February is Black History Month. The name of the fiery revolutionary abolitionist John Brown is forever associated with that history.
Reclaiming John Brown for the Left
JOHN BROWN, ABOLITIONIST, DAVID S. REYNOLDS, ALFRED A. KNOPF, NEW YORK, 2005
FEBRUARY IS BLACK HISTORY MONTH
From fairly early in my youth I knew the name John Brown and was swept up by the romance surrounding his exploits at Harper’s 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 tribute to John Brown and that Union soldiers marched to that song as they bravely headed south. I was then, however, 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 ‘proxy’ wars against the expansion of slavery. Later study filled in some of those gaps and has only strengthened my strong bond with his memory. Know this, as I reach the age at which John Brown was executed I still retain my youthful admiration for him. In the context of the turmoil of the times he was the most courageous and audacious revolutionary in the struggle for the abolition of slavery in America. Almost 150 years after his death this writer is proud to stand in the tradition of John Brown.
That said, it is with a great deal of pleasure that I can recommend Mr. Reynolds’s book detailing the life, times and exploits of John Brown, warts and all. Published in 2005, this is an important source (including helpful endnotes) for updating various controversies surrounding the John Brown saga. While I may disagree with some of Mr. Reynolds’s conclusions concerning the impact of John Brown’s exploits on later black liberation struggles and to a lesser extent his position on Brown’s impact on his contemporaries, particularly the Transcendentalists, nevertheless on the key point of the central place of John Brown in American revolutionary history there is no dispute. Furthermore, Mr. Reynolds has taken pains to provide substantial detail about the ups and downs of John Brown’s posthumous reputation. Most importantly, he defends the memory of John Brown against all-comers-that is partisan history on behalf of the ‘losers’ of history at its best. He has reclaimed John Brown as an icon for the left against the erroneous and outrageous efforts of modern day religious and secular terrorists to lay any claim to his memory or his work. Below I make a few comments on some of controversies surrounding John Brown developed in Mr. Reynolds’s study.
If one understands the ongoing nature, from his early youth, of John Brown’s commitment to the active struggle against slavery, the scourge of the American Republic in the first half of the 19th century, one can only conclude that he was indeed a man on a mission. As Mr. Reynolds’s points out Brown took every opportunity to fight against slavery including early service as an agent of the Underground Railroad spiriting escaped slaves northward, participation as an extreme radical in all the key anti-slavery propaganda battles of the time as well as challenging other anti-slavery elements to be more militant and in the 1850’s, arms in hand, fighting in the ‘proxy’ wars in Kansas and, of course, the culmination of his life- the raid on Harper’s Ferry. Those exploits alone render absurd a very convenient myth by those who supported slavery or turned a blind eye to it and their latter-day apologists for it about his so-called ‘madness’. This is a political man and to these eyes a very worthy one.
For those who like their political heroes ‘pure’, frankly, it is better to look elsewhere than the life of John Brown. His personal and family life as a failed rural capitalist would hardly lead one to think that this man was to become a key historical figure in any struggle, much less the great struggle against slavery. Some of his actions in Kansas (concerning the murder of some pro-slavery elements under his direction) also cloud his image. However, when the deal went down in the late 1850’s and it was apparent for all to see that there was no other way to end slavery than a fight to the death-John Brown rose to the occasion. And did not cry about it. And did not expect others to cry about it. Call him a ‘monomaniac’ if you like but even a slight acquaintance with great historical figures shows that they all have this ‘disease’- that is why they make the history books. No, the ‘madness’ argument will not do.
Whether or not John Brown knew that his military strategy for the Harper’s Ferry raid 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 Harper’s Ferry. Brown’s plan, however, was essentially a combination of slave revolt modeled after the maroon experiences in Haiti, Nat Turner’s earlier Virginia slave rebellion and rural guerilla warfare of the ‘third world’ type that we have become more familiar with since that time. 150 years later this strategy does not look so foolhardy in an America of the 1850’s that had no real standing army, fairly weak lines of communications, virtually uninhabited mountains to flee to and the North at their backs. The execution of the plan is another matter. Brown seemingly made about every mistake in the book in that regard. However, this is missing the essential political point that militant action not continuing parliamentary maneuvering advocated by other abolitionists had become necessary. A few more fighting abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass, and better propaganda work among freedman with connections to the plantations would not have hurt the chances for success at Harper’s Ferry.
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. It is possible that if Brown did not have this, by 19th century standards as well as our own, old-fashioned Calvinist determination that he would not been capable of militant action. Certainly other anti-slavery elements never came close to his militancy, including the key Transcendentalist movement led by Emerson and Thoreau and the Concord ‘crowd’ who supported him and kept his memory alive in hard times. In their eyes he had the heroic manner of the Old Testament prophet. Now this animating spirit is not one that animates modern revolutionaries and so it is hard to understand the depths of his religious convictions on his actions but they were understood, if not fully appreciated, by others in those days. It is better today to look at Brown more politically through his hero (and mine, as well) Oliver Cromwell-a combination of Calvinist avenger and militant warrior. Yes, I can get behind that picture of him.
By all accounts 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. These 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 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’ still cannot believe that his road proved more appropriate to end slavery than either non-resistance or gradualism. That alone makes short shrift of such theories. Historians and others have also misinterpreted later events such as the Bolshevik strategy that led to Russian Revolution in October 1917. More recently, we saw this same incomprehension concerning the victory of the Vietnamese against overwhelming American military superiority. Needless to say, all these events continue to be revised by some historians to take the sting out of there proper political implications.
From a modern prospective Brown’s strategy for black liberation, even if the abolitionist goal he aspired to was 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 seems to have replicated the American constitution but with racial and gender equality as a cornerstone. Unfortunately the Civil War did not provide fundamental economic and political freedom. 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 against the current seemingly one-sided class war and establishing a government of workers and their allies. 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 to moving the multi-racial American working class to power. Finish the Civil War.