Click on title to link to Wikipedia's entry for John Brown, revolutionary abolitionist. All honor to his memory.
STRIKE THE BLOW!!! – JOHN BROWN- REVOLUTIONARY ABOLITIONIST
REVISED: NOVEMBER 14, 2006
February is Black History Month a time to honor those who have fought for black liberation. John Brown deserves such honor. To honor him I would like to make a few comments on the role of Captain John Brown and his struggle at Harpers Ferry in 1859 in the history of the black liberation struggle. This appropriate as I am writing this review during Black History Month of 2006. Unfortunately John Brown continues to remain one of the very few white heroes of the struggle for black liberation.
From fairly early in my youth I knew the name John Brown and was swept up by the romance surrounding his exploits at Harpers Ferry. For example, I knew that the great anthem of the Civil War -The Battle Hymn of the Republic had a prior existence as a song in tribute to John Brown as the Union soldiers started heading south. I, however, was then neither familiar with the import of his exploits for the black liberation struggle nor knew much about the specifics of the politics of the various tendencies in the struggle against slavery. I certainly knew nothing then of Brown’s (and his sons) prior military exploits in the Kansas wars against the expansion of slavery. If one understands the ongoing nature of his commitment to struggle one can only conclude that his was indeed a man on a mission. Those exploits also render absurd a very convenient myth about his ‘madness’. This is a political man and to these eyes a very worthy one. In the context of the turmoil of the times he was the most courageous and audacious revolutionary in the struggle against the abolition of slavery in America.
Whether or not John Brown knew that his strategy would, in the short term, be defeated is a matter of dispute. Reams of paper have been spent proving the military foolhardiness of his scheme at Harpers Ferry. This misses the essential political point that militant action not continuing parliamentary maneuvering advocated by other abolitionists had become necessary. What is not in dispute is that Brown considered himself a true Calvinist avenging angel in the struggle against slavery and more importantly acted on that belief. In short, he was committed to bring justice to the black masses. This is why his exploits and memory stay alive after over 150 years.
Brown and his small integrated band of brothers fought bravely and coolly against great odds. Ten of Brown's men were killed including two of his sons. Five were captured, tried and executed, including Brown. Such results are almost inevitable when one takes up a revolutionary struggle against the old order and one is not victorious. One need only think of, for example, the fate of the defenders of the Paris Commune in 1871. One can fault Brown on this or that tactical maneuver. Nevertheless he and the others bore themselves bravely in defeat. As we are all too painfully familiar there are defeats of the oppressed that lead nowhere. One thinks of the defeat of the German Revolution in the 1920’s. There are other defeats that galvanize others into action. This is how Brown’s actions should be measured by history.
Militarily defeated at Harpers Ferry, Brown's political mission to destroy slavery by force of arms nevertheless continued to galvanize important elements in the North at the expense of the pacifistic non-resistant Garrisonian political program for struggle against slavery. Many writers on Brown who reduce his actions to that of a ‘madman’ to this day cannot believe that his road proved more appropriate to end slavery than either non-resistance or gradualism. That alone makes short shrift of such 'madman' theories. Historians and others have also misinterpreted the import of later events such as the Bolshevik strategy which led to Russian Revolution in October 1917. More recently, we saw this same incomprehension concerning the victory of the Vietnamese against overwhelming military superior forces. Needless to say, all these events continue to be revised by some historians to take the sting out of their proper political implications.
From a modern prospective Brown’s strategy for black liberation, even if the abolitionist goals he aspired to had been immediately successful, reached the outer limits within the confines of capitalism. Brown’s actions were meant to make black people free. Beyond that goal he had no program except the Chatham Charter which aside from a genuinely radical recognition of racial and gender equality did not step beyond a general capitalist democratic format. Unfortunately the subsequent Civil War did not provide fundamental economic and political freedom which would have given such a charter a jump start to success. That is still our fight. Moreover, the Civil War, the defeat of Radical Reconstruction, the reign of ‘Jim Crow’ and the subsequent waves of black migration to the cities changed the character of black oppression in the U.S. from Brown’s time. Black people are now a part of "free labor," and the key to their liberation is in the integrated fight of labor for the smashing of capitalism, its state and its institutions, and the establishing of a workers government. Nevertheless, we can stand proudly in the revolutionary tradition of John Brown (and of his friend Frederick Douglass). We need to complete the unfinished democratic tasks of the Civil War, not by emulating Brown’s exemplary actions but assisting the multi-racial American working class to power. Finish the Civil War.