Juneteenth: A Marxist Perspective

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This year’s commemoration of Juneteenth — the day the last of the enslaved Black people in the United States were formally emancipated — is also a reminder that the job of ending all forms of slavery is not yet finished. As Karl Marx wrote, we have nothing to lose but our chains and a world to win!

The United States, like all of the Americas, was built on the backs of enslaved labor, by the labor of people ripped from their homelands and brought to stolen lands. On Juneteenth, we celebrate the emancipation of the last of the enslaved Black people in the United States, as well as remember and commit to fight against the legacy of slavery. In the midst of the current uprising, this is more important than ever.

Socialists have a long history of fighting against slavery. Karl Marx, who wrote extensively about the Civil War and slavery in the United States, made it abundantly clear that enslaved Black people in North America had to be free before all the wage slaves of the working class could be free of exploitation.

Marx and the Abolition of Slavery

The materialist conception of history developed by Marx explains that human society progresses through different stages that are characterized by the material conditions of production. The Union states represented a more progressive stage in which capitalism was developing the productive forces and in which Black people were not held in bondage. The Confederacy remained in a backward stage, with vestiges of property relations that had long been overturned in Europe. The capitalists waging a war to free slaves from their bondage, with the support of the Northern working class, was to Marx, therefore, progressive.

In a letter from London dated December 10, 1861, Marx made clear that the “slavery question” was “the question underlying the whole Civil War.” Marx was a staunch supporter of a Union victory in the Civil War, and not because he supported the Northern capitalists. He argued against those who advocated simply letting the South’s secession stand and letting the Confederacy constitute itself as a new country. Marx vehemently opposed the Southern slavocracy, which profited from the hyper-exploitation of Black people and worsened conditions for workers and oppressed people as a whole. Slavery’s place was the dustbin of history. To Marx, there could be no emancipation for the proletariat while slavery continued to exist. 

Marx also made clear that the fight to free enslaved Black people in America was inextricably linked to the fight to free the entire working class from what he called wage slavery — working people having to sell their labor for 8, 10, 12 hours a day in order to survive. The fight to crush the Confederacy, for Marx, was not about the “dissolution of the Union,” but against what he saw as the true objective of the slavocracy: 

[R]eorganization on the basis of slavery, under the recognized control of the slaveholding oligarchy … The slave system would infect the whole Union. In the Northern states, where Negro slavery is in practice unworkable, the white working class would gradually be forced down to the level of helotry. This would fully accord with the loudly proclaimed principle that only certain races are capable of freedom, and as the actual labor is the lot of the Negro in the South, so in the North it is the lot of the German and the Irishman, or their direct descendants.

Revolutionary socialists view Juneteenth through the prism of Marx’s analysis. Abolishing slavery was a revolutionary act to free Black people from the most brutal bondage. It was also a victory for the working class as a whole. Marx said it directly:

The present struggle between the South and North is, therefore, nothing but a struggle between two social systems, the system of slavery and the system of free labor. The struggle has broken out because the two systems can no longer live peacefully side-by-side on the North American continent. It can only be ended by the victory of one system or the other.

Marx saw the defeat of the slave system as a prerequisite for building a revolutionary struggle to overturn capitalism. If humanity was to advance, a social and economic order based on slavery had to be destroyed everywhere.

The Road to Juneteenth

Before the Civil War broke out, there had already been numerous slave rebellions and insurrections in the United States. Documentary evidence suggests at least 250 uprisings or attempted uprisings involving 10 or more slaves, beginning in the 16th century. In 1800, an enslaved man by the name of Gabriel (now known as Gabriel Prosser) planned a large slave rebellion in the area of Richmond, Virginia — but news got out and he and 25 of his followers were hanged. Prosser had learned to read, and the Virginia legislature henceforth prohibited educating slaves who might, like Gabriel, be inclined to use their skills for similar purposes. Another enslaved man in Charleston, South Carolina named Denmark Vesey was executed in 1822 for planning a slave revolt in that city. In 1831, a rebellion of fugitive slaves led by Nat Turner in Southampton, Virginia, killed more than 50 white people but was put down after a few days; Turner went into hiding but was discovered more than two months later. Some 21 of the rebels were hanged and another 16 were sold away from the region.

Such slave insurrections were a prelude to the Civil War. The war itself was full of Black soldiers and sailors. In fact, by war’s end, roughly 179,000 Black men had served as soldiers in the U.S. Army — accounting for about 10 percent of the total forces — and another 19,000 served in the Navy. The Civil War took the lives of nearly 40,000 soldiers, three-fourths of whom died not in combat but from infections or disease.

These combatants served bravely and were clearly a vital component of the Union war effort. Among them were the enlisted members of the famous 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Many enslaved Black people who ran away from Southern plantations to Union encampments enlisted in the Army to fight against their former owners — with weapons supplied to them by the U.S. government. These actions by Black slaves forced President Abraham Lincoln’s hand. Originally, Lincoln insisted the war was not about slavery — despite every document of the Confederacy making clear the exact opposite — but an effort to save the Union. But as former slaves rose up against their masters and joined the war effort, Lincoln could either embrace them as allies in the war or continue to risk both a bloody war and a more widespread slave rebellion. Due to the actions of runaway slaves, Lincoln chose the former. 

Over a year into the war, on September 22, 1862, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which would go into effect on the following January 1. It declared that enslaved Black peoples in the Confederate states were free. If they escaped across Union lines or were liberated by the advancing Union Army, they were permanently free. Of course, the Union went on to defeat the Confederacy — at the cost of between 620,000 and 750,000 lives. 

The proclamation wasn’t a full emancipation, even formally. It applied only to the 3.5 million slaves in the 10 states of the Confederacy and to all segments of the executive branch of the U.S. government, including the Army and Navy. It excluded the border slave states. It left a half-million enslaved people in bondage. But the fact that the proclamation was issued encouraged all those in slavery to rise up and fight, as well as to join the Union forces. This depleted the Confederacy’s labor force, which hurt the production of arms for the South’s rebellion.

The Emancipation Proclamation also brought to a halt the Confederacy’s campaign to win recognition from European countries, particularly England and France — both countries that were officially anti-slavery. But English textile mills needed Southern cotton; consequently capitalist pressure to recognize the Confederate States of America and open full trade was strong. Lincoln’s proclamation made it impossible for anyone to pretend that the war was about anything other than slavery, and the mill owners were forced to back down.

Put simply, the Emancipation Proclamation was a public commitment by the United States to end slavery. It killed the Fugitive Slave Laws and outlawed the return of escaped slaves to the South. It was a manifestation of the slave revolt, with Northern support, the South had always feared.

Of course, enforcement depended in large part on Union advances through the Confederate states — which brings us to Juneteenth.

June 19, 1865

Texas was the westernmost part of the Confederacy, having been stolen from Mexico just 20 years before. Its geographic isolation largely shielded it from the battles of the Civil War, and over the course of the war Texas filled with slaveholders who moved to escape the fighting across the Deep South. They brought their human property with them — some to work on newly acquired or established farms, but others to be domestic servants in cities such as Houston and Galveston. There were about 250,000 people in enslavement in Texas by 1865.

It took many weeks for news of the April 9, 1865 surrender by Robert E. Lee to reach Texas, and even longer — until June 2 — for the Confederate Army of the Trans-Mississippi to surrender. On June 18, 2,000 U.S. troops arrived at Galveston Island to occupy Texas for the federal government, under the command of Union Army General Gordon Granger. The next day, he stood on the balcony of the Ashton Villa and read aloud General Order No. 3:

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.

This was the first news of the Emancipation Proclamation that those enslaved in Galveston had heard. Likely, few if any Texas slaves had heard that they had been officially freed more than two years earlier. A celebration broke out, and the next year, in 1866, the freedmen of Texas held on June 19 what became an annual celebration — Jubilee Day. These early celebrations became political rallies centered on registering newly freed slaves as voters. They helped spark the advances of the Reconstruction Era.

The Civil War had not, obviously, destroyed racism. White Texans, for instance, did everything they could to keep these June 19 celebrations from happening. Landowners would interrupt with demands that their laborers return to work. Cities and towns would bar Black people from using public parks, for instance, which were segregated. So, freed slaves across Texas began to pool their resources and purchase land where they could celebrate Juneteenth. Emancipation Park, 10 acres of land in Houston purchased in 1872 by a group of Black ministers and business owners, is one such location still in use today. It was established expressly for the city’s annual Juneteenth celebration.

Black people taking control of a part of their lives that the racists could not take from them — including just celebrating Juneteenth — so upset the white power structure that they created whatever obstacles they could devise. Eventually, between 1890 and 1908, every one of the former Confederate states, Texas included, passed new laws or revised their constitutions to disenfranchise Black voters, exclude them from public facilities, and enshrine the racist Jim Crow system as a new form of the old plantation.

Since then, Juneteenth has been associated with many of the struggles of Black people against racist and economic oppression. And it has taken up broader social issues as well. In 1968, for instance, the Poor People’s Campaign — organized by Martin Luther King, Jr. and then carried out under the leadership of Ralph Abernathy after King’s assassination, raised demands for economic and human rights for all poor Americans. As part of that campaign, Juneteenth was designated Solidarity Day, and 100,000 people — including many whites — marched in Washington. That day, Coretta Scott King spoke out against the Vietnam War.

Today, with the urgency of the fight against racism as strong as ever, Juneteenth stands as a reminder of the emancipation of slaves and the destruction of the South’s backward socioeconomic system. It is also a reminder of how much more work there is to do. While U.S. military bases are named for Confederate officers and statues to “heroes of the Confederacy” dot the Southern landscape, efforts to make Juneteenth a national holiday in the United States have been thwarted every time. 

Racism Cannot Be Eradicated without Eradicating Capitalism

This year, Juneteenth comes just as the fight against racism in the United States and around the world has taken a new turn. The murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis cops has sparked an uprising against the structural racism that was begun in 1619, when the first Africans were brought as slaves to Virginia. This structural racism was not resolved with the Civil War.

For weeks, in the midst of a global pandemic, the streets of cities across the country have been filled with people of all races, ages, genders, and socioeconomic statuses, demanding change. These protests, by calling the police as an institution into question, are questioning a key component of capitalism  — since the police are the armed force of the capitalist state and serve to uphold capitalist property relations.

Capitalism is inherently racist. In the United States, structural racism is the direct legacy of slavery. Once slaves were freed, the Southerners who were no longer able to enslave people legally, as well as the Northern industrial capitalists, began a systematic recreation of Black oppression to guarantee their profits throughout the United States. Black people became the bottom rung of a growing working class. They were unable to unionize, paid the lowest wages, and kept out of key jobs. Attempts at Black capitalism were systematically crushed, like the Tulsa white supremacist uprising that burned Black small businesses.

After the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was enacted in 1865, formally abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude in the entire United States (and thus going further than the Emancipation Proclamation), Black Codes, state-sanctioned white supremacist violence, and the growth of the Ku Klux Klan all began. Black people were subjected to involuntary labor throughout the South as states and their cops refused to enforce statutes meant to prevent such circumstances. And then there are prisons.

The United States incarcerates more people than any other country, and more than one-third of the prison population is Black people — who are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of whites. Capitalism uses this imprisoned population as slave labor, doing all sorts of work at pennies on the dollar or for no pay at all to feed the capitalist profit-making machine.

Racism is a tool the capitalists wield with great skill; they enforce it with laws and the police. As long as capitalism exists, the capitalists will seek to elevate some people and denigrate others, sowing divisions to deflect attention away from a common enemy.

Thus, the fight to eradicate capitalism is inextricably linked with the fight against racism, and vice versa: the anti-racist struggle is the struggle for socialism. 

Lenin saw the Civil War as a revolutionary war. In a “Letter to American Workers” in 1918, he wrote words that resonate with as much relevance today as they did less than a year after the Russian Revolution. He began by celebrating the “revolutionary tradition” of the American proletariat, and pointed to “the immense, world-historic, progressive and revolutionary significance of the American Civil War of 1863-65!” And like Marx before him, he explained that the fight against the enslavement of Black people in the United States is linked to the fight against wage slavery.

The representatives of the bourgeoisie understand that for the sake of overthrowing Negro slavery, of overthrowing the rule of the slaveowners, it was worth letting the country go through long years of civil war … But now, when we are confronted with the vastly greater task of overthrowing capitalist wage-slavery, of overthrowing the rule of the bourgeoisie — now, the representatives and defenders of the bourgeoisie, and also the reformist socialists who have been frightened by the bourgeoisie and are shunning the revolution, cannot and do not want to understand that civil war is necessary and legitimate.

The American workers will not follow the bourgeoisie. They will be with us, for civil war against the bourgeoisie. The whole history of the world and of the American labor movement strengthens my conviction that this is so. 

We can honor Juneteenth in 2020 by taking deliberate steps to liberate humanity from capitalism and the institutional racism that feeds its profits.

About author

Scott Cooper

Scott Cooper

Scott is a writer, editor, and longtime socialist activist who lives in the Boston area.