Historical falsification has historical effects—effects the cause of equality can hardly afford
The 1619 Project was met with near universal celebration on its release in August 2019. Few raised any sort of criticism.
Then, in the first week of September 2019 the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS) published a systematic rebuttal, “The New York Times’ 1619 Project: A racialist falsification of American and world history.” The WSWS followed this with a series of interviews with leading scholars of American history, attracting widespread attention—Victoria Bynum, James Oakes, James McPherson, Gordon Wood, Delores Janiewski, Adolph Reed, Jr., Richard Carwardine, and Clayborne Carson. Throughout, the WSWS exposed the Times’ efforts to cover for the most egregious “errors” in the 1619 Project. These writings and interviews are now assembled in a recently released book. This volume remains the only critique of the 1619 Project from a left-wing and academic standpoint.
Here I will not attempt to answer for those who, knowing better, have either jumped on the 1619 bandwagon or refused to lift a finger against it. Suffice it to say that the current, deplorable state of American intellectual life is the outcome of its own complicated history. Instead, I will offer an explanation for why the WSWS has opposed the 1619 Project. (To be clear, it must be stressed that the WSWS also opposes efforts by Republican legislatures to censor the 1619 Project in the name of menacing “patriotic national education”.)
First, our movement has a special sensitivity to historical falsification. It stands in the tradition of Marxism as it emerged from the twentieth century—that is, the tradition of Trotskyism. The equation of socialism with the Stalinist degeneration of the Soviet Union was the greatest lie of the last century. This lie was, in turn, constructed on a mountain of historical lies whose principal target was Trotsky himself. Trotsky spent much of his life refuting and exposing such lies, including the writing of an important book, The Stalinist School of Falsification, in which he described the lie as the cement of political reaction. (Indeed, it has been said that so often did the Kremlin change the past to meet this or that political need that the biggest problem for Stalinist historians was their failure to predict the future of the past!)
Second, in arguing that the true and only division in American history is race, and that this ineradicable division is rooted in a “DNA” and is an “original sin,” the Times is launching a preemptive strike against the burning necessity to unite in struggle the world’s most multiracial and multinational working class. Socialists are duty-bound to oppose all efforts to divide workers. The twentieth century taught the world, at a terrible price, that the most dangerous interpretations of the past are racial origin stories. But a racial origin story is exactly what the 1619 Project proclaims itself to be.
Third, in arguing that all of American history is to be explained by a supra-historical impulse—white hatred of blacks—the 1619 Project was compelled to attack the American Revolution and the Civil War, the most progressive events of American history.
Tarnishing the American Revolution and Civil War could only be achieved by a series of distortions, omissions, exaggerations, and false statements. As it turned out, one false claim would bedevil the 1619 Project more than all the others. To support her thesis that the year 1619, and not 1776, was the “true founding” of the United States, Project head and lead essayist Nikole Hannah-Jones asserted that the American Revolution was launched as a conspiracy to defend slavery against British emancipation. “Conveniently left out of our founding mythology is the fact that one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery,” she wrote. “[S]ome might argue that this nation was founded not as a democracy but as a slavocracy.”
In other words, for the 1619 Project the American Revolution was not a revolution but a counterrevolution waged to defend slavery. Were this true it would hold enormous implications not only for American history but for world history.
The claim itself is refuted with ease. Slavery was not at issue in the imperial crisis that erupted with the Stamp Act in 1765 and culminated in war in 1775. In fact, just the opposite of Hannah-Jones’ claim is the truth. The American Revolution breathed life into the world’s first mass antislavery movement. Just “four score and seven years” after 1776 the ancient institution of slavery was destroyed.
Material interests certainly motivated the patriots in the 1770s. But in the limited economic thinking of the time, this was understood as the liberation of “commerce,” “society,” and even “friendship” from the fetters of aristocratic domination. The American Revolution eliminated feudal property relations such as primogeniture, entail, tenurial landholding, royal ownership, arbitrary crown seizure, and mercantilist restrictions on trade. In this way it advanced private, or bourgeois, property.
Decades later, southern secessionists argued that private property was absolute, up to and including “property in man.” They were countered by northern opponents who said that private property itself arose from a still more ancient and original right, that of self-ownership. Lincoln denied the slaveholder’s interpretation of the American Revolution, which held “the liberty of one man to be absolutely nothing when in conflict with another man’s right of property.” Comparing the Declaration of Independence to Euclid’s achievements in mathematics, Lincoln explained that the “principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society.”
To be sure, the ideology of the first bourgeois-democratic revolutions overwhelmed individual motives, and cloaked class motives such that they were obscure even to participants. The propertied classes imagined they spoke for “the people” in drafting the Constitution of 1787. In 1789, their French equivalents spoke for “the nation.” Everywhere the bourgeois republican ideology declared equality, fraternity, and the rights of man. Yet the revolutions invariably substituted new forms of class domination for old. Marx and Engels developed modern socialism through the most searching analysis and withering criticism—economic, historical, and political—of this new capitalist order, revealing the explosive contradiction between its declarations of equality and the actual existence of brutal exploitation, including chattel slavery.
But Marx never denied the progressive, world-historic character of 1776. He wrote to Lincoln in 1865 that it was in the American Revolution that “the idea of one great Democratic Republic had first sprung up, whence the first Declaration of the Rights of Man was issued, and the first impulse given to the European revolution of the eighteenth century.” Marx may have been the most advanced thinker of his age, but on this question his view was commonplace. Whether they supported or opposed the American Revolution, contemporaries understood that it was a progressive event, and the first wave in a storm of democratic revolutions that swept back and forth across the Atlantic over the following decades.
But Marx went further than the others. He perceived that the first two American revolutions augured a dramatic development of the class struggle. In the American Civil War, the workers of Europe “felt instinctively that the star-spangled banner carried the destiny of their class,” he wrote to Lincoln. “[Just] as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American Antislavery War will do for the working classes.”
It is this revolutionary patrimony that the WSWS defends in its fight against The New York Times’ 1619 Project.
Thomas Mackaman is associate professor of history at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and contributes historical writing to the World Socialist Web Site. He is author of New Immigrants and the Radicalization of American Labor, 1914-1924, and is co-editor with David North of the recently released The 1619 Project and the Racialist Falsification of History.