Karl Marx and the case for reparations

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The entire working class must unite in support of reparations for the Black community from the capitalist class. | Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

By Chris Fry

“Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said 3,000 years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”
– President Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address (March 4, 1865)

For many years, the demand for reparations to the African-American community has grown in interest, particularly within the community itself. A 2016 AFL-CIO report states: “We will hear stories about Black Americans and their successes in this country against the barriers (slavery, Jim Crow, poll tax just to name a few) thrown in their paths. Yet for every success story, there is still the nagging fact that the median net wealth of white households is 12.2 times greater than that of Black households.”

The struggle for reparations has attracted not only scholars, Civil Rights and Liberation organizations, but many activists to its cause — a cause that defines the word justice.

Just weeks before his assassination in 1968, during a speech given in Mississippi to organize for the Poor People’s March planned for that spring, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was quoted as saying that

“at the very same time that America refused to give the Negro any land, through an act of Congress our government was giving away millions of acres of land in the west and the Midwest, which meant that it was willing to undergird its white peasants from Europe with an economic floor. But not only did they give the land, they built land grant colleges with government money to teach them how to farm; not only that, they provided county agents to further their expertise in farming; not only that, they provided low interest rates in order that they could mechanize their farms; not only that, today, many of these people are receiving millions of dollars in federal subsidies not to farm, and they are the very people telling the Black man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. And this is what we are faced with, and this is the reality. Now, when we come to Washington in this campaign, we are coming to get our check.”

When he presented himself as a “Democratic socialist” candidate in 2016, Bernie Sanders refused the plea by Black activists like Ta-Nehisi Coates and others to make reparations a pillar of his campaign, saying it was “too difficult.” So far, he says the same for his new election effort. Already, however, the 2020 campaign has three candidates (Kamala Harris, Julian Castro and Elizabeth Warren) all raising the demand.

“Universal programs are not specific to the injustices that have been inflicted on African-Americans,” said Duke University economist William Darity, a veteran advocate of reparations. “I want to be sure that whatever is proposed and potentially enacted as a reparations program really is a substantive and dramatic intervention in the patterns of racial wealth inequality in the United States — not something superficial or minor that is labeled as reparations and then politicians say the national responsibility has been met.”

Direct and indirect slavery

The complex question regarding how reparations should be distributed must be determined by the oppressed Black community, but reparations supporters can find one more powerful voice to their historical analysis, particularly regarding who benefits today from slave trade and slave labor that lasted 250 years: the scholar, journalist, ardent abolitionist, revolutionary activist and leader, Karl Marx.

Marx added all the tools of scientific socialism to the moral outrage against slavery in the U.S. He differed from those then and now as seeing it as simply a pre-capitalist form of production, distinct from the factories and mills of his time, during the midst of the Industrial “Revolution.” In his 1847 book, the “Poverty of Philosophy,” Marx explains that “direct” slavery, like the “indirect” wage slavery of paid workers, was essential to the capitalist system of his day and its development:

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.

Thus slavery, because it is an economic category, has always existed among the institutions of nations. Modern nations have been able only to disguise slavery in their own countries, but they have imposed it without disguise upon the New World.

In his 1849 booklet, “Wage Labour and Capital,” Marx describes the stark difference between slave labor and wage labor:

“The slave did not sell his labor to the slave owner, any more than the ox sells its services to the peasant. The slave, together with his labor, is sold once and for all to his owner. He is a commodity which can pass from the hand of one owner to that of another. He is himself a commodity, but his labor is not his commodity… The free laborer, on the other hand, sells himself and, indeed, sells himself piecemeal. He sells at auction eight, ten, twelve, fifteen hours of his life, day after day, to the highest bidder, to the owner of the raw materials, instruments of labor and means of subsistence… He belongs not to this or that bourgeois, but to the bourgeoisie, the bourgeois class, and it is his business to dispose of himself, that is to find a purchaser within this bourgeois class.”

What does this mean? The slave is a directly enslaved worker, because they cannot control the tiny subsistence part of the value of goods produced from their labor. The wage worker, on the other hand, can choose the boss that pays the highest portion of the value of goods they produce and that is their wages, their subsistence.

Marx points to the two forms of labor as the foundation of the largest global industry of his day, in an article for the New York Tribune published October 14, 1861, shortly after the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War: “As long as the English cotton manufacturers depended on slave-grown cotton, it could be truthfully asserted that they rested on a twofold slavery, the indirect slavery of the white man in England and the direct slavery of the Black men on the other side of the Atlantic.”

In chapter 10 of his monumental work “Capital,” Marx describes how the growth of the textile industry, along with the enabling invention of the cotton gin, intensified the extreme brutality of slave labor:

“But as soon as people, whose production still moves within the lower forms of slave labor… are drawn into the whirlpool of an international market dominated by the capitalist mode of production, the sale of their products for export becoming their principal interest, the civilized horrors of overwork are grafted on the barbaric horrors of slavery. Hence the Negro labor in the Southern States of the American Union preserved something of a patriarchal character, so long as production was chiefly directed to immediate local consumption. But in proportion, as the export of cotton became the vital interest to those states, the overworking of the Negro and sometimes the using up of his life in 7 years of labor became a factor in a calculated and calculating system. It was no longer a question of obtaining from him a certain quantity of useful products. It was now a question of the production of surplus labor itself.”

This “surplus labor” of the Black enslaved worker is extra value produced for the entire capitalist system above what a wage worker would have produced. Although the effects of torture, rape and murder are beyond measure in terms of brutality, this calculated extra value is the Marxist basis for the reparation demand for the period of U.S. slavery.

Who owes reparations: The accumulation of capital

In Part VII of “Capital,” Marx points out that the original capitalist who extracts surplus value, including the slave owners, parcels it out to other capitalists:

“The capitalist who produces surplus-value – i.e., who extracts unpaid labor directly from the laborers, and fixes it in commodities, is, indeed the first appropriator, but by no means the ultimate owner, of this surplus value. He has to share it with capitalists, with landowners, etc., who fulfill other functions in the complex of social production. Surplus value, therefore, splits up into various parts. Its fragments fall to various categories of persons, and take various forms, independent the one of the other, such as profit, interest, merchants’ profit, rent, etc.”

Just as the “extra” slave labor surplus value was distributed throughout the entire capitalist class (factory owners, bankers, shipping companies, insurance companies, etc.) of that era, so it also accumulated down through time to present day. The value of the bales of cotton produced by slave labor, which was the majority of wealth produced in the U.S. pre-Civil War, comprises a portion of the vast wealth held by today’s bankers, financiers and industrialists on Wall Street.

Of course, the extraordinary robbery of Black people by the capitalist class did not end with the Civil War. In his historic 2014 essay, “The Case for Reparations,” Ta-Nehisi Coates details the terrible hardship caused by sharecropping, land seizures, vagrancy laws and forced prison labor in the South, along with redlining, “white flight,” “contract” home sale fraud, and so much more. This racist robbery has never stopped. Coates wrote:

Plunder in the past made plunder in the present efficient. The banks of America understood this. In 2005, Wells Fargo promoted a series of Wealth Building Strategies seminars. Dubbing itself “the nation’s leading originator of home loans to ethnic minority customers,” the bank enrolled black public figures in an ostensible effort to educate Blacks on building “generational wealth.” But the “wealth building” seminars were a front for wealth theft. In 2010, the Justice Department filed a discrimination suit against Wells Fargo alleging that the bank had shunted blacks into predatory loans regardless of their creditworthiness. This was not magic or coincidence or misfortune. It was racism reifying itself. According to The New York Times, affidavits found loan officers referring to their Black customers as “mud people” and to their subprime products as “ghetto loans.”

“We just went right after them,” Beth Jacobson, a former Wells Fargo loan officer, told The Times. “Wells Fargo mortgage had an emerging-markets unit that specifically targeted Black churches because it figured church leaders had a lot of influence and could convince congregants to take out subprime loans.”

Calculations for the amount of reparations vary widely. A recent study by University of Connecticut researcher Thomas Craemer estimates that amount to be between $5.9 and $14.2 trillion dollars. Craemer also provides examples of reparations paid for wrongs across many generations.

The struggle for Black reparations presents an important opportunity for the class struggle in this “belly of the beast.” The scourge of racism by white workers has been by far the biggest obstacle to pursuing the revolutionary class struggle in the U.S., but our class does possess a deep everyday understanding of the boss trying to chisel out an extra portion of our wages, particularly from low-wage workers, even while appropriating most of the value of the goods and services that we produce.

If the entire working class can unite behind the campaign to win Black reparations from our class enemy and re-balance the income levels and personal wealth of Black and white workers, then we will be in a far better position to overturn this parasitic capitalist and imperialist system once and for all. As Marx stated in his book “The Civil War in France,” the war by the enslaved against the enslavers is “the only justified war in history.”

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