Book Review: Black History (Red and Black by Eugene D. Genovese)

In Red and Black, Marxian Explorations in Southern and Afro-American History, by Eugene D. Genovese. Allen Lane. The Penguin Press. £5.00.

This book is a compilation of some eighteen previously published essays by Professor Genovese and, like books of this nature, suffers a bit from disjointedness, even from an occasional contradiction. But it is not this in the book that really bothers us. It is, rather, the Genovese approach to the Marxian method of interpreting history. His opening chapter: On Being a Socialist and a Historian and his concluding essay: On Antonio Gramsci (head of the Communist Party in Italy in the early 1920s; arrested and imprisoned for the last eleven years of his life by Mussolini) should be read carefully as one sees, in starkness, the utter contempt or, at best, condescension of the self-appointed intellectual “Marxist” for the mental potentialities of ordinary working people. To Genovese, leadership—presumably of intellectuals — is certainly the most important factor in educating the working class to the urgencies of Socialism. He approves of Gramsci’s vision of the ideal party:

“A party justifies its historical existence when it develops three strata: (1) a rank-and-fjle of ordinary men whose participation is characterised by discipline and faith; (2) a leadership, which provides cohesion; and (3) cadres, which mediate morally, physically, and intellectually between the other two.”

Of these strata he stressed leadership:

“We speak of captains without an army, but in reality it is easier to form an army than to find captains. It is surely true that an already existing army will be destroyed if it lacks captains, whereas a group of captains, co-operative and in agreement on common ends, will not be slow in forming an army where none exists.”

But this is not Marxism nor was it really new with either Gramsci or Lenin. It is the sort of theory which Marx and Engels consistently fought against throughout their careers. As far back as 1848, in their Communist Manifesto, they made clear that: “The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interests of the immense majority.” (Our emphasis). The Marxian case rests, indeed, on the theory that the ideas of man (not merely of leaders) are basically determined by the mode of production and that it is the business of working for wages for an owning class (not the preachments or captaincies of great men) that will cause workers to organise for Socialism.

The foregoing should not discourage the student of Socialism from obtaining the book (if he can afford it). There is much of interest to be gotten from the essays on the blacks in America notwithstanding the incredible misunderstanding of the Merxian method. Genovese, for example, sees American blacks as embracing “genuine ingredients of a separate nationality, even as they form part of a general American nationality … (and that) it is no longer possible to believe that a class can be understood apart from its culture, or that most modern classes can be understood apart from their nationality.” But what, after all, is a nationality? In the final analysis it is a group split into people with rival and conflicting interests. Even in the case of American blacks, where the percentage of capitalists is undoubtedly smaller than usual, the struggle between and within the classes is apparent. Black bourgeois pit themselves against one another as well as against the white bourgeoisie, and against the black (or white) workers they hire. Black workers, on the other hand, must also compete among themselves—as well as with white workers—for jobs.

It should also be pointed out that Genovese does a creditable job in showing the limitations of the economic determinists both of the non-Marxist and professed Marxist varieties. Creditable, that is, to the extent that he does not go overboard himself in an opposite direction. Certainly historians such as Charles and Mary Beard (who were not professedly Marxist) could be categorised as economic determinists and yet their analysis of the factors motivating the South to secede in 1860 was not as “narrowly defined” as he would have it. For the tariff did play a major role in antagonising the cotton planters who had an enormous stake in trade with England, Genovese and even Marx to the contrary notwithstanding. And the Homestead Law was certainly not in the interests of a ruling class that was based largely on latifundia-type labour, a wasteful sort of labour which, together with a one-crop economy, burned up land quickly and helped generate competition between North and South for frontier areas. The spread of homesteading certainly did offer a threat to the South.

Part of the problem of Professor Genovese seems to be his obvious lack of understanding of the basics of a capitalist system. Even his attempt to label the southern slave economy bears this out although he does correctly show that it was certainly not feudal, as so many professed Marxists maintain. Unfortunately, despite his grasp of the from feudalism, he declares that economy to be as different from capitalism as it was from feudalism. In fact the ante-bellum South had a system of plantation capitalism. True, the relationships were not [wage-labour and capital] but, rather, chattel-slave labour and capital (although there were many wage-slaves too). Nevertheless, unlike the classical systems of slavery and of serfdom, production was organised for sale on the market with view to profit. The production of cotton, tobacco, and (following the government’s ban on slave-importation) slaves themselves, was not carried on primarily for the use of the ruling class. A backward and inefficient type of capitalism, yes. But nevertheless capitalism.


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