The 1619 Project: Backlash from the “left”

BY:Norman Markowitz| February 24, 2020
The 1619 Project: Backlash from the “left”


The New York Times 1619 Project, which examines the impact of slavery throughout U.S. history, has been challenged from several quarters, including right-wingers and liberal historians. The latter wrote a protest letter to the NYT, which is discussed in part 1 of this two-part article. The Trotskyists’ support for the letter is discussed below.

The New York Times 1619 Project has been opposed by a small group of liberal historians who see the Project as challenging their own invested narrative of U.S history from the American Revolution through the Civil War. Their protest letter to the NYT has garnered expected and understandable support from traditional conservative scholars and journalists, whose defense of “American exceptionalism” has never ended. Surprisingly, perhaps, the World Socialist Review (WSR), the website of the “Trotskyist” Fourth International, has given its full support to the letter, posting articles and conducting interviews with the signers attacking the project in terms more vindictive than the letter itself.

For publicity purposes perhaps, WSR launched a “counter-project,” including interviews with the four scholars who co-signed the protest letter. Sean Wilentz, the letter’s author, is the only one not interviewed. I suspect that he would not want to be associated with those who call themselves “communists” or “socialists,” even if they uncritically support his positions.

The WSR’s opening salvo is an article by David North and Eric London, “The 1619 Project and the Falsification of History: An Analysis of the New York Times’ Reply to Five Historians.” They accuse the NYT of a “racial approach” to history, then rehash old establishment views made in defense of the Constitution’s drafters concerning the necessities of compromise with slavery and slaveholders to save the revolution. In their view, the 1619 Project discredits the American Revolution and thus is a threat to all revolutions. Perhaps they see themselves as defenders of the American Revolution. This is a deviation from Trotskyist narratives of the Soviet, Chinese, Vietnamese, Cuban, and other revolutions, which in the past attacked these successful socialist revolutions for betraying Trotskyist definitions of socialism.

Much of the rest of their argument accuses the NYT of engaging in a “closed” policy of choosing participants in the project. What would they have wanted? A “peer reviewed” approach which would have put the project in the hands of the signers of the protest letter and their colleagues in the upper echelons of establishment scholarship?

As I read further, I began to take this “project” by the World Socialist Review more seriously.

Trotskyists have traditionally attacked mainstream Communists and others who have sought to construct center-left coalitions to defeat the right, attacks that have aided the right. Here, North, London, and the World Socialist Review have acted to support a center-right backlash against a new history of slavery, a kind of negative United Front with the liberal and conservative celebrators of U.S. history. The author and co-signers of the protest letter, whom they defend, would never put “bourgeois” in front of “democratic” to define the American Revolution. In my experience, they would do what they usually do—reject the work of those like the scholars of the 1619 Project who challenge conventional wisdom and by their rejection prevent the article’s publication in mainstream media.

North and London see the 1619 Project as propaganda for the Democratic Party’s building of an “identity based” coalition of minority groups to defeat not only Trump but also the “true revolutionary socialism” which exists in their cyberspace world.

Just as Trotskyists in the 1930s in the events leading up to the founding of the Fourth International focused their attacks on Stalin and “Stalinism” rather than Hitler, Mussolini, and the fascist Axis, the writers for the WSR seem to see the Democrats as a greater threat than Trump.

Counter-poising “identity politics” to “economic interests” is not new in U.S. political discourse.

For example, they make the incredible statement, “The Democrats’ obsessive focus on race and identity is aimed at undermining the development of class consciousness. To the extent that the Democratic Party retains an electoral base among African American workers, it seeks to root this not on an appeal to their economic interests, but rather to their racial identity.” First, the overwhelming majority of African Americans in Congress, state legislatures, and all elected positions are Democrats.  Second, the Democrats as a party are attacking racism in all of its forms, including attacks on Latinos, Asians, Jews, and recent immigrants. They also in varying degrees appeal to the economic interests of working people by calling for policies to strengthen unions and enact social legislation.  They deserve to be criticized because of their failure to deliver on these promises.

Counter-poising “identity politics” to “economic interests” is not new in U.S. political discourse. Individuals associated with the right wing of the Democratic Party, including Ben Wattenberg, the early “neoconservative” writer and PBS personality, and  later Thomas Edsall, long made such arguments, blaming the Democrats’ political defeats on their neglect of “hard hat”  “Reagan Democrats,” in reality, the white  sections of the working class.  Wattenberg, in opposing Democrats like George McGovern, called upon the party to appeal to the “middle-aged, middle-class, middle-minded,” “unyoung, unpoor, unblack.” In essence their political advice was to make people of color once more invisible in mainstream politics.

While North and London don’t explicitly endorse the Trump administration, their arguments provide cover for Trump’s demagogic contentions. For example, they contend: “Whatever the Times believes to be the advantages of pursuing a racial narrative to secure an electoral majority for the Democratic Party, this is a politically dangerous and utterly reactionary strategy, with potentially catastrophic consequences.”

First, they are echoing the Trump administration’s attacks on the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, and other major organs of commercial capitalist media as a conspiratorial “liberal media” spreading “fake news” in the service of a “socialist” Democratic party. The New York Times as a newspaper and its 1619 Project are not the same thing. What is “reactionary” is denying the centrality of slavery to both institutional and ideological racism and its relationship to the economic and political expression of the class struggle in U.S. history. As for the “potentially catastrophic consequences” of the project, what are North and London talking about?  The re-election of Trump and the Republican Right.  But it is their backlash against the 1619 Project that serves the interests of the Right, as it alienates African American voters and all others who have been victims of color racism. And, with all their ill-defined references to economic and class interests, they have failed to address the effects of de-industrialization on the segments of the “white working class” who have either dropped out of the political process or come to vote for Republican politicians, including Trump.  These voters in their anger and despair have come to blame foreigners, foreign countries, and especially people of color for their predicament. North and London’s arguments fit nicely into that mold.

To go a little further, their contention that “those who argue for a history of ‘black America’ are legitimizing a history of ‘white America’ as well . . . [and] are assisting the racist politicians of the fascistic right” is both outrageous and mind boggling.  The struggle to teach and research what was first called the “history of the Negro People” and to bring it into the mainstream of U.S. history goes back to the late 19th century.  When I attended City College of New York in the early 1960s before the victories of the Civil Rights movement, such courses did not exist in most American universities, much less departments or programs of African American studies.  At City College a course in Negro history was taught by one of my professors, the only African American in the history department, who taught it as an extra course on his own.  As for “legitimizing” histories of “white America,” that is exactly what the scholarship and teaching of U.S. history did—and these histories were of a “white America” impervious to class consciousness and movements for socialism. That is the history that North and London are in effect aiding in their attacks on the 1619 Project—a history that objectively serves the interests of the “racist politicians of the fascistic right.”

North and London then top themselves when they mention the oppression that Italians, Jews, Chinese, Japanese, and the labor movement experienced throughout American history and contemptuously wonder if  “Hannah-Jones has ever heard of Sacco and Vanzetti.”

North and London  demand that the authors list every example of oppression  as their “price” for writing about the central role of slavery in U.S. history. 

They then state:

All of the many instances of oppression should be documented and remembered. Each victim of injustice, in whatever form, has a legitimate claim on the conscience of mankind. But sympathy, in and of itself, is inadequate. It is necessary that the real causes of the crimes be understood. For this, a moralistic and anachronistic attitude toward history is not only inadequate. It is a barrier to identifying, and, ultimately, removing the objective causes of the many forms of oppression and exploitation that developed within the United States in the aftermath of both the Revolution of 1775–1783 and the Civil War of 1861–1865.

First, most of the examples that North and London cite, including the incarceration of Japanese-Americans, the Sacco and Vanzetti case, and the violent repression of the labor movement, occurred after 1865. Also, North and London in their attack are guilty of a “moralistic and anachronistic attitude toward history” themselves, demanding that the authors list every example of oppression as their “price” for writing about the central role of slavery in U.S. history.  They also don’t seem to know or care that the institutional and ideological racism rooted in slavery was the model for these examples and many more that could be listed.  As for the “objective causes” of oppression, readers of the 1619 Project will be able to find more evidence in the Project’s articles that those causes were the development of first commercial and then industrial capitalism than they will in North and London’s article.

North and London then make one of the oldest charges known against historians who challenge conventional wisdom when they contend,

An anachronistic approach to history—that is, one which judges the dramatis personae of another historical period on the basis of modern-day standards which were not known, let alone actionable, in the times in which they lived—is among the worst of all intellectual errors, exceeded only by getting the facts plainly and obviously wrong.

This charge is known as “presentism,” that is, making the past conform to the present in some dogmatic way.

Marx himself could be accused of applying ideas and principles drawn from the scientific revolution and the development of materialist philosophy to his analysis of ancient and medieval history. Post–Civil War historians could be accused of applying their modern “biases” to their analysis of the writings and actions of John C. Calhoun, George Fitzhugh, Jefferson Davis, and other “dramatis personae” of the slaveholder class and Confederate government. And even Leon Trotsky might be accused of forcing his “ideological assertions” on the history of the Czarist Russian Empire, and of course the Stalin leadership of the CPSU.

The strength of the journalists and historians of the 1619 Project—along with the historians of slavery in the Spanish, French, and Portuguese empires, and the historians of the world of the native peoples of the Western Hemisphere and the Pacific—has been their discovery of new documents and sources, which enables them to make these people not merely objects of history and to lift up their voices, no longer muted by those of their rulers. This scholarship reflects both the development of better and more holistic frameworks to find relevant sources, understand historical events, and learn about the consciously excluded or unconsciously omitted. The signers of the protest letter and the World Socialist Review notwithstanding, “historical understanding” like wealth does not “trickle down” to the people.

In a sweeping generalization that  echoes the statements  of Trump administration officials, North and London  top themselves once more by contending that the Project represents the “racialist falsification of American and world history,” an outrageous charge which fits nicely with the long-established argument of right-wingers  that civil rights and especially affirmative action policies represented “reverse racism.”

Karl Marx wrote in The Poverty of Philosophy:

Direct slavery is just as much the pivot of bourgeois industry as machinery, credits, etc. Without slavery you have no cotton; without cotton you have no modern industry. It is slavery that gave the colonies their value; it is the colonies that created world trade, and it is world trade that is the precondition of large-scale industry. Thus slavery is an economic category of the greatest importance.

Would London, North, and the World Socialist Review call Marx’s words the “racialist falsification of history”?

As for the revolutionary significance of the Civil War, Marx wrote in “The Civil War in the United States”:

The present struggle between the South and North is, therefore, nothing but a struggle between two social systems, the system of slavery and the system of free labor. The struggle has broken out because the two systems can no longer live peacefully side by side on the North American continent. It can only be ended by the victory of one system or the other.

Would North and London see this as ideology or to be truly ahistorical “Stalinist dogma”?

Finally, there is perhaps a more sinister implication in the protest letter—that African American historians are somehow inferior in writing about their own history in the same way that African Americans who gained political office during Reconstruction and also advanced in business and the professions were somehow inferior and should be removed from their positions. I don’t believe that this is a conscious expression of either the letter or the World Socialist Review counter-project, but it can function that way to advance both a segregated history and a de facto segregation of African American historians to secondary positions.

More than a controversy in academic circles, this debate has the potential to reverberate in today’s struggles.

Although it is difficult to read either the protest letter or WSR’s counter-project as connected to a “left” of any kind, even “left liberals” in the American sense of that term, there is the real danger that these arguments will encourage people of color to see the “white left” as indifferent to their needs and experiences—ready and willing to write them out of history and to ignore their contemporary struggles. In their facile criticisms of “identity politics,” they may help foster such politics as a response to their campaign. And that can only buttress the immediate interests of the Trump administration and the Republican Party and the long-term interests of racist reaction.

For these reasons, they deserve to be answered in the same vein as Marx answered the anarchists, as Lenin answered the “Leftwing Communists,” and as scholars inspired by the Civil Rights and peace movements began to answer the scholarly guardians of consensus history and “American Exceptionalism”—since they seek to close rather than open discussion, to keep the work of the 1619 Project out of schools, general history courses, and  the historical record.

What answers should we give?

No one today can seriously deny that slavery and white supremacy were dominant themes in the history of the Western Hemisphere through the settlements of the Spanish, Portuguese, French, English, and Dutch empires. It was not slavery as an abstract evil but “chattel slavery” (with slaves both as an unpaid labor force and as commodities bought and sold on the slave market) that was essential to the development of merchant/commercial capitalism in Britain especially and in Europe.

And no one can contend that the political revolutions, which advanced both commercial capitalism and representative governments with ideas of natural rights, retarded the development of chattel slavery—at least until the 19th century.

The 17th-century British Revolution, the first bourgeois or capitalist political revolution, produced a parliament dominated by merchants and gentry and a monarchy and aristocracy which came to reflect their interests—but it did not abolish slavery. Rather, it expanded the slave system, which produced sugar, tobacco, and later cotton for export in developing international capitalist markets.

Faced with the rebellion of landless contract white laborers (indentured servants), the local oligarchies began to import more and more slaves, whose unfreedom was portrayed as “necessary” for the freedom and prosperity of whites without wealth or power. The early leaders of the American Revolution drew upon radical concepts of liberty and rights which had been compromised and then marginalized in the British Revolution, only to subsequently compromise and marginalize those concepts themselves. In the American case, the power of the slaveholders and the role that slavery would play in the constitutional republic were central factors in the slaveholders’ influence over the drafting and passage of the Constitution. One can contend that this was necessary to prevent the breakup of the colonies and the restoration of the British Empire, but it certainly was a cruel necessity.

Indeed, there were opponents of the slave system from its inception—colonial pioneers like Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island; the Quakers; and Tom Paine and Benjamin Rush during the American Revolution. But no one should deny the central role of slaveholders and the interests they represented in the history of the United States from the Revolution’s beginning to the Civil War’s end.

One should remember that George Washington in his first term barred free blacks from serving in the U.S. Army. Did slavery and Washington’s role as a slaveholder have anything to do with this? I think so.

Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, Tyler, and Polk: all of these presidents, who served for 48 of the 72 years before the Civil War, were slaveholders. And although Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan, the last two presidents before the Civil War, were not slaveholders themselves, they were notorious for their all-out support for the slaveholders’ policies.

The recycling of institutional and ideological racism after the Civil War was and is the slaveholders’ legacy.

As industrial capitalism advanced in the first half of the 19th century, a huge increase in demand for cotton, sugar, and other products produced by slave labor made chattel slavery much more lucrative for the slaveholders. The slaveholders expanded their power over the federal government and demanded that it support the extension of slavery in a variety of ways, leading to brutal policies: advancing the “Indian Removal policy,” which historians today call genocidal, in order to take the land of the Native peoples in the Deep South for large slave plantations; conquering the northern provinces of the Republic of Mexico, which abolitionists denounced as a war to expand “slave power”; inciting terroristic violence against abolitionists and seeking to prevent abolitionist petitions from being read in Congress; enacting a brutal fugitive slave act to hunt down escaped slaves and capture for profit free blacks in the North; attempting to remove all existing restrictions on the expansion of slavery in all territories through the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision; and finally, faced with the development of a powerful anti-slavery coalition and a new anti-slavery mass party—the Republican party—launching the bloodiest war fought in North America to defend their wealth and power as a class. Before the formation of the Republican Party and the election of Abraham Lincoln, no president or party in power provided any serious opposition to the slaveholders’ expansion of their political power as their economic power declined.

The recycling of institutional and ideological racism after the Civil War was and is the slaveholders’ legacy—one that industrial and finance capitalists have found essential to divide and defeat working-class movements and pro-working-class policies from the 1870s to today. This legacy is what the articles of the 1619 Project illustrate.

The attempt by the protest letter to restore a consensus (American Exceptionalism) analysis of slavery in U.S. history, which flourished in the high Cold War period, will in all probability fail, since it goes against both an upsurge of people’s movements in resistance to the Trump administration and more than half a century of innovative and diverse scholarship on the question of slavery in its relationship to institutional and ideological racism in U.S. history. Tom Paine and Benjamin Rush, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, Thad Stevens and Charles Sumner will not be once more either omitted entirely or pushed to the periphery of U.S. history (or seen as supporting actors at best).

Debates over the past are always related to struggles in the present.

If an “American Exceptionalist” consensus is restored, it will be through the victory of our contemporary robber barons and their supporters in politics, education, and media who proclaim“Make America great again,” not through any advance in “historical understanding.” The “usable past” the protest letter and its World Socialist Review allies promote belongs to the Heritage Foundation, the National Review, and the Federalist Society—not to any “left” or even what the leading postwar “Cold War liberal” historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called a “vital center.”

As for the World Socialist Review’s counter-project, I imagine that Leon Trotsky, who with all of his large flaws as both a theorist and an activist was a serious and often insightful thinker, would probably say “I am not a Trotskyist” after reading their articles.

Debates over the past are always related to struggles in the present, and their resolution in popular thought influences the course of the future. All pasts in that sense are “usable pasts,” but the question always is, “usable for whom?”

Martin Luther King Jr. in his 1967 tribute to W. E. B. Du Bois, dealing with Du Bois’ classic Black Reconstruction, provides a powerful “historical understanding” to the debate over the 1619 Project today:

To understand why his study of the Reconstruction was a monumental achievement it is necessary to see it in context. White historians had for a century crudely distorted the Negro’s role in the Reconstruction years. It was a conscious and deliberate manipulation of history, and the stakes were high. The Reconstruction was a period in which black men had a small measure of freedom of action. If, as white historians tell it, Negroes wallowed in corruption, opportunism, displayed spectacular stupidity, were wanton, evil, and ignorant, their case was made. They would have proved that freedom was dangerous in the hands of inferior beings. One generation after another of Americans were assiduously taught these falsehoods, and the collective mind of America became poisoned with racism and stunted with myths.

Dr. Du Bois confronted this powerful structure of historical distortion and dismantled it.

If one could put the protest letter and WSR counter-project back in time, they would by implication accuse both King and Du Bois of “substituting ideology for historical understanding” and promoting a “racialist falsification of history.” Of course, both the letter writers and the WSR would be—and are—guilty of that themselves.

Du Bois in the 1930s, and King in the 1960s, helped change positively “historical understanding.” From my reading, the 1619 Project continues along that path, and Marxists and Communists should both support it and struggle to make Marxist analysis a clear and conscious part of its development.

I would like to thank Laura Dewey both for her editing of the first and second parts of this article and for her valuable suggestions concerning this second part of the article as it relates to North and London.

The legacy of the American Revolution is discussed by Norman Markowitz, Bertell Ollman, and others at a Platypus Affiliated Society (New York) panel discussion.

Image: Gateway to Freedom International Memorial, HarshLight, Creative Commons (BY 2.0).


Related Articles

For democracy. For equality. For socialism. For a sustainable future and a world that puts people before profits. Join the Communist Party USA today.

Join Now

We are a political party of the working class, for the working class, with no corporate sponsors or billionaire backers. Join the generations of workers whose generosity and solidarity sustains the fight for justice.

Donate Now

CPUSA Mailbag

If you have any questions related to CPUSA, you can ask our experts
  • QHow does the CPUSA feel about the current American foreign...
  • AThanks for a great question, Conlan.  CPUSA stands for peace and international solidarity, and has a long history of involvement...
Read More
Ask a question
See all Answer