Saturday, March 11, 2017
In Honor Of Women’s History Month – Poet Jesse Baxter’s In Pharaoh Times
In Pharaoh Times
Isis, daughter of Isis major, mother- wife-sister of the human sun god
Awoke, awoke with a start weary from brother couplings; and stray poppy laden abandoned copulations
Configurations only a deacon priest filled with signs and amulets could fathom, or some racked court astrologer
To face the stone-breaking day, a day filled to the brim, overflowing, with portents
Arisen, washed, fragranced, headed to the balcony to observe unseen and to be observed seen beneath the cloudless skies
Out in the ocean sea of whirling sand, out in the endless chiseled stone sun blazing day; her sea visage on down heads, eyes averted
Hittites, Gilts, Samians, Cretans, Nubians, Babylonians all conquered all down heads and averted eyes
Out on the ocean see, a lone sable warrior defeated, defeated with down head and upward eye disturbed the blistering heat day
Isis, daughter of Isis major, mother-wife-sister-child of the human sun king shrinks back in fear, fear time has come
That black will devour Nubian and rise, rise
Yes, rise in Pharaoh times
Jesse Baxter had never been so angry in his young black and be damned life as he had been at his, well, let’s call her his lady friend, even though strictly speaking she was more than a lady friend and the term had lost some of its urgency in the rush to proclaim a new estate for women which included cutting down to size such terms but lady friend for private consumption, Louise Crawford, since he was not sure whether girlfriend in the intricate relationship networks of the 1960s in quirky old Greenwich Village in the depths of trail-blazing New Jack City was an appropriate designation for their newly flowered relationship. Jesse a budding poet, a very hopeful poet who had just begun to get noticed in that rarified Village air had become one of Louise Crawford ‘s, ah, “conquests” on her way to tasting all that the Bohemian night offered (not quite “beat,” that had become passé by then and not quite “hip” as in hippie that would become the fashion later in the decade so bohemian, meaning out on the cultural outer edge, would do, would do as long as Jesse thought such a term was appropriate).
We should take note of that budding poet business since David Logan, the influenicial critic for Poetry Today, the bible of the trade, among others had proclaimed Jesse the cleanest voice around since Langston Hughes put pen to paper. But see just then no young black poet (or any kind of cultural artist for that matter) wanted to be compared to any old Tom-ish figure who went “white” when the deal went down, didn’t want to incur LeRoi Jones soon to return to his Africa name and his ilk’s wrath much less exile Jimmy Baldwin’s. Needed to show that he could tell Mister Whitey to take himself and his cultural apparatus that was a yoke on his or blackness to go to hell with his brethren down among the Mister James Crow brethren. Above all did not want to be tarred with some hokey David Logan Poetry Today-funded by one of the Lowells, not real poet Robert’s branch by the textile one, brush as the great “white” hope to assuage liberal guilt or whatever guilt needed assuaging after four hundred years of letting the rednecks have their way. So paint one Jesse Baxter officially as an angry black artists who was going to tell the world what was what and be damned straight about it too.
Here’s the funny little contradiction, the little blind spot white spot in which Jesse was hardly alone. Jesse had seen Louise around the Village several times at the trendy art shows (the first of the Soho-Warhol doings away from the “official” modernist art of the Village and MoMa), upbeat coffeehouses beginning to emerge from “beat” poetry and jazz scenes to retro folk revival stuff where he was able to get still get play because he had been befriended by Dave Von Ronk who was the father figure of that revival, and at a few loft parties large enough to get lost in without having met everybody or anyone, if that was what one wanted. He had heard of her “exploits,” exploits tramping through the budding literati but had only become acquainted with Louise through her “old” lover, Jose, Jose Guzman, the surrealist-influenced painter who was beginning to make a splash for himself in the up and coming art galleries emerging over in that nearby Soho previously mentioned (emerging as much because the penniless young artists were priced out of the Village once the suburban kids with father’s dough started renting dig in that hip locale. And either she had tired of Jose (possible once he tried one of his forever Picasso-Dali painterly tirades) or he had tired of her (more probable since Jose was thrown off right from the beginning by her “bourgeois “command manner and her overweening need to seem like a white hipster under every circumstance although she was quote, Jose, quote, square, unquote but a good tumble, a very good tumble under the sheets) and so one night she had hit on Jesse at a coffeehouse, Mike’s across from the Gaslight where he was reading and that was that. (Strangely in the folk mythology Mike Greenleaf the owner of Mike’s had actually in the late 1950s gone with several other NYU students to “discover” the old bluesmen like John Hurt, Bukka White, Skip James, guys like that who then came up and played the Gaslight and Geddes since the small Mike-style coffeehouses couldn’t afford the gaff and so the homeless poets, black and beat, or both found refuge there.)
But enough of small talk and back to Jesse’s rage. At one up-scale party held on Riverside Drive among the culturati, or what passed for such in downtrodden New York, as they had become an “item” Louise had introduced Jesse as the “greatest Negro poet since Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance.” Jesse was not put off by the comparison with the great Hughes, no way, that would come later under the influence of black protest poets like Jones and the ever-hovering presence of Baldwin, he accepted that designation with a certain sense of honor, although qualified a bit by the different rhythm that motivated Langston’s words, be-bop jazz, and his own Bo Diddley /Chuck Berry-etched “child of rock and roll” beat running in his head. What he was put off by was that “negro” designation, a term of derision just then in his universe as young blacks, especially young black men, were moving away from the negro Doctor King thing and toward that Malcolm freedom term, black, black as night, black is beautiful. Jesus, hadn’t she read his To Malcolm –Black Warrior Prince. (Apparently one of the virtues of tramping through the literati was an understanding that there was no actual need to read, look, hear, anything that your new “conquest” had written, drawn or sung. In the case of Louise she had made something of an art form out of that fact once confessing to Jesse that she had only actually read, and re-read, his Louise Love In Quiet Time written by him after some silly spat since she was the subject. His other work she had somebody summarize for her. Jesus, again.)
And it was not like Louise Crawford, yes, that Crawford, the scion-ess [sic] of the Wall Street Crawfords who had (have) been piling up dough and gouging profits since the start of the republic, was not attuned to the changes going on underneath bourgeois society just then but was her way to “own” him, own him like in olden times. While he was too much the gentile son of W.E.B. Dubois’ “talented tenth” (his parents both school teachers down in hometown Trenton who however needed to scrimp and safe to put him through Howard University) to make a scene at that party latter in the cab home to her place in the Village (as the well-tipped taxi driver could testify to, if necessary). Jesse lashed into her with all the fury a budding poet and belittled black man could muster.
In short, he would not be “owned” by some white bread woman who was just “cruising” the cultural and ethnic out-riggings before going back to marry some son of some sorry family friend stockbroker and live on Riverside Drive and summer in the Hamptons and all the rest while he struggled to create his words, his black soul-saturated word .
The harangue continued up into her loft and then Jesse ran out of steam a little (he had had a little too much of high-shelf liquors and of hits on the bong pipe to last forever in that state). Louise called for a truce, said she was sorry, sorry for being a square, and called him to her bed, pretty please to her bed. He, between the buzz in his head from the stimulants and the realization that she was good in bed, if nothing else, followed. And that night they made those sheets sweat with their juices. After they were depleted Jesse thought to himself that Louise might be just slumming but he would take a ticket and stay for the ride and fell asleep. Louise on the other hand, got up and went to the window to look out at her city, lit a cigarette and pondered some of Jesse’s words, pondered them for a while and got just a little bit fearful for her future as she went back to her bed and lay down next to the sleeping Jesse.
Later when he awakened just before dawn Jesse wrote his edgy poem In Pharaoh Times partially to contain the edges of his left-over rage and partially to take his distance from a daughter of Isis…
And hence this Women’s History Month contribution.
The 100th Anniversary Of The Russian Revolution-Leon Trotsky On Andre Malraux In His Revolutionary Days
The 100th Anniversary Of The Russian Revolution-Leon Trotsky On Andre Malraux In His Revolutionary Days
Problems of the Chinese Revolution
The Strangled Revolution
February 9, 1931
The book by André Malraux, Les Conquérants, was sent to me from various quarters and I think in four copies, but to my regret I read it after a delay of a year and a half or two. The book is devoted to the Chinese revolution, that is, to the greatest subject of the last five years. A fine and well-knit style, the discriminating eye of an artist, original and daring observation – all confer upon the novel an exceptional importance. If we write about it here it is not because the book is a work of talent, although this is not a negligible fact, but because it offers a source of political lessons of the highest value. Do they come from Malraux? No, they flow from the recital itself, unknown to the author, and they go against him. This does honour to the author as an observer and an artist, but not as a revolutionist. However, we have the right to evaluate Malraux too from this point of view; in his own name and above all in the name of Garine, his other self, the author does not hesitate with his judgements on the revolution.
This book is called a novel. As a matter of fact, we have before us a romanticized chronicle of the Chinese revolution, from its first period to the period of Canton. The chronicle is not complete. Social vigour is sometimes lacking from the picture. But for that there pass before the reader not only luminous episodes of the revolution but also clear-cut silhouettes which are graven in the memory like social symbols.
By little coloured touches, following the method of pointillisme, Malraux gives an unforgettable picture of the general strike, not, to be sure, as it is below, not as it is carried out, but as it is observed from above: the Europeans do not get their breakfast, they swelter in the heat, the Chinese have ceased to work in the kitchens and to operate the ventilators. This is not a reproach to the author: the foreign artist could undoubtedly not have dealt with his theme otherwise. But there is a reproach to be made, and not a small one: the book is lacking in a congenital affinity between the writer, in spite of all he knows, understands and can do, and his heroine, the revolution.
The active sympathies of the author for insurgent China are unmistakable. But chance bursts upon these sympathies. They are corroded by the excesses of individualism and by aesthetic caprice. In reading the book with sustained attention one sometimes experiences a feeling of vexation when in the tone of the persuasive recital one perceives a note of protective irony towards the barbarians capable of enthusiasm. That China is backward, that many of its political manifestations bear a primitive character – nobody asks that this be passed over in silence. But a correct perspective is needed which puts every object in its place. The Chinese events, on the basis of which Malraux’s “novel” unfolds itself, are incomparably more important for the future destiny of human culture than the vain and pitiful clamour of Europe parliaments and the mountain of literary products of stagnant civilization. Malraux seems to feel a certain fear to take this into account.
In the novel, there are pages, splendid in their intensity, which show how revolutionary hatred is born of the yoke, of ignorance, of slavery, and is tempered like steel. These pages might have entered into the Anthology of the Revolution if Malraux had approached the masses with greater freedom and intrepidity, if he had not introduced into his observations a small note of blasé superiority, seeming to excuse himself for his transient contact with the insurrection of the Chinese people, as much perhaps before himself as before the academic mandarins in France and the traffickers in spiritual opium.
* * *
Borodin represents the Comintern in the post of “high counsellor” in the Canton government. Garine, the favourite of the author, is in charge of propaganda. All the work is done within the framework of the Guomindang. Borodin, Garine, the Russian “General” Galen, the Frenchman Gérard, the German Klein and others, constitute an original bureaucracy of the revolution raising itself above the insurgent people and conducting its own “revolutionary” policy instead of the policy of the revolution.
The local organizations of the Guomindang are defined as follows: “groups of fanatics – brave of a few plutocrats out for notoriety or for security – and crowds of students and coolies”. (p.24) Not only do bourgeois enter into every organization but they completely lead the Party. The Communists are subordinate to the Guomindang. The workers and the peasants are persuaded to take no action that might rebuff the devoted friends of the bourgeoisie. “Such are the societies that we control (more or less, do not fool yourself on this score).” An edifying avowal! The bureaucracy of the Comintern tried to “control” the class struggle in China, like the international bankocracy controls the economic life of the backward countries. But a revolution cannot be controlled. One can only give a political expression to its internal forces. One must know to which of these forces to link one’s destiny.
“Today coolies are beginning to discover that they exist, simply that they exist.” (p.26) That’s well aimed. But to feel that they exist, the coolies, the industrial workers and the peasants must overthrow those who prevent them from existing. Foreign domination is indissolubly bound up with the domestic yoke. The coolies must not only drive out Baldwin or MacDonald but also overthrow the ruling classes. One cannot be accomplished without the other. Thus, the awakening of the human personality in the masses of China, who exceed ten times the population of France, is immediately transformed into the lava of the social revolution. A magnificent spectacle!
But here Borodin appears on the scene and declares: “In the revolution the workers must do the coolie work for the bourgeoisie,” wrote Chen Duxiu in an open letter to the Chinese Communists. The social enslavement from which they want to liberate themselves, the workers find transposed into the sphere of politics. To whom do they owe this perfidious operation? To the bureaucracy of the Comintern. In trying to “control” the Guomindang, it actually aids the bourgeoisie which seeks “notoriety and security” in enslaving the coolies who want to exist.
Borodin, who remains in the background all the time, is characterized in the novel as a “man of action”, as a “professional revolutionist”, as a living incarnation of Bolshevism on the soil of China. Nothing is further from the truth! Here is the political biography of Borodin: in 1903, at the age of 19, he emigrated to America; in 1918, he returned to Moscow where, thanks to his knowledge of English, he “ensured contact with the foreign parties”; he was arrested in Glasgow in 1922; then he was delegated to China as representative of the Comintern. Having quit Russia before the first revolution and having returned after the third, Borodin appeared as the consummate representative of that state and Party bureaucracy which recognized the revolution only after its victory. When it is a question of young people, it is sometimes nothing more than a matter of chronology. With people of 40 or 50, it is already a political characterization. If Borodin rallied successfully to the victorious revolution in Russia, it does not in the least signify that he was called upon to assure the victory of the revolution in China. People of this type assimilate without difficulty the gestures and intonations of “professional revolutionists”. Many of them, by their protective colouration, not only deceive others but also themselves. The audacious inflexibility of the Bolshevik is most usually metamorphosed with them into that cynicism of the functionary ready for anything. Ah! to have a mandate from the Central Committee! This sacrosanct safeguard Borodin always had in his pocket.
Garine is not a functionary, he is more original than Borodin and perhaps even closer to the revolutionary type. But he is devoid of the indispensable formation; dilettante and theatrical, he gets hopelessly entangled in the great events and he reveals it at every step. With regard to the slogans of the Chinese revolution, he expresses himself thus: “democratic chatter – ‘the rights of the proletariat’, etc.” (p.32.) This has a radical ring but it is a false radicalism. The slogans of democracy are execrable chatter in the mouth of Poincaré, Herriot, Léon Blum, sleight-of-hand artists of France and jailers of Indochina, Algeria and Morocco. But when the Chinese rebel in the name of the “rights of the proletariat”, this has as little to do with chatter as the slogans of the French Revolution in the eighteenth century. At Hong Kong, the British birds of prey threatened, during the strike, to re-establish corporal punishment. “The rights of man and of the citizen” meant at Hong Kong the right of the Chinese not to be flogged by the British whip. To unmask the democratic rottenness of the imperialists is to serve the revolution: to call the slogans of the insurrection of the oppressed “chatter”, is involuntarily to aid the imperialists.
A good inoculation of Marxism would have preserved the author from fatal contempt of this sort. But Garine in general considers that revolutionary doctrine is “doctrinaire rubbish” (le fatras doctrinal). He is, you see, one of those to whom the revolution is only a definite “state of affairs”. Isn’t this astonishing? But it is just because the revolution is a “state of affairs”, that is, a stage in the development of society conditioned by objective causes and subjected to definite laws, that a scientific mind can foresee the general direction of processes. Only the study of the anatomy of society and of its physiology permits one to react to the course of events by basing oneself upon scientific foresight and not upon a dilettante’s conjectures. The revolutionist who “despises” revolutionary doctrine is not a bit better than the healer who despises medical doctrine which he does not know, or than the engineer who rejects technology. People who without the aid of science, try to rectify the “state of affairs” which is called a disease, are called sorcerers or charlatans and are prosecuted by law. Had there existed a tribunal to judge the sorcerers of the revolution, it is probable that Borodin, like his Muscovite inspirers, would have been severely condemned. I am afraid Garine himself would not have come out of it unscathed.
Two figures are contrasted to each other in the novel, like the two poles of the national revolution; old Chen Dai, the spiritual authority of the right wing of the Guomindang, the prophet and saint of the bourgeoisie, and Hong, the young leader of the terrorists. Both are depicted with great force. Chen Dai embodies the old Chinese culture translated into the language of European breeding; with this exquisite garment, he “ennobles” the interests of all the ruling classes of China. To be sure, Chen Dai wants national liberation, but he dreads the masses more than the imperialists; he hates the revolution more than the yoke placed upon the nation. If he marches towards it, it is only to pacify it, to subdue it, to exhaust it. He conducts a policy of passive resistance on two fronts, against imperialism and against the revolution, the policy of Gandhi in India, the policy which, in definite periods and in one form or another, the bourgeoisie has conducted at every longitude and latitude. Passive resistance flows from the tendency of the bourgeoisie to canalize the movement of the masses and to make off with it.
When Garine says that Chen Dai’s influence rises above politics, one can only shrug his shoulders. The masked policy of the “upright man”, in China as in India, expresses in the most sublime and abstractly moralizing form the conservative interests of the possessors. The personal disinterestedness of Chen Dai is in no sense in opposition to his political function: the exploiters need “upright men” as the corrupted ecclesiastical hierarchy needs saints.
Who gravitate around Chen Dai? The novel replies with meritorious precision: a world of “aged mandarins, smugglers of opium and of obscene photographs, of scholars turned bicycle dealers, of Parisian barristers, of intellectuals of every kind”. (p.124.) Behind them stands a more solid bourgeoisie bound up with England, which arms General Tang against the revolution. In the expectation of victory, Tang prepares to make Chen Dai the head of the government. Both of them, Chen Dai and Tang, nevertheless continue to be members of the Guomindang which Borodin and Garine serve.
When Tang has a village attacked by his armies, and when he prepares to butcher the revolutionists, beginning with Borodin and Garine, his party comrades, the latter with the aid of Hong, mobilize and arm the unemployed. But after the victory won over Tang, the leaders do not seek to change a thing that existed before. They cannot break the ambiguous bloc with Chen Dai because they have no confidence in the workers, the coolies, the revolutionary masses, they are themselves contaminated with the prejudices of Chen Dai whose qualified arm they are.
In order “not to rebuff” the bourgeoisie they are forced to enter into struggle with Hong. Who is he and where does he come from? “The lowest dregs.” (p.36) He is one of those who are making the revolution and not those who rally to it when it is victorious. Having come to the idea of killing the British governor of Hong Kong, Hong is concerned with only one thing: “When I have been sentenced to capital punishment, you must tell the young to follow my example.” (p.36) To Hong a clear program must be given: to arouse the workers, to assemble them, to arm them and to oppose them to Chen Dai as to an enemy. But the bureaucracy of the Comintern seeks Chen Dai’s friendship, repulses Hong and exasperates him. Hong exterminates bankers and merchants one after another, the very ones who “support” the Guomindang, Hong kills missionaries: “those who teach people to support misery must be punished, Christian priests or others” (p.274) If Hong does not find the right road, it is the fault of Borodin and Garine who have placed the revolution in the hands of the bankers and the merchants. Hong reflects the mass which is already rising but which has not yet rubbed its eyes or softened its hands. He tries by the revolver and the knife to act for the masses whom the agents of the Comintern are paralysing. Such is the unvarnished truth about the Chinese revolution.
* * *
Meanwhile, the Canton government is “oscillating, in its attempt to stay straight, between Garine and Borodin, who control the police and the trade unions, on the one hand, and Chen Dai, who controls nothing, but who exists all the same, on the other.” (p.68) We have an almost perfect picture of the duality of power. The representatives of the Comintern have in their hands the trade unions of Canton, the police, the cadet school of Whampoa, the sympathy of the masses the aid of the Soviet Union. Chen Dai has a “moral authority”, that is, the prestige of the mortally distracted possessors. The friends of Chen Dai sit in a powerless government willingly supported by the conciliators. But isn’t this the régime of the February revolution, the Kerenskyist system, with the sole difference that the role of the Mensheviks is played by the pseudo-Bolsheviks? Borodin has no doubt of it even though he is made up as a Bolshevik and takes his make-up seriously.
The central idea of Garine and Borodin is to prohibit Chinese and foreign boats, cruising towards the port of Canton, from putting in at Hong Kong. By the commercial boycott these people, who consider themselves revolutionary realists, hope to shatter British domination in southern China. They never deem it necessary first of all to overthrow the government of the Canton bourgeoisie which only waits for the moment to surrender the revolution to England. No, Borodin and Garine knock every day at the door of the “government”, and hat in hand, beg that the saving decree be promulgated. One of them reminds Garine that at bottom the government is a phantom. Garine is not disconcerted. Phantom or not, he replies, let it go ahead while we need it. That is the way the priest needs relics which he himself fabricates with wax and cotton. What is concealed behind this policy which weakens and debases the revolution? The respect of a petty-bourgeois revolutionist for a solid conservative bourgeois. It is thus that the reddest of the French radicals is always ready to fall on his knees before Poincaré.
But perhaps the masses of Canton are not yet mature enough to overthrow the power of the bourgeoisie? From this whole atmosphere, the conviction arises that without the opposition of the Comintern the phantom government would long before have been overthrown under the pressure of the masses. But let us admit that the Cantonese workers were still too weak to establish their own power. What, generally speaking, is the weak spot of the masses? Their inclination to follow the exploiters. In this case, the first duty of revolutionists is to help the workers liberate themselves from servile confidence. Nevertheless, the work done by the bureaucracy of the Comintern was diametrically opposed to his. It inculcated in the masses the notion of the necessity to submit to the bourgeoisie and it declared that the enemies of the bourgeoisie were their own enemies.
Do not rebuff Chen Dai! But if Chen Dai withdraws in spite of this, which is inevitable, it would not mean that Garine and Borodin will be delivered of their voluntary vassaldom towards the bourgeoisie. They will only choose as the new focus of their activity, Chiang Kai-shek, son of the same class and younger brother of Chen Dai. Head of the military school of Whampoa, founded by the Bolsheviks, Chiang Kai-shek does not confine himself to passive resistance; he is ready to resort to bloody force, not in the plebeian form, the form of the masses, but in the military form and only within limits that will permit the bourgeoisie to retain an unlimited power over the army. Borodin and Garine, by arming their enemies, disarm and repulse their friends. This is the way they prepare the catastrophe.
But are we not overestimating the influence of the revolutionary bureaucracy upon the events? No, it showed itself stronger than it might have thought, if not for good then at least for evil. The coolies who are only beginning to exist politically require a courageous leadership. Hong requires a bold program. The revolution requires the energies of millions of rising men. But Borodin and his bureaucrats require Chen Dai and Chiang Kai-shek. They strangle Hong and prevent the worker from raising his head. In a few months, they will stifle the agrarian insurrection of the peasantry so as not to repulse the bourgeois army command. Their strength is that they represent the Russian October, Bolshevism, the Communist International. Having usurped authority, the banner and the material resources of the greatest of revolutions, the bureaucracy bars the road to another revolution which also had all chances of being great.
The dialogue between Borodin and Hong (pp.182-4) is the most terrific indictment of Borodin and his Moscow inspirers. Hong, as always, is after decisive action. He demands the punishment of the most prominent bourgeois. Borodin finds this sole objection: Those who are “paying” must not be touched. “Revolution is not so simple,” says Garine for his part. “Revolution involves paying an army,” adds Borodin. These aphorisms contain all the elements of the noose in which the Chinese revolution was strangled. Borodin protected the bourgeoisie which, in recompense, made contributions to the “revolution”, the money going to the army of Chiang Kai-shek. The army of Chiang Kai-shek exterminated the proletariat and liquidated the revolution. Was it really impossible to foresee this? And wasn’t it really foreseen? The bourgeoisie pays willingly only for the army which serves it against the people. The army of the revolution does not wait for donations: it makes them pay. This is called the revolutionary dictatorship. Hong comes forward successfully at workers’ meetings and thunders against the “Russians”, the bearers of ruin for the revolution. The way of Hong himself does not lead to the goal but he is right as against Borodin. “Had the Tai Ping leaders Russian advisers? Had the Boxers?” (p.190) Had the Chinese revolution of 1924-27 been left to itself it would perhaps not have come to victory immediately but it would not have resorted to the methods of hara-kiri, it would not have known shameful capitulations and it would have trained revolutionary cadres. Between the dual power of Canton and that of Petrograd there is the tragic difference that in China there was no Bolshevism in evidence; under the name of Trotskyism, it was declared a counter-revolutionary doctrine and was persecuted by every method of calumny and repression. Where Kerensky did not succeed during the July Days, Stalin succeeded ten years later in China.
Borodin and “all the Bolsheviks of his generation”, Garine assures us, were distinguished by their struggle against the anarchists. This remark was needed by the author so as to prepare the reader for the struggle of Borodin against Hong’s group. Historically it is false. Anarchism was unable to raise its head in Russia not because the Bolsheviks fought successfully against it but because they had first dug up the ground under its feet. Anarchism, if it does not live within the four walls of intellectuals’ cafés and editorial offices, but has penetrated more deeply, translates the psychology of despair in the masses and signifies the political punishment for the deceptions of democracy and the treachery of opportunism. The boldness of Bolshevism in posing the revolutionary problems and in teaching their solution left no room for the development of anarchism in Russia. But if the historical investigation of Malraux is not exact, his recital shows admirably how the opportunist policy of Stalin-Borodin prepared the ground for anarchist terrorism in China.
Driven by the logic of this policy, Borodin consents to adopt a decree against the terrorists. The firm revolutionists, driven on to the road of adventurism by the crimes of the Moscow leaders, the bourgeoisie of Canton, with the benediction of the Comintern, declares them outlaws. They reply with acts of terrorism against the pseudo-revolutionary bureaucrats who protect the moneyed bourgeoisie. Borodin and Garine seize the terrorists and destroy them, no longer defending the bourgeois alone but also their own heads. It is thus that the policy of conciliation inexorably slips down to the lowest degree of treachery.
The book is called Les Conquérants. With this title, which has a double meaning when the revolution paints itself with imperialism, the author refers to the Russian Bolsheviks, or more exactly, to a certain part of them. The conquerors? The Chinese masses rose for a revolutionary insurrection, with the influence of the October upheaval as their example and with Bolshevism as their banner. But the “conquerors” conquered nothing. On the contrary, they surrendered everything to the enemy. If the Russian Revolution called forth the Chinese revolution, the Russian epigones strangled it. Malraux does not make these deductions. He does not even suspect their existence. All the more clearly do they emerge upon the background of his remarkable book.
Problems of the Chinese Revolution
A Strangled Revolution
and Its Stranglers
June 13, 1931
Urgent work prevented me from reading sooner the article by Malraux in which he defends, against my criticism, the Communist International, Borodin, Garine, and himself. As a political publicist, Malraux is at a still greater distance from the proletariat and from the revolution than as an artist. By itself, this fact would not justify these lines, for it is nowhere said that a talented writer must necessarily be a proletarian revolutionist. If I nevertheless return to the same question again, it is for the sake of the subject, and not of Malraux.The best figures of the novel, I said, attained the stature of social symbols. I must add: Borodin, Garine and all their “collaborators” constitute symbols of the quasi-revolutionary bureaucracy, of that new “social type” which was born thanks to the existence of the soviet state on the one hand, and on the other to a definite régime in the Comintern.
I declined to classify Borodin among the “professional revolutionists”, as he is characterized in the novel. Malraux endeavours to show me that Garine has enough mandarin’s buttons to give him the right to this title. Here, Malraux finds it in place to add that Trotsky has a greater quantity of buttons. Isn’t it ridiculous? The type of the professional revolutionist is not at all some sort of an ideal type. But in all events, it is a definite type, with a definite political biography and with salient traits. Only Russia created this type during the last decades; in Russia, the most perfect of this type was created by the Bolshevik Party. The professional revolutionists of the generation to which Borodin belonged began to take shape on the eve of the first revolution, they were put to the test in 1905, they tempered and educated (or decomposed) themselves during the years of the counter-revolution; they stood the supreme test in 1917. From 1903 up to 1918, that is, during the whole period when, in Russia, was being formed the type of professional revolutionist, Borodin, and hundreds, thousands of Borodins, remained outside of the struggle. In 1918, after the victory, Borodin arrived to offer his services. This does him honour: it is worthier to serve the proletarian state than the bourgeois state. Borodin charged himself with perilous missions. But the agents of bourgeois states in foreign countries, especially in colonial countries, also and that quite frequently, accomplish perilous tasks. Yet they do not become revolutionists because of that. The type of the functionary-adventurer and the type of the professional revolutionist, at certain moments and by certain qualities, can find points of similarity. But by their psychological formation as much as by their historical function, they are two opposite types.
The revolution pursues its course together with its class. If the proletariat is weak, if it is backward, the revolution confines itself to the modest, patient and persevering work of the creation of propaganda circles, of the preparation of cadres; supporting itself upon the first cadres, it passes over to mass agitation, legal or illegal, according to the circumstances. It always distinguishes its class from the enemy class, and conducts only such a policy as corresponds to the strength of its class and consolidates this strength. The French, the Russian or the Chinese proletarian revolutionist, will look upon the Chinese workers as his own army, of today or of tomorrow. The functionary-adventurer raises himself above all the classes of the Chinese nation. He considers himself predestined to dominate, to give orders, to command, independently of the internal relationship of forces in China. Since the Chinese proletariat is weak today and cannot assure the commanding positions, the functionary conciliates and joins together the different classes. He acts as the inspector of the nation, as the viceroy for the affairs of the colonial revolution. He arranges combinations between the conservative bourgeois and the anarchist, he improvises a program ad hoc, he erects policies upon ambiguities, he creates a bloc of four classes, he swallows swords and scoffs at principles. With what result? The bourgeoisie is richer, more influential, more experienced. The functionary-adventurer does not succeed in deceiving it. But for all that, he deceives the workers, filled with the spirit of abnegation, but not experienced, by turning them over to the hands of the bourgeoisie. Such was the role of the bureaucracy of the Comintern in the Chinese revolution.
Considering as natural the right of the “revolutionary” bureaucracy to command independently of the forces of the proletariat, Malraux informs us that one could not participate in the Chinese revolution without participating in the war, and one could not participate in the war without participating in the Guomindang, etc To this, he adds: the break with the Guomindang would have meant, for the Communist Party, the necessity of passing into illegality. When one thinks that these arguments sum up the philosophy of the representatives of the Comintern in China, he cannot refrain from saying: Indeed, the dialectic of the historical process sometimes plays bad jokes upon organizations, upon men and upon ideas! How easy it is to solve the problem: in order to participate successfully in the events directed by the enemy class, one must submit to this class; in order to avoid repressions on the part of the Guomindang, one must paint oneself up in its colours! There you have the secret of Borodin-Garine.
Malraux’s political estimate of the situation, of the possibilities and the tasks in China in 1925, is entirely false; it hardly reaches the border line where the real problems of the revolution begin. I have said elsewhere all that had to be said on this subject, and Malraux’s article gives no ground for a re-examination of what has been said. But even by standing on the ground of the false estimate Malraux gives of the situation, one can in no case justify the policy of Stalin-Borodin-Garine. In order to protest in 1925 against this policy, certain things had to be foreseen. In order to defend it in 1931, one must be incurably blind.
Did the strategy of the functionaries of the Comintern bring the Chinese proletariat anything but humiliations, the extermination of its cadres and above all, a terrific confusion in the mind? Did the shameful capitulation before the Guomindang avert repression for the Party? On the contrary, it only accumulated and concentrated the repressions. Was not the Communist Party compelled to pass into illegality? And when? In the period of the crushing of the revolution! If the Communists had begun by illegal work, at the beginning of the revolutionary tide, they would have emerged upon the open arena at the head of the masses. By effacing and demoralizing the Party with the aid of the Borodins and Garines, Chiang Kai-shek compelled it later, with all the greater success to take refuge in illegality during the years of the counter-revolution. The policy of Borodin-Garine entirely served the Chinese bourgeoisie. The Chinese Communist Party must begin all over again at the beginning, and that on an arena encumbered with debris, with prejudices, with uncomprehended mistakes and with the distrusts of the advanced workers. Those are the results.
The criminal character of this whole policy reveals itself with particular acuteness in isolated questions. Malraux presents as a merit of Borodin and Company the fact that in turning over the terrorists to the hands of the bourgeoisie, he deliberately pushed under the knife of the terror the leader of the bourgeoisie, Chen Dai. This machination is worthy of a bureaucratic Borgia or of the “revolutionary” Polish szlachta (gentry and nobility) who always preferred to fire with the hands of others behind the backs of the people. No, the task was not to kill Chen Dai in ambush, but to prepare the overthrow of the bourgeoisie. When the party of the revolution is obliged to kill, it does it on its open responsibility, in the name of tasks and immediate aims understood by the masses.
Revolutionary morals are not abstract Kantian norms, but rules of conduct which place the revolutionist under the control of the tasks and aims of his class. Borodin and Garine were not bound up with the masses, they did not absorb the spirit of responsibility before the class. They are bureaucratic supermen who consider that “everything is permitted” within the limits of the mandate received from above. The activity of such men, effective as it may be at certain moments, can only be directed, in the last instance, against the interests of the revolution.
After having killed Chen Dai with the hands of Hong, Borodin and Garine then turn over Hong and his group to the hands of the executioners. This stamps their whole policy with the brand of Cain. Here too Malraux poses as a defender. What is his argument? Lenin and Trotsky also punished the anarchists. It is hard to believe that this is said by a man who came near the revolution, even if but for a moment. Malraux forgets or does not understand that the revolution takes place in the name of the domination of one class over another, that it is only from this task that revolutionists draw their right to violence. The bourgeoisie exterminates the revolutionists, sometimes also the anarchists (more and more infrequently, because they become ever more obedient) in the name of safeguarding the régime of exploitation and baseness. Under the domination of the bourgeoisie, the Bolsheviks always defend the anarchists against the Chiappes. After having conquered power, the Bolsheviks did everything to draw the anarchists over to the side of the dictatorship of the proletariat. They succeeded in actuality in drawing the majority of the anarchists behind them. Yes, the Bolsheviks severely punished those anarchists who undermined the dictatorship of the proletariat. Were we right or weren’t we? That depends upon the manner in which one evaluates our revolution and the régime instituted by it. But can one imagine for a single instant that the Bolsheviks – under Prince Lvov or under Kerensky, under the bourgeois régime – would act as its agents in the extermination of anarchists? It is enough to formulate the question clearly, to turn aside in disgust. Just as Bridoison interests himself only in the form and ignores the essence, so the quasi-revolutionary bureaucracy and its literary attorney interest themselves only in the mechanics of the revolution, ignoring the question of what class and what régime they should serve. Here lies the abyss between the revolutionist and the functionary of the revolution.
What Malraux says about Marxism is a joke. The Marxian policy was not applicable in China because, you see, the proletariat was not class-conscious. It would seem then that from this flows the task of awakening this class-consciousness. But Malraux deduces a justification of the policy directed against the interests of the proletariat.
The other argument is no more convincing and still less amusing: Trotsky speaks of the need of Marxism for revolutionary politics; but isn’t Borodin a Marxist? And Stalin, isn’t he a Marxist? Then it is not a question of Marxism. I defend, against Garine, the revolutionary doctrine, just as I would defend, against a sorcerer, the medical sciences. The sorcerer will say to me in his defence that diplomaed doctors also very often kill their patients. It is an argument unworthy of a moderately educated burgher, and not only of a revolutionist. The fact that medicine is not omnipotent, that the doctors do not always effect cures, that one finds among them ignoramuses, blockheads and even poisoners – can this fact serve as an argument for giving the right to practise medicine to sorcerers, who have never studied medicine and who deny its significance?
I must make one correction, after having read Malraux’s article. In my article I expressed the idea that an inoculation of Marxism would do Garine good. I don’t think so any more.
Death, Be Not Proud-With The 17th Century Poet John Donne’s “Death, Be Not Proud” In Mind
[Usually music critic Seth Garth confines himself to reviews of CDs and other related subjects like the history behind various musical genre but today he has asked for space to speak about poetry or rather the effect that a poem, 17th century poet John Donne’s Death, Be Not Proud, has had on his old schoolboy friend Luther Larsen who is going through some tough times these days. He begs your indulgence. Ben Goldman]
My schoolboy friend from old Riverdale High Luther Larsen is dying. I cannot put the matter anymore gently. Luther Larsen is dying. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow but his ticket has been punched. He is a “dead man walking” to use a term from death penalty cases as he himself put it to me the other night on the cellphone when he called me from Boston where he is stating for a few days and where he has of late been a patient at Massachusetts General Hospital. Early last year after complaining for several months of serious bladder problems (let’s just leave it at seriously increased urgency and frequency problems and the reader can figure it out from there on the ravages of a seventy-five year old man) and seeking various treatments that did not relieve his condition one biopsy taken to see what the real problem was he was informed by the doctor that he had bladder cancer.
After the initial shock, no, denial had worn off (he did not tell me about his condition for several months after the diagnosis) Luther began what are called BCG treatments, not the dreaded chemotherapy he was at pains to tell me and others whenever anybody made that mistake about the nature of the procedure. I will not go into the graphic aspects of the procedure but they included a series of treatments projected to be over a two plus year duration in order to control the spread of cancerous cells by throwing a toxic cocktail into his body to “harden” up the walls of the bladder. His urologist touted the procedure as a very successful way to control the disease. Luther was all in even though he hated the periodic procedure days like the plague for it left him depleted and very tired although the actual procedure time was fairly short the life-cycle of the chemicals was not.
Luther went through the first couple of series with flying colors after he was “scoped,” after the doctor did another procedure to see what his bladder looked like and after he got the results of a urine sample back. Then after the last series and “scope” the other shoe dropped. The urologist informed him that his bladder was inflamed again, the cancerous cells were making a comeback. The problem, the ‘dead man walking” problem, remember that is Luther’s term not mine, is that due to other medical problems including prostate issues he was not a candidate for a bladder replacement, the next step if the BCG procedure was unsuccessful in holding back the cancerous cells. Meaning, according to the doctor, that while they would continue the periodic BCGs that realistically he had only a couple of years before he would be overcome by the cancer. Would be a “dead man dead” as Luther put it in one of his more sardonic moments.
Luther’s initial reaction to the news from the doctor once he returned from Boston to the apartment that he was renting in a small fishing village in Maine was denial and fear, not uncommon among people who have gotten this kind of terminal notice. (The “why” of the apartment in a small Maine fishing village for a man who has all his life feared to be more than a mile from city street lights will be dealt with in a minute.). He became reclusive, a condition made worse by the isolation and emptiness of that small Maine fishing village in winter until that other night when he told me his fate (again it had been a month after the doctor’s bad news before he made that call to me to tell me about his condition).
But enough of the sad medical prognostication because if you have been playing attention the topic is about John Donne’s poem Death, Be Not Proud which is really what Luther wanted to talk about for the hour and one half that we were on the phone (he, self-admittedly, not much of a phone person so you can get the tenor of his concerns). Luther had ever since we met in English class freshman year at old Riverdale High been mad for poetry, would read poems out loud even when we were hanging around pizza parlor corners on windswept and girl-less Friday nights much to our annoyance and to our prospects for “picking up” stray girls who were guy-less and knew that the pizza parlor was the “spot” to meet and see what happened. In those days I was trying to get all the guys interested in the folk minute that was brewing in the land and which I had heard girls, the kind of girls I, we, would be interested in were getting into so I was not really paying attention to what Luther was spouting forth as far as poetry went. The one poem I was crazy about mad man Allen Ginsberg’s Howl Luther, to use an expression that made the pizza parlor rounds, could have given a rat’s ass about.
The exception to my disinterest in Luther’s foolish poems was John Donne’s Death, Be Not Proud which Luther lived by, still does which will come again in a minute as well and then mainly on religious grounds. See Luther was brought up a Protestant, a Lutheran and hence his name, who were not as hung about getting to heaven as I as a Roman Catholic devotee was then. Luther always said, now remember he was only maybe fifteen or sixteen at the time and not any more worried about the grim reaper than I was, that he would not worry about dying, would face it as bravely as he could when his time came. Saw death not as an enemy but as just the “big sleep” (my term from that last paragraph of Raymond Chandler’s crime novel The Big Sleep), no better or worse. He had picked up that idea from Donne’s poem and anytime we talked of the subject that would always come up. I then, and now too, feared death, feared not being, feared losing the battle, feared winding up outside the gates of Eden. The other night Luther quoted for the first time in a long time that poem and said that he was still resolved as he had been as a schoolboy when the matter was not quite so pressing to face his impending death as bravely as he could. He made short work of the few feeble arguments I made to carry on until the bitter end.
Then, as his voice became noticeably less audible over that damn phone, Luther kind of whispered what did bother him, was agitating him in the light of his recent news. He had begun to become afraid that at the end he would die alone, alone with nobody to see him through at the end. Now of course I and a bunch of other guys will be there when that hopefully faraway day comes but you have to know Riverdale schoolboy “speak” to know what Luther really meant. He meant that there would be no female companion to see him off. I knew exactly what he meant because poetry –addled or music-addled we were, are, skirt-addled. And that brings us back to that point about why he was tucked away in some godforsaken small isolated Maine fishing village in winter. A couple of years ago his long-time companion, Stephanie, Stephanie Murphy, told Luther she had found another man, had found somebody more in tune with her musical and artistic interests than he and that she was leaving him and the home they had shared for the previous ten years (Luther had been twice divorced, not nice divorces before meeting Stephanie). Once she left, once she left even knowing that he had serious health issues, Luther could not face staying in their place and took off for Maine which in sunnier times had been a place of refuge for both of them. And there he has stayed although recently he has made noises about going back to his roots, going back to Riverdale to face the end in a place that he knew would provide some mental relief.
As we finished that long conversation Luther signed off by reaffirming that he was not afraid to die, and was hopeful that maybe he could find someone (remember read some woman) who would be there for him at the end. I give a rat’s ass about that and I told him I hope that he does find somebody. Enough said.
Black History and the Class Struggle The Nat Turner Rebellion and the Fight Against Slavery Part One
Workers Vanguard No. 1106
24 February 2017
Black History and the Class Struggle
The Nat Turner Rebellion and the Fight Against Slavery
We print below, edited for publication, the first part of a presentation given by Spartacist League/U.S. Central Committee member Alan Wilde to the New York Spartacus Youth Club on January 28.
In 1831, American slaveowners learned what it means to have the fear of God put into them. In August of that year, an insurrection was launched by rebel slaves led by Nat Turner in Southampton County, Virginia. Before their suppression, the rebels killed up to 60 whites in the course of a few days—the highest number to die in a slave uprising in the U.S. It was the unmistakable justice and vengeance of revolutionary terror. And it was met with the reactionary terror of the slaveowners, who crushed the rebellion and drowned it in blood. We honor Nat Turner’s rebellion, as we honor John Brown’s 1859 Harpers Ferry raid. These were blows struck in the cause of black freedom and heralded the Civil War that finally smashed the slave order and emancipated the slave.
Truth be told, while the rebellion and its aftermath are well documented, including through newspaper articles at the time, we know little about Nat Turner himself. As brilliant as he was, he was a black slave living in the South. As such, no one was going to document his life. What little documentation exists of Nat’s life consists mainly of the record of him being bought and sold. As Thomas Wentworth Higginson—a radical abolitionist and the commander of the first regiment of freed slaves to fight in the Civil War—wrote in an August 1861 Atlantic article, “Nat Turner’s Insurrection”: “The biographies of slaves can hardly be individualized; they belong to the class.” Speaking of Nat Turner, Higginson noted that he “did not even possess a name, beyond one abrupt monosyllable,—for even the name of Turner was the master’s property.”
Many of the books and articles that address Nat’s life before the rebellion base themselves on Thomas R. Gray’s The Confessions of Nat Turner, The Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, VA (1831). Gray, a Southern lawyer and ardent defender of slavery, supposedly sat down with Nat after his capture and took down his “confession” verbatim. Many historians cast doubt on Gray’s Confessions of Nat Turner for an obvious reason: Does one really believe that this slaveowning lawyer took down the words of Nat Turner precisely, without inventions or omissions? At the same time, “When the document is viewed in historical context,” as noted by Stephen B. Oates in The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner’s Fierce Rebellion (1975), “the confessions seem an authentic and reliable document.” Oates writes that the confessions are “very close” to Turner’s statements in his October 31 court interrogation, and the details correspond to the slave trial records and contemporary newspaper accounts. (A very useful website, www.natturnerproject.org, has collected and collated the available documentary record of Turner’s rebellion and its aftermath.) So, with all these caveats, I will refer to Gray’s Confessions, as well as other works, in this talk.
Nat Turner was born in October 1800—incidentally, the same year of Gabriel Prosser’s planned slave rebellion and the same year Denmark Vesey won his freedom. His father is believed to have escaped slavery when Nat was a young boy. His mother, Nancy, seems interesting. One story has it that she was brought to the U.S. through the harrowing Middle Passage directly from Africa; another that she was sold to the Turner family by a slaveowner escaping the Revolution in Saint-Domingue, what is now Haiti. Whatever the reality, the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804, the world’s first and only successful slave revolution, loomed very large over the Americas. How much of it was known to Nat Turner personally, I do not know. But it was well known among slaves and certainly among the slave masters, who dreaded and feared its implications for America’s “peculiar institution.”
As a youth, Nat Turner learned to read and write. Oates credits this not only to his deep intelligence, but also to his Methodist owners who “not only approved of Nat’s literacy but encouraged him to study the Bible.” In Gray’s Confessions, Nat is quoted as saying that his intelligence meant that “I would never be of any service to any one as a slave.”
Slavery is by definition an unimaginably brutal and deeply degrading institution that denies people their humanity. In North America, along with the genocidal annihilation of the indigenous population, slavery provided the basis for the primitive accumulation of capital. Slavery was not an incidental outgrowth of American capitalism. It was a fundamental component of its birth and development, and its legacy continues to define American capitalism more than 150 years after the destruction of the slave system. American society is still shaped by this history through the continuing oppression of black people as a race-color caste, integrated into the working class while, in their majority forcibly segregated at the bottom of society.
We do not know much about Nat Turner’s family life. It is widely believed that in the early 1820s, he became involved with a young woman at the Turner farm named Cherry, and at some point they were married. To be clear, slave marriages, which were usually marked by the couple jumping over a broomstick together, had no legality. One of the crimes inflicted upon black people in the South was the separation of families, with wives, husbands, mothers and children sold to different owners. One of the biggest fears was to be sold to one of the notoriously brutal, huge cotton plantations of the Deep South. As Oates notes, “For Virginia slaves, accustomed to a modicum of family life, Georgia seemed a living hell.”
Nat and Cherry faced that prospect in 1822 when Samuel Turner—their owner—died. While they were not sold to the Deep South, they were each sold to different owners: Nat to Thomas Moore and Cherry to Giles Reese, whose plantation was a few miles away. They could see each other from time to time, but they were separated. Higginson powerfully captured the horror of this reality in his Atlantic piece:
“This is equivalent to saying that by day or by night that husband had no more power to protect her than the man who lies bound upon a plundered vessel’s deck has power to protect his wife on board the pirate-schooner disappearing in the horizon; she may be reverenced, she may be outraged; it is in the powerlessness that the agony lies.”
Newspaper accounts of the time reported something else about Cherry: Following Nat’s execution, she was lashed and tortured to produce papers he had entrusted to her, after which both she and their daughter were sold to slave traders.
The Religion of the Slave
In his piece, Higginson notes that Nat Turner saw himself, and was seen by his fellow slaves, as a prophet. He was not, as he is usually depicted, a preacher—for example, in last year’s film by Nate Parker, The Birth of a Nation. There is no question that Nat was a deeply religious man, and his fervor found expression in messianic visions.
The religion of the slave was a contradictory phenomenon. It was not simply a reflection of white Christianity, but a unique, dynamic creation of black people on the terrain of American slavery. It preached endurance and patience as a way to survive the inhumanity of slavery, but also the idea that deliverance would one day come. It acted as a brake on the insurrectionary instinct of the slave, while at the same time being unable to fully extinguish the striving for freedom inherent in a people held in chains.
For slaves, gatherings for religious services were not only of religious significance; they were often political and social events. Indeed, for many generations, the church was the only allowed form of black social organization. Historically, even during periods of militant struggle, many black people remained tied to the church. It is significant that nearly every important black mass leader has been deeply religious or church-centered. But while the church has long been among the most pervasive organizers of the black masses, the religious beliefs of Nat Turner are hardly comparable to the reactionary godliness of today’s black clergy. For a long time, the role of black church leaders has been to channel the anger and frustration of the black masses back into prayer meetings and more schemes to reform racist U.S. capitalism, usually through the Democratic Party.
Nat Turner’s religion was based on a desire to drown the slave system in blood. His God was the Old Testament God of vengeance and retribution. For slaves, the story of Exodus, where Moses leads the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt, symbolized not only freedom but also divine punishment for the wrongdoers through the plagues. Nat Turner captures this spirit in a passage attributed to him in Thomas Gray’s Confessions: “And now the Holy Ghost had revealed itself to me, and made plain the miracles it had shown me—For as the blood of Christ had been shed on this earth, and had ascended to heaven for the salvation of sinners…it was plain to me that the Saviour was about to lay down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and the great day of judgment was at hand.” Nat Turner’s rebellion was judgment day.
Nat’s rebellion brought to life the worst nightmares of the slave-master class, revealing the inherently barbaric nature of slavery. For many months to follow, any rumor of a slave uprising sent the white masters and their families fleeing from their homes.
The rebellion was not begun because of a particular incident or a particular horror Nat faced or witnessed as a slave. Rather, as Higginson writes, “Whatever Nat Turner’s experiences of slavery might have been, it is certain that his plans were not suddenly adopted, but that he had brooded over them for years.”
In February 1831, there was a solar eclipse, and Nat saw this as a sign. He managed to gather some muskets and set the date of insurrection for July 4, a day whose symbolism is obvious. But he was forced to postpone after he fell ill. On August 13, there was an atmospheric disturbance that apparently made the sun appear bluish-green. Turner took this as his final sign. He brought together his handful of confidants, no more than six: Henry, Hark, Nelson, Sam, Will and Jack. They deliberated for eleven hours. Higginson described that “two things were at last decided: to begin their work that night, and to begin it with a massacre so swift and irresistible as to create in a few days more terror than many battles, and so spare the need of future bloodshed.”
The rebellion began on August 22. The plan was that the seven of them would go out from plantation to plantation, kill all the whites they could find regardless of age or sex, recruit all the slaves they could to their rebel army and gather guns, muskets and other weapons for a drawn-out fight. It was a matter of military necessity not to leave any of the slaveowners or their families alive to sound the alarm. The first house they went to was that of Joseph Travis, who had been Nat’s owner since 1830. The rebels, not wanting to reveal themselves too early, decided not to use muskets until they had gathered sufficient forces. They went to the bedroom where the master and his wife slept. Bringing down his axe, Nat struck the first blow against Travis, but it was dark and his aim was poor. Will had to complete the job and then kill the wife. After that, they moved on to the children, including a baby in its cradle that they had initially forgotten to kill.
I want to underline that this was not random, maniacal terror. It was part of an organized plan. For example, the rebels made a point of not attacking any farms owned by poor whites. As Higginson noted, “There was no gratuitous outrage beyond the death-blow itself.” This was not a war of blacks against whites, but of the enslaved against the enslavers. The slaves were property and all claims of ownership had to be destroyed. If left alive, that baby in its cradle could one day grow up and say: That slave is my property. Even the Richmond Enquirer at the time admitted that “indiscriminate massacre was not their intention, after they obtained foothold, and was resorted to in the first instance to strike terror and alarm. Women and children would afterwards have been spared, and men also who ceased to resist.”
This was a rebellion against the institution of slavery. In Gray’s Confessions, Nat Turner describes his owner at the time, Travis, by saying that he “was to me a kind master, and placed the greatest confidence in me; in fact, I had no cause to complain of his treatment to me.” This underlines that the issue was not the cruelties of a particular slave master, but the system of slavery itself.
As they moved from plantation to plantation, the rebels’ forces swelled to about 70 fighters. Within about 48 hours, some 60 whites were killed without the loss of a single slave. Nat Turner then decided it was time to strike at the Southampton County seat, Jerusalem, and to raid its armory. The plan was to then retreat into the Dismal Swamp. There, the former slaves would have a defended position from which they could further recruit and launch attacks against the slaveowners. Higginson thinks the attack on Jerusalem could have succeeded if only Turner had not made the mistake of waiting too long outside the Parker plantation, three miles from the town. Some of Turner’s men wanted to stop there to recruit more slaves for the rebel army. Nat was hesitant, worried that it would take too long and that the slaveowners’ militias would surely by now be on the move. But he relented.
A small white militia encountered the rebels outside the plantation, confirming Turner’s fears. They fired a volley and the former slaves fired back, dispersing the white militia, which would have been crushed had it not been able to hook up with another militia from Jerusalem. The rebels were forced into an orderly retreat but were able to regroup their forces. The next day, however, they were defeated by a white militia that was twice their size and reinforced by three companies of artillery. The few remaining rebels agreed to split up and try to recruit more slaves to their army. They never reunited. Most were captured; bloody reprisal fell upon them.
The fighting in the rebellion may have been local, but the impact of Nat Turner’s insurrection resounded throughout the South. The white militia that defeated Turner’s band was reinforced the next day by detachments from the USS Natchez and USS Warren, which were anchored at Norfolk, and by militias from counties in Virginia and North Carolina. There were rumors spreading that slave rebellions were erupting everywhere, including in the majority-black city of Wilmington, North Carolina.
The State of Virginia tried and sentenced to death 56 black people after the rebellion, reimbursing slave masters for their executed “property.” In the hysterical atmosphere that followed the uprising, white mobs and militias scoured the countryside, killing black people with impunity. At least 200 blacks were killed after the crushing of the rebellion. In one particularly gruesome massacre, a company of militia from North Carolina killed 40 black people in one day. Those accused of participating in the uprising were beheaded, and their heads mounted on poles at crossroads to terrify slaves. To this day, part of Virginia State Route 658 is labeled “Blackhead Signpost Road” as a commemoration of this racist bloodbath.
The legal response to the uprising was likewise furious. Virginia and other slave states passed laws that made it illegal to teach not only slaves but also free blacks to read and write. Other laws greatly restricted the few remaining rights that free black men and women had in the South. These included the right to assemble and to bear arms. One of the laws passed restricted all black people—slave or free—from holding religious meetings without the presence of a white minister.
As for Nat Turner himself, he evaded capture until he was found by a white farmer two months later. The farmer reported that Nat handed over his sword to him like a captured soldier surrendering his weapon. But needless to say, the slaveowners did not consider Nat a prisoner of war. On November 5, he was tried for “conspiring to rebel and making insurrection.” He was duly convicted and sentenced to death. When asked by Thomas Gray if he regretted his action now that he was about to die, Turner defiantly responded, “Was not Christ crucified.” He was hanged on November 11 in Jerusalem, Virginia. His corpse was flayed, beheaded and quartered.
Nat Turner stands in the courageous tradition of freedom fighters like Gabriel Prosser and Denmark Vesey. Gabriel was a literate, enslaved blacksmith who planned a rebellion in the Richmond area in 1800. He was keenly aware of his environment, including the increasing tensions between the U.S. and France at the time; he thought a slave uprising in the U.S. could possibly get French aid. He was inspired by the French and Haitian revolutions. His intent was to lead a slave army into Richmond, but he was betrayed and captured. He, his two brothers and 23 other black men were hanged.
Denmark Vesey was born a slave in St. Thomas, a Caribbean island belonging to Denmark at the time. His slave master was a sea captain who took him to many countries, including Haiti. In late 1799, Denmark Vesey won a lottery in South Carolina and bought his freedom the following year for $600. A highly literate and sophisticated man who spoke multiple languages, he began working as a carpenter and set up his own successful business after gaining his freedom. But he was never able to win his first wife’s freedom, as her owner refused to sell her, meaning that all his children would be held in bondage.
In 1818 he was also among the founders of a congregation of what was known as the “Bethel circuit” of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first independent black denomination in the U.S. The church was destroyed by state authorities in 1822 after Vesey’s execution. After the Civil War, it was rebuilt in 1865 by, among others, Vesey’s son. It was no accident that the white-supremacist murderer Dylann Roof picked that church as the site of his massacre of nine black people in June 2015.
Vesey was intent on leading a war against slavery. In 1819, he was closely following Congressional debates on the status of Missouri, which seemed to put slavery on the defensive. He began plans for a revolt with a close circle of friends, which quickly drew in growing numbers. He used his position as a lay preacher to discuss insurrection plans during religious classes. He set the original date for the rebellion for 14 July 1822, Bastille Day, which marks the launch of the French Revolution. But he was betrayed and captured. Vesey and five others were convicted and sentenced to death; he was hanged on July 2. Soon afterward, another 30 black people were also executed.
These planned uprisings terrified the slaveowning class, whose system was based on open violence; in turn, Gabriel and Denmark Vesey understood that nothing but all-out war—i.e., violence—would bring that system down. That’s the context that Nat Turner’s rebellion must be seen in. His insurrection was the coming to life of Gabriel Prosser’s and Denmark Vesey’s plans. His cry was not only for his freedom, but for war against slavery. His impact extended far beyond those all-too-brief 48 hours.
A particular target of Virginia’s and other Southern politicians following Nat Turner’s rebellion was the abolitionist movement, which was blamed for “inspiring” the uprising. A “Vigilance Association” in Columbia, South Carolina, offered a $1,500 reward for the capture of any agitator convicted of distributing abolitionist literature, while North Carolina and Georgia put a bounty of $5,000 on the head of the abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison. At the same time, Nat Turner’s rebellion forced increasing rifts within the abolitionist movement. Would they defend the slave rebels’ violence? Garrison, a committed pacifist, declared that he was “horror-struck” by the insurrection. On the other hand, Higginson described Nat Turner’s rebellion as “a symbol of retribution triumphant.”
Within the South, the years after the uprising saw a greater drive to defend slavery. The slaveowning states saw any criticism of slavery as an intrusion on their “way of life.” Among the most vocal in that regard was John C. Calhoun, U.S. vice president at the time and later the Senator from South Carolina. Whereas previous politicians such as Thomas Jefferson described slavery as a “necessary evil,” Calhoun praised it as a “positive good.” He denounced the language of the Declaration of Independence—that all men were created equal—as “the most false and dangerous of all political errors.” He was an ardent supporter of nullification—the right of states to not enforce federal laws they dispute—and “states’ rights,” which were the watchwords of slavery and continue to be watchwords of racist reaction.
Above all, Nat Turner’s uprising was a precursor of the Civil War. We often make the point that John Brown’s Harpers Ferry raid, which was aimed at sparking a general slave rebellion, was really the first shot of the Civil War. It was. By that same token, Nat Turner’s rebellion was the “First War”—as many former slaves in Southeastern Virginia had put it—that laid the groundwork for the coming war of liberation.
[TO BE CONTINUED]