To Meet the Moment, the Left Must Study Reconstruction

To Meet the Moment, the Left Must Study Reconstruction

A recent panel hosted by Bernie Sanders explored the lessons of Reconstruction. Dana Kleifield of Chicago DSA’s Political Education & Policy Committee recaps some of the panel’s most important moments, and elaborates on why the left must take these lessons to heart. For more deep dives on topics like this, join Chicago DSA’s Socialist Night School for their ongoing semester on Racial Capitalism. Our next meetings are March 6th and April 3rd.


The American Left is in a strange lull. The 2016 election and subsequent events were jarring for many Americans, but this was not because they were a dramatic break from the core principles of the United States. Rather, they exposed faults in American political and civic life that have been there all along. The Biden administration is not equipped to confront or disempower its opposition, or even the right wing of its own party, and the neo-fascist movement continues to grow. It’s on a trajectory right back to dominating the halls of institutional power — a place it’s never been unwelcome.

The GOP is telegraphing, through state-level legislative and executive offensives, what they have in mind for their next go-round in the White House and the Congressional majority. Now is the time to think clearly about our present circumstances, as well as the political and social movements it will take to change them.

We can start by developing a deeper and more unified understanding of the American political order, which enshrines above all else the right to private property. The U.S. has enjoyed two periods of flirtation with actual multiracial liberal democracy, most recently beginning in 1965 with the passage of the Voting Rights Act. This multiracial democracy is facing an imminent demise as the GOP continues its relentless pursuit of minority authoritarian rule, and with less than a year before midterms, the Democratic majority has failed to pass legislation to protect voting rights.

But America’s first, shorter window of multiracial liberal democracy opened at the end of the Civil War and closed in 1877, when the federal government agreed to withdraw its last troops from the South. This period was the Era of Reconstruction.

Some historians have asserted that the American Revolution was a civil war within the British Empire. The Founding Fathers were, after all, colonists asserting their right to the privileges of the ruling class. America’s founding was revolutionary because of its commitment to bourgeois liberalism and republicanism, which was just beginning to permeate mainstream political thought.  Conversely, however the American Civil War started, it was truly a revolution by its end. The result of that revolution was a fundamental restructuring of social and material power relations and the abolishment of the economic foundation of the agrarian South.

But today, Reconstruction is largely remembered for its failures. As any student of history knows, all revolutions have reactionary counter-revolutions. In the case of Reconstruction, the counter-revolution was that of Redemption: the steady erosion of Black people’s political gains through disenfranchisement, vigilante terror, and a formalized legal program of segregation and policing.

Socialists should understand the parallels between our time and the end of Reconstruction, not because the past is a flawless instruction manual for the present, but because we seek to dismantle the bourgeois institutions that have crushed, paralyzed, or reversed equality movements again and again. The real failure of Reconstruction was that wealth and land was never redistributed from the defeated planter elite to the emancipated slaves; what multiracial liberal democracy remains today will surely fall again without such a redistribution of power.

Late last year, Senator Bernie Sanders held an online event on “The Lessons of Reconstruction”, featuring a panel with socialist intellectual Cornel West, historian of the 19th century Eric Foner, and African-American Studies professor and author Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor.

Sanders reminds us that Reconstruction is one of the most consequential periods in modern history, but one that is barely mentioned in popular culture and neglected in common historical narratives. He notes his schooling didn’t cover American history from the period from 1865-1877 in any depth. We often hear that this post-war rebuilding went awry thanks to opportunistic Northern carpetbaggers flooding in to take advantage of the ruined South, and incompetent local governance and widespread corruption that ensured Reconstruction’s failure. The reality is obscured deep within the myth-making that surrounds it.

What was Reconstruction?

Foner describes Reconstruction not as merely a time period, but a historical process: the process of establishing a new political, social, and economic order in the wake of the Civil War. At the center of it all was the question: “What will be the status of the four million former slaves?”

The Reconstruction Era brought three constitutional amendments: the 13th, abolishing slavery for all (except prisoners); the 14th, which enshrined birthright citizenship in the Constitution and guaranteed equal protection under the law; and the 15th, which granted voting rights to African-American men. Even knowing, 150 years later, that these amendments were insufficient to preserve the liberty of Black people in America thanks to constant attack from the right wing of American politics, they still seem revolutionary. They bent a document designed to protect white men’s property rights towards universal manhood suffrage.

Social transformation accompanied the Reconstruction amendments. Not only were Black men now voting and being elected to Southern legislatures, but the seeds of universal liberal institutions were also being planted in the South. Public schools, Black churches, and historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) gained a foothold in the hierarchy of institutional power. This restructuring of the social order would persist, with these institutions becoming home to many leaders of the civil rights movement decades later.

Radicals of the time, including many Republicans in Congress, had a clear ideological vision grounded in economic equality. Pennsylvania representative Thaddeus Stevens (who Foner charmingly characterizes as the Bernie Sanders of his time) advocated seizing land from the planter class and redistributing it to the liberated slaves. An attempt to do just this was made for a small subset of former slaves, granting communities of freedmen ownership of confiscated lands and recognizing their autonomy. The order was overturned, however, almost immediately after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. This promise of “40 acres and a mule” has pervaded the public consciousness, but rarely does it reflect the reality of a promise never kept.

Even without economic reparations to the enslaved people whose labor formed the basis of America’s economy, the balance of power between them and their oppressors shifted significantly. Reconstruction’s social and political changes were radical enough to inspire a powerful white supremacist backlash. Newly won rights were revoked as Southern governments constructed Jim Crow laws, the framework of American apartheid. Armed mobs formed to overthrow elected bodies in multiple states, and the Supreme Court played a key role in rolling back advances towards equality — much as it does today.

America is currently in the midst of a similar process of widespread and coordinated white supremacist backlash. It comes in the wake of 2020’s historic surge of protests for racial justice, which called for radical changes to the social order, as well as the failure of the federal government to respond adequately to COVID or climate change, which would take radical changes to the economic order. The most noticeable difference is that today’s backlash was not in response to any substantive reforms to our systems — only the threat of such reforms.

Foner remarks that at the center of the struggle is now, as it was then, the relationship between political and economic democracy as well as citizenship, voting rights, and vigilante violence.

The class struggle

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor remarks that we are tempted — even conditioned — to imagine American history as both linear and progressive. The standard mainstream American narrative involves a nation striving toward freedom from a flawed founding that “compromised” on slavery.  As we fight to realize the promise of the founding documents, we gradually achieve a “more perfect union.” Liberals assure themselves that they will ultimately be vindicated by history, that the “arc of the moral universe bends towards justice.” But radicals know that history does not bend by itself; it is bent by human beings in movement. Socialists understand that the animating force of this movement is the class struggle.

Taylor notes that what would become of the emancipated slaves was only one of the burning questions for American society during Reconstruction. The other central question was: “Who will do the work?” The Southern economy had been built on a system of forced labor through chattel slavery, and within this system, the planter capitalists had become some of the wealthiest people in the world. Karl Marx himself described them as oligarchs in his writings on the American Civil War. This kind of wealth and power doesn’t just disappear without a fight, and the planter class would battle, even after a historical defeat, to retain maximum control of their labor force.

Conversely, it was Black workers who gave the war its revolutionary character. W.E.B. DuBois makes the argument in his Marxist history, Black Reconstruction. He holds that the enslaved labor force was the decisive player in the Civil War. Enslaved people fled the plantations en masse in hopes of finding refuge behind Union lines, and every time the Union army gained a Black soldier, the Confederate plantation system lost a worker. DuBois characterizes this as a general strike by the Black labor force. Enslaved people resisted their exploiters in many ways throughout slavery, but the war changed the terrain of possibility for mass resistance.

Black soldiers in the Union army turned the tide of the war. In return, it is only right they should reclaim some of the wealth that had been amassed through their centuries of exploitation. As Taylor puts it, “Redistribution of wealth was the only way Black people, in the immediate aftermath of the war, would have been able to rebuild their lives.” Reconstruction could have laid the foundation of actual liberation from the control landowners had over the enslaved labor force, providing families bereft of material possessions the ability to live in dignity and build generational wealth.

This, however, was a bridge too far for the ruling class. Examining and rectifying the profound exploitation of slavery shone too bright a light on the exploitation of wage labor. Talking about redistribution of land and wealth in the South, says Taylor, “begins to raise questions about the titans of capital in the North as well.” In establishing the Freedmen’s Bureau to administer Reconstruction in the South, questions about the government’s role in providing the basics of survival began to creep northward.

The resulting turmoil revealed a core truth about what Taylor describes as the nature of American society: “There has been an antipathy towards these ideas of redistribution, of social welfare, of social provision, that are in some ways antithetical to the overall project of the country itself.”

Taylor emphasizes that white supremacy is not just “another description of racism.” Rather, it is a political tool of capitalists, allowing them to capture the loyalty of working-class whites while reaping material benefits that remain out of reach for the vast majority of them. Those with immense power in 19th-century America deliberately used white supremacy as a weapon against the project of Reconstruction. “Ultimately,” says Taylor, the ruling class decided “it is better to abandon that project and to consolidate around the penetration of capital into the South, and to reorganize, in a united way, the economy of the U.S. around the emergent industrial revolution.”

Cornel West then delivers an indictment of those in power in our time continuing the American tradition of siding with capital over those who built the nation with their labor. He makes special mention of liberal “Obama-ites” seeking to promote a neoliberal concept of diversity by “making the empire more colorful” while maintaining the political and economic structures that ensure domination of the majority by the ruling class.

West clarifies that the 19th-century figures who got to plaster their names all over the nation’s great private institutions were robber barons—Stanford, Vanderbilt, and Hopkins. They achieved unthinkable wealth because they built their legacy on the backs of exploited workers, and it matters little whether those workers were free or unfree. The North’s capitalists were supportive of, or at best indifferent to, confining the franchise to a herrenvolk; the reimposition of a racialized economic underclass was as good a way as any of, as West puts it, “ensuring that Black and white and brown and indigenous workers don’t come together to target them.”

Class struggle will not end as long as class society persists. This means that there are no simple legislative answers to these enduring social questions; every win is just a platform on which the socialist movement fights again. Reconstruction did not passively fail through insufficiently clever policymaking; it was overthrown by reactionary elements with intention and organization.

The Capitalist Playbook

Foner notes early in the panel that the revisionist narrative of Reconstruction as a corrupt and mismanaged enterprise—a natural consequence of recently liberated human beings’ inability to self-govern—has always been racist. Far from being pillaged by opportunist carpetbaggers, it was the South’s own diminished elite, hand in hand with industrialists in the North, who took advantage of the South’s weakened state to engineer a world favorable to their interests.

West mentions that only two years after the war, Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, was out of his jail cell. Northern capitalists, including railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt, bailed him out in a bid to garner the goodwill of former Confederates and create favorable conditions for their economic interests. 1877 not only marked the end of Reconstruction, it was also when railroad workers in both the North and South began to strike against wage cuts. By then, ruling-class power was consolidated enough to brutally break the strike from West Virginia to Chicago

Socialists often state that capitalism and racism are interconnected and interdependent, but it’s important to remember that the connection is not abstract. It is material today and always has been. The antebellum economy of the South was agrarian, formed around the institution of slavery. As a result, the Southern planter class was not a perfect analogue to the Northern capitalist class, who often made their fortunes in finance, industry, and commerce; but they both constituted a ruling class, with class solidarity and piles of money to move.

The ruling class, West continues, “had eyes on Guam and Hawaii and Puerto Rico and the Philippines” and an interest in painting the war as a “family quarrel”. Even abolitionists like Horace Greeley chipped in to bail out Davis, who was never tried for leading the Confederate insurrection. When he died, he was laid to rest with fanfare and became a hero of the Lost Cause. For the sake of empire, the nation allowed white supremacist logic and mythology to propagate. West likens it to welcoming Nazis back into the fold in post-war Germany. Courage, he says, is the “enabling virtue” it takes to confront the truth about how the world’s ruling class consolidated around restoring the South.

The “family quarrel” narrative of the Civil War continues to this day in our schools. America loves to leverage a moral panic in pursuit of reactionary political goals, and the current iteration over so-called “Critical Race Theory” (CRT) fits the bill. We’re watching a real-time right-wing effort to reaffirm the mythologies that obscure the origins of American inequality, and more importantly, to stifle the courage it takes for people to confront them.

After the war, former slaves intended to work their own land, while whites expected former slaves to return to the plantation. As Foner points out, the North wasn’t particularly interested in punishing the newly conquered Southern states. Cotton was still central to the U.S. economy and international trade. Europe’s economy was equally invested; it was cotton, after all, that fired the industrial revolution in England’s textile mills. Ultimately, capitalist interests won out, Reconstruction ended, and Jim Crow ruled for most of the next century.

The Wedge of White Supremacy

Sanders next asks the panel about the composition of America’s political parties. Foner describes the Democratic stranglehold on the South in the first half of the 20th century as a legacy of Reconstruction. He points out that for many decades after the war, the Democratic coalition hinged on Dixiecrats. The political fate of northern Democrats like Franklin Delano Roosevelt was tied to appeasing the Southerners in the party, and neither group was particularly interested in racial justice. It was only the civil rights movement that forced the issue in the 20th century.

Taylor agrees: “The Democrats helped to usher in a period after Reconstruction of one-party rule through political terrorism.” The “Solid South,” a euphemism for this enduring one-party rule through gerrymandering, segregation, terror, and voter suppression, would not begin to crumble until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

West gets to the heart of things when he remarks that “Both parties, then and now, were parties of empire and corporate capitalism.” He describes how even in the civil rights era, when radical politics were spreading and popular movements forced extreme changes to the social and political order, both parties remained stridently anti-communist and firmly aligned against decolonization. He rattles off a list of blacklisted communist intellectuals targeted by both parties, like W.E.B. DuBois, Jack Foner (Eric’s father), Claudia Jones, and Paul Robeson.

It’s not incidental that many of the current crop of anti-CRT laws prohibit teaching socialist or Marxist concepts. Suppression of the left has always been inseparable from white supremacy, and it has had profound and lasting consequences. One of the reasons neo-fascist Trumpism remains ascendant, according to West, is that “We on the left don’t have a vision; we on the left don’t have an organization that has the institutional capacity to provide an alternative.” Building this institutional capacity is one of the greatest tasks before the American left.

Regardless of whether the preservation of liberal democracy is among socialist goals, we must understand the implications of how power and social change are wielded when such democracy is tightly constrained. Socialists should not abandon the terrain of democratic reform merely because it is of interest to liberals. The struggle does not end at protecting voting rights, but also extends to enfranchisement for the incarcerated and people with felony convictions, decriminalization of survival, calling for a new Constitutional Convention, and the abolition of the senate. We can’t give up on subverting the wedge of white supremacy by constructing alternative ground on which to stand while we fight for the extension of democracy into the economic life of the working class.

While political repression during Reconstruction targeted the Republican coalition broadly and Black people specifically, the inequality fostered by capital’s penetration of the South caught up to poor whites as well. Literacy tests and poll taxes designed to disenfranchise freed Blacks also excluded some poor whites from civic life. “The ideology of white supremacy is to stand in for the lack of material gain for ordinary white people,” says Taylor. DuBois referred to this advantage as “the wages of whiteness.” The former slaveholding states are economically depressed to this day. Taylor notes that we have “naturalized” the economic conditions of the South instead of understanding it as the legacy of a concrete political project.

Upholding anti-racist politics is not just about moral goodness. Just as abolitionists in the 19th century were unable to upend the country’s economy through moral suasion alone, those of us who seek to abolish the injustice of capitalism will rely on mass movements to fight political battles or shift the terms under which they are fought. Radicals sometimes hesitate to work with groups that may have bad politics, such as labor unions, religious organizations, or progressive electoral blocs, but we can’t lose sight of the function of white supremacy: Without an alternative method of securing material gains, the white (and increasingly the Latinx) working class is susceptible to those wages of whiteness.

Vigilante violence

The panel ends with a discussion of “domestic terrorism”: extralegal violence and intimidation against freed Blacks, Northerners engaged in Reconstruction projects in the South, and white Southern Republicans.

West traces America’s long lineage of violent terror in the name of expansion and corporate greed: terror against indigenous people to seize the land they occupied, then against enslaved Africans to claim ownership of their labor power in perpetuity. The Civil War represented a great rupture in these systems of domination, but it was followed by new forms of organized violence: police terror and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist paramilitary groups. West describes the “countervailing forces” of social movements as the only antidote to these forces of repression, whether from the state itself or the civilians effectively deputized by law enforcement.

Taylor speaks of the “political hand-wringing” that accompanies instances of violence in the age of Trump, whether police brutalizing Black Lives Matter protestors, neo-fascists instigating street brawls, or mass shootings based on white supremacist manifestos. There is a powerful instinct to cry “This isn’t us!”, to deny that violent, targeted suppression of minority groups (including the left) is part of America’s DNA. Pretending that political violence is not a historically prominent force in this country is a pernicious form of American exceptionalism that liberals are especially prone to. 

“Part of the power of looking back at Reconstruction is understanding that not only is this ‘us’… it underlines the brutal extent to which this political endeavor of Reconstruction had to be destroyed and was overthrown, and was part of a counter-revolutionary process,” Taylor continues. Critically, she notes, the federal government “stood by and let it happen.” There was even active collaboration with and appeasement of the counter-revolutionaries— something to remember when Joe Biden or Nancy Pelosi appear in public to extol the virtues of a strong GOP or to praise Mitch McConnell, one of the key architects of attempts to overthrow modern democracy in the U.S.

Domestic terror in America has included intimidation, hate speech, threats, paramilitary operations, torture, murder, and assassinations. The acute, horrific violence of mob lynchings is what most people cite when we talk about domestic terror against Black people in America. One downside of this tendency to focus on this hyper-visible, viscerally upsetting violence is that many white people cannot imagine it occurring where they live—it’s literally unthinkable. It gives Northerners the false impression that because they may live among ‘nice’ white people, real racism happens elsewhere; but segregation, the starving and closure of public schools, toxic social housing, and the orientation of municipal governments around the preferences of the propertied classes all say otherwise.

History can never reflect the particularities of all present conditions, but it echoes throughout time. If socialists are serious about achieving real power in the United States, we must recognize that the persistent current of American politics is not towards progress, but against it. We will be subject to white supremacist backlash regardless of the compromises we make. We have to continue to seed the ground of labor and social movements in ways that undercut dominant liberal ideologies without relegating ourselves to irrelevance. Today’s Democratic party claims the legacy of the radical civil rights movement, but its ideology is that of the ruling class. We organize for a new movement—one that refuses to disavow the social, political, and economic dimensions of the struggle.


Additional Sources:

Many thanks to Leonard Pierce for advice & editorial expertise, and the CDSA Political Education & Policy Committee for developing many of these ideas in our discussions together.