put the rule into such hands which may secure to them the ends for which government was first erected.” Do you find a new feeling of political hope in the current protest movements against militarism?

AG: The last eleven months, from Arab spring to massive uprisings against austerity in Greece and Spain, to Madison and Occupy has been dazzlingly heartening. Today one speaks and writes in the midst of (as a participant in), learning from, in conversation with great popular movements and a renewed sense that revolution is possible. Note that mass nonviolent change has accomplished a great deal in the world, and that while Locke is right that revolution is justified, the idea of revolutionary violence is a very limiting alternative. It is limiting especially in that it is hard to get people to learn how to kill and that its effect, as opposed to stopping the oppressors and changing the regime, is often to give them a political out: very unequal violence by the Israeli state against Palestinians is treated in America and Israel, as an “equal” or “responsive” violence. In contrast, it will be very difficult for brutal oppressors to discredit Palestinian and international nonviolence in this way. In addition, one does not breed the enmity in the relatives of those killed and others which comes inevitably from slaughters – as Mao once said, “revolution is not a tea party…”. The price of admission to ordinary demonstrations (part of insurrectionary movements as well) is much lower, and many more come to participate and learn.

The goals of such a movement need, however, to be very radical (at the least, to turn to America: the financial “industry” produces nothing though it brought down the world economy and its reign needs to be ended), but there is nothing particularly radical about violence. This is, however, a subtle issue – compare the Chinese Communist revolution with Gandhi’s independence movement, and one may well conclude the former was more promising as a social revolution in spite of its now rather obvious failures. But what is most promising about these new movements in their mass nonviolence – and of course the Western intervention in Libya with guns against Qaddafi’s murderousness was in part meant to bend this movement, to seize control of it…

On anti-democratic feedback, the early American government had one party, the Federalists, with John Adams as President, advised by Alexander Hamilton. They trumped up the “XYZ” affair with France in which the French government supposedly tried to corrupt American diplomats to pass the Alien and Sedition Acts. The latter made criticism of the President a capital crime, and jailed the Irish and Scottish editors of pro-Democratic Republican newspapers (the Democratic Republicans were the party of Jefferson and Madison). The Federalists opposed two-party competition in the United States, seeking to erect Adams as a monarch. As Jefferson put it in a fine democratic internationalism formulation: “The friendless alien has been selected as the safest subject for a first experiment; but the citizen will soon follow, or in fact, has already followed, for already has a Sedition Act marked him for its prey.” Here those who wanted lively public discussion and feared monarchy – they rightly styled Adams an “Angloman” in this respect – saw vividly the need for the empowering or citizenship of immigrants. In turn, Adams embroidered hostility to the French Revolution with anti-radical ideology – the charge of being “Gallomen” – against Jefferson and Madison to try to suppress any political alternative, to jail dissenters and immigrants, to prevent the emergence of a second party. This is a paradigm case of what I call the anti-democratic feedback of global politics on democracy.

In turn, sympathy for the democratic revolution in France, though not some of its excesses, stimulated democracy and radicalism in the US as elsewhere: the victory of Jefferson in 1800, and more strikingly, the impact of the French Revolution on Saint Domingue and vice versa. When three Saint Dominguen representatives came to France in 1794, the Bordeaux slave-traders tried to have them arrested but failed. After hearing them, the Jacobin-led National Convention voted for the freeing of all slaves in the French colonies by acclamation (in his worst political moment, Napoleon reversed this). This is what I call the democratic feedback of international politics.

Or take 9/11. The threat of “Arab” or “Islamic” terror and the US aggression against Afghanistan was accompanied domestically by the reactionary Patriot Act (it allows, for example, the secret surveillance of people who borrow books from public libraries and forbids librarians to reveal the surveillance or speak out against it). This was accompanied by torture including for Jose Padilla, an American citizen, accused of seeking to plant a “dirty bomb” but after three and a half years and being reduced, in his lawyer’s phrase, to a “chair” unable to speak coherently about himself, “convicted” on minor charges. Illustrating anti-democratic feedback, there has been a steady attack on civil liberties across two administrations now. For instance, Obama has licensed the murder of American citizens with no judicial proceeding and far from the field of battle (Awlaki, father and 16 year old son) and signed the NDAA (the National Defense Authorization Act) with a proviso that the President may indefinitely detain American citizens whom he deems “enemies” without any judicial proceeding (Obama says he won’t do this himself, in a signing statement, but the next President has the “law” on the books). Sadly, it is a stretch to speak, once again, of the rule of law in America – or of America, as a “land of the free” for any part of the population any longer…

3:AM: Your new book Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence came out in March. Can you say what the thesis of the book is and if there are political lessons to be learnt from this history?

AG: Sixteen years ago, I started working on blacks escaping and soldiering in exchange for emancipation during the North American Revolution. After many downs – nothing like entering a new field, the writing of history, and in America, its most sacred area, the Revolution, and telling a tale in which blacks from below liberate themselves, but, nonetheless, most escaped to and were taken to freedom by the Crown. As a lifelong anti-racist, this story is threaded from the introduction – a dedication to my grade school classmate and friend Andy Goodman, murdered during Freedom Summer, along with James Cheney and Michael Schwerner – and concludes with the defiant speech of Gabriel, a black artisan who almost led the burning down of the wooden city of Richmond in 1800. Gabriel likened himself and his cause to George Washington (Washington would be a greater leader if one could liken him to Gabriel or Toussint L’Ouverture). The story is of how courageous individuals, with insight into the wrong of slavery, travelled lonely paths to move the mountain. For instance, John Woolman in the 1750s among Quakers began with a refusal to write wills which bequeathed slaves and then walked throughout the South talking with Quakers about the evil of holding men in bondage. John Laurens was the scion of an influential slave-owning family in South Carolina, whose father was a Christian opponent of slavery in the abstract but also, when blacks rose up, stuck at them viciously. John studied Rousseau in Geneva in the early 1770s, and came back the leading elite abolitionist in the Revolution. An aide to Washington, his name is on the Laurens proposal, passed by the Continental Congress in 1779, freeing 3,000-5,000 blacks in South Carolina and Georgia in exchange for fighting. Thomas Peters was a prince in Africa, kidnapped and sold into bondage in South Carolina and branded twice for trying to escape. Peters then succeeded, fought as a sergeant in the Black Pioneers, went to Canada with the defeated British and led a movement among those not given land for redress. He travelled to London, and became the leader of a democratic expedition to and experiment in Sierra Leone. The book explores how through many such stories, then and afterwards, individuals contributed to forging the movement which finally outlawed bondage in the Empire in 1834 and rose to a crescendo in the American Civil War. Often small or not initially determined efforts which achieve, over time, deeper purposefulness can have a great effect.

Today, I believe that such efforts, for instance Michelle Alexander’s (author of The New Jim Crow) can make such a difference about the system of mass incarceration in America, focused on imprisoning black and latin teenagers for being caught with marijuana. The US has 8 times as many prisoners as in the 1970s, 2.3 million, 25% of the world’s prisoners, and another 5.1 million on probation, lives ruined, barred from getting a job or living in public housing or voting. 50% of the increase in prisoners is for marijuana, 80% of these for possession… In talking about the book in the US, I will connect these issues, and precisely the point that it is only individuals taking up the struggle in the darkest conditions which ultimately moves the mountain. In Britain, the police murders of Afro-Caribbean young people strike me in a similar way (I hope to be in London in early June).

Secondly, the book also breaks down statistically every list of black troops or muster roll of black settlements I could obtain from the Revolutionary period, revealing, among other matters, that many more blacks escaped to Canada with the Crown than has previously been thought. A third theme of Black Patriots and Loyalists is the importance of democratic contractarian reasoning, roughly what is theorized in Rawls’s notion of an original position, in condemnations of slavery at that time and in the growing movement against it.

A fourth theme is how real moral and historical advance is often possible during a period for which historians too easily deny it. As a result of military competition for recruits between the Crown and the revolutionaries, the dynamic of freedom (if all men are free, why not black men and women, too?) and widespread sentiment that bondage was an abomination, particularly in churches (Samuel Hopkins named it “a sin of crimson dye”), gradual emancipation occurred in the North during the Revolution and over the next quarter century. The revolution for Independence in the North, in this respect, resembled Venezuela’s. In the South, many of the same forces were at play as the Laurens proposal showed. Further, in every other independence movement in the hemisphere, at least gradual emancipation occurred (in Saint Domingue, the uprising of the slaves in 1791, defeating the French including Napoleon, as well as English and Spanish colonialism, made Haiti in 1804). Only in North America does independence not lead to gradual emancipation. I offer this account of historical possibilities to oppose a more economic determinist Marxian vision that only by the time of the Civil War, and not during the Revolution itself, was abolition possible.

A fifth theme is the centrality of blacks – and the issue of emancipation – to both sides in the Revolution. The best fighting unit on the Patriot side was the black and Narragansett indian First Rhode Island Regiment. Whereas mainly white militias served for 10 months, members of this regiment mostly fought for five years. At the concluding battle at Yorktown, walking around the field, Georg Daniel Flohr, a German private fighting with a French unit allied with the Americans, recorded in his diary that most of the corpses on both sides were “Mohren” (Moors). No one taught me (or anyone I have met) that startling fact about Yorktown. This story of two revolutions, one for independence, one for emancipation, working often at odds, but on the American side at Yorktown together (the First Rhode Island and other black regiments led by John Laurens and Alexander Hamilton conquered the two strategic British redoubts, deciding the battle) is a different way of seeing the War, one based on unexpected, powerful evidence.

I started this project while working on the Federalist Papers in the context of Shays Rebellion (of poor farmers who had served in the Revolution and returned to find their plots indebted and threatened) and the Alien and Sedition Acts. As an anti-racist, I thought I should look into what the slaves had done, even though I surmised that there would be a few uprisings, but basically it was the slave-traders – the Crown – against the slave-owners (the Patriots). I then read Gary Nash’s Race and Revolution who says, however, that “a gigantic number of slaves escaped to the British and were freed in exchange for fighting.” He gives five reasons why gradual emancipation might have occurred throughout the country (the military competition, what I discovered to be the central causal mechanism, not among them), but then after a page and a half, turns away. Where he and others had not probed (British emancipation of the most oppressed is the Revolution’s “dirty secret,” as Nash later put it), I stopped.

If anything like this is true, I realized, the way we think about the American Revolution is false. Barrington Moore had long ago taught me that only the Civil War was a revolution, but plainly, the American Revolution was a much more interesting and complex social revolution, often clashing with the political revolution, than had been thought. Because I lived with this question for several years, I found marvelous documents in thirteen research libraries in the US, England, Canada, France and Spain. Seeing the right question within the material opened things up. Once again, a certain kind of Marxism, for instance even so sophisticated an account as Robin Blackburn’s – in the Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, he writes dazzlingly on the interplay of the French and Saint Domingue/Haitian revolutions – debunks the vast escape and recruitment of blacks during the American Revolution and argues in a foolish, economic determinist vein that slaveholding was “quickly restored” after the War. He ignores even the gradual emancipation that occurred in the North (analogous to the Venezuelan independence movement). Having the right questions and seeing the political dynamics afresh enables a very different radical account, I think one much more sophisticated and open to experience, one that highlights the real and intense class conflict over bondage.

3:AM: It seems we need smart thinking as the issues of our world become more complex and more pressing. Chomsky spoke to the Occupy Wall Street protests. In an interview here at 3:AM the economist Diane Coyle put her hopes in reclaiming the innovatory spirit of social and technological invention to overcome the present nightmares. Who are the contemporaries you find enlightening? Are there particular books that you think readers here at 3:AM would find useful?

AG: Here are six books and two speeches or essays: Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness (the most advanced experience of nonviolence as a way of healing without murderousness the most horrific social and political divisions – apartheid). A nonviolent movement has not continued in raising demands for South Africa’s poor, but it could. Barbara Deming, Revolution and Equilibrium – a brilliant internal critique of Franz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth which should be read along with it. Martin Luther King, ‘A Time to Break Silence‘, on Vietnam but just as relevant today for the American/British imperial aggressions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and for the US in Pakistan. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom shows many startling things, including the role of tolerance in ancient Muslim (Akbar in India) and Buddhist regimes (Ashoka) and how literacy and cooperatives for poor women lead to a drop in infant and under-five mortality, more egalitarianism, and longer life expectancy. Edward Said, Orientalism – a classic or defining work on imperial racisms toward the East… John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, especially on civil disobedience and conscientious refusal (sections 53-59). Maria Rosa Menocal, The Ornament of the World, how Arabs brought ancient Greek culture as well as a far more advanced civilization to Europe. I would also recommend the poetry and literary essays of Adrienne Rich and Denise Levertov, among many others. And the Eyes on the Prize film series about the civil rights movement, in particular numberomens one to ten (10 is on the final year of King’s life) are uniquely powerful. Each episode is 55 minutes; several can be found on Youtube.


Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012.