Bring Back Butlerism

From Eric Foner’s A Short History of Reconstruction:

Even more outrageous than Tweed … was Massachusetts Congressman Benjamin F. Butler, who flamboyantly supported causes that appalled reformers such as the eight-hour day, inflation, and payment of the national debt in greenbacks. He further horrified respectable opinion by embracing women’s suffrage, Irish nationalism, and the Paris Commune.

Or, as a horrified Nation put it, Butlerism was

the embodiment in political organization of a desire for the transfer of power to the ignorant and poor, and the use of government to carry out the poor and ignorant man’s view of the nature of society.

Labor law, inflation, women’s rights, anti-imperialism, and small-c communism, not to mention government by the poor? We could use a little more of that 1870s spirit today. People on the left who want to central banks to do more, in particular, could talk more about loose money’s radical pedigree.

So who was this guy? The internet is mainly interested in his Civil War career. Made a general on the basis of his pro-union, anti-slavery politics, he was, not surprisingly, pretty crap at it; but it does appear that he was the first Union officer to refuse to return fugitive slaves to their masters, and the first to successfully enlist black troops in the South. That was enough for Jefferson Davis to order that if he were captured, he should be executed on the spot. So he didn’t know how to lead a cavalry charge; sounds like a war hero to me.

In the current Jacobin (which everyone should be reading), Seth Ackerman offers emancipation and Reconstruction as a usable past for the Occupy left, unfavorably contrasting “the heavily prefigurative and antipolitical style of activism practiced by William Lloyd Garrison” with the pragmatic abolitionists who

saw that a strategic approach to abolition was required, one in which the “cause of the slave” would be harnessed to a wider set of appeals. At each stage of their project, from the Liberty Party to the Free Soil Party and finally the Republican Party, progressively broader coalitions were formed around an emerging ideology of free labor that merged antislavery principles with the economic interests of ordinary northern whites.

Today’s left, he suggests, could learn from this marriage of radical commitments and practical politics. Absolutely right.

There is, though, a problem: Reconstruction wasn’t just defeated in the South, it was abandoned by the North, largely by these same practical politicians, whose liberalism was transposed in just a few years from the key of anti-slavery to the key of “free trade, the law of supply and demand, the gold standard and limited government” (that’s Foner again), and who turned out to be less frightened by the restoration of white supremacy in the South than by “schemes for interference with property.”

If we must, as we must, “conjure up the spirits of the past …, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language,” then certainly, we could do worse than the Civil-War era Republicans who successfully yoked liberalism to the cause of emancipation (though I’m not sure why Seth name-checks Salmon P. Chase, an early opponent of Reconstruction). But personally, I’d prefer to dress up as a populist who continued to support the rights of working people even after liberalism had decisively gone its own way, and who ended up representing “all that the liberals considered unwholesome in American politics.” Anybody for a revival of Butlerism?

“Ten People Acting Together Can Make a Hundred Thousand Tremble Separately”

Suresh’s excellent post on the Occupy Wall Street movement reminded me of Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution. It’s a funny book; I don’t know if it’s much read today. One of its innovations, or eccentricities, is to place the American Revolution not just in the revolutionary tradition, but right at its center. Another is the focus on the idea of “public happiness” — the idea that there’s a distinct kind of wellbeing that comes from participation in collective decisionmaking. And most relevant to the current conversation, is its emphasis on the role of local councils — non-elected but representative — in every revolutionary situation, from 18th century New England town meetings to the soviets of 1918. These have independently developed, she argues, the”federal principle” — the idea that democratic politics consists not in selecting leaders who then exercise power on behalf of the public, but rather of local bodies delegating specific tasks to more centralized bodies.

The connection to the Occupy movement is perhaps obvious, though Arendt isn’t one of the writers people usually associate with this kind of politics. Her insistence that broad participation in public life is an end in itself, even the highest end, is a nice corrective to people who are impatient with the inward-looking nature — meetings about meetings! — of a lot of conversations around OWS. And the General Assembly structure looks different when you imagine them as proto-soviets. Of course the US today isn’t anywhere close to a revolutionary situation, and one can’t imagine General Assemblies exercising dual power. Or more precisely, there’s no way anything like that will happen; people are imagining it, that’s the point. Maybe the best evidence that Arendt is onto something important is that her book, written in the 1960s mostly about the politics of the 1780s, has distinct echoes not just of OWS, but of popular movements around the world, like the idea of “delegation” rather than “representation” coming out of Venezuela and Bolivia. 

I think the connection is interesting enough,it’s worth putting some long quotes from On Revolution here. Which requires us to deploy the new-to-Slackwire technology of the fold. So, after it, Arendt.

While the [French] Revolution taught the men in prominence a lesson of happiness, it apparently taught the people a first lesson in “the notion and taste of public liberty”. An enormous appetite for debate, for instruction, for mutual enlightenment and exchange of opinion, even if all these were to remain without immediate consequence on those in power, developed in the sections and societies… It was this communal council system, and not the electors’ assemblies, which spread in the form of revolutionary societies all over France. Only a few words need to be said about the sad end of these first organs of a republic which never came into being. They were crushed by the central and centralized government, not because they actually menaced it but because they were indeed, by virtue of their existence, competitors for public power. No one in France was likely to forget Mirabeau’s words that “ten men acting together can make a hundred thousand tremble apart.”

“As Cato concluded every speech with the words, Carthago delenda est, so do I every opinion, with the injunction, ‘divide the counties into wards’.” Thus Jefferson once summed up an exposition of his most cherished political idea… Both Jefferson’s plan and the French societes revolutionaires anticipated with an utmost weird precision those councils, soviets and Rate, which were to make their appearance in every genuine revolution throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Each time they appeared, they sprang up as the spontaneous organs of the people, not only outside of all revolutionary parties but entirely unexpected by them and their leaders. Like Jefferson’s proposals, they were utterly neglected by statesmen, historians, political theorists, and, most importantly, by the revolutionary tradition itself. Even those historians whose sympathies were clearly on the side of revolution… failed to understand to what an extent the council system confronted them with an entirely new form of government, with a new public space for freedom which was constituted and organized during the course of the revolution itself. …

The ward system was not meant to strengthen the power of the many but the power of “every one” within the limits of his competence [shades of Hardt and Negri]; and only by breaking up “the many” into assemblies where every one could count and be counted upon “shall we be as republican as a large society can be”. In terms of the safety of the citizens of the republic, the question was how to make everybody feel “that he is a participator in the government of affairs, not merely at an election one day in the year, but every day”…

If the ultimate end of revolution was freedom and the constitution of a public space where freedom could appear, the constitutio libertatis, then the elementary republics of the wards, the only tangible place where everyone could be free, actually were the end of the great republic whose chief purpose in domestic affairs should have been to provide the people with such places of freedom and to protect them.”

Shorter Hannah Arendt: We are our demands.

Karl Marx on the American Civil War

I’m sure I read somewhere — I’ve certainly repeated it enough — that Marx considered the US Civil War and the abolition slavery the only great world-historical event in his lifetime. This isn’t that, though it’s consistent with it. From The London Times on the Orleans Princes in America:

The people of England, of France, of Germany, of Europe, consider the cause of the United States as their own cause, as the cause of liberty, and that, despite all paid sophistry, they consider the soil of the United States as the free soil of the landless millions of Europe, as their land of promise, now to be defended sword in hand, from the sordid grasp of the slaveholder. … All the wars waged in Europe [since 1850] have been mock wars, groundless, wanton, and carried on on false pretenses. The Russian war, and the Italian war, not to, speak of the piratical expeditions against China, Cochin-China, and so forth… The first grand war of contemporaneous history is the American war. … In this contest the highest form of popular self-government till now realized is giving battle to the meanest and most shameless form of man’s enslaving recorded in the annals of history.

There’s also Marx’s letter, on behalf of the International Workingmen’s Association, congratulating Lincoln on his reelection:

When an oligarchy of 300,000 slaveholders dared to inscribe [the word] “slavery” on the banner of Armed Revolt, on the very spot … whence the first Declaration of the Rights of Man was issued, and the first impulse given to the European revolution of the eighteenth century…, and maintained slavery to be “a beneficent institution”, indeed, the old solution of the great problem of “the relation of capital to labor”, and cynically proclaimed property in man “the cornerstone of the new edifice” — then the working classes of Europe understood at once, even before the fanatic partisanship of the upper classes for the Confederate gentry had given its dismal warning, that the slaveholders’ rebellion was to sound the tocsin for a general holy crusade of property against labor, and that for the men of labor, their hopes for the future, even their past conquests were at stake in that tremendous conflict on the other side of the Atlantic…
The workingmen of Europe feel sure that, 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. They consider it an earnest of the epoch to come that it fell to the lot of Abraham Lincoln, the single-minded son of the working class, to lead his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world.

Still not quite the definitive statement I’m looking for, but closer.

His assessment of Lincoln is interesting, too:

Lincoln is a sui generis figure in the annals of history.He has no initiative, no idealistic impetus, no historical trappings. He gives his most important actions always the most commonplace form. Other people claim to be “fighting for an idea”, when it is for them a matter of square feet of land. Lincoln, even when he is motivated by, an idea, talks about “square feet”. He sings the bravura aria of his part hesitatingly, reluctantly and unwillingly, as though apologising for being compelled by circumstances “to act the lion”. The most redoubtable decrees — which will always remain remarkable historical documents — flung by him at the enemy all look like, and are intended to look like, routine summonses sent by a lawyer... His latest proclamation, which is drafted in the same style, the manifesto abolishing slavery, is the most important document in American history since the establishment of the Union, tantamount to the tearing up of the old American Constitution.
Nothing is simpler than to show that Lincoln’s principal political actions contain much that is aesthetically repulsive, logically inadequate, farcical in form and politically, contradictory, as is done by, the English Pindars of slavery, The Times, The Saturday Review and tutti quanti. But Lincoln’s place in the history of the United States and of mankind will, nevertheless, be next to that of Washington. Nowadays, when the insignificant struts about melodramatically on this side of the Atlantic, is it of no significance at all that the significant is clothed in everyday dress in the new world?
Lincoln is not the product of a popular revolution. This plebeian, who worked his way tip from stone-breaker to Senator in Illinois, without intellectual brilliance, without a particularly outstanding character, without exceptional importance-an average person of good will, was placed at the top by the interplay of the forces of universal suffrage unaware of the great issues at stake. The new world has never achieved a greater triumph than by this demonstration that, given its political and social organisation, ordinary people of good will can accomplish feats which only heroes could accomplish in the old world!