Archive from October, 2020

Social Democrats and Revolution

In 1883 Georgi Valentinovich Plekhanov, son of a prosperous country gentleman, founded the first Russian Marxist movement and dominated it for over twenty years.  Coming from the country where many revolutionary leaders originated rather than cities, he was turned to radical politics as a student. He formed a “Liberation of Labor” group whose principal object was to systematically apply Marxism to the Russian scene.  

Plekhanov believed that Russia would have to become industrialized in order to produce a proletariat, a working class, before Czarism could be overthrown. Only the workers could produce a revolution. The Narodniks had a different view, opposed the capitalistic and industrial path of eventual revolution, holding that “serfdom to socialism” was more direct.

Karl Marx was a contributor to Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune before the war, promoted Lincoln’s cause in Europe and penned supportive letters to both Lincoln and his successor, Andrew Johnson. Marx saw the industrialized North as fertile ground for a socialist proletariat, and black people as workers to be organized against capitalism.

Social Democrats and Revolution

“One starts to see here the beginnings of a future rivalry; the Marxists with their emphasis on the industrial worker and the Narodniks with their emphasis on the peasants. It was Plekhanov, presiding over his revolutionary court in Geneva, who most rapidly began to gain ground.  In his writings he urged that terrorism was a secondary weapon; the main object was to set up a socialist organization among the working class in Russia, to train agitators, to stimulate strikes and demonstrations, and to spread Marxist ideas through the illegal printing press.

Soon small groups of his followers began to form in the principal cities in Russia. They called themselves Social Democrats.

Neither Marx nor Engels, moreover, had thought very highly of the Russians. Marx was particularly trenchant about them. “I do not trust any Russian,” he once wrote Engels. Russia, in any case, Marx thought, still had a long way to go before it achieved socialism; he had much better hopes of the United States where “the masses are quicker.”

(The Russian Revolution, Alan Morehead, Bantam Books, 1959, excerpts pp. 35-36)

If Our Enemies Prevail

Prominent South Carolina theologian James H. Thornwell saw the sectional conflict as not being merely between abolitionists an slaveholders,” but waged on one side by “athiests, socialists, communists, red Republicans and Jacobins, and the other by the “friends of order and regulated freedom. In one word, the world is the battleground and Christianity and Atheism the combatants.” Thornwell saw the progress of humanity as being at stake in the war.  Among Lincoln’s staunchest supporters were Karl Marx, many influential German revolutionaries who had fled the failed socialist revolutions of 1840s Europe, and New England utopians.

If Our Enemies Prevail

“Some Southerners saw such deception [as Lincoln’s] coming, James H. Thornwell, a prominent Presbyterian preacher and seminary professor in South Carolina, predicted if the South were defeated, then the North would not only revolutionize “the whole character of the government” from ‘a federal republic, the common agent of the sovereign and independent States’ to a “central despotism, with the notion of States forever abolished,’ but also would brand the South with the stigma of slavery:

“And what have we to expect if our enemies prevail? Our homes, too, are to be pillaged, our cities and property confiscated, our true men hanged, and those who escape the gibbet, to be driven as vagabonds and wanderers in foreign climes. This beautiful country is to pass out of our hands. The boundaries which mark our States are, in some instances, to be effaced, and the State that remain are to be converted into subject provinces, governed by Northern rulers and by Northern laws.

Our property is to be ruthlessly seized and turned over to mercenary strangers, in order to pay the enormous debt which our subjugation has cost. Our wives and daughters are to become the prey of brutal lust. The slave, too, will slowly pass away, as the red man did before him, under the protection of Northern philanthropy; and the whole country, now like the Garden of Eden in beauty and fertility, will first be a blackened and smoking desert, and then the minister of Northern cupidity and avarice.

There is not a single redeeming feature in the picture of ruin which stares us in the face, if we permit ourselves to be conquered.  It is a night of thick darkness that will settle upon us. Even sympathy, the last solace of the afflicted, will be denied to us.  The civilized world will look coldly upon us, and even jeer us with the taunt that we have deservedly lost our own freedom in seeking to perpetuate the slavery of others.

We shall perish under a cloud of reproach and of unjust suspicions, sedulously propagated by our enemies, which will be harder to bear than the loss of home and of goods. Such a fate never overtook any people before.”

(From Founding Fathers to Fire Eaters: The Constitutional Doctrine of States’ Rights in the Old South, James Rutledge Roesch, Shotwell Publishing, 2018, excerpt pp. xiv-xv)  

The Covenant with Power

In Woodrow Wilson’s call for a declaration of war against Germany, he spoke of freedom of the seas yet was silent on Britain’s blockade of Europe. He also proclaimed self-determination as a great principle while declaring Irish independence as irrelevant and avoiding the question of Southern self-determination 56 years earlier in his own country. Senator Robert LaFollette wrote of Wilson: “I sometimes think the man has no sense of things that penetrate below the surface.  With him, the rhetoric of a thing is the thing itself.  Words, phrases, felicity of expression and a blind egotism have been his stock in trade.”

The Covenant with Power

 “If the United States had refused to intervene in 1917, would a German victory in 1918 have been a better historical alternative? The answer is debatable.

What would have happened if Wilson had taken William Jennings Bryan’s advice and practiced real rather than sham neutrality? Without the backing of American weaponry, munitions and loans, the Allies would have been forced to abandon their goal of the knockout blow. The war might have ended in 1916 with a negotiated peace based on a mutual admission that the conflict had become a stalemate.  As a genuine neutral, Wilson might have even have persuaded both sides to let him be a mediator.

Lloyd George’s argument – that unless the United States intervened, Wilson would have no place at the peace table – was specious at best. Both sides would have needed America’s wealth and industrial resources to rebuild their shattered economies.

A victorious Germany would have no need of political adventurers such as Adolf Hitler. Nor would this counterfactual Germany have inserted the Bolsheviks into Russia and supported them with secret-service money.  Lenin and Trotsky might have agitated in a political vacuum in Switzerland unto a crabbed old age. The war created the collapse that gave Bolshevism its seventy-year reign of blood and terror.

Perhaps the best way to look at Woodrow Wilson’s tragically flawed intervention in World War I is, in the words of the historian Lloyd C. Gardner, as a covenant with power. Painfully, with mistakes aplenty, the United States recognized that power is at the heart of history.

At the Paris Peace Conference, Wilson discovered limitations to America’s power . . . [especially those that] lay in the prime illusion of idealism – the expectation that noble words can easily be translated into meaningful realities.

Woodrow Wilson struggled with his inadvertent covenant with power. Like Lincoln, who suspended habeas corpus and jailed [thousands] of dissenters during the Civil War, Wilson tolerated a brutally realistic government of the home front.”

(The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I, Thomas Fleming, Basic Books, 2003, excerpts pp. 480-482)

Satisfying the Philanthropists

Augustus Charles Hobart-Hampden was a British naval officer who served in the suppression of the slave trade prior to the American Civil War, and then became a blockade runner under the pseudonym “Captain Roberts,” running the blockade successfully twenty-seven times. He authored the postwar book, “Never Caught.”

Hobart-Hampden wrote of delivering the human cargo of a captured slaver to British authorities, who would feed and clothe the Africans, and then serve seven years as apprentices – which he compared to a form of slavery itself – and after which they were free. He added: “I fear they generally used their freedom in a way that made them a public nuisance wherever they were. However, they were free, and that satisfied the philanthropists.”

Satisfying the Philanthropists

It was at the time when philanthropists of Europe were crying aloud for the abolition of the African slave trade, never taking for a moment into consideration the fact that the state of the savage African black population was infinitely bettered by their being conveyed out of the misery and barbarism of their own country, introduced to civilization, given opportunities of embracing religion, and taught that to kill and eat each other was not to be considered as the principal pastime among human beings.

At the period I allude to (from 1841 to 1845) the slave trade was carried out on a large scale between the coast of Africa and South America; and a most lucrative trade it was, if the poor devils of Negroes could be safely conveyed alive from one coast to another.

I say if, because the risk of capture was so great that the poor wretches, men, women and children, were packed like herrings in the holds of the fast little sailing vessels employed, and to such a fearful extent was this packing carried on that, even if the vessels were not captured, more than half the number of blacks embarked died from suffocation or disease before arriving at their destination, yet that half was sufficient to pay handsomely those engaged in the trade.

On this point I propose giving examples and proofs hereafter, merely remarking, en passant, that had the Negroes been brought over in vessels that were not liable to be chased and captured, the owners of such vessels would naturally, considering the great value of their cargo, have taken precautions against overcrowding and disease.

Now, let us inquire as to the origin of these poor wretched Africans becoming slaves, and of their being sold to the white man. It was, briefly speaking, in this wise.

On a war taking place between two tribes in Africa, a thing of daily occurrence, naturally many prisoners were made on both sides. Of these prisoners those who were not tender enough to be made into ragout were taken down to the sea coast and sold to the slave dealers, who had wooden barracks established ready for their reception.

Into these barracks, men, women and children, most of whom were kept in irons to prevent escape, were bundled like cattle, there to await embarkation on board the vessels that would convey them across the sea.

Perhaps while on their way [to Brazil the loaded slaver] was chased by an English cruiser, in which case, so it has often been known to happen, a part of the living cargo would be thrown overboard, trusting that the horror of leaving human beings to be drowned would compel the officers of the English cruiser to slacken their speed while picking the poor wretches up, and thus giving the slaver a better chance of escape.”  

(Hobart Pasha; Blockade-Running, Slaver-Hunting, and War and Sport in Turkey, Augustus Charles Hobart-Hampden, Horace Kephart, editor, Outing Publishing, 1915, excerpts pp. 60-68)