In 1965, as a nineteen-year-old sophomore enrolled in a course on African history, I had the opportunity to listen to four graduate students from African countries, who had been invited to give a panel presentation to our class. I had a question for them, which I prefaced by noting that I was impacted by their educating discourses with respect to the abuses that their peoples had suffered at the hands of Europeans. Using the language of the period, I asked, “What do you think of the white man?”
The three younger men on the panel showed no inclination to the address the question, with expressions suggesting that courtesy prevented them from answering. But they were rescued from their hesitancy by the older man among the four, a gentleman from Angola, who appeared surprised by the question, but nonetheless ready for it. “I think the white man is human,” he declared. “He has committed sins against us like those that all of humanity has inflicted on others throughout history.” He sensed my reservation with respect to his response, so he tried to explain further. But it was not that I did not understand his point. Rather, my difficulty was that I did not want to say what I really felt, which was that, if I had been in his shoes, I don’t think I would have been so generous.
I never have forgotten the words of the gentleman from Angola to white and black youth in a state university in Pennsylvania. What is more, I increasingly have appreciated the profound wisdom of his reply. For the more I studied, the more I could see the central role of conquest in human history, which not only stands as a testimony to persistent social immorality, but also has had the ironic consequence of promoting development, even if not for the conquered, especially in the short term.
If you look for it, you can find conquest everywhere in human history, since the agricultural revolution five to twelve thousand years ago. And often, conquest has been the foundation of the great civilizations in human history. The conquered sometimes were incorporated as lower status members of an expanding society; or were converted into slaves or other forms of forced and exploited labor; or were taxed as a semi-autonomous entity. These forms of conquest and superexploitation have tended to establish the material conditions for the development of writing, philosophy, arts and letters, manufacturing, and agriculture. I have coined an expression for the phenomenon: the dialectic of domination and development. And I arrived to the view that the modern world-system and the capitalist world-economy, which originated in the long sixteenth century and has been constructed on the foundation of northwestern European colonial domination of the world from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries, is the modern manifestation of the dialectic of domination and development. It seems to me that today’s world-system is a larger and more technologically advanced expression of a historic human pattern.
In today’s commentary, I review two books by Gerald Horne: Dawning of the Apocalypse: The Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy, Settler Colonialism, and Capitalism in the Long Sixteenth Century (2020) and The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism: The Roots of Slavery, White Supremacy, and Capitalism in 17th Century North America and the Caribbean (2017), both published by Monthly Review Press. The books were recommended in a Twitter conversation on “whiteness.”
Horne names the white social sin of 1492 to 1914, making clear the immoral foundations of the modern world order. At the same time, he does not fully grasp the dynamics of the modern Northwestern European domination of the world, as seen from the vantage point of the neocolonized; and he overlooks the insight of the gentleman from Angola.
On slavery, whiteness, and capitalism
Horne discerns the central role of African and indigenous slavery in the English seventeenth century take-off, and he grasps that the rising English merchant class, which played a key role in the establishment of the American Republic and the emergence of modern capitalism, was connected to the African slave trade and the slave plantations of the Caribbean. Unlike most scholars, Horne does not treat Colonial North America as isolated from the Caribbean. He sees the extensive commercial ties between the English settler colonies in North America and the slave islands in the Caribbean, which in many ways explains the economic advance of the settler colonies.
Horne views settler colonialism as categorically different from non-settler colonialism, and a central theme is that “whiteness” is a necessary component of settler colonialism. Whiteness is a constructed Pan-European identity which brings together all Europeans and persons of European descent, overcoming ethnic and nationality boundaries as well as religious and class differences. In the development of white settler colonialism, whiteness became white supremacy. For the elite, cultivation of whiteness and white supremacy is the best strategy for containing the persistently rebellious African and indigenous populations, because whiteness/white supremacy blocked a potential revolutionary alliance between working-class and lower-class whites and Africans and indigenes. Although white settlement and slavery caused an apocalypse for Africans and indigenes in America, Horne views the “whiteness” strategy as ultimately doomed to failure, because of the force and persistence of the African and indigenous resistance.
Horne maintains that the English merchant class revolution against the monarch of the seventeenth century was driven primarily by an interest in the deregulation of the slave trade. With their triumph in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the merchants attained the deregulation and acceleration of the African slave trade.
Subsequently, the movement of the rising English merchant class led to the American “secession” of 1776. Horne writes that the nascent capitalists in England, investors in settler colonialism, were “maneuvering bandits” who in 1776 “pulled off the ultimate coup and exhibited their novel display of patriotism by ousting London altogether from the mainland colonies south of Canada while convincing the deluded and otherwise naïve (to this day) that this naked grab for land, slaves, and profit was somehow a great leap forward for humanity.” It was, he maintains, “a money and power grab by rising merchants in the name of liberty,” freeing the planters for the growth of the productive forces, and facilitating the exponential growth of capitalism, white supremacy, and slavery.
Thus, republicanism in North America was accompanied by “whiteness” from the beginning. Bourgeois democracy in North America used race to consolidate colonial rule, with combat pay for white settlers in the form of land.
A critique in two dimensions
(1) Horne mentions in passing that Spain redirected gold attained from the conquest of America toward London. He does not seek to describe the systemic relations indicated here, which are known to us through the best scholarship on the political-economy of the modern world-system. In using the gold to purchase manufactured goods and food from England and Northwestern Europe, Spain stimulated, first, the modernization of agriculture and the expansion of industry in England and Northwestern Europe; and then the modernization of their industries, which provided the economic foundation for the English and Northwestern European conquest of the world from 1750 to 1914.
Horne also mentions in passing that New England supplied the Caribbean with food and horses beginning in the seventeenth century. Again, this New England-West Indian trade is part of an evolving system. The trade led to the accumulation of capital in the Northeastern United States, which was subsequently invested in industrial manufacturing, leading to a lucrative core-peripheral trading relation between the Northeastern USA and the slave and post-slavery South during the nineteenth century.
Seeing these various systemic connections among regions in the development of the world-system enables us to see that it was not merely slave traders and slaveowners that benefitted, but entire regions, including those individuals in the benefitting regions who protested the barbarity. Singling out particular individuals can distract us from grasping the unfolding systemic relations, which still exist in more evolved manifestations.
Horne maintains that Spain fell behind England by sticking stubbornly to religion in “an age of colonialism moving steadily toward Pan-European whiteness,” pushed by London. But the decline of Spain may have had more to do with the Spanish failure to use the gold and silver from the conquest of America to expand and modernize its industry, which left it economically incapable of adjusting to the criollo independence movements of Latin America in the nineteenth century. This failure paved the way for the penetration of Latin America by British capital in the second half of the nineteenth century and by U.S. capital in the first half of the twentieth, in the context of an emerging neocolonial world-system, which sought to dominate and superexploit with a minimal amount of force.
In other words, Horne is so focused on slavery and whiteness, that he does not see the larger systemic patterns of domination and superexploitation that were evolving, which for the most part are not sustained today by whiteness, white supremacy, or white racism.
(2) Horne leapfrogs from 1776 to 2016, as for example when he writes that “an identity politics of whiteness has persisted stubbornly as a strategy into the twenty-first century.” Let us leave aside, as is the general tendency, what the historian Oscar Handlin called the great migrations that made the American people from 1830 to 1925. These folks, who migrated mostly to the Northeast and the Midwest, were “white,” but they considered themselves Irish, Germans, Italians, Jews, and Poles, and they formed what the sociologist Herbert Gans called “urban villages.”
But we cannot leave aside the changing functionality of whiteness and white supremacy in the world-system’s neocolonial stage, which reached its zenith in the period 1945 to 1980. In the period of the development of settler colonialism, whiteness and white supremacy functioned to legitimate the social system. But in the neocolonial stage, whiteness and white supremacy are dysfunctional to legitimation. The neocolonial order pretends to be democratic, generating ideologies that obscure its foundations in conquest and its unjust structures of economic superexploitation; white supremacy and white racism dangerously expose its false democratic pretentions. The Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations understood this, and they took decisive action against Jim Crow, the clearest manifestation of the white settler logic, even if they did so inconsistently, as a result of the necessary electoral games of capitalist democracies. Since that historic shift, given muscle by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Left has liked to focus on residual racism, obscuring its declining and anti-systemic character.
It is in political fashion today to talk about race in a manner that downplays the differences among slavery times, the era of Jim Crow, and the neocolonial age. But such talk is ahistorical and unscientific. And it stokes ideological and racial divisions among our people in a historic movement in which the unity of the people is more needed than ever; it thereby serves the interests of the power elite.
Dismantling settler colonialism in the USA
As I encountered and took seriously black nationalist thought in the period 1965 to 1972, I became aware that the American republic was in essence a settler society, even if a large one in which the descendants of the white settlers were in the majority. I considered the possibility of “going back to Ireland,” the land of half my ancestors, but a country that I had never seen and about which I knew nearly nothing. Not knowing how to practically implement the idea, I turned instead to continuing personal encounter with peoples of color in the world, and to philosophical reflection on the implications of the alternative view from below of the neocolonized. My own situation perhaps can be generalized: persons of European descent in the large settler societies of the United States, Canada, and Australia cannot practically relocate to Europe, but they can be called to a commitment to social justice from this point forward.
The dismantling of white settler colonialism in the USA must be based on its antithesis. It is a question of moving toward a democratic republic with full citizenship rights for all, regardless of race or ethnicity, with no special privileges for any race or ethnic group. There can be particular programs of benefit to particular groups, but in the context of a wide variety of programs in support of the socioeconomic needs of the people, which in their totality constitute universal support for all of the people.
The meaning of democracy in settler societies converted into republics is problematic. Humanity has not advanced in its understanding of democracy, due to distortions of the meaning of democracy by the great powers, which have presented imperialist polices with a false democratic face. Moreover, structures of representative democracy have emerged, which give rise to politicians skilled in the art of pretending to support the people as they promote and defend the interests of the elite. Humanity needs to critically reflect on the meaning of democracy, taking into account the various models of capitalist democracy and socialist democracy, with the latter represented well by China, Cuba, Vietnam, and DPRK. Structures of democracy that do not favor the rich need to be forged.
In the dismantling of the settler structures of the USA, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a historically significant first step. But the necessary subsequent steps have been completely bungled. Affirmative action programs constituted a kind of compensation for past injustices, but it benefitted only a sector of the minority communities, and in the absence of social and economic programs of universal benefit, tended to foster white resentment.
Compensation should have been conceived more as local community empowerment and economic development, rather than benefits to individuals identified by a superficial measure. Malcolm X had the right idea, with his persistent and powerful calls in the last year of his life for black control of the black community. But Malcolm essentially was forgotten by the black middle class, which opted for outmigration from the historically black sections of the great cities, establishing middle-class black neighborhoods separate from the black lower class, whose needs and interests remained unattended. The African-American sociologist William J. Wilson exposed this tendency in the 1980s, pointing out its essentially undemocratic character, and calling for universal programs to benefit all citizens, regardless of race, accompanied by special attention to the needs of the abandoned black poor.
The autonomous development of the indigenous communities has to be a pillar of the dismantling of the structures of white settler colonialism in the USA, undertaken on a foundation of compensation for the trail of broken treaties. Initiatives in this direction have been implemented, but they have been far too limited. In addition, in the interests of fairness and national unity, local community development could include historically excluded and/or economically marginalized white communities as well.
On reformulating the narrative of the American Republic
Horne’s discussion of slave trading and slavery and the central role of the rising merchant class in the English settler colonies of North America is true as far as it goes. But it abstracts from a larger philosophical and historical context. He writes that “‘all men are created equal’ is a bizarre proclamation in the midst of mass enslavement and genocide,” but it is only bizarre if you are not precise with respect to time and place, and if you ignore other things that were happening.
Many of the American revolutionaries had no direct contact with the slave trade or with slavery. They had legitimate issues with the taxation and regulatory policies of the Crown, which were developed to pay war debts. In the context of the unfolding of events, the American revolutionaries arrived to a commitment to establish a new republican constitutional order, with an emphasis on individual liberty and protections from arbitrary governmental denial of rights. The more progressive of them envisioned structures of local representative democracy with voting rights among males, based on a wide distribution of property in agricultural production. The presence of African slavery had not yet fully contradicted this vision, in that slavery was systemic as of 1789 only in Virginia and South Carolina. It could have been rolled back, with compensation not only for the freed slaves but also for their former owners.
The unspoken truth with respect to the American democratic vision was that it would unfold on land already occupied by indigenous nations. If they fully believed in democracy, the settlers would have checked their Western expansion after 1789. But when in human history have expansionist movements been checked by anything other than effective armed self-defense by the peoples who were the rightful residents of the territory, in that they had migrated there previously? By what realistic yardstick can subsequent generations of American leaders be morally condemned?
Meanwhile, rather than being rolled back, slavery expanded across the South from 1789 to 1860, fueled by the conquest of new lands in Africa and South and Southeast Asia by England, France, Holland, and Belgium and by the consequent geographical and economic expansion of the capitalist world-economy. In this dynamic global context, the northern and southern regions of the USA forged a core-peripheral economic relation, which promoted the further development of the North and the underdevelopment of the South. The two regional elites had different and opposed interests with respect to the economic policies of the federal government, culminating in conflict and profound tragedy. Nothing was resolved through the conflict, and the settler society conserved its essential structures in a different form.
The quest for democracy in America continued, in spite of the contradictions between, on the one hand, the American promise of democracy, and on the other, the conquest of the indigenous nations, the expansion of slavery, and the emergence of Jim Crow. On the basis of the promise of democracy of the period 1774 to 1789, progressive social movements were formed by various sectors of the people from 1830 to 1972, which had a level of success in expanding and deepening the meaning of democracy. These movements included the women’s, workers’, black, Native American, and Chicano movements. The movements were contained by the power elite through a combination of concessions, seduction, and repression, preventing the definitive taking of power by the people, which generally was not an explicit goal of the movements. These historic developments suggest the need today for a continuation of the revolution of the people, on the basis of a more advanced reformulation of the principles of 1776, with the intention of attaining political power and taking further decisive steps in the development of a people’s democratic republic, in accordance with the Constitution.
We also ought to be aware that the great revolutionary leaders and intellectuals of the Third World have not had a one-sided and thoroughly negative view of the American Revolution. Indeed, the Third World movements for national and social liberation today embrace principles that were formulated in the American Revolution of 1776, expanding and deepening their meaning from the vantage point of the neocolonial situation. Perhaps the Third World today, reeling from increasing superexploitation in the age of neoliberalism and new imperialist aggressions, and seeing more clearly the pending apocalypse for humanity, sees with greater political maturity the need for a formulation that searches for common ground on the basis of universal human values.
In contrast to the historic hopes of the peoples of the United States, and to the appreciation of the peoples of the Third World, Horne writes as though the American Revolution has no saving grace in the dialectical movement of humanity toward human emancipation and fulfillment. Such anti-patriotic discourses will not do. They only contribute to the cynicism, confusion, hopelessness, and powerlessness of our people.
Past injustices cannot be undone. We have no option but to move forward from our present reality. U.S. intellectuals must name the saving graces of the American Revolution as the basis for a historically-accurate reformulation of the American narrative, seeking renewal of the historic quest of the people for a constitutional, democratic republic in America. This is the manner in which genuine people’s revolutions are formed, as the history of Third World revolutions teaches us.
The pending apocalypse for humanity
The modern world-system has been in a profound and sustained structural crisis since the 1970s. The fundamental reason is that the modern world-system was developed on a foundation of conquest and superexploitation, and it has run out of new lands and peoples to conquer. Meanwhile, as the system reached and overextended its geographical and ecological limits, the conquered have advanced in the forging of various forms of resistance, creating still more problems for the global powers. With the major intellectual and political centers of the world unable to understand, much less resolve, the serious threats that humanity confronts, the capitalist world-economy has arrived to a condition of full decadence. Apocalypse is pending, this time for all of humanity.
China and the vanguard nations of the Third World are constructing in practice the necessary alternative road. It is a matter of casting aside imperialism and forming international relations based in respect for the sovereignty of all nations, including the right of all nations to develop their own appropriate forms of democracy and to exercise control over their natural resources. Mutually beneficial trade among nations is the key to peace and prosperity for humanity, as the summits of the heads of state of the member nations of the Non-Aligned Movement have persistently declared for the past sixty years.
The peoples of the colonizing societies must develop movements that complement the anti-imperialist theory and practice of the Third World. They must seek to take power in the name of their peoples, with the intention of utilizing state structures: to develop mutually beneficial relations of cooperation with other nations; to promote sustainable forms of production; to respond to the economic and social needs of all of its citizens, without privileges or advantages for any sector; and to give attention to local community development, especially in economically marginalized communities.
It is not too late to prevent the pending apocalypse, which is in the common interests of all humanity.
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