'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Pardon John Brown 

Yesterday, David Reynolds, a CUNY Graduate Center professor who wrote a courageous, groundbreaking biography of John Brown published in 2005, emphasized the necessity of rehabilitating him:

It's important for Americans to recognize our national heroes, even those who have been despised by history. Take John Brown.

Today is the 150th anniversary of Brown’s hanging — the grim punishment for his raid weeks earlier on Harpers Ferry, Va. With a small band of abolitionists, Brown had seized the federal arsenal there and freed slaves in the area. His plan was to flee with them to nearby mountains and provoke rebellions in the South. But he stalled too long in the arsenal and was captured. He was brought to trial in a Virginia court, convicted of treason, murder and inciting an insurrection, and hanged on Dec. 2, 1859.

It’s a date we should hold in reverence. Yes, I know the response: Why remember a misguided fanatic and his absurd plan for destroying slavery?

There are compelling reasons. First, the plan was not absurd. Brown reasonably saw the Appalachians, which stretch deep into the South, as an ideal base for a guerrilla war. He had studied the Maroon rebels of the West Indies, black fugitives who had used mountain camps to battle colonial powers on their islands. His plan was to create panic by arousing fears of a slave rebellion, leading Southerners to view slavery as dangerous and impractical.

Second, he was held in high esteem by many great men of his day. Ralph Waldo Emerson compared him to Jesus, declaring that Brown would “make the gallows as glorious as the cross.” Henry David Thoreau placed Brown above the freedom fighters of the American Revolution. Frederick Douglass said that while he had lived for black people, John Brown had died for them. A later black reformer, W. E. B. Du Bois, called Brown the white American who had “come nearest to touching the real souls of black folk.”

Du Bois was right. Unlike nearly all other Americans of his era, John Brown did not have a shred of racism. He had long lived among African-Americans, trying to help them make a living, and he wanted blacks to be quickly integrated into American society. When Brown was told he could have a clergyman to accompany him to the gallows, he refused, saying he would be more honored to go with a slave woman and her children.

Reynolds concludes with a request that Brown receive a posthumous presidential pardon, and you can go here to sign a petition encouraging Obama to issue it. Despite the passage of time, the life of John Brown still touches upon the rawest of nerves in the American experience.

While subsequent revisionist historians succeeded in stigmatizing him as part of a broader project to justify the emergence of the New South and the segregation that replaced slavery, many people, such as myself, have always known better, and held him in our hearts. Many of us preserved a different, almost folkloric, rememberance of Brown at odds with mainstream historical accounts. The intensity of the stigmatization merely reflected the desperation of those who recognized that they could never erase his shining example as a man who, despite his flaws, never shrank from confronting the most horrific injustice of his time.

Make no mistake. Brown retains enemies to this day, not because of his recourse to violence, after all, if there is one common thread that runs through much of American history, it is violence, violence to seize lands from Native Americans, violence to bring African Americans here as slaves and maintain control over them, violence to expand the frontier from the Appalachians to the Pacific Ocean and beyond, violence to impose a neoliberal economic order upon peoples and states who resist it.

Indeed, violence is, as H. Rap Brown once said, as American as cherry pie. If Barack Obama proved anything by his decision to send more troops to Afghanistan, it is the continuing accuracy of this acid assessment. So, no, John Brown was not maligned because he was violent, because to do so would have required the condemnation of many of the most prominent American social and political figures of the last 233 years. Non violence is for the opponents of American imperial designs, not for those who facilitate them.

Instead, Brown is considered beyond the pale because he resorted to violence to try to free the slaves. It was the purpose, and not the method, that resulted in his condemnation. And, more than that, he did not insist upon a white monopoly upon the use of violence for this purpose, but sought to empower the slaves to free themselves by seizing the arsenal at Harper's Ferry in order to distribute weapons to them. Brown believed that enslaved African Americans had the ability to free themselves and should be assisted in the endeavor.

In this respect, as well as his reliance upon the past examples of black rebels like Toussaint L'ouverture in Haiti, Brown foreshadowed the national liberation movements of the 20th Century. Not surprisingly, Toussaint L'ouverture also finds himself exiled to the same circle of historical oblivion as Brown because his life runs counter to the modernization mythology that still infuses much of our perspective about US and European imperialism. Brown was no socialist, but, in a sense, he was actually more radical than many leftists of the time, because he embraced the notion of a multicultural society wherein capital did not exploit racial and class divisions to its advantage, similar to the sort of polyglot social formations described by historians like Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker.

Paradoxically, if one believes that Brown made the Civil War inevitable, he accelerated the transformation of the US from an agrarian economy to an industrial one, one in which his utopian vision of white, black, red, brown and yellow struggling together on the frontier as individualists bound together collectively was overwhelmed by the emergence of a working class in the mill and in the slaughterhouse. The steam engine, the railroad and the manufacturing processes that emerged during the war rendered his vision obsolete. As Brown stood on the scaffold, he was frozen in that moment when the workers of America were about to be proletarianized on a massive scale.

But Brown not only rejected the white monopoly on violence, he challenged the state monopoly on it as well. He did not, like the Project for a New American Century, petition the government to launch a war to achieve his end, the eradication of slavery. He trained and provisioned his own group for this purpose, a 19th Century example of an affinity group, as it were, with a well thought out plan for igniting a slave insurrection. In this, he prefigures propaganda by the deed, much as his earlier life, such as his homesteads, his attempt to break the wool monopoly, his farming in an integrated community in upstate New York and his participation in the underground railroad, prefigured the anarchist emphasis upon the creation of social institutions independent of the government, mutual aid and free agreement. No one had to explain the concept of direct action to John Brown, he was too busy living it.

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