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David Coolidge

How the Social System Operates
in the South

(28 October 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 43, 28 October 1946, pp. 3 & 5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

All that we have written about the South in this series of articles is for the purpose of aiding us in answering certain important questions and to show what the nature of the problems is confronting the CIO in its present drive.

What is the social, economic and political system of the South today? In the case of the North, the answer is easy to get. It can be said unambiguously that in the North we have the capitalist system fully developed to the stage scientifically described as finance or monopoly capitalism. This is a precise designation of the economic order. On the political side we have bourgeois democracy: that political system initiated by the present capitalist ruling class or bourgeoisie after its revolutionary overthrow of the ruling class of feudal society. For the purpose of this article, bourgeois society can be explained by reference to the Constitution of the U.S. and the provisions in that document about government and the rights of the people.

The people shall have the right of free speech, assembly and petition. A mail’s house is to be his castle and the people are to be exempt from illegal search and seizure. There shall be the right to vote and manhood suffrage. All forms of slavery and serfdom are forbidden. Discrimination on account of race, creed or color, or based on either economic or social standing, is either illegal or in violation of democratic principles.

The state should be a republic and the government to hold office by consent of the governed. There is to be an impartial judiciary, removed from the political struggle, sitting above the battle and dispensing justice impartially to all. All the people shall have political equality, and equality of economic and social opportunity. While there may be “the masses” and “the classes,” the classes are not to enjoy any privileges denied to the masses. Furthermore, the industrious and deserving among the masses are to have the opportunity to enter the ranks of the classes (the upper classes, to be sure).

On the economic side the worker is to be a “free worker,” not a slave, serf or peon. He has the right to organize, bargain with his employer and to strike. The worker cannot legally be bound to the factory, the mine, the farm or the plantation. He may leave at will and seek a job elsewhere. Under bourgeois (capitalist) democracy, the government is the protector and defender of all. It is the “people’s government” and the laws which are enacted apply to all the people alike.

Theory and Reality

In theory, at least, these are some of the distinguishing features of bourgeois (capitalist) democracy. Specifically they are the features with which we need to be concerned. It is obvious, however, that the above-named principles are violated all over the country in one way or another. They are violated particularly in connection with the working class and always and everywhere in connection with Negroes. It is necessary to emphasize, however, that there is a difference between the North and the South. That is what it is our business to explore in order to ask the question posed at the beginning.

In the South the proscriptions against Negroes are in statutory form. Segregation, discrimination and disfranchisement are the general rule and are legal. There is a backward and archaic juridical and judicial system which makes of peonage, for instance, a semi-legal institution. Sharecropping and tenant farming are carried on in practice as a combination of capitalist exploitation, paternalism, robbery, duress and starvation. In the industrial centers the spirit of the plantation prevails. The factories and other industrial establishments are plantations in the city. (With the increase in mechanization, of course, the plantations tend more and more to be “factories in the field.”) The political life is dominated by the plantation with the exception, of course, of the control by Northern capitalism, which has been discussed in previous articles. The chief struggle which goes on is that between the plantation and the city: the defenders of the status quo and the protagonists of industrialization.

The point to be emphasized is that the dominant force in the political, economic and social life of the South is the planter group and its allies. This group, which includes not only the big planters, but the political demagogues, commercial elements and many of the indigenous industrial capitalists, attempts to combine the methods and operations of modern capitalism with the most backward political and social concepts. They are capitalists who subvert bourgeois democracy in a peculiar and unique way. This is particularly true in relation to the status of the Negro in the South. They maintain an extra-legal regime with all the force and prestige of legality, of mob violence, terror, intimidation and lynching. This extra-legality is applied universally to the Negro but not exclusively. The whole procedure is openly defended. If the U.S. Supreme Court renders a decision saying that Negroes cannot be denied the right to register and vote, the South proceeds at once to take “legal” steps to disfranchise the Negro “legally.” Today in Alabama a move is under way to keep “minorities” out of the State Legislature.

Nature of the South

This difference between the North and the South is clear, but it is at the same time complex and often confusing. The difference gives the appearance of being fundamental, of being really a basic difference. This has created a very complicated situation and has led to all manner of theoretical muddle. For example, these are some of the phrases used in connection with the South: “The bourgeois democratic revolution has not been completed in the South.” (Communist Party.) “The South has a semi-feudal regime.” (Communist Party and others.) “The South is a colony of the North.” “The Negroes are a nation.” (CP and Garveyites.) “Negroes have the same status as a colonial people.” “Negroes are still slaves.” “The South is fascist.”

There is neither scientific nor historical foundation for any of the abovementioned theses. Any of them, except “The Negroes are a nation,” might be used for agitational purposes but that is all. They have no scientific and theoretical preciseness or accuracy and can contribute virtually nothing toward any real understanding of the South and its problems.

It is unquestionably true that in the South there are many hangovers from the slave regime. Ever since the Civil War there has been a sort of back-to-slavery movement. This has been one of the main contradictions of the South: the clash of back-to-slavery thinking with forward-to-industrialization agitation. It is necessary to emphasize that this back-to-slavery thinking is based not on the desire for a slave society in the manner of the old slave-owning aristocrats, but rests fundamentally on the desire to increase capitalist profits and in the concrete circumstances of today, that is under the overlordship of Northern monopoly capitalism.

Peonage, share-cropping and tenant farming are not ethical and religious ceremonials imposed on the people but are economic byways traversed for the purpose of capitalist profit. If this is not kept constantly in mind there can be no understanding of the South. Also in the midst of talk about the South being semi-feudal, it is necessary to emphasize that the South has never been either feudal or semi-feudal. Feudalism or semi-feudalism existed in New York State, up the Hudson, and’ not in Alabama, Mississippi or Georgia. The slave economy of the South was capitalistic in its basic aspects. The main products: cotton, tobacco, rice and naval stores were “cash crops” produced for sale in the world market. The status of these commodities was no different from that of Northern corn and other Northern commodities produced and sold in the world market. One was produced by slave labor and the other by free labor. The slave economy of the South was in fact a combination of ancient slavery and modern capitalism.

The Theoretical Problem

This, of course, was the source of the conflict between the North and the South. There is an irreconcilable contradiction between slavery and modern capitalism. This is a very painful and unpleasant lesson which the South is today trying to escape. The conflict between the slave economy (supported by Northern commercial capitalism) and Northern industrial capitalism was resolved in the Civil War. The war also settled the question of bourgeois democracy for the South. With the triumph of the North, bourgeois or capitalist democracy was established in the country as a whole, as the political capstone of triumphant industrial capitalism. We do not have the space or the time to go into the many historical ramifications of this development. Only the broad outlines can be sketched.

The whole debacle of Reconstruction and the struggle for democratic rights by the Negro, particularly in the South, has been a struggle, not to complete the bourgeois democratic revolution, but to capture the formal benefits of bourgeois democracy and to make effective in daily life what is already established in theory and in the Constitution. It is interesting that in the South the denial of bourgeois democratic rights to the Negro is not based formally on the demand for aristocratic privileges. The Negroes are not “the mob,” “the rabble,” such as even a democrat like Jefferson feared. They are a “race,” an “inferior race.” The formal denial is based on the demand for “white supremacy,” the demand for the domination of one “race” by another “race.”

It is pertinent, however, to remark that this “race” theory is put forward by the leaders of the most backward section of the country; the section with the most backward economy, the most poverty-stricken section. Thus, the struggle of the Negro for bourgeois democracy has been hampered and frustrated by the backwardness of the Southern economy and the attitude of Northern finance capitalism toward the South.

What we really see in the South is precisely a deviation from bourgeois democracy: the degeneration of bourgeois democracy (after Reconstruction).

(To Be Concluded)

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